Black History Month Matters: Interview with Artist and Activist Niambi Leigh

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Niambi Leigh is a queer Black woman, poet and activist originating from Jamaica, who is currently residing in Peterborough. They have been creating their artistic work of spoken word poetry since high school and have gone on to perform at numerous events and competitions in and outside of Peterborough. Their work combines the political and personal, influenced both by personal identity and experience which I was lucky enough to unpack with Niambi this week. Touching on important subjects such as the Black, Indigenous, people of colour (BIPOC) community in Peterborough, Black Lives Matter Peterborough, art, activism and inclusive spaces, all unfolding within our interview together.

NH: When did you find your interest in starting spoken word poetry, and also find your involvement in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in Peterborough?
NL: I got into spoken word just out of high school. I just randomly stumbled in on a writing workshop and there was a person who was performing their poem and I was just like “I have to do that.” And I’ve been doing it since. And I got involved in BLM in 2016 and I’ve been working to create events and create space for BIPOC people in Peterborough. BIPOC meaning Black, Indigenous, people of colour.
NH: What kind of organizing do you do for the Black Lives Matter Movement in Peterborough?
NL: We put on different events. So far, we’ve had rallies, we’ve had dance parties, we’ve had talk back sessions, and at the end of February we’re going to have a bonfire for BIPOC people to just socialize and hangout. So that’s a few of the things we do.

The bonfire event is called the BIPOC Bonfire Social which is an open event. People are welcome to come. Feb. 28 at 8 P.M. at 552 Stewart street.

NH: Do you do events for your spoken word where you incorporate both your work as an artist and activist in BLM?
NL: I incorporate the two sometimes and then the events I do for my spoken word are just like what shows I get book for in town and what gigs.
NH: Do you feel your own identity influences your poems and your work?
NL: Yes, definitely.
NH: Do you feel that incorporates a type of vulnerability into your work?
NL: Yes, I feel like it’s important to be vulnerable and honest about what you’re going through when you’re sharing with your audience, because if you’re not honest with them then there’s no real way to connect with them, if you’re not being vulnerable. And I find a lot of my work is personal and political mainly because in my life I have no choice in that. Whatever I do is inherently political, so when I write about how that affects me personally, people think that I’m a very political person when it’s not something that I am by choice, it’s just in the body that I am, being a queer woman of colour. Then my life becomes inherently political.
NH: Do you share everything with your audience and within your poems? All your opinions or feelings on BLM and anything else?
NL: There are some poems that I perform that I’m only performing for other people, but most of the ones I do I’m performing for myself. I have one that I use to calm me down and breathe a lot so I would say that’s the one I use most for myself. It’s always easy to pull it out and do it.
NH: So, poems in a way are like your own type of healing?
NL: Exactly.
NH: Do you ever feel as though the work you do share, fosters a positive promotion for the Black community?
NL: Yes. Well, I feel my work kind of has to because I’m a Black woman and I use my poetry to uplift myself so a lot of it is meant to be uplifting and empowering.
NH: Have you been in any slams recently or taken part in any performances that have allowed you to share these views?
NL: No, the scene hasn’t put on any poetry slams recently. I’ve just been waiting for one to pop up. I usually do a few performances but it depends on the time of year and what’s going on. Usually for Black History Month I’m pretty busy but I’m not this year just because I’m taking some time to focus on my mental health and focus more on myself, but I usually work a lot in the city. It just depends on what’s going on and at what time. Like for Pride usually I perform a lot. And when there’s poetry scenes sometimes and when people go out more for poetry slams I get hired more but there haven’t been any slams to perform at.
BLM also hasn’t had any events planned because like I said I’m taking some time for my mental health, but we do have that one BIPOC Bonfire Social that’s happening and it’s a space for BIPOC people to come out and eat food and meet people and socialize and find out that there is a BLM community here that they can use to support them if they need.
NH: True, I feel like that’s really important to be aware of, that there is a community and group presence in Peterborough we often don’t hear about. Even when it is Black History Month and it seems like there would be more discussion on organizing.
NL: Yeah, last Black History Month I threw an Artist Showcase celebrating Black artists. That was something I really would have liked to do this year again but then The Spill closed down. And that was one of our main venues for stuff because it was free.
NH: So, do you think The Spill closing has put a halt on some of your community organizing and events?
NL: It’s put a damper on a lot of my events both as an organizer and as a poet because The Spill is where a lot of the poetry slams would happen and now that there is no designated free venue there are no events happening. So, it’s definitely put a hold on a lot of what I’m able to do.
NH: Is there anything in particular that you would want to see or anything you feel people in the community should be doing if they want to support the type of inclusive community we’re envisioning?
NL: I think uplifting and celebrating Black culture and Black visibility is something that could be done. If you see events that are happening or if you see Black-owned restaurants go to them and tell your friends and share them the same way you would share white-owned restaurants or like white-run organizations, you know.
NH: Speaking to celebrating Black culture, I feel like there’s often times a big focus only on the very big names in activist history like Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks, and we kind of look over some other very important activists, so I was wondering if you had any opinions on the way we talk about or the way we promote Black History Month?
NL: I think it’s important to talk about and always promote Black History Month because racialization is a real thing and racism is a real thing. And I feel like even if we’re talking about it on a broad spectrum of like Martin or Rosa, it’s still being talked about and that’s important. I feel like people have to take the macro and put it to the micro. They have to figure out how what is happening on a larger scale impacts what they can do on a smaller scale.
NH: Right, I think that’s a good way to look at it. And now that it is Black History Month as we’re talking a bit on the subject in schools and in the communities, do you think we as a community are doing enough?
NL: I don’t think we as a community do enough because right now I can’t even think of one Black History Month event to tell you to go to because I haven’t organized any. And that’s one of the things that sucks, is that if I don’t organize it rarely does it get done. And I’m saying I as BLM Nogojiwanong. So, I feel like in this community the spaces for Black people and Black bodies aren’t being held up and aren’t being created unless they’re created by someone who needs the space themselves. And that’s what it’s like all year, not just for Black History Month.

Black Lives Matter Ptbo/Nogo. Photo courtesy of Niambi Leigh.

For those people looking to get involved in issues brought up within this interview, Niambi has suggested starting with the BIPOC Nogo/Ptbo Facebook page or the Resisting White Supremacy Nogojiwanong/Peterborough Facebook page. The first group, meant for BIPOC people only, to have an online community space and solidarity and to find out about upcoming events. The latter, meant for allies to keep up on BLM events that are happening and to support and share in solidarity.