Interview with KOKUMO, Chicago Trans* Activist and Founder of KOKUMOMEDIA

by: Nico Lang

Photo credit: Kiam Marcelo Junio

Nico: So, first tell me about yourself, where you come from, any pertinent information you want the world to know?

KOKUMO: Most definitely. Hello, my name is KOKUMO (pronounced “koh-koo-mah”). I gave myself that name, because KOKUMO is Yoruba, a West African Dialect, for “This woman will not die.” The reason I named myself that is because, unfortunately, that’s what typically happens to women like myself. We are basically murdered, or just subjected to lives of isolation. I’m an artist. I have a multimedia production company called KOKUMOMEDIA, and KOKUMOMEDIA is a company that uses music, film and literature to illuminate to illuminate the experiences of TGI (Trans*, Gender Non-Conforming and Intersex) people of color, specifically trans* women of color. And some of the projects that we going on and we have executed are TGIF (Trans*, Gender Non-Conforming, Intersex Freedom), the world’s first TGI State of the Union address, which was held in Chicago, July 29th in Union Park. It was billed as Trans* Pride, but we realized that that didn’t make sense, that this was something so much more than being Trans* and having pride, this is about making demands and having them heard. Also my album, “I Shall Not Be Denied,” will be out next summer.

N: When you talk about not using the word “pride,” how do you think — that not only Trans*pride but the larger work that you are engaged with — is bigger than that concept? (I know this is something you’ve talked about before.

K: For me, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — and I don’t mean to be disrespectful – but I believe that Prides are superfluous. Because for me, we already are proud. We woke up this morning proud; we stepped out of our house this morning proud, but we don’t always, go around this world powerful, and that’s what I’m here to do. I’m not here let people know I’m proud, I’m her to remind people that I’m powerful. Meaning that when TGIF happens, when my album comes out, when the magazine Drive, that I’m working on — which will be a magazine dedicated to Trans* women of color — when that comes out, it’s all about making sure that people know that we have presence. For me pride, is inherent, but power is something that we have yet to get; specifically Trans* women of color. Because, I always say this, frankly gay men and lesbian women have more power, than anyone else in the spectrum. The work that I do is to shift that paradigm.

N: Why do you think that lack of power exists? Where do you think that come from? Speaking, specifically, as you were, about Trans* women of color.

K: Well, we live in a world that is misogynistic for one, and when you consider trans* women, they are specifically dealing with transmisogyny, so with that being said, the oppression comes from the fact that we are doubly marginalized; meaning we already have to deal with being more feminine beings. Then we have to deal with being trans. And if you are a person of color, you have to deal with that. And if you are a black person you have to deal with that. As the theory goes, the double consciousness, we have to deal with a triple consciousness, or even a quadruple consciousness, and that lack of power comes from that fact that the oppression is so inundating, that we don’t even always have the language to express what we are dealing with.

So, with that being said, we don’t always understand how were being oppressed, what makes you think that people in a dominant society could even fathom it.

That’s the thing about oppression. It’s so systemic and insidious, that it’s are to even acknowledge, let alone rectify. That’s where the lack of power comes from. It’s the fact that people understand being gay, it’s something that’s visible, but being trans is — not new — but it’s considered new. You know what I’m saying. It’s at that point because we don’t have the power, we don’t have the language. We don’t have the people who have the power supporting us or giving us the resources. We don’t have the collective power the gay people have, that white people have, that men have. Therefore, we’re collectively oppressed.

N: And how do you think that you can empower people with that sense of language?

K: I think that language is crucial, because you cannot say” faggot” on television, and that’s by the dime, going back to the earlier question gay men, specifically HIV-positive gay white men, have created a cultural consciousness, a cultural consciousness that says, “Respect us.” And not only have they created a cultural consciousness, they have created power. They have their own organizations, companies and entities that perpetuate their ideologies. And with that being said, they also have sanctions that they use when people disrespect them. You want to call me a faggot? Okay, you’ll be unemployed. You want to call me a faggot? Okay, you’ll be in prison.

But when it comes to down trans* people, the language that is perpetuated about us — often by gay men, specifically gay white men — is never rectified. You see what I’m saying, and that’s because, once again, we don’t have the power. That’s why I always say “In due time…” because what language does is it empowers you. When you are referred to as a woman, and you are a trans* woman, that lets you know you are gaining your place in society.
Simply put, so many of us, are forced to engage in the sex trade because of the language, because of the language that creates thoughts, and thoughts create actions and actions create oppression.

N: Do you feel that oppression in your own community? Where do you see it? You talked about it organizationally, but how do you feel it and how do you see it and how do you see it in your own life?

