Artist Of The Month
“I’m an older head, a tia or granny smoking a cigarette on the porch. And she’s like, yeah i don’t even organize no more, I'm not no organizer baby, but the bitch has been doing this shit her whole life. I like that idea a lot... of not claiming it, but it just being what it is.”
- THEY DAVIS
Defund Men 2020
With THEY DAVIS
Interview by Sarah O'Neal
The poet and multidisciplinary artist talks to me on a Friday afternoon in late August, while deep cleaning their home and sorting through old keepsakes. The portrait they paint of their elder self is highlighted by their adorable laughter, a charm that shines through our entire conversation as we weave through moments of joy and primordial grief.
For those who only know her through her instagram presence, Davis’ decade long history as an organizer may come as a surprise, but when their father died at eleven years old, they were propelled into the world political organizing— locally and nationally. With plenty of reasons to feel jaded, Davis insists on their excitement for this generation of organizers, and the radical possibility of the futures being imagined right now.
Read the rest of our conversation below:
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Who are you?
My name is Mike, I also go by They Davis. I’m from Los Angeles, South Central based and raised. I’m a poet and multidisciplinary artist and my work is rooted in intersectional liberation work and intