Kemi on healing intergenerational trauma, culture shift work, and how creativity makes them come alive

Kemi Alabi by Ally Almore 8
Photo by Ally Almore

What’s your name and how do you identify yourself in the world?

My name is Kemi Alabi. I am a Black, queer, non-binary femme. Child of immigrants — an immigrant father and a mother with lineage in the south. Leo sun, Capricorn rising, Scorpio moon.

How are you doing?

I just saw Black Panther twice within the last twelve hours. Engaging with cultural products that have a rigorous imagination around Black communities thriving is incredibly refreshing. As someone with a Nigerian father and Black American mother, it’s invigorating to engage with something looking at the continent from outside of the colonial gaze — not that that hasn’t had its influence on the film or how it was made. It’s radical to imagine that future and to have it so widely distributed. It’s been an exciting weekend to engage with other Black folks around this imaginative opportunity for us. I’m buzzing from that. The theater was full of Black people who were just living — all dressed up, and the way we’re engaged with these powerful moments felt liberatory. I’m excited for what we can imagine next — healthy, thriving Black communities that exist without centering whiteness or the anti-Black narratives that have been the through line that gets created and distributed in this county.

That’s so good. I first met you seeing you perform your poetry in college. Do you still spend time on poetry?

Yeah, that’s still a huge part of my life. I value cultural space as a place where communities build narrative power for themselves. Culture and politics are so inextricably linked. I’ve been writing beyond college and that’s been really gratifying. I also work for Forward Together. We hold cultural and movement building strategies, and grassroots power-building strategies. Recently I got to work with poets for our Trans Day of Resilience project where we paired poets with a visual artist and together they imagined a future where trans folks of color could thrive. To cultivate imagination is already a radical act, but to be able to have the resources to be able to distribute it as a cultural process that other people are engaging with is something I’m really grateful to be involved with.

I also manage Echoing Ida, a program for Black women and non-binary writers which engages us in the narrative power of journalism like op-eds, reported features, and interviews. Narrative and culture shift is interwoven in my everyday, whether it’s facilitating it through my professional work or doing it myself as a writer.

I’d love to hear you talk more about why that’s where you’ve chosen to put your energy. What is powerful about culture shift work for you and for a broader ‘us’?

We live in a world with material consequences and material inequality. When I was coming up, I thought that to engage with that work was purely about building a very particular type of power to move institutional levers. But especially as someone socialized as a Black girl growing up in Wisconsin with an immigrant father, there’s also a truth to what it means to unlearn these hegemonic ideals that actually create our political space. There’s a clear interplay between our political systems and our cultural ideas. I studied political science and philosophy, and one of the main things I learned is — basically a bunch of white dudes got to write whole worlds into being. They created arguments that justified them and planted seeds of ideas that were taken as truths and built empires. I really believe in the power of ideas. Race, gender, and nation-states are upheld by ideas that are like the air we breathe. So what does it mean to try to re-program what people think is common sense? Where I grew up, trying to untangle what is common sense is not a matter of voter registration and winning an election, it’s a matter of changing the cultural products people are engaging with in the day-to-day. What type of narratives are taught in our schools, what type of narratives are in popular culture? That’s where we get these formative ideas.

There’s this quote at [our alma mater] Boston University’s Howard Thurman Center: “Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” I’m not an organizer. I have always loved words and writing. I come alive when I’m interacting with narratives, stories, and creative space. Culture shift work is where I get the juice. It’s perhaps less valued as a site for justice work to happen, and seen as less tangible than our political institutions. But once we name what the dominant narratives are, we can then do the work of changing them.

Kemi Alabi by Ally Almore 2
Photo by Ally Almore

What do you see as your role and work in this political moment?

I ask this question of myself a lot, because who knows. Sometimes I feel like I don’t have the skills I need to make change. I consider myself in the role of student and listener, and trying to figure out what it means to be in community and engage in cultural work. I am in a reflective place with my writing. My role is someone who’s trying to imagine freedom, and use my tools and facilitation skills to get other people to think about and answer that question. I find myself in community with other Black queer artists and writers grappling with the question of what it means to heal ourselves and our communities, and thinking about how to engage with that in our work and create space for one another.

People always talk about self-care and healing as if it’s a side project from the real work. What’s your perspective on how healing fits into movement work?

When I first tried to engage in organizing spaces, I was coming with so much trauma. We’re all working through our traumas. Doing so in interdependent community requires that we show up in a different way. The healing work that I’ve begun I’ve learned from other Black women and femmes I’ve been in movement spaces with. As I was trying to engage with this political work that’s deeply personal, there was no other option. It was like, engage with the hard-as-fuck work of healing… or collapse, and don’t do the work at all.

