Solidarity: Intellectual life, Contemplation, and Belonging in the Millenia
This conversation is about belonging and personal growth through the lens of Diana Gordon and Phoebe Collings-James. Both womxn introduce us to their worlds, and guide us through the many ways they have travelled through them. This conversation creates space for an intimate moment where personal narratives are centered and powerful lessons are shared.
Diana: Hi guys. I’m Diana Gordon. I’m an artist, I’m a creative. I’ve been working in music and writing songs since I was 15 I’m 32 now. It's been a really really rocky road , a lot of ups and downs with my family, trying to live my dreams. Last year was a really exciting year for me because I got to work with Beyonce. And I wrote half of Lemonade. Had my first Grammy nomination as producer and writer, and just continue creating with other artists. There's a bigger story in that but I hope we get to talk about it all and share.
Phoebe: My names Phoebe Collings-James, I feel especially self conscious of my accent. I’m British and Jamaican and I’m an artists. Iwork mostly with sculpture and installation based work and yeah I guess I’m thinking of similar things. Where I come from, my family m, the dynamics that kind of are foundational to the way I think about my work and navigate through the research that relates to my work, and living and being here and stuff like that.
Ladin: Being around people who look like us and being able to facilitate these kind of spaces, whether or not we get that in our day to say lives there is some privilege in evenorchestrating this kind of space. Im interested in what part of yourself are, not necessarily the most present, but do you want to be brought into this space. What parts of yourself do you wanna make sure are heard or seen when you're navigating spaces around women of color but also kind of on that experience of being around your day to day peers?
Diana: When I’m around, I feel like a big sister to everybody. I don’t care if you're older than me I’m your big sister. I’ll tell you what to do and show you the way. For me I mostly like to use my failure sor my lessons and tell people about those things so that they don't do it. And that they reel inspired themselves. I like to give kindness cu i think that the only thing that really matters is showing love. Sometimes you don't have money, any material things and the only thing you can do is give someone a huge because you know you've been there. I just have tones of stories so maybe I can share some?
Ladin: Yeah share some stories and speak to how those stories have helped you kind of create a path for yourself and things that you wanna ensure.
Diana: I met this guy who was like, I was 17 years old interning at a record label and I would do anything to go to an industry party. And he was like “I’m gonna take you there, there's gonna be executives, they’ll be able to meet you.” And I was like ok. I didn't think I was cute, I used to wear my hair in a ponytail sweatpants t shirt, nothing about me screamed please have me, nothing. I got in the car I’m excited pumped up I’m like can’t wait to get there! And he pulls over into a park. And he parks the car and starts feeling up on me. And i'm just like are you fucking kidding? Is this a lifetime movie? Are you going to really do this? And I was like wow this really happens there are real predators out there who want to exploit young women. I was very strong at the time, I was strong in myself but part of me was like maybe if i go along with this I’ll have something. And that wasn't the right thing to do. And I use some of my experiences and some of my low self esteem at the time, I used that to talk to other women, when I mentor them to try and steer them out of that path.
Ladin: I feel like I’m hearing a lot of pressure to compromise and pressure to overcompensate in these journeys and I think that can be in the music industry it can be in the traditional workplace it can be in our families where we have innate weird responsibility especially as women of color to be the caretakers to be the people who are explaining themselves all the time to be the one that creates that parh and that way and it is self inflicted in many ways it's like an act of self preservation but what I heard a lot was from your childhood to your days when you tried to crack into the industry there was always this feeling of taking it further than your peers because you had to and you had to work twice as hard and all these things so these are tropes that we all know and experience from time to time but in this position now how do we not necessarily break that because its very internalized this feeling of responsibility and needing to take care of others and kind of be this blueprint, and it's like a pressure to navigate every day. So I guess with that I would ask, Phoebe I’m sure you wanna speak to some experiences as well but where you kinda gear that conversation.
Phoebe: I mean I guess I was just thinking of a lot of things as you were talking but I had kind of a similar but also opposite experience. My family was kind of poor, the area I grew up in was violent, school was violent, that was the energy that I grew up in. But my whole community was black, Indian, mainly West African and Caribbean immigrants. And so I guess one thing I kind of thought about was this idea of codeswitching, and whichever way that code goes having to I guess just what it means to have to tone yourself down in some way to then, I had this experience up to maybe 18 then I went to a university where I went to art school. Everyone was white and all of a sudden this space in which ist seemed like success or achievement was completely centered about whiteness. And I’m 30 so a similar age and what i've been thinking about and learning over the last 10 years trying to live and work as an artist is to understand the difference between the intelligence and knowledge of the people who I grew up with most of which will never get to experience things like this compared with the learned knowledge and the hierarchies within that that ate perceived. So i've been thinking about how do you close those gaps? Which feel like this huge gaping distance from home and community life at home and then these new spaces that feel centered around whiteness so often. I don’t know if that speaks to the last part of your question.
