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West Valley City Journal

Rapper Courtney Kelly breaks down stigma of mental health at Black Excellence Night

Mar 16, 2020 03:26PM ● By Jess Nielsen Beach

Nyah Cox recites her winning original poem. (Jess Nielsen Beach/City Journals)

By Jess Nielsen Beach | [email protected]

On Jan. 27, Granite School District and the Department of Educational Equity hosted the third annual Black Excellence Night at Hunter High. The event’s theme was “Still I Rise,” based on the famous poem by Maya Angelou.

Michelle Love-Day, the associate director of the DEE, welcomed everyone to the event and explained the significance of this year’s theme.

“We are celebrating our heritage, and tonight, we are recognizing it with the words of Maya Angelou,” Love-Day said. “As you know, she’s a poet that taught us to face adversity and rise above it, despite the lies and struggles we may encounter.”

Martin Bates, Granite School District superintendent, was then introduced and spoke on what the event means to the district.

“For our youth and all of us, it’s important to find our voices, to be who we are,” Bates said. “To the degree that education helps, let us do all we can to help one another to get the education we need; that we can find our own voices, be who we are, and inspire one another and strengthen one another and hold onto one another.”

The Pledge of Allegiance was recited, and then Isabel Cossa took the stage to perform the Black National Anthem. Cossa is a senior at Cyprus high, a leader in the National Honors Society, and a student representative on the Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) board.

“The anthem is something that always brings back memories for me,” Love-Day said. “Whenever we get together for events, that is the song we sing together.”

After the anthem, Love-Day then introduced the students selected to perform their submissions for the “Still I Rise” contest.

Students were asked to write a creative response to part of Angelou’s poem, and after reflection, the question was posed: You are part of many different groups. Family, cultural, religious, or gender groups. How have you faced adversity as part of one of these groups, and if/how have you risen up against it?

First up was Nyah Cox, an eighth-grader at Union Middle School. When going through a difficult experience in November, instead of acting out, she decided to write a poem about it. She performed her words about being stuck in a prison of racism and wanting to hurt others how they’ve hurt her; instead, she expressed the need for understanding and people speaking to each other.

“You might think, wow, it’s hard to be black,” Cox said. “But I’d rather be that, than anything else in this white world of ours.”

After Cox and her parents stood and were recognized, a video presentation of Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise,” played.

The next student winner was Fayenisha Thompson of Eisenhower Jr. High, and she performed a rendition of “Try it on My Own,” a song made famous by the late Whitney Houston.

The song selection was purposeful for Thompson. “It teaches me that there are things you know how to do. Working with someone is great, but sometimes you have to do it on your own.”

Thompson and her parents were then recognized before the final student performer was introduced.

Garyell Mott, also from Eisenhower Jr. High, chose to recite the poem “Hey Black Child” by Useni Eugene Perkins.

“Growing up, I’ve heard of Maya Angelou,” Mott said. “She has taught me to rise above violence and negativity. I am faced with negative behavior because I am a black female, a part of the LGBT+ community. I have risen above with the help of a poem called, ‘Hey Black Child.’”

After her recitation, Mott and her family were then recognized before the keynote speaker took the stage.

Rapper and songwriter Courtney Kelly said, “The theme today is ‘Still I Rise,’ and some of you have been so courageous to get up here and share how you have overcome adversity. I want to talk about a different type of adversity that we all face sometimes. That adversity is the adversity of the mind. This is the adversity we can face when our biggest enemy, the biggest threat to our well-being, is our own mind.”

Kelly went on to share her own struggle with mental health. She related that she used to “cry on the floor” even when it seemed her life was perfect. She had a steady boyfriend, straight A’s, plenty of friends, and was overall a fashionable and popular person.

While recounting her struggles, Kelly then shared a lyric she wrote in relation to her experience.

“Do I enjoy seeing myself broken?”

Kelly spoke about being able to change her hair, her clothes, and her overall look, but she still wasn’t happy. She was convinced that if she could find what she needed to change about herself, she would finally experience self-respect and love.

“I called my mom, thinking that she’d know,” Kelly said. “I talked to her, thinking that she’ll tell me what’s wrong or at least help me figure it out. She said something that really shocked me. She said, ‘Courtney, this is the same thing you’ve been dealing with since high school and I’m sick of hearing it.’”

Kelly was shocked. Her mother went on to tell her that she was too obsessed with what other people thought, making others jealous of her life, and making others want to be just like her.

“You have been on this endless mission to make people want to be like you,” Kelly’s mom said. “But you don’t even want to be like you.”

When her mom suggested professional help, Kelly got upset.

“I had been purposefully not using the words ‘mental health.’ I realize the term can have some negative connotations, and it can be triggering for people,” Kelly said. “It used to be triggering for me. I would get angry or offended if someone brought up my mental health. A lot of the time, we only associate it with bipolar disorder, depression, etc. If someone needs help with their mental health, they’re crazy.”

Kelly stressed that mental health is a vital part of every person, stating that people must take care of their physical, spiritual and mental being. She suggested taking 15 minutes per day to write down 15 things you like about yourself or things you’re grateful for.

“You can change the way you think about yourself by stopping the lies,” Kelly said. “Stop telling yourself that you are and that you aren’t. Tell yourself the truth and be kind. You are not ugly, you are not fat, you are not stupid, you are not a failure. You are good enough.”

Kelly then urged the audience to take advantage of mental health resources.

“Don’t wait until your lowest moment to seek help. Mental health doesn’t just mean depression and anxiety. If you have anything going on in your mind that is halting you from being happy, stopping your ability to get up and do the things you need to do every day, go get help. It’s okay. Often, these options are anonymous and you don’t have to tell your friends or talk about it. Just go get the help you need.”

Before performing two of her original raps, “Lil Girl” and “Well-connected,” Kelly had one final takeaway for the audience.

“I declare, and I challenge you to declare this as well: I love myself too much to ever let myself fail. I love myself too much to ever let the adversity of my own mind prevail. So still I rise, high as air, still I rise, out of mind’s own stare.”

You can find Kelly’s work on Apple Music, Spotify and Soundcloud.