We as Black queer and trans folks are carrying intergenerational trauma in our bodies and within our families. The work of imagining something else is deeply challenging. I see healing as the gateway. I see it as a facilitative process to be able to engage with our deeply fucked political system in a sustainable way without burning out, giving up, and re-traumatizing one another. To be able to be in right relationship with one another well enough to move forward together requires that we handle our shit.

I’d love to hear about some components of your healing process.

I was raised Baptist christian, in a church that was not affirming, grounding, or engaging in the political world with integrity. I left in righteous anger, but in a way that also estranged me from my own spirit, intuition, and relationship with myself. I’ve been encountering Black folks who engage with more ancestral practices — practices that are less connected with colonization, white supremacy, capitalism, and the enlightenment rational-thought-over-everything-mindset. They’ve introduced me to some altar and ancestor practices that have connected me deeply with my intuition. I have a beautiful hella Black, hella queer tarot deck I pull from — Shrine of the Black Medusa by Casey Rocheteau, a Black queer poet out of Detroit. Whether or not I’m practicing the nuts and bolts of Orishas, Yoruba, and other African spiritual practices, these practices reconnect me with my intuition, my body, and the idea that our emotions are information to be valued and listened to. That has been deeply healing. Spiritual practices that allow me to trust and listen to myself again allow me to better be in community with other people. My practice involves my altar setup, with photos of my family, some artwork, crystals that I engage with, candles, and the deck I mentioned. Because I’m a queerdo, I think about chosen ancestors. As opposed to a blood lineage, I think about lineages of purpose. Whose purposes am I continuing here on this earth and how am I in communication with those folks? I’m a depressed and anxious person. It’s way easier for me to live in this life if I think I’m not figuring this out from scratch, there are so many people who came before me. I’m a continuation of a lineage and a purpose and that’s why I’m here. Every day I ask for an invitation by pulling a card and let it invite a question I can interrogate. Something to guide me through. Meditation has been huge for me. As someone who’s really estranged from my body, the practice of meditating and thinking about my chakras has been wild. In Oakland I started going to East Bay Meditation Center which is a deeply politicized spiritual space. I can’t explain what that space did for me as far as what it healed between my mind and my body and my spirit to be able to engage in a meditation practice.

I noticed you said ‘reconnecting,’ instead of just connecting. What is that in reference to?

It’s in reference to capitalism. We live within a system that relies on estranging our bodies from our minds. Our labor is divorced from ourself because it belongs to someone else. My mom and brothers are still working themselves to death in jobs that aren’t aligned with purpose just to grab some coin and get out of debt. Black folks have no wealth. Blackness was created to exploit the labor of stolen people. The premise of capitalism is estrangement from the self, for the purposes of giving our labor to amass wealth for white people. That estrangement exists in every level of our lives. It exists within the self, within our body, in our minds and spirits. It exists in our relationships with each other and with the earth, because capitalism has informed how we are in relationships of extraction. We’re born into systems that rely on and cultivate that estrangement. I find it necessary to transform those relationships into something that’s more balanced, harmonious, and connected. When I say reconnect, I mean that I believe we’re not creating a brand new future. I think about indigenous peoples and pre-colonized societies. There’s knowledge we have lost rather than knowledge that we’ve never had. These systems are interruptive. The healing we do is a way to return to right relationship as opposed to getting them for the first time. But as someone born into these systems and of my particular background, I cannot exactly know a time when I was connected with my body, intuition, neighbors, or family.

Kemi Alabi by Hewan Aberra.jpg
Photo by Hewan Aberra

What is the world you want to live in?

I think it’s Movement Generation that says the foundation of society is not the individual but the relationship. I think about right relationship a lot. What it really means to be able to name our needs for one another and to meet those needs in community, to really be interdependent with one another. Not extracting from one another but figuring out what that sustainable relationship is with one another and ourselves, what it means to live and thrive on this earth. People have different answers but I think it’s a matter of developing all the resources that we need to manifest these lives of dignity and purpose. What does it mean to reimagine a city, or any community where what is produced is shared with all its community members? The first step is cultivating imagination and trust. You can’t just dismantle capitalism and expect everyone to know where to go. We’re estranged from what we actually want and need from life and from one another.

