Kuumba Lynx vs. Transformation

October 31, 2017

Danez Smith: She is the reason your dad's not allowed in Wal-Mart for any, Franny Choi.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) And they're a bag a free range Funyuns, Danez Smith. 

Danez Smith: Welcome to VS, the podcast where poets confront the ideas that move them.

Franny Choi: Presented by the Poetry Foundation and Postloudness.

Danez Smith: Hmm! Motherfucker Postloudness!

Franny Choi: And the Poetry Foundation.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) How are you doing, Franny?

Franny Choi: I am doing good. I am going through some changes in my life.

Danez Smith: Ch-ch-changes… What kind of changes?

Franny Choi: The big change.

Danez Smith: Menopause?

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) Yeah, I have early onset menopause. Also known as late onset second puberty. 

Danez Smith: Oh! OK, OK, OK, I see you right there. Flexing with them pimples. 

Franny Choi: How dare you!

Danez Smith: I’m just messing with you, you don’t have pimples.

Franny Choi: I love you.

Danez Smith: I love you too. 

Franny Choi: Oh my god, you mean so much to me. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: You change me. You transform me.

Franny Choi: I transform you? You transform me! 

Danez Smith: I transform you?

Franny Choi: Yeah!

Danez Smith: Ooooh... What other kind…

Franny Choi: Transformers.

Danez Smith: Robots in…

Franny Choi: That’s me! I am a robot in disguise.

Danez Smith: People don’t know that you’re actually a coffee pot. 

Franny Choi: In all seriousness, I think that, like, you know we've been friends for a long time, like, especially…

Danez Smith: Longer than I'd hoped. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Bitch. Especially in this space of Dark Noise, our collective. And I think, you know, that's a space that I think we have both, like, grown and transformed in. I think so much about, like, what those influential spaces are that, like, make me closer to the person that I am going to end up being. 

Danez Smith: Yeah, that add to you. That really, like, push you, nurture you…

Franny Choi: Yeah. And sort of... I thought at some point that, like, those spaces were only relegated to, like, my childhood and adolescence. I keep encountering spaces that make me continue to change.

Danez Smith: Yeah. 

Franny Choi: And making spaces too. Did you have, like, a place that, like, really transformed you as a kid?

Danez Smith: Yes. I mean, you know, well, first off the barbershop, because every two weeks n*** be transformed. But also, I was part of a high school program called the Black Box that, like, was very similar to a lot of the work that our guest today, Kuumba Lynx, we’re going to talk about... very similar to the work that they were doing, but then within the realm of a school. Every sort of path my life is on right now sort of leads back to that space. And also the other youth in that space and how we all got to grow, and push, and love upon each other, and really be adventurous with art in a way that I don't think I've seen traditionally encouraged in our space. Because we were making art about the shit we cared about.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Danez Smith: And really getting the chance to, like, realize the weight behind our voices. You know?

Franny Choi: Yeah. 

Danez Smith: That’s probably… How about for you, though, what nurtured you?

Franny Choi: Yeah, so I am trying to think, like, you know... there were definitely spaces in high school, you know, like, I think about, like, sort of, like, free nerd camp that I, like, was part of. But I think maybe a space that I continued to point to as sort of, like, my origin story for how I got here, was actually early in college. The Third World Center which is, like, now the Center for Students of Color, I think was really, like, the first truly politically radical and politically challenging place that I was a part of and, like, the place where I, like, wrapped my head around what it meant to be in solidarity with other people of color. 

Danez Smith: Aah, tight. 

Franny Choi: You know, like, I went from identifying as, like, an Asian American to identifying as, like, a woman of color in that space.

Danez Smith: Word.

Franny Choi: I think that was, like, a step on this path that I am currently now, you know, kicking it on. 

Danez Smith: I wonder if that's a requirement of transformative spaces for them to be... where you're comfortable enough to, like, realize the full diversity in yourself and within others, and I think that only comes from reflecting that off of... And I think about the Black Box, you know, it was, like, a very much, from every other group in the school sort of all congregated in that space. I think it was the first time I realized, like, not only who I was but also, like, the beauty and difference to…those very important things. 

Franny Choi: I also think that for me, this space that I'm thinking of was one where I think a lot of people were really thinking about what accountability meant in that space and, like, what it meant to try to continue to be in community with people who maybe had, like, violated certain community agreements, or how to continue to love each other even when that love was difficult. 

Danez Smith: Oof! 

Franny Choi: You know?

Danez Smith: Yeah, yeah. I think we just go ahead and.. cause we get into all this with our guests Jacinda and Darius from Kuumba Lynx. Kuumba Lynx is an urban arts youth development organization founded in 1996 by three women of color. For two decades alongside many Chicago artists, activists, educators and young communities, Kuumba Lynx has honed an arts-making practice that presents, preserves and promotes hip hop as a tool to reimagine and demonstrate a more just world. Kuumba Lynx’s program facilitators are a collective of artists, activists, educators and healers. Y’all, I am stoked to get into this with them, so shall we just ponder in?

Franny Choi: Yes, with Jacinda Bullie and Darius Parker. 

Danez Smith: Jump on in, y’all!

Franny Choi: Dive in!

Danez Smith: Blub-blub-blub-blub..

Franny Choi: Swan dive.


Danez Smith: So we are sitting here with Jacinda and Darius, how y’all doing today?

Jacinda Bullie and Darius Parker: Hey!!

Darius Parker: We’re doing good.

Danez Smith: Good! How’s y’all mornings going so far?

Darius Parker: It’s going really good! Probably not as eventful as my mentor just sent us, but… 

Jacinda Bullie: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) Good, good. Thank y’all for coming in today to spread the good, good word of Kuumba Lynx.

