In this episode Imara celebrates the release of Artistic Legacies, a short documentary film featuring the Black Trans Femmes in the Arts (BTFA) Collective, in conversation with BTFA Founder Jordyn Jay and Hip Hop’s Mona Lisa Iman Hill.
Imara: Hey, fam. It’s me, Imara Jones. Welcome to the TransLash Podcast. A show where we tell trans stories to save trans lives. Well, halfway through Pride Month, and I don’t know about you all, I’m already exhausted. But I continue to be inspired by all of the stories, and the talent, and the voices that come forward during this month to give us inspiration all year long. And one of those sets of voices and talents and perspectives that I am so always inspired by, is the collective Black Trans Femmes in the Arts. And that’s why we at TransLash, decided to do a docuseries based upon BTFA to get more insight into who they are, and what they are, and the powerfulness of their work.
For me, the essential question that I wanted to answer was why are people who are among the most marginalized of the marginalized decided to create in this moment? What’s the connection between this moment: our lives and our creativity? And that’s why we decided to create a docuseries featuring BTFA called Artistic Legacies. Artistic Legacies will launch on June 21st. You can go to www.translash.org to see those films. But if you don’t want to wait and because you are subscribers to the TransLash podcast, you don’t necessarily have to- to hear those stories today, at least some of them in audio format. And so, I’m excited for you to hear in today’s episode from Jordyn, Kimiyah, and Iman. First, I’ll be speaking with Jordyn Jay, the founder and executive director of Black Trans Femmes in the Arts, about her vision for liberation expressed through the creation of the organization.
Jordyn Jay: The vision is about a world in which trans people can create without limitations. A world in which Black Trans Femme Artists are not limited to having their work be viewed as representational.
Imara: Then, I’ll be joined by the multi-talented artist and advocate, Iman Hill, to chat about her creative evolution.
Iman Hill: Now that I’ve kind of worked through it a little bit more, I’m able to access a new love for essentially the same thing because music is music. I’m just kind of returning home in a sense, but returning home as me authentically.
Imara: Before we get into these type of conversations, I wanted to give you a quick heads up that you may notice that my audio quality is lower than usual. It’s because we’ve switched where I record, and I’m still getting used to my new recording setup. And with that, let’s start as always with some trans joy.
Imara: Now, our docuseries, Artistic Legacies, is full of joy from the behind-the-scenes production process to the people whose stories it tells. I’m so appreciative of the dedication, community, and love that’s gone into this town. Kimiyah Prescott is one of the incredible BTFA members highlighted in Artistic Legacies. She is a multidisciplinary artist, vulgar, and a season three winner of the HBO Max show, Legendary. Here is a clip from the film featuring Kimiyah and her story.
Kimiyah Prescott: [background noises] When I got into high school, I saw my friend. Her name is Tashi Voguing. She just like went spinning the air into the gym and I was like, “What is that? Whatever that is, I need to learn it. [music] We ended up going to HMI and I saw all the gay people and I’m like, “Wait, there’s more of me?” From there, I just kept practicing, perfect my craft, brought me to my first ball. And even then, I was like, “Whoa! It’s underground.” It’s like lights, the big speakers. It was- it was just crazy. It was like, I need to- I want to be a part of this. I want to be a part of this like so badly.
Imara: Kimiyah Prescott, you are trans joy.
Imara: I’m so glad to be joined by the visionary, storyteller, arts advocate, producer and creator, Jordyn Jay. Jordyn is the founder and executive director of Black Trans Femmes in the Arts. Jordyn is an inspiring advocate for harnessing the power of art for radical change and liberation. Originally from Jacksonville, Florida, Jordyn received her master’s degree in art politics from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Before founding Black Trans Femmes in the Arts, she worked as a public health and criminal justice advocate for trans women and girls of color. Jordyn started organizing to address the lack of representation of Black Trans Femmes in Arts spaces by hosting the first event for her organization that in 2019. Since then, she has collaborated with artists like [inaudible] and Miss Mojo to organize public performances, artist meetups, artist residencies, and community aid. It’s no surprise that after all of her work to shake up the arts world, Jordyn has been profiled in publications like Forbes and Essence Magazine among others. Jordyn, thank you so much for joining me.
Jordyn: Hi, Imara. It’s great to be back on the podcast.
Imara: Yes, glad to have you on, and this time featured, not only here but also in the Black Trans Femmes in the Arts short docuseries. Like I said, your piece is going to make people cry. So, I’m excited for everyone to see it. I want to start in the place where you started which is Jacksonville, Florida. And I am wondering for you what arts did for you as a child growing up?
Jordyn: Growing up in Jacksonville, Jacksonville isn’t a city with a lot of diversity, either culturally or ideologically. And as a feminine Black child growing up attending majority white schools, I didn’t feel like I had a lot of outlets to express myself. I didn’t feel like there were many safe places for me to be my authentic self. And so finding the theater, and finding this lane where I could jump into characters where I was allowed to be larger than life and boisterous and flamboyant and where that was praised, affirmed a part of me and allowed me to imagine a world where I could be myself, and imagine change beyond what I was seeing in my immediate society and my immediate community in Jacksonville. And so, the arts kind of allowed me to step outside of this southern traditional Christian world that I was living in and inhabit something that was affirming of my gender performance and just who I was beyond that in general.
Imara: As you were moving through arts, what was the artistic form that drew you the most? And why do you think it is? Probably along the lines that you just said, but I’m wondering if there’s something in particular that brought forward and whatever that art form was for you.
Jordyn: Well, theater was the art form that drew me in the most. And I think all of my connections to other art forms kind of happened through theater, whether that be dance or music. And the thing that I loved about theater was it was this world of make-believe and of play, and I’ve kind of carried that with me that you don’t have to just exist in the world that we’re in, that we can play and we can imagine other possibilities. And I think that that’s something that really excited me as someone who felt stifled by their environment.
Imara: As you were doing theater, when was there ever a point – if there was ever a point – that you thought, “I want to do this for my life,” or, “I want to be in the arts or connected to the arts for the rest of my life”? Because as you’re saying, in the environment that you grow up, it’s very easy for people to be like, “Oh, well. You do that thing over there.” But what you really going to do is this other thing, which is going to make you money or, you know, that’s actually serious and all the rest of it. So I’m wondering if you had a sense ever of sort of going against that and think like, “No, I can do this for my life or I want to do this for my life.”
Jordyn: Absolutely. I think there were several points when people told me no, and that just invigorated me more. I remember having a playwriting teacher in my junior year of high school who told me, “If you can do anything other than the arts, then go do it because that means that you’re not dedicated. That you’re not going to make it.” And I always knew that I could do art and more and that art was not existing in a silo, and that it’s always connected to other things that were happening in the world. And I wanted to explore that. I also remember one of my dad’s colleagues telling me I couldn’t study both art and psychology. They were two different worlds, and my brain couldn’t handle it, and being told that invigorated me to prove him wrong that my brain can handle anything that I wanted it to. And so, these attempts to define and limit me pushed me harder because that was what I loved theater for, was that it wasn’t definite or limiting. That it could be anything you wanted it to be. And so I wanted the same thing for myself. And that’s what made me want to do art for the rest of my life.
Imara: You know, as you’re talking about, there’s so many ways in which, as I’m listening, there’s a parallel between your participation in the arts and gravitating towards it’s sticking with it despite being told no. So many ways in which sort of the skills and the experience is parallel, transitioning and gender identity. And I’m wondering if there was a relationship between not only arts allowing you to have space to be all the things that you are, but that it actually then was not only a world of make-believe for you, but also fed back into your journey into your gender identity in terms of giving you the muscles that you have to practice of people trying to defy your reality and you continuing to move forward. You know, what for you as you look back or kind of some of the ways in which arts helped you in your gender journey?
Jordyn: It’s so funny that you asked me that because it just [chuckles] brought up a memory that I really haven’t thought about in a while. In my senior year of high school, I was in a theater class where we would create skits that were targeted around social issues that were important to our age group and our generation. And we would take those skits and we’d perform them at other middle schools and high schools around our hometown, and then have conversations with those students afterwards. And one of the skits that I was part of conceptualizing and was a star of was a story of a trans woman and a trans man and kind of their gender transformation and their presentation and how it was a meeting of their exterior with their interior, instead of putting on a mask or putting on a show as many people thought and inhabiting that character. Before I even kind of had any idea about where my own gender journey would go, I think it gave me a lot of empathy and also a lot of strength because even in playing that role, I felt the nonconformity and I felt the reactions to it in the room, just how the energy shifted. And I think that courage that I had to inhabit as a 16-17 year old performing in feminine roles and wearing dresses and makeup onstage in the south, translated to, you know, having the courage to be a 20-year-old woman walking down Broadway, going to NYU as a newly trans woman and newly-opened trans woman.