I can’t name what the world should look like. But I know that it takes building completely different types of relationships with one another and being able to meet each others’ needs without these hierarchal goal systems that extract whatever skills and labor we have and move it somewhere else. If we had already imagined a system that vibed with everyone, there’d be a train there by now, but that’s part of the problem, right? We’re waging these wars where the opposition already has a very clear image of what they want the world to look like, because it’s what the world looks like now. One of the huge barriers to victory for any type of movement for justice is not being able to present a shared vision of what another world looks like. Right now, people are in deeply imagining spaces so that folks can invite more people in to movement work by presenting real valuable alternatives. It’s in process. I’m excited to see what those are and what they can be.

Our imaginations are battlegrounds. We cede so much imagination to those who keep power from us. If you look at literature of people who have lived under fascism and study how language and certain cultural products are disseminated under particular types of governments, it’s always been very much in the interest of power to control ideas of people. That shit really works. If you can’t imagine it, you can’t fight for it, and you can’t build it. Our imaginations have always been under siege in a very particular way.

I’d love to hear what you see in your life as the supports and resources for you being in this work, and what are the things that feel like barriers or limitations for you to be in this work in a sustainable way?

It’s hard to say everything I’m saying about radical imagination when folks don’t have money. I have a family with debt and histories of incarceration and addiction. I’m in a relative position of access to capital and resources and sometimes think I just gotta hustle to provide for my folks and to be a stabilizing force — you know, participate in capitalism, hoard resources, and be on my Black capitalist tip. There are immediate material needs to be met. The reality, stress, confusion, and deeply depressing parts of that feel like the biggest limiting factor.

Engaging with all of the horrors of this world is really overwhelming. I don’t necessarily have the constitution. I just moved to Chicago, where I’m not really in community with folks in the way I imagine as liberatory. It’s community that I’m working on building and I’m excited to plug in. But to be without a sense of place and interdependence means the work I want to engage with is largely theoretical at this point. But all of the amazing Black writers and artists who I’ve connected with here are engaging with invaluable ideas and narrative shifts. Everyone has been bringing up the idea of darkness. I just met up with a new writer friend of mine, R.L. Watson, who does visual art and writes fiction, poetry, and plays. She’s thinking about the reframe of darkness — away from the binary opposition to white and to light, which serves a clear purpose within our society. So many people are on a similar wavelength creatively. We’re all feeling this juju. Thinking about the visibility of Black poetry and Black art in general over the last few years, I don’t want to jinx it by calling it a renaissance, but we’re in a cultural moment that feels significant. Connecting with people who are exploring similar ideas of Black liberation in their work feels sustaining to me. To be riding similar wavelengths with other Black artists locally and figuring out ways that we can work together and build work off of one another as opposed to working separately feels really sustaining to me. Then through Forward Together to be able to combine culture shift projects with movement building, and bring this narrative and culture shift work to organizations around the country feels powerful. The barriers are trying to hold on to how much I value culture shift work, and being bombarded with the immediate material needs of myself, my family, and the people around me.

I don’t know if you listened to the episode of [adrienne maree brown and Autumn Brown’s podcast] “How to Survive the End of the World,” when one of the sisters describes something as her darkest moment and corrects herself to instead call it her palest moment.

No, I didn’t, that’s amazing!

It’s such a simple reframe, but also very powerful.

The artist I was talking with this morning is R.L. Watson. She’s getting her phD in literature and engaging with the history of lynching and the white imagination of Black people. She’s engaging with old racist texts for her research, and was struck by how horrifically simple the idea of anti-Black racism is. White identity formation is based on the othering and imagined evil of people with dark skin. Distinct European folks created a shared identity that gave them the numbers to have power, which has persisted and is integrated into all of our culture. She was struck. She was like, this is a stupid text, the prose was awful, but it’s a very simple, powerful idea. The systems that are oppressing us are built on these simple but powerful ideas. It can be dumbfounding to figure out how to meaningfully engage in the realm of ideas, but when you get down to it, they’re powerful, small, stupid, simple ideas we’re waging a battle against. I’m excited that some seeds of it, like this idea of darkness, are being turned over. I’m excited to see what other levers can be simultaneously pushed by writers, artists, and cultural makers as we untangle white supremacy together. White supremacy is such a simple, terrible idea.

It’s so interesting to think about something being simultaneously so fragile and simple, and also so insidious and empowered by its proliferation.

