Big ups to my ancestors and universe for allowing me this gift… reminding me that for as long as I have a breath, I have a pen and I am one of many vessels for humanity.
There are many ways marginalized communities are speaking out against injustice; from art to activism, parliament to poetry, queer people of color are using their voices to demand change.
For trans spoken word artist, educator, and food-lover Kay Ulanday Barrett, communication on identity and social issues takes many forms, which are not just limited to his performances of poetry on stage. Turns out, this brown boi also has a passion for food.
“I’ve kindled my interest in food as a spiritual, cultural and social action,” he says. “Nourishing yourself and your people while surviving multiple forms of oppression is seriously a real art!”
In addition to running the successful food blog, Recipes for the People, Kay Ulanday Barrett has been published in a wide array of media outlets, including the Windy City Queer Anthology, KICKED OUT, Filipino American Psychology, MotherTongues, make/shift, LOUDmouth, and venus zine. He’s performed poetry all across the country; in 2010, he was voted on to the Campus Pride Hot List, and has released an EP titled Since My Body.
QWOC Media Wire recently interviewed Barrett to learn more about his history as a writer and the inspiration that drives his work, both as a spoken word artist and an activist for justice.
When did your interest in writing and performing begin?
Coming from a poor immigrant household, writing became a key to academic success, upward mobility, but too, a way to harness the experiences around me. I came from a tumultuous childhood where writing was free, accessible and an outlet to sort out my frustrations with emotional ache and social injustice. I must’ve been six years old with my first journal which was a pink, came with a locket, had ballet slippers on it (so gay!) and I was hooked!
How do you balance your writing and community work as a writer, artist, activist?
Writing and performing were interweaved with community work in my late teens-20’s. In cultural work from Pilipin@ spaces and queer spaces, I was quite blessed to be cultivated by amazing writers in the Chicago APIA/POC spoken word and poetry scene during the early 2000’s. I’m definitely a product of community based theater, teaching workshops in poetry, discussing political struggle centered in cultural work via puppets, movement, poetry. I am a believer in collective writing and collaboration, the earliest being my exposure to mango tribe, an APIA womyn’s and genderqueer performance ensemble.
What/who inspires your work as a spoken word artist?
I think most recently, and I will be the bearer of the roughness, death has. I’ve been writing about loss and grieving in my latest work since losing my ma to cancer. How do we grieve from the pains our communities as queer and trans people of color? How do we create viable artistic practices that can lay bare and humorously charge us?
On a larger scale, the collective work that my peers and youth around me do are completely motivational and inspirations. I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded in community leaders/mentors/loved ones who can’t help but strive for a just world. That force alone motivates my work on stage, reminds me of my responsibility to my Pin@y, queer, transgender, disabled, low-income pamilya.
Recently, I featured as a keynote speaker at UCLA for their bad-ass and first ever queer youth empowerment conference. Honestly, making connections with student movements facing queerphobia and racism helps me do my own work, checks me in my own relevance, reminds me to always be ready for new innovation in social movement and art.
How does your multi-layered identity manifest through your work?
It’s my residence, my architecture, it’s how I move with every syllable and stage. Everything. I’m going to be transparent and say, I live multiple avenues with a tenuous celebration. There’s an Audre Lorde quote I live by: “I don’t believe in single-issue politics, because we do not live single-issue lives.”
I can’t discuss the impacts of racism absent from my gender identity or my experiences as being disabled or transgender. They all live within me and the world has united those impacts just as intensely. I am a cultural worker, undoubtedly connected to my homies and homeland in a complexity I am everyday trying to grasp. My latest challenge is having to explore how my body and lived experience is policed via racism, colonialism, queerphobia and ableism. From this specific locale, how do I make the rage and resilience universal? My work.
How did you develop your love for food?
As someone who struggled with having financial resources and in many ways, continues to do so, food has been a coping mechanism since childhood. A bowl of arroz caldo, a recipe from body memory with no exact measurements just flavor awareness, have helped me find agency, strength. I’ve held a spoon before I could write. Food is that constant as my politics and art have developed, the roadway to some of my deepest relationships. Any movement or kindred connection for me has had luscious sharing moments.
What kind of power do you feel food holds?
Food is that inevitable organizing and collective tool entrenched in everything I’ve done. From Pilipin@ picnics and workshops on anti-imperialism, to potlucks over queer bookclubs and march/protest benefits, to bringing a dish for a friend as gift or peace offering, food integrates fun with our collective memory.
It goes without saying, if you are one to praise some mmm’s and say, smack a tabletop in satisfaction, I can probably build with you. Additionally, nourishing yourself and your people while surviving multiple forms of oppression is seriously a real art! I can’t imagine anything more creative and bold than that.
Do you have any words of encouragement or advice for other young queer artists of color?
I’ll share a list I am working on: sleep. Eat yummy things. Hug yourself. Write down your accomplishments. Write down your misgivings. Honor both and release what doesn’t serve you. Hold your ancestors close and their intentions even closer. Remember: self-love is an artistic and community investment. You don’t have to inherit trends of heartbreak, you can undo them too. The broken in you can be beautiful. Allow those to love you when you are lost/hurt/grieving. To embrace your limitations and your goals are strengths not to be ignored. Being as present as possible is unlearning colonization.
Remember, we all come from some place. I would try to lovingly nestle between the questions: who came before you? How can you innovate their legacy into something sustainable? What we are doing as qtpoc artists is everyday grind sure, but the stuff of future ancestors in progress.
From food to poetry, Barrett seeks to nourish body and spirit as he fights for social justice. His drive to speak and further his career is an inspiration to other queer artists of color creating change through their art. Though he acknowledges the oppressions he faces, he does not bow to them or allow them to make him unfeeling or unkind. “This is a rough world,” he says, “be tender, tender, tender.”
Watch Barrett display his sense of humor and passion for performance in this video of him performing “for richard,” written for his “heterosexual, male, biological friend.”