Imara: How did you and your mind connect arts with politics? Like, I think that what’s interesting is that artistic expression for you isn’t only about the importance of the craft in and of itself. But it’s connected – as we spoke about in your introduction – to change in the world, changing the way that we perceive people, and the way that power works because that’s ultimately what politics does. So when did you make that connection in terms of wanting to dedicate and be motivated by that as well?
Jordyn: Well, I think the seed was planted when I was still in high school. I was in high school at the time that Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Florida. There was also a 16-year-old named Jordyn Davis who was killed in my hometown of Jacksonville at a gas station that I frequented because it was close to one of my best friend’s houses. And I was carrying those things with me as I went to college, as I witnessed, you know, the world in the first uptick of the Black Lives Matter movement. And I was in a predominantly White institution and a predominantly White theater school, and I didn’t feel like there was space for me to use my art to negotiate or navigate all of the things that I was feeling and witnessing that were happening in the world. And so, then I decided to leave that space and go into spaces where I was able to organize and actually be connected with folks on the ground. But then I was met with this barrier of pragmatics and practicality and all of these limitations on what was possible. And I thought to myself, “I’m just coming from a theater world where I’m putting on Macbeth as a movement piece with no words, or I’m staging a one-act that’s a horror piece in a black box theater, and I’m making people believe these things that are not possible are happening right in front of them.” And so I couldn’t reconcile that. We couldn’t imagine the same thing in a political context, and I wanted to unpack how art could be used to kind of reshape how people imagine what’s possible in the political.
Imara: With regards to the founding of BTFA, I’ve heard you told the story. And people, when they watch your short doc, will hear you recount the story of the way in which it came out of a- a meet-up that you had in New York City because you didn’t know immediately how to find a community of Black Trans Femmes. And so, you put together and called for this meet up. I’m wondering, what was your reaction when people actually showed up to it? What was the impact for you of being in that room?
Jordyn: My immediate reaction was, I’m someone who always dreams big. I’ve always, you know, when I imagine something, I imagine it on a huge global scale. And so, I expected to walk into this room and see 100 Black Trans Femmes all excited and buzzing to talk about the arts, and that wasn’t what happened. I got a room of less than ten Black Trans Femmes. But ten Black Trans Femmes who were so excited to have a space that was specifically for them for the first time in their lives. And someone said in that first meet up that this event was the first event that they had seen within the past 6 months that had given them the courage and made them feel safe enough to leave their apartment because they were newly trans and they were terrified.
Jordyn: And that resonated with me because before I found community through starting BTFA, I was so paralyzed by the constant new cycle of trans harm and trans violence and by this idea that our life expectancy was 35 years old. And it kept me trapped and made me want to stay inside. And so, hearing that this space that I had created was something that was strong enough to pull people out of that space was what made me know that even if only that one person came, it was worth continuing.
Imara: Yeah. And, you know, just to be clear. I think the average age of when Black transwomen are murdered is 35. Most of them happened by the time that they’re 35, but it’s been translated into that being our life expectancy and regardless of, you know, the technical aspect of the statistic. I think it underscores the reality of the violence that Black transwomen face because that number is something that people can relate, and it’s very much seems to be grounded in everyday experience. So in the story that you’ve told, this person was afraid to leave their house in part because of the violence that Black transwomen face and that this statistic works to confirm that regardless of, you know, it’s technical pinpoint accuracy in this point. I just think that it’s important for people to understand why that has so much resonance because for Black trans people, when you look at where most of the violence takes place in our community in terms of physical violence and murders, it’s overwhelmingly transwomen of color and specifically Black transwomen, um, on a scale that I think that is hard for people to imagine.
Imara: So you have this room of less than 10 at that time. It’s certainly not 10 anymore. But at that time, it was 10 people. And you wanted to build this space and left that with a sense of commitment. And then in the wake of George Floyd, in your ability to be able to vision, you had an expectation of what you might be able to raise for Black transwomen and what would become BTFA at the time that was below what you would do. So I think it’s interesting that the first meeting you had an idea that there was going to be a bunch of people, and then it ended up being less than you thought. And then roughly a year later when you put out the call to raise money for BTFA, it was smaller than you thought based upon the experience last year and you ended up raising an incredible amount of money. And I’m wondering when you did the final total, and if you can just tell us in your answer what it was, because I don’t want to give it away in my question. When you finally did see how much you had raised for the vision that you had, what was the impact on you?
