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Kai Isaiah Jamal
courtesy of Browns

Poet and activist Kai-Isaiah Jamal on gender, trans identity, and movement


TextAlex Peters

In partnership with Browns, the Dazed 100-er celebrates feeling joy in one’s body via his new film

Spoken word poet Kai-Isaiah Jamal’s work puts language to experiences that can be hard to pin down with words, expressing his experiences dealing with growing up as a trans man in a Muslim family, dismantling stereotypes about black masculinity, and the difficult intimacies of queer sex and love with the utmost care and equistite beauty.

Now, in a new partnership with Browns, Jamal and director Emily McDonald have created an intimate and joyous video to illustrate two of his poems: S is for skin and G is for grip. Combining movement and verse, the short film, titled Somewhere, We Dance Forever, explores queer identity and finding liberation in the genderless spaces of poetry and dance.

To celebrate the release of the project, Jamal and Dazed Beauty editor Nellie Eden joined in conversation over Instagram Live last night to further explore the themes of gender, beauty and the experience of being in your own body, especially, pertinently, in these strange and uncertain times. Here’s what we learned.

ON TRANS IDENTITY

Discussing where he is in his transition, Jamal said he has reached a point where he is moving into a new state of comfort and acceptance in his body which led him to write the poems in Somewhere, We Dance Forever. “It was suddenly a time where I had shifted from dysphoria to having this state of euphoria with my body,” he says. Capturing this optimism in his work was particularly important to Jamal as so often the trans narratives that we see, including he said in his own work, centre around pain and struggle and dysphoria.

This new found love of his body, however, has brought with it its own challenges. “It’s taken such a long time to arrive at this position of accepting good days and accepting not feeling guilty for not feeling dysphoric,” Jamal says. “There’s such an idea that unless you are struggling your trans identity isn’t valid so it’s really nice to arrive at a point where you can say, ‘actually I’m really happy.’”

ON BODIES

Asked about his first poem, S is for skin, Jamal said he has always seen skin as a metaphor for the middle ground between the outside and the inside, something which is more relevant than ever in our current crisis. “I always like having a space in my work where anyone can find home ground and living inside our bodies is something we all do,” he says. While the poem comes from a particular trans experience, a lot of people now living in isolation will be able to find common ground in the feeling of being restricted and coming to grips with their body in a different way.   

Similarly with G is for grip, which explores bodies in relation to each other, the poem took on a whole new meaning in our current context. “It is really weird to listen to in a time when any contact is something that feels threatened and not ours,” Jamal says. “Maybe this is the first time that there is a parallel between the cis world and the trans experience. They are finally realising what it is to feel alone. We’re collectively alone right now, everyone is alone.”

But rather than feeling down about the situation, Jamal hopes that this collective experience we are having will bring people together. “It’s really nice for everyone to be in a state together, we don’t have that a lot. It’s usually one sector of society going through something or one household and I hope this will humanise so many other experiences and so many other ideas we have about people’s lives.”

ON CLOTHING

Remembering the first time he felt really good in his body, Jamal says it was when he was given a binder by a friend for his birthday. “It was the most affirming thing ever, I suddenly had this physique, this reflection, this moment in the mirror that I hadn’t really had before,” he says. “Looking at yourself in the mirror and not being phased or not reacting to your reflection was something I hadn’t experienced and suddenly this new found freedom of having a flat chest took me into this whole new understanding of body image.”

For Jamal, clothing provides protection and the ability to hide or change yourself in something else. “I could wear five different outfits a day and feel like five different people,” he says. Now that he is at a place in his transition where he is comfortable and happy with his body, Jamal says he is able to wear again the more feminine clothing in his wardrobe. “I don’t feel femme in them because I don’t feel femme,” he says. “My relationship with my body has taught me more than anything that this idea of growth is never A to B, it’s never linear, it's never always going to make sense and in things not making sense I created work.”

ON HAIR

“For trans people hair is often one of the first signifiers that you have to the world around you to be able to say this is who I am,” said Jamal about his relationship with his hair, saying he could remember so clearly the day he first shaved his head. “Cutting my hair off was amazing and really affirming.” 

Trans people often have complicated experiences having their hair cut and Jamal says he has navigated every kind of barbershop “from being called a batty boy in a barbershop, to going to white barbers and being told they don’t cut my hair. I’ve waited for longer than I should in barbershops while people have stepped in front of me,” he explained.

But barbershops have also been the place where he has had some of his most affirming experiences. “I met my dream barber in Leeds called Michael,” he said. “Everytime he cut my hair he told me how good looking I was, how many women were going to find me attractive, it was all these ways of him trying to affirm my masculinity. I love barber shops mainly because they are the only space that men gather and look after one another in. Barbershops are real rituals and important spaces.”

ON GENDER

When he first started taking testosterone, Jamal says, he couldn’t cry. “I would have the lump in my throat, that weird feeling you get in your stomach but in my tear ducts there was just nothing. There is this whole science behind it and most trans guys do experience it when they are on hormones,” he says, explaining that this gave him a whole new view of masculinity and understanding the behaviour of the men in his life. “What I thought was social conditioning, I was understanding from a physical manner.”

Asked about sharing videos of his t-shots on social media, Jamal said it was a really meaningful process for him. “Documenting moments like that is really important as queer people because we have to create history where history has once been taken away or destroyed or censorsed.”

ON HAPPINESS

“Finding a love for your body that allows you to no longer think about it is sheer happiness,” Jamal says. “Being able to just be and exist and not have to question and critique your identity at all points.”

It was this happiness that Jamal wanted to express in the video for Somewhere, We Dance Forever, which was a chance to give space to the good and the fun elements of his work and show himself as a multi-faceted person. “I wanted it to be joyous and I wanted it to be a celebration of my body,” he says.

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