Franny Choi: Yes! 

Danez Smith: So for those at home, give us, like, the 101 one basic intro to what Kuumba Lynx is.

Darius Parker: Hmm, Kuumba Lynx is a not-for-profit arts and hip hop education organization using hip hop, elements of hip hop, to influence the empowerment, and just promote social change, and artistic liberation through expression. Kuumba Lynx has been around for 21 years…

Franny Choi: Wow!

Darius Parker: …in the city of Chicago, housed in Uptown…

Danez Smith: It’s an institution!

Jacinda Bullie: I’m trying to be ok with that word, because that’s what it is!

Danez Smith: We have our own institutions, right. 

Jacinda Bullie: Right, right. And I’ve been, like, the last year, like, really reframing my understanding of institution and that power of, like, you know, being in this place and holding it down and not always saying, we want access, but saying, this is the access that we are.

Danez Smith: Woot!

Franny Choi: Wow…

Jacinda Bullie: She’s getting into it real quick.

Danez Smith: But it’s a word though. And that reframing is important, you know, because that holds so much white weight, you know. That we don't know how to shake off a lot of the time... 

Jacinda Bullie: Yeah.

Danez Smith: ...we are access. Yeah! That’s a shirt. That’s a market. Write that down, write that down. (LAUGHING) 

Jacinda Bullie: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) So you said that little spiel about Kuumba Lynx real well, it sounds like you might have been in this program. 

Jacinda Bullie: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Cause you said… you started as a youth And now you're working there as um… what’s your official title…

Darius Parker: Co-operations manager.

Danez Smith: Cool, cool, cool. So how…

Jacinda Bullie: That’s a fancy…

Danez Smith: It sounds real nice.

Jacinda Bullie: I’m just in the crew. I need to start using these titles too, like, what!?

Danez Smith: I run things, you know. Oh, executive director, OK. (LAUGHING)

Jacinda Bullie: (LAUGHING) 

Darius Parker: Umm, I joined Kuumba Lynx when I was 15 years old. I auditioned on my birthday. Jaquanda, who is one of the co-founders, actually was facilitating the auditions, and myself and my girlfriend at the time, her name is Hilda Banks, we were just, like, yo, we want to be in Kuumba Lynx, because at first we just had our dance group, that was downstairs from Kuumba Lynx, and what they be doing up there? Like, they always up there doing something. Moving tables and stuff, and then yelling, like… (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Jacinda Bullie: (LAUGHING)

Darius Parker: And I knew Jacinda through passing, short conversations through our summer programs, though I’d never had the opportunity to be, like, really be under her mentorship until we made that switch. So we came, we auditioned. We were nervous, like, oh my god, what if they don’t like us, what are we gonna do… So Jaquanda was there, like, yeah, yeah, y’all did really good, why don’t you come and join Kuumba Lynx, we was like… OK! (LAUGHING)

Jacinda Bullie: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Darius Parker: So after that, it was really like history! I've seen and traveled and met some amazing people being a part of this program. And so being on the internal end and seeing how things function as an organization and as a mentor and stuff like that is, like... Wow! This is what the hell y’all were doing. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Darius Parker: Back when we were just coming here innocent and leaving. And I know now that the work continues after the lights go out. The work continues after the doors close. It’s been a lot of things. Liberating is definitely one. And I'm enjoying this ride, obviously.

Danez Smith: Amen.

Darius Parker: It’s amazing.

Franny Choi: Can we run down a list of kind of, like, what the different programs or components of Kuumba Lynx are? Like, what are the different kinds of work that you do? 

Danez Smith: Like, if I’m 15, which I perpetually am… (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Jacinda Bullie: (LAUGHING) I’m 21! Every day. 

Danez Smith:... what am I able to touch when I come in? 

Jacinda Bullie: I’ll definitely mention that because we're an institution and we have to do that. But I think... I just do want to add to what Darius is saying is that… we don't think of the work we do as “programs.” When I say we, I think of, like, just the ones who show up every day, right. We've been forced to, like, use that language that sometimes feels really colonizing. Particularly for me, I have to say it does. And so I struggle a lot with that language, but it's because this is the family that we've been forced to reinvent. And it's so funny that Darius thinks of it as an audition that took place, and quite honestly, it literally was, like, will you show up to this space? And if you will… you’re in. 

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Jacinda Bullie: Because we we think talent is talent. We come from art and culture and talent. So the talent is there. We've never been short on that. We've never been short on creativity and innovation. So it really is just about, are you going to ride it out with us? And fight this, and hold our own, and be you, and love on you, when everything around you is not loving on you. And Darius was always loving on himself and that was the energy that, like, drew me to him. We fought a lot…

Darius Parker: (LAUGHING)

Jacinda Bullie: … you know, just about... in terms of both of us raising our own critical consciousness, right, and understanding the role that art and culture played in this movement. But he was a magnet. And there's this thing that we do, we can't do it here because it’s too short, too small of a space. But he puts his arms out real big and I just run and jump on him, like, a big hug. And for me that is, like, the epitome of, like, the relationship that we have, like, it's just the magnet. And he always catches me. With whatever little arms I got to hold him. 

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Jacinda Bullie: So I just... I just want to say that... you know.

Franny Choi: It’s making me emotional. 

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) I know!

