Finding your identity as an artist in the contemporary music scene is a unique challenge that none of our predecessors had experienced before. Before, artists had a deeper connection with the music they were making. The barriers to entry in music have gone way down since social media became a dominant cultural phenomenon, making it easier for artists to put their work out there for people to consume. However, there is also this pull to sound like everyone else. Amid all this noise, Kitten Kuroi strives to stay true to herself – to an identity that she felt naturally drawn to, even if she can’t exactly explain why. That’s what makes her music unique and unlike anything you’ll hear in the charts today. She joins Jason Wrobel and Whitney Lauritsen on the show to talk about her search for identity as a musical artist and as a person. They also throw around insights on feline energy, the comparison trap, cultural appropriation, diversity, and racism. Stay tuned for a barrage of truth bombs in this insightful episode!
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Finding Your Identity Through The Noise And Conversations On Music, Cultural Appropriation, And Racism With Kitten Kuroi
I was hanging out in my kitchen in my house here in Los Angeles, which is close to where our guest lives. We’re not going to say where but we’re in the same neighborhood in LA. I have this old David Bowie poster from the early 1970s before Ziggy Stardust. It wasn’t even the Spiders from Mars yet. It’s when Bowie still had his long hair and he dressed like this bohemian outfit. It was way before the alien and the Ziggy stuff. I was reflecting on how many artists that I know and love have chosen stage names or alternate personas, and how interesting that is.
You, Kitten Kuroi, being an artist that I love, admire, had the pleasure to work with and have been friends with for many years, I realized something. Over the years that I’ve known you, I don’t think I’ve ever asked you the origin story of Kitten Kuroi, what that means to you, and also the psychological implications of choosing a stage name or an alternate persona as an artist.
I want to kick that off because I find it so fascinating. I was reflecting on Tina Turner, that amazing HBO Max documentary that came out. Tina Turner’s real name is Anna Mae Bullock. David Bowie was David Jones and he chose David Bowie because Davy Jones was in the Monkees at the time. He didn’t want to get himself confused with Davy Jones in the Monkees. We know a lot of amazing artists who have chosen this path in their artistic career, yourself included. Kitten Kuroi, tell me what does it mean? Why did you choose it? What does that mean in terms of an embodiment for you? When you’re singing when you’re doing your thing as Kitten Kuroi, what is it all about?Sometimes you have to flow with what you naturally want to do. Click To Tweet
The evolution of that name has slightly changed throughout the years, honestly. Firstly, it started out on a real basic level. Ever since I was a child, I’ve loved black cats. My mom used to dress me up for every Halloween as some black cat by my choice so it was getting out of control. I was a cute little black cat and then another year with a cuter one. It was like, “I want to be a Cleopatra cat. I want to be a grown baby cat.” It got stupid and dumb. That black cat has always been a part of me, instinctively.
I came up with the moniker. I went to Cal State Fullerton and my minor was Japanese language and cultural studies. I learned that Kuroi or Kuro is the color black and I was like, “That’s hot.” I played around with the name but didn’t do anything with it. To take a sad but empowering turn, I had this ex-boyfriend who was super abusive and I want to disappear. I want to disappear by my government name so that he can’t find me. I don’t think I’ve told anybody this so it’s exclusive. Every single social media thing that I opened, I went under Kitten Kuroi. You would never be able to find me and I started making music. I was trying to release stuff and everything.
I’d already met Damon and we were working together. I started going by the name Kitten Kuroi secretly through my music. The first person I told was Natasha Bedingfield. We were on an airplane and I told her I’m going to go by the stage name Kitten Kuroi. She was like, “I have chills. That sounds amazing. That’s so great.” I told some people at the Engelbert Humperdinck gig. I was at the airport, and I was trying to figure out where the rest of the band was. This one man who was in the band at the time didn’t call me by my government name. He yelled out, “Kitten.”
That was the first time I heard someone else say my name. I had this Selina Kyle moment. If you guys are familiar with Batman, the second Batman is my favorite Batman. You know how Selina Kyle was treated badly. She was abused and all this kind of stuff but she loved cats. She ended up falling to what we thought was her death but she had a whole phoenix thing. When she came back, she was stronger than ever and she was a black cat. I was getting that as a sign, Janet Jackson, Black Cat, and all of that. It went from there and now most people only know me as Kitten Kuroi.
I’ve done gigs with Damon or my mom might be there. They’re like, “Where’s Aisha?” That’s my government name. “She’s on her way.” People would be like, “Who’s Aisha and why do we care? When is Kitten coming?” That is the whole roundabout long story of how I got that name and how that name stuck. It was destined to be my name. Interestingly enough, if you google that name, I’m the only person. You’re not going to find a cartoon character or anybody else. It’s just me so it’s meant for me. Pretty much anywhere that you see on the internet Kitten Kuroi, even if it’s a half-started profile, I started that name.
In your other part of the question about how does that translate on stage, think about Selina Kyle and Catwoman. When you have a different moniker, that’s not the name that you were given, you’re able to step outside of yourself. For some people, they might transform into somebody completely different but for me, this is me intensifying that part or fraction of myself. The star seed that I am is super intensified. If I’m a school teacher, I’m going to be Aisha or Miss Humphrey but if I’m on stage and I’m doing my thing, I’m going to be Kitten Kuroi because that’s essentially who I am. It’s my chosen name.
I love this because it reminds me of another origin story that I thought Jason was going to bring up that involves you as well. It’s the origin of his cat, Figaro. I thought that was what you were going to start with, Jason. You need to fill in that story for the people who haven’t heard it yet.
Apparently, we’re going to be rolling with a cat theme, some feline energy going fierce. If you all know me, I’ve got a whole bunch of felines up in this house. What Whitney is referring to is the fact that back in 2015, on my birthday, you and Damon had let me know about a unit on your block. It was in front of your house. You’re like, “It’s up for rent. Do you want to be our neighbor?” I was like, “That sounds pretty dope.” Whitney and I drove over on my birthday from dinner and we checked out this house near you. I didn’t end up taking the house. However, there was this sweet little panda tuxedo cat hanging around your property. I remember being, “What’s up with this cat?” Your landlord was like, “The people that moved out left the cat.”
My heart was so broken because I have abandonment issues from my father. Anytime I see another being who’s being abandoned, I go automatically into daddy mode. I’m like, “I’ve got to take care of you.” Long story short, I don’t know what’s going to happen to the cat. He’s like, “I’m probably going to call animal control.” I’m like, “If you call animal control, this cat is probably going to die. It’s going to go to a high kill shelter.” I look at Whitney and I’m like, “We’re taking the cat.” I remember Whitney looking back at me and being like, “We’re taking the cat?” I was like, “Yeah. We’re taking the cat.”
I scoop up this cat and here we are a couple of years later. Figaro Hidalgo Wrobel, this beautiful panda was a gift because you guys invited me over to take a look at possibly being one of your neighbors. It’s this beautiful story. He’s a sweet boy and he’s my son now. That’s one of the many gifts from the years and the relationship that I’ve known you, Kitten. Thanks for bringing that up, Whitney.
Part of his origin story is coming out of what we believe to be some abuse because you had told us some stories based on what you witnessed with your neighbors of how they were treating him. It is also technically abusive to leave your animal behind, move out and leave him to fend for himself in some neighborhood. Jason had to take him to the vet because he was covered in fleas and he had digestive issues. He went through this whole transformation plus, we don’t know what his name was before Jason found him, which I wish I could find out somehow. I’ve made jokes about, “What could his name be?” It could be some basic name like Bob, Frank or whatever. I was hoping that you and Damon would know what his name was somehow.
No. We can make up one though.
He asks about you guys sometimes. Figaro would be like, “What’s Kitten and Damon up to? How have they been? Are they good?” I’m like, “They’re good.” This conversation about cats is interesting because having this connection to embodying cat energy, you talked about having these costumes as a child that your mom would make and you always wanted to be a cat. It’s interesting because when I talk to people about their companion animals, this is going to lead to a deeper conversation about binary thinking. The danger of binary thinking is you are either a cat person or a dog person. I’m like, “I don’t want to choose a team. Yes, I’m both.”
