Words can destroy. They can wreck. They can stir up anger and incite hatred. Social media has become the groundswell of hate speech and intolerance. Not that shutting down the network would fix the faulty foundations of our pseudo-progressive society, but one can wonder if the world would be – or at least seem like – a better place without it. On the other hand, the words we speak, or messages we share, can inspire and encourage, rebuild confidence and even bring hope. Spoken-word poet, writer, performer, model and trans-visibility activist Kai-Isaiah Jamal uses social media – often exploited as a platform of bigotry – to inspire, by expanding language to put things into words even when “words don’t suffice.” So, let’s not shut the network down just yet.
Interview tak­en from METAL Magazine issue 44. Adapted for the online version. Order your copy here.
Sharing your writing, let alone the process of writing itself, can be daunting, especially in the day and age when “any publication is an act and that act exposes one to the passions of an age that forgives nothing,” as Camus once said. Writing, for Kai-Isaiah Jamal, is the one thing that slows down their head that “goes 1000 miles an hour.” Jamal learnt about romantics such as Keats and Coleridge at school in South London. Later they got introduced to slam poetry, which opened up a world of possibilities: the “idea of narration and storytelling, a kind of activism and all of these other things looped into it.” One day Jamal just wrote for themselves. Now their poetry is read by thousands. 

London’s ICA’s first-ever poet-in-residence, Jamal writes in real time. There is a sort of journalistic quality to their work. It revels in excessive metaphors but at the same time responds to events as they unfold. You’ll Always Be Our Prince, Archie responds to Oprah Winfrey’s explosive interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, for example, while TAKE UR FOOT OFF MY NECK re-evaluates the meaning of the phrase in light of the brutal murder of George Floyd.

Jamal’s poetry unifies reflections on their personal experiences with cultural and political commentary. “It is very important for there to be a message,” they say. Jamal’s words read like letters, and sound like feelings and emotions. But while they are stylised, they are never devoid of a message.

Shortly after their opening performance during digital London Fashion Week, we caught up with Jamal to discuss the importance of access to language, speak about why fashion brands should change from inside out, unpack hatred in all of its ugly forms in the digital era, and talk about Jamal’s upcoming anthology-slash-EP, which they say will be an exploration of love that we may take for granted. That is something we might need now more than ever.
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You opened digital London Fashion Week with a performance piece titled We Applaud Here. What was that experience like?
Kai-Isaiah Jamal: I think it is very important to have a voice in fashion. I think the industry often turns into a space where we think a lot of imagery, trends and visuals. And it was nice to be able to think about the power of words within that industry as well. It was a real honour to be asked to write it and I just thought about the current time. I wanted to be ref lective of the fact that fashion week as we know it is at a standstill now, but also that stillness gives us time to honour the people who the industry supports and platforms; especially during Covid-19 and during a time when trans rights are being heavily weaponised. 
One of the lines read: [We are] “Changing the world one thread at a time.” How can fashion help change the world?
I think fashion, like any kind of culture curation, has to move with time. As we expand and evolve as a race, as a nation, as a community, the fashion industry has to move with that. Maybe that means more genderless or more transgender representation, or different body sizes, as we as a society take away the ideals, restrictions and confines that we have as human beings. I think fashion has to replicate that. I always say that especially for marginalised people or anyone who has some kind of conflict with their body, clothes are so important because they are the things that you put on top of yourself. Sometimes it is almost like a power suit, a super-suit of a superhero. So, I think the more progressive we get as a society, fashion will follow that. But I think we also have to look at it from the flip side and think about us starting and leading conversations, because I think popular culture including fashion has such an impact on society as a whole, so maybe actually if it starts within, it can be reflected outwardly.
Last June you said that you were in a love-hate relationship with your wardrobe. Is this still the case?
Yeah, I feel like it will always be the case. I always look at it as a negative and I am slowly trying to look at it as a positive because I think the tension that I have with my body – the sheer dysphoria/euphoria –, allows me to access my body and my expression of gender through fashion in different ways. There are times where I feel like I have this internal argument with myself and then I can get out of that by creating a character to live in for that day. I very much live in characters for different parts of the day and that obviously depends on what I can pull from my wardrobe.
