(photo by Louisa McCullough)
Interview by William Johnson
New York City based poet, author, and performance artist, Yolo Akili’s YouTube clip “Are We The Kind of Boys We Want?” has been stirring up quite a bit of a buzz. In over a week the clip has amassed over 2,000 views. The short clip is part choreopoem/part unscripted man on the street reportage. The video echoes Marlon Riggs’s film Tongues Untied–but with a refreshingly irreverent modern sensibility. The clip is composed of a group of men reciting Akili’s poem “Are We The Kind of Boys We Want?”– intercut with testimonials of young queer men of color casually discussing their own desires and proclivities.
Mary contacted Yolo by Google Chat to talk specifically about the poem–part of a larger performance piece titled Purple Galaxy that will be premiering in Atlanta in the fall, the process of composing the “Boys We Want” video, and what he personally learned by pulling the video project together.
Mary: What would you say is the overarching vision of the project?
Yolo: For Purple Galaxy– the show? Or for “Are We The Kind of Boys We Want?”
Mary: Let’s start with Purple Galaxy.
Yolo: You know it’s funny. When the show was in the initial planning stages, the vision was to simply create new monologues and poems interwoven with the video pieces. As the show has evolved though it’s become so clear to me that the universe is sending me [into] a different direction. A direction that is much more vulnerable and revealing. Purple Galaxy: A Poetic Experience will be more about my process and the stories around creating the poems. The experiences, traumas, challenges etc. It will include edited forms of “Are We The Kind Of Boys We Want?” and also several new pieces.
Mary: Would you say the poems being used in Purple Galaxy are personal and confessional?
Yolo: Well, all art is self-portrait on some level, but in this case not necessarily. I feel like there was a way I “hid” the real stories behind the poems by enveloping them in broader social messages/dynamics. In [Purple Galaxy] I share what made me write those poems explicitly–including the faulty choices I made, the “isms” I perpetuated, and more. You get more of the real story, and the real me in the show then the poems and videos reveal. It’s kind of scary for me too, because I’ve never really been this open before, but it’s exciting as well.
Mary: What has been some of the hardest things to reveal?
Yolo: What hasn’t? LOL. And the fact is, the show isn’t out there yet, so I haven’t shared much of it with anyone except the production team, but the hardest parts are talking about being sexually assaulted, growing up in an abusive household, and then going forth in my own relationships being aggressive and abusive. I think it was hard initially because many people in the community think of me as being some sort of “golden child” who never really went through much of anything or who miraculously managed to come into some sort of high “consciousness” from the moment of conception, and that’s just not true. These stories really show all of me. How I got to where I am now and the pain I created on my own journey for others and myself. It’s almost like this show is “shattering the myth of “Yolo” LOL.
Mary: Recently there has been a little bit of a backlash against memoir-based work. Oh it’s navel-gazing; it’s a product of a narcissistic culture. In your mind are there attributes that elevate memoir-based work from being simply acts of narcissism in to works of art?
Yolo: I think whenever someone is telling their story there is potential for healing and transformation for others through their sharing. I can’t say that there are specific characteristics that I think differentiate narcissist work from works of art. I mean, to me those categories are very fluid. Even the social understanding of that term “narcissist” gets thrown around so much that it seems to have lost its meaning. Some things that get elevated as “works of art” are the products of those who have been diagnosed or named “narcissist.” A more useful question to me is: Does it help others? Does it empower? Does it display a wholeness of the individual recanting their life situation, offering us a reflection of ourselves through the telling? I also have to say too, as someone who has been in the counseling profession for years I have big prejudices toward diagnosing individuals with the DSM based titles and even using those labels. I think that the literary world often uses them in a prejudicial manner which really discounts the fact that there are people struggling with cognitive differences
Mary: I hear that “narcissism” has actually been officially removed from the DSM. Now the term is used in a much more general way to denote self-absorption.
Yolo: Yes it has! But I think the prejudice of labeling someone with a mental “challenge” persists even still. The legacy of that term is still a big part of how it’s used.
Mary: I guess what I’m really getting at is: What do you think makes a story “good?” What aesthetic or content choices do you either respond to or employ to make your work a fully realized piece?
