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Crafting a Legacy

Alumna artist and activist uses her poetry to communicate injustices and advocate for change.

Imani Wallace performing on a stage.

Imani Wallace ’16, who performs around the world as Lyrical Faith, found her calling as an artist, activist and educator while a student at Syracuse University.

While a student at Syracuse University, Imani Wallace ’16—the internationally acclaimed and award-winning spoken word artist known also by her stage name, Lyrical Faith—found her voice and launched on her path as an artist, activist and educator.

Wallace, a public relations major in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, was a student leader and very engaged in the campus community. Her senior year, she was recognized with a Martin Luther King Unsung Hero Award for her service and advocacy.

What do your identities as an artist and an activist mean to you?

I see art and activism as intertwined. I see art through the lens of spoken word poetry, which is both writing and performance. And activism is speaking out against societal ills, providing counternarratives, actively challenging power structures, advocating for what is just and calling out what is unjust. I use the word “artivism” to describe how I use my art—something I’m deeply passionate about—as a way to communicate about these social ills and injustices around the world.

I think about the leaders who came before me—my ancestors and the peoples whose shoulders I stand on—who spoke out about Black struggles and Black liberation. I think about what they’ve done, what they sacrificed, the streets they marched, what they gave up and the lives that were taken from them. They paved the way for me to be navigating the spaces I am and using my voice as I do. It’s my responsibility and my social duty to pave the way for those who will come after me to continue the fight for what is right.

A group of people taking a photo.

Wallace (back row, second from right, as an undergraduate student) credits Cedric Bolton (back row, far right), program coordinator of the student spoken word program, Verbal Blend, for helping her gain confidence as an artist and professional. “To this day Cedric is my mentor,” she says.

I hope to inspire and to educate. Over the years that I’ve been writing and performing, I’ve been able to reach thousands of people. And every time I step up to a microphone and share a poem, it’s an opportunity to spark someone’s imagination, broaden someone’s perspective, or change someone’s mind. I take that responsibility seriously—you never know how you will impact another person’s life. Art has the power to bring strangers together and make people feel like they are not alone in what they’re experiencing, whether that’s grief, a mental health struggle or joy.

And of course, it is also cathartic. Sharing my thoughts and experiences, and having others connect with them, makes me feel seen and understood. So, spoken word is my way of shining in the world. And by shining myself, I hope to give others permission to shine their own light, in their own way.

So, spoken word is my way of shining in the world. And by shining myself, I hope to give others permission to shine their own light, in their own way.

—Imani Wallace ’16

How did Syracuse University help shape you into the poet, activist and educator you’ve become?

Syracuse meant everything to me. It was pivotal in the maturation of my voice and my identity.

I had been writing poetry since I was about 12. I knew when I arrived at Syracuse that I wanted to find some kind of poetry club to join. And I just feel like I got really lucky. There I was, first week on campus, walking around the student activities fair and I found the Verbal Blend Poetry program.

I was in Verbal Blend all four years. Verbal Blend hosted poetry workshops, open mics and poetry slams. Being able to learn the art of slam at Syracuse in that early phase in the development of my work really changed the game for me. Now, as a professional poet, I compete in slams all over the world.

And to this day, Cedric T. Bolton, the founder and program coordinator of Verbal Blend, is my mentor. He really took me under his wing and took the time to give me feedback. His advice and guidance helped me develop my voice and grow into an artist. He taught me about branding, told me about fellowships I could apply for, helped me become professional. Cedric believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself; his mentorship instilled my confidence and faith in myself.

So, Syracuse played a huge role in my journey growing from a young voice to a professional poet. It was the incubator that really molded me into who I am today.

Syracuse played a huge role in my journey growing from a young voice to a professional poet. It was the incubator that really molded me into who I am today.

—Imani Wallace ’16

How did your courses or professors at Syracuse impact your path?

Imani Wallace posing for a photo.

Enduring Syracuse friendships and the supportive alumni network are part of what inspire Wallace’s active participation and contributions to the University community as an alumna.

Oh, there were a multitude of really important experiences that Syracuse exposed me to! Through Syracuse I got to see the world more broadly. I studied abroad twice—in Jamaica and in Paris , with an African American Studies program called Paris Noir.

That program is another major reason I am where I am today. We lived in Paris and studied the Black Arts Movement. That experience gave me the bug to pursue research—it felt like freedom to explore and seek answers around the topics that I cared passionately about.

Through Syracuse I got to see the world more broadly. I studied abroad twice—in Jamaica and in Paris.

—Imani Wallace ’16

Our professor, Dr. Janis Mayes, pushed us to ask questions that mattered. And that’s what led me ultimately to the research I’m doing now as a doctoral student in social justice education at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. My focus is around arts and activism—specifically how spoken word poetry can be used as a vehicle for social justice. Syracuse helped me realize and name what I’m passionate about.

Tell us about the Unsung Hero Award you received as a student.

Imani Wallace with her sorority.

Wallace (second from left) and other members of the Kappa Lambda Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., recently celebrated the Syracuse chapter’s 50th anniversary and established a historic $1.2 million scholarship through the Our Time Has Come program.

Getting nominated for the Unsung Hero Award was a huge honor. I was nominated because I had become known for speaking up about social issues through my poetry. I performed on campus and in local events and schools. I was also active in student organizing for justice.

Also, I was a student leader. I was an active member of many organizations, including Kappa Lambda Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated. I served as vice president of the Student African American Society and revived and led Black Artist League. I was a community service chair for the Syracuse University chapter of NAACP, historian for the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Club and a Newhouse ambassador. I was a part of mentoring programs and tutored in local schools. I was also on the Black Reign Step Team for all four years. We practiced four times a week. I don’t even know how I did it, but that kept me super active and gave me a chance to be part of a team community.

What keeps you connected to Syracuse as an alumna?

Imani Wallace talking to a crowd.

Wallace is a currently a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts, focusing on the intersection of spoken word poetry, activism and education.

I come from an Orange family. I have uncles and cousins who graduated from Syracuse, and my mother is an alumna, class of 1980. We bleed orange!

Our sorority chapter—Kappa Lambda, of Delta Sigma Theta, Incorporated—just celebrated its 50th year of scholarship, sisterhood and service on this campus, and we raised $1.2 million for our endowed scholarship fund with the Our Time Has Come Scholarship (OTHC) program. As a previous OTHC scholarship recipient, I’m very proud to be a donor, and grateful to be surrounded by the powerful women in my chapter who have paved the way for this to be possible.

Another reason I stay involved is the Syracuse network, which is a huge part of my life. Through mentorship programs in the Office of Multicultural Affairs I met other students who are my mentors and close friends, to this day.

Everywhere I have worked, I’ve run into at least one Syracuse alum. The network is immaculate, and it means a lot for me to feel so connected in all these different spaces—everywhere I go.

Sarah H. Griffin

This story was published on .

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