Ladin: No I’m just trying to dig deeper into what you’re saying. Do you mean, is it like from what our roots, the people we grew up with, the people who aren’t in the industries?
Phoebe: Yeah I guess I just think a lot about black exceptionalism. Like I compare to the people I went to school with, I’m not necessarily supposed to be here, it’s not destined that I would get a passport get to travel get to work as an artist get to experience the things that I have. But it's also not a surprise like throughout history, we just had a black president, these kind of cultural anomalies, exceptions, are now not new to us. So that's not really surprising but then it's like how do you close gaps? How do you reconnect?
Diana: I feel like you just create your own. I think that we’ve been so dependent. It goes back to elementary school, thinking that white js right. In every single way, even in music it was like there’s be the cool r&b hip hop blogs really into your music and they were like “Let me support you, I’ll do whatever.” And we're like no, Nylon. I want the white people to say it’s cool first and then people in black culture are like we support you, we wanna be a part. It even took me up to this year to realize that we run things. Hip hop, r&b, black culture, people of color we set the tone for really so much of everything in life, in music, we start the trends and they follow. So I think it’s this continued empowerment with each other to create our own. Our own spaces and to say I’m good enough because I think that has been a big thing, like I’m not good enough, this is not it, but it is it.
Ladin: But also like just to kinda speak to his black exceptionalism term th kind of transcends spaces and industries, I feel like just recently I’ve personally been coming to this real standard or rule almost that I don't not want to engage whiteness anymore or in the way that our experience is centered around it. Obviously we can't ignore it, we live in and exist in this world. But I’m just not interested in that being such a central part of my narrative. I’m interested in our experience as women of color, as black women, you were speaking about your experience in art school.
Phoebe: I think also, I 100% agree and I always think about it as something like they're not gonna let go of power, we can’t change that. There's nothing we can do. We can do us, we can think about the ways in which we can engage with how to make our lives better. We can engage with the fact that antiblackness exists within the black community. And we can actually think about what privilege means to us. And there are so many things to be spoken about that dont involve centering whiteness and how we’re gonna solve this problem because we’re not. That's not something thats our problem to directly fix. And I know one of the points for this talk was talking about intellectual life and I guess for me, what's been really helpful is it’s really easy to say “Check your privilege.” But it’s really difficult when, and I see this a lot online especially in terms of colorism, you’ll see women getting into huge arguments, it’ll be a lightskin woman saying “I’m not privileged, my life is shit.” And then lots of other women of all colors will come for her and it will go back and forth and I guess something that I’ve thought about a lot is how I think intellectual life has helped is thinking about the difference between structural problems, how you exist structurally versus how you exist personally. So you can have a completely connected honest vibrant connection with your own personal identify, your roots but then also understand how you exist in sometimes even you can go so far as to oppress another person with your structural identity. And I think about that a lot because my moms white and my dad has dark skin and my sister has the same parents and has darker skin. And then there's me, I have to think about, there's no confusion to me who we are when were in that house, the conversations we have what my roots are what my ancestors are and what hey give to me and what I learn from them. But then as I step out the door I guess the way I’ve been able to not feel under siege but also really take responsibility for curtains structural ways in which I exist I think has been incredibly important.
Ladin: I was also thinking about, Diana your point of creating these spaces and creating our own lane and understanding the dialogue right now even though we’re facilitating when I think about intellectual life when I think about conferences when I think about these spaces that already exude a very hierarchal or academic or even pretentious in many ways, it just feels inaccessible. And I think right now bringing that conversation where we’re the ones facilitating and leading recognizing that we do have the language that either our family members don't or our community members don't and bringing that into thenspace and recognizing it like yeah I can sit here and be like I don’t wanna talk about white people any more I dont wanna engage with it anymore and I also have that privilege of knowing that the way I walk in my body I don't have to engage with it maybe as much as my dark skin twin sister. Its that idea of checking your privilege but what do you do after you checked your privilege. It's such a quick thing to be like you know you have privilege ok what's next? I read this article recently for the sake of knowing how to communicate that to people. You can't just tell someone like “You have privilege.” Especially if their lived experience has proved completely otherwise. Sp its like you said creating this language or this feeling of relatability that speaks more than quickly telling someone that they have an issue or that they have more privilege so to bring that back into intellectual life and how we belong and exist in these days. I think for me what's worked is putting my foot down and when I wanna show up in a space and how I wanna engage with the space but there's just so much to perpetually unpack with these communities but what feels the most potent and what feels the most radical to me is bringing that back home or bringing that back to community members. So I’d be interested for you Diana how you've brought that back, you were talking about being a mentor or having these spaces where you facilitated like I’ve had this experience too. How do we create a tangible, not so much solution, but at least a path that we can change? At this point I’m interested in switching that lane like we recognize that we exist in a racist capitalist white supremacist world, so what next?
