Inside Issue #19: A Conversation with Vagabon

By Amanda Siblerling 

By Amanda Siblerling 

“Run and tell everybody
 that Laetitia is a small fish.”

- The Embers

Laetitia Tamko, also known by her stage name Vagabon, is anything but a small fish.

This lyric is on the rock anthem that opens her 2017 debut album Infinite Worlds. The dynamic, versatile, powerhouse singer has the sweetest voice and most infectious confidence. The 24-year-old Brooklyn based DIY artist put out her first EP, Persian Garden in late 2014. The six-track masterpiece is something she never thought anyone would listen to, but after a slow burn it catapulted her into the world of Frankie Cosmos, Allison Crutchfield, Told Slant, Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, and other indie artists changing how the scene looks and sounds. Tamko chooses her words carefully as Hooligan Mag sits down for an interview with the impressive young musician.

“There’s not a really fascinating story to how I came up with the name Vagabon,” Tamko says. “I just kind of wanted to go by something besides my own name. I think I just picked it randomly.” The Cameroonian-born native French speaker says her first name is often mispronounced, which is also why she goes by a different name. (Laetitia is pronounced Lay-tee-see-ya).

Infinite Worlds is an eight track whirlwind which explores themes such as love, loss, friendship, identity, and the true meaning of home.

“Overall, I don’t really have a descriptor for my sound yet. I mean Infinite Worlds is my first record, so I’m experimenting with a lot of different things and finding it as I release music. Infinite Worlds is very guitar-driven, it’s emotive and confessional for me, so I think that it’s easier for me to categorize genre by album or a per-song basis because I don’t think I have enough in my catalogue to really know what my genre is yet.”

Tamko is a huge fan of R&B, rap, jazz, and hip-hop , enjoying everything from early ‘2000s singers like Destiny’s Child “for all the harmonies,” to old Pharrell and The Neptunes-produced tracks, referring to it as “gold.” But she has been diving into pop music more as of late.

“Freddy, come back, I know you love Vermont
 But I thought I had more time.” - Fear and Force

There is a running theme of yearning, trying to find oneself, and where one can truly call home throughout Infinite Worlds. That could be in part due to the fact that Tamko was born in Yaoundé, Cameroon.  At the age of 13, she moved to Harlem, New York so her mother could attend law school.

“What I miss about being back home in Cameroon is the way of life in terms of being content with very little. A lot of people are just happy because they’re happy, and not because of material things. It’s a really special thing that I only realized later as an adult,” Tamko explains. “The things I miss about Cameroon are really small things, such as people gathering together. Even something as simple as leaving your house, walking to your friend’s house, knocking on their door and hoping they’re home is something I miss. I miss things like raising your own food and the whole nature aspect of living. I really miss those things. But I also love living in New York because of all the access, and all the things that are around me here, it’s really special.”

At 17 years old, after a lot of begging, Tamko’s parents bought her a Fender acoustic guitar from Costco. She taught herself how to play from instructional DVD’s, but put down the guitar for a few years so she could attend college to study computer engineering. Tamko felt she had to focus on school rather than music, but after recording Persian Garden and uploading it to Bandcamp she quickly got recognition for her work and after a few years stopped her engineering career altogether and became a full-time musician.

“Never the same, I can't go back to the place where I once was.” - Minneapolis

Tamko kept her burgeoning music career a secret from her family until November 2016 at Webster Hall in New York, where she opened for Frankie Cosmos. Amidst 1,500 eager fans her family saw her play for the first time. Hooligan asked her what her family thinks of her musical ventures.

“They definitely know about it now whether they want to or not [laughs], but it’s good. Some musicians grow up in a house of artists or someone in their family has done some sort of art so it makes it easier to be a topic of conversation. But for me, this is my thing, this is my life, and it’s my day to day. So I don’t really make it a topic of conversation. I just do my thing and that’s it.”

When she’s on tour Tamko has a mix of her playing solo with her guitar and sampler, as well as backing instruments. “I want people to feel a part of everything I’m doing onstage, and for it to be an immersive, collaborative experience.”

Tamko’s fanbase has grown exponentially in the past few years, and the experience has been humbling for her.

