Curated by Highsnobiety and presented during the time period formerly known as Paris Men’s Fashion Week, “Not In Paris 2” is our second in a series of bi-annual digital exhibitions celebrating creativity in the age of remote interactions. Head here for the full series and cop our new merch via our online store.
Kai-Isaiah Jamal is many things. A poet, a model, a visibility activist, consultant and much more. But that wouldn’t do the London-based performer justice.
“Everyone [often] thinks there’s one element that's more. I always say that I'm a poet or an artist above anything, because that's what my craft has always been,” says the 25-year old. “I exist as a wordsmith, and then I also exist as a face or a body. I feel like none of them can exist without the other. [But] above all, I’m human.”
In the past year, they’ve penned countless poems; protested; appeared in campaigns for Stella McCartney, GCDS, and Mugler; starred on the cover if i-D, 10 Magazine, and Wonderland, and became ICA’s first poet in residence, using the platform to make poetry accessible for young POC and LGBTQI+ people.
In a commission by Bottega Veneta for For Not in Paris II, I caught up with Jamal on everything that’s changed for them over the past year, and everything that’s remained the same. The performer feels most comfortable dressing according to their mood, whether it’s high fem one day, or casual workwear the next. And so we photographed Jamal in both. In doing so, to reemphasize how drip has no gender.
Just this week, they made history by walking Virgil Abloh’s Louis Vuitton runway show as the first Black trans model. “A badge I will wear with pride forever. Being the mirror I needed,” they posted on their IG page following the applauded show.
A mirror indeed. Hearing Jamal speak about the many challenges marginalized communities still openly face today, can shift people’s perceptions. By putting their story out in the open, they open minds. I hope for our readers, so will this interview.
Christopher Morency: I was speaking to fellow London poet James Massiah recently, who told me how this immediate audience response on his poetry, whether it’s in a Soho bar or on Instagram, made it clear to him that he had “come home”. When did you realize poetry was more than a side hustle?
Kai-Isaiah Jamal: I really got into English literature at school, and I was introduced to the Romantics. It wasn’t until I understood slam and spoken word poetry, when I found a place where queer or trans, Black, marginalized people exist more, as opposed to published poetry. I could see these small reflections of myself in other people, and I found that really incredible.
I used to throw these events, when I say events, I mean we could just about get 20 people into this pub of which 10 of them would be my friends, and maybe four of them were strangers. One day someone said to me, ‘You're really, really, really good.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I like writing. It's my thing.’ And they were said, ‘No, but you need to take this further.’ I can't even remember what shifted, but suddenly, within a month, it had gone from not a career to something I was stepping into. I think it kind of came with my gender. I was looking for ways to non-explicitly talk about myself, and the best way to do that was through metaphors, and by building imagery. As I came into myself and into my gender, I also stepped into this new realm of poetry, and realized that I could actually have a voice for loads of people.
CM: I think the further you go in your career, you see how people up top don’t have all the answers. It becomes less intimidating when you’re up close. KIJ: Yeah. I used to really suffer from imposter syndrome. I used to be like, 'I don't know why I'm here. Everyone's so cool. Everyone knows this.’ Especially in the poetry space. I think James Massiah and Kojey Radical are probably the only two people who are similar to me in my friendship group in the sense of not having gone through the educational process of studying, like, English literature at university, and then writing for a publishing cut. We've done it very much our way, and there's something really beautiful about the fact that our opportunities are so infinite and we don't need to put ourselves into these boxes of like, ‘Well, I can't do that, because this person is better than me or I'm worried about this, or I'm worried about that.’ Every space that we enter, we can bring something to.
CM: I don’t believe that “untraditional” rising through the ranks exists in fashion yet, like we see in music or art. It’s evolving slowly, but progress is slow. KIJ: Exactly. It’s like we're now getting to a point where people like myself are being booked for these jobs less as a model, and more as a person. I think that's the positioning that we need to get to, where we're not looking at where you've gone to school, or who you know, or even what you can bring to the table, because most of the people that can bring the most vital things to the table haven't had the traditional access to something.
