Interview: KiNG

BY RACHEL CABITT

Photographed by JACQUELINE HARRIET

 

I first met KiNG during my freshman year of college at NYU. She was best friends with my neighbors across the hall, and we became friends on Facebook like everyone does today. After fall semester I didn’t see her around as much, but followed her presence online, where the words of her poems lived. Her poems were a breath of fresh air, breaking up my endless feed of selfies and memes in the form of Facebook statuses: “but the thing with mirrors is that they lie and mine pulled my last lover out of my womb in a tangled heap of limbs because I had loved him more than I understood myself.” 

Three years later, these words no longer lived solely on my Facebook newsfeed. They’ve been competed by Slam Poetry teams, performed on All Def Poetry, at Da Poetry Lounge in Los Angeles, have been featured on the Huffington Post, and are now contributing to a new music trio; all through the honest and compelling voice of KiNG. An activist in her own right, she is one of few in our generation whom we could actually argue makes a difference past her computer screen. So while you’re still on yours, read about one of the most empowering ladies I've been fortunate to know. 

 

POND: What is your earliest memory of poetry?

K: It was A Raisin in the Sun  by Langston Hughes in high school. That poem really spoke to me, but I still wasn’t interested in poetry at all in high school. Because it was all, ya know... how we learn poems in high school is problematic. We don’t learn about anything contemporary. So we think it’s all iambic pentameter, and alliteration, and so focused on rhyme scheme and sonnet and whatever the fuck and it becomes something you hate because there’s too much focus on structure and not on content or feeling. Also, none of the poems I read in school made any fucking sense. Looking back, I’m a poet now, and I’ll read some of what I read in school and still be like, “I don’t know what you’re saying and I want to understand, but it’s just not happening.” Which is unfortunate, because I think a lot of kids don’t realize that poetry is such a great vehicle of expression they could benefit from.

 

POND: When were you first introduced to Slam Poetry?

K: So my first introduction to spoken word, I would also call this my first real introduction to poetry, was when I was at NYU.

I came for a visit in April of 2013 and I went to go see someone who I was kind of dating at the time. We got into a fight that night and I went to a party where I was sexually assaulted. The next day, three of my best guy friends suggested we go to CUPSI, which was the College Union Poetry Slam Invitational. The competition happened to be held at Barnard that year and they kept saying, “we feel like you’d like this a lot, cause you’re very spunky and say what you’re feeling.” I asked, “well, what is it?” And they responded with, “Slam Poetry.” I immediately assumed it was like beat knick poetry, with the black hats and snapping in the corner and I’d be holding my cigarette so my immediate reaction was, “I don’t want to go to this bullshit” but I’m pretty laid back so I was like, "I guess we can go, fuck it, three of them want to go...I guess I’m going." So we went and I just remember being mesmerized by the women on stage who were so vulnerable, but strong at the same time, and how they were owning their truth - I remember thinking to myself, “I want to do this forever.” So yeah, that was my first introduction, and then I came home, started writing, and it was kind of a wrap from there.

POND: Are spoken word and slam interchangeable or are they two separate genres?

K: To me, spoken word is a genre and slam is a subgenre of it. Unfortunately, a lot of people assume slam is the encapsulation of spoken word poetry because that’s what has the most visibility on social media, Youtube, etc. Slam is a competition, and sometimes you can lose the art form in a competition setting. Slam has become very formulaic and it gets boring, to be frank, because it’s become more about the scores than the words. I’ve noticed a lot of slam poems start off where you’re really funny, drop some heavy shit, then end on an uplifting note and so what frustrates me is sitting at these competitions listening to 12 poems back to back and being like…okay, I’ve heard this structure almost twenty five times, I can basically predict what’s next. Which is not to devalue other people’s stories, but it made me think to myself: how do I tell my story differently and push the envelope while still being genuine? I don’t consider myself a slam poet, because slam is not where I made my career or where I found my voice - it’s an amazing platform to elevate it, yes, but slam is not what defines me. I don’t even really identify with calling myself a spoken word poet... it’s just... I’m a performance poet...that’s what I do. I perform poems. I’m very thankful that you asked that because a lot of people will say “Slam Poet” upon introducing me and I’m like “Gah, I want to rip out my hair.”