Jordyn: Like you mentioned, I set out to raise funds. Not even specifically for BTFA but for Black trans people across the nation who were protesting to make sure that they had a safety net, and that we could take care of them as a community. And what happened was, I had a total of $1000 that had been donated to BTFA over the past 6 or 7 months. And I pledged that money towards that fund and I wanted to raise about 1,000 more. I thought that was a reasonable estimate for the amount I would be able to bring in. And next thing I knew, we raised a million dollars within a week. And so we were able to do exactly what we set out to do, which was provide that safety net for Black trans protesters. But then once that work was done, we were also able to launch this organization to a global scale and that was elating and exciting and also terrifying. I had to reconcile that something I planned to do in 5 years was now happening within a week.
Jordyn: And that my life was going to drastically change. And it was a lot of pressure, but also so much excitement and relief that I would be able to, you know, dedicate my life to – not only art – but to my community and that I would be able to bring along my sisters who helped build this organization, who volunteered their time when they- there was no money to be paid. And that I could be able to provide for not only them, but for a whole network of Black Trans Femmes. I- I can’t even put into words [chuckles] all of the feelings that I felt that week. But I remember daily watching the numbers go up and up and up, and just not even being able to conceptualize a million dollars but suddenly having it in a PayPal account. It was, yeah, one of the, I would say, the turning point of my life.
Imara: And so for you in ways that are direct and indirect, you know, there’s this connection between BTFA as an artistic organization but also BTFA has tied to a political vision. And I’m wondering for you, what is the political vision that you hope is realized through BTFA? What is the power that you’re trying to shift in the world through your organization and what you all are doing?
Jordyn: I think that BTFA’s political vision is a de facto shift in the way that the world understands Black trans people. So much of how trans people in general are understood is either through the journalistic lens of people who are non-trans, or the artistic lens of people who are non-trans. And, you know, we have disclosure to reference for all all of these decades of misrepresentation of the trans community and especially Black Trans Femmes, you know? And I think that BTFA’s place is to shift the public imagination for not only non-trans people but most importantly for young trans people and trans people who aren’t connected to community, trans people who may be outside of the US and spaces where it’s not safe to be openly trans, even in the US where it’s not safe to be openly trans, and to know that there is life and love and hope within our community, and to humanize us in a way that makes these laws that would have us be wiped from the face of the Earth and from public spaces seem ridiculous and impossible to pass. And so that’s what I hope BTFA continues to do. I also hope that we can continue to advocate for equity not only within the arts, but in general for Black trans people. Something that I continue to fight for is understanding the trans people in most spaces are starting at a deficit when there’s decades of disenfranchisement, when there is the emotional toil of seeing your sisters be murdered and hearing politicians described you as disgraces, as pedophiles, as groomers, and the barriers to education to housing. All of these things that trans people come to the door with to understand that there’s more work to be done than just letting us in the door.
Imara: One of the political realities that we’re living in is, in part, a backlash to the moment that helps to give birth to your vision. And I’m wondering what your take is on where we are right now. In many respects, there is – to be polite about it – turbulence in the idea of continuing to emphasize the equity of Black people in this country in this moment. And at the same time, that is what your organization is dedicated to. So just as an observer of people and politics, what strikes you about where we are in this broader conversation with regards to the intersection of race and gender identity and the unfinished work and the seaming, you know, growing backlash against even a conversation and anything to remedy it?
Jordyn: I think that there is a widespread effort to dehumanize trans people in order to garner support for our policing, for our abuse, and ultimately for our eradication. And it’s very disheartening to witness it happen in spaces like my home state of Florida, where actually just was a few days ago and where I had to tell my family that I won’t be able to return to, and told there’s changes in Floridian politics. And I think that it speaks to exactly what I, you know, want BTFA to be a counter-narrative to is that seeing these laws, seeing this rhetoric that’s being spread about trans people. It’s clear to me that the people spreading it cannot possibly see us as human beings, and I think it is heartbreaking not only for me, but more so to imagine people who don’t have the support and who don’t have the community to remind them that they are human beings and that they are deserving of protection, of safety, of love, of care, of basic human resources that are being taken from us as we speak.
