In 6 Questions, we get to know an Asian American artist, writer or other leader, and have them come up with another question. We caught up with DJ, poet, and community organizer DJ Kuttin Kandi over the phone. She’s an organizer with the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), the Asian Solidarity Collective, and founder of hiphopbruha.com.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
JY: What gets you excited to create your work?
KK: All the work that I do, I feel, has to be interconnected to the liberation of people, and serving the people. That’s my core belief, that anything I do, whether it’s through my art or even my education — right now I’m going back to school, I want to make sure I get something out of it. If my class doesn’t have a critical lens then I hope that I find a way to make it into a critical lens that applies to the work that I do in life. Any job that I participate in, it has to have a lens or at least work towards something that is about justice, social justice, how we can serve the world and people. So that’s kind of how I view my life. You know I’ve worked other odds and ends jobs just to have a living and even then I have to have a purpose. For example my partner, when he was living with me in New York he was coming to meetings with me all the time and participating and helping out and finding ways to organize. Now he’s working two jobs and he doesn’t have the time but the way he sees it is, “If me working two jobs means that it gives you the avenue to be able to do that work then I’m there with you.”
And I’m the same way. It’s all about finding liberation work in those spaces. Now I’m working with a union and I’m learning a lot about the labor union organizing movement through amazing people who are teaching me their workspace and how they organize within those spaces as well. Anything that I do has to be about justice work.
JY: How do you prepare yourself for the day? Do you have a morning ritual or headspace that you need to put yourself in before you go out and do this work?
KK: Well I was doing a really great job of that before. Typically I used to have these quotes on my wall — and you’re reminding me that I need to do that again — and I would use them as my mantra for the day. And I’d pick a line from one of those poems to stick with me throughout the day and it helps me pause and savor the moments of the day. Because it’s so easy to have a busy life and a busy schedule and not take a moment to breathe, but it’s the simple things. Meditation for some folks is really not easy to do — who has the time sometimes to take 20 minutes to meditate? But I think it’s just taking simple pauses. That used to be my daily ritual and something I’d like to do again.
Now the first thing I see when I wake up is my children. They wake me up and they give me life and hope and purpose and even if I don’t have a moment like I used to with meditating, I think looking at my children is meditative sometimes. They are a reminder to take a pause and celebrate life because their life is so beautiful and innocent. They are a great purpose to continue living. A lot of the time when I wake up and I look at them I think “oh I gotta do this and do that” but they’re waking up and they’re bouncing on the bed and laughing so that’s how I start my day pretty much.
JY: What do you do when you’ve hit a creative block?
KK: That happens often — a lot of things get in the way. Obstacles like money and basic survival stuff, and it really stunts my ability to create. So I have to be in my headspace and be in complete solitude. There’s times of course where I’m inspired by people and I collaborate on pieces but that too has to be in solitude, where we’re in one space together. I was actually saying to a friend not to long ago, maybe we just need to go away to the woods somewhere. Sometimes it just takes that. There are things that I’m writing that are in my head that I need to get out and oftentimes my blockage isn’t because the imagination isn’t there, it’s because there are all these other obstacles in my life.
But there are times for example if I’m writing a new poem and I do have the time that day and I get stuck with words and getting it to flow out, so sometimes I’ll just keep on writing even if it doesn’t make sense and then something will come out.
JY: What have you been reading / watching / listening to?
I’ve been listening a lot to Ruby Ibarra’s album “Circa ‘91”. Her album is so inspiring. Because if I were to put out my poetry album, which I plan to do next fall, when I listen to her album that’s kind of the avenue I want to go, a storytelling piece. Story of struggle, of joy. She talks a lot about an immigrant life, she talks about her mom, colorism, being Filipino, coming here to this country, being embarrassed by her mom’s accent, all the things that I grew up with as a Filipina brown girl and I found myself oftentimes listening to her album in the car and I want to tear up and cry because that’s literally the shit I grew up with. It really rips you to the core and I think it’s an amazing album because not only is she really great at putting those stories to pen and paper, as a hip hop rapper, she’s flipping back and forth between English and Tagalog and on top of that her alliteration and her flow and delivery is on fire, the beats are great. Such an inspiring album and it’s really engaging and inspires me to finish my poetry album.
I’m also taking an American History class and we’re reading “A People’s History of the United States”, which I’ve read at least 5 or 6 times because I have a learning disability so for me to process things it takes me time to read and reread things. But it’s been a long time since I read it so I’m rereading it right now and I realize now more than ever with this presidency we really have to know history.
And I’m so glad I’m taking this class because it’s helping me have a sharper analysis, remember things I’d forgotten, and compare. For example they just announced the House passed the tax reform bill. But the fact that they passed that and I’m learning about the Mellon plan and that history of tax, or looking at FDR’s New Deal. It’s helping me look at this state of where we’re at so that’s engaging me.
JY: What’s your signature karaoke song?
I will always be a Whitney Houston fan and I’m not the greatest singer but I love Whitney Houston and I always sing either “I Believe the Children are the Future” — I’m so cliche — or “Saving All My Love For You”. Trust me I do not sing even close to her but I always end up singing those two songs. I do like “Bennie and the Jets” too.
JY: From Superman and New Superman writer Gene Luen Yang: If your life were Super Mario Bros, who/what would be your Bowser?
(laughs) It’s so funny that makes me think of Zelda, I was more of a Zelda player.
I’m thinking of the younger Magneto, when he was struggling with his conflicts. I’m totally Magneto because I struggle with Professor X sometimes in a political sense with how he wants to integrate into the human world. This is sort of like a Booker T. Washington versus Dubois or a Jose Rizal versus Bonifacio in the Philippines. I kinda look at it in that sense. For me I struggle and I think of myself as a Magneto because I totally don’t want to conform sometimes. And he’s about the liberation of his people! I could be like magneto I swear.
JY: As he got older though he did some pretty horrible things.
Yes and that’s why it’s hard. He killed thousands of people in order to gain freedom for his people and ends up oppressing other people. I didn’t think about that part. (laughs)
It’s like what kind of path am I trying to take? Like if Professor X believes in liberating but also integrating; in what way, to what degree, how much are you conforming. And with Magneto, can we get our liberation without having to oppress. Even with Professor X we have this ideal world but do we have to conform to the degree that we erase and minimize our own struggles in the process.