I have heard you are working on your first anthology of poems. How is that going?
I was working on an anthology. I have been working on it for a while. But this year and Covid-19 made it urgent for me, in wanting to just look at different ways of accessing poetry. So, I am writing an EP at the moment. That is what is going to take my focus, because a lot of people have said that they like listening to me read and I realised that by writing you don’t have control over how things are read and perceived. So there was definitely a shift. I want to expand this medium, so how about we do this anthology as a musical EP instead?
What can you tell us about it?
What can I tell you... I can tell you a little bit about it. It explores love in all of its forms. 2020 was a year where we were all feeling very appreciative but also in need of love and support, tactility and touching, friends and family. It really made me realise what love looks like and what we are told love looks like. I think we are given a very binary, very normative idea of love from a very young age. Society kind of pushes this idea and we forget about all the love we have for other people and other things. For example, I feel like I am going through a break-up with nightclubs right now, because I have not seen or been to one in ages. I think we have to abstract our ideas of love. That is what it is about: the abstraction of love and love that we maybe take for granted.
Language is built around binaries. Often it is the lack of the words to describe an experience or a feeling that causes confusion and misunderstanding that can, in some cases, spur hatred. What are your thoughts about this?
I think sometimes we have too many words and sometimes we have too little words – and some things can just never fit into words. For example, people ask me to describe my gender all the time. They probably mean it in more literal and medical terms, but I just can’t identify with that. I explain my gender in colours, sounds, locations, shapes and music videos. I just think that language is a playground. Language is something that gives us so much freedom and if we restrict ourselves because of language, it feels very counterproductive. We have all of these words and we can make words. No one has regimented and cemented anything. We are just told that. The same thing goes for gender. We are told that we are born with gender and we stay like that. We are told that we will meet someone and get married. We have all of these things that we are told. Pulling apart my gender made me pull apart so many different binaries that I realised lived within me. One thing being wrong and one being right – that’s not a life I want to live. When I think about language, I think about how we can continue to make it expansive. If I want to say that my gender feels like an untied shoelace that’s enough. I don’t need to put another term on top of it. I think you have to read between the lines sometimes and realise that sometimes things are so big that words don’t suffice. 
In one of your poems titled Messy Love Letters, a line goes: “I am not ready to forgive some things that are still asking for forgiveness, though not worthy of it.” Can hatred be forgiven?
That is a hard one. I think there was a point in my life where I would want to forgive people for having some kind of hatred or negative opinion on my identity or my gender or me as a person. Now I don’t care. Now I am a little bit more robust and resilient in my defense. Now I choose to centre only on things and people that make me feel good. A lot of my life I have defended, justified or explained my gender or my identity to different people. But there was a pivotal point when I decided that I could not live defending my gender, defending my identity. I can’t live trying to appeal to somebody else by making myself small. Now I understand that most of the hatred comes from a lack of understanding or internalisation. One or the other. On the phone my friend, a wonderful t-girl, Black trans woman, always says, Kai, everyone wants to be us, we are living proof that you don’t have to play by the rules. Sometimes when people hate us, are violent, act out against us, it is because they are looking at something, and someone, that they were never able to attain. A lot of the time, when I have faced hatred it comes from people who have lived their lives in this binary, this restriction, this mould. Loads of us have come along and said, we don’t want to play by these rules. I think a lot of hatred comes from this idea of, I could not do that, so you can’t do that either. It is so weird. I try to remember that everyone wants to be us. Like an affirmation.
“Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.” This is Toni Morrison’s brilliant quote that you have shared recently. Is thin hatred still hatred?
I think thin hatred is still hatred. But I would hope that thin hatred comes from the place of care but a lack of understanding. Whereas I think that sometimes hatred comes from actively wanting to do something that will harm or upset or be at the detriment of somebody else. If we think about thin hatred maybe that is a metaphor for the microaggressions that we live with; the things that we have to start changing but are almost built into the foundation of society. Maybe that is what thin hatred looks like. That’s a good question.