Diana: For me in my position I’m not that big of a person, I’m one person, but I’ve gone out of my way to fellowship with women like me. When I find talented women of color either on instagram, I’ mscouring instagram looking for makeup artists hair stylists, this js directly for me, I wanna make a video, I need photographers I need videographers I need stylists. I look for people like me I look for women to grow up with my and build that experience with me and try and stick with them.
Phoebe: And I think that’s really important. Especially at a time when you can be fooled by looking in magazines and looking on the cover of whatever that there's been massive progress because there are people of color at the front to a certain degree but every time you look at who took the picture who did the makeup who did the production whos getting paid, it's usually mostly white men. And this is something that was touched on within the art world in the previous talk. And I think that those things which, yeah you are one person but you have such reach in terms of how you can operate and then influence a knock on effect because if you operate, I think people, not just lazy, but they kind of go with what they see before. But if someone sees you operating like that, the likelihood is next time they go to get an assistant or expand their network, they can then be inspired to do the same.
Ladin: You’re one person right? But it feels like even now there's this responsibility in creating this space even to talk about these things I think something that I really wanted to make clear that was my intention was that we’re not falling into this same narrative srx thays place upon us when we do discuss topics or problems relating to women of color, even speaking with peers who are like “Oh what's this about?” And it's not about one thing but just this idea of creating a space that hasn't existed before when were talking about, not to say spaces to discuss these thing have not been created before, but to really have that clear intention not to follow a unintentional path, talking about white people suck, white supremacy all this stuff and its like again zi feel like I had this conversation with a friend recently and they're like word but I’m not trying to let white people off either, but we exist past that and there's so much more work to be down within our communities. But also to talk about how we hold our communities and how we celebrate our communities. I think another intention for me was to bring all these folks together that I’ve been organizing with to celebrate them and to affirm them in a way that maybe they haven't been affirmed before or haven't felt good enough to talk about certain topics before, that kind of comes with being a woman of color, you wanna support your folks you wanna support your community.
Diana: I think it's really important, I was talking to June earlier about this, about oppression in our minds. And how can you deal, how can you be a soldier for everyone else when you cant even be a soldier for yourself. And this goes back to the beginning. How when we all have come from a place where in our culture its ok to beat the kids, our parents and our grandparents before them were oppressed and they put that on us. I know that when I was even just 3 or 4 years ago I had a massive nervous breakdown, just anxiety that came out of nowhere and it was crippling. And it was like, how can we fix each other, how can we fix ourselves and heal. You can't move forward broken, there's a lot of healing that needs to be done before you can even move forward as a people because like I said, Harriet Tubman, she said she could have freed a lot more slaves if they only knew they were slaves. You know what I mean? Its like theres so many people, young kids I like to talk to that I’m just like you’re doing the wrong thing, you're so smart you should apply yourself. Can you name that thing you wanna do? Let's sit down and say what are the steps, even if you have to work at Mcdonalds for six months, that can lead you to the next place, earn you some money so you can take that class that you wanna get into so you can get into the next place, there are so many people that aren't even willing to do it. There are people like you guys who showed up, obviously everyone in this room wants to do the work. And I feel like it it starts there, you gotta see who’s present and who’s available and start the community from there because everyone else is kind of asleep. And I think that we’re all willing to share and use each other to climb to the top, cuz that's where we all wanna be at the too together, and celebrate. So that's just something I had to say, just to acknowledge that a lot of us are broken. And whether we be darkskin, lightskin, mixed whatever it comes from we’ve been operating from a place of fear for a long time as a culture.
Ladin: Prided ourselves on recognizing that were also still learning as were creating this space. Ans to speak to that notion of operating from this hurt place, this is not the easiest thing to create either but even thinking about, not necessarily who to reach out to but just thinking about these topics you recognize that we’re just scratching at the surface right now there’s so much more to do.