I often speak about what exists in the gray areas, because I exist in so many gray areas, so I think it’s important that we're moving away from this [traditional way of thinking]. The ideas of the images that we digest have to be reflective of the world that we live within, and the world that we live within isn't just glamorizing or uplifting those who are already at the top. I hope it's more about community and bringing in people who maybe wouldn't have usual access to those spaces.
CM: I still personally find it tricky to see so many fashion brands being celebrated for doing the bare minimum in showing diversity. Despite every step forward being a move in the right direction, it can feel incredibly performative at times. KIJ: It is so bittersweet, isn't it? It’s amazing that it's happening, but also kind of feels chilly. Sometimes tokenistic and sometimes performative. Let’s say right now Black trans models are in fashion. We're trending. But only based on the fact that there's a cultural currency for a brand to use a Black trans model. There's kind of an exchange of something. It's like, okay, you get a round of applause for including me. And that even in itself is frustrating because I shouldn't be something that's intentionally included. It should be a normalization that I'm a part of it. It should be an expected thing.
I struggle with the idea that, as trans people, we always have to be radical and we always have to be revolutionary, and sometimes I don't want to be revolutionary. Sometimes I just want to exist as the rest of my counterparts do. I mean, I'm the first Black trans model to walk Louis Vuitton now in 2020, which is incredible, but I hope this means that next year there's 10 or there's 20. There can't just always be one. And I find that hard because often I'm the poster face for the one, especially for trans-masculine people. [On top of that] visibility is what makes us unsafe, but it’s the only way that we can normalize seeing ourselves represented.
CM: So what’s something we need to put our full force behind and change in the industry? KIJ: I mean, we get to a point in the fashion industry where it’s amazing that we have trans models, but I've never been shot by a trans photographer ever. So the forefront of it, what we visibly put out to the world is slowly progressing, but behind it, I need to see myself reflected. Even sound engineers, you very rarely see a group of Black sound engineers. You very rarely see a director of photography who is differently abled. We need to be working internally at hiring a variety of people. Because this is why we fall into these positions where brands are getting called out about racism or transphobia because there's nobody in those rooms who are making those decisions who are from these communities.
CM: Absolutely. I was watching this short documentary last night on Dominique Jackson from Pose, and she talked about the power of walking and the important signals it gives off to the world if you walk with confidence. So I really believe that walking confidently on a runway makes an impact itself. KIJ: A hundred percent. She has this incredible speech where she says ‘I will never ask you to accept me. I will demand that you accept me.’ She has a really incredible outlook on life in general and has such power. But then there's also this weird intersection where it's like, I can walk a Louis Vuitton show and it means so much, but there are days where I can't even walk from A to B in the normal world, without someone saying something or someone asking some question or feeling unsafe. And so there’s this juxtaposition between being celebrated within an industry and then coming out of that into the real world and there's still so much violence.
And that’s what I mean by visibility having this fine line between being what we need to prove that we exist but [meanwhile] it putting you in a compromising position because for me to be named ‘the first black trans model’, that means that my transness is open. I’m very open, but sometimes it feels bizarre that I'm on the front of a cover, but I have to worry if I can board a plane with my passport. And I think about my proximity to safety and danger all the time because of my transness. It's this bittersweet situation of celebration and safety and how we navigate that. And in that moment, exactly like Dominique said, you're not invincible.
CM: What’s pushed you through in those moments? KIJ: For me it's been so liberating to just stand in my transness as the best thing. It's a superpower. There are so many people that say the problem is not being trans, it's how you're treated because you're trans. It's the societal issue around it, it's not actually the transness. I think it's made me be able to reintroduce myself to myself various times throughout this transition. I think maybe the fashion industry is the one place in which it's slightly easier to be celebrated for it. There's less pain and struggle that's depicted, and more beauty.
CM: I know that you grew up in South London, how was that back then? KIJ: South London is definitely home. But there were no versions of me around. In my school there were no openly queer or trans people. South London doesn't have the best rep for various reasons, but there was a lot that I learned about Black masculinity and the fragility around it by just observing Black South London boys. And it did give me a signpost of what I wanted to be, what I didn't want to be, how to navigate different situations.
