LA based hiphop artist, Metahuman, is a master at blending old-school rap metaphors with radical queer politics. Known for his politically conscious often often risqué lyrics he often performs at Southern California Pride festivals and makes his living as a writer, film maker, educator and doing the college touring circuit where he has become known as a one stop shop for queer and trans entertainment & education. We met six years ago after having running in the same circles for years and never having bumped into each other. At that time I knew him only as “Kalil Cohen”: Zinester, poet, community organizer and amateur documentary filmmaker. I’ve had the privilege of watching this talented artist grow into new roles and I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to collaborate on many productions with him. One of his most fantastic qualities is his commitment to engage the community around him in all his projects and his willingness to mentor other emerging artists.
After spending years performing at open mikes at cafes and queer spaces all over California he began composing his own beats and collaborating with artists like DJ Nova Jade (who can often be heard singing back up vocals on many of Metahuman’s tracks) and Devin Tait. Last year he released the single “You Don’t Really Know Me” followed by an EP in March 2010.
After being frustrated, hurt and often angry at the depictions of trans and gender variant folks at gay and lesbian film festival he founded the TG Film Fest: Los Angeles Transgender Film Festival, which brings world-class transgender films to audiences in southern California. His award-winning short film “Queerer Than Thou” (2008) has screened at LGBT film festivals around the world, including London, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Brussels, Jakarta, and Mumbai. His documentaries on gender have screened at academic conferences throughout the US and have been included in college curricula.
Here he shares a little bit with me about his history and current projects.
Mommy Fiercest (MF): How long have you been writing? When did you begin sharing your work with others as a performer?
Metahuman: I have been a writer since I was five years old and started my first journal. I used to write long illustrated stories as a child, which I continue to do as a filmmaker today. I began writing poetry in my teens, which later expanded to include song lyrics as well. It took me a long time to share my work with others; even as a child I refused to let anyone read my short stories. The first time I shared my work was with my first serious girlfriend. Her response inspired me to compile some poems together in a chapbook, which I then started reading at a few poetry events. I remember the first time I read my poetry out loud to an audience at Circle of Books, as awesome queer bookstore in West Hollywood. It was completely terrifying but a great place to start because the audience was very encouraging and warm. My first time performing hip hop was at a Trans/Giving show, before I became an organizer of the arts collective. It was even more terrifying than reading poetry, but it was also a great supportive crowd that encouraged me to develop my craft further as a performer.
MF: What has been your greatest challenge in moving from using traditional narrative to tell your stories to film?
Metahuman: Filmmaking involves bringing together a lot of different artists who will create different parts of the final film including the lighting, sound, music, set design etc. Learning how to gather all the artists, communicate effectively with each other, and create a cohesive film with my collaborators has been the greatest challenge, but also the most exciting part of making films. It is exciting because when you are making independent films as a labor of love, the process is very intense and creates a small community out of the collaborators.
MF: Why did you choose to use film as a medium to share your stories with people?
Metahuman: I love film as a medium because of the ability to reach large and diverse audiences, and the strong impact films have on the viewer. For independent filmmakers there are incredible alternative structures in place that allow you to reach audiences without large marketing and advertising budgets. There are thousands of independent film festivals worldwide, which provide amazing opportunities for filmmakers to share their work. Online streaming is also a really effective way to get your films seen. Another reason I like to share my stories through film is that people will watch short films from many different genres, whereas people are often more genre-segregated with music. For instance, as a hip hop artist I have a certain audience that is interested in my music, but with films people are more open to watching all kinds, not only films from one genre.
How was the process of creating your first narrative film, “Queerer Than Thou”, different from creating your “So PoMo” music video?
Metahuman: On “Queerer Than Thou” I knew a lot less about the process of filmmaking, which was more challenging technically, but also easier because of my naiveté at how long and time-consuming the process would be. “Queerer Than Thou” came about through a collaboration with my frequent creative partner Nova Jade. Many people helped shape the film, which was co-written by the cast. This gave the whole project an ‘arts collective’ type feel which I really enjoyed, and which helped me to grow a lot as an artist. “So Pomo” is my first music video, which are often shot and cut very differently than other short films, so this is a new experience for me. “So Pomo” is also a collaboration, I wrote the lyrics while Devin Tait (of Devin Tait and the Traitors, formerly of Shitting Glitter) wrote the music. In addition, I am working mostly with a new production team who bring a lot of experience to the project. This is an amazing opportunity for me to learn from them and continue to grow as a filmmaker.