Yolo: I have to be honest; I respond to the heart of a work. How it feels. What it radiates. I’m not a writer in the technical sense, and I’m not a literary critic. I haven’t been trained in that tradition. I come from southern poets where there is an oral tradition of storytelling–and a [focus] on the soul of a work. [That] is the only device I knew how and know how to employ. I go with a feeling. That normally gets me in trouble with people who are “serious” writers, because I don’t know that language, and I’ve never really cared to learn. I know something when I like how it feels, and that’s where I live from. My goal with my work is to heal, to nourish and to transform; and I do that by exploring the psychological depths of different issues and phenomena, and offering different visions for what could be as opposed to what is. I try to invoke possibilities.
Mary: So on the transforming tip, there is a lot of buzz concerning your latest video…
Yolo: Yeah it’s been great. It’s definitely sparked a lot of conversation.
Mary: Can you tell me a little bit about how the video piece came about?
Yolo: The video? Or the poem itself?
Mary: The video.
Yolo: Sure. So I knew for this video, I wanted the voices of queer Black boys–especially young black queer boys considering that was where I was when I wrote it. I went out to Piedmont Park one day, literally with just my camera and releases, and just asked people if they were willing to do an interview and a lot did. It was a really fun process. For the second half I reached out to ATL gay male activists and asked them to recite the poem for me. The edited parts of that poem were meshed in with the interviews and that gave birth to the video.
Mary: When speaking to men in Piedmont Park did you go in with any preconceived notions on what the answers would be?
Yolo: I expected the answers to be diverse. I’ve worked with young Black queer men for years in HIV & AIDS work, and I knew the brilliance and nuance that existed within us. It was just a matter of capturing it or at least trying too!
Mary: What did you learn from the experience?
Yolo: I learned how much I love Black queer men. I learned how much I love interviewing us and hearing our stories. There’s so much footage I kept out of the video that maybe I’ll put it together in another project. So, I learned a lot. I also remembered that at one point I’ve shared each and every perspective of the men interviewed. It was a beautiful and fun experience
Mary: What is the story behind the poem itself?
Yolo: In short; me wondering why I was repulsed by others who were like me. Me looking around, and [looking at] my friends, and seeing how we were with boys who expressed like us, and thinking: Where does this come from? I can’t tell you how many men, at that point in my life; I turned away because their expression was not “masculine” enough. I see those men now, and I see love I lost. I [lost] a chance to share because no-one had ever pushed me to see beyond my prejudice and pre-conditioning. Like most of us, I had been force fed an image of what was desirable; and instead of digging deeper, I just kept digging into that plate; unappetizing as the main course was. LOL.
Mary: In tackling the “masculine men only” meme did you ever run across brothers who only wanted to date/have sex with feminine-identified men
Yolo: No, sadly, I didn’t.
Mary: Do you feel your dating habits have changed since you started this poem/video project?
Yolo: My desire has definitely evolved since I first wrote this poem. I’ve worked to be attractive to me and to examine my own desires of people romantically. It’s an ongoing process of course, and there’s no where to “arrive to.” But a lot to learn.
Mary: In a broader sense do you feel that self love and personal desire can be separated?
Yolo: Can you explain more what you mean?
Mary: Maybe desiring difference is not always problematic–in terms of a person’s own self-regard.
Yolo: Interesting. Well, first of all let me say, I believe everything is “problematic” because the nature of life itself is nuanced, and complicated, and not all what we might call “good;” but as far as desiring difference, I’ve seen that come up quite a bit in the conversations about the video. People seem to think that [in suggesting that you desire images of yourself or find yourself attractive] that means that’s ALL you should find attractive and that’s simply not the case. I think it’s wonderful to desire different expressions, images, and reflections of humans. The question being posed is not that you should not embrace your desire of difference, but that you should question your disdain for those who express [themselves] similarly and the [elevation] of specific expressions. The question “would you date yourself?” was just a fun and simple way to get people to think of these themes.
Mary: So what’s next for you?
Yolo: Well the project is currently going to be split in two directions. There will be more video poems released in the upcoming months for “They Will Hunt Us” and “Fagets R Not Responsible” and then of course the one man show Purple Galaxy: A Poetic Experience, will premiere this fall in Atlanta. From there I have more goodies planned. In the next few months Purple Galaxy, and myself, will be rolling out a lot of surprises.
Mary: Great. Well thanks for taking the time out to share your thoughts and good luck with your upcoming work.
Yolo Akili is currently raising funds for his one man audio visual show, Purple Galaxy: A Poetic Experience. To donate click here.
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