Some people are adamant about, “I’m this or that.” It’s a dominant model of thinking with humanity right now. Cats have a very specific energy. We can agree that the embodiment of feline energy is different from dogs and a lot of other animals. The feline energy in general, whether you’ve got a big cat, wild cat or a house cat, is a very particular energy that vibes with some people and doesn’t vibe with others. I’m curious, Kitten, what do you think as a young girl and to this day being Kitten Kuroi, what is it about that vibe that resonated with you? What do you think drew you to that? Why did you think you embody that and wanted to be a cat?
I never thought about that, honestly. I felt whatever was channeled to me, I was like, “Cats.” Thinking about it now, it’s their independence. They’re very independent. You can be like, “Here’s your food. I’m going to carry on with my life.” They’re like, “I know what the food is. Don’t tell me what to do.” It’s the sassiness of the cat. At the same time, they can be so cuddly. I’m like that too. I’m like, “Hug me. Stop it right now. Don’t you touch me no more.” It’s their free-spiritedness and the way that they command attention walking in the room. When a puppy comes in, you’re like, “Puppy.”
When the cat comes, you’re like, “It’s cute. Is it okay if I touch you?” There’s this part where people are like, “This is cute but I have to assess the thing because they are the dominant energy in that room.” I don’t think that wasn’t a conscious choice, but there is something about me that I’ve been told where I can come into a room and people notice that I’m there. Sometimes, I’m flamboyant but I’m not coming in like, “Look at me, everyone. I have arrived. Here I am. Talk to me. Tell me things.” It’s the energy that I have been told that I exude. Honestly, I hadn’t thought about it that deeply. It doesn’t mean that it wasn’t important to me. You are what you are by nature. Things come to you and you’re like, “That is me. That makes sense. I can’t think of any other way to be. This is how I’ve always been.”
It’s so interesting that you can contextualize it like that. What flashed on me was years and years ago, a friend of mine, we were talking about veganism. This was one of those conversations when you’re like, “This person is high and they’re about to ask a question that only comes out when you’re super high.” He’s super high and he looks at me. He says, “J-Wro, do you ever think about the fact that maybe we’re vegan because in our previous lifetimes we were animals that were abused and we remember it. Now that we’re humans, we’re dedicated to fighting for righteousness, animal rights, civil rights, justice and equality because we know in maybe a previous incarnation what that was like.”
It’s funny I say it was high but that’s always stuck with me when you talk about, “Be what you are.” It is interesting how, as human beings, we gravitate toward things and we don’t know why. We’re just drawn to certain things. You mentioned your Japanese studies. For whatever reason and Whitney knows this, my whole life, I have been magnetized to Japanese food, art and culture. Most of the cars I’ve had have been Japanese. There’s something about the ethos, craftsmanship and culture. I don’t know why.
I thought maybe I was Japanese in a previous life or there’s some soul connection that I’m not aware of in this incarnation. It’s super interesting because, to me, this process of discovering who we are doesn’t end. There’s not an endpoint of like, “I’ve figured out all the layers to who I am as being. I’m done now. See you.” Even more so, with all of us as being entrepreneurs and artists, we all have a background in food and music. With Whitney being a filmmaker and all the things she’s done, it’s interesting how choosing to do something artistic, particularly in life, feels like a constant process of figuring out who we are.The difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is respect. Click To Tweet
I’m curious, Whitney, to how you feel about this. When we’re beginning and we’re young artists, it’s easy to want to emulate what we’ve seen come before. People have said, “Your film looks like so and so.” “Your voice or your performance sounds like so and so.” Maybe that’s what we do as young artists because we haven’t figured out who we are yet. My question is, how do we navigate? I get caught up on this sometimes of am I trying to sound too much or be too much like my heroes, my avatars, the people that have moved me profoundly? What’s the line between figuring out who we are and also honoring the influences and not denying them? Does that question make sense?
Are you asking that of me or Whitney?
Both of you. You’re both artists and both have different backgrounds in the artistic fields you’ve chosen. It seems like a fine line, doesn’t it? We’re influenced and moved deeply by the art that’s come before us. As humans, we also have a deep desire to figure out our unique voices and sometimes that can get a little messy.
I’ll add to that and share a little bit of my feelings first. Part of what makes it hard to be clear about my identity is that we live in a time where we’re exposed to so many people and it’s easy to get into the comparison trap. I even felt this way growing up. Growing up, I didn’t have social media. None of us did. We didn’t have access to tech in the way that we do now and we didn’t have social media, at least in the form that it’s in now and it wasn’t common. What we did have was whatever social environments we are in. For me, I grew up in a small town. I have very supportive parents but also, as I’ve identified more as adults, a mother that had strong opinions about me and what I should be, who I should be, and how I should be acting all of these. There were a lot of shoulds and that’s a topic we’ve covered on the show.
In fact, we had someone on the show specifically to talk about the word should. I’m not a huge fan of it, because I feel it starts to put you into a box. As a little kid, when your parents, teachers and classmates are telling you what you should and shouldn’t do, you tend to listen as part of your survival and your coping mechanisms. If we’re not aware or we don’t have a different mindset, we can easily continue doing that as an adult and that’s what I’ve carried through up until my most recent life. Now I have to uncover my identity and get back to the core of who I am. Some of it has been there a little bit more subtly than others. To Jason’s point, I’ve been into animals most of my life. I’ve been into creativity and technology. A lot of the things I’m doing did stem from how I was as a child, but I’ve also felt clouded because I was a people pleaser as well trying to do what I feel I should be doing.
I’m curious for you, Kitten, did you grew up in that way or a completely different way? I’m especially curious about how it is for you right now to be an artist in the context of social media but also in the context of fame. You mentioned some of these artists that you’ve worked with who you would know by name. I’m sure there’s a number of them, even if you don’t share who they are. You’ve probably been around musicians that the average person would recognize. I’m sure you’ve been around with other artists who the average person or the mainstream wouldn’t know their name and yet, they’re equally if not more talented per se. Because of the way fame works in music, those people might not be as successful in other people’s minds. I’m fascinated by what it’s like to be a musician in 2021 but also this whole musician experience of fame versus talent or how fame works with talent.
Those are loaded questions. I’m ready to answer. I want to atomize them in my brain. Which one do I want to tackle first? As far as the should haves, would haves or whatever it is growing up, I had an Instagram Live Chat with my mom and we talked about that. I grew up in a household where there was a lot of music. Music was played, my mom played the piano, and she would sing. She never played the piano or sang for other people though. She wasn’t like, “This is what I do. This is my side gig.” It was you sing at church with your family or for your family and that’s the extent of that.
She also was a school teacher so she’s singing for her students. She had an autoharp. She taught herself how to play. She would play the songs and stuff and she would be singing them in Spanish because she primarily spoke Spanish and taught in Spanish. She would do all that. My grandma and all her sisters sang but I didn’t know personally, about family members that were performers. I have one uncle who was a blues singer in Germany. He went over there to be behind the Berlin Wall and he never came back. He was a blues singer and a gospel singer. He amassed the gospel choir out there and there were probably 1 or 2 black people in the whole thing. All the rest were white Germans and they were learning Negro spirituals and traditional black gospel songs with their thick German accents. It was super cute.
There’s this one song that they had and it was like, “I know that the Lord is watching me.” It was so cute. They’re singing the songs that we would sing in my church with my grandparents and they’ve got these thick German accents. I didn’t meet him until I probably got into college. I knew he existed in theory. He would mail his gifts and stuff but I never met him. I never saw him in action. I didn’t realize there was a whole other branch of my family and they all went into entertainment and music. I didn’t find that out until 2008 when I went on a tour, going to different cities, meeting all these extended family members that I had never met before but maybe have heard about them. I was like, “I make sense then. I had no idea.”
I say all that to say in my immediate household and the household with my grandma and stuff like that, music was your special gift to share with family and with the church. Other than that, it was do something traditional like a teacher. There are lots of teachers, nurses, accountants and lawyers, but doing more traditional things. It wasn’t even so much that people were telling me, “Don’t sing or don’t do whatever,” it’s what I saw. I knew people that had these talents but they didn’t do anything professional with them. It was like, “You should do this.” I didn’t even know there were music schools. I had no idea.
When I went to Cal State Fullerton and I studied Communications with an emphasis in public relations, part of the reason why I said yes to that was because my cousin said, “You don’t have to take math.” I was like, “All righty, then I’m going to take language arts stuff that’s not super-duper technical.” All up in between and around that, I was singing happy birthday for people. Somebody would say, “Can you sing with this?” I’m like, “I’ll sing.” I still didn’t even think it was something that you could do for an actual career because I had never seen it. I thought you had to be a part of music royalty and that’s how you got in or something like that.