Imara: Yeah, I think that that anecdote about your family is a powerful one and- and says exactly where we are right now. But one of the things that is an answer to this moment is your vision, and we know that the visions that you have have the ability to be able to come true. So I’m wondering what Jordyn is dreaming of now? Now, what is the vision for yourself? You know, internalize words, the vision dreaming that you’re doing for yourself now?
Jordyn: I’m thinking a lot about how we show up for people around the country. I’m thinking a lot about how we connect with those folks who are on the ground in Florida, and Iowa, in Montana. And how do we continue to elevate the voices that are often unheard, especially in political spaces that Black transwomen often don’t get to represent the trans community on a political stage. And so, I’m thinking a lot about what it means to show up and how we do that. And so, I’m planning connections with Black trans folks around the country and providing them with a platform to speak up and share their stories from their own perspective. I’m also thinking about an actively planning for BTFA’s expansion to other physical locations around the country. And ultimately, I think my vision for what BTFA can become and what BTFA needs to become in response to this current moment, is a pillar of possibility and to continue to keep that same vision that I had when I was stepping into organizing for the first time and wanted to bring the impossible into action. And so, the vision is about a world in which trans people can create without limitations. A world in which Black Trans Femme artists are not limited to having their work be viewed as representational, and that their work can actually be engaged with, you know, a future where an organization like Black Trans Femmes in the Arts almost feels obsolete because there is so much support and so many resources for Black Trans Femmes, where Black Trans Femmes don’t have to exist only in the underground but they also have the option to have underground spaces that are for them, that are not getting usurped and commercialized by more mainstream media outlets.
Imara: Well, I think that we all hold that vision that you just laid out. A pillar possibility is going to be in my mind for quite some time to come. Jordyn, thank you so much for joining us today for the power of your work and your dedication for allowing TransLash to be in your life for more than 9 months [chuckles] up close and personal in every single way. Just thank you so much for everything, and so much continued success to you and everybody that you work with.
Jordyn: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. It’s always great to speak with you, and to be on this platform that I know is built to amplify our voices and to humanize our voices. And so I thank you for having me be a part of that.
Imara: Thank you. That was founder and executive director of Black Trans Femmes in the Arts, Jordyn Jay.
Imara: I’m so excited to chat with the trailblazing musician, model, photographer, and videographer, and advocate, Iman Hill. Also known as ‘Hip Hop’s Mona Lisa,’ Iman is a multi-talented force to be reckoned with. Born and raised in Atlanta. She now works as a visual creative and organizer for the Black Trans Community from her home in Brooklyn. Iman’s work across a various mediums have been published in Vogue, Nylon, Paper Magazine, and more. She released her show-stopping debut EP, If Mona Lisa Could Talk, in 2020. Iman is also the founder of Kunt Kollections, the Kunt News Network. It’s a time capsule series of original photos and videos that capture authentic expressions of the house all room scene in chosen family. Iman has collaborated with Black Trans Femmes in the Arts on a number of projects, including a jaw-dropping performance at this year’s Trans Day of Visibility Celebration in Times Square. Iman, thank you so much for joining me.
Iman: Thank you, Imara. I’m so happy to be here. What’s going on?
Imara: So happy. That’s so funny, you say my name like my mom said my name, which is actually…
Imara: …the correct name. You said Imara, so that brings back fond memories. How are you today?
Iman: I’m doing well, I guess. It’s a full moon. I’m feeling very reflective these past couple of weeks. So I think that that mood carries over into today.
Imara: Well, reflective is a good place to be for a conversation like this. One of the things that you have to reflect upon is the time that you spent with so many people from our team, recording your story, and recording the series that we’re calling Artistic Legacies. And I’m wondering when you got the idea of being a trans rapper? Like, when did you land on that as your artistic expression?
