Today’s installment of Real Life Glam features spoken word artist and higher education scholar, Dr. Crystal Leigh Endsley. As someone who exemplifies both “Brains and Beauty,” we had the chance to ask the Doctor a few questions about her past, goals for the future, and lots more. Check it out!
GLAM Life Blog: Tell us about yourself!
Crystal Leigh Endsley: I’m originally from a small town in Louisiana, which is still home for me, and I grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia. I recently moved to New York City, so I’m like Whitley Gilbert in the Big Apple!
I’m an internationally acclaimed spoken word artist and an assistant professor of Africana Studies at John Jay College, which allows me to combine my passion for education with the power of performance to create the world I want to live in. I’ve worked across the globe in over ten different countries conducting workshops focused on using the arts as social justice.
GLB: Who or what inspires you to write poetry and perform spoken word?
CLE: I was raised to believe that God created each of us with a purpose we are to fulfill on this earth. For me, when I write and when I perform, that’s when I accomplish my purpose.
My Grandma was the one who told me that at first when I called her having a crisis about what to do with my life and was I wasting my time. Her wisdom definitely helped me at that moment and I realized that was exactly the effect I wanted to have on anyone who saw me perform—the ability to transform their perception of a given situation, to enable them to shift perspectives, to express the love of God to them.
Photo Credit: Naomi Tsegaye
GLB: When did you start writing?
CLE: I never intended to become a spoken word artist. I never even intended to go to graduate school either, but I was good at school and did not know where to go next in my life. No one in my family had ever completed college, or even thought about grad school and so I really was stumbling through sort of learning as I went.
The same was true when I first began performing. I was threatened, I was told to leave town, I was told I wasn’t “black enough” or that I should quit. I took all of that energy and prayed for grace to use my frustration as fuel and turned it into material for the stage.
GLB: How did you get your start with spoken word?
CLE: I wrote in a journal for a really long time, through high school especially. When I got to undergrad, there was an open mic called “Etymology” and my roommates knew that I wrote poetry and they encouraged me to go share a piece. I will never forget walking on that stage, holding my little piece of paper, my hands sweating and shaking. When I finished reading, I could hear people clapping, and I couldn’t believe it. I was so scared. The lights were bright and I couldn’t see into the audience, but heard the applause. As I was walking back to my seat a few folks dapped me up and said they enjoyed my work. One girl came up to me and hugged my neck. After a few seconds she didn’t let go, and I realized she was crying. She said, “Thank you. I felt like you were talking about me up there. Thank you.” It was that moment that I realized exactly how powerful the spoken word could be—that it had the ability to connect two utter strangers through an experience and that it could move a person to tears.
GLB: We really like your concept of “Artist meets Scholar” because it shows just how multidimensional people are. Which sides of yourself do you feel are best represented whenever you’re on stage?
CLE: When I first started out, I was given the nickname of “that fire,” because of my performance style and the content of my poetry. There’s such a fine line between consistency and imagination that an artist who is interested in integrity must negotiate. I work to make my life off stage consistent to a degree with the content I present to an audience while on stage—I feel that’s my responsibility.
I have 30 minutes to speak to a crowd who may never see me again and so I am responsible for making sure those people walk away having been offered the very best work I have to share with them. I want my audience to walk away feeling strengthened, being reminded ‘I’m not alone,’ knowing that they’re loved. I also feel obligated to represent those of us girls who are good girls, who are smart girls, who [were] nerds growing up, who transformed, who prove the system wrong.
Photo Credit: Naomi Tsegaye
GLB: What inspires you to write?
CLE: I believe that passion is a crucial ingredient for any compelling work—artistic or otherwise. I heard someone say that many times situations or circumstances that cause me to respond with frustration or anger are often areas that I need to be working in. I believe that applies to writing as well.
Any situation or theme that causes me to respond strongly—positively or negatively—is typically going to end up in a poem. I have also learned how important it is to challenge myself to write about things in new ways. Because I am so often asked to develop curriculum and workshops for aspiring writers, I’m always learning new writing exercises and prompts, which help to keep my own skills and techniques developing.
GLB: What advice do you have for someone who wants to begin writing but isn’t exactly sure where to start?
CLE: I always think that people who read make the best writers and that is one key piece of advice I have. If you want to write well, read well. The second suggestion I have is for performers and that is preparation. My students crack me up because they think I lead a glamorous life—and I love my life, wouldn’t trade it for anything but it is not like the movies. They hear that I’m going to [a] gig somewhere wonderful, or that I’m on the road again and they think it’s this glossy sort of sexy life. They don’t realize that my mornings begin while it’s still dark outside, that the 30 minutes you see on stage means a thousand hours in my house rehearsing and revising and writing. It’s all about preparation. Writing and rehearsing with precision so that when you book the show you are ready to go show out!
Photo Credit: Lizzy Brooks
GLB: Which creative medium would you love to pursue but haven’t yet?
CLE: I’m actually starting to dabble in visual art and photography. I’m working on curating my first photo exhibit this coming fall/spring so stay tuned for that!
GLB: You’re a really well-traveled person because of all your work both inside and outside of the classroom. Where have your latest adventures taken you?
CLE: Performance and research have opened so many doors for me. I’ve actually just returned from East Africa where I was co-hosting and performing at the Music Concert stage for the Zanzibar International Film Festival in Stonetown, Zanzibar. I did my first international television interview while I was in Stonetown and that was incredible. From there I went to Athens, Greece, to present at a conference and then I traveled on to Hawassa, Ethiopia, to work with a fantastic new project I’m so excited to be a part of called Long Live the Girls! It’s a series of creative writing and performance workshops geared towards young women. We’re looking forward to planning more domestic workshops over the coming year as well. This was a great summer.
GLB: What is your personal philosophy?
CLE: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not to your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct your path.” Pursue God and you are guaranteed an adventure, that is for sure! The presence of Jesus is success: if you’ve got the presence of God then you are successful. Love always wins.
GLB: What’s next for Dr. Crystal Leigh Endsley?
CLE: I’m gearing up for the start of the school semester, planning my courses. Also on deck I have gigs booked for San Juan, Puerto Rico, and New Orleans, Louisiana this fall as well as a few colleges for my tour over the next year. I’m working on editing some of the gorgeous footage from the summer and looking to release that this fall as well. I’ve also got some manuscripts in the works (gotta get that tenure) and a few more collaborations with former students coming out soon. Many more exciting things to come!
Photo Credit: Naomi Tsegaye