Nigerian-born poet and Hostos alumnus Ayodeji Otuyelu, ‘20, is a natural storyteller. He started writing creatively in grade school, pouring his innermost thoughts and feelings into his poems. However, he kept his writing largely to himself until he immigrated to the U.S. in 2016 in pursuit of the freedom to be his authentic self. “Living in Nigeria is not necessarily for people like myself—LGBTQ people,” he explained. “I just wanted to live somewhere I was free to express myself.” 

It was while living in New York City that he began to share his poems publicly. At the insistence of a fellow poet and friend, Otuyelu participated in his first open mic event at the Tsion Café in Harlem. It wasn’t long before he branched out to participate in open mics throughout the city, including the Nuyorican Café, and even started hosting a few open mic nights himself. Then in 2018, he enrolled at Hostos Community College, where he majored in Liberal Arts. He especially enjoyed his drama and public speaking courses at the College, which he said helped him become a more confident storyteller.

Overall, the cumulative experiences opened the creative floodgates for Otuyelu. “Over time, my writing started to evolve from just writing about love and heartbreak to writing more about feminism, women’s empowerment, and racial issues,” he said, adding: “Also, I started writing more about LGBTQ issues this year. I wrote about them in Nigeria, but I didn’t share them.” 

Nowadays, Otuyelu is sharing his poems with the world. In December 2020, he published his first collection of poems, titled “Words In My Head,” in which he gives readers insight into his experiences living in Nigeria and the U.S. and explores themes of love, sex and sadness, and their relationships to one another. In the same month, Otuyelu also released a short film for his book in which he celebrates Black beauty and same-sex love, and also discusses sexual abuse of boys. Additionally, in June 2021, he was featured in HBO’s “The Legend of the Underground," a documentary following two groups of young people advocating for their rights of personal expression and challenging the ideals of conformity, gender and civil rights in Nigeria following the enactment of an anti-LGBTQ law in 2013.

Life for Otuyelu since his first open mic has “been a rollercoaster,” but he wouldn’t change it for the world. Among the highlights have been the messages he’s received from people in Nigeria congratulating him on his book and thanking him for sharing the words in his head. It is with this in mind that he encourages other writers to do the same.  

“Don’t stop the words in your head,” he said. “Always get them out. The good thing is that once your work is out there, it’s out there forever. No one can take that from you. Don’t be scared to put your work out there. Just do it.”

Learn more about Ayodeji Otuyelu here.