Can you imagine a world where hate speech does not exist? Or will hate speech exist as long as we speak?
I would love to be like, yeah, we will arrive at the place of acceptance. But, unfortunately, I think the foundations of cis, normative, white ideals that society has to uphold will probably never make room for complete acceptance. I do hope we get to the point where more people have access to language and then language will become normalised. If there are like 65 per cent more trans kids now than there were when I was born, then there is something very important about that. The fact that they are getting this access to language maybe means in that school transness is normalised. I think when we talk about hatred, a lot of it does fall onto the trans community. I hope that we get to the point in which transness is so normalised that we don’t even have to debate whether it is wrong or right, whether people agree or disagree. Dominique Jackson, Elektra from Pose, has a great speech and I listen to her a lot. She says “You do not have the power to accept or tolerate me; I take that from you. You will respect me.” I am here and you will do that. That’s the real energy that I am trying to channel at the moment. We look at a lot of beautiful things through the lens of hatred. We look at transness through the lens of transphobia and I hate that. That is not what transness is, that is what hatred is. There is a separation between the two. I just hope that there is a point where things will just be normal and we won’t need to say, I am trans. People just won’t care about people’s gender or sexual identifications.
The trans stories and stories of gender- nonconforming individuals that are told the media are often focused on violence and hatred that people experience when they decide to be unapologetically themselves. You have highlighted the importance of showcasing the flip side of this, the importance of focusing on and celebrating the positive aspects that this choice can bring. Do you think the narratives that centre around violence further perpetuate hatred?
Yeah, this is the thing. I love that we have visibility and representation, but there is this idea that we always have to be so revolutionary to be respected. It just sits so funnily with me because as trans people we have to deal with a lot in general, internally and externally, and on top of that to feel the need that you have to be revolutionary to be accepted or to be respected or to be known or to be celebrated is a really difficult place to be in. In everything – in Blackness, in transness, in gender non-conformity – I always want there be a joyous depiction because being trans is like having a superpower. I am hoping to become a mirror or reflection to a younger generation. I don’t want them to think that transness is death and pain, that it is just #SayHerName or #TransLivesMatter. It is so much more than that. It is reintroducing yourself to your self at various points of your life, becoming self-aware. I think trans people are the most self-aware because you have to look within yourself and there are so many beautiful parts of that which benefit us and make us incredible people. We are so much more than our transness that it should not be reduced down to the idea that to be trans is to be vulnerable. Though, people must know that there is an epidemic of violence towards us, statistically and fundamentally. But it is also really important for everyone to be reminded that there are also moments of joy, laughter, euphoria and happiness; being alive and breathing, all of these things that we rarely see in conjunction with the discourse of transness.
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Maybe that comes from our tendency to label everything and everyone. Or from lack of words. 
Exactly. As we were saying, sometimes labels just don’t fit. I think that is why it is so important for us to see various depictions of various people from various narratives because there is not just one face. I am not the poster face for transness. The same goes for Dominique or Indya Moore. None of us is saying, “This is what it looks like to be trans or gender non-conforming or non- binary”. It is more like, this is my story, my version of it. But there are so many other versions and stories that still need to be heard and showcased.
Your poetry has really resonated with people, especially over lockdown, bringing a much-needed hope. I find it interesting that language and spoken word can be as much of an outlet for hatred as a thing that can spread love and hope. Do you ever feel conflicted about the power of words?
Apart from money... Actually, even before money, words are probably the most powerful thing that we have. It is important to realise how language can be detrimental and how it can be dangerous. There are times when I will take something and try to reclaim, repackage or remodel the language. I will look for parallels between things. I remember during BLM, just after George Floyd, I posted a photo and somebody wrote this phrase, which is meant to compliment people: “Get your foot off my neck.” And suddenly I realised that this phrase had a completely different meaning. It did not feel like a compliment, it felt like a trigger because of what had happened a week before. I did a whole piece about this idea of how language can change from one day to the next. If somebody had commented that on my photo two weeks before I would not have been triggered. But the moment the event changes something, the words have different nuance, a completely different effect. I think it is really important to always dive into the stomach of words and what they mean, the root of things. I have an obsession with finding out the original meaning of words because there are so many things that we can reclaim and there are so many words that are used in the wrong context. I can talk about words all day!