Darius Parker: Umm, but that didn't come initially. You know,it took a lot of time, it took a lot of me being mentored, me being able to identify my traumas, and some things I was dealing with... Being the only child, raised by a single mom, who's not necessarily as accepting of the core lifestyle. Having these super high standards on school, but, you know, not necessarily being a strong resource for me... So I was really seeking some nurturing, you know, that I wasn't getting at home, that I didn’t feel like I was getting in school… And Kuumba Lynx provided that. And I was just like, okay I like this. On top of me enjoying just being in a space where nobody is judging you and, like, you can come and be who you want to be, and learn about who you're being, and who you are destined to be. It’s really changed my life, honestly. Like, I wouldn't be able to sit here and say some of the things I've said or, like, formulate some opinions on some of the things I have to think about without being a part of… K.L. And, like, having that family vibe. I think that's why I just couldn't leave. I think that's why some of my peers and folks became my cohort. We're still so gravitated to the organization, cause it's given us that sense of, like, yo, you're welcome here. Any way, shape or form. And you can mess up and it's OK, because we’re gonna guide you through that mess-up. So that doesn't happen again. And I think a lot of spaces don't have that. A lot of spaces are punitive. You mess up, that’s it, you're out. Get-out-of-our-face type of thing. But to have somebody fighting for you, continuously, like Jacinda, like Jaquanda,... So short story: I was supposed to graduate my high school class 2009. Some of the decisions I made in high school….

Danez Smith: Hmmmmm…. (LAUGHING)

Darius Parker: I wasn’t able to graduate. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Darius Parker: I wasn’t able to graduate with my friends… I was really lost, right. (LAUGHING) I was just setting the scene, honey. I was feeling really lost, like, actually I had a class, like, 7-period lunch, like 8-period Earth-Space science just to chill with my friends. I was bad… But then I was like: I’m going to be a high school dropout, yikes. What is that going to mean for me. What’s that going to mean for my community. What’s it going to mean for K.L., because I know they’re gonna say something, I know they’re gonna say something. So Jacinda was, like, ummm… So what are you doing? You going to school. You going to figure this out. You are going back to school. And I’m like… I actually just applied for alternative high school and I’m going to go there and.. for example. OK. She was blunt with me. But I needed that. I needed that realization, like, yo, you messed up. But there are other opportunities to grow from that, and so I continued on. And I’m a college grad.

Jacinda Bullie: Yeah!

Danez Smith: That’s lit. Congratulations! You just graduated in May, right? 

Jacinda Bullie: Hmm.

Danez Smith: Amen.

Jacinda Bullie: Thank y’all.

Danez Smith: Amen. We need to talk about grad school, yay! (LAUGHING)

Jacinda Bullie: And it’s just, you know, I don’t really give a shit if you go to college. You know some important stats and whatever, but the follow-through, right, and the commitment that you make to yourself, like, I’m going to start something and finish it, that’s what I honor about this journey. Cause you had a college journey. 

Darius Parker: Oh yeah. (LAUGHING) Two colleges. Transfer. Yeah, it was bad…

Jacinda Bullie: Been there too.

Danez Smith: We make it some ways. So…

Jacinda Bullie: But anyway, about the programs. Still want to hear about those?

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) Yes!

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Jacinda Bullie: (LAUGHING) Let’s shout-out though some of the pieces that I think... we celebrate and feel good about and have gratitude around and that we have curated for two years in a row, The Chicago Hip Hop Theater Festival.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Darius Parker: Hmm. 

Jacinda Bullie: That’s just something we've always done for 21 years. But we are just starting to name shit. You know, like, we’re getting in the naming game now. Cause, like, folks are about that. We are using these real, you know, academic words to talk about shit that we've been doing. So anyways, Hip Hop Theater Fest is something we're really excited about, because for K.L. it's just an opportunity for us to officially curate some space for 18 to 25-year olds. And Darius talks about the coming back, right. Like, when you create a family and you have a crew, it’s your crew for life. And we don't talk about... in Chicago after, like, 18, 19, if you age out of, like traditional school, you know, like, traditional programs, it's, like, you're really disposable in this city. And so for us, Hip Hop Theater Fest is carving that space. We also just celebrated our 10th year... a decade of producing Half Pint Poetics, which is our elementary school literacy project, if you will. We have been participating in Louder Than A Bomb since inception. In fact, we were some of the folks in the beginning with Anna West and avery, who you had, and Chris Thun, and, you know, I have to give love to Anna West who kind of just knew, with the city that we were living in and that we had to start to really work for some platforms. But also noticing that as LTAB grew that it was starting to kind of miss out on some of the pieces that K.L. was committed to, right. And that was really about that critical lens and that push for policy change through this art and this culture. And so we thought, well, shit, all our kids are too young for LTAB at the time, because we’re moms, right, we’ve got, like, 5 amongst us of the founders, they all wanna do this, but they’re like 9, 8, 10 years old… Maybe we just need to create a space for that voice. And they just love it. You're 8 and 9 and you're talking about identity politics, what are you going to do when you are a senior in high school. 

Danez Smith: Exactly. That's a powerful time for somebody to ask you what you think about yourself, and your city.

Jacinda Bullie: True. And you see it, like, you see it. You know, one of the poets that's... he's not here, cause he just went to NYU Tisch, Sajadi, who is Jaquanda’s son, he was in Half Pints for ten years. He competed in LTAB when he was, like, 11 or 12. He was, like, one of the first. And the idea of just, like, his growth and his understanding and his lens, because he's been asked. What do you think? A platform has been, like, held, you know, with him to talk about that. You know, he had this piece that really explored, like, just his his gender politics and his idea of gender, right. And it really pushed that in our space too to have that conversation. But, had he not been given, like, the road into that conversation at such a younger age, he might just be entering college and thinking about that. You know what I mean? And then the Kuumba Lynx Performance Ensemble is really how we started 21 years ago, which is our Hip Hop Theater Ensemble, and then we hold an apprenticeship through a partnership that we have with After School Matters, which gives an honorarium, a little bit of money. Some people will refer to it as a job. We don't call it a job, because we know that you should be paid way more for this work. It’s just kind of a way to be, like, thanks for showing up.