I did have a lot of identity crises because this is not what I want to do. If I could do anything all day, it would be singing, eat food, cook the food and make songs. That was the deal but I didn’t think that was something that you could do. I’m going to school and belabored with all of these different classes. I did love Japanese because I love languages. That was the most fun for me. There was this identity crisis. It’s like, “Who am I? What am I doing?”
Before I graduated, I started my own entertainment-based organization on campus and brought talent up there. We had discussions and dialogues. I would always find some way to bring music to me which is essentially and ultimately how I ended up finding my way into it. It’s always been with me. Sometimes you have to flow with what you’re naturally going to do. If you want to be a singer but you’re washing the dishes in the kitchen, then keep singing loud while you’re washing the dishes in the kitchen. You never know who’s hearing you or what that practice can bring to you. Somehow somebody hears you or there’s some opportunity and you’re already in that space to sing.
The universe is going to guide you in that direction as long as you don’t shut the door to it. When I got the call to work with Natasha Bedingfield, I was going back to school. I already had a degree from Cal State Fullerton then I went back to school at Santa Monica College so I could study graphic design to get an entry-level job. I hadn’t even finished my first semester or quarter when I got that call. I was like, “Those girls. Bye, everybody.” I was out.
There’s that part of the question. Is it more about comparison? It’s interesting that you bring that up because I shared in my story a little meme that says, “Comparisons the thief of joy.” I was thinking about that because it is easy to try to put yourself up against another person. They could be doing barely better than. They could be doing remarkedly better than you. Having access to everybody’s personal business on social media or the appearance of having access to people’s personal business makes you feel like, “I’m not doing enough. I need to do more. If I keep looking at this person’s feed, then I might get too influenced by them and people are going to say that I’m trying to be and sound like this person.”
What I do think the benefit of our general generation having grown up without social media is that though we can be addicted to it, we also have experienced a world in which we could turn it off and the world isn’t over. We just aren’t on it. We might call up a friend or go outside or do something to reset, which a lot of the younger generation don’t tap into as much because they’re not used to it. They were in the crib on the phone.
I sometimes get caught up in that and I have to turn it off and turn it into myself. I start to look at, “What have I done in the past that was cool?” it could be something as simple as, “I was scared to talk to that person but I did it and look what happened.” For example, there’s this gig that I had. It was a promotional marketing gig but it was music-based. It was for that show, Tosh.0. Do you guys know that show with Daniel Tosh? We were supposed to look and behave like a cult of Daniel Tosh like we only worship Him. We had these long neon orange shirts and we were supposed to look totally messed up, ashy, chapped, hair, all kinds of crazy, and we had to learn this song, which was the song we sang over and over again.
For one of the choirs, they needed someone to play the guitar. I’m not a guitarist. Damon is a guitarist. I know guitars but I said yes because it paid more. I was like, “Let’s do this.” Damon set up a guitar so it could be the block chords. Instead of all the pretty strumming, you’re holding that chord and strumming. He taught me and I needed to know the song in a few days. I sat there and memorized the lyrics and everything so I could sing it properly, and practice that stuff on the guitar in different ways. I showed up and smashed it. People were like, “You play the guitar. That’s so cool.” I was like, “I don’t know what the heck I’m doing.” To me, that memory is cool because I said yes to a thing.
Sometimes if I’m feeling, “I’m not cool. I need to be original. I haven’t done anything in my life.” I get inspiration from the special, strange and weird stuff that I have done in the past. That’s not to say that I don’t get sad sometimes or depressed. Sometimes I can’t get out of the funk, but I think about the funk if that makes any sense. The funk in my life, the good stuff, the good funky funk and it helps. I’ve been in and I’m sure I will again be plagued with that. I don’t know if that answered any of your questions.
It was such a real response. The mental health side of choosing an artistic career is no joke. It’s interesting because on the flip side of this, if we look about how we all grew up, if someone got a record deal, it seems like this mythological thing. I remember growing up in Detroit and putting on my mom’s Marvin Gaye records, all the Motown stuff, Stevie, Martha and the Vandellas, the Supremes, and even the classic rock stuff. My household was pretty much Motown, soul and classic rock, and listening to those vinyl records. You talk about the origins of our musical love and the diversity of the music that I was exposed to seemed like, “My God.” At that level, it seemed herculean. It’s something that only a select few people could achieve.
Now with digital technology, anybody can put out a record. We have people recording at their house like the beautiful studio you have set up. We have access to technology that has demystified this deification of people. It’s like, “I can cut a record too in my house and it’s going to sound amazing.” The flip side though is now anybody can do it. What you have is the playing field having been opened to a way that has never been done for musicians with the access we have.
However, it’s a deluge of people doing it. It’s almost in some ways finding quality and high-level musicianship that moves you. In some ways, I find and I might sound like a Luddite or an old-ass dude right now, “Back in my day, everything was amazing. Every record you put on.” If I find an artist that blows me away, it’s a little bit more rare. I wonder if that’s because there’s so much to sift through now. Whereas back in the day, if you put out a record, with a few exceptions, you were damn good. Now it’s like, “Good effort. It sounds okay.” It’s a weird push-pull of how we can do all the things now. It feels like making something amazing feels more challenging because breaking through the noise is tough.
I have a couple of thoughts about that. I agree with you, number one. There are pros and cons. The pros are you have that access. Everybody has that access, whether you know how to do anything or not. There are so many more apps that allow you to play instruments that you couldn’t play before. They have loops and all this kind of stuff. There’s an over-proliferation of even platforms to find the music too, which makes it hard to sift through and find anything.
Back in the day, I felt like more people were connected to the creation, the love, the instrumentality and making up a word of things. More people played instruments or more people were in bands or something. It doesn’t even have to be a marching band, maybe a little kid band where you had to play a recorder or something like that. People were more connected to music as a living and breathing organism back then. A lot of people are like, “This is my quick way for people to know I exist. This is my quick way to do something to release something real fast. It’s not so much that they’re connected to music as its own entity.” It’s about, “Look at me. I did a thing.”
There’s this push for everyone to sound the same. A few years ago, it was cool because there are country and hip hop coming together and all these genres. They’re doing it in unique, interesting and surprising ways. Now, every genre is starting to sound the same. The same kind of vocal processing and instruments. You might not even know a country song is a country anymore. You might not know if an R&B song is R&B anymore. You might not know anything because everything is starting to merge into one ball of, “Let’s hurry up and get this hit single out.”
I don’t want to name artists but if you look at some artists that were even popular in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and then you compare stuff that they’ve released now, they’re trying to compete with the children. They’re changing their voices. They’re squashing their vocals down. They’ve cut adlibs out. Remember that there used to be adlibs in the beginning and at the back like, “Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about,” and all this. Now, it’s whatever beat and it gets into it. The music stays the same and it could be anybody singing on that track. Someone’s like, “That’s Shalaq Hay. No, that was Tina Fey.” I’m just making up those names. The people only know that it’s a different artist because they recognize the music as being slightly different. It’s not that they can pick up on the voice being different.
They will make you and Whitney sound exactly the same and I’m supposed to be like, “They have two separate records up but it sounds the same.” There aren’t a lot of unique qualities about mainstream, although I do not like the term mainstream, but a lot of it sounds the same. That also takes you back to the whole comparison thing. Let’s say, you come out with your music and it doesn’t sound like the current sound that everyone has. No one is looking for a unique sound. Those movies that we used to watch and this person is like, “They’ve got the sound.” Everyone is all excited because they’ve got the sound, whatever the sound is.
Now, everybody is trying to jump on the same ship. Everyone is trying to sound like each other. For example, the music that I am intending to come out with the project that I’ve been talking about for thousands of eons of time, part of the thing that was catching me was I don’t sound like the other people. My voice doesn’t sound like the other people. The music ideas that I have don’t sound like the other people. When I’ve worked with some other producers, they’ve tried to make me sound like other people and I did not like how my voice sounded.Black artists are human beings who deserve to be paid the same as everyone else. Click To Tweet
They took all the elements that make my voice sound unique and interesting that I personally like. They want to get rid of all of that because everybody is trying to sound like everybody else. With all of that, it is harder to even find new and interesting music. I remember when MySpace was the thing, it was easier in that way too because you could cruise through people’s pages and you’d hear their music playing. You’re like, “I found this hidden gem.” That doesn’t exist anymore. We don’t have any social media platforms, even if you’re not a musician, that you can incorporate music from other artists in it.
