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ART IS ACTIVISM: Student-artist on online perception, authenticity and healing

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

This is the second installment of Selena Kuikahi's "ART IS ACTIVISM" series. Read parts one and three on the Daily Wildcat website.

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 are 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.

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“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-soothe,” 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 audience 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.”


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