Nia King is an Oakland-based art activist and author of Queer and Trans Artists of Color, a collection of her interviews. As a long-time admirer of her work, I thought I’d turn the tables and ask her some questions about “artivism,” selling out, and who her queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) icons are.
Bani Amor: What lead you to switch from a full-time job to dedicating yourself to art activism?
Nia King: I think on the back of my book it says something like, “I left a full-time job to become an art activist.” That’s not exactly how it happened. I quit my full-time job because I was very, very, very unhappy there. I then got an internship at Colorlines, which was great but it was unpaid for the first five months, then became paid for three months, then ended altogether. I had stopped making art for a while after I dropped out of art school in 2005, but my boss/mentor Channing Kennedy at Colorlines really encouraged me to get back into it. When my internship ended, I was doing a combination of writing for magazines, drawing a web comic, podcasting, and videography work. I ended up committing all of my time to creative pursuits (and trying to make money from them) because I had been looking for a job for a long time and still couldn’t find one when my internship ended. That’s how I became a full-time freelancer. I guess I was already an art activist in that the art I was making (for myself) was political.
Bani: How did your series of interviews with queer and/or trans artists of color come about? Why focus on these demographics?
Nia: Queer and trans people of color are who I consider my community. That’s who I care about. That’s who I see making really amazing, life-affirming political art that is consistently overlooked and undervalued.
Bani: The QTPOC artist and activist hustle seems to be a frequent theme in these talks. What have been some of your primary takeaways from these conversations? Anything that surprised you?
Nia: One thing that has come up on the podcast a lot is the importance of not working for free. We really get into that in the Virgie Tovar chapter of the book. I personally think that working for free may sometimes be a necessary evil, but I encourage folks to be strategic about how and when they agree to do it. I’ve written fairly extensively about how to determine when working for free is worth it in this blog post.
One thing I feel strongly about after having conducted all of these interviews with artists is that there is no one-size-fits-all trick to making it as an artist. It’s a combination of hard work, talent, luck, and privilege that gets you to success. The ratios vary from person to person.
I also don’t think there’s ever a point where you get your “big break” and just get to coast. Almost none of the American artists I have talked to make a living off of their art (unless they teach). Artists I’ve talked to from Canada and Australia seem to have a lot more support from their governments, both in terms of grants for the artists and also in terms of it being easier to get assistance (welfare) when you don’t have a steady-paying job.
Bani: You’ve secured a place for your work outside the “mainstream.” How important do you think that is for marginalized artists? Any plans on deviating from that path?
Nia: I’ve often joked that I’m very willing to sell out, it’s just that no one is interested in buying what I am selling!
Seriously though, building a platform to support marginalized artists is really the heart of my work because these people often don’t get support or recognition from the mainstream (read: white, male) art world. If we don’t build our own alternatives, we are never going to get the shine that we deserve. I’m certainly not the only person building a platform to support marginalized artists. There are a number of do-it-yourself arts organizations in the Bay Area that focus specifically on supporting QTPOC artists such as Mangos with Chili, Peacock Rebellion, and Queer Rebels. I think what’s unique about my work is that it’s not about producing live performance events, it’s about documenting all the cool stuff that’s going on so that future generations will get to know about it.
Bani: What are some of your favorite or most memorable interviews?
Nia: Miss Persia and Daddie$ Plastik were the only people who have ever brought alcohol to an interview. That was pretty memorable. I don’t drink, so they ended up drinking almost all of it during the interview themselves. The second hour was a lot looser than the first!
In the last year, I’ve gotten to interview two of my comedy idols, Hari Kondabolu and W. Kamau Bell. I don’t usually interview straight artists, but I made exceptions for them because I am such a big fan. That was really memorable in that I got to sit down in a room with people I’m used to watching on TV and pick their brains about their craft. I’m super-honored they made time to hang out and answer my questions.
Bani: Will the second book be any different from the first? If yes, how so?
Nia: My goal with the second book is to have it be more diverse than the first. The first book (and the first year of the podcast, which it documents) was heavily black- and Latino-focused. Asian, Arab, and indigenous folks were really under-represented. Fortunately, in the second year of the podcast, I have had the privilege of interviewing amazing East Asian, South Asian, Arab, and indigneous artists like Mimi Thi Nguyen, Manish V. of Peacock Rebellion, Amir Rabiyah, and Kiley May, who will all be in the second book. I’m also planning to include more trans women and trans-feminine people like Lexi Adsit and Mattie Brice.
Bani: Who are some of your QTPOC artivist icons?
Nia: I don’t really have QTPOC icons, I just have friends I think are doing really cool work! Janet Mock is probably on the line between friend and icon. In terms of folks from super-marginalized backgrounds who really seem to be “making it” that I’ve talked to, she is definitely The One. Ryka Aoki is also someone I really look up to. Her work is brilliant, she’s incredibly prolific, and she still seems really rooted in community activism, even though she works within the academy. She’s also just a really nice lady. Janet, too.
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna Samarasinha, who I interviewed in the first book, is totally who I used to want to be when I grew up. She and Cherry Galette, whose interview will be in the second book, co-founded Mangos with Chili, a queer and trans POC performing arts organization that has had a profound impact on my life and the lives of many other queers of color. In some ways, much of my work is to try and document the impact they have made. They just announced that they are closing in 2016 and I feel like that makes my work all the more urgent. The thing about performance, like the cabarets they produce, is that you kind of have to be there. I’m trying to make it so that even if you weren’t there, you can still experience the artists’ words and their brilliance.