Danez Smith: That’s a powerful thing for a youth.

Jacinda Bullie: Yeah, absolutely. It changes lives.

Danez Smith: It really does. It really does. We get paid to teach sex-ed at my community center when I was growing up, and that was a powerful thing. Saved a lot of us from having babies too. That 25 dollars went a long way. But no, being thanked for their time and being able to say that, like, your labor is seen... you know, is… woo!

Jacinda Bullie: It's just a tool, like, yo I'm about to get paid to, like, do something I love when I see my parents do shit they don't love. And they don't like. And the sacrifice is important in everyone’s lives. But, you know. Even if it's not that much, it's… no one comes for the money but it definitely helps.

Danez Smith: But it's a good standard to set for them as some of them move into artistic adulthood too, you know. To know that you need to get paid for your art. 

Jacinda Bullie: Yeah.

Franny Choi: And that that's labor. That's labor that you are doing that should be honored. 

Danez Smith: Yeah! And not having to learn those lessons when you got bills to pay, later in life. Cause I sure took a couple of too short checks in my time, thinking that I was being blessed when I was being…

Franny Choi: Screwed over?

Danez Smith: ...yeah, there we go. (LAUGHING) You're talking about K.L. and it already kind of feels like home, cause I grew up in organizations like that in Minneapolis. You know, I am only the Danez Smith I am today because of, you know, my mentors and my peers in those groups. And now that I'm sort of on the adult side of that, I'm still trying to figure out, like, OK, like…. I think I know, but, like, how do we really make that magic intentional that happens for you. Because, you know, you talk to the alumni of all these programs, Darius in here talking, these programs change lives, but they also create amazing, like, world-shifting art, because that's why, you know, K.L. has such a representation. It's not only because the work is important but the work is also good. You know, which are two different things. And so I wanted to know, like, what are some of your considerations when y'all are teaching art that's towards a greater goal, that's still towards community, that's still towards justice and liberation. Or basically another way of saying that is: how do you find the balance between teaching the craft and teaching the work?

Franny Choi: Like the political.

Jacinda Bullie: Yeah, yeah. 

Danez Smith: Yeah, what we would call the work. 

Darius Parker: I think… Correct me if I'm wrong, but most of our work is centered on, like, reaction pieces to the world, right. Looking at policies, and looking at something like Charlottesville. You know, how haunting that was for folks, and just looking at that, like, yo, why was this fucked up. Use your art to speak that. Most of our art is centered on saying something needs to be dismantled or challenged, and then using the additional tools of that so they can bring that into fruition. Is that how you would say it?

Jacinda Bullie: Yeah. I would also add that I think it's about, like, unpacking a lot of what we carry and just feeling comfortable and confident that you have a space to do that, that's not judging, you know, but that's really trying to learn. And I think that the balance between sort of, like, the skill acquisition and then the critical-analysis piece…. So there's a couple of things that come to mind, like, we always talk about, like, the art is political, because of just who we are and where we are at this time. So the creative piece is... yeah, it's the responding, but it's also looking at our own experiences and defining that as, like, this is worthy and valuable and this is what it is. That's very natural, right, that art-making piece is very natural. And then the skill piece is… well, first, we honor skill differently, right. So, we have this sort of mantra for ourselves that is kind of embedded in the value system, and that is that, like, we've been criticized, like, “they don't really write.” “They're not writers, they just get up there and perform or freestyle.” Well, first of all, my people are storytellers. 

Danez Smith: Amen.

Jacinda Bullie: OK. And second of all, I don't know, like, who told you literacy was only pen and paper, but that's some bullshit to me. 

Danez Smith: Yes. 

Jacinda Bullie: And then second of all, we have this thing: if you are thinking, you are a writer. You just haven't put pen to paper yet. But you have an opinion, right. Do you have a thought about that, then you are a writer. You just haven't expressed it in this literary way that people seem to think is better than a freestyle. You know? And so…. I don't mean to say that aggressively, but we've been challenged so often….

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) Go in!

Jacinda Bullie: Right. So I think that a big piece of our pedagogy is, like, acknowledging our DNA, you know, and acknowledging our contribution. That's your cultural capital, y’all, that's your skills. So don't ask me about... because I don't know every poet on the library shelf under P… I need to do that work too. That's just as critical. That skill-building work. It is a balance, but we definitely don't… we're not, like, choosing one or the other. We're just constantly, like, breathing those in and at certain times we may be stronger on, like, studying this piece of literature, and less about the freestyle. But then we may be all about the freestyle and improv, and then really not know who the latest and greatest writer is that’s out there. And it's just… when you facilitate space, that's your responsibility, right, to create that, cultivate that balance. But I don't think we say one over the other. And there are a lot of literary orgs that do, and have a critical eye on us. And so we push back a little bit. As a facilitator of, like, learning, like, I can't keep up. I would be a fool if I thought, like, I could keep up with the last album that came out, or the book that just came out…

Danez Smith: Ooh, there is so much. (LAUGHING)

Jacinda Bullie: There is so much! And it’s, like, unfair that I would even suggest that to a space that I'm responsible to, that know. Like, I got to listen and be a receiver. And I think that's the best, like, learning that’s ever happened in our space, is that we all share what we got and what we know, and if we don't know we try to find someone that does know. That will help us. Like, that's what transformation is about, right, recognizing that we gotta work together. This is just something I found out recently I’ll share with y’all that I think is such a beautiful symbol, or, like, that speaks to that, that’s just from our.... So corn…

Danez Smith: OK? (LAUGHING)

Jacinda Bullie: So it takes 10 rows, right, to grow corn productively, for it have its nutrients, for it to, like, look right in a way that we will eat it and shit and not just, like, discard it. And so, if you don't grow it in 10 rows, it kind of grows out of... for lack of a better term, it's, like, deformed. You know what I’m saying, it will be kind of… it doesn't necessarily come out, like, strong, edible. It doesn't have its full worth. And I just think about that, like, as a collective of folks, like, as a crew, like, you gotta grow together. You know what I’m saying? You gotta inspire each other. You gotta be… Like I gotta show my best self. And I gotta do that with Danez. I cannot show up my best self in one row! 