K: I see the oppression, first, from trans* women being at the bottom rung of society. And that’s not to compare, but that’s to be declarative. I see trans* women, specifically black trans* youth of color, forced into the sex trade and the street economy, uneducated, unemployed, no healthcare, no housing. I see that, and when trans* women like myself who aren’t necessary actively engaged in those institutions, when we appear, we are met with hostility. And that’s, simply, a matter of horizontalism — which is basically, we’re both oppressed but you have a privilege I don’t have, you have resources I don’t have, so instead of me holding the overall system accountable, I’m going to hold you accountable. And that’s something I feel so much in my community, this sense of other trans* women being hesitant to deal with me, because they are so used to being oppressed, that they don’t even know how to love. Even when it’s their own people.

Also, quite frankly, I feel a lot of disrespect from gay men, specifically gay white men, and in all honesty, gay black men who dream of having the privilege and the power of gay white men. So, it’s this multi-tiered level of oppression, and it expresses itself in the fact that trans* women are among the highest rates of HIV positive people; and it’s a matter, in so many ways, of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, for so long we are told that we’re men, that we’re worthless, that we’re freaks, that we’re sinners, that we’re going to hell, so when all of that’s told to you, why would you try and do anything different? It’s not only being told to you; it’s your reality.

N: As somebody who has their own media company, why do you think that engaging through a media lens is so important?

K: Thank you so much for that question. The reason I believe that art is a weapon, is that propaganda is a form of art. To be abstract about it, as an artist, anything can be art. Art informs society, art creates consensus. Look at hip-hop, look at its impact. The fact that just a few people started off by speaking their piece, about how they felt that violence was the answer, misogyny was the answer, and now the world listens.

With that being said, growing up, an African-American trans* woman, child rather, I remember my first recollections, or depictions, of trans* women were on Maury and Jerry Springer. And that informed me what a trans* woman was and therefore being a trans* woman, I didn’t want to be one, because I didn’t want to be that fool on television. And that’s the power of media. Media controls how people view other people. And when you look at the fact so much of media is controlled by the people in the top tier of society, it proves my point even better. We live in a capitalist society that profits off of people being imprisoned and uneducated, we look at the media, black people — and I never talk about being a trans* woman without talking about being African-American, because for me my identity and my body are the same, one way or another I live this — when the media does nothing but perpetuate images of us as black people and as trans* people, that tells the world that we are criminals and we are sex workers.

I feel that is a cultural genocide; it’s a cultural genocide in the fact that you convincing this generation of youth growing up, this generation of black youth, this generation of LGBT youth, and now this generation of Trans* youth, to believe that they are worthless. That’s why I started KOKUMOMEDIA, which is my first name. That’s for when I die I am telling people you have a legacy. I create art, I create films, music, and a magazine and I’m working on a creating a school called the Lois Bates Arts and Sciences Academy in Chicago — with a business partner, Shannon Chrystala. I believe we have to speak life into our youth, and our contemporaries. And we have to show them, though media, that you are not only worthy, but you are necessary. That’s not the consensus right about now.

N: Do you feel like your project, KOKUMOMEDIA, is working on that yet? How do you think it inspires that change?

K: I feel that the way that KOKUMOMEDIA is creating change by, the fact that it’s not a just project, it’s a company. And I am a black woman, I am a trans* woman and I’m only 24, and I am a survivor of incest and poverty. I am creating the company that shifts the paradigm that says “This is the status quo.” In the name of Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry and Jay-Z and people who come from similar experiences as myself, we shift the paradigm by being the example.

N: How do you think that other people in the community, people who don’t have your experience and are not as articulate as you are, but still want to make a different and want to help you shift that paradigm, or shift that paradigm in their own lives? How can they do that? How can people on the ground be engaged in this kind of work?

K: They can be supportive of the people doing the work. I think it important that we all remember the was all have our own capacity. It’s not in everybody to be the type of person that I am, so we all must realize what our goal is, and we must achieve it. Most definitely support those people who do the work. I can be contacted, I do this, and sometimes I get tired, because I feel like I’m the only one doing this. And I’m not. But the thing is that’s why we must create coalitions, it goes back to the media presence, and the power that gay men have, and the power that heterosexual society has, that white people have. It’s a matter of us coming together, and coming up with a shared goal. If not a shared goal just to support each other in what we are going. Coalition building, that’s what it’s about.

N: Do you think the gay and queer communities are doing enough right now to really come together?

K: Quite frankly, all I really see, media wise, are the struggles of gay white men. Marriage equality, I don’t really think that that’s something the majority of the black queer community is supporting. Of course we want it, but we also want jobs. We also want affordable housing. We also want education. We also want healthcare. We also want to live in communities that aren’t poverty ridden, or dilapidated. I feel like the queer community is fractioned, meaning that there is a queer community of color, and there’s a community of white, predominate, gay male culture. And the struggles of the people of color are taboo. And that’s not just for queer people, that’s to people in general. It’s always easy to vilify us, but it’s not easy to empathize with us. I feel like, when I think about the issues that are ravaging the queer community, particularly my community, the black trans* feminine community, of course these issues are addressed. We’re still dying from HIV, we’re still having resources divested from our programs and given to gay men.