“I think I started to realize people were digging my sound maybe a year ago,” says Tamko. “I didn’t expect anyone to listen to the EP. I just wanted to have something out there and then work towards playing more. I toured the country a lot on my own without a booking agent or anything, just kind of with friends. It really helped me to solidify my music and my performance skills so that when people did get interested I was prepared. It’s a hard thing to explain because the EP was a slow burn. I put it out at the end of 2014, and I started playing more shows locally and people started to pay attention. Even if they weren’t listening to the EP, I think the live shows were something people really enjoyed and so I was playing live a lot. So Infinite Worlds coming out is kind of like putting out the songs that I’ve been playing live, and I’ve been getting a good response from it.”

Tamko speaks of the community of friends she has made in the DIY scene and how they have helped shape her musicianship.

“I met Greta Kline (Frankie Cosmos) through mutual friends. When we first met we hit it off immediately. The New York DIY scene has a great community, it’s really nice to be able to bounce ideas off of each other, work with each other and write with each other. I have found it very helpful to have found a community specific to a group of people who like touring, putting out music, and having that commonality with a few of my close friends in the scene as well as the community as a whole.”

“You know my kind of high.”- Mal à L'aise

Tamko worked with Jessi Frick, one half of the father-daughter team at the remarkable independent label Father/Daughter Records to release her debut album.

“I met Jessi Frick of Father/Daughter Records many years ago at CMJ Music Festival. She would always collaborate with another small tape label and they would do a joint CMJ show. I played it for two consecutive years. So when I finished my record Jessie DM’ed me. I was tweeting a lot throughout the recording process because I do stuff alone and I don’t have bandmates, so it’s kind of my outlet to not losing my mind. It’s my chance to talk about something or get it out of me. Jessi DM’ed me on Twitter and said, “Hey, I’d love to hear it,” and from the first listen and her reaction I could tell that she really got it and got what I was trying to do. She didn’t just see what I put in front of her but the foresight and the long haul sight of what I’m capable of. That was really cool and really set her apart from other labels that I was talking to. Just knowing that she understood it and really connected to the songs, and I knew when someone really loves something they’re going to do a really great job with it so that really settled it for me.”

Tamko continued finding people to cultivate her creative vision when it came to her first music video for ‘The Embers,’ which was directed by Mooj Zadie and features her dancing by herself in an aquarium and a bus.

“‘The Embers’ was my first music video and we shot it on 16mm film which is really cool,” Tamko says. “While film is expensive, it also has a restriction on it. Without a budget or a lot of money, there is a restriction on how much film you can use. So, making this with one take per shot was really cool because once we got it, we got it. It felt really authentic. As for the concept, what I was really adamant about bringing to the table was color palettes and this song was one that I saw colors for very intensely. Mooj had really loved this song since it was on the EP when it was called ‘Sharks’, and came in with some really cool concepts, and it was good to work together.”

Writing and recording albums, releasing them, and shooting music videos is only part of the hard work Tamko does. The other bulk is touring, something that she enjoys immensely.

“I love being on tour because I get to meet so many people and have a different experience with my music with live shows. I’m a human being like everyone else, so regular things will affect me whether I’m on or off stage. I’m very shy and being on stage is vulnerable; so I like to talk to people afterwards and see how my music has affected them in a positive way. I like seeing people who are inspired by what I’m doing and to come back for more. It is worth everything of being human.”

That human aspect is crucial to how Tamko relates to and represents her fans. She has fans who have never seen themselves represented in the DIY music scene, especially men and women of color, who are so often lost in the extremely white sector. Tamko is determined to create a space for underrepresented groups. Or in her words, especially weird black girls, girls who are not celebrated, black men, and women of color. Though her natural inclination is to hide, she is determined to be visible no matter how uncomfortable it gets. Tamko has a desire for black girls to be able to see and hear her, and know that no barriers can stop them from doing the same.

“You didn't know it was falling apart.”- 100 Years

“During the process of recording Infinite Worlds it was a pretty long and grueling experience,” recalls Tamko. “I would go to school and work during the weekdays, and record the album on the weekends. I learned so much though about what I would want to do differently the next time. For example I wrote a lot of songs in the studio, so I would do different takes 15 times or 1 time, which wasn’t a very efficient use of my time. Now I write more while I’m on tour, so it was all a great learning experience for me.”

