Photo of Nia King by Elliot Owen
Nia King juggles multiple creative endeavors as a zinester, writer, comic-maker, and host of We Want the Airwaves, a podcast that features interviews with political queer artists, trans artists, and artists of color. The Oakland-based King created the show as a way to seek advice on her own lifelong dream of making a living as an artist. The folks she interviews, she writes, “seem to have figured out how to make art and make rent without compromising their values.”
King’s self-published book Queer and Trans Artists of Color: Stories of Some of Our Lives, released last year, brings those interviews to the page with the stories of 15 queer and trans artists of color, among them writer/performer Ryka Aoki; documentarian, social entrepreneur, and Trans*H4CK founder Dr. Kortney Ziegler; body-positive burlesque performer Magnoliah Black; writer Janet Mock; and Bay Area performance group DADDIE$ PLA$TIK. The collection is both history-making and historical, a record of those whose stories too often go untold in this format, in their own words, and framed in a way that emphasizes a community that is not just surviving, but thriving.
The fact that King was able to raise funds to turn this into a tangible book that readers can hold in their hands isn’t a detail to be overlooked. As co-editor Jessica Glennon-Zukoff pointed out to me recently, yes, these stories have been told and these artists’ voices and work are out there, but presenting these conversations together in a book for a broad audience is unique.
King agrees, saying:
“The knowledge being shared in the book isn’t new. Queer and trans people of color have been having these kinds of conversations amongst themselves for a long time. It’s rare that we get to talk to each other in a public forum without being interrupted or having our conversations derailed. In fact, in order for it to happen, the conversations had to take place in private and be made public after the fact. That’s what feels new and important about this book to me: it’s making these private conversations public, allowing a wider audience to bear witness to the brilliance of queer and trans artists of color.”
In the introduction to the book, King writes that she didn’t think it was possible for people to make a living from their art, especially not queer brown people. “[It] seemed hard enough without the additional challenges of racism and homophobia working against you,” she notes. With no mention of bootstraps, King’s interviews shed light on the unique journeys these artists take. Most interesting (and educational) are the parts in which they discuss learning how to negotiate their talents and value their work—something that’s almost never easy.
Eastside San Jose poet Yosimar Reyes came to the realization, after publishing his first chapbook at 19, that he couldn’t afford to keep performing for free: “For me, it’s about respect of the work.… As artists who are community-based, you’re not in it for the money, because you ain’t going to get rich, but you definitely have bills to pay and people to support.” Cartoonist and activist Van Binfa reveals that working retail at Wal-Mart was soul-sucking, but actually better than the “horrible” experience of working at a non-profit, where he never got paid on time and where his time and personal life were never respected.
“When I started out as a little baby activist, I wanted to be everywhere, even if I had to pay to take the train or pay for the gas, because I was dedicated to the cause,” Binfa tells King. “Being in this for years now, I can tell you that unless you’re willing to pay me to speak at your event, I probably won’t be there. If you want my opinion written down, you need to pay me for that, because that’s important. How can you be all for advocating for minorities when you don’t support them financially?”
Any queer or trans person of color who has ever aspired to perform, write, draw, paint, create in whatever form or medium, can tell you that so often it feels as if that work—creative work—wasn’t meant for people like them. The reality is that so much of popular culture has always come from people of color, and queer and trans people of color in particular. To be specific, it has been stolen from them, bastardized, and claimed by white artists found to be more palatable by mainstream audiences. This is not a new phenomenon. Madonna stole voguing from Harlem queens in 1990 and in 2014, Katy Perry admits to jacking the style of trans women on Tumblr while being transphobic on Twitter and in the pages of magazines.
It reminds me of Azealia Banks’ recent radio interview with station Hot 97. Though she didn’t touch on queerness, the 23-year-old become emotional when discussing her issue with Iggy Azalea, saying, “I feel just like in this country whenever it comes to our things – like black issues or black politics or black music or whatever – there’s this undercurrent of kinda like a ‘fuck you.’” The interview was deemed “controversial” by many, with mainstream websites framing it as a catfight between she and white rapper Iggy Azalea. While Banks, an openly bisexual black woman rapper, has missed the mark many times and engaged in transphobia herself, she was spot-on in her Hot 97 interview.
Banks referred to appropriation as “cultural smudging.” While discussing the Grammy Awards nominating Iggy Azalea, awarding Macklemore with record of the year, and Forbes declaring “Hip-Hop Is Run by a White, Blonde, Australian Woman,” Banks said the message being sent was clear: “The message to white kids is, ‘You’re great. You’re amazing. You can do whatever you put your mind to.’ And it says to black kids, ‘You don’t have shit. You don’t own shit, not even the shit you created yourself.’”
This is why books like King’s are so important. She has created a space for queer and trans artists of color to say, “This is my shit.” It is a public record of the most underrepresented voices in the arts world owning their creations in a way that can’t get erased or bulldozed over or dismissed. Not only that, King has enabled them to tell us how they found their way so that others can too.
Extra Credit: Also from the Bay Area, writer and oral historian Juliana Delgado Lopera’s Cuéntamelo! is a bilingual collection of oral histories and illustrations from LGBT immigrant elders.
Tina Vasquez is a writer and editor from the Los Angeles area. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.