That reminds me of something that I have been reflecting on. I spent time on TikTok and it was MTV. It was their account that posted this. Do you remember this pop artist probably in the early 2000s and late ‘90s named Fefe Dobson?
It was on an MTV interview and they were talking about how they used to refer to her as the black Britney Spears. They, meaning somebody in the industry. They wanted to group her sound into the Britney Spears sound. I thought, “That’s interesting.” I went back and listened to her music, and I was like, “She doesn’t sound anything like Britney Spears, in my opinion.” First of all, it got me thinking about reverse cultural appropriation. Often in the music industry, we have white people trying to sound like black people or people of another color ethnicity. They wanted to take this talented black singer and make her sound like Britney Spears because that’s what was selling. That bothered me and I thought about how many young artists get boxed in because people see dollar signs.
This goes back to the question I was asking you earlier about being in this industry, especially when you don’t fully feel confident and developed when you’re young and impressionable. When you want something, it’s easier for people to take advantage of you. We hear about this so much in the music industry, all the horrific things that have happened to artists because they wanted to make it, be successful and they wanted money. They felt like they had to shortchange themselves, sign away their rights to things, hide and be something different. That feels so heartbreaking to me.
I hope that social media is perhaps helping things and making it a little bit better. I also saw how much cultural appropriation happens in general. That’s also starting to become maybe even bigger or sustained, just in a different way as an issue. On TikTok, there was a black creator who was talking about how many black culture memes or trends were utilized by big and white social media stars, and people don’t even know the history. One of the big ones is the ice in my vein. That’s a huge trend on social media in general but especially on TikTok.
He now has an account. It’s about showing the history. He’s like, “Ice in my veins is not something that some sixteen-year-old white content creator came up with. Here is where it came from and that history is rooted in the black culture so let’s give them credit.” That’s incredibly important in the creative industry because it’s so easy for people to capitalize on something that they didn’t even come up with in the first place. I’m curious about your experiences and perspectives on that.
There are many things that pop up in my brain as you guys were talking about this. I have actual images in my head. They just flash. I don’t know how other people think but I see fully formed images. One thing I want to bring up which is cool in a good way to pay homage to something that is from a culture that’s not yours. Paul Stanley has a band called Paul Stanley and the Soul Station or something like that. They do like Motown songs. It’s awesome. I saw them at The Rose in Pasadena a few years back. They’re incredible.
I already had respect for the man. His voice is ridiculous already but I had so much respect because he wasn’t like, “This is Paul Stanley and a whole bunch of black people singing Motown songs. Good night.” He went through and explained why he chose these songs, who was the writer of the song, and some little background about it. He was influenced by Motown, which a lot of people don’t know but if you listen to his voice, you hear that soul in his voice. I can’t think of the name of the record but he has a super-duper soulful voice that he does not get enough credit for.
It was cool to watch this man and he had 3 or 4 singers. They were all black. I think I knew all of them and he’s got a Brazilian guitarist. I can’t remember the drum people but I point out the people that I remember and personally knew. He was big up in everybody, giving so much respect and paying so much homage to this music that helped form him that he was so inspired by and so enamored with. That’s the right way to do it. The problem is when people take something completely and act like they made it up.
If you are the person that represents the group that it came from and you’re like, “Excuse me. I want to let you know that’s from us,” then they shun the person. They try to make a fool, mockery or whatever. That’s where the problem lies. I know there are people who are like, “What’s the difference between appropriation and appreciation?” Appreciation includes respect. If you are giving respect where respect is due, that’s appreciation. If you’re walking around, wearing a full head-to-toe Cherokee Native American tribe headdress outfit and you’re trying to be sexy for the concert, that’s not appreciation. That’s appropriation.
However, if you are a member of the tribe or you have been invited by the tribe to come and be a part of something ceremonial and they’re like, “We want you to learn our songs. We want you to learn to wear the full-on outfit and traditional uniform.” That’s appreciation and respect. You’ve been invited into that space to be like that. That’s the same thing with music. Music is interesting because it does evolve and we are inspired by each other.
For example, in the ‘90s, if Snoop was doing a song that had a sample with George Clinton and Funkadelic and he would do a performance, he would bring George Clinton and the Funkadelic on stage. He would say, “This is the person that the sample came from.” We were at that point in the ‘90s and early 2000s, where people started doing that. It’s like, “This is the person that found me. I’m going to bring them on,” or “This is where I got this from.” Whereas now, because it’s so easy to access stuff at all times, people can easily get away with, “I didn’t know.” There is a big problem in that because we aren’t getting that connection back to where things came from.
I feel like I’m going all over the place, but I’m speaking to the appropriation/appreciation thing with music. From my personal experience being a black woman, it’s been interesting in this industry because there are times when you aren’t seen black enough and I have been told, “You’ve got to sing blacker.” This is this person’s idea of this concept of whatever they think black-sounding singing is. I am not alone in that. There are a lot of black people, especially black women who are told, “It’s got to be more like this.”
I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church like straight-up gospel. That’s what we did. For somebody who’s like, “I am from Lithuania and I’m going to tell you how to do the Southern black singing,” I’ve experienced that. I’ve experienced where it’s me and maybe a non-black person, and they aren’t giving the soul that needs to be given. Because they aren’t black, they get applauded so much more. There’s the whole discussion about women chefs versus male chefs and how a male chef can be, “I made this amazing grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” and everyone is like, “Yes. Do it.” A woman is like, “I did too and I did it first.” They’re like, “You’re a woman. You do that stuff.”
I experienced some things like that as a black woman in this industry. When I first started coming out and doing music under my name, Kitten Kuroi, it was all rock. I would have to convince people to come and see me because they didn’t think it made sense why would a black woman be singing rock. They’re like, “I’ve heard your voice before. You can’t do rock. Black women can’t do rock.” It’s interesting because a black woman invented rock as we know it. Tina Turner is not the only black female rocker that there is. For the originators of almost anything, they only give you one or maybe two spaces, and then you’ve got to fight for that space. Everybody else can come on. They can copy it and everything, and act that they made it up. People completely forget about the originators of the thing, and especially when it has to do with some “minority group.” I say minority because minorities are already the majority.The person being black is not the problem; it's what you associate with them. Click To Tweet
That happens a lot. It’s not insurmountable. What’s interesting due to everything that happened in 2020, especially when it comes to the civil rights movement, a lot more people are aware of what’s going on and calling out. They’re calling foul, which is coo. In the long run and moving forward in the future, it’s going to open a pathway for more often authenticity because people aren’t letting folks clown around, steal things and whatever. People are going to start wanting to give homage, more respect and more appreciation in all facets. Maybe I’m an optimist, but that is what I’m hoping for.
You talk about so many realizations in 2020. Whitney and I have talked about a lot of these in previous episodes of things that cracked us open and increased our level of awareness of experiences beyond our own. It’s not that I can understand what a direct life experience of being a black person is, but the understanding and a little more empathy of I had no idea this was going on or to that level. It’s been so many of those moments.
A couple of the big ones when we’re talking specifically about cultural appropriation. There are a couple of things I want to say to this because there are so many moments that I look back on if my mind is being opened. This article was talking about the history of white artists stealing from people of color, taking their songs, their chord progressions, or their sound and making it their own. The story was about Eric Clapton visiting Hitsville going to the Motown studio before Motown moved to LA in the early ’70s. He was either there for a session when it was The Temps or the Four Tops. I can’t remember which one. It was all this cringy inappropriate stuff of Eric Clapton wanting to look down the throat of Lamont Dozier to see what made him sound black. It was beyond cringy.
When you said that thing, Kitten, about can you sound more black? It flashed on that Eric Clapton story of him trying to look down Lamont’s throat to figure out how he makes that sound so he could emulate it. Moments like that, even now, I feel gross in my body thinking about the story. On the higher level, I remember there was also a movement. I haven’t checked on it but there was talk of beyond a petition but leveraging a legal movement against the record companies to renegotiate the contracts of black artists. They were saying that by and large, the contracts for many people of color who were signed to these big record labels, the record deals were horrible that they’re literally making tens or hundreds of millions of dollars off of these artists.
