Nico: So, first tell me about yourself, where you come from, any pertinent information you want the world to know.
KOKUMO: 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 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 have 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.
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?
K: 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 to 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 comes 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.
That's the thing about oppression. It's so systemic and insidious, that it's hard 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 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.
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 how the media portrays 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 -- it 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 are 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.
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.
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, I feel like we will, in the impending decade, get more resources. But that will only be because we lobbied for them, and we'll 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 for the privileges they have.
N: Where do you want to see trans* women, specifically of color, in five years, from your work and from other people's work?
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. You can check it out every week at The Windy City Times.