Absolutely. I was really empowered by Toni Morrison, who’s a great writer and thinker, published an essay called Mourning for Whiteness. It did a very simple thing for me, but it was huge. It took power away from whiteness by not framing our current political moment as a moment of white empowerment, but as the last throes of empire. More specifically, she was mourning the humanity of white people — seeing this political moment as a clear sign of humanity lost and estranged from an entire people. That idea was to relocate power elsewhere and not in necessarily who is owning and exercising power through political systems, but who is in right relationship with their humanity. This lightning-shocked me. Narrative shifts that resonate with people are important for being able to locate power in oneself and one’s community. Everyone should read that essay.

That perspective is so true, but it takes so much compassion to acknowledge that what’s really under all the violence and oppression of white supremacy is the disconnection and loss of humanity. Of course compassion is not in contradiction to righteous anger, but ultimately it’s gonna be more sustainable, right?

Right, and that’s what I think about — what is sustainable? What is an empowering narrative? I’m all about some righteous anger. But also it’s really important to relocate power in other ways.

Who are the other artists, writers, and works who are inspiring and guiding you right now?

I mentioned my chosen ancestors. I’m also trying to discover who my poetic elders are. I’m in community with so many Black writers and poets; I’m getting so much from so many people. Whether it’s the greats like Toni Morrison and James Baldwin or contemporary poets like Danez Smith, whose latest connection was Don’t Call Us Dead, which was about the idea that the death of murdered Black boys is not a spiritual death — that there is more freedom in death, a life and joy beyond. So transformative. Black artists have engaged with this idea for a long time, even in popular culture. In Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar’s “Never Catch Me”  music video directed by Hiro Murai, we see a funeral for two children. As soon as the song kicks up, the children rise from their caskets and start dancing. No one in the pews notices — they still see dead children — but we as the audience see them dance out of the pews with this ridiculous amount of joy. They leave the funeral parlor, jump into the back of a hearse, and drive the hearse down the street with all of these kids running after it.

For Black Futures Month, Black Lives Matter paired artists with writers to imagine liberated Black futures. We’re in a cultural moment where we’re imagining Black joy and freedom throughout a lot of different disciplines. It’s not new. Black artists have always been doing that interrogation and that reaching beyond. I’m only engaging with work by Black artists because I’m trying to be in that particular space of imagination. I’m very excited to then engage with other writers of color and indigenous writers who are doing that work. But I’m finding it really important for me to locate that within Black folks first.

Is anything else coming up for you in the course of this conversation?

I’m just a person who’s trying to live with integrity and a sense of freedom in a deeply unfree place. I’m so in process, and I’ve been in a space of trying to be deeply compassionate with myself as I figure out how to show up in movement and organizing spaces. Especially as someone who’s just moved to a new city, I find myself in a point of deep transition. I’m like, what work am I doing, what is actually happening? I am just a person who is asking a lot of questions and figuring out how I can best be in service of people around me and of the communities I come from. That service might look different a few months or a year or decades from now, and hopefully it does. As I keep gaining skills and knowledge, and engaging with different people in different communities, I’ll find that I have the skills to fill the different needs that arise. But who knows what I’m doing now. Just trying to figure out how to thrive.

Kemi Alabi is a writer, editor and teaching artist from Wisconsin. Their poetry and essays live in The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic, The Guardian, TEDx, Catapult, Apogee Journal, Winter Tangerine, BOAAT, Nat. Brut and elsewhere. As editorial manager of Forward Together, they hold down Echoing Ida, a home for Black women and nonbinary writers. They’re also a poetry reader for Muzzle Magazine. Kemi lives in Chicago and believes in Black queer futures. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in.

Kemi Alabi by Mika Munoz 2.JPG
Photo by Mika Munoz

Iman on de-coupling work from worth & science as the safest place for 21st century witches

aaron wojack
photo by Aaron Wojack

How do you identify yourself in the world?

I identify as a queer Black woman. I’m a student and an activist. I’m a witch. I’ve recently begun to also claim my identity as an artist.  I’m doing a phD at UC Berkeley, which takes up a fair amount of my time and emotional space.

How are you doing?

I’m in a period of transition. I’m trying to decouple my work from my worth. My job will be ending soon. Now would be the time to start applying for careers because I’m going to have this pretty bomb ass degree. I just don’t wanna work! It’s both anti-capitalism and just plain exhaustion that make me feel this way. Since I was five years old I have been waking up every weekday to report to an institution. I don’t want to show up for these powerful white men anymore, or to allow them to profit off my body and my mind. I’m considering being unemployed for up to a year to figure out what I truly want to do, but that’s obviously risky. I have so many blessings I’m grateful for, but I’m also like… what happens next?