POND: There is an element of theatre and performance to poetry. What is your frame of mind when performing?

K: Well, the biggest thing for me when I first started doing poems was that I was afraid of letting myself be emotionally vulnerable on stage. I would write about these very heavy topics, memorize the content, then I would “poem a poem,” where it would look like I was vulnerable but I wasn’t tapping into that feeling. In reality, I had just observed poets around me and taken certain elements of their performance styles, then convinced myself: “Okay, I’m doing it.” So for me, it’s important to have a conversation while on stage. It’s important that I remember every time I perform why I wrote that poem, and who I wrote it for.

POND: What is one poem that we should all read or hear?

K: Oh man, you can’t do this to me. I’m like the biggest fan girl of other people’s work. I’m so big on research and knowing the genre that you’re in, and knowing your peers’ work.

My favorite poem, no matter what, when I’m really upset about things that are happening in the world, is Karma by Dominique Christina… Actually the first time I heard Karma I was nineteen and I don’t think I was ready, I was woke, but I wasn’t like “activism is what I want to do with my life”… So I don’t think I was ready to take that poem to heart, hence it didn’t peak my interest that much. But I remember about a year later, I saw a quote of it somewhere, where it said: “If I could write this shit in fire, I would write this shit in fire, this ain’t poetry, this is rage unmuted.” I threw my hands up saying, “Oh, God. Okay, let me go watch this damn poem again.” Which was shortly followed by a: “Okay, holy shit, I really fuck with this.” I post it on Facebook at least 4 times a year now whenever I’m mad about social injustice because Dominique verbalizes everything I can’t sometimes.

 

POND: Tell us about the LA poetry community. It seems like you’re involved in almost everything from All Def Poetry, to Da Poetry Lounge, to the National Slam Poetry team, to a coach for the USC Slam Team. How do you think being in this creative community has affected your own work?

K: They’re everything to me… The poetry community is equally supportive as it is unforgiving and it makes you respect it. They hold people accountable to what [they] do. So if you’re going to say you’re going to do something, you’re going to do it, and buck up. And that’s what I really appreciate, because we preach transparency in our artwork and so we need to do that on a daily basis. And DPL (Da Poetry Lounge) has been really pivotal in that.

The community opens up a lot of doors. They were with me from the time I came home from New York to my downward spiral to me sitting here now. To be honest, I was a pretty fucked up person for quite a while when I was not taking care of a mental illness and addiction. It was running rampant and the poetry community told me I needed to get help- they held me accountable, and took me back in after I took the necessary steps. I think that’s just real love at the end of the day. It’s been nice to have a family that’s so unconventional. They’ve been impactful beyond my poetry, but in my personhood, and upholding transparency. It’s cool because there are elders in the community who’ve been holding down the LA poetry scene for so long and now being on the younger end I know there’s a responsibility for me and the kids my age to continue that legacy and to continue preserving the community. Hence why my USC kids mean so much to me, because that’s my way of taking responsibility and fostering safe spaces among young poets who are trusting me to guide them through their feelings and to become better artists. There’s nothing better or more rewarding than that. At the end of day, I really want to bring community back to LA among artists in all senses of the word knowing that in every community we have our issues, but we’re strong, and I want to build on that.

 

POND: You’re a strong advocate of two of the largest issues our generation is facing today: gender and racial equality. How do you think social media has allowed for these injustices and movements to be heard and also not be heard?

K: Social media can be a part of activism, but you need to live that out as well and that’s what can be really frustrating about our generation. At the same time, I’m in awe of our generation because we’ve been able to do so many things because of social media.

The Black Lives Matter movement is a great example of the power of social media activism, but their undeniable impact is because they also practice what they preach. BLM has undoubtedly become an organization that’s going to go down in history as an example of how young people can steer “the social justice conversation” in America. Black Lives Matter helped me realize that it doesn't matter if your audience is 300, 3,000 or 30,000, no matter what, when you speak your mind, you will have someone who will pass on that information, learn something, and be influenced by your voice. People will always come up to me and say, “Oh, I don’t have a following like you do” but they don’t realize, there was a time when I didn’t have a following. Why should that hinder you from sharing your opinion? Your voice is still worthy and it matters. That’s where we screw up as a generation. We always think someone else is going to take care of what needs to get done or be said. We all have to do it together.

