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MLK Contest Features Student Orations, Alum Keynote


During NYU’s annual MLK Week, NYU Steinhardt’s Graduate Student Organization hosted the 18th annual MLK Oratorical Contest. The contest featured spoken word performances from participants across the University, centered on the theme “Our Collective Liberation.”

Dean’s alumni advisory board member Xavier "X" Jernigan served as the keynote speaker. A Spotify executive and host, a deacon at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Brooklyn, and a founding member of the Kennedy Center Hip Hop Culture Council, Jernigan’s speech focused on the dual themes of liberation and afrofuturism. 

A poster for the MLK Oratorical Contest featuring X Jernigan and an illustration of Martin Luther King, Jr. The text reads "Keynote speaker and special guest judge: Xavier 'X' Jernigan (Steinhardt '06)."

“For me, the path to our collective liberation starts with our collective commitment, and the fight to walk as our most authentic selves. There’s something about freedom that’s contagious – when you get free, you want others to get free,” Jernigan said. “Ask yourself as often as you can: how am I contributing to someone else’s liberation? When can I step back to help someone else into the room where the opportunities happen? We are the product of other people saying our names in rooms that we do not occupy.”

Jernigan’s most recent project is X, Spotify’s AI DJ, unveiled on February 22. He graduated from NYU Steinhardt in 2004, with a master’s degree in Music Business

“What does the voice of tech sound like?” Jernigan asked. “This is a huge question that gets to the heart of afrofuturism. Can the future of tech sound like a Black man who went to NYU, who is a proud alum of an HBCU? The answer to these questions can define what our collective future looks like, and our place in it.” 

A headshot of Michaella Blemur, a smiling Black woman in a light shirt.

Participants in the Oratorical Contest included Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness graduate students Sanjana Ramaseshan, Dipti Balwani, and Edward Henderson II; Dance Education graduate student Jaylen Taylor; and International Relations undergraduate Michaella Blemur.

Blemur took first prize in the competition. The judges included associate professor of Media, Culture, and Communication Bretty Gary and clinical associate professor of Communicative Sciences and Disorders María Rosa Brea, as well as administrative manager of the Office of Student Affairs Tara McNally and GSO senator Miranda Rivera-Flaviá.

Blemur’s oration, entitled “Spelling Game,” combined lyrical wordplay with quotes and inspirational messaging to weave a story of freedom, strength, and will. 

“I write things that come to my mind,” Blemur shared. “I had this idea to write a poem that had to do with spelling and a play on words, and I actually built it from the bottom up – I wrote the last lines first and worked backwards. I took inspiration from some of my favorite lyricists and combined it to make this motivational poem that I’m really proud of.” 

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