Danez Smith: I can’t be one row.

Jacinda Bullie: I can’t!

Danez Smith: We can’t even be two.

Jacinda Bullie: Can’t even be two! Or three…

Franny Choi: Or nine.

Jacinda Bullie: You gotta have a crew. That holds you accountable. That helps you be the best you can be. And we all have to start thinking differently. 

Franny Choi: I know that’s one of the things that so many people appreciate and respect and love about Kuumba Lynx. It's not just a literary organization for literacy or for... just for art, in this vacuum, but it's, like, inherently political, like, always at the root political. And blending the creative work with activist work, you know. And so I'm wondering, in this political moment, you know, I think that a lot of, like, community organizations, political organizations and youth organizations are, like, feeling tired, you know? Or even, like, looking at everything that is wrong with the world that's, like, so explicit and in our face right now. Hopelessness is a thing that we're always maybe kind of, like, coming up against, but seems, like, to be perhaps more in our face right now. So, my question is: how are y'all fighting off hopelessness?

Darius Parker: It’s… it’s gonna sound a little cliche, but definitely the youth, right. They continuously give me hope and continuously reaffirm for me that what I'm doing, and what I'm fighting for is valid and affirmed. With the election of Trump, I remember the day after it was announced, and just how drained and fatigued I was. But I had a few of my youth text me just, like, what now? And so, I felt in that moment, I couldn't let go. I remember I had to be, like, yo, step it up for them, and then take your time later. So I was just, like, we gonna keep fighting! This ain’t nothing new. Stuff was not perfect when Obama was in office, so we’re not going to pretend that it was. At the same time... it’s just another fight. We're just going go hard at it, now. I'm glad we got him so that we can keep giving him this work. Keep giving him the work that you built, keep giving him the work that we’re affirming in this space, that we’re doing as a collective. You know what I’m saying? Like, that's what gives me hope. To know that one day, stuff is going to get better. One day, all this fighting is gonna… is gonna be affirmed, period. And so we won’t have to fight anymore. Then we’ll get to a place of liberation for all folks. And that’s what really gives me hope. Because I know it’s gonna happen… I can see the difference in the youth now. How critical and conscious they are. If they continue to cultivate that and continue to fight and push towards that, stuff is going to change. I am... I may not be alive to see it, which is okay, but I know that upcoming shorties will. So….that gives me hope. 

Franny Choi: That’s beautiful. You know that chant, like, I believe we will win, you know, that chant? Every time I'm in a room full of people doing that… I know that there are five of us feeling, like, do we believe this? 

Jacinda Bullie: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: We’re just saying it, we’re clapping on rhythm, like…

Jacinda Bullie: I remember having the same feeling after the election that I actually had after September 11, and I remember the morning of September 11th I was nursing, so I was, like, getting that in, finding out what happened, I dropped my shorty off at the daycare because I was dumb and I really should have been home with the baby, but… You know, I was in the movement, I was at the time working at an alternative high school. And I walked in the alternative high school, and, like, they had gathered all the youth, and, like, people were crying… I don't know what the hell everybody was doing. And I just was, like, unmoved. They do that to our shorties outside every fucking day! And the principle had to come to us and be, like, OK, yes. Miss Black Liberation. 

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Jacinda Bullie: Calm down a little bit and let’s just try to… And I felt like it was the same thing with Trump, and then I had to, like, have movement. Say, you know what? Yes, Darius may have some anxiety. And be honest with yourself. Is that just you being hard? Maybe you have some anxiety too. And self care is a funny thing, because it gets thrown around a whole lot. And I think... trying not to judge, but it does not mean that you just drop out of the world. It just means you have to find some kind of balance. And I don't know what that is, you know, it changes, but for the whole piece, it really is about knowing we got good people. I mean... how many folks wake up and just have a space and a crew of folks that love on you. That you can love on. That’s critical. And we just need to have more of that, you know? And yeah, there is mad work to do, like, there’s mad literal fighting that needs to happen on all parts. But we also have to trust in the spaces that we've committed our lives to build, right? Like, these transformative spaces, like, they're real. 

Franny Choi: Yeah. I've been reading... you know, that Rebecca Solnit book, “Hope In The Dark”? Have y’all read that? 

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Franny Choi: OK, she’s great. But one of the things that she says in the book is that, like, we love thinking about Apocalypse. It's in some ways easier to think about the world ending, than for us to imagine that it keeps going, and keeps being complicated, and that there are moments of liberation and moments of oppression... And freedom is, like, a complicated constantly morphing thing. That's actually, like, a harder thing to imagine. And so the book is trying to, like, challenge us to, like, imagine, like, okay, what if the world doesn't end, then what. 

Danez Smith: Like, it’s going to be kind of good and kind of bad.

Franny Choi:... kind of good and kind of bad. But there is more... like, if the world ends in twenty years, then we’re all freed up of our responsibility to make it better. You know? But if it’s continuing on, then we still have a lot of work to do. 

Jacinda Bullie: So I wrote that down, because I need to get on that. 