Iman: Before I answer this question, trans was never the label I like. Well, trans was never the objective or the goal. So to say like, “Oh, you were a trans rapper?” You know, I started music before I transition. So music was always with me. I want to say my first time playing an instrument was in fourth grade. And eventually, you know, up until high school, I began working with a- a nonprofit organization that was partnered with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Atlanta Opera, to build minority talent who had an interest in classical music. So we’re speaking, you know, Black and Brown people of color. I was blessed and fortunate to be able to, um, become proficient enough to actually perform with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Atlanta Opera, and then go on other musical excursion. So my original thought was that I was going to be a classical musician basically. Eventually, you know, we go through things in life where we plan things and they don’t work out the way that we intended it to, and I kind of lost my love for music along the way. It started to feel like a chore, trying to find myself and my identity at the time I was not trans. But I did feel a deviation from everyone else around me, even people who were considered, quote-unquote, like ‘homosexual’ or they were cisgendered, you know, gay people or whatever. Eventually, I moved to New York in 2019 and immediately saw people that looked like me and people who I saw myself in. I felt like, “Wow, my spirit resonates with these people.” I had encountered trans people before in Atlanta.
However, the spaces that I were frequently seeing, I think that there is a stark difference between how transwomen represent themselves in the south in terms of when we talk about blending and realness and all those things. And I feel like I just, honestly, my- I was not trained to identify trans people. It wasn’t until I was thrusted in environments where I was strictly around like a lot of trans people that I was like, “Oh, this is me.” So I’ll be gone medically transitioning. Sort of along the way a little bit before I moved to New York, I came back to music from a more individual standpoint through hip-hop. And it, to me, revitalize my love for music because I was able to be expressive and creative and represent myself. Whereas with classical music, I found that it was more about the ensemble. It was about the group, so there was no room for like individuality. And as someone who was very rambunctious and inner knowing that like, “I wanted to be a star. I wanted to kind of stand alone.” I’m like, “This wasn’t for me.” So I came back to music through hip-hop. So after the first like major lockdown and New York was the first to really experience that like, just gridlocked nothingness in March of 2020. I kind of like took this, you know, midnight train back to Georgia, in a sense, and because Atlanta was still popping. Like, Atlanta was still going on as if COVID did not exist. So I was able to record an album during that time and I put it out. And honestly, it was the most fulfilling experience for me. The transness, to go back to your question, it’s just simply a part of me but it’s not a part of my music.
Imara: I mean, I think one of the things that’s interesting is how before your transition, you were thinking about things inside of a group, right?
Imara: And that’s not a surprise, like fitting in, etc. But then once you transitioned art forms that allowed you to stand out more, could you?
Imara: Yeah, which is interesting, like once you understood your own individuality and authenticity, it led you into a totally different form of self-expression and musicality.
Iman: Right. I think that, you know, I’m blessed, I would say, to have the experience that I do with classical music. And obviously, a part of classical music, which when you further education just in the study of it, there is music theory, there is composition. So you’re talking scales, you’re talking time signatures, key signatures. You’re talking all these different things, and I had such a- a wide, a – a vast knowledge of this.
Imara: Come on, musician.
Iman: And so when I came back to music and hip-hop, it was easy to kind of translate or- or transmit that knowledge and put it to this. Because I- I feel like if you have a knowledge of music at its core, then you can do anything. Like I can make country music, I can make R&B music, I can make pop music, I can do whatever because I know music. So I think the biggest hump for me or the biggest challenge for me was to get over the trauma that I had experienced, feeling so constricted for so long in that particular space. And once I was able to deal with that, I still deal with it at times or still- healing is not linear. So I still kind of have those moments. But now that I’ve kind of worked through it a little bit more, I’m able to access a new love for essentially the same thing because music is music. I’m just kind of returning home in a sense, but returning home as me authentically.
Imara: I mean, there’s so many great people in hip-hop who, as you said, like new music. Like one of them that brings to mind is like Missy Elliott, right? Who has like a very clear understanding of music and musicality, even as hip-hop artist.
Imara: So, how did you land on a hip-hop persona as a Black transwoman, understanding your womanhood now? So you went through so many different transitions, right?
Imara: You went through transition as a person, gender-wise, medical transition, you changed your art form. But then a part of hip-hop is having, you know, a hip-hop persona.
Imara: How did you land on a hip-hop persona for yourself? Like, “This is who I am on stage.”