What are some of the most interesting words that you have discovered?
I look for things in other people’s words. At the moment I am studying Kate Bush because her language feels very trans-inclusive and very trans-based. I am looking at Running Up That Hill and exploring putting a narrative on it – if it was a cis person talking to a trans person. I am looking into words and thinking about how I can change the narrative. I like that. In Korean, the word for gold sounds like the one for cracked, broken. I have a whole poem about that. It is such a powerful thing to know that something can exist as two things. The duality. My name Kai means ‘a body of water’ or ‘ocean’.
Also, ‘Kai’ means ‘yes’ in Georgian.
It means ‘yes’? No way! That is so cool. That’s crazy. I like that. 
Your poetry says something. It is not just an aggregation of words, which is sometimes the case. Poems, in some cases, start, go nowhere and tell us nothing. Do you always know what you want to say when you start writing?
It depends. I have loads of processes that I work with. Sometimes I will respond to something that has happened. Other times I will start with a word. I really like tricking people into reading poetry because I think people find poetry a very intimidating world to enter. My favourite thing is the titling. I love titling work and all of my titles are very stylised now. They are often super long sentences, which then lead into the first line of the poem. That’s a way to trick people into reading them. Also, I have these poems which are called G is for Grip and S is for Skin. Every line starts with a G or an S and that is quite a fun way to write because it pushes you to find a way to make sense of things instead of being lazy. For me, it is very important for there to be a message attached to it so it pushes me to find a new way or a stylised way to put a message out there.
The message was definitely amplified in Emily McDonald’s beautiful film Somewhere, We Dance Forever which was based on those two poems.
Thank you. Also, it is funny that you mentioned Messy Love Letters earlier because that is one of my favourite poems that I have ever written.
Because I like writing from the perspectives of two people. I like writing to myself and back from whoever the person is that I have created in my mind to be the voice.
I have heard artists often say that they prefer viewers to hate their work than have no reaction towards it. What do you think about this in relation to your work? Does hatred trump indifference?
If they hate it, it is probably because it is working. But also, I am trying to invest only into things that are beneficial; so sometimes I think, if you don’t have an opinion on my work or if you don’t have a feeling about it, it is probably just not for you. Some people just won’t get my work. Sometimes I read troll comments – very rarely because they are not nice, but sometimes you just have to do it – and people will write, “I don’t even care about this”. Yeah, you don’t care about this because it is not written for you. My clientele will always be my community and it will never be for somebody else to understand. It feels quite nice to be able to be blasé about it. You are selling yourself short by wanting these people to engage with your work because your work is more expansive, it goes beyond that person. Maybe that sounds really cocky but, yeah.
It can be argued that anyone who is trying to disrupt the broken systems that are in place will at one point or another face hatred. Do you think it’s true that if nobody hates you, you have done something wrong?
 I would say that if you have not faced hatred you are not oppressed. Which is great. But if you have not faced hatred, your own hatred, then you are probably not working on yourself. I think we all have hatred in ourselves – we all have internalised phobias, unconscious biases, and I think life really is about picking them apart and realising that we all hold a level of privilege. Usually, if there is something that makes us feel uncomfortable or something that makes us feel anger or hatred, the problem often lives with us and not with what is in front of us.
You have said that you often find pity condescending. But people often see pity as the opposite of hatred. How can we eliminate hatred but also avoid pity?