Diana: It’s just like, I feel like I kicked a door down. I feel like there are lots of women like me who are kicking doors down, but we’re still kicking them down. It's not easy. Me gaining a little money, I like to pay everyone I work with cuz I know everybody's got bills, everybody has to go home and eat. Its like man what can I do, what can I actually do to help? And this conversation is so important.
Phoebe: Yeah I guess I was just thinking about what you said and also just like, people are asleep because they are in a situation where things feel completely unchangeable. Black social death is real and I just wonder if people in privileged spaces which is I guess any space where you're able to speak freely and share and have the time and power to do so. Yeah just how important it is to really acknowledge that. To acknowledge that people aren't asleep because they want to be, they're asleep because of all the things that they've been been born into, a legacy of pain that is only changeable bt a massive force. And I know that it was a relatively small thing but I know part of the reason that you wanted to do this as a podcast instead of the 40 or 50 people on the room is because of wanting to try and penetrate that like how do you get the conversations that are being had in this privileged space to a wider community so that people can hear, so that people can perhaps learn. Cuz something that I’ve been thinking about a lot which is, therems getting to the top which is something that hopefully means sharing creative spaces, getting to live a creative life, but there's also just getting to live without fear, getting to live in the same communities not having a bigger house but just not being scared, having food to eat, knowing how to have nonviolent relationships, learning how to love one another, learning how to be queer in the broadest sense of the term, in terms of whether you're in a hetero relationship or not. Those are things I think about a lot because in terms of getting to the top, and occupying that is important because the people there can hopefully inspire the culture that people listen to and love from and learn from. So it's important that the people at the top are thoughtful and powerful activists and creatives.
Diana: I also feel like we have to have goals. And that was for me as one person, it was really important for me to write my goals down and check those boxes, there are steps, how am I realistically going to reach these goals? So as a community of people we have to take those steps, it’s the same steps you would take with one person. I was really disappointed at the Women's March, what did they say it was like the largest protest in history or something like that? Was it that not true? I don’t know, that was floating around the internet. At the same time I felt like so little was accomplished, actually nothing was accomplished, I don’t know what the goal was, there were no goals. In a community space if we actually say this summer as a group of women we are going to plant a garden and feed ten families for one year.
Phoebe: The first thing when we got our questions I wrote down “What are our goals? What are our demands?” Because I was thinking, without thinking about that whether it's personal lists or bigger ideas, you can be swimming around in ideas. Another thing I also thoght and ive been trying to do for myself periodically is writing those lists but also rewriting things that I have done. So often, especially in New York the neurosis is real. People warned me. Looking around, looking at the amazing things other people have achieved or sometimes just being so busy that you forget, a small or big goal that you had for yourself and you reached it. And it might not look exactly like it did when you first thought about it. But I try and do that every so often when I'm spiraling in some weird hole. Just literally write things down, they can be work things, goals I had for relationships with friends and lovers, yeah.
Jube: Something I think about often is how do I bring that language back to community back to family. Een this idea of identity and recognizing that things are a spectrum or multifaceted, all these words and you're like where did I get it, does my mom get that? Or my brother or cousin or whoever? Them understanding that actually might help then in many other ways of navigating this space and this world. For me thats something thats been like this mission every day, bringing it back but also recognizing the language difference, not even necessarily just english and another language just having the ability to name somethings. There's a power in it and there's a violence in it too because then it hurts and then you reckon with it. But I guess just real briefly these things that I think have been tangible for me, then I know that after recognizing this I can try to explain what queer means to my black Muslim immigrant mom.
Phoebe: I’m about to say something which could be another hours long conversation but I know that Diana shared some personal stories with June and we didn't get to talk about it but I think another thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is, you seem to be allowed to talk about other moments, were allowed to say yeah I was spiraling, but if you've had either in your family or personally very acute or extreme mental health issues, I don't feel like I’ve had the space to speak about those things. I have an uncle who has seever schizophrenia. Its ended up in violence within my family, very very serious situations, institutionalization, police, everything. So for the whole of my life a shit show. And I feel like there's a massive gap, we’re allowed to talk about that we hate our bodies or were spiraling or were anxious but then that's one thing that i feel like I would like to be able to talk about more.
Sienna: Yeah so I guess that's where our conversation wraps up, thank you to Phoebe and Diana, i feel like even in this conversation i've learned a lot speaking to both of you so thank you.