Iman: I’m still figuring that out actually. You know what? I’m really struggling with persona actually. So it’s funny that you mentioned that word because, and I feel like I- I always say this, I feel like I socially transitioned about 2 years before I medically transition because there was like this immediate shift of me like, “Okay, like I’m only buying women’s clothes. I’m only doing this.” People started associate me, socially refer to me as ‘she’ before I even made that clear to them. So I’m like, “Okay, this is what it is,” and I felt comfortable. So then when I moved to New York, it just skyrocketed. I’m like, “Okay, boom. Hormones now.” Like, this is what I wanted. I dropped my birth name when I started socially transitioning. Also in that time, I came across music. So I’ve been making, instead of hip-hop, let’s use the word contemporary.
Iman: Which just means new or modern. So, I was making contemporary music, writing, starting in like 2017. Early 2017, I recorded my first song in the studio on my birthday in 2017. That was my birthday gift. My mom asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I said, “I want to go to the studio to record a song.” And she paid to get it done. But from then on, I was kind of under like this alias because I already knew that like, I wanted to be- I want to be somebody, and a part of that somebody was being larger than life. So I kind of had to just live in this like grandeur all the time. So a part of that grandeur was not going by my birthday. Then when I transitioned, I chose another name, or actually another name was given to me. Actually, many trans people like to pick their name. But another woman in the community, her name is Aoki, she’s- at the time, she was the Revlon, then she went on to be the mother of the house [inaudible]. She’s a femme queen in the ballroom scene. She’s like a big sister to me and when we were speaking, when she was teaching me one day, she said, “I feel like you- you need a new name.” And I’m like, “Yeah.” I was like, “I kind of do.” And we stumbled on Iman and Iman just like, “Wow, it- it has stuck with me like I never let it go since that day.”
Imara: Yeah, I was gonna say that’s why it makes sense, that like the word persona doesn’t quite work for you because as a part of your development, you were actually learning and understanding and more about yourself and changing your name and changing your identity. And so, embracing a new name and embracing a new not- identity came at the same time for you. And you are Iman Hill, like that’s who you are. So like, it’s understandable that like, yeah, persona doesn’t quite land because there’s this been this like process of evolution and all these like different areas of your life that happened to coincide. So it’s not like you had to develop a persona for yourself on stage that was different from who you are as a person.
Iman: I find myself in, I’m- honestly, in my music these days. I find myself regressing.
Imara: Hmm, regressing how?
Iman: In the grandeur, like in the pomp and circumstance of it all. Like in the rap culture and in pop culture, it’s so grand all the time.
Imara: Yeah, over the top.
Iman: And when I was a butch queen or when I was someone that was not actually like officially transitioning at the time.
Imara: Yeah. As I said, you got to explain what a butch queen is.
Iman: Okay. So for those who don’t understand, a butch queen is, in the ballroom scene, just a Black or Brown gay man who participates in the categories that we have in the ballroom scene. But for lack of better words, it’s just a gay man. I don’t think White men are butch queens. That’s like always the conversation. I don’t think White people can be trade. I don’t think that- I don’t think that-
Iman: So whatever. But it was about the grandeur and it’s- it was about the grand expression of my internal femininity, if that makes sense. So I was putting on like these over-the-top garments, like I would go to the grocery store, and like a Dolce & Gabanna top, just got out of Hanson, these platform pumps, just to go to the store.
Imara: And you’re not doing that anymore?
Iman: But- of course, because like my femininity is not only expressed in the ways that I enclose it- or whatever. So now, and even in music like, I feel like, I don’t know. Everything is now softer. So I don’t feel like I have to do all of the pomp and circumstance. I don’t feel like I have to be so grand. And honestly, my music is changing too because it used to be so, like, in your face and so blunt, and like so braggadocious, which I feel like rap is so full of. Now, I’m making like this soft R&B kind of melodies, and I’m like talking about love and all these things and things that are more authentic. And Iman kind of doesn’t feel like a rapper really anymore. Like, I kind of just feel like an artist and if I have to rap out rap. But like, I don’t know.
Imara: Yeah. So on this particular point, I mean, where does Kunt Kollections fall into how you see your artistry and your artistry changing? The- does it feel like the older braggadocious, for lack of a better word? Iman, does it feel like the softer and more subtle, more, um, more, broadly artistic?