There were several songs off of the Persian Garden EP that Tamko remastered for her debut album. As Tamko explained to Hooligan:

“For the Persian Garden EP I was much less confident in my creative voice, creative vision and creative ideas. So, there were not too many hands on it, but way more hands than my process is now.  It was a lot of ‘Everything sounds great!,’ I’m really excited my songs just sound like something. After touring Persian Garden for two years on a DIY scale and then trickling over into recording my first album, the dynamic of how I make music was so different. At first, I really wanted to be in a collaborative band, and then very quickly I realized that wasn’t working for me, or wasn’t working for me then. I just really felt like these songs had a lot of life left in them. I wanted to recontextualize them and reintroduce them, which is why I named them new things, because I wanted new and old listeners to approach the song differently, and not feel like it’s a remake but that I actually just remade it.”

Along with remaking the songs, Tamko learned how to play drums, synth, bass, and other instruments to create a fuller sound for Infinite Worlds.

“Guitar is my first instrument, but with Infinite Worlds I didn’t want to allow much creative input from others,” Tamko says. “For me, if I’m going to ask someone to do something, I want to make sure I can do it myself. Even to delegate a task such as record these drums or record this bass, I wanted to be able to show them what I wanted instead of talking about it in a way that might go misunderstood.  It really minimizes how much compromising you’re going to have to do.”

“What about them scares you so much?”-Cleaning House

This iconic line from her song “Cleaning House,” is a showstopper in the center of her album. The heart-wrenching question leaves us raw and truthful.

“I keep a notebook on me at all times so I can write down ideas and lines as they come to me, and work on them continuously,” says Tamko about her songwriting process. “I don’t like to force writing. I know there are musicians who can sit down and write for two hours every day, but that’s never been me. I need for it to pour out of me organically, I think it would be very obvious if I made myself write every day.”

Tamko found inspiration for Infinite Worlds from award-winning poet Dana Ward’s book, “The Crisis of Infinite Worlds,” the title coming from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

“I found Dana Ward’s book through a friend of mine who is also a writer. He suggested it to me, and we were going to read it together. We were both on separate tours at the time, so we just had this idea to read this book on our tours and to talk about it over email, kind of like a virtual book club. I was reading this book as I was writing songs for Infinite Worlds and recording them at the same time. It’s a strange book, I haven’t gone back to it yet. It’s kind of a difficult read but I really enjoyed it. Another poet that I just started diving into is Fred Moten. He has this book called The Feel Trio that I’m parsing through, it has really beautiful lines. To my knowledge it hasn’t really seeped into my songwriting but it is good to see how other songwriters more in the literary sense than musical are creating imagery and a broad use of words.”

“We sat on my cold apartment floor where we thought we would stay in love.”- Cold Apartment

Tamko says that her drive, ambition, and capacity to love all stem from her astrological sign.

“I’m a Scorpio sun and moon with Gemini rising. My sign plays a big part in my identity. Every person has a different history and characteristics. Scorpios are seen as fierce, scary, intimidating, and self-deprecating, but we have a lot of drive. I’m very driven and ambitious, once I set my mind to something no one can stop me. I do have those debilitating moments when I can talk myself down by writing and creating music. Creation is subjective, and as I’m growing and trying different things I don’t let the ridiculous statements from people bring me down. I just don’t agree with them, I feel confident. As a Scorpio I know when something feels right for me, and when I get that feeling nothing can stop me.

“Water me darling,
Take what you need before it runs out.”

-Alive and a Well

“The lyrics off Infinite Worlds that I’m most proud of are from Alive and a Well,” says Tamko. “I always go back to that song. It represents a person as a well of water, the imagery stemming from trips back and forth to the well while I lived in Cameroon. A well of water isn’t strange to see, and metaphorically one must check in on the well to see if it’s okay, if you’re taking more from it than it can give, and if you are reciprocating what you take.”

As for the future of her music as Vagabon, Tamko has a lot planned but can't say too much yet.

“I’m working on two cool new projects right now, so there will be new stuff from me before the year is over. I’m excited to share what I’ve been doing, like writing and recording music. I am going on my first headlining tour this fall. I think it’s important to assert myself and what I do.”

As for advice for up and coming musicians Tamko says her words are really simple.

“Don’t be afraid to be curious. In music there are nuances to playing, so play and write often. Work with people who impress and inspire you, and absorb their genius. Never settle for just being satisfied, it’s going to yield something for you that way. Trust your gut and keep working because no one is the best at every single thing.”

View the entire spread in issue 19 here.

