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How Reyna Biddy Is Helping To Usher In A New Era of Poets

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I've mesmerized the melody between your every heart beat,

just so I could sing it back if you ever get lonely....

I learned the gaps between your fingers just in case you ever need a hand

I made sure mine fit perfectly - Reyna


Reyna Biddy was all smiles when she strolled in.

Dressed simply in a black tank top and black cardigan, though the January temperature in L.A. hit an unusual 72 degrees that day. Her long signature curls were traded in for a short cut, to the dismay of fans and friends, that made its grand debut on her social pages New Year's day—a personal decision that unexpectantly garnered nearly 40,000 likes and just as many negative comments.

“I always knew that people found me attractive, and I always knew what was expected of me," she says to me as we sit out back on the patio of an Italian restaurant. “Everyone would always come up to me and be like are you a model? Are you an actress? I never ever looked at myself in that light because I was always, I think, too intelligent to ever resort or base my entire career on just my looks. I never wanted to be in the limelight; I never wanted to be known for something or be pressured to stay looking that exact same way."

A noble thought, though in the age of social media where people connect to your image just as much as your words, it's nearly impossible to be heard without being seen. But to her credit, this isn't a path that she went looking for, becoming a poet wasn't exactly on her to-do list when she stepped onto the campus of Pepperdine University just two years ago. It's something that found her during some of her darkest days when a failed relationship had her questioning what it meant to love and be loved by another, and more importantly, to love herself.

She didn't expect that when she posted up diary-like entries on Twitter and Tumblr that she would get thousands of followers. She didn't expect that her first book, I Love My Love, would become an Amazon Best Seller just a year after self-publishing. She probably didn't even foresee that she would get placement on a major R&B artist's album, because when she started penning words from her pain, it was purely for the art, not the fame or the fortune. And despite her growing success, she wants to keep it that way.

MADE IN LA

I tell her that I'm a new L.A. resident, that I haven't even been here a year yet. She tells me she grew up in The Valley near Studio City, but that her family was far from well off.

Her mom, who had her at 16, was a nurse and her dad an artist. Growing up in the city of dreams, it's no surprise that she caught the creative bug. She got a taste of the industry through her uncles who dabbled in acting and music, but Reyna, shying away from the spotlight, wanted a career that was a little more subtle with a lot less pressure for perfection, so when her English teacher encouraged her to look into writing, she was much obliged.

But not for long because writing, as she was told, wasn't a real job and didn't make real money. Be a model, her aunt told her. What else do you do? Her peers asked her. The constant questioning planted seeds of self-doubt, so she drank the Kool-Aid that detours many from their purpose, and tried more acceptable career paths.

Before college, she took a year off and went into music as a songwriter, but lacked the desire to write for others or to play the role of an artist. She then enrolled in school, thinking that if she couldn't help people through music, she could do it as a therapist. “Then I took psychology class and decided that I don't want to be a therapist," she says.

Okay, maybe a teacher. “I started looking into not only the salary, but the time that goes into it and I was like um, I don't want to do this."

Or wait, a Black History major. “I went to a black [guidance] counselor and he was like that's the dumbest thing you could do."

So at 21, just a year into school, she dropped out.

“I was like this is like the universe telling me that none of these things are for me," she says between sips of her minestrone soup—one of the few dishes on the menu that fit her vegan lifestyle. “My dad was like that's not it. My mom was like are you sure? My friends were like don't do it. But I've never been the type of person to care. It took me awhile, of course, to truly believe and walk in that light, because you can say you don't care but then you hear something and you start to doubt yourself. But my parents always taught me you only have one life, live it how you want it. Be a leader, not a follower."

It was, perhaps, her first lesson in womanhood—not allowing other people's perceptions to dictate your destiny. “Once I really decided to put my foot forward and to really drop out and take this writing stuff seriously, instantly I saw my future in it. And I saw how I could change my lane or how I could pursue this in a different way from what others have already done."

And she's definitely blazing her own trail.

THE LOVE DOCTOR

At 5AM Reyna rises with sun from her newly-purchased home in Woodland Hills, turns on her laptop, and spends the next couple of hours answering messages from her fans—over 100,000 on Twitter and half as much on Instagram—who turn to Reyna when they need a word of encouragement, or a simple reminder that they're worthy of love.

It started out as an online journal, love letters to herself after her ex-boyfriend, a baseball player, told her that she was a distraction that was holding him back, and that she wasn't doing anything with her life. “It wasn't the moment that I was upset the most, it was the moment that I was lost the most," she says. “Not only is he dropping this bomb on me, but also he's letting me know why I can't fit in his life. And so in him saying that I think that's what led me to start searching for myself after we were over."

Her soul-searching process turned into a quest for love. Understanding it. Getting it. Giving it. She dug deep within herself to discover her own truth about what love is—and what it wasn't. It wasn't her ex, who made her feel worthless in attempt to preserve his own ego. It wasn't the love she witnessed growing up with a father who she later found out had a secret family on the side. And it certainly wasn't the love that she had shown herself, allowing people to treat her less than what she deserved.