Iman: You know what’s funny? Kunt Kollections was birthed from an insecure Iman. Kunt Kollections was birthed from an Iman that no longer wanted to be in front of the camera. Kunt Kollections was birthed from an Iman that was battling a lot of self-esteem issues. Yet, and still wanted to create and wanted to offer something and wanted to feel alive in some way, shape, or form. I said this in another interview, we all just want to feel alive in some way, shape, or form. And I think Kunt Kollections was a coping mechanism for me because I was so used to being in front, in front, in front, in front because that’s the way I positioned myself for so long. And when I started to retract and feel like I needed to take some time to get to know me as a person beyond the pomp and circumstance that I feel like I was keeping up with for a greater part of my transition, like everything was to the top. I was very Elektra Abundance about the situation, if you know what that is. You know?
Iman: And for lack of better words, I’m like, “Yeah, this is how it feel like I know myself anymore.” And I started to listen to like just external voices and external opinions about myself. And I shut down completely, like there was like this ego death that happened. And from that ego death birthed Kunt Kollections, which was this is Iman, I guess, my softer side, which is the ability to appreciate beauty and everything other than myself. The beauty that I saw in other people, the creativity in the magic that I saw in other people and being able to breathe life into them. And that doesn’t take any skin off of my teeth in terms of me feeling like I’m missing out on anything. This is what she’s supposed to.
Imara: Lastly, I’m wondering in this context of creating a legacy in something beyond yourself and alongside what you described as an ego death, which is a really powerful way to frame it. What does it mean for you as a Black transwoman to be a part of a community of artists? You mentioned what it was like to come into a community that was varied as a trans community. But what is it like to be in community with other Black trans artists?
Iman: It feels like synergy. You’re able to relate to people on more than one level, and it- and it feels… I’m grateful. I am humbled because for a long time, I was like feeling like the only one. I- I knew that I always was not the only one. But when you don’t have community, you seem like the only one. I’m so blessed to live in New York City. I’m so blessed to have the relationships that I do because they truly keep me alive, and then turn that experience into creativity. I feel like having the support of community really allows me to do that. You know, I have so many people in my community that when I’m going through something, they’ll say, “Grow right about it.” Because they know that through creativity, we heal. Through music, we heal. Through art, we heal.
Imara: Well, I just want to thank you so much for the breadth of your vision that you have for yourself and also for your art and the way that these things are so interrelated and authentic for you. And I want everyone to go and make sure that they look at your story and all of those others, and I just can’t wait to see what else you’re going to do. It’s going to be- it’s going to be exciting.
Iman: [chuckles] Thank you. Thank you so much for seeing me. Thank you so much for all you do as well.
Imara: Thank you. Thank you so much. That was the ever-evolving artist and visionary, Iman Hill.
Imara: Thank you for joining me on the TransLash Podcast. Now, listen all the way through to the end of the show for something extra. If you like what you heard, please go to Apple Podcast to rate and review us. You can listen to TransLash wherever you get your podcast. For more of our content centering Black Trans Femme voices, visit us at translash.org and sign up for our weekly newsletter. Follow us on Instagram and Twitter for now, @translashmedia. Like us on Facebook and tell your friends. The TransLash Podcast is produced by TransLash Media. The TransLash team includes Oliver-Ash Kleine, and Aubrey Calaway. Xander Adams is a contributing producer to the show. And our sound engineer, Digital Strategy, is handled by Daniela Capistrano. The music you heard was composed by Ben Draghi and also courtesy of ZZK Records. The TransLash Podcast is made possible by the support of foundations and listeners like you.
Imara: So this week, what am I looking for too? Well, two things. One, uh, tomorrow, the day after this podcast launches, I’m going to be headed to South Africa for a board meeting for MTV’s Staying Alive. MTV Staying Alive is connected to MTV, but it’s actually a separate foundation that works to weave stories about HIV/AIDS into the storylines of programs across the world, but mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. So, I’m super excited about the work. I believe in the work of narrative change and how they’re approaching it. And so it’ll be great to be there because it’s pride, I’m going to be on the ground just for 5 days and I come right back. But I can’t wait to go to South Africa and to see the work of the Staying Alive Foundation there. And then right when I come back, also within the timeframe of this podcast is on June 27th, we’ll be launching the fourth episode. Episode 4 of the Anti-Trans Hate Machine: A Plot Against Equality, charting the way in which the right-wing, the Christian Nationalist Movement, embraced a particular writer and voice and then elevated that person across their media landscape in order to drive anti-trans disinformation to tens of millions of people. So, those are the two things that are coming up that I’m looking forward to, going to South Africa and coming back within five days. And, of course, the launch of episode 4 of the Anti-Trans Hate Machine. [music]
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