Could you share more about decoupling your work from your worth? How has that been for you logistically and emotionally, and where are you at in that process?

This summer was my Art Summer. Since I’m plan to finish my degree in December, I probably should have been applying for jobs. Most people in my position and field have applied to 50 or 60 positions by now. I applied to three and then I felt done. Considering I have such a strong work ethic, I had to ask myself why I was not trying? Like, “I’m just not giving a fuck, why is that?” A lot of it has to do with the psychic exhaustion of being associated with the university. UC Berkeley is a toxic and violent space right now, with all the white supremacist rallies and neo-nazis on campus. Part of me needs to take space away from Cal — and science — to figure out where my time, energy, love, and labor is best spent.

For years I’ve experience anti-Black racism at the university in subtle ways — the low demographic representation of Black students and faculty and a myriad of micro-aggressions. Now this sentiment has manifested in physical violence. I’m not surprised it’s happening because we’ve had all this shit just underneath the surface, Trump and Milo just made us really have to look at it. So the idea of applying for a job to be a professor at a university — I’m like, fuck that, why would I wanna stay in this war zone forever? That’s a hard realization after spending 12 years trying to attain this degree. Now that I’m finally close to having my dissertation completed I realize I don’t really want it. But I’m not going to quit because I’m too deep into it.

What is the degree or field you’re in?

I’m doing a phD in microbiology. 

It seems intense to be intimately familiar with these systems and working under white-male-dominated institutions for so long. I can imagine why you’d want to be bursting out of that.

I’m skilled and qualified so I’m good at these jobs but I’m not invested in them. At some point it’s like, who am I doing this for? I want to take time to find out what I want to do for myself and my community. That’s the decoupling I mentioned earlier. I feel like I can do this best through travel, but that’s also escapism. I wanted to move to Paris, but then Trump got elected and I felt I had to stay here and fight.

Where are you at with the question of figuring out what you want to do for yourself and for the world?

I’m pretty sure about how I want to contribute; I don’t know how to pay my bills while doing that. I know I want to be employed by the resistance, but who funds an insurgent revolution?

17264879_10154222680016035_6969942839344591044_nMy main focus is environmental justice. I study microbial ecology and work in public housing. I compare microbes and toxic mold in market rate housing and federally subsidized housing. My data shows what people have been saying for decades —if you’re black, brown, low-income, or an immigrant, you’re gonna be exposed to more toxic molds. That’s a basic environmental justice issue but now we have the data to prove it. That’s the work I want to do for the rest of my life. How do we protect marginalized communities from environmental pollutants, from climate change, from oppression and exploitation of resources? How can we use science to protect our communities, keep us safe and healthy, and use law to hold polluters accountable?

I have a dream of starting a Queer Radical Science Institute (qRSI). I spent my most memorable summers at biological stations, which are basically summer camps for adults. There are these forested plots you can go to to conduct long term ecological research. They are so fun and nerdy, and I acknowledge I’ve been blessed at spaces like those where I’ve met other enthusiastic natural historians, but when I look back I realize they are implicitly white spaces. This is largely due of the push-out of People of Color from the community of science. People with any sort of spiritual practice are shunned in these spaces. It selects for a very particular kind of ideology and identity. And It’s a goddamn shame.

I want to create more space, and find new ways to do and teach science through a framework of de-colonizing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). In this new paradigm, what are the questions that we ask, what are the methods that we use? Western modern science operates under a framework of white supremacy and capitalism, which means it is merely a tool of those pre-existent powerful and oppressive structures. At qRSI I want to explore what it would mean to uplift traditional ecological knowledge and indigenous views of the world rather than just the scientific method? If we do that, what are our final products? When do we know when the experiment is done? I want to move away from thinking about publishing papers as the final product. How about a campaign or artwork as the final product? What does it mean to do science that doesn’t end up in these elitist universities or journals? What does it mean to democratize the knowledge? These are all questions and beautiful dreams I don’t yet know how to manifest.

It’s cool to hear you bring up spirituality and art in reference to science because the white mainstream view places them in opposition to one another. You also mentioned coming into your artistry and identifying as an artist and a witch. What do those things look like in your life right now?

brooke anderson
photo by Brooke Anderson

I always say one of the safest places for a 21st century witch is in science because you get to make magic in the laboratory. In the lab you can tinker; you can make things explode, you can transform, and deconstruct. Science is an incredible way to come to know and love The Mother:Nature. But due to patriarchy and misogyny, of course, witches had to go underground for safety. The history of witchcraft is based in resistance. I’ve been fascinated by witchy spaces since I was a kid. When I was maybe 13 I went into a store looking for a book and the shopkeeper called me a green witch. I didn’t know what that meant but now it all makes sense. The way I interact with the earth and nature is witchcraft. It’s voodoo. It’s root work. It’s also called ‘ecology’.

