KiNG Among Men: Interview with an Artist

Image Courtesy of T&W Photo (2015)

KiNG is a 21 year old genderqueer feminist, and a native of Los Angeles. She is a Community Organizer for Say Word LA, an organization dedicated to establishing the importance of literacy and civic engagement among youth. Most recently, she was the youngest member of the 2015 Da Poetry Lounge Slam team and competed at Nationals in Oakland. She has been featured on Underground Youth, Urban Outfitters, InStyle Magazine, Afropunk, NotMad, and more.

The reason KiNG captivates her audience, regardless of whether she is talking to one person or hundreds, is the same trait that informs her poems: authenticity. In an age where individuals are using social media more and more as a PR tool to evoke envy or approval from others, authenticity is harder to come by. After all, how many of us can really claim that Facebook shows us as we are? Most of us opt to show ourselves on an amazing vacation rather than headfirst in a pint of chocolate Häagen-Dazs ice cream after a bad day. I’m definitely guilty of that. But KiNG tries to channel every facet of herself in all mediums, from her performances to her social media accounts, and is open about her struggles as well as her successes. She posts everything from information on her upcoming performances, to her battles with depression and addiction, to her experiences with racism and sexism as a biracial genderqueer woman. 

And it’s no easy feat to have an opinion online, especially when you’re part of a historically (and presently) targeted community. The show of confidence alone in sharing a selfie can incite people to violent words. KiNG speaks of this when she performs her poem, “Instagram,” in which she shares the story of how a man called her a “horse,” “a half-nigger,” and a “Black bitch who should shut up before someone makes you.” Of course, she had a beautiful response to those remarks:

“My friends say, this is what it means to have a platform to speak on and everyone waiting to listen // I say, no…this is what it means to have a platform to speak on and everyone is waiting to push you off. Last week, I posted a selfie and became a wicked thing // a sorceress of temptation causing every man to lose his common sense…as if a photo of my body is a portrait of consent….when I check them, they act as if none of this is face-to-face, then nothing is ever too invasive but rather me overreacting, and I am always overreacting.”

Image Courtesy of T&W Photo (2015)
Image Courtesy of T&W Photo (2015)

Her spoken word performances are stunning and raw because her art is a way to mediate her experiences. Even from the beginning, spoken word gave her the means to heal and express herself after trauma:

I went to New York – a secret trip, kind of a “fuck you” to my family because they didn’t know it. I was dating this guy at the time and we got into a fight one night. I went out and then was sexually assaulted – I didn’t really talk to the guy I was dating because I felt like I “cheated” even though I didn’t, and it was weird because it started out consensual – I was making out with that guy, but I didn’t intend for it to turn into that. I was trying to rationalize the violence that happened to me when my guy friends figured that a way to cheer me up would be to take me out to dinner. They were like, “We’re gonna take you out to CUPSI,” which is the College Poetry Slam Invitational. I just remember being really mesmerized by everybody on stage, especially by the Black women. I came home and decided, “I want to do this.” So I wrote my first poem about my experience being sexually assaulted. Then I just Googled poetry in Los Angeles, then Da Poetry Lounge came up, so I went one Tuesday night – it was a really intimate group of people, I did my poem from memory. It was very healing, the hosts really liked me, thought that I had some potential and said, “Hey, why don’t you come back?”  So I just started coming every Tuesday; I started getting a lot better. I think that was when I started gaining respect in the community because originally I was, came in as “the baby”. I was the youngest by a few years. But I gained a lot of mentors the more I got involved, and I started improving even more, then started slamming on a whim.

When you talk to KiNG, it’s clear that her experiences play as big a role in her art as her mentors do in her development. In some of her art, she talks about what it’s like to be a biracial woman in a world that categorizes individuals by the color of their skin. One of KiNG’s most insightful points during our interview came when I asked her why she identifies more with her black culture than her white culture.

I grew up with a black mom and a white dad, and I think what race each parent is plays a very big role. I think that a biracial kid tends to identify with the similar-gendered/sex parent.  My mom was the black one, and she was very much this “cool” black matriarch mom, where she was in charge. She was in charge of the bills, my education, what our family did as a whole, my dad would just cosign in, like, “I guess we’re doing this.” So growing up with that while my white family was in Germany, I didn’t get to see them as much as my black family. The elderly people I was surrounded by were elderly black people; needless to say, I grew up predominantly around black people.

