the powerful young poet harnessing words for a revolution
KiNG, featured in the Gurls Talk film series, speaks on Beyonce, why her art has to be political and what liberation really means.
i-D first met KiNG through the Gurls Talk film series, for which she delivered her potent words with Unapologetically Slaying - A Response Poem to Beyonce's Lemonade. In celebration of International Women's Day, we're sharing her incisive incantation in its full glory. We spoke to the poet and activist about facing the contradictions in an idol, how art functions as a tool for dismantling oppression and how poetry helped her to heal from sexual violence.
When did you start writing poetry and what caused you to get into it?
I started writing poetry when I was 19 years old. I was taking a semester off from NYU at the time but went to go visit friends. I went to a party on that same trip, became extremely drunk, and was sexually assaulted. I was in shock and disbelief. In an attempt to make myself feel better, my three best guy friends wound up taking me to a poetry slam up at Barnard the next day. I was really against it at first because I hated poetry in high school and thought it was going to be boring. But we went anyways and I remember being in complete awe — particularly in awe of the Black women on stage who had such a presence and who were owning their story, all the trauma and joy in one, and saying, "You're going to listen to me here." I remember thinking to myself that night, "I want to be like that." I went back home to Los Angeles and wrote my first poem, which was a way for me to reconcile my sexual assault and the pervasive nature of rape culture blocking my healing. I found Da Poetry Lounge, started performing there every week, Shihan Van Clief as well as Kat Magill took me under their wings, and it was a wrap from there — I almost don't remember my life without poetry.
You've written a few poems in response to Beyonce, what does she mean to you?
Beyonce was the first Black woman I saw in popular media owning her sexual agency. In a world where white women are deified and glorified for their sexuality and Black women are constantly ridiculed or reduced to animals, Beyonce was the first woman where I was like, "Gah damn she's doing the damn thing." She inspired me from a young age, the first song I ever danced to in public was Check On It, and I remember it being a pivotal moment for my 12-year-old self - where my sexuality was just for me in that moment. As I've grown older, I mean Lemonade was a huge source of healing and inspiration, but I have also been able to critique her. She has many contradictions, like many "socially conscious" corporate artists do, and I choose to explore those. Just because I highlight things like her reducing Black Power ideology to mere iconography with avant garde Black Panthers costumes, yet she's a mega capitalist, doesn't mean I hate her or Black women all of the sudden, it means I choose to challenge what we are blindly accepting and consuming. Does that mean I won't fangirl over her next album? Absolutely not; because I accept those contradictions within myself too.
How important is artistic practice as a tool for resisting oppression, for challenging patriarchy and racism?
Beyond just expression, art has allowed me to understand oppression, but also what I would want liberation to look like and how to speak on that. I believe art is incredibly necessary in movements because what I have found is that many people who follow me became intrigued by radical politics through my poetry and music. I also see art as a means of making really difficult concepts easily accessible to the greater public - for instance, I remember in high school I learned the bones of the body through making simple songs, well imagine making a song breaking down dialectical materialism or class struggle over a trap beat. That being said, I will stress art is a tool within the toolbox, not the entire means of resistance.
Should art always be political?
I'm a Black, non-binary, queer, feminine assigned, radical community organiser in America - if art is supposed to be a constant reflection of my life and surroundings, then yes. Politics always affects my life and the lives of everyone in the Black community. It doesn't exist in some vacuum for us, we are not privileged enough to just have moments where we choose to be political - we exist, we write, therefore it is. I don't believe we necessarily have a choice in it. And even with artists like Migos and Desiigner who write, what some would call "mindless" music, we must acknowledge there are inherent political consequences they may or may not have intended for. So the only real choice we have, as Black artists, is if our message is revolutionary or reactionary.
Can you tell me about making Baptism, and do you have plans to create another album?
I made Baptism after Lemonade came out. It was sort of a bucket list item to record a poetry album but I was unsure of how it'd be received; then I heard Beyonce reciting Warsan Shire's poetry and I was like, "Aite, bet this door has been kicked down fully." But yeah, I mean, Baptism was a very organic process; I composed the piano arrangements, wrote the lyrics, a friend of mine improvised melodies on the violin, my old bandmate sang on the tracks. The creation of the album allowed me to push my boundaries creatively. But yeah, as of now, I want to make another album especially because every year I completely change as an artist, but I have no formal plans; all I do know is that if I make another album I will only do it if a woman of colour produces it.
What are the books that mean the most to you? How did they change you?