I started to experience activist burnout doing work in the Black Lives Matter movement around 2014. So often I was antagonized by police and felt hopeless. The system is fully inundated with injustice. What is the point of putting one more Black body on the line? It was getting so heavy emotionally. Then one life-changing night, I picked up a textbook from my Alma Mater, Howard University, called Black Magic. The book contains the history of root work and magic in Black America, starting with how slaves conjured against their enslavers. I thought that was so dope that our witchcraft comes from slave rebellion.

I think it’s common for Black folx to have fantasies of being slaves who would run away on the underground railroad, bravely heading North to freedom. But the reality is maybe you might have been a slave who couldn’t run. So what do you do? You hear about some stories of kitchen/Big House slave women who poisoned their masters. Someone’s gonna figure that out and your ass would be whipped or killed. But there other ways to subvert, and conjure and hexing was a part of that tradition.I started to dig into root work and curses against white supremacy to re-activate and reclaim this knowledge in my own activism. It was empowering at the beginning, but over time I started to feel like I was putting too much negative energy into the universe and needed to find a way to balance this with more positive vibes. All the curses we make come back times three, even though I’m responding to a curse that’s been put on me by subjugation. I started thinking about community healing work and how to sustain people in the movement. What kind of herbs can we use as adaptogens? How can we think about ways to heal our communities rather than just hex others? That’s where I feel more comfortable and where I’m at today. I don’t want to put negative out. I want to cultivate positive. I talk a lot about this on the radio show I co-host with a local DJ, Namaste Shawty and MC Queens D. Light on lowergrandradio.com.

Plants help me to find beauty in this fucked up system. They’ve taken a beating from capitalism with deforestation and exploitation of natural resources. Nonetheless the plants are resilient. I started looking at sage and lavender in urban city settings. How can these incredibly medicinal healing plants survive in Oakland and San Francisco? If they can do it, I can do it. These are my allies. Covered in soot but still so lovely. I take a lesson from them.

Is this research you’re doing on your own or in relationship to your school work?

It is in no way related to my school! If I told people at my school they would think I was crazy. I collect medicinal plants on campus sometimes and people always give me the side eye. What I’ve shared with you are lessons and inspiration that sustain me. Now I’m doing [an activist group called] Queer Magic for the Resistance, touching base with other down witches and brujas and showing up for community with healing herbs.

I don’t think I was so cognizant of my body before I started getting into witchcraft. I realized my body is mortal and I’m interacting with forces that intend to take apart my body. The police would gladly kill me, and these racist institutions intend to annihilate me. My material body became more of a focus than my brain, the main thing driving my career up until this point. A lot of work I do with herbs is about healing the body — making bath salts or body butter or teas to soothe the material tissue. Exploring my queer identity has been interesting too, looking at my body and asking what do I like about it? What am I not comfortable with? How does that relate to patriarchy and heteronormativity? That’s all part of the magic!

You’re doing a lot of different kinds of art right now right?

noncommittalMusic, visual art, the Las Brujas Radio podcast, and a videogame. That has been an exploration in play and anti-capitalist views of time. If you’re not working and you’re not making money, then is your time valuable? Capitalism thwarts your creativity because you make it about dollars rather than creation. I have decided that I’m gonna make this collage just because I want to make this collage! I’m not gonna market or sell it. I’m gonna make it because it feels good and I’m entitled to my time and to pleasure. If I want to create, I can. I’m trying to not feel guilty about things I ‘should’ be doing instead.

So first I started playing with collage than I started playing with sound. Now I’m playing with audio collage. I dropped my debut album ‘Noncommital’ on bandcamp at the end of Virgo Season. I started playing in a band. I’m just reclaiming my time. I realized that the days belong to me — not the institution, and definitely not the market.

It’s hard though because like you said earlier, you know what you want to do for yourself and in the world but you don’t know how to pay the rent at the same time. Ideally we’re all trying to reclaim our time, but we also experience barriers to that.

Reclaiming my time is not without recourse. My advisor is my boss, and he’s threatened to stop paying me. I got to a point where I was like, if you’re gonna kick me out, then just go on and kick me out, but until then, this is what I’m gonna do. I’m six years into my PhD now and I’m kinda losing steam for science, but also I’m just interested in lots of other things  and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Sometimes when I’m kicking ass in other projects I’m able to plug back into science and have an awesome productive day. But it’s gonna be a day, it’s not gonna be my week. 