Each trip down memory lane was penned over the course of three months in a collection of letters to herself, reminders that her love was infinite, and that despite what she'd been through, still worth giving and receiving.

She poured. She released. She exhaled. She healed. And when she was done, she made it her mission to put it in the hands of those who needed to do the same. Because when it comes to real love—self-love—it's always urgent like a motherfucker.

“I don't want to say I was in a rush, but I felt burdened to get this story out, and I'm glad that I did," says Reyna. “I self-published because I proved myself right, and I proved everyone else wrong because I self-published three months after I dropped out."

At the time that her book was released in December 2015, Reyna had 50,000 followers between Twitter and Instagram, a fan base almost twenty times from what she had the year before, built through consistent posts of her personal thoughts and inspirational quotes.

She caught the eye of another popular poet, Malanda, whose constant sharing helped catapult her audience, and when her book released she expanded her reach through Tumblr posts, amassing another 20,000 followers over the course of a year. Most of her audience, she says, varies from one platform to another.

It's not uncommon for writers to build a loyal following through standard social channels. Writers like Alex Elle and Melissa Tripp have also built an impressive number of devoted readers from their poetic prose. But Reyna tapped into another audience when saw an opportunity to combine her love for music and poetry on the music platform Soundcloud.

She teamed up with “trap house jazz" artist Masego to turn a collection of her most popular poems into ear-capturing tracks.

“I saw the reaction of it and I was just like whoa, I didn't know that was the reaction that I was going to get. I got like 100,000 plays in like three days."

Her words have not only connected with fans and fellow poets, but also artists of similar caliber. You can listen to her featured on the intro for R&B singer Kehlani's latest album, SweetSexySavagea perfect fit for two creatives known for baring their souls.

“Reyna is the kind of girl you know is outstanding before meeting her, then once you hear her art, you search for a deeper word to describe her but can't," says Kehlani. “She's very human, but almost like a human that's been here many, many times. She's a phenomenal woman. I love her."

Just a year out from walking away from a college degree, Reyna has been able to earn a comfortable living at the very thing she was told would leave her in the poorhouse. No sponsorship funding, no flat tummy tea endorsements, just genuine love and dedication to her craft and a relentless desire to win. Her seemingly overnight success didn't come without putting in work though, something that she informs many other writers who reach out to her in hopes that a co-sign will lead to their big break.

“No one is going to give you anything easy," she says. “I've never asked for a handout. I've never been that type of person to be like hey can you post this link for me, so I think that maybe I'm not the person to teach someone a tough lesson, but I think that in trying to become an artist you have to learn how to do it yourself."

After reaching out to a number of publishers, she finally caught the eye of one major name who will be backing the re-release of I Love My Love, and also her second book that's yet to be announced. “I realized that this poetry industry is really small, and it's really small because no one has ever believed in it. When I was shopping my book around, I would hear so often that poetry doesn't sell."

While it's a big win for Reyna, she's not popping bottles just yet. The 22-year-old has a bigger dream to take the genre beyond just books, social platforms and small stages— though a major publishing deal is a step in the right direction.

“I want it to be bigger than what you would expect from a poet because I believe that just in general I'm a different poet. I tell it all. I do it very different because I want it to be bigger than just books. I want it to be a physical thing. I want to go on tour like a real artist. If Kevin Hart can sell out arenas, poets should be able to do the exact same thing, but we never strive to do that because we've never seen it. No poet has ever done anything like that."

“If Kevin Hart can sell out arenas, poets should be able to do the exact same thing."

The pressure that she tried to escape being a model or a music artist she's now placing on herself as a visionary. Some days it's a lot—from breaking barriers in an often overshadowed industry to taking on the problems of her followers who fill her inbox with requests for advice on life and love. She admits that she's looking for a therapist, someone to talk to when she doesn't want to burden her boyfriend or close friends with the weight of her world. Balance, at the moment, is a foreign concept to her.

“The thing with me is I know when I'm overdoing it and I know when I'm heading towards a bad place and depression is on its way, and it's not until it hits that it's like I got to stop," she says. “I have to go away from everyone. I think in that time I give myself a chance to heal, to be ready for the next couple of months."

Prayer and diving back into herself keeps her grounded, and the journey of learning to love and sharing that with the world keeps her motivated.

“I still don't think I know what love means," she confesses. “I just know the way that it feels. I think that I've placed myself in situations that feel right, and to me that's a part of not only regular love, but also self-love. You shouldn't put yourself in situations that you know are going to drain you. You shouldn't put yourself in situations where you know you're going to leave feeling less than when you came. So I think for me, I don't know what the average person's idea of love is, but I know that for me love means when things just feel right."

What many spend a lifetimes searching for, Reyna is discovering day by day. Love isn't a destination, it's a journey. And it requires room to learn and grow from mistakes and embrace the triumphs that are experienced along the way.


Check out the audio version of "10 Reasons I Could Never Stay" below!

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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