Mase got brought up in one instance and people were like, “Universal Music and Bad Boy, pay this man what he’s earned.” That’s one example. How rampant that is and how many black artists over the years got big record deals or you think in your mind, “I’ve got this big record deal,” but then years go by and you’re like, “These people are not getting their due at all.” It’s horrifying how much they’ve been taken advantage of. Yet, you look at how many artists over the years like Elvis, Led Zeppelin, and Moby.
We can talk about how Moby took a lot of those field recordings from Alan Lomax and when the families of those black artists came to ask for their money, Moby was like, “No. I’m not going to give you any money.” With all due respect to Moby, I have great umbrage with his ethical choice there or lack thereof. It’s such a rampant thing. Beyond the respect to talk about, Kitten, what do you think we can do in terms of moving this needle to compensate artists of color to get paid what they’re worth. What can we do about moving that? Beyond honor, respect, and homage, how do we make sure that the people are getting paid what they’ve created for?
Step one is to see black people as sovereign human beings, not as the cute little background singers or cute little puppies and that kind of thing. See us as actual human beings equal to everybody else because that’s the problem, to begin with. If you have a little child that’s running a candy shop and you have an adult running a candy shop, even if the kid is somehow doing as well as the adult, the kids probably are not going to get paid as much as the adult because they’re a kid and they’re cute like, “Look at you trying to do something,” versus you see the adult as, “I’m an adult, you’re an adult, you deserve a salary.”
It’s the same thing. A lot of times, people in the industry look at black people as pets, accessories or clout boosters like, “I’m going to have this big, huge black choir. It’s going to be awesome. I’m never going to see them again and I’m going to hardly pay them any money, but everybody is going to applaud me because my heart is so big because look at me, I’m surrounded by this black choir.”
There was this artist and I don’t want to say his name. I’ve never worked with him so anybody who was like, “Let me guess,” I don’t know him personally. I have seen him in real life. I’ve walked past him at the rehearsal space but I don’t know him. He did an award show and he was singing one of his famous songs that’s super motivational and inspiring and people love it. He was flanked by all of these African boys’ choir. It was interesting to me because I have never heard about you doing anything with Africans, black people in general, but now for optics, you have this black boys’ choir.”
I don’t know what happened after that. Are these children all fine? Are they all good and everything is wonderful? Are you contributing to whatever organization that they came from, whatever choir or group? Are they just there so that you can see? Sometimes it’s subconscious. I don’t think that every single person that does things like this is consciously thinking, “I’m going to make black people look like my cute pets.” I don’t think so, but I feel there’s a subconscious thing that black people are accessories and ambiance, “They make me look cool. They come in here and they bring the soul and funk.”
See us as equals and very talented in our own individual rights. It’s like that example of it could be me singing. I’m singing my heart out and I’m giving you all the soul. I’m giving you all whatever that’s coming from a real place. You’ve got another girl who did not have a similar life experience. She may be singing the same song. She’s struggling and she’s not giving it to you, but because she’s trying and she’s not black, she gets all of the accolades. She’s the one that gets the gig or gets all the money because I’m not seen as equal to that person. I’m not getting credit for the effort that I’ve put in because I’m trying. It’s like, “You’re black. That’s what you guys do.”
The first step to helping with that situation to solving that crisis of black artists not getting their due is to see black artists or black people as human beings that deserve money just like everybody else. It’s just like women needing to get paid equally to men. If they’re doing the same job, pay me the same. Half the time, the people who are getting paid less are working ten times more. It’s not even necessarily a conscious thing. If we start to see human beings as equals, there’s no such thing as colorblindness. That colorblindness is absolute trash and garbage. Stop with that. I hate it. “I don’t see color.” You literally do. You chose your outfit. You chose the color of your car, your nails and your hair. You’re over there thinking, “That man looks hot with his olive skin or with her with her milky white complexion.” You see it, you see me, you see us. There’s no such thing.
The problem isn’t that I’m black and that you’re white, Latino, Asian or whatever. That’s not the problem at all. The problem is that you don’t see us as individuals. Going back to appreciation, you can appreciate my dark skin, curly hair, thick lips, and wherever else I come from. You can appreciate that and see that as different from you but different in a beautiful way. We look different. If you stand me next to another black person, I’m not going to look exactly the same. I don’t have a twin unless you put a wig on my brother. You can see us. You see those differences and it’s okay. It’s beautiful to accept these differences. When people start to say, “I have a friend,” and you whisper, “They’re black.” What’s the message that you’re sending? The person being black is not the problem. It’s what you associate with blackness. That’s why you feel like you have to whisper it. It’s how you think other people will perceive you, or how you think other people will perceive them because they’re black. That is the problem.
Once we start seeing people as human beings and accepting diversity as a beautiful thing, we can start moving forward. Another thing about the whole money thing with black people and getting what they’re due, we just need to stop having greedy people. They need to be called out. It does happen in the black community too and that also comes from conditioning. As far as African-Americans, not all of us but many of us are descendants of slaves. That slavery mentality is very crabs in a barrel for survival and part of that is a carryover. There’s a lot of awakening on so many different levels that need to be happening. We can start seeing the beauty in diversity and looking at people for their individual merits and talents
There are some people that don’t like the whole concept of affirmative action. They’re like, “We don’t need it.” It’s great personally, not because I’m a black woman, but because we don’t yet live in that world where we can look around and say, “Jenny, she’s Asian.” “Okay. Jenny is talented and beautiful.” It’s not like, “Jenny is talented but she’s Asian.” It’s, “Jenny is talented,” end of the story. Once we’re able to be in that place, we won’t need affirmative action. Who wants that? At the end of the day, we want to get in on our merit but because the gatekeepers of things are selfish, greedy, ignorant and hateful, we need protections in place.Once we start accepting diversity as a beautiful thing, then we can really start moving forward. Click To Tweet
This is all so incredibly important because a couple of things come up as you’re saying this, especially after what happened with George Floyd and everything that started to build in the Black Lives Matter Movement and how it was insanely eye-opening for me. Suddenly, I felt like I could no longer be subtly anti-racist. I had to examine my life and also hold myself accountable, be honest, examine my entire history, my family’s history, and everyone around me when I was growing up. It’s just been an ongoing practice.
This is part of the overall theme that we’ve touched a lot upon is taking shortcuts to success, money, fame, and changing the world. We want to quickly fix everything. That’s probably why this performative action happens like, “I’m a white person but look, I’m surrounded by black people. I’m not racist.”
From my examination, there are lots of racist elements in my life and experience and I can’t disregard those. I can’t hide them away and pretend they’re not there because that’s part of what shaped who I am now. It’s similar to what I was saying towards the beginning of the episode, I have to go back and retrace my steps. I have to examine how I was raised and all the subtleties of racism. The way my parents raised me as white people, the way my primarily white town was growing up, and the white college I went to. There were so many experiences of whiteness around me that I didn’t even know most of my privilege.
One thing that I’ve been examining that came from TikTok, where I find a lot of inspiration, is this idea of how threatening white women are. I was really taken aback. As a white woman, I have been reflecting on that like, “Am I a threat?” As you’re describing, Kitten, as a musician, when you’re performing with other white women, maybe you don’t even consciously know it sometimes. Maybe you feel it’s a threat because it’s not equal. Even though that specific individual white woman might not threaten you, it’s what she represents that can threaten you. That gave me more motivation to work on this and to speak out against it because I don’t want to perpetuate that.
You can’t race through this. You have to deal with it little by little and it’s an ongoing thing. I don’t know if, in our lifetimes, this is going to be fully sorted out as much as we would like it to. It’s going to take a lot of time and experimenting. We’re undoing hundreds of years of history that is very complex. Part of the complexity is because we’ve tried to hide it away or push it down if we had the privilege to do that. It just hasn’t been acknowledged. This 2020, a lot has been acknowledged but that’s not enough time to fix things. I’m so grateful for you sharing your experiences because that’s part of how I raised my awareness and given that many of our readers are white women. It’s incredibly important for us to listen, learn and be committed to that on another level.
I’ve had very interesting experiences with white women. I don’t walk around consciously thinking about racism and stuff like that. It does cross my mind in certain situations. My head is on a swivel for safety reasons. Since this is such an intimate and candid conversation, I would like to share and step to the floor about white women. I’ve had lots of white women friends in my life but I’m going to preface this by saying, “I can’t love everybody. I love humans. I love people.” That’s probably my tragic downfall. I’ll be the one that’s like, “That apple looks so nice.” I’m going to be that person poisoned by the apple.