Right, it’s not taking over your life so much.

I gotta find space for me. The institutions erase your individuality. They make you a worker. I came here to be a thinker and to tinker, and to learn about fungi.

Outside of a capitalist framework, can you imagine what would you be doing for yourself and for your community?

By virtue of being human I believe everyone is entitled to food, housing, water, education, healthcare, and a suitable form of labor that makes life sweet. In my dream of the world everyone would have that. There’s a cool way to decouple labor from basic needs being met. Instead of working so much just to have a roof to put over your head and keep the lights on, what if we decided everyone’s entitled to these things just because you need them — what would you do with your time? The world would be so much more beautiful. People would create. People would care. Some people call it universal basic income, some call it socialism or anarchism, I’m also comfortable calling it welfare. There’s so much waste in capitalism. Anyone who qualifies should fucking get their food stamps. This system is providing so much junk we don’t need that’s having this awful environmental impact. Get your shit from the government. The government should care for you simply because you exist. I dream that.

In terms of my economic political standings, I want a big government that cares for all the people. I hate the laissez-faire market. I don’t want free market capitalism to drive any of our policies. I liked the idea of the share economy that tech is creating, minus the tech influence and the fact that the bottom-line is profit. But they’re onto something really — we don’t all need to have a car, you know? We don’t all need to own the land, but we can all utilize it. I love the idea of not exchanging money for services ever again.

What would you do and how would you contribute in this world?

I’d be working in outdoor education, still hanging out with plants and looking at fungi. Biodiversity is so beautiful and I love natural history. I’d probably be a storyteller. I’d tell people about what we’re seeing in our environment and how to engage with it and what other people do with these things. I’d wanna tell the stories of the forest and cultivate spaces where those stories could be told. The ways to tell that story would be numerous. You can paint it, you can sing it, you can have the bonfire, you can lead a mushroom hunt through the pristine woods, or abandoned urban lots.

What do you think is important about telling those stories?

They’re fascinating. It helps you to find your place if you know that the world is much bigger than you. I’m finding it humbling to realize how complex all of these interactions between soil, microbes, climate, weather, water, micronutrients, plants, and animals are. You could spend the rest of your life trying to figure out how this little ecosystem works. I’m just one little player in this beautiful construction. I love that. It means some of these decisions I make and stress over aren’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things.

I also think it’s important to just worship the land that you’re on and acknowledge the space you occupy as sacred. We’d engage a lot differently if we put ourselves in the context of the place and the space and hold ourselves and that space as not distinct from one another, and to acknowledge land as profound and beautiful.

It’s cool to hear you talk about your relationship to nature and science as being humbling. I feel like a lot of what has turned me off from mainstream science is the doctrine, the knowing, the framework that research happens for the purpose of ownership and dominance. It’s cool to hear how you are engaged in science and nature from a totally different perspective and seeking to unravel more mystery and wonder.

Yeah. There were anthropologists in the twenties who explored this demarcation between science, religion, and magic. It was in this ideation that “primitive” cultures have magic and religion basically because they are ignorant, and “civilized” cultures have science, because they understand and dominate their environments. Academics were suggesting that cultures who don’t have an understanding of their environment just ‘leave it up to the elements’ and pray to their gods because they don’t understand, and once you gain some knowledge of the earth you move towards magic so you can manipulate it, and then once you truly know it and demonstrate mastery then a cultures has science. This is obviously whack, because all of these things exist simultaneously and one person or entire cultures can go these different modes of wonder, ignorance, and knowledge every cycle, and/or every single day.

It’s a lot queerer.

Exactly. I want to get to a point where magic is viewed on the same plane as science, and privileged without having to be called “pseudo-science”.

Magic and science aren’t in opposition to each other. I recently learned that avocados change their sex multiple times a day.

So the flowers change or drop? That’s really interesting. That’s a lot of development and the genetics must be really intense and what kind environmental cues trigger those changes… How can we not be humbled and get off this dichotomy, you know? You are either male or female — no, there’s so many options, really. I love the idea of perfect flowers, which in botany is a term used to describe hermaphroditic flowers.

Maybe future check boxes on forms could have us choose between avocados and perfect flowers. It’s wonderful to hear about all the work you’re exploring. What do you need to support you in these processes and helping to create this world?

