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In Esan, a language of Nigeria, slam poet and musician Iyeoka Ivie Okoawo’s name means, “I want to be respected.” Okoawo demanded just that as she stepped into the middle of a small circle of red velvet couches at Wellesley College’s Multifaith Center. “I intend to create a new and beautiful world in me,” she had the audience repeat over and over, and once they had assumed a trance-like state, Okoawo picked up her African drum and began performing her mix of jazz music, poetry, and Nigerian proverb-songs.
From the start, her performance centered on exploring her Nigerian roots and sharing her personal connection to the Esan language with her audience. “I definitely have to admit [that finding my roots] is one of the biggest motivations for me right now because my family, they’re in Nigeria … it’s definitely a beacon for me.” True to her word, Okoawo is trying to learn Esan, one of her many endeavors that manifests itself in her primarily autobiographical work. These descriptive stories of her life allow Okoawo to convey her cultural heritage effectively.
Okoawo first discovered her love of poetry as an undergraduate at Northeastern University. Though her first career was as a pharmacist at Boston Medical Center, Okoawo continued performing after leaving Northeastern and eventually changed professions. “I’ve been [poetry] slamming competitively for 10 years, so I have this amazing body of work that … is grounded in my culture,” she says. “I’ve always been in search for ways of integrating [it] into my art so I can share more with people [who] don’t know much about the Esan culture.”
It was this ideal of cultural sharing through the arts that first drew Ji Hyang Padma, the director of spirituality and education programs at Wellesley College, to invite Okoawo to perform at the Multi-Faith Chapel. “I coordinate our ‘Art, Soul, and Spirituality’ series, which is a way of creating community through the transformative power of the arts,” she says. “When I saw Iyeoka for the first time … I felt a deep intimacy just through hearing her poetry and through hearing her song. You feel like you’re already a part of her life.” Okoawo’s work is more about the sharing of personal stories and similarities across cultures than it is about one person’s journey. “I really feel like she created the small village in Nigeria right here,” says Yoobin Seo, a senior at Wellesley College. “ I think she was trying to wake all of us up.”
Okoawo has started a program called Lyrics for Literacy which, much like her performance at Wellesley, will allow her to share parts of her culture in return for a taste of her history and the history of those around her. “It’s an exchange program I’m creating where I get to learn my language and I can go to communities that still need some of those [English] literacy supplements,” she said. Okoawo’s inspiration for this educational project stems from the same material that influences her writing—books. Speaking of one of such books, Okoawo says, “There’s over a thousand proverbs for me to look at and laugh at and choose from and figure out how I can invest those words and those wisdoms into my art. This is what it [has] come into, this Lyrics for Literacy project.”
Sharing with and learning about different people and cultures is of paramount importance to Okoawo. “Every person that you meet at any point could play a role in your life that could change the dynamics of everything,” she says. “In all the moments of your life … the struggle and the joy, there’s always people.”
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