My experience with white women and white girls has been tumultuous at best. Not with everyone but like right now, I have only one very close white female friend. Ever since I was little, they can’t seem to be friends with me without bringing some racism to the table. My first experience of racism was probably in kindergarten or something like that. It was an after-school care thing. It was me and my brother. We always hung out all the time. We were little dark-skinned cherub babies, little nuggets. We would hang out with this white girl and we would hang out with this biracial girl. Her mom was white and her dad was black, or vice versa. We would just all hang out as kids. We didn’t think anything of it.
By nature, kids play with whatever and who they want to play with. If a child wants to play with the snail, a child’s going to play with the snail. If a child wants to play with anybody, they will. An old man that only has one tooth and one eye, a child does not see that. They’re just like, “This person is interesting and fun. That’s all I hear.” I didn’t think anything of it and my parents, especially at that age, weren’t like, “Watch out for racist people.” It wasn’t something that was spoken but it wasn’t something that was a great discussion at that point. We were in kindergarten.
We’re playing with this girl all the time and one day, do you know how little kids make announcements? They have to stand back against the wall or something and announce the whole thing. The white girl goes, “Who wants to come to my birthday party?” My brother and I didn’t think, “I do,” because we’re thinking, “Clearly we’re built-in. We hang out all the time so we don’t need to exert any extra energy.” We continued to play and then she looked at us and she goes, “That’s not black.” We were like, “What?” The biracial girl goes, “What about me? My dad is black,” or whatever she said. The girl’s like, “You’re not really black. I don’t think you count.” That was the first time I experienced racism in kindergarten by a little white girl and we played together all the time. I didn’t see a problem with it or anything.
I had a friend in junior high and we hung out all the time. She had two sisters and a pot-bellied pig and we would all hang out together. It was so much fun. We both were in the nerdy kid classes, the honors classes or whatever, and we had healthy competition. We were best friends. Her parents were part of the Masonic lodge and they have something that’s almost like a quinceañera or sweet sixteen. I don’t know exactly what it was. I never heard about it since then or whatever. It was a coming-of-age thing. She and I decided the colors are going to be teal and purple. We decided what we were going to wear. It was like twinsies best friendsies thing.
I went to it and I spoke to introduce her to everybody. I was the only black person there. I didn’t think about it. She didn’t think about it. I don’t think her mom thought it was a problem either but after that, she stopped talking to me. She could not talk to me ever again. She completely fell off the face of the Earth. We’re still in the same classes and all that kind of stuff but she couldn’t talk to me and I couldn’t come over, nothing at all.
Years later, I’d come back to that town. I was in the downtown area and there was some parade that was happening. It just so happened that she was on the float, she had a little sash, and she saw me standing on the side of the street because I was like, “When is this thing going to pass so I could cross the street?” She saw me and she started crying. I remember it clearly as a day. She went from smiling and waving with her little princess sash and everything to just bawling. As the float was starting to go away ride off into the sunset, I saw her mouthing, “I’m so sorry.” I never saw or heard from her again.
I’ve had other female friends that I thought were super-duper cute and then they’ve said some racist stuff. I had one friend who I had to argue with her about our former president, he who shall not be named. She was arguing when he was calling it the China virus. I was saying that’s absolutely racist. I don’t have to be Chinese to care about human beings and to know that that’s racist. It’s also causing emotional harm and physical harm. I even told her before we started hearing about all of the violence against Asian people, “This is going to lead to attacks,” and it was already starting. She was arguing with me. She didn’t think that was real.
It was interesting because she also started to use the excuse of, “The virus came from China and they’ve got those wet markets and the way they handle animals.” I’m like, “If you want to be upset at that, be upset at how we treat animals in this country too. If you’re not upset at that, then at the end of the day, you’re just racist.” I pulled away from her at that point. I didn’t specifically say, “Don’t talk to me anymore,” but I pulled away from her.
When the George Floyd thing happened, she was calling me up because she needed me to console her because of what she was feeling. I specifically told her like, “I’m not talking to a lot of people right now. This is very traumatic for me. It’s very hard.” I gave her a link about how to be a supportive ally that I thought was great. I’d also sent it to all of my non-black and white friends. If anybody had any questions, they know they can ask me. If they’re like, “What does this mean? I don’t understand,” but she got upset at me because she was no longer the focus. It wasn’t about her.
That’s something that I have experienced with white women where those that I have experienced and tried to get close to will reveal this racism. Some of them don’t even realize that they have. It’s like they’ve been shielded from it maybe or sheltered or some princess kind of thing. They know that they will be saved. If I get kidnapped and then also a blonde girl gets kidnapped, they will find that blonde girl tomorrow. They will tell the world I killed myself and be like, “We couldn’t find her. I’m sorry.” I’m not a white woman so I can’t tell you how white women think but there is like, “I know that I will be okay.”
Sometimes, there’s a little bit of crossing the line or doing too much because you know you can come back from it like the woman who got Emmett Till killed. A few years ago, she came out and said, “I lied. None of that was true,” but she went gung-ho with that for decades. That man was brutally killed because of the word of a white woman. There is a lack of responsibility and accountability, “Everybody has to save me. I’m the one to be saved. If I was confused, I’m confused.” There’s a whole caring culture. People go, “I don’t care. It’s legit.” There are certain white women who take it to that next level. They know that no matter what they do, they will be saved.
There’s this video of this white woman. She’s trying to stop this white guy from skateboarding in this area. She doesn’t work there. He doesn’t work there. There might be a sign that says, “No skateboarding.” We’re in a pandemic, there’s nobody around, and he’s not hurting anybody. I thought at first she came with him but she didn’t. She is following him around on the skateboard, trying to kick the skateboard out from under him while he’s skating, endangering both of their lives just so she can prove a point because she knows that all she has to do is call the police and say, “This person harassed me. This person hurt me.” No one is going to question her. She can get away with it.
I have noticed that and I’ve experienced that firsthand in my life. There isn’t the education, cultural sensitivity, cultural awareness, not even cultural. There’s a whole world outside of you that you don’t have control of. It has nothing to do with you. It’s not even maternal. It doesn’t come from maternal energy. It’s a very dominant, controlling and the most negative aspect of masculine energy that they’re taking upon themselves for no reason just because they can. People die because of this. People get arrested and beat up because of this. People’s whole lives get upended and then they cry about it. You get tears. You get the whole, “I didn’t know. I was just trying,” and they get away with it.
What’s interesting is I’m going to speak to white men, especially white men that are in power. White women are their princesses, if not their queens. If more white women had more exposure to a lot of different people, a lot of different ways of thought, they would influence the men because who run the world? Girls. At the end of the day, we are the reason why humans continue on because we are the vessels for creation, for life.
If white women, I’m not talking about all of them so don’t be upset, those that are reading this, but if they would use their voice and their power, for example, Voldemort was almost going to be elected again. Who are the main people trying to vote for him? Statistically, white women. Why? There is no benefit. This man does not care about you, your reproductive organs, dreams, hopes, finances, anything. He’s the worst thing for women in general, but they’re upholding this dominant and negative patriarchy without even realizing it.
For a lot of people of color, the fear comes from that. The fear comes from they don’t realize the power they have. The power to destroy and to be complicit in that, but then turn around and put a Black Lives Matter sign on the window and be like, “I did my job for the day.” There’s a lot of dialogue about things like that that need to happen within white people that are aware of what’s going on and want to make these changes.
In 2020, during the pandemic when everything was all crazy and in the middle of all the protests, the Black Lives Matters protests, the George Floyd, all that was happening, we went cross country. This is before the elections around September. Damon, Valerie and I went cross country to visit his family in Wisconsin. There was this interesting moment, which a lot of people need to know about. It has to do with white folks, white families, white circles, talking amongst themselves about civil rights and how they can do better, be better and work to help in the cycle.
It’s not something that black people and people of color have to always jump in, save and educate all the time. There’s so much information and resource out there that people can pick and choose what they want to learn and how they want to learn it in order to change the tide when it comes to civil rights, human injustices, white supremacy, white racism, all that kind of stuff.