Black Power by Kwame Ture was the first book that allowed me to understand concretely how reform can never fundamentally change our oppression and for Black people to really have freedom, national self-determination is necessary. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center by bell hooks allowed me to fully grasp the importance of true intersectionality, the danger of white feminism, the necessity of class analysis because that is something that people don't talk about enough, yet it's one of the most tangible forms of oppression, but also how patriarchy is tied to white supremacist capitalism. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney helped me understand the material impacts of capitalist imperialism.
What does International Women's Day - and feminism, for that matter - mean you in 2017, as young woman of colour living in a country in which Donald Trump is president?
Feminism is the negation of patriarchy meaning at its core it's not reproducing the same power structures of patriarchy just with a woman's face. It's about destroying these problematic power dynamics and relationships in general. Feminism is also not an isolated movement because the experience of womanhood is not isolated, especially for women of colour throughout the global south and in poor, exploited communities. Basically, I say all that to say, we cannot advocate for feminism but also not advocate for anyone who is oppressed by cisgendered, heteronormative, white supremacist capitalism and imperialism.
What difference, if any, would there have been for you if Bernie or Hillary had been elected? Did you feel at all represented in the election?
I don't think there would have been any fundamental difference. Cult of personality makes it impossible for many people to have honest conversations about our previous presidents but also presidential candidates. Bernie Sanders is a Social Democrat and much of his policy was centred around middle class interests, which makes him incredibly different than the socialist and anti-capitalist left, who centre the issues of working class and underclass folks. I mean when it comes to foreign affairs he is very much an Obama centrist, the same imperialist agenda that went unchecked under the Obama administration would've continued under him. With Hillary, she is the definition of neoliberal white feminism. At the end of the day, she does not care about POC, her comments have shown that (except when she needs our vote), and frankly her whole political career record proves that as well. That's the issue with our two party system, Democrats and Republicans at the end of the day have the same interest of protecting a capitalist imperialist regime. I have never felt represented in an election because I don't care who is the puppet of the government, whether it's Obama or Clinton or Sanders or Bush or whoever, the function remains the same, to thrive off the exploitation of Black and Brown people nationally and globally. I mean that's how this country was founded, right?
You've given talks about achieving liberation, about how to create change — how did you get into that, and what do you tell kids about how the liberation of oppressed people can be achieved?
When I do performances at schools, I oftentimes weave it within a workshop to get kids engaging in dialogue. I think it's more impactful to hear students analyse what they just heard as opposed to me "performing at them." To be frank, I don't really tell them anything about how liberation can be achieved, I ask them to tell me. Many of these kids are used to having an adult come in and tell them how think; so I really believe in getting them to answer the question,"`What does freedom look like?" for themselves. And most of the time, they can't answer that question in the immediate moment, which just shows how deep our oppression is rooted that we can't have our own future generations simply imagine the concept of liberation. But at the end of day, the answer always winds up being that some sense of community makes them feel free, so I ask the kids to tell me how we can preserve and grow our communities but also what our movements can do to help them feel safe.
What are you currently working on at the moment? You're studying and involved with a new political movement, the Black Star Liberation Party - can you tell me about that?
Last year I realised that my purpose is rooted in community organising, so if my life doesn't reflect that, if my art doesn't reflect that, if I am not struggling towards freedom, then I am not living my truth. Black Star Liberation Party is an organisation within a larger movement, where I feel as though I can finally fulfil purpose and hence why I have dedicated my life to it. At its core, the Black Star Liberation Party is an organisation of young people who advocate for and struggle towards Black self-determination, feminism and economic equity. Basically, we have to centre the fight against patriarchy, the fight of all African people against global white supremacy, and replace capitalist exploitation with a system in which the means of production is held by the whole society as opposed to select wealthy individuals. We keep all of this in mind when we organise locally so that we can create change globally. We believe the best way to fight against these huge global systems is by addressing our immediate local conditions first by base building. For instance, some of the stuff we have in the works is related to: food justice, political education, gentrification, and building capacity for community self-defence.
Who are the women that give you strength, courage, inspiration?
The women in my family. I believe in every Black person there is a lineage of resistance because that is how we are able to exist here today. My ancestors were Obeah women, they were raped, many were killed, their bodies were pillaged, their self-agency destroyed, and yet they still managed to protect their children, they still managed to find ways in which they could reclaim self-determination, and against all odds they survived so I could be here. My existence is rooted in their fight for freedom and is why I continue to struggle because I want a better world for my children.
Text Clementine de Pressigny