Inside Issue #18: Getting To Know Tommy Pico

Photo by  Bao Ngo

Photo by Bao Ngo

Tommy “Teebs” Pico says the last song he recently listened to was “Where is My Mind?” by the Pixies. As you read this piece, let the melodic notes of the song cascade over the words, infiltrate your mind, and open up your heart as much Pico’s writing can and will do for you.

Teebs is not your average poet. He is quirky, he’s funny, he’s quick-witted. When he was ten he wanted to be Paula Abdul. He describes his natural world as, “trying to avoid eating chicken fingers for every meal, having crushes on everything, and the constant all-caps refrain looping in my noggin: STOP TWEETING SO MUCH TEEBS.”

Teebs is obsessed with poetry and music. His latest obsession is a Brazilian soul/R&B band called Liniker e os Caramelows. “Their songs are in Portuguese so I can’t really understand them, but the lead singer, a rad black trans woman, has this voice that communicates the feeling so well you really don’t have to speak the language.”

In poetry he’s recently been taken with, “Monica Youn’s beautiful book Blackacre, the hilarious Seattle-based poet Sarah Galvin, and forever and always, June Jordan.”

He loves to make you laugh while also making you think. He is deeply involved in social media, yet relishes time to himself and in “real life.” He even wrote a book-length poem titled, IRL, that details his struggle between staying relevant online and being his true self in his real life. When asked how to find a balance between one’s online and real life persona, Teebs leaves it up to us to decide.

“I have no freaking clue! It stresses me out. If you figure it out plz let me know. The only times I really get the hush of privacy is when I’m working or reading, because the care and attention they demand requires that I be totally alone.”

The American Indian (or NDN) poet has a fascinating pull to the Viejas Reservation where he grew up, and the Brooklyn urban dwelling he now calls home. He says it’s, “like any other connective tissue, it’s always there under the surface, surrounding and supporting the vital organs and such.”

“I suppose it’s like growing up anywhere else in the sense that when you’re young how much of a context do you have for your situation? I remember dust swirling around from the dirt road as cars drove by and climbing fig trees with my cousins. I remember how my grandmother’s kitchen smelled.

I remember a lot of other horrible shit too, like the funerals after funerals after funerals. Even then I could sense that being NDN was some powerful stuff, loaded with grit and sadness and I mean I don’t know about every nation but Kumeyaays are some funny ass mfs.”

Photo by  Bao Ngo

Photo by Bao Ngo

His upcoming book, Nature Poem is an exercise in both rejecting and embracing our roots. As an NDN person he wanted to avoid writing about nature because it seemed stereotypical to him. But, as he weaves a narrative that both encompasses and surpasses nature, we find where Tommy lies, between the landscape of his past, his present, and his bright future.

“Honestly I’ve found myself outside of so many institutions, literature included, that I’ve come to view outsider status as a kind of blessing,” Teebs said. “I don’t have a fealty to tradition or taste for that matter. Also coming up in punk music and zine-making has taught me the value of production without the fallacy of ‘skill.’"

Teebs is friendly and open, and can make friends easily. He is part of the podcast Food 4 Thot with other queer writers, Fran Tirado, Dennis Norris II, and Joseph Osmundson. The queer poet very much wants people to know he is single and actively mingling.

He writes with a flow of quick internet speak with words like plz, yr, and cos, along with sweeping metaphors and hilarious quips that engage modern life with stunning visuals.

Teebs is starting to understand the balance between being an NDN person and battling colonialist ideals and values in the present day. His advice for other NDN people is to find the path to their identity in their own time.

“I think one of the problems I had to overcome was the idea that being Indigenous and contemporary were two different things. Identity is dynamic and absorptive and adaptive,” Teebs said.

“It’s like I say in the book, anything is NDN if I’m doing it because I’m NDN. Understanding that I was making the world more Kumeyaay by my presence and my art and my discourse helped me understand the power inherent within an indigenous identity.”

Tommy Pico is the kind of poet that make writers want to write. He is the Editor-In-Chief of birdsong, a Brooklyn-based lit/art collective and small press. He is the author of the zine series, Hey Teebs, and co-curates the reading series, Poets With Attitude (PWA) with Morgan Parker. He makes you want to dig deep, feel whole, and think large. In terms of poets engaging with social media, our personal lives, and inner depths, Teebs somehow manages to bring it all to light.

Writing isn’t just a hobby for Teebs, but a necessity. It’s more than a way to preserve the history of his NDN history, but to create a strong commentary of its importance in American history.