Damon was talking to his dad. I want to preface this by saying that I’ve known Damon for many years. I’ve known his father and they are not a racist family. I want to put that out there so people don’t think like, “What’s going on?” They’re a totally nice, sweet, loving and very accepting family. There was one moment where Damon’s dad and Damon started having this conversation about taking a knee. His father was wondering, “Why are they taking this knee?” A lot of the information that was out there was taking a knee was anti-American and unpatriotic. It was doing extra and doing the most kind of thing. That was the information. That was the news that Damon’s dad was getting out there in Wisconsin.
Damon began to have this conversation with his dad. I was in a separate room laying down. Damon didn’t come into the room and say, “My dad is talking about race stuff. How should I approach this or what should I say. Can you come in here and educate my dad on taking a knee and that sort of thing?” Damon, armed with the knowledge, compassion and empathy that he has in his heart, decided to talk to his dad and say, “Taking a knee is not disrespectful. In fact, it’s very respectful and Colin Kaepernick actually got the suggestion about taking a knee from a US soldier who said that taking a knee is a way that we’re able to make a stand and make our voices heard. At the same time, we are paying homage and we’re paying respect for other people,” and Damon was saying other things.
What was cool about that was as a black person, I was never the token black person or the token negro that asked to step in, intervene and educate. Damon is a white man who lives in America. He has taken the time to open his eyes, ears and heart to the plight of other people. Hearing what we’re talking about, what we need and what we’re asking for as humans. Not just black people but as humans in general. Damon took it upon himself to talk to his dad to break things down in a way that both of them could understand and then they opened up a conversation. By the end of it, his dad was like, “Send me some links on information so that I can learn more.” That’s absolutely beautiful and something that has to happen more often.
It does not happen in white groups. White people are generally waiting for people of color to save them and bail them out, and then there’s always this excuse, “I didn’t know. I wasn’t educated.” We live in a world and a society where we are connected. Most of us are connected to the internet. We’re connected to a 24-hour news cycle on so many different platforms. We also have Wikipedia. We can reach out to celebrities or civil rights leaders, ask them questions or follow their feeds and see what information they are sharing. We have access to History Channel, History.com, encyclopedias and all kinds of stuff. There is no reason why in today’s society, white people who are marching on the side of the right can’t feel somewhat confident to some extent to talk to their white friends and family about what’s going on.
The change happens within our social groups, who we hang out with. If we’re only hanging out with people that are only hanging out with white people that are only talking to white people, they won’t even have the thought to think about other people because they’re not around those other people. They’re not absorbing lessons. They’re not seeing things firsthand. There have been times where Damon and I have been out or myself and another white man have been out and “nigger lover” has been screamed at us, that sort of thing. We have almost been run off the road before by white racist people. Nine times out of ten, they are men as far as being physically outright aggressive.
If you are not in situations like that, where you are seeing the racism playing out or you don’t have an open heart or an open mind to hear about what people have experienced, you can’t take that back to your circles. You can’t take that back to your white families or your white friends and plead our collective case as humans. I’m probably veering way off the road here, but it’s so important for white people that have the knowledge, compassion and empathy to express and communicate to their white network in a way that they can best understand each other.
We get influenced by the people that we are the closest to. Going back to the Damon story, that was beautiful because he did not rely on my emotional belabor as a black woman to come in, educate and set things straight. He allowed me to still stay in my space, my own business, and live my life while he does the job that I feel like he shouldn’t be doing as a human.
I love your perspective on that story because as a white person, I can only understand from my white viewpoint. I don’t want to be bailed out by black people, at least consciously, but maybe on some level, I do or I did. You articulating it that way is enlightening. This whole process of becoming anti-racist is messy and uncomfortable. It also reminds me of something that Bo Burnham said in his special. I don’t know if you saw that, Kitten, but there’s this vignette about a sock puppet that seems to be playing out to this narrative between people in power, especially white men, and people that are being controlled or manipulated by them.Our actions can have tragic consequences if we don’t pay attention. Click To Tweet
I don’t remember the exact phrase, but the essence of it was like, “It’s not all about you.” Saying that to a white person who’s almost trying to play the victim of like, “It’s so hard to be a white person trying to be anti-racist.” It’s a humbling experience and it’s also an opportunity for us to work together and then also simultaneously step back in some ways. It depends on the context. In this context, the way that I’m hearing it is that you wanted to step back. You wanted Damon to work this out with his father because it was between the two of them, and that’s how Damon was supporting you.
There are other times where that could be seen as like a white savior and that’s something I’m trying to better understand. I certainly don’t want to come across that way or act that way because that’s not helpful. This is where it feels messy and uncomfortable as a white person. It’s not going to be easy and it doesn’t need to be or maybe it even shouldn’t be easy because it hasn’t been easy for people that are non-white. We have the privilege in a way of it feeling uncomfortable if that makes sense.
It makes sense. There is this quote that I’m going to butcher because I don’t remember it exactly. It’s a meme that I saw. It was saying that if people of color or black people specifically have to teach our children at young ages how to navigate and recognize racism and that it exists, if we have to do that in order for survival, then white children should also learn the same thing at an early age.
There’s often the argument as far as white people go, “My child is so young. They don’t need to know about that.” That is a privilege in and of itself to not know that racism exists or to not understand that racism isn’t just, “I don’t like that person.” Racism is, “I abhor this person. I want to kill this person. They shouldn’t exist. They are a parasite. I am better than them.”
If I have to be a small child being told that I can’t come to the little girl’s birthday party because I’m black and this is when I’m in kindergarten or something like that. If I have to experience that, if I have to navigate that water and process that at such a young age, white children should too. It shouldn’t be about shaming. It shouldn’t be like, “Let’s shame all the white children to make them feel horrible about themselves.” I don’t feel like that is the situation. They should be privy to the real-life, true information and then decide what they’re going to do with their own lives with that information.
If you see a cartoon as a child and you see the bad guy doing bad things, you’re aware that there’s good and evil, bad and good from a young age looking at cartoons. You see what the bad guy does and what happens to the bad guys and you decide, “I don’t want to be the bad guy.” It’s very simple. You live your life as a child not trying to be the bad guy. You want to be the good guy. You want to be the hero. You learn that at a young age. It’s the same thing when it comes to white children. White people have done amazing things. White people have also done horrible things. They need to know all of that.
It’s the same thing with black children. If black children are always only told, “You are only ever meant to be a slave and that’s all you’ve ever contributed and your people have contributed,” that’s horrible. If you say, “Black people in America, by and large, are descendants of slaves. However, not all were. Also, many of those slaves ended up changing the way that the entire world operates.” We have also been heroes. We created the stoplight. We did the first heart transplant and all those kinds of things. Many things that the entire world benefits from came from the descendants of slaves or people that were still slaves at that time. We didn’t have the status or the ability to own our copyrights, our patents, and all that kind of stuff, but we still did it. The history is out there. The paper trail still exists.
It was more than a dichotomy. We live in a gray. If people can see the spectrum of human life, human existence, and human achievement, then children can grow from that and become better and more dynamic children knowing things. If you don’t know the history, you’re doomed to repeat it. We do a great disservice to black children, white children, all children by not letting them know what’s going on and what really happened. It’s difficult, hard and ugly for everyone, especially those that it targets. I’ve had to feel like maybe there’s something wrong with me because I’m black when I was a kindergartener.
Thankfully, I had strong parents who instilled in me a pride in being black, but it was never like, “I’m black. Screw everybody else.” It was like, “I’m black. I’m proud. Look at that person. That person is Mexican. That’s awesome. That person is Japanese. That’s so cool. That person is a white person from Kentucky. That’s awesome.” I was never taught to exclude people. I was taught to be aware, pay attention, and be safe. I was also taught to love. One does not exclude the other. It is ugly and hard but we need ugly and hard because that is real life. There are ways that we can make it, I don’t want to say palatable and digestible, but there are ways that we can effectively communicate that, and effectively have these tough decisions and come out on the other side as better people.
That’s incredibly important and you are talking about raising this level of awareness. When you talk about how we are learning as children and adults, what it brings up for me is this level of awareness around the subconscious languaging and how that’s used to program children and adults. I remember when I had one of the many a-ha moments around education as children, and thinking about language specifically around terms like, “You’re the black sheep. You’re being blackballed. You’re being blacklisted.” All of these negative terminologies were instilled at a young age.
It’s important that as we grow this awareness around languaging, what we’re taught, and what we get imprinted as children to do the work to unravel a lot of that as adults. As we are actively pursuing anti-racism, unraveling the history, learning the truth, and learning the contribution of people of color throughout human history, and also looking at languaging and how that affects our subconscious mind, it’s a lot of work. It’s important and necessary work.