Instinctively I would say money but I want to move away from that. Part of me feels like a land trust is the move. What would it mean to have a spot where we do this Queer Radical Science Institute and just start by occupying? We just get there and start cultivating the world we want to see. We’ve seen that happen when you think about community gardens in Los Angeles or Detroit. People just took up hoes in urban space and developers come claim it once it’s poppin’.

I’m still figuring my shit out. It’d be cool if people were down to dream with me and offer their time and energy. All I really need is love and community. Money sucks. Capitalism is the reason my family, my ancestors were enslaved. I don’t want that to be what determines whether or not I’m a valuable contribution to society. Fuck the money. Share the love.

Is your goal to transform the institutions, to tear them down, or work completely outside of them?

I have been battling this question for so long. My second and third year at Cal, the only Black woman faculty member in my entire college, Carolyn Finney, was denied tenure. At the time there were only two Black professors, so all of the women of color flock to this one faculty member for mentorship. Because she was overloaded with doing community care work, she wasn’t able to produce as much academic stuff, which is the only thing the university really values. I started wondering, if we get her tenure, if more of us stay, can we shift it? Can we fix it from the inside? Maybe that is possible, but I’m not gonna be the one to do it, because that is not the timescale I wanna work on. Now bricks go through our windows and buildings get set on fire because people are so frustrated with the institution and want to tear it down. I think this absolutely needs to happen, but I don’t want to be the one to do that either. I want to work wholly outside of it. I don’t want to destroy it, I don’t want to sit around inside of it and wait for it to change, I want to do my own thing elsewhere. If folks wanna get down, come holler at me. But I’m not engaging in this shit anymore. I once heard a wise youth say, “everyone is invited to the revolution, but not everyone will come.”

You mentioned love and community as two things that can support you in doing that. Can you tell me what it looks like to show up for each other in community?

Sometimes it’s the simplest things. Sometimes after going to a protest, having a friend who’s cooked you a meal and made you tea and is there to give you a hug is huge. Having a friend go with you to the protest is also amazing. I get a lot of tarot readings from my friends and spend a lot of time in beer gardens debriefing and processing. I spend a lot of time in nature, in the rivers and forests. I go mushroom hunting every weekend. Take a hike and get away. Sometimes you don’t have to go very far. I spend a lot of time in the Piedmont Cemetery. That’s in Oakland, but I’m getting away from the exchange of money and capitalism. I sit with the realities that time is limited. Your life is precious. You only have a couple of years to do whatever it is you’re doing. And then once you’re done with that you’re gonna give all your atoms back to the universe.

Is this conversation bringing up any other thoughts you have about creating the world you want to live in?

We as activists struggle to feel like we’re doing enough. The issues are so vast and so big. It can be disheartening. I’ve seen many people turn away from the movement because sometimes you feel like you’re never gonna win. I’ve grappled with that, but then I think about all the major victories we’ve accomplished in the last couple years. Something I’m proud of is that we got the University of California to divest in for-profit prisons. That’s a big deal. But it’s so easily overshadowed when the same university that divested is giving a “Free Speech Week” platform to white supremacists. You can get so inundated in the everyday struggle, forget how powerful you really are, and question if you’re doing enough. I used to feel like if i don’t go how can I expect anyone else to? This year I’ve gotten better about trusting that if I don’t show up, someone else will. Since the inauguration I think people are getting it. This shit is urgent.

There’s a certain level of privilege that comes from being associated with the university. I’ve been arrested and had my Cal ID on top of my state ID and the cops let me walk away. There are some things I can do other working class folks cannot. I don’t really have to show up at school tomorrow at 8am, I can go to jail tonight. I don’t want to go to jail, but it’s better me — the single student — to go to jail than somebody else who has to feed a child. If I get a job, which is what I’m trying to avoid for the rest of my life, I won’t have this particular freedom. So while I do, it’s critical for me to utilize it. I don’t feel like there’s a whole lot of privileges I have besides maybe my citizenship, my education, and being cisgendered. The few that I have, I’m gonna fucking work ‘em and put them to use.

The revolution will be pleasurable! I have been so blessed by the people in my life, especially the activist community. I have started using the phrase ‘Lover-Homie-Comrade’ just to acknowledge the ways people flow through relationships. Some can be romantic, some can be platonic, sometimes I’ll throw down with you in a protest, maybe we’ll spend the night together in jail. It’s hard work, but these are labors of love. We’re out here waging love y’all.

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You can find Iman’s work all over! Listen to Iman’s album, band, and Las Brujas Radio. Check out Iman’s visual art and support the conceptual demo of her video game. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in