It’s 2005, and spoken word artist Aya de Leon is testing the waters of a new medium through which to broadcast her work: television. Hands on her hips and decked head-to-toe in a black sweatsuit, she makes her entrance. The topic for this evening? Cellulite.
This isn’t the first time she’s spoken openly about her body’s imperfections, and it certainly won’t be the last. Following this appearance on Def Jam Poetry, a spoken word series hosted by rapper Mos Def, de Leon will go on to write extensively about body image and gender issues, among other controversial topics.
But for now, she targets her audience. For de Leon, performing spoken word is all about engaging with the crowd — identifying what it is that’s going to spark the connection and going with it. In this case, it’s an L.L. Cool J lyric circa 1989. When she points at the audience, they know what to do.
“I love it when your thighs jiggle, my thighs are jiggling baby,” she raps. Then, in her own words, “A sick society turns women’s bodies into problems to be solved. But anorexia ain’t sexia, and bulimia ain’t dreamia.”
The crowd is loving it.
From cellulite to racism, de Leon approaches social injustice with an unapologetic attitude, expressing opinions that are backed by life experience. As a writer, spoken word artist and, most recently, a novelist, the UC Berkeley professor of African American studies is a self-proclaimed artistic wanderer, constantly pursuing new mediums to push a progressive agenda on any crowd she encounters.
De Leon joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 2006 as the leader of Poetry for the People, or P4P, a campus arts and activism program that works with young student-poets. As the director of P4P, de Leon teaches her students how to craft poetry that reflects their day-to-day lives.
“The one fresh thing we always have to offer is our own story,” de Leon said in an interview with the Weekender. “It’s finding the language to tell us something about your life and your people that’s going to make an empathic connection with the reader or listener, and that’s what poetry is really about.”
She does all this while keeping up her own blog and regularly contributing to online feminist publications such as xojane and Bitch Magazine. An online editor for BitchMag, Sarah Mirk said de Leon’s articles are among the magazine’s most popular.
“Aya talks about her personal life in a way that resonates with a lot of people,” Mirk said. “I have to bother other writers to do that, because most feel awkward writing about themselves. Not Aya.”
De Leon is now writing her first novel, a project that she has been hoping to take on since her graduation from Harvard University in 1989.
“It’s been on my artistic bucket list, and it’s time for me to write something that’s over the top,” she said.
De Leon grew up in Berkeley with her mom, who moved the pair from Los Angeles to the Bay when she was three. Her early experiences in the city helped shape her as a feminist — a definition she embraces.
At Berkeley High School, she learned about sexual education and the media’s treatment of the female body. Berkeley’s liberal environment also allowed her to grow up without the heavy burden of discrimination.
“There’s a certain bubble to the town of Berkeley around race. After all, it was a voluntarily desegregating community,” de Leon said. “I grew up not being directly targeted by racism, and I couldn’t always see the racism that existed in the Bay Area.”
College marked a sharp turn for de Leon. She arrived at Harvard University in 1984, and found Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be nothing like her hometown. Living in a predominately white school in a white town, de Leon felt marginalized for the first time and struggled to find a sense of community, even among her ethnic peers.
“The sensibility that we had in the ’80s about diversity was this: We’ve shipped you all in so that these white students can have a more culturally rich college experience,” de Leon said.
Whereas in Berkeley, de Leon was relatively removed from the direct impacts of racism, at Harvard, it was unavoidable. She began to learn how to detect different flavors of racism and its many mechanisms within society. She found that the Harvard environment made students of color anxious that they were losing touch with their black identity.
These experiences are in part what brought her back to the Bay.
De Leon first broke into spoken word in the mid ’90s, just as the art form was taking flight in the Bay Area. Fresh from her undergraduate education, de Leon was equipped with a lot of opinions and artistic voice that she hadn’t quite figured out how to use.
She had been trying to take herself seriously as a novelist but didn’t yet have the attention span to fully commit. Inspired by a surrounding community that was experimenting with performance poetry, de Leon did what she always did: jumped right in.
The art of spoken word came naturally to her. She’s unabashedly comfortable in her own skin, commanding attention from her audience as she tackles controversial issues with ease and an infectious humor.
This attitude began to define de Leon’s artistic identity. By the age of 25, she was performing everywhere — from small open mics to the Justice League Nightclub in San Francisco. She took on feminine identity, pop culture and everyday racism.
Spoken word turned out to be a gateway to the world of hip hop. One night in 2000, de Leon and her boyfriend were at a rap concert. Appalled by the sexist opening act, de Leon found herself internally crafting her own rap taking on female objectification.
She had wandered into hip-hop theater, a performance style that blends hip-hop and poetry. This new form eventually led her to write “Thieves in the Temple: The Reclaiming of Hip-Hop,” a one-woman show of raps and spoken word pieces that speak out against the female role in hip hop.
“I started these rants about sexism in hip hop, and it really resonated with people around me. I wasn’t the only one fed up with this,” de Leon said.
Not only has de Leon has left her mark through several forms at art, she’s also made the process look easy. She captivates any and every audience, be it in a theater or in a classroom.
De Leon views these successes modestly. In her opinion, every writer she encounters has a unique potential, a quality which she hopes to identify and cultivate in each of her students.
“In my writing, what’s going on in my life is the material,” de Leon said. “It’s grounding the innovation in one’s personal truths, and then, everyone’s equal.”