Kimaya Diggs ’15 talks music, writing and identity

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Kimaya Diggs ’15 must be one of the most creative people at Swarthmore. Studying creative writing and music, she commits much of her time to crafting words and harmonies. Her inspiration for her art is surely informed by the rich experiences she has had with her family, with travel and with performance.

Diggs is an English literature major, with a concentration creative writing. She was homeschooled, which allowed her to pursue unlimited amounts of one of her favorite childhood pastimes: reading. She loved Tamora Pierce, a fantasy fiction writer who often features strong female characters. Today, thanks to essayists like David Foster Wallace and David Sedaris, Diggs is interested in creative nonfiction. She herself enjoys writing short stories and poetry.

Poetry helps Diggs process her eclectic background. Her mom’s parents adopted ten children in addition to their biological four. On her mom’s side alone, Diggs has over fifty relatives.

Not only is Diggs’ family large, it’s also diverse. In contrast to her mom’s large family culture, her dad comes from a small household. The disparity between the sizes of the families on her mom’s and dad’s sides means each side has different politics. One side of her family is more private while the other is extremely open.

Because of her diverse background, Diggs finds it easy to identify with many different kinds of people. She says, “In my family alone, there are people who have cognitive disabilities, there are people who have PhDs … there’s the entire range.”

Diggs, like most Swatties, appreciates that the campus has a lot of space to define one’s own identity. “There is all this great talk of identity, respecting identity, forming identity, and allyship between people of certain identities,” she says.

Sometimes, however, it can be overwhelming. She reflects, “I grew up in a predominantly white area … I was raised in white culture basically. So when I came here and people were like ‘Aw ya!  You’re black!’ I was like, ‘uhhh what?’” She had never associated color with her identity before.

She does recall instances where other people brought up race. When Diggs was little, her teacher approached her to tell her that a boy in the class needed to apologize to her, because he said her “skin was the color of poop.” Diggs doesn’t remember being hurt or affected, but thinking, “Hm. Weird. Can I go play now?” Race was only on her radar during moments in her childhood like these.

When she was invited to diversity weekends in college, she felt resentful because, as she put it, she “doesn’t bring something to the table that’s not the mainstream American experience.”

Today, Diggs doesn’t have one set identity she assumes over others. “Real issues that happened to people who are not white happened to me, real issues that happened to people who are not male happened to me … I don’t feel the need to be like, ‘because of my experiences as a tall, brown woman … I will call myself X, Y, and Z.’”

Diggs’ other main passion is music.

 She took a semester off to travel with a performance group through the United States, England and Colombia. During this time, Diggs and her companions facilitated workshops to teach music, in addition to performing.

Diggs loved her experience traveling because she got to see the real world impact of her actions, which she often feels is missing when she is churning out twenty page papers for an English class. “There’s something about music that completely transcends language and doesn’t even require language.” It’s her way of connecting with strangers in an intimate fashion.

Funnily enough, when she first started dating her boyfriend, also a musician, she refused to sing with him. For Kimaya, singing is such an intimate act that it was simply too early in their relationship.

She wishes the music department at Swarthmore had more of a performance focus. Though she grew up playing the piano and cello, her voice is more important to her as an instrument because it is an extension of herself. “I figure your voice must be your most intuitive instrument because it is physically part of you.”

She advocates for singing as a way to create community, whether it be in her family, in a church or even teaching workshops in Colombia. Diggs argues, “The number one way to build community is through song, whether or not people think they can sing. I do not get upset when I sing songs with people who can’t sing in key.

She is waiting to hear if Swarthmore will provide her funding to study classical music in Florence this summer. Regardless of what her summer plans are, music will remain an integral part of her life. In addition to classes, she is involved in jazz and musical theater on campus. She plans on returning to the traveling performance group her senior fall.

Diggs’ faith in music to create community balances the introspective aspect of creative writing. Ultimately, both of her talents are about giving voice – and her voice, both in writing and in song, is one that we’re sure to hear more of in the future.

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