“I suppose it could be a way of preserving history but I also want to provide the archive of a life that shouldn’t exist: with the ways in which indigenous people were hunted in this country, the ways in which the literal government tried to exterminate us, it’s a testament to the ancestors’ determination to survive. At the very least, it’s my responsibility to them, to make good on their strength and sacrifice.”

The book-length poem form is a fascinating one. Each of Teebs’ books are a continuous piece of work that navigates the reader through the journey of Teebs’ mind and experiences. The long, uninterrupted form is a beautiful one, and one that only few can do well. Pico speaks on why he chooses that form for his work.

“Well, first of all, in perhaps the most unsaleable art form in America I decided to pursue perhaps the most obscure form within that. Really though, I wanted to give the audience an experience, a narrative of sorts, that you could sit with and consume in the span of 90 or so minutes—kind of like a film. I’m obsessed with the form and I can’t foresee myself ever writing short poems again. There is so much world, you know?”

Nature Poem details his draw to city life and to his natural world.

“My draw to the city is simply that I crave the kind of excitement and motion and possibility that city life offers. Plus I’m pretty freaking gay and I was drawn to a place where a queer relationship was safer and more possible. It’s weird ‘cos in my 15 years in the city, “nature” has become something obscured and dangerous to me. You won’t catch me camping, you can believe that.”

When asked what is the best advice he’s ever received Teebs responded, “Get out of your own way, dammit!”

Nature Poem, deemed a “thrilling punk rock epic,” by writer Alexander Chee. It  comes out on May 9, and you can follow Teebs on Tumblr and Twitter.
 

See the whole spread here in Issue #18 here.

Finding a New Voice: Bianca Xunise

Photo by April Acevedo

Photo by April Acevedo

Bianca Xunise is the epitome of black girl magic. The 29-year-old graphic designer and full time artist is unapologetic in every aspect of her life, but it took her some time to get comfortable with that. Xunise has bylines with HelloGiggles, Bustle, and her latest and proudest venture, the political cartoon space, The Nib.

Hooligan had the chance to sit down with Xunise in her picturesque Ravenswood apartment.  She is a voice for younger black female designers and artists and while in the prime of her career, she has nowhere to go but up.

How did you decide to become an artist?

I, like a lot of artists, have kind of always been an artist. It’s second nature to me. It’s almost like asking when did you decide to become black? It has always been a part of who I am. It really wasn’t a choice so much as when I decided it was something that I wanted to do full time, and that came later in life. I’ve always been involved in the arts. My mom is an artist, both of my parents are artists. So I’ve been surrounded by it my whole life.

What does your day to day routine look like?

I’ll give you two versions of it. So, the boring day to day with my 9-5 [job], I get up, go to work, and I come home. That’s it. My artist day to day—because I’m taking some time off from work now—is doing comics full time. It’s mostly meetings and pitching to people. I try to seek inspiration everywhere. Recently it has kind of been a nonstop brigade of things happening in the world that have inspired me to illustrate. I know for me, illustrating and doing my comics is a method of therapy. It’s kind of just workshopping what’s going on inside of me and inside my head. Getting it on paper helps me feel not so anxious and overwhelmed and bothered by what’s going on in the world. And I can see that progression from when my work first became public—from when I was working for HelloGiggles until now. My comics are less about “how many slices of pizza can I eat?” and more about my womanhood and blackness and things like that.

How does your role as a black woman impact your art?

There’s statements that’ve been said before that I’ll say now, which is that there’s really nothing more punk, or nothing more political than just being a black woman. It kind of comes with the package. Even if your grandma or your mom or auntie don’t call themselves a feminist, listen to the way she talks. There’s nothing more feminist or intersectional then some of the stuff our moms or grandmas or aunts have said. It just comes with the weight of being a black woman. I got tired of the sugary sweetness of my work, and I just felt like there [weren’t] that many voices like me out there. I would go to the places that I do have my work now and see no voice from a black woman, or maybe just one or two and I feel like that’s not nearly enough. You can have twenty white male points of view in the world, and one black woman voice isn’t enough. I would see comics drawn by white men of the plight of the black woman and be like, “okay, well this is your idea of it but this isn’t necessarily true.”  

[Like the movie Loving], I have issues with films like that because it’s written and directed by a white man. How can you tell the voice of this woman of color in this relationship when this is something that has never affected you? You could’ve at least had a black female write this.