It’s interesting. I remember the other day, looking in a HIV magazine and there’s this ad for people who have HIV who are dealing with fat, because clearly one of the byproducts of taking a specific HIV medication is concentrated belly fat, and they were talking about how you can get this surgery or you can take this pill to deal with that fat, and that shows me clearly, that there is a lack of prioritization. The black Trans* women I know, and the black Trans* women that I work with, are being murdered. Paige Clay, was killed, on the stroll, nothing happened. A gay white man, on Fire Island, is HIV positive his medication is taken care of, his housing is taken care of, he’s not worried about anything other than losing belly fat.

Clearly, the queer community is not one. I don’t like to romanticize that we are all queer because, you know, were also black, we’re also women, we’re also all different sizes, different complexions, we’re also different statuses, were also different incomes. So I don’t believe that us all being queer means anything, because if that means something, people all being in the same community, it would really be utopia. That’s really not the case in many communities of color and poverty ridden communities.

N: What do you think it will take to see the issues of Trans* women of color, that they face, that you talked about — affordable housing, HIV rates — what do you will think it take to see those issues addressed?

K: I think what needs to be done, is slowly but surely happening, with the ascension of Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Danielle King, Monica Roberts, myself, Valerie Spencer, and so many other black trans* women, in feel like we will, in the impending decade get more resources, but that will only be because we lobbied for them, and will be the ones able to provide those resources. I always say that my oppressor can never be my savior, and that’s not what I’m recommending. I don’t want, quite frankly, gay white men to come and give me my dreams, it’s my job to make them come true. But I do want everyone to be accountable of the privileges they have.

N: What do you feel like your privileges are?

K: I am an able bodied person. I’m educated. I’m stably housed. I have steady access to hormones, and I have a relatively functional relationship with my parents; if that’s a privilege. And the list goes on. And with all of my privileges, I make sure to always give back whatever I take.

N: And why do you feel that it’s so important that people of relative privilege work to spread those to people who don’t have them? Do you think we do a good enough job of that as is?

K: Chicago House, and organization in Chicago, is the first organization in the world to create a house specifically for trans* feminine individuals. Until we have one of those, in every city, town and state, and country, I don’t think we’re doing enough.

N: What are other organizations that you think are doing the work that you would like to see?

K: Affinity Community Services, a beautiful organization in Chicago, that I had the pleasure of working with for a year, I had an internship with them. They’re doing great work, and the beautiful thing is, in lieu of having your privilege, acknowledge it. Not only acknowledge it but admit when you need help. Because the thing about privilege is that it’s given to people, and when something is given to you, you don’t always understand it. So, when people hold you accountable, and try to have these hard discussions about what your privilege is, be able to be approached. I feel like Affinity is doing that work, and that the Broadway Youth Center is doing that work. I feel like YWEP (Young Women’s Empowerment Project) is doing that work, and I feel like the Southwest Youth Collaborative is doing that work, that C2 — Center for Change — and the list goes on and on; I feel like the work is being done but also long the people who are being impacted aren’t at the helm of the work, it’s for naught.

N: What do you feel like the next steps are, in you work and in the community as a whole, to get the changes that we need?

K: For me, the next step is making sure the Lois Bates Arts and Science Academy happens within the next 5 years, for the change is making sure that I get my MFA in Screenwriting and Film, which I am going back to school for next Fall. I have ideas and concepts for films, and they need to come true — because it’s high time that we see, not just positive, but realistic and robust depictions of trans* people of color. For me, the change is making sure that I use my privilege, as a stably housed and employed person to help other trans* people to do what I am doing.

N: Touching on the other part of the question, as far as the community as a whole, what do you feel the next steps are?

K: The next steps are to just keep building. It will get to that point where the trans* community will be so full of people that have resources, and what will probably happen is that those people won’t necessarily turn back around; and so I feel like, as we grow, we’ve got to keep building. Building a media presence, our own institutions, for us, run by us. Mainly those two things. Those are the two most pertinent things.

N: Where do you see trans* women, specifically of color, in the media and where do you want to see them in 5 years, from your work, from other people’s work, where do you hope to see that go?

K: I want the media depiction of trans* people to move beyond whether or not we had a surgery, or what was our name before we transitioned, or whether or not were passive or active; I want it to be about who we are as people.

Note: This interview is a preview for “The Q List,” a new interview series profiling queer artists in Chicago. 

Nico Lang is the Co-Creator and Co-Editor of In Our Words and a graduate student in DePaul University’s Media & Cinema Studies program. Lang is a Change Coordinator for LGBT Change, the Co-Founder of Chicago’s Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and a columnist for HEAVEMedia. At HEAVE, Nico writes a column on film called Found Footage and talks about nerd stuff on a weekly podcast called Pod People. Elsewhere in podcasting, Lang hosts Broad Shoulders, a monthly podcast for Chicago’s Live Lit community. Nico is also a contributor at Thought Catalog and the Huffington Post and has been featured in the Washington PostChicago TribuneLA Times, The New Gay, The Guardian and on their mother’s refrigerator. Follow Nico on Twitter @Nico_Lang or on the Facebook.

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