South-side native Kwyn Townsend Riley, aka Kwynology, is in love with the city of Chicago. Her hopes for its people, her pride in its culture, and her appreciation of its influence on her individually were recurring themes in my conversation with her. They also appear in her recent poem “Windy.” In the emphatic spoken-word piece that is as sobering as it is starry-eyed, Kwyn delivers a sermon on what her hometown means to her and expresses her gratitude, optimism, criticism, and vision for “Windy,” which she personifies as a hurt person who only wanted to “burn blunts, blow trees, and do poetry, and be free” but has ended up burning “childless dreams.”
“I want people to fall back in love with the city,” Kwyn said. “It just feels like so many people have given up on it and are leaving it behind.”
Kwyn’s in a constant pursuit of avenues and platforms to use to infect other people with her passion for the city, specifically black teens and young adults. Kwyn will host her first In the Yard open mike at the Breathing Room, a community space headed by Kristiana Rae Colón. A published poet, actress, internationally performed playwright, and half of the brother-sister hip hop duo April Fools, Colón is an interdisciplinary artist in the purest sense of the term. She’s also a cofounder of the #LetUsBreathe Collective, which started as a coalition of artists organizing to provide relief to protesters during the Ferguson conflict, in 2014, and has since evolved into a group of creatives dedicated to the mission of abolishing global systems of oppression.
“[After Ferguson] the questions started to get a bit deeper,’ Colón says. “OK, we get this officer indicted . . . then what?”
The #LetUsBreathe coalition answered that with direct action back on the home front, “Windy.” In the summer of 2016, the group organized Freedom Square, a 41-day protest outside the Chicago Police Department’s Homan Square interrogation facility, which had become a center of controversy due to reported unlawful abuse and torture of men who’d been arrested and were being held there. The goal was to get the city to recognize that investment in education, employment, housing, mental health, nutrition, and art could be more instrumental to the prosperity of the city’s citizens than investment in law enforcement. For Colón, it became evident that the combined powers of the #LetUsBreathe coalition would be put to better use in a different way. “The first step to liberation is internal,” she says.
“We then began to pivot away from disruption and civil disobedience and toward community empowerment,” Colón continues. “We wanted to remix the art of protest.”
For the #LetUsBreathe Collective, this meant giving a platform to members of marginalized communities. In 2016 the collective launched the Breathing Room, a monthly open-mike series in North Lawndale intended to amplify the voices of people living in one of Chicago’s most disenfranchised neighborhoods. After the landlord refused to renew their lease because he became unnerved by the increased patronage of neighborhood locals, Colón says, the #LetUsBreathe collective moved its operation to a new home in Back of the Yards.
Kwyn and Colón first crossed paths in this space, a three-story building barricaded behind a brightly graffitied concrete fence, and it’s here that Kwyn will host her first open-mike series, In the Yard. Kwyn approached Colón with the idea to host her event after attending previous open mikes held at the Breathing Room. Colón has high praise for Kwyn’s work.
“Her stage presence and her words take an audience on a journey,” Colón says. “Her energy being infused into the existing Breathing Room will amplify the program.”
Kwyn decided to launch the In the Yard open mike because she was tired of seeing teens and young adults from the south and west sides spend their last dollars to go perform on the north side. She wants to use her platform to bring those who have been pushed to the margins back into the conversation. She saw the Breathing Room as the perfect space to do that.
“I want these kids to know that they can feel safe with us and have a good time with us,” Kwyn continues. “[The Breathing Room] is accessible, whereas many activism spaces are not and can be excessively academic. The Breathing Room is just so welcoming. Anyone can walk in and you’re immediately treated like family.”
She called the work of the #LetUsBreathe Collective “weirdly mesmerizing” to watch, because they’re doing things that people would have never deemed reasonable. For example: the Breathing Room’s Free Store. Located just inside the front door, it’s a room brimming with donated clothes, art, jewelry, and household items, all for the taking by any community member who feels so inclined. Colón sees the Free Store as a small-scale redistribution of wealth within the community.
Kwyn feels that spaces like the upcoming open mike are necessary because of the steady depreciation of value in the city. She talked about how she’d previously taken her talents outside of her community.
“We Chicagoans have allowed people that don’t have the city’s best interest at heart take control, and we’ve been comfortable with it,” she says. “As a creative I have to admit that I have contributed to this by going to these bougie-ass open mikes and performing at these fancy-ass places when I could’ve gone to open mikes on the south side. People aren’t giving a fuck about their own city.”
Kwyn wants her open mike to be a reflection of the city’s beauty. She’s invited a plethora of Chicago poets, musicians, and comedians—even footwork legend Tha Pope is slated to perform, and journalist Resita Cox will guest host. The event will also include DJ Such and Such and an art gallery by the ThoughtPoet.
“I want us to take the city back.”
In the Yard Wed 6/27, 7 PM, the Breathing Room, 1434 W. 51st, @kwynology, $5 suggested donation.