Kai-Isaiah Jamal's spoken word poetry channels the joy and pain of growing up as a black trans man in Britain
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When spoken word poet Kai-Isaiah Jamal’s voice reverberates around a space, everyone falls silent, listening intently. The uniqueness of his accent – somewhere between South London (where he grew up), Nigerian and Jamaican (inherited from his dad) – commands a crowd, but there’s also the words; his poetry tackles the issues most personal to him, like growing up as a trans man with a Muslim family, dismantling stereotypes about black masculinity, or the difficult intimacies of queer sex and love.
Beyond his poetry, the UK-based artist has built a solid reputation as spokesperson for the LGBTQ+ community. Kai has worked with big cultural institutions such as The Tate Exchange, BBZ London, NTS Radio and The Barbican as a performer and activist, as well as modelling for brands and magazines. All of this work is driven by a frustration at the lack of diversity and representation of LGBTQ+ individuals in the media when he was growing up: “I want to show the generation below me and below them for more generations to come that they have living, breathing versions of themselves to look up to and remind them that they can exist,” he says. “That is why I do what I do – because queer and black and brown voices have been removed, destroyed, erased and censored. Most of my role models are not here anymore because of what they were fighting for. I am trying to stick to being present and vocal for the misrepresented and unrepresented.”
When do you feel most beautiful?
It varies. People often roll their eyes when I say I don’t find myself beautiful all of the time. I think I have an interesting or unusual face but to feel beautiful transcends that in so many ways. I do find it hard some days, so I get haircuts and buy new clothes and wear nice outfits just to pop to town. But when I do feel beautiful it’s usually in bed with my girlfriend and I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and I look like a man, or other times I catch a glimpse of how she is looking at me and I realise that she sees something in me that maybe I should too. I’ve also spoken about the power of the selfie and how you can distort and edit things; I will make myself the most beautiful version of myself I can, and that really can boost my confidence – even if that's shallow of me to say.
If you could have a new sense on top of your existing ones, what would it be?
I think to be able to transform like a chameleon and blend or change with my surroundings. I always call myself a transformer now. Sometimes I laugh and say my end of medical transitioning is like my final form. I think also blending in means on bad days you can still navigate without feeling like everyone is looking at you and trying to work you out. It’s safety.
If it was the year 2100, and you were the owner of the largest beauty tech company in the world, what five products or treatments would you dedicate your resources trying to invent?
1. Hair growth oils – because the ones I’ve used are crap! Also we are all taught that hair is something that should be removed from certain areas of the body. It's rarely celebrated without being fetishised or turned into a commodity. Also, closer to home, growing a moustache is probably the hardest thing I’ve done! So to relieve my folk of that strain would be great. Castor oil can only do so much.
2. Scar treatment. Though it is around I’d want it to be better. So many people are forced to cover scars, think about them, get tattoos to cover them up. I’d love to just completely change the world's perspective on ‘minding your own business’, but I’d also love to create a cream that actually works to reduce scars. I have some scars that are part of me and who make me who I am, others that trigger me and take me back to a time that I don’t want to remember. It's very easy for people to say ‘embrace’ things but you don’t always want to embrace a time that caused a lot of pain.
3. Pick me up tablets. Our internal feelings are shown very much on our faces and vice versa. If we treat our insides bad we see it on the outside, if we treat our outsides badly we very much feel it on the inside. When I am feeling down, I have a bunch of tablets that can ‘stabilise my moods’ but anti-depressants, anti-psychotics and other medication used for mental health often also give you bad skin, dry your hair out, and dehydrate you. So I’d like to have a tablet that worked the other way, which plumped your skin, made your hair thick and glossy, energised you and so forth. Often if we can find some pros in our appearance our mood can be lifted. Vanity is something that is so censored and policed which creates a fear around wanting to look good and the pressures that people face in order to do so.
4. I’d also love an injectable shield for black and brown folk because I think we really fucking need it.
5. Finally a vaseline that actually moisturises your lips for a whole 24 hours, not 24 minutes! Not having dry lips is a full time job for people with lips the size of mine!
What is the future of Beauty?
I think the future of beauty is representation, casting and showcases of beautiful, ostracised people, without making us into a trend. I think it's black and brown make up, it’s fat femme magic on runways, it's casting real people and not just culturally appropriating, it's normalising wearing no make up, it's genderless clothing, it's boys in make up that isn’t drag. It's no more summer bodies, it's black boys in the paper for something else, it's dykes for beauty campaigns, it's six packs not meaning masculinity, it's skinny men being sexy, it's healthy and wholesome, it's sourced in the right place, no more exploitation. It's smiles sometimes and not always pouts, it's cheekbones just being something we all have, it's cosmetic surgery being reconsidered. It's trans folk on the front of magazines (and I'm free if anyone wants me!). I think it's unlearning the idea that beauty is one thing and that we all have to adhere to it. I think it's pushing boundaries that previously have been so rigid. I think it's an all inclusive safe space for everyone without judgment and without fear. It's about getting rid of this adjective and no longer describing only a small sector of society as those who hold a quality that everyone has the right to hold.