Cheikh Athj ’16 finds it important to constantly have a piece of his culture with him. Through his many interests, from poetry, music, the African Diaspora to modern dance, Athj expresses all of himself to the world, and he does this with the hopes of fostering an artistic space where different voices are heard and valued.
An Africana studies and English double major, Athj is passionate about writing and performing. He serves as treasurer for Vassar’s Wordsmiths, sings in the Vassar Devils, participates in many campus organizations, such as Philaletheis, ViCE, Hip Hop 101, and has starred in Future Waitstaff of America’s musical Violet.
Athj finds it important to be in a space that fosters his artistic and intellectual pursuits, and if this space does not exist, he always finds a way to create it. Athj started a poetry club in high school after seeing that his voice and the voices of many other poets in his school were left ignored. In this same trailblazing spirit, Athj spearheaded the creation of the Congo Leadership Initiative chapter at Vassar. In club meetings, Athj lead discussions on how events in the Congo affect international politics, and members in the organization critique social-political issues in the Congo, and fundraise in order to empower young citizens in the Congo.
Athj’s inspiration for his art comes from his parents and his experiences growing up in Los Angeles, California. Growing up, Athj would often go to church with his mother, who was a singer, and he was a part of his church’s choir. His mother also wrote poetry, and after seeing his mother’s love for poetry, he decided to start writing poetry himself. After he experienced personal challenges, writing became a way for Athj to deal with what he was going through. “I went through a lot of personal things and I wrote about those experiences, and created narratives and poetry, and it acted as a way of finding a world outside of that home bubble, and those home stresses, kind of like a getaway from those things, and part of coming to college was a getaway from those things,” he stated.
“I tend to think about my favorite writers like Kurt Vonnegut, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and I think about them and how they bared themselves naked to their work, and I just write, and allow myself to make images, and they don’t necessarily have to make sense in the moment, but they give meaning to those words,” Athj remarked.
Athj sees himself as an active artist at Vassar. He makes sure to balance his artistic endeavors and academics. Before writing any of his pieces and performing them, Athj always has people in mind and he often wonders how they will be affected by his performance. “I’m a little nervous and excited to share my stuff, but I wonder if my viewers will hear it and if it will be cathartic for them or enrage them, or make them think, or prompt them to feel something human…I think that’s what I’m most concerned about,” he stated.
Athj hopes to continue his passion for writing and performance during his time at Vassar, and even after he graduates. He would like to write for a politically conscious magazine, while he pursues his other interests in music production, poetry and dance. Athj ultimately plans to pursue graduate studies in a writing program, with an African American studies focus, and he has Harvard University in mind for this future academic interest.
Athj views his art as a medium to evoke the complexities and beauty of life. “I feel like there is not enough truth out there. I think our bodies cry out for truth, and our bodies crave for something nutritious, and I’m trying to create that truth, and give people food that will feel good inside of them…I ultimately love art because I think through art is how we capture life,” he said.