I just feel like my work is conscious of what’s going on in the world. When I was doing a lot of my work in the beginning I was kind of speaking out of what was just plain, old-fashioned depression. I was 26 when I started so I was going through a quarter-life crisis as well. Now I have a stronger sense of who I am. I was afraid to show my blackness when I first started off as an artist, because I didn’t want to be known as that “militant black cartoonist” and now I don’t care.

What has been your proudest accomplishment so far as an artist?

Honestly, my proudest accomplishment so far is the work that I have done for The Nib, and being able to write longer form stories than just Instagram squares. That’s been about a ear and a half long journey for me to be able to express myself without kind of stopping halfway and getting frustrated. That’s what would happen before when my comics were so short and I would get stuck and feel like no one cares and make something short and sweet. I realized the phoniness of Instagram and social media in how we view things. You see it, you laugh, and you move on, but you’re not breaking down this meme or comic throughout your day and asking “what does this mean?” Now that I have gotten some attention, I feel like I can take that same cuteness or ha-ha of my work and keep my audience captivated for longer.

What is the importance of artists getting paid for their work?

It’s incredibly important for artists to get paid for their work. I was offered a job to do something and they didn’t want to pay me—they wanted to pay me in stuff. I come from a [fashion] blogging background, and I remember the day I stopped blogging. I stopped blogging because they didn’t want to indict George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case and after that I realized I [didn’t] care what I’m wearing anymore. But I did the whole thing of going to Fashion Week, took pictures of clothes and got a free pair of shoes as compensation--as long as I took a picture of them. I can’t survive on free shoes. I don’t want that. I don’t just want exposure.

I feel like a lot of that comes from the removal of art programs from many schools. If you’re not teaching children the importance of art, when they become adults and run these companies and try to work with artists, they will [think] that they’re not worth being paid. I feel like you have to start them young in appreciating art so they can understand that I’m not just this person who does this magical spell and then there’s some art made. Artists are constantly putting pieces of themselves into their work. It’s pieces of ourselves that we will never get back, but you can find other ways to replenish yourself. You’re paying for this piece of an artist. It’s so important. I’m all about telling artists to get their money. If that means putting your work on Etsy, or working with different newspapers or like me as a graphic designer—that’s a way of me making money for my art. It’s so important for them to appreciate us and understand the importance of what we do to keep this world functional.

What advice would you give those wanting to be full-time artists?

My advice is that it takes time. No matter how instant this world becomes, real success will still take time. Your Instagram or your social media is your portfolio but it doesn’t show the grime that comes on the backend. The grime goes into your 30’s. In high school, I had this perception that by the time I’m 30, I’ll have three kids, a mansion and a dog. But now I’m almost 30—I have ramen, a pack of beers in the fridge, and let’s keep it moving.

Besides taking time, the other step for people in college who are interested in pursuing the arts is to always be working. If your time is spent on Instagram or Tumblr looking at someone else’s work, sighing and saying “ugh, I had this same idea but they already did it so what’s the point of me doing it?” you’re just shooting yourself in the foot. Even if all you have is your Instagram page, at least it’s something to start from. If you spend your whole time being wistful and wishing to be an artist but you’re not actively working as an artist, opportunities are going to come and go, and you’ll miss a great [one]. For me, things have come and gone and I wish I had been ready, but the ones that were right for me always came when I needed them.

Read the whole spread here.

If Hermione Was Black

J.K. Rowling has always stated that she never said what Hermione Granger’s race was in her books. Her canon description of Hermione was that she had brown eyes and frizzy hair, and that white skin was not specified.

But what would have happened if Ms. Rowling had stated in her books that Hermione was a little black girl who grew up to be a black woman? What would have happened if she adamantly stated that they could not whitewash this character and demanded that only a black actress could be the true Hermione?

I think about this a lot because Hermione Granger is one of my favorite literary characters of all time. I always admired her intelligence, her bravery, and her kindness. She was soft and feminine yet strong and tenacious, a multifaceted character who I truly believe was the real hero in the Harry Potter series. Harry Potter and Ron Weasley would not have survived past their first year if it wasn’t for this brilliant girl.

As a black girl who enjoys nerdy things, who has been called an “Oreo” in my life more times than I care to say, who just wanted to have a major character who looked like me, black Hermione would have saved me. It would have been such a great positive representation for young black girls and boys that we are intelligent, we can shamelessly love nerdy things, we can be brave and kind and save the world, too.