Franny Choi: It’s so good. 

Danez Smith: I love that. That’s freeing. 

Franny Choi: I know, right! 

Jacinda Bullie: Because it’s some heavy stuff to, like, behold every day, right? 

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Danez Smith: Hmm.


Franny Choi: I also was thinking about, you know, you've used this term “transformative space” a bunch, and I was wondering, like, what that means. What a transformative space is. 

Jacinda Bullie: Word. It's non-penal. It's understanding that we're working towards perfection, but we're here and we're dealing with real shit. It's, like, recognizing that I have to unpack multiple parts of my identity, from my skin tone to the cultural connections that I have, to the institutions that support or deny that... The stuff that we all know. But a transformative space is really just recognizing that we're not turning anyone away. We're in it together. The good and the ugly, and we're working through it. We're working through it, and we know that there will be hiccups. And the additional piece is that you are acknowledging that you want to be accountable in that space. So that, for me, that's what the transformation is about, is, I'm saying, I know I'm perpetuating a lot of white privilege, or a lot of, like, internalized shit. And so I'm showing up to this space and I want to be held accountable to them. 

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Darius Parker: Sometimes I have to, like, check myself when I'm dealing with... you know, maybe some new shorty's in the space, and I’m like… yo, and I penalizing them, or am I trying to push them towards transformation, and so… That is just a conversation I continuously have with myself now, moving towards making sure that I practice that.

Franny Choi: I feel like that’s a question that… gosh… if every person who had any power was constantly asking themselves that question? I feel like, a lot of things would be, like…

Danez Smith: Go into that, how do y’all find yourselves creating that buy into that, right. Because in order to have a space that isn't penal, like, the reason we have punishment is because we can all agree a lot of times of, like, what good is, and so the only thing that you can hit somebody with is like, well... If you do do it, then, you know… In these transformative spaces, how do we find ourselves creating that buy-in to say that I am agreeing to be accountable?

Jacinda Bullie: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, agreements are huge for us and it's funny it's, like, we go through this all the time. Leadership is, like, “we're going to have our agreements and we're going to post them.” And it's, like, that agreement is going to change in ten weeks, because someone is gonna come in here and blow your mind when they challenge one of those. We have to be flexible with our agreements. Like, negotiating. And that’s some real, like white parents shit, negotiating with shorties, right?

Danez Smith: My momma didn’t do that.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Jacinda Bullie: Right!

Danez Smith: This is law!

Jacinda Bullie: Right. And I've been challenged a lot by my family for being a negotiator, you know. I got whooped. And it's a hard practice, like, you said. It's a hard practice to negotiate your safety and the way that you want to be nurtured, right, because sometimes what I need, you can't provide. But we got to coexist. And they are mad difficult, you could spend days just deciding how we all feel about—should we take our shoes off, or not take our shoes off when we enter the space. I'm using something generic…

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) I had opinions, I was ready.

Jacinda Bullie: Me too, like, hey…

Franny Choi: It depends!

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) What's the weather like outside… 

Darius Parker: Do you have on socks, or no?

Danez Smith: Is it fall?

Jacinda Bullie: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: What’s the floor made of?

Jacinda Bullie: (LAUGHING) Exactly! It’s no dictatorship. It is easier. But I think meeting people where they are is key, right. And we're learning about it. We're really learning about it, because this is the first, like, you know, as K.L. is growing, Jaquanda and me are, like, you know, really the elders. And we always were before just a youth collective. But now we've become intergenerational. And that's something different, that’s a different dynamic. You have to enter, exit and exist in space differently. And the other thing about transformative spaces is, like, so you fuck up, doesn't mean that you get exiled off an island, right, but it does mean that a role shifts, right. Because if I can't show up the way I need to, then I have to show up to something else that I can manage, until I'm able to show up in a different way. And who's making those decisions? It’s not one person, you know, it comes from a collective. And again, I think we're really learning about that. 

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Franny Choi: It really sounds like this is the kind of hard work that you do with family, right? Like, I fee like there's a lot more steps before you say, like, to a family member, like, you're out, you know. And in a lot of other spaces people are seen as more disposable than that. The word family just keeps coming up so much. Like, it's, like, a different kind of, like, accountability and responsibility to each other, if you think of each other that way. 

Jacinda Bullie: It's cool when you see these circles up from the outside, you know, in a public space, but get up in my space… And, like, do we make rap albums or do we talk about what's just happened here?

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Jacinda Bullie: Cause we do a lot of circle time. But that's the blessing that we have, right. Like we spend a lot of time on other things that are not art making, but it is art making, because it's really working on our heart, right. On the way in which we connect. It's not that classic, you know, skill-based art making. You know, it's so much community family time…

Danez Smith: That is the making.

Franny Choi: Yeah! 

Danez Smith: You gotta live to have something to make. 

Darius Parker: And then making it with folks you've identified is your family, like, that's a different feeling. My heart is in you and my heart is in this work. And so... I want this to be just as dope is my love for you. You know, and so that’s why some of this stuff is just like… 

Jacinda Bullie: Aaaah!

Danez Smith: Ooooh!

Franny Choi: Hmmm!

Jacinda Bullie: (LAUGHING)


Franny Choi: We always ask our guests to bring in a poem that they've written that they'd like to share, so… Darius, do you have a poem that you’d like to share with us? 

Darius Parker: I do, I do, I do.

Franny Choi: Yay.

Darius Parker: It’s entitled “For The Black Boys.”

Franny Choi: And is there anything that we should know about the poem before you read it to us, or are you just gonna...lay it on us.