I hate pity. Some people are like, you are so brave. I know they mean it nicely, and it is not meant to be malicious, but there is nothing brave about it because I don’t have a choice. I really struggle with people feeling sorry for me, but I think this is where normalisation comes in. I think we should take away the tokenistic or sensationalised idea of trans people or marginalised people. Sometimes I feel most trans and most revolutionarily trans when I am just walking down the road and I just pass and nobody knows anything, nobody is talking about it or thinking about it. It is about finding a way to see trans people and marginalised people in different kinds of positions, not always on a front cover or in a campaign. I want to see trans teachers and doctors and bus drivers and all of the things that you don’t have to give your identity to. I think when we get to that level of representation, then maybe there will be less hatred and no pity. We might achieve the kind of equality where people realise that ultimately nothing in somebody else’s life matters to yours and we should all be championing each other to be the best versions of ourselves. And if changing your gender can help you become the best version of yourself then so be it.
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Maybe again, media representation is what is perpetuating these false ideas of what trans people can be and what they should be.
The media representation that we have of trans people is so unreflective. Disclosure, the Netflix documentary, kind of shows this idea that we have seen trans imagery for years and years but it has always been a butt of the joke, or it has always been trans people dying, trans women wanting to access women’s spaces. All of these things, the stigmas people have created around identity. I think the media are completely responsible for how people view us. Media sources position us as predatory and as a danger to society and all of this ridiculous, widely outdated – not even outdated, because there has never been a place in which they were correct – ideas of what gender is and what bodies are. The media have a huge part to play in that. It is constant. Whenever you see something about trans rights there are ten million counterarguments. Trans-exclusionary feminists have been given huge platforms to speak about why we should not exist, for example. I often wonder what it would be like to navigate as a trans person without social media and the media. I think it would be a lot easier. It would be a lot easier to go under the radar.
Do you ever want to go under the radar?
Sometimes. I have openly positioned myself as something. But sometimes I laugh and I am like, say I want to retire and I don’t want to be a trans figurehead. What will happen? Maybe I go to Fiji and change my name and nobody knows who I am. In that sense, there are times when I do want to go under the radar. There are days when I don’t talk about gender, days when I just don’t care. There are days when I don’t think that what I am doing is making a difference. There are days when we are not progressive. So, there are these cycles. There is so much more to me than my transness. I can go under the radar. It does not have to be the topic of every conversation. It does not have to be something I give to everybody. It does not have to be something that I am open about. There is of course the topic of safety as well. Sometimes I wish nobody could see me. I wish I was invisible. Invisible or invincible. One of them.
When did you realise that poetry was something you could utilise to get your ideas across?
Maybe when I was in school in English Literature and I first learned about romantics like Keats and Coleridge. It was a very male-dominated space. [Before then] I had never really seen any kind of depictions of a man writing about feelings and experiences with such tender fragility. A beautiful thing. That opened me up to metaphorical and non-explicit language, and the power in that. As I came into my identity, poetry kind of became that thing that could save me. I did not know what was going on, but I could write about it. I could write in all of these extensive metaphors about what was going on and they felt like they made sense of it. And then I got introduced to slam poetry when I was 14, maybe, where Black, queer, trans, disabled, every kind of narratives were allowed to have this open space and talk. I saw the beauty of slam poetry or spoken word and this idea of narration and storytelling, a kind of activism and all of these other things looped into it. That was my introduction to it. Then one day it was just a thing I did for myself. Now it is a thing that I do for myself and other people.
Do you ever hate writing?
Not yet. I am very scared that that day will come. I am really scared, because I literally don’t know what else to do. There are times when it’s difficult and there are times when I am stuck. But no, I don’t hate it. My head goes at 1000 miles an hour and writing is the one thing that slows it down.
Interestingly, your words, which are supposed to be liberating, expressive and inclusive are sometimes judged, because of their nonconformity to grammar rules. Why do you think there still are all these rules in place when it comes to poetry and spoken word as artistic self-expression? We don’t really have that in visual arts for example.