MF: What do you think the future of trans people in the media will look like?
Metahuman: We are living in very exciting times for transgender people in the media. Although there are still many negative depictions of us being created and seen all the time, we are also living in a time when positive, accurate, compassionate images of transgender people are starting to appear in the media as well. As far as transgender filmmakers, there are a lot of amazing artists telling compelling transgender stories whose work reaches wide audiences including Silas Howard, Gwen Haworth, Chris Vargas, and Andrea James. In addition there has also been a huge shift in how we are reported about in the news. The official Associated Press guidelines which most journalists follow now include using the pronouns that corresponds to a person’s gender identity, and the name a person uses rather than their birth name. This hard-won progress by the transgender community is truly significant for how we are regarded in society.
MF: What projects are you working on?
Metahuman: My main project is TG Film Fest: The Los Angeles Transgender Film Festival, which I founded in 2009. We have an annual film festival, and then screen selections from the festival throughout the year, primarily at colleges and universities, but also at community centers, high schools, and conferences. The festival screens short and feature length films from around the world. This has afforded me the opportunity to meet many talented filmmakers from around the world. We have rolling submissions for the festival, and people can find out how to submit at www.tgfilmfest.com
MF: When did you start organizing the TG Film Festival? Why is it important to have something like this?
Metahuman: I founded the TG Film Fest as a way to promote films by trans filmmakers. There are many amazing transgender and genderqueer filmmakers out there telling interesting stories, but whose work is not seen as widely as it should be. When my films began screening at LGBT film festival, I would often see short films with transphobic content (tired gags about ‘men in dresses’, accusations of our misogyny, and one-dimensional trans hookers or murder victims). This propelled me to create a transgender film festival, to help expand the way people view the lives of trans or genderqueer people. By hearing from so many unique voices, the audience is able to experience a wide breadth of creative trans stories in a single screening. This is important to me because although the mainstream media has been changing, it still is not telling most trans and genderqueer stories accurately. For meaningful change to occur in our society, it is important that we tell our stories, and that a large audience sees this work. With TG Film Fest we are filling a gap between how the mainstream media depicts us and the images we should be seeing on screen.
MF: When did you start rapping? Who are your greatest influences?
Metahuman: I started rapping in my early 20s, when my poetry started morphing into hip hop lyrics. Although I grew up listening to hip hop, I wasn’t a huge fan until I discovered politically conscious hip hop artists in my teens. At that point I got really immersed in some of the more political content. Through hip hop I began my education about radical black history from some of my favorite artists including Dead Prez and Tupac. Dead Prez is by far my greatest influence because of the way they combine radical political ideology with amazing beats and hooks that keep you entertained and enlightened. I aspire to write songs as enjoyable yet deep as they do. Tupac had the same ability, but it’s more of a mixed bag with him because some of his songs are so heartfelt and transformative while others just aren’t my style. Currently I am also influenced by Feloni, an amazing rapper from Detroit, and the now-defunct Deep Dickollective who helped start the “Homo Hop” genre.
MF: What is the most challenging thing about being a multi media artist?
Metahuman: The most challenging thing for me is balancing my time between my different projects. I am really passionate about my music and filmmaking and running the film festival, but it can be hard to find time for relaxing or rejuvenating when I am all my time and energy into these projects.
MF: Who were your role models when you were coming into your queer identity? How have they influenced your work?
Metahuman: Kate Bornstein was a huge role model as I was coming out because she is genderqueer and trans and queer and outspoken and brilliant! She has influenced me because she is proof that you do not have to give in and conform in order to reach a wide audience or be respected as an artist. As a filmmaker, Silas Howard has been a huge inspiration. His 2001 feature By Hook or By Crook, is a brilliant story about two genderqueer people (Silas and Harry Dodge) made for very little money. It premiered at Sundance, found distribution, and was widely seen. That helped me know that it is possible for our stories to appeal to a wider audience, and that it can be made on a shoestring budget.
