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ART IS ACTIVISM: Student-artist on online perception, authenticity and healing, plus a Q&A

4-walls-ep
Album cover for “4 Walls” EP by Etyana Leigh

There are many lanes of action to take when striving for change. Art is a form of activism, having in itself the power to counteract and transcend injustice by providing different perspectives and encouraging peace. But it doesn’t have to be limited to the physical world. The ability to create and share music, photos and videos is just as accessible as it is ingrained in our social patterns. The internet is now, more than ever, a vehicle for sharing art and its intention.  

Etyana Leigh, also known as Ety, is a young creative from Atlanta, Georgia. The musician, vocalist, visual artist and activist uses her work to relay a message of healing and support. While being a full-time art student at San Diego State University, the bicoastal 20-something connects with the physical world by utilizing digital spaces.

Her citizenship in cyberspace began at a young age, gaining what was a large following for its time on apps like Vine, Gifboom and early Instagram. Through her experience on social media, she has developed a perspective of the digital world that bridges the gaps between advocacy and activism as it pertains to online and offline culture. Said bridge requires two building materials: art and the demand for connection.

“I wouldn’t say I’m working with pen and paper,” Etyana joked. 

She explained that she has always been interested in the creative, and making content online was where she got her head start. Today, her personal social media accounts have blossomed into a home for her art. Gaining inspiration from her favorite musicians, Etyana adds her own touch on the work that she enjoys. From there, she has taken her editing skills and shares visuals for her own music with her followers. 

“I just want to put it out there,” she said. “Instagram is an art board. A lot of the [photos] I take and edit I like to apply to my music as cover art. I intertwine it all.”

For a lot of aspiring creatives, publicly connecting art to person can be nerve-wracking. There is a pressure for consistency between online and offline perception. This can be hard to control because of the differences between real and digital cultures.

“I feel like I’ve always existed on social media,” Etyana said. Like many of us, Etyana described her relationship with social media as something that she is still trying to figure out. She noticed that as she has gotten older, it was as if “all of a sudden real life blended with online. And then it’s like I want to stop performing for people in real life but I’m still performing for people online.” She elaborated that this presence isn’t wholly performative, it’s just the essence of online culture. “I’m still figuring out how to be a real-life person and a person on social media. It’s hard to make the distinction between the two.”

As one’s public accounts tend to grow over time, the young artist’s reach has gone beyond friends and family. Now sharing her own projects on platforms such as Soundcloud, Apple Music and Bandcamp, the range of people that now have access to her content is only limited to those with an internet connection. With that range, Etyana has expressed a growing need for her online self to also accurately reflect her personal interests and passions.

Last May, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter resurgence, many were feeling pressure to post their solidarity with the Black community. Because of this, terms like “performative activism” were (rightfully) used in retaliation to black tiles/squares posted online and protest photo-ops. Whether said self-centering was purposeful or not, many challenged the effectiveness of speaking out online. The truth of the matter is that the internet, particularly social media, may be a separate entity from the physical world, but its existence is just as powerful as it is real.

In regard to authentic online activism, Etyana said it best: “For the first time ever there’s a collective entity that everyone is paying attention to at the same time. Especially in a time like now, when no one is doing anything and everyone’s using social media, the power that we have is so apparent. The world that we’re in is literally not working and we have another one that we can use to change it. You can say 'it’s just social media, it can’t change the world,' but the fact is you can. Even if you have 15 followers, you’re reaching those 15 people and that’s an impact. Those are opinions you can change, people you can inform. Then that’s their friends, their family, so on. The internet is a whole world that we can’t see, but it’s like the most influential space right now.”

The budding performer ran into a dilemma of her own before the drop of her first official EP. Etyana worried that the release would infringe on the valuable digital real estate reserved for BLM-related content. She reflected on some wise words that crossed her path: “Everyone has their role in the revolution.”

The bulk of her discography, both on streaming services and platforms like Soundcloud, center topics such as self-actualization and healing. “I set the release date in early May,” Etyana explained, “and at the time our main focus was the pandemic. I had already promo’d it, so I was debating on whether it was bad to release it in June. I started thinking about what I could do to take the focus off of me. That’s when I decided to donate the streaming and Bandcamp revenue to the Atlanta Solidarity Fund.”