 

POND: In your own words you recently came out as queer and genderfluid, changing your name to KiNG. What do these identifiers mean to you and why the name KiNG?

K: I had to do an outpatient program for my addiction and mental health. When I started doing therapy, I had to unearth twelve years of pain and ask myself, “Ok, what does this mean.” It’s crazy how much events from our childhood impact who we are now.

I always kind of felt like my gender was fluid, but I didn’t know how to verbalize it until my therapist told me about gender fluidity. I think I always knew I was queer. When I came out as bi people were just like “Yeah, ok, we knew.” It was hella cool, it was also hella anticlimactic. I think I always understood my sexuality but I was uneducated about gender, which says a lot about our education system. I was taught that gender performance and sexuality were pretty much the same thing, instead of gender being a societal construct used to perpetuate comfortable spheres of oppression… Ruby Rose was somebody that I could really look up to, seeing her talk about it, I was like “Word, that’s me.”

I never felt like my name was a home. Nobody ever growing up called me Katelin. It was Kai or KK or Chu Chu. I knew that I wanted to change my name from the time I got out of rehab. I didn’t know what I wanted but I wanted something meaningful...and everybody around me kept telling me, “it’ll come when the time is right.” I read a poem by Donny, who I mentioned earlier, and the line was something along the lines of, “It’s not what men hold on to that makes them kings, it’s rather what they can let go of” and that spoke to me because I was in the process of making amends and letting go of a lot of shitty aspects of myself. I went to a cypher that night and decided to spit. To preface, I’m not the greatest freestyle rapper because I’m a poet so I’m like, “Wait...I need to write all my thoughts down first.” But I spit sometimes and that night I spit, “Ain’t no queen when I can rule like a king.” Everybody around me was like “goddamn, that’s the name” and it stuck- it felt at home, it felt good. I also love the reactions I get from people too, most people refuse to believe it’s my name but hey, it caters to who I am: being unapologetically myself.

 

POND: Tell us about your new project KING Black Music. Has music always been an important part of your work?

K: Music has always been important to me. I was a musician before I was a poet. I was classically trained in piano for a few years, quit, then taught myself how to play acoustic guitar. I would write songs here and there for people and I think that's partially why poetry came so easily to me.

When I found poetry, I fell in love with it so I quit every other art form. It wasn't until I met Niki Black while performing at a show in Hollywood that I reconsidered delving back into music. Niki's mom felt that we would work well together so Niki and I just would hang out and she quickly became one of my best friends. Poetry was something I always did in front of people but music was this sacred art form for myself that only a few would hear. I started to share my songwriting capabilities with her and she gave me the confidence to go back into music and find my voice.

We created KiNG Black because we just worked so well together and had this vision in regard to using music as a vehicle for social change (ironically we formed the group on our way back from a rally and on our way to a poetry slam). But yeah, KiNG Black started off as a duo and as we were recording some demos this year, Niki's mentor of 7 years, Anna Montgomery, asked us how we knew Tate Tucker. Tate was someone I had met a year ago; we always admired each other's work from a distance and maintained an acquaintanceship but it turned out Tate was Anna's cousin. In that moment, we realized so many things were too much in alignment to not even deny a trinity needed to be formed.

I'm excited about us. I think we are unique because we are activism in action and advocating for each other's causes. It's also amazing to work together because we each have such specific skill sets that we become a powerful machine when combined. In general, we all just balance each other out - Niki is extroverted, excitable, and friendly, I'm laid back, reserved, and sarcastic, while Tate lies somewhere in the middle. It's a fresh dynamic. I've never been able to work with a group of people that can flesh out an idea of mine so accurately. I'm blessed to have found them. I feel like it took us living a few past lives to meet here in this moment but we've been working really hard, we have an amazing group of people who believe in us, I think we are reflective of the times, and people are ready to listen so I can't wait to share our work in the coming months.

 
 

Keep up with KiNG on Instagram and at KiNG Black Music