Now that I go back as Kai and I walk down past my old high school I see where it all began. Whether it was a good or a bad thing, it shaped me and it gave me a thick skin. Because I couldn't be out, I had to find ways to talk about things layered in metaphors and in hidden messages, so it gave me access to write poetry and that literally birthed my career.
CM: Where is home today? KIJ: I write and I think a lot about coming home to something, because I feel like the only place I ever feel home is with me. Sometimes not in my body, but with my soul where I always know I’m home wherever I am. There was a lot of my transition where I wanted to wipe away who I once was in order to be who I am now. And now I realize that actually every single version of me has allowed me to arrive to this point. The part of the fashion industry that I love personally is that I’m always being documented. So one day, I can come back and look through every single photo ever taken and have these beautiful reminders of this growth.
CM: I think whether it’s with BLM or the Trans movement, we’ve seen a change in allyship more recently and I wonder what your thoughts are around that change? KIJ: Especially during BLM, there was a lot of language that has existed within marginalized communities that then widened to everybody else. There were people who didn't even understand what allyship was, and who were suddenly having to be forced to understand what it was. And that was a really poignant part.
I had such a complicated relationship with allyship as a whole, because I think we live in a very digital age and I think it makes it easy for people to think that by sharing a couple of things on Instagram and by having a couple of conversations in your own chambers, everyone is progressing and thinks like us. Then you go into the wider world, and you see how it actually is. But I have noticed how many people are trying to make affirmative action, whether that's internally in our communities or externally where allies are starting to understand something like reparations. [The fact that] the redistribution of wealth is something we’re even being able to finally have a conversation about, for me means that allyship is definitely going in the right direction. Moving forward, I just hope that allyship is something we may use less as a buzzword to make us feel good about ourselves and actually something that we make a way of life.
CM: What changed for you? KIJ: This last year made me ask less of white people. I was like there's those that I surrounded myself with, that I know will support me and will have these conversations with and there's some people that just aren’t willing to do that. I also looked more into our community and saw that we have to get over this homophobia and transphobia that exists in the Black community, because for us to be free and for us to have full freedom, we need to have versions of all of us in there.
CM: I remember you spoke about this in a poem you wrote for in which you talk about your community having to sacrifice yourselves for your own brothers and fathers. KIJ: And it's that. I got to experience the BLM protest in London with my dad, which was amazing. We hadn't seen each other for about eight months because of COVID, and we walked together, and someone took a photo of us hugging, literally as we saw each other. And he walked around with a sign that I had made for me, which says ‘Black liberation can't exist without trans liberation.’ And the fact that he, a cis, straight, very heterosexual Black man is walking around with that, and I could watch a young Black man look and read the sign and be like, ‘Cool. I can understand this now because it's coming from you.’
Because sometimes, coming from maybe a trans person to somebody who has no exposure to trans people, sometimes doesn't work. Whereas, at least with, with that, it was like, ‘Well, this guy looks a bit like my dad too, and he's walking around with this sign.’ That was when I really understood the importance of our brothers and our fathers and our sons rallying with us, and when I really understood the importance of Black allyship for trans people.
CM: Finally, I want to tap into your personal style and the power of dressing. You levitate between workwear, minimalism, streetwear. What’s your approach to clothes? KIJ: For anyone who has a complex relationship with their body, what you put on it is like an extension of a conversation that you have with them. Especially, for queer and trans people, clothing is such a vital part. I've realized that I can't live as a woman. That's not how I align with my identity, but I do know that when I feel I want a high fem look, I can live in this almost fantasy for that day. I can come home with a full face of makeup, and then transition into a Stussy tracksuit for example and walk out again [as a different version]. It’s so freeing. But also, I just can’t commit. I love streetwear, I love minimalist Scandi culture, I love workwear, and then I love super high fem-inspired [looks] like the women that do nails in Peckham. I feel like I’m a chameleon. And that’s what it should be, gender, fashion, and life. It should all be about what makes you feel good, and not whether you’re ticking the right boxes.