Darius Parker: Um… I wrote it during finals week. Like, so a little bit before graduation, just like, yo it’s getting tough. So I had a lot of friends who were just going through it and I just thought, I wanna write something, trying to uplift them. And to let them know, like we're gonna get through this together. Black boys don't give up, black boys seem to be the the crowd everybody expects to give up, and I don't want that. Especially, like, for myself or my parents. So I just hopped on my iPad and got a-clickin’.

Franny Choi: You got a-clickin’! (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Darius Parker: So here goes. 


Hey yo, black boys. 

This poem is for you 

for the God in you

for the master minding you

for the pride in you

for the Genghis in you 

for the protector and the savage in you 

for the truth in you

for the broken mirrors in you

for the broken you 

this is me reminding you

that it's okay to be broken

for the forgotten you

as long as you're taking strides to find you.

Hey yo, black boys.

This is for the knowledge in you

that absorbs just about every bit of it from the sun.

Life begins with you.

It ain’t easy being no black boy in this world. 

It ain't easy being black in this world.

It ain't easy being no black boy that's queer in this world

black boys are seeds

and even if you chop a tree

its roots are still breathing life into soil.

Black boys are soil 

the purest of foundations

and it is our duty to tell each other this

while we still can.

Before the dawn comes

before the darkness comes

they say black boys be lost in darkness

but how the hell can we be lost in our own being

This is for the darkness in you

for the bravery in you

for the light in you

this is for the Amished you

for the younger you 

for the ancestors in you

for the incomplete you 

for the stories locked deep inside of you

for the you you sometimes forget to acknowledge

for the failure in you

that found the triumph in you

To the you you've been afraid to truly be

this is for the you others wish they could see

This is for you. For each of you

every one of you

in all shades 

Hey yo, black boys.

This is for us.



Danez Smith: Hmmm.

Franny Choi: Hmm..

Jacinda Bullie: Hmm…

Danez Smith: We don't get enough of that, you know, because I feel, like, even myself, just given my own poems and histories and all that, you said, For Black Boys, and I really braced myself. You know? For something… harder to come. And I’m grateful that you can also see us in a gentle… in a gentle looking to. 

Franny Choi: Ah you are giving me feelings!

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: I love this line, “before the dawn…” and then “before the darkness.” Can you say what you were imagining when when you wrote that line?

Darius Parker: I was thinking in terms of, like, sunrises and sunset, right. Just honoring who you are even when the sun goes down, keeping the honor going when the sun comes up, like, this continuous thing of, like, honoring your blackness, as a black boy navigating the world. 

Jacinda Bullie: I like your piece though, just because… it's, like... So often you feel like you don't have permission, like, you have to ask to be all parts of who you are. And it's made because I know you so well, like, I just feel that, like, just acknowledging there are all parts of you. And you don't need permission for that, and you don’t have to be, you know… I appreciate that. 

Danez Smith: Every part, the failure and the triumph, you know. The gentleness and the violence, like, everything. We are complex. 

Darius Parker: We are.

Danez Smith: We've never been one thing.

Franny Choi: Again, talking about transformative spaces a lot, and I think... I'm interested in the ways that some poems, like, create a space to explore safely certain things in all their complexity. You know, I think that poem makes a transformative space and I think it connects also to some of the things that you were talking about, as taking support and wisdom from the space of K.L. and then now returning to it as a leader in this space, you know. And, like, being the person who is, like, speaking back to the youth you were and that other people are, like, now in that role. You know, like, I hear all of that in that poem too. 

Danez Smith: Word.

Darius Parker: It’s difficult for me. I feel, like, a friend was like, have you ever written a happy poem? And I was like, damn! Never in my life! (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Jacinda Bullie: (LAUGHING) 

Darius Parker: Have I written a happy poem… And so when I wrote this, it felt good. It made me feel, OK. This is the happy poem that my friend asked me about years ago, that I was just, like, I’d never had maybe even the space or the bravery to attempt to write, you know. Just being in the space to go, I'm happy and… It’s hard. It's as hard as hell being a black boy, it’s hard as hell for so many folks, and so many things are just coming against us but, like, just to take that space and to celebrate yourself and to celebrate each other. And it felt good to me, like… (SIGHING).

Franny Choi: I love that you frame it in terms of bravery, too. You know, there's like the courage of being happy, publicly. (LAUGHING)

Jacinda Bullie: Yes, right. 

Franny Choi: But, I mean, I think that's true, because I think when we're celebrating, when we're... when, you know, to write something happy, that's like a kind of vulnerability too. You know, and, like, being, like, soft. Being vulnerable. It’s like a different kind of vulnerability.

Darius Parker: Definitely. Cause I felt like.. OK, so growing up, it was always just, like, you got to be hard, like, black boys gotta be tough, like, no emotion. You better not cry. You better fight, you know. And so I never really held space for myself and maybe other like-minded black boys, it was like, I’m not usually like that! You know? I got a little song in my voice. I got a little switch when I walk. A little sugar, you know I’m saying. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) 

Darius Parker: And the same for the boys who may not have the sugar. You know? Holding the space for the variance of black boys, I feel like is important. 

Jacinda Bullie: I'm looking forward to that time for you as an artist when you no longer feel like you always have to respond, but your existence is your art, right. How you feel confident enough as an art maker that you’re sharing work that is not always in response. And I think that’s probably, like, a break-through writing for you. 

Darius Parker: Hmm. I agree.


Danez Smith: So. 

Darius Parker: Is that a bird? 

Danez Smith: No. So every week we like to play a little game, like, if you’re down, just play with us real quick?

Jacinda Bullie: Yeah… I guess…

Danez Smith: So this game is called This vs. That. We're going to give you two things, two concepts, two people, just two things, and you gotta tell us which one would win in a fight. OK?