If we want humanity to continue on this planet on a macro level of humans continuing to exist and live on planet Earth, this is part of the work that we need to do. If we keep hating each other and killing each other, initiating hatred, prejudice, limiting each other’s freedom, and actively oppressing each other, I don’t think humanity is going to continue on this planet unless we do the hard work of unraveling and actively contributing. Not just becoming aware of what’s happening but taking positive and loving action toward the world we want. That is the work that all of humanity needs to do if we’re going to keep surviving.
I like that you brought up language, how there are these little hidden microaggressions in language. I love Jamiroquai. I remember, Jason, you had a talk somewhere that we went years ago. You were talking about finding your touchstone and identifying what your touchstone is when you’re going through a crisis or you’re feeling down or whatever. I was thinking about that and Jamiroquai is one of those for me where it’s like, “Today is crap. I’m going to throw on a Jamiroquai album and I know which one is appropriate for this level of crappy feeling.”
There’s this one song called Black Devil Car. The first time I heard it, I want to say that it’s on the Virtual Insanity album but maybe not. It might be on another one. There’s a song where he’s singing about this black devil car, “Riding around in my black devil car.” When I heard that, I was like, “I don’t know how I feel about this.” There’s this one part where he’s talking about white angels crying and that kind of thing. He’s showing this dichotomy, this negative black thing, but then white angels. I don’t know Jay Kay personally. I don’t know anybody from Jamiroquai personally but Jamiroquai is a diverse band, so I don’t assume that they are racist and stuff.
That’s a popular trope though like the black devil, white angels. As a black person, I self-identified and also globally and internationally. No matter where I go, people may not assume I’m American but they know I am black. The derivatives of that name, black, negro, negra and negrita, that is what I am all over the world and whatever language it is. As a black person and a black child, growing up and hearing, “Black magic, black devil, black this, white this.” White is the thing that we want. We want to aspire to the purity of whiteness and not the dirtiness of blackness. How does that make black children feel? How does that make black people feel? We have these little things hidden in words. How do we flip that?
I also agree with you when you were saying that if we continue on this path, as humans, we will cease to exist because we’re not listening and not caring about each other. If I say, “This Black Devil Car song makes me feel uncomfortable. I love you to the moon but this makes me feel uncomfortable.” The response that I should get should be, “I didn’t even think about it this way. I’m sorry. I have some things to think about,” versus, “You’re being defensive, this and that. It’s just a song,” and brushing it aside. That is an example of not listening and that is the path that we are on.
I speak a lot about black people because I am black. I’ve done DNA tests and I’m everything under the sun almost literally. As society stands, I’m a black person. I’m a black woman. It blows my mind that black people from all over the world, especially black people in America can say, “Stop doing A, B, C, D, E, F through Z because it hurts us. It oppresses us. It kills us. It harms us.” Collectively, people say, “Be quiet. It’s not that big of a deal. You are overdramatizing.”
How are millions of people that identify with the same group all across this country or all across this world are having the same experiences and still to this day, people are not listening to us? People feel like they know better than we do. People think that we are over exaggerating. We’re not going to get anywhere in this way. We’re not going to get anywhere if we’re not listening to each other. I learned about white guilt years ago. Oftentimes, being a part of a group that gets marginalized and pushed to the edges, we’re so busy focused on our own survival that we’re like, “I’m trying to wade through this muck. I can’t look at you and see what you’re going through. I’m trying to save myself.”We won’t get anywhere if we don’t listen to each other. Click To Tweet
The white guilt thing is so interesting and it’s something to listen to because I feel like if that is also not addressed by white people but also by people of color, we can’t move through it either because we’re not listening. There are so many white people that do want to help, but they feel absolutely guilty about what their ancestors did or feel guilty about the societal constructs that they still benefit from. They are almost scared about what to do and where to move because they feel like, “Anything I say and anything I do is going to be whatever.” They start feeling guilty but feel like they have nowhere to go. Some of those people are the people that I would love to speak up, share their story, or feel more comfortable to talk to us, meaning people of color.
There are many people of color that are trying to survive. They are not thinking about people that want to be allies. They could be feeling locked in guilt. I don’t have a solution but my suggestion for that is it’s is ugly. White people that are dealing with white guilt seek people of color, black people who are open to having a dialogue with them. A one-on-one dialog but a listening kind of dialog. Express all the stuff that you want to say. I’m one of those people as long as you want to have a dialog and you don’t want to tell me how I shouldn’t be feeling or telling me how I should be responding to my own oppression.
If you want to express your concerns, “I’m an ally. I feel this is horrible and that’s horrible. I found out that I’ve got an ancestor that was a slaver,” and all this kind of stuff. We can’t unravel your whole life story but let’s have this conversation. I was in an actual conversation with a diverse group of people and a white woman and a white man were co-signing each other. They were talking about that white guilt and feeling like they want to do something, but feeling like they can’t because they’ll be laughed out of town or cast out of town or whatever.
It starts with one person. Talk to me or talk to somebody else that you feel will listen. Express what you’re feeling and what you want to do. If you’re only expressing, “It’s hard to be white right now,” I don’t want to have that conversation because it’s still not hard to be white. It’s never going to be hard to be white in this country. It might be uncomfortable because people are calling you out, but it’s not going to be hard. If you want to talk about, “I want to help. How can I help? I feel like I want to talk to my uncle about this.” That kind of dialog will burst open the floodgates of compassion, love and people pausing and listening to each other. We can then figure out how we can help each other, raise the vibration and raise this positive consciousness so that humanity can continue to exist on this planet and maybe even others.
That’s beautiful, Kitten. I love the way that you’ve articulated that. It’s powerful.If we were perfect, we wouldn't be human. Click To Tweet
There are so many tools and so many perspectives that you shared. All of Kitten’s information, her music, Instagram, incredible food through her brand Chocolate Martha, and everything for you to follow up with her incredible, heartfelt, soulful work in this world, we’ll have all of those at our website, which is Wellevatr.com. We’ll have all the ways you can reach Kitten and enjoy her incredible work in this world. You are leading with such heart and such realness. We’re deeply grateful to call you a friend, a creative collaborator. Thank you for coming on and sharing so much heartfelt wisdom. It is making a huge impact on this planet, Kitten. We love you and appreciate you.
Thank you. I love you both, too. Thank you for having me on!
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- Kitten Kuroi
- Whitney Lauritsen – TikToK
- Chocolate Martha Vegan Cooking
- Kitten Kuroi – Instagram
- School Night Mashup: Kitten and Jason performing together at Au Lac
About Kitten Kuroi
There is no way to pigeonhole this Grammy-winning, cross-genre chanteuse. From Rock to Pop, Soul to Jazz, she can do it all…and then some. Through her rich voice can handle the tenderness of a somber jazz song, add a dash of vocal acrobatics to an upbeat R&B or Pop song, her powerful pipes are unstoppable when it comes to Rock!
Her high-energy on-stage performances prove she knows how to work with a crowd! Compared to superstars like Tina Turner, P!nk, Robyn, Lauryn Hill, and even Sarah Vaughn, Kitten Kuroi is emerging as a superstar in her own right.
As a professional singer and songwriter, she has worked with and traveled the world with artists like Elvis Costello & The Imposters (with whom she won a Grammy for her vocal work on the album “Look Now”), Natasha Bedingfield, Theo Parrish, Engelbert Humperdinck, Rickey Minor (Whitney Houston), Jon B, Dan Wilson (Semisonic), Gyth Rigdon (The Voice), YahZarah (Elvis Costello, Lenny Kravitz, Madonna), Frenchie Davis, Lou Gramm (Foreigner), Lauren Evans (Natasha Bedingfield, Black Eyed Peas, Armin van Buuren), Pixie Lott, Darren Criss (GLEE!), Norwood Fisher (Fishbone), Scott Page (Pink Floyd, Toto, Supertramp), Kenny Olson (Kid Rock), Stephen Perkins (Jane’s Addiction), LeAnn Rimes, Tommy Faragher (GLEE!), Forrest Whittaker, Andy Samberg, Chris Isaak, Queen Latifah, Ashley Roberts of the Pussy Cat Dolls and many more.
Though music is her first love, she is also Vegan and an activist in both the animal and human rights community in Los Angeles, CA.
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