Black Hermione with her frizzy hair and brown eyes could have looked just like me. I could cosplay as her and no one would question it. People would tell me, “You look just like Hermione Granger,” instead of tertiary or unnamed characters in the Harry Potter universe.

J.K. Rowling made Hermione’s race purposely ambiguous, but I could see the hate and vitriol that spewed once a black Hermione was cast in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a play that was not even written by Ms. Rowling but heavily endorsed by her.

I read the microaggressive racist comments on Twitter and Facebook, comments like “Hermione is not black,” “When I think of her I don’t see a black girl,” “Why do they have to make everything about race?” “I’m tired of this social justice, progressive nonsense,” “Emma Watson is the true Hermione and I’ll never view it otherwise,” “I’m not racist but why mess with the original story?” All I saw in comments like those were how dare someone interpret a racially ambiguous character as anything other than white. For all we know Hermione could be mixed, she does come from the Muggle world. But people got so up in arms over such little information when the plot of the play was first released. Nobody cared that it was a play, a different interpretation of the Harry Potter series, a continuation of the story through the eyes of someone new, something outside of the Harry Potter realm completely. The only thing that people cared about was that Hermione was black.

Since so many people reacted so negatively, I think about if Hermione was always black would people have read the books as much or seen the movies as heavily? Would they suddenly turn away just because the three main characters had a brilliant, outspoken and courageous woman of color also in the forefront? I really do hope not, that would be such a shame. Some people can embrace fictional worlds with dragons, magical spells, Dementors and flying cars but a person of color being a hero is just too much for them to even think about, it’s just implausible.

But for little girls like me, who carried around those giant books everywhere I went when I was nine, who bought the entire set with my own money when I was fifteen, who has seen every movie hundreds of times, visited Harry Potter world, lives and breathes Harry Potter? Black Hermione is the dream, my dream. J.K. Rowling gave us the capacity to dream, to think for ourselves, to be brave. My Hermione will always do the same.

On Being Unapologetically Black

By Charlene Haparimwi

I sit in my multicultural literature class as we sit and read Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. I enjoy the read, relating to his struggle and wisdom, lost in the translation of his oppression until I am called on by my professor. The trance is broken and I tensely wait for him to ask me the inevitable. I am the only black student in this required multicultural class.

“Charlene, tell us what you think. What is it like to be African-American in the present day?”

First off, I am not African-American. I was born in the summer heat in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1995. The Zambezi river runs deep in my veins, the Victoria Falls crash against my skin, the soft grass and roots of the Earth grow in my natural hair.

I am African, I am Zimbabwean.

Second, I cannot and will not speak for the plight of an entire race. Would I ask you professor what it is like to be white? I can only talk about my own experiences, my personal struggles and joys as a young black woman living in Chicago. I can only talk about how some people look so reserved and fearful when they see me walk down the streets of Lincoln Park, when I enter restaurants and shops in Wicker Park, when I visit my white boyfriend in Logan Square. I see the look of relief flood their faces when they realize I’m one of the good ones because I “talk white.” I am not like other black people in their eyes, they do not see my skin, they see themselves. I am the model minority and that hurts me more than it appeases them.

I am unapologetically black.

I love my deep melanin, my rich culture, and the voice I have to speak about important issues. I am absolutely here for the gum popping, finger snapping, fast talking, weave wearing black women. I am here for the basketball playing, rap loving, fashion forward black men. I am here for nerdy black girls and boys, quiet black boys and girls, entrepreneurial black boys and girls. I am here for every stereotype and every exception to the rule of blackness the world sees, imagines, perpetuates or try to eradicate.

There is no me against them, we are all one voice, one people.

So when you ask me what it is like to be African-American in the present day, let my voice be silent while the voice of others rise high. Listen to the histories of Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, listen to the truths of Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. Hear the words of Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar, do not try to explain to us, think for us, be us. Let our culture breathe and live on its own.

It all begins with listening. This isn’t a piece about perpetuating white guilt, claiming ignorance or prejudice. I am glad that my professor wanted my voice to be heard. I am glad when people try. But the first thing to do is just listen. Let us speak when we want to speak, when we want to be heard. Let us educate you on our personal oppressions and struggles, whatever they may be. Help us help you formulate the right questions in the right way. I am so proud of who I am, who I want to be. And whenever someone wants to just sit and listen, I will be unapologetically me.