MF: Who would you love to work with?
Metahuman: I would love to collaborate with the rapper Feloni and my dream would be to have her produce my album! Making a film with Silas Howard would also be a dream come true. They are both so talented and it would be such a joy to work with them!
MF: Do you have an “It Gets Better Message” for all the folks that might be reading this and feeling bad right now?
Metahuman: I think the reason there are so many talented trans artists is because of the challenges we have had to face, and the ways we have had to grow in order to cope with the world. Although it sounds cheesy, adversity really will make you stronger in the long-run.
MF: Why is it important that we support our LGBTQ youth?
Metahuman: There have been incredible strides in the movement for LGBTQ rights, and many LGBTQ youth are able to be out, however many more continue to struggle. LGBTQ youth today are experiencing a level of harassment in schools that is totally unacceptable. At the same time, there are several successful models for how to create an open and accepting school climate, which can be implemented at any school, urban or rural, in any part of the country. It has been done in unexpected places, so I know that it can be done. Creating change for youth will cause a lasting shift in our culture that will help ensure that the human rights of LGBTQ people are upheld and affirmed in our society.
MF: Where do you find your inspiration?
Metahuman: This is somewhat related to my “It Gets Better Message” because I don’t know what my art would be about if it weren’t for the challenges I’ve faced. I am often inspired by negative situations I’ve experienced or things I’ve read about in the news. For instance, when I went to a protest and witnessed police brutality against demonstrators it inspired the song May Day in LA, while The Bling Ring is based on a news story involving five wealthy teens robbing celebrities of millions in clothes, jewelry, and cash. I often spoof these experiences or turn them into jokes in order to heal myself, or to build strength to resist these situations. Although this sounds really serious, the actual art that comes out of it is often lighthearted and funny. It is very powerful to combat negativity with humor. When I am performing for majority-straight audiences, or people who don’t identify with radical politics, humor helps opens people up to hearing about unfamiliar experiences or ways of thinking.
MF: You’re raising funds for your new project via kickstarter. Why do you think this is a project that people should open up their wallets for? It’s your music video. Why should people give you money to make your own music video.
Metahuman: We’ve already reached our goal but since Kickstarter is all or nothing (if you don’t meet your goal we don’t get any of the dollars pledged), we set our initial goal at the bare minimum we need to make this film. However, the more money we raise the better it will look. We already have the most important thing, which is the story, but extra funds will definitely have a significant impact on the success of this film, especially the increased costume budget! am raising money for the project from the community, because I think the message is one that we need to see. “So Pomo” is a response to the homophobic phrase “No Homo”, and the negativity that so many queer people face on a daily basis. ‘Pomo’ stands for Post-Modern, and Pomosexual is someone who identifies as beyond the labels gay, straight, or LGBT. Using camp, surrealism and fantasy, “So Pomo” celebrates queer desire and subverts the notion of fixed sexual and gender identities. I believe that this is an important message for queers to tell and to see, and therefore worth supporting as a community. Many people have to hear the phrase “No Homo” regularly, and “So Pomo” can serve to replace that negative experience with funny, sexy thoughts about PoMoSexuality and self-acceptance.
MF: Where can folks see your film festival and more of your work?
Metahuman: I have been touring for the last couple of years on and off and will be touring East Coast colleges in the fall. I love touring because you get to see each local queer/trans community and become a part of that world for a brief while. Usually I stay with who ever is organizing the show, so I get to plug in to the queer community in each town right away, which is really exciting. The film festival is currently traveling extensively in southern California, and we’d love to bring it to other places as well! Folks can find out tour dates for the film festival at www.tgfilmfest.com and contact us to schedule a screening. To hear “So Pomo” and purchase the Metahuman EP, go to www.metahumanmusic.com
It takes a lot of time to make music and films, so if you like what you hear, please buy a CD or check out http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1690619144/queer-music-video?ref=users to learn more about Metahumans latest project the “So PoMo” video or watch the 8 minute short “Queer Than Thou” below!