Activist art is made and distributed for the purpose of aiding a cause and its supporters. Her song “4 Walls” is a homage to the physical stagnancy and mental turbulence that we have all dealt with in quarantine. This experience intensified with the political and social uproar of the summer. The lyrics explore what happens in the confines of one’s now overly familiar bedroom, commenting on the trials of coping and healing. They reflect on how life once was pre-pandemic and the fluctuation of one’s mental state, paired with the coping mechanisms we have developed in order to “self-sooth,” according to Etyana.

Etyana's layered vocals are eerily similar to the ways in which thoughts tend to ripple when you’re alone with them for too long. Although haunting, the track is simultaneously healing, offering a sort of olive branch between the individual listener and the world’s shared experience. In gifting this song to the public — and its proceeds to those who were arrested during the summer protests in Georgia — this artist used her passions to aid in the greater good.

Those on the ground — organizing demonstrations, marching in the streets, administrating mutual aid — need an outlet for healing and emotional alleviation. “People being drained can inhibit social progress,” Etyana said when explaining the audiences she had in mind when creating and distributing her EP. “There are different parts of a movement, one of them being emotional healing. The role for a lot of artists is to uplift people and boost morale.”

On social media, every post is part of an overarching performance. The only way to combat this phenomenon, especially when advocating, is sincerity. By redirecting her profits to support a cause, Etyana was able to redirect digital consumption into a tool for the greater good. “When you buy the song on Bandcamp or stream it online," Etyana said, "you receive an emotional healing song and are also doing your part. I did it so people are receiving something and also giving.” She left us with this closing statement: “Activism can come in any form. If you’re making something better, that is activism.”

ART AS ACTIVISM Q&A, JULY 3, 2020

Daily Wildcat: What kind of artist are you? What is it that you create and how do you distribute it?

Etyana Leigh: Ever since I was little, especially on Gifboom, like everyone was obsessed with the gif making and stuff so in doing that I got into visual art. I just make everything on my phone. I don’t make stuff on my computer, I do not know how to use computer programs. But I feel like you don’t really need toil you can do the same thing. Visual and musical, but I wish I was more focused on visual arts. I wouldn’t say I’m working with pen and paper since everything I do is more technology based.

A song will come on and I’ll think, "there has to be a visual for this," and I guess I’ll make it and just post it for whoever happens to see it. Mostly editing videos is my favorite thing to make, and music is the thing that inspires me to create visual art

I just want to put it out there. I feel like Instagram is an art board almost. A lot of the [photos] I take and edit I like to apply to my music. I like to use it as cover art. I like to use my technological skills or whatever for cover art, music promotion, things like that. I intertwine it all.

DW: Explain your relationship with social media and how you approach posting. 

EL: I’ve been on social media for a long time. So, I feel like I’ve always existed on social media. Middle school was not hitting at all and I had all these internet friends. It was so much fun, we would be like video chatting all the time. Obviously with my [blackharrystyles] Instagram page, a lot of people saw that. So I got into that vibe of social media early on. The concept of giving people things, like performing. Then Vine came along, and I made that bagel video and for absolutely no reason people loved it. Again after that it was like, well I guess I’m performing and receiving things back. That’s stuck with me. And as I get older — my internet life and my real life has always been separate — but as I get older, real life becomes more … I used to not follow many people from my real life, maybe close friends and family. But all of a sudden I get to college and everyone is following my Instagram and I’m like wait! They don’t understand this is not me this is my internet self, we’re not the same.

My relationship with social media is something I’m still trying to figure out. It was like all of a sudden real life blended with online. And then it’s like I want to stop performing for people in real life but I’m still performing for people online. It’s not even performing online, it’s just the way online culture is. I’m still figuring out how to be a real life person and a person on social media. It’s hard to make the distinction between how people are in real life versus how they are online.

DW: When you’re going to post something does the thought of what is this going to look like on my curated feed go through your head? How does this impact my online and real life? 

EL: The people that know me closely and that know I’ve always been very online know that I’ll post anything. The thought of what is this going to look like is more so for people that follow me that don’t know me well.