The flip side of that, though, is that I went to a predominantly white school. It wasn’t until I went to Marymount, where race started really being a “thing,” where I realized, “Oh, people are going to treat me differently because of this.” I just remember people assuming I was fully black because of my brown skin and my curly hair, people overlooking my last name and the fact I have really Aryan features. I just started finding it easier to say I was black. I felt like my white father didn’t really understand the plight of being brown. He’s just a straight white man in America – he doesn’t/he won’t ever understand it. And he didn’t. I think that is something where biracial parenting needs to go eventually, where each parent needs to do their part. I think I was born in the early spectrum of biracial kids being popular demographic, so people didn’t really know what to do with me. My parents tried to do the whole: “ You’re mixed, we’re going to treat you like that.”

But then they didn’t prepare me for a world where people are not going to see that. I came to understand that to an average person, they wouldn’t acknowledge my last name being Wagner, or that I’m German, because at the end of the day, I look more black than white, so people are going to treat me like I’m black. I move through the world as a black woman; therefore, I am a black woman. I’m not disregarding the fact I’m white – genetically, yeah, I’m white, but I don’t identify with that culture whatsoever. I just could never relate to the white people I was surrounded by, mostly because they were oblivious to their privilege.

As a racially and culturally mixed individual, I was able to draw on my own experiences when talking to KiNG. I asked her about the bubble dilemma, which any mixed individual faces at one point or another. KiNG, as many of us do, had her own story to share.

My first family conversation about race was about bubbles – I had to pick between white and black bubbles on an aptitude test since the “other” option had yet to be created. I was 7 in the back of the car and I randomly brought it up, and my parents were like, “Well, which one did you choose?” I said, “Black.” And my mom, being really outspoken, replied, “Good. As long as you have a drop of black, you’re a nigger to everybody.” And that was my first time where I realized, “Oh, I have to choose. I’m going to have to choose.” It was also the first time my parents realized they had to be on the same page when it came to parenting me. My father was really quiet the rest of the car ride, and my mom came to me the next day to say, “If you identify as white, that’s okay, too.” My dad had been really hurt that my mom had been so willing to shut that side of me out, neglecting to acknowledge my father, and his heritage is a part of me, too.

I admire KiNG in part because even though she identifies with black culture, she still talks about what it’s like to be biracial. Our community is so often erased in the media that it’s difficult to find multiracial role models. When public figures are multiracial, they’re often presented as monoracial. For example, people see Obama as black, not mixed. This lack of accurate presentation can have pretty detrimental consequences.

KiNG is interesting not only as an individual, but also as an artist. When I asked her about her writing process, she responded,

I think a big part is not forcing it. It’s still about the catharsis for me. It’s not about catering to what other people want. There’s no standard writing process for me. It’s more like, “Live and the poems will come after.” When I was writing for slam, I used to think about the audience and what they wanted, and I didn’t feel happy. Now, I write whatever I want. I do tend to be inspired from music and how it makes me feel. But now it’s pretty much anything. I used to write nearly every day, just because that’s what I wanted to do, but now sometimes I’ll write every two weeks and I’m learning to be okay with that.

KiNG explained to me that she really tries to find a balance between expressing her emotions honestly, talking about her own experiences, and making people think about controversial issues like race, gender, sexual orientation, addiction, and mental illness by creating a space that is not so uncomfortable that they raise their defenses.

I think just being an artist, you’re hypersensitive to the world, and you have to be in order to see what’s fucked up in the world, either to make light of it or try to make other people understand it. People think they know you because you went on a stage for three minutes and shared something really personal, and I’m like, “I let you in on a teaser of my life.” I do appreciate that kinship, but I think people romanticize a tortured artist and I realized, “How do I be a happy poet?” I think being mentally ill and experiencing addiction is the area that I face the most stigma, that and race. I had a lot of problems because of mental illness, granted at the time I did some terrible things, but people take it as this intentional, think it’s a malicious thing you’re doing, not you’re showing the symptoms of a serious disorder. And it’s because, I don’t have a broken arm, I’m not showing these physical symptoms, it’s in the mind. Mental illness is virtually an invisible illness so it’s hard for people to have sympathy for it. Ruby Wax has a brilliant TED Talk where she’s asks, “Why is the brain the only organ that can’t get any sympathy, whereas any other limb can?” For me as a poet, I really try to de-stigmatize mental illness, talk about rape culture, talk about everything that makes people uncomfortable in a way that makes the people who would be the most uncomfortable willing to listen.

KiNG has shows in LA throughout November and December and will have a book out by the end of 2016 called From the Belly of the Beast. She’s starting her own management agency, King’s Court Management, dedicated solely to those whose background is in performance poetry to establish uniformity in how poets conduct business. KiNG is also part of a duo, KiNG Black, that is releasing a mixtape called Coup De Gras. Make sure to look out for a surprise that KiNG’s going to drop in the next couple weeks, and follow her on Instagram @King.Among.Men

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