Darius Parker: (LAUGHING)

Jacinda Bullie: Let’s do it.

Danez Smith: OK. Today's This vs. That. In this corner we have… shoes on. And in this corner we have… shoes off. 


Jacinda Bullie: Shoes off! 

Danez Smith: Why do you say that? 

Jacinda Bullie: Cause i am he-bottle, hillbilly, … 

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Jacinda Bullie: We take our shit off. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Jacinda Bullie: So yeah. Shoes off. 

Danez Smith: What do you say?

Darius Parker: I’d say shoes on… 

Jacinda Bullie: Oooh…

Darius Parker: And that's because... I just remember as a shorty, like, the fights, and, like, the cheat code is like: step your foot on the opponent’s foot, and hold it down while you get your left in. 

Franny Choi: We can just go ahead and call it that cheat code. 

Darius Parker: (LAUGHING)

Jacinda Bullie: I might have lost that one. I get wild. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: You gotta know your area, right.

Jacinda Bullie: Right. 

Danez Smith: Because shoes off on the street…. What if you step on, like, a piece of glass?

Jacinda Bullie: And you’re telling that to someone who had twelve stitches in their foot. 

Danez Smith: OK. So shoes on is definitely the winner. So thank you so much for coming in today! Where can folks find y’all, if they want to find out more. 

Jacinda Bullie: You can always come to our Uptown site, which is at Clarendon and Park. We’re usually there every day, four, five times a week, or you just catch us on our website or follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, all that social media. 

Danez Smith: Cool, cool, website,

Darius Parker: Instagram @kuumbalynx, Facebook, Kuumba Lynx, that’s K-U-U-M-B-A-L-Y-N-X.

Danez Smith: Amen.


Franny Choi: You spelled the shit out of that.

Danez Smith: You did, you did! Practice. You spelled it like you made it up.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Darius Parker: (LAUGHING)

Jacinda Bullie: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Thank you, thank y’all so much. 

Jacinda Bullie: Thank you for having us.

Franny Choi: It was a real pleasure.

Jacinda Bullie: Y’all are the best. The coolest!


Danez Smith: That was an amazing talk with the good folks at Kuumba Lynx. And I’m so happy Darius wrote a happy poem.

Franny Choi: Yeah, me too! I feel like a ….for a lot of us poets it takes a while for us to realize that we’re allowed to write happy poems. Do you feel that? Do you feel that thing?

Danez Smith: Oh, I didn’t know poems could be happy? At all! I thought that was the project of the poem, to make myself and the audience sad. 

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Danez Smith: Or angry, any emotion. But happiness?

Franny Choi: Did you have a moment where you realized that you were allowed to?

Danez Smith: Yeah, I’d get funny poems. So how do you write something that's, like, just happy. And I've seen a couple of people do it. And I think what happened was, I got to a moment in my life where I needed to write that poem too, because I couldn't take myself through the process of, like, excavating trauma, or, like, trying to seek pain or anger in the world, and so I was like, you know what, I for myself need to be able to walk out of this writing experience unscathed. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Yeah. Or at least not completely ruined.

Danez Smith: Yeah! Not completely ruined. You know, you want to leave, like, giggling instead of crying. How about you? When did you....

Franny Choi: Well, I feel like I started writing happy-ish poems and you know, like, being, like, isn't that sweet, or isn’t that pretty. And then when I really started thinking of myself of, like, a writer, I started in order to take myself seriously, I felt like I had to write serious shit. I think I came back around to finding that, like, joy in it again. But I think that, like, having gone through the hard poems and the sad poems, it gives the joy more gravity and more weight. 

Danez Smith: Yeah!

Franny Choi: Like, rarer and more precious.

Danez Smith: Yeah. And I think the trick is then… And I think Darius’s poem did this really well too… is when you find the balance of it, right, that a poem can hold more than what emotion is really the space where I think, like, having to go down those roads leads you too. 

Franny Choi: Yeah. You know, I think actually that I've gone back to the happiness. But then I think I'm going back into just sad again. Not just sad but, like, the, like, not needing to, like, and every poem with, like, and therefore I triumph.

Danez Smith: OK.

Franny Choi: You know?

Danez Smith: Yeah, I got you.

Franny Choi: Yeah. So maybe in, like, check in, like six months....

Danez Smith: You don’t need any more anthems.

Franny Choi: … and maybe I’ll be writing anthems again. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Alright, let’s wrap this thing up. Who are we thanking this week?

Franny Choi: I would like to thank cookie-dough ice cream for having the audacity to blend raw dessert with another not raw dessert. 

Danez Smith: OK. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Yes. Thank you for your courage, cookie dough ice cream.

Danez Smith: OK. I would like to thank the parents of all the Wayan siblings, just for believing in the dream of unprotected sex. And giving us pure unadulterated comedy. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: For generations. It’s still going! Only because those two could not stop have sex.

Franny Choi: We'd also like to thank the Poetry Foundation, especially Ydalmi Noriega and Elizabeth Burke-Dain.

Danez Smith: We’d also like to thank Postloudness and our producer Daniel Kisslinger…

Franny Choi: Make sure to subscribe to VS The podcast on Soundcloud and on iTunes and wherever else you're listening to us. 

Danez Smith: Make sure you follow us on Twitter, @VSThePodcast. Thanks y’all! Peace babies!

Franny Choi: Bye!!

Danez Smith: Woop!

Danez Smith: (MUSIC)

VS gets communal with Jacinda Bullie and Darius Parker of Kuumba Lynx, a youth-focused radical arts organization based in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. The squad talks transformative spaces, becoming an institution, writing joyful poetry, and much more. Four voices in effect!

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