Power In Poetry.
Words by Klaudia Zychowska
Visuals by Felton Kizer
Poetry, Christianity, and activism may seem like an unlikely trio, but Kwynn Riley blends them seamlessly. Riley is a storyteller with big dreams. Composed of strength, spirituality, talent, and the will to change the world, she uses her words to make people listen to the issues that are important to her.
Riley's way of expressing her truth allows the audience to feel every single word. The emotion that pours out of her touches everyone in the room, it sometimes brings them to tears, and they are bound to leave with a new perspective and with a more open heart. In all of her writing, Riley draws from her own experiences, finding the bravery to share intimate and personal details. "I understand that in my line of work, as an artist, there is a need for somebody to do it," she says. "A lot of times when I'm sharing my poem, I'm not sharing it just for that one person who is afraid to embrace themselves, but also for my former self... I'm celebrating other folks, but I'm also celebrating the entirety of me and being the woman that I needed when I was younger."
Riley's family is her favorite audience to perform in front of. She finds support and strength in them, especially her mom. It was her mom who came up with, Kwynology. "The study of Kwyn," she called it. "Kwynology is an entertainer," she explains. "More badass and confident. The woman I aspire to be everyday... She is a warrior woman."
Riley grew up knowing the value of spirituality, and God has always been a constant figure in her life. When she had gotten in trouble as a teenager, her mom signed her up for a church group where she became a junior deacon and had to deliver a sermon. She titled hers "LOL: Lessons of Love." As she was speaking, she saw the reactions of her audience, and she knew her words had reached them. That was the moment that she decided to blend her activism and religion. Christianity is a significant part of who she is, but she knows that some people view her faith and her activism as a contradiction. Christianity is known for being condemning and for closing their doors on people in need. Riley wants to use her words to help open those doors, so everyone, regardless of who they are, can feel welcome, loved, and embraced by God.
Growing up in Chicago, Riley saw the systemic abuse by the entire system which includes elected officials, the police, and teachers, she saw gun violence, she saw poverty, she saw inequality and mistreatment of black people, and all this fuels her activism. Although this activism appears consistently throughout her work, it wasn't until college that her poetry took off. She went to the University of Dayton, a college located in a small town in Ohio. When Riley arrived there from the Southside of Chicago, it was the first time she had to deal with racial and Chicago stereotypes. At UD, she was a minority, and this forced her to break out of her shell. Before moving to Ohio, Kwynn was quiet and introverted, but there, a confident and outspoken woman who takes action is what Kywnn grew into. After the murder of Trayvon Martin and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, her campus was silent, so she decided to take things into her own hands. She started leading protests, organizing, and demonstrating.
Riley sees the extent of the effect artistic expression can have on audiences, and she believes there is power in poetry. Art awakens empathy. "Not everyone can relate to what I talk about," Riley says. "But at least you can feel it." One of her favorite works of hers is "PWI 10 Commandments," a list of ten things every black person will experience in a predominantly white institution. She wrote it while she was at the University of Dayton and uploaded it to her YouTube channel, where it went viral. It was the piece that set off her career as a poet, and it is still being shown in schools and at conferences to young audiences. Another essential body of work to her is her spoken word poem, "Black Girl Magic." In it, Kwynn talks about the mistreatment black women experience. "I was able to take a common phrase and transform it into a way that uplifted many black girls that have gone missing, have been murdered," she explains. "I love the genius behind it, and I love performing it and seeing people's faces at the end."
It was also during her time at UD that she took the life-changing study abroad trip to Cameroon, Africa. It was the summer after her freshman year. She was staying in a mansion-like house, and one memorable day, she went on a trip with the village chief. They went up a hill and talked and suddenly, the rain that resembled a monsoon began to pour down on them. Although she found it impossible to see, the village chief led her down the hill and through the forest without a map, using his knowledge and his sense of direction. She often goes back to that day and recalls feeling the ability to surpass herself and her own expectations. But something else happened in Africa. She met and fell in love with a boy named Dare, and in falling in love, she was also able to fall in love with herself. She was ready to leave her insecurities in the past and started to feel more confident with her body, her skin, her natural hair. Being in love made her realize that she is beautiful the way she is, and when Riley returned to America, she did not want to be anyone else. Today, they still keep in touch--they share something that will never go away, nor do they want it to. "I don't want to forget him," she says.
Navigating as Kwynology and sharing her work allowed her to begin healing from a permanent scar on her heart--the loss of her son, or as she refers to him, her Sun. His name was David Kwynton, and his heart stopped beating while he was still in the womb. What started out as a regular doctor's appointment, turned into the worst day of Kwyn's life. The thing that brought her the most pain was that she did not realize that something was off, that she did not feel him depart. Then came even more pain. The labor was long and intense, and she remembers a moment where she did not want to give birth to him, so she wouldn't have to say goodbye just yet. After delivering him vaginally, her Sun was allowed to stay with her for the rest of the night. She held him, and the next morning, he was still warm, and his smell was something she will never forget. Seeing him, made her feel beautiful and made her understand that God is good. A few weeks after his funeral, her then-fiancé gave up on her, their future together, and he ended the relationship. Soon after, Riley sank into a deep depression, and one night at the movies, she went through an out-of-body experience and felt that she really wanted to die. When Kwynn attempted suicide and was found by her brother, who took her to RUSH hospital. It was then that she came to terms of the loss she experienced and accepted that everything happens for a reason. Now, she knows that her Sun is watching over her, and she makes sure to say his name every time she performs.
If you have the chance, go see Riley perform one of her pieces live, and you will not regret it. Even just meeting her and listening to her speak her truth, will leave you with a more open mind and a greater understanding of things that may not be familiar to you. You can find Riley every last Wednesday of the month, hosting "In the Yard," an open mic series on the south side of Chicago. As for her published work, there is a new collection of poems that will hopefully find its way into bookshelves soon--she is just looking for an agent who is right for the job. Right now, Riley is working on two plays, one she's acting in and the other she wrote. Despite her crazy schedule, she knows the importance of self-care and recharging. On a night off, she is watching Netflix or dreaming of a collaboration with Beyonce.