It makes me think like why am I performing? A big thing that has been disgusting me lately is how I never had the intention of trying to be pretty on social media. But then I started to be and I got more male followers. And men have never been a factor for me on social media, then all of a sudden when you come to college, more men start to follow. If I just want to be cute on Instagram, it’s like now I have this whole new layer to my audience. And I do not like that.

DW: Social media is a multifaceted space. How do you think of social media as a tool for the greater good? More so, why is it important for people to use social media to promote the things they care about?

It’s so powerful. For example, people will still recognize me from my old accounts, like that Vine I made. That was literally one video I made in my bedroom and there have been times where people on the street have recognized me. It just goes to show how you can reach so many people with the simplest thing.

There is a world in social media that can be brought into real life. For the first time ever there’s a collective entity that everyone is looking at at the same time. Especially in a time like now when no one is doing anything and everyone’s using social media, the power that we have is so apparent. Literally the world that we’re in is not working and we have another one that we can use to impact the real world. A lot of people say "it’s just social media, it can’t change the world," but you literally can. Even if you have 15 followers, if you’re reaching those 15 people then that’s an impact. Those are opinions you can change, people you can inform. Then that’s their friends, their family, so on. The internet is a whole world that we can’t see, but it’s like the most influential world right now.

DW: You have been releasing music on Soundcloud and your Instagram for months, years now. With the release of your most recent single, why was it so important for you to donate the revenue to bail funds? 

EL: I set it up in early May and at the time, like, it was pandemic time. I already set it up to be released and promo’d it. I was asking all my friends 'is this bad to release right now?' and one of them said that art is expression. I’m not doing something mainly for profit, I’m just sharing my art. So I started thinking, what can I do to take the focus off of me? That’s when I decided to donate the streaming and Bandcamp revenue to Atlanta Solidarity Fund. That’s truly activist art. And the message of the song was support as well.

When you buy the song on Bandcamp, or stream it on Spotify, you receive an emotional healing song and are also doing your part. I did it so people are receiving something and also helping.

DW: Can you speak a little bit about sincerity online as it pertains to social causes?

EL: A big thing with social media is that it has trained us to seek validation constantly and it’s engrained in the culture. You post to receive things. We tie our relationship with people strongly on the grounds if they follow us, if they life what we’re sharing, etc. A tip for people who are too scared to share their opinions: You have to be able to face rejection from people on social media if you want to truly share good messages. And there will be people who unfollow you after you put things out there. But with being vocal online, you’re actively fighting against that concept. Especially on Instagram and Facebook, people forget that the platforms we use are owned by the people we’re fighting against. You have to abandon the culture of what they’re trying to put into us because they’re fighting against us. Abandon the validation culture for the greater good, I feel like that’s a big thing that stops a lot of people. But, you have to be willing to challenge people, lose some followers, that’s what you have to do.

DW: How is art a tool for activism or activism in itself? What makes it so powerful? 

EL: I saw this graphic that said everyone has their role in the revolution. Not everything has to be super explicit in the way it’s pertaining to the revolution. There’s different parts and you can be a part of the emotional healing. That’s a huge part of what’s going on, helping people with what they’re going through. If you can just make people feel better that’s also a part of helping and that’s just as much of a help in any activism, in any movement. People being drained can inhibit social progress. The role for a lot of artists is to uplift everyone and help morale.

Music goes along with the social media sphere, it exists in that world. I feel like art has always been that way. And you can do whatever [type of activism] that fits you, there’s just different levels. Activism can come in any form. If you’re making something better then it’s activism.

I don’t want to put music out and not say anything. My message is tied into what I do, so it also does coincide with what you share as an artist. You have to make it clear what you care about.

DW: Why is doing this kind of work important for small platforms, not just large platforms? 

EL: Even changing the minds of a small amount of people, that’s doing the work. We inherent all of our ideas so traversing those and learning from other people passes it on to whoever you interact with. You bring that energy to them. Small or large, your message is still valuable.

And when you have a group that is also on the same page — sharing similar information, standing for the same values — people take notice of that and the purpose seems more legitimate.


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