Grammar rules don’t really cater to everyone. I write a lot in slang and my mother tongue. That’s where I position myself. Yes, I am grammatically incorrect. But the reason my writing exists, is not ever to be grammatically correct. That’s my peace of mind. Also, if we are looking at grammar and language, this is the diaspora. I am speaking the language that I should never have been speaking. Yeah, there is a reason why I am here, and we can look at postcolonial issues and all of this. But you are positioning me, my poetry, to what’s grammatically correct for the Western world and that’s it. And I don’t care to write for the Western world. I don’t want my work to be examined by university students at Cambridge.
Maybe the reason why some people find poetry intimidating is that they feel they need to analyse it instead of just reading it.
Exactly. Poetry is meant to be just an expression and we can’t then critique what the expression is formatted as.
You have worked with various fashion brands including FENTY, Stella McCartney, Valentino and Louis Vuitton. Over the last few months, the fashion industry has been under scrutiny and the need for systemic change has been more widely recognised than ever before. We have seen brands, for example, having more diverse casting. However, arguably sometimes it can be seen as tokenism. What are some of the considerations you take into account when deciding what brands you want to work with?
I am just very vocal about what I want to know and what I want to get out of it, what I am gaining from it. I want to know why I am a subject, and what we are doing with it. Often, though, I am lucky because I am not just a model – people view me as an artist in some ways. Then there is this kind of artist’s creative freedom that I do have sometimes, an agency to be able to say when something does not feel right and make suggestions. I have a really good rapport with people, in that people trust that I can provide what they want but still in a way that is sensitive to who I am and is still respectful of myself. It is hard though, you never know. Often people make you feel like they are taking a risk on you for being different. Actually, the biggest risk is the one I am taking on you, because I am not a brand, I am a person. A person who has an identity and a person who has an identity that is out of focus. There are lots of jobs I can say no to, because they are weird, insensitive or problematic. In that case, I usually will ask to go on as a consultant. That’s how I go about navigating that – advise them. The problem often is that the subject is not in the room when the decisions are made. So, for me, it is about being both the person who is in front of the camera but also somebody who can critique or mould and advise on what happens on the other side. Internal structures are very important for me to work with. I never want to work with a brand that does not work from the inside out.
Do you think we will see more and more brands involving people not only as a face but as a consultant or a contributor?
I hope so. But the thing is, behind the scenes is not public. So, there are disputes whether it is what a brand really wants or wants to show. I think allyship or lack of allyship is probably what the difference between progressive and regressive, problematic brands is. I have never been interviewed by a trans person in a big brand setting. I have never been cast by another trans person. I have never gone on a set and there be a trans stylist. I have never been shot by a trans photographer. I find it so weird. Especially because I know so many trans photographers. Not only would a trans photographer get something out of a trans body that a cis person can’t, but also it is just an idea of not being under someone’s gaze, somebody being able to really see you. I think it will take a while for us to get to that point where the internal infrastructure is reflective of what is being marketed. But BLM, Covid-19 and everything gave these issues some urgency.
Maybe transness will become normalised when it will not be about having a trans model or a trans photographer, but when it will be about having a photographer who happens to be trans.
Exactly, the transness would be secondary, hopefully.
There is a poem by an American artist Judson Vereen called Hatred Has No Face. And in our digital age, hatred really has no face. How do we fight an invisible enemy? Are words enough in this fight?
I think it is really important for people to have conversations. I think we as humans should understand that in order for us to live happily we have to learn to allow other people to live happily. We have to learn how we can facilitate that. My work is for trans people, trans kids, but on top of that, it is also for the cis kid that sits next to the trans kid, because the trans kid will exist regardless but the acceptance, respect and allyship from the cis kid who sits next to the trans child – that’s who we actually have to make realise their power and their privilege. As much as we do it for us, we have to remember not to fall into this echo chamber. There is always going to be opposition, but if we can find a way to make that opposition see us, without having to fold ourselves in half, then I think we will be on the way to having more normal, healthy boundaries, respect and relationships between marginalised and non- marginalised people. Maybe then hatred might start to reduce, because people will realise that instead of investing that energy into something negative you could have positive conversations and positive interactions with someone – or you could do research and feel good about the fact that you have unlearned something.
All clothes from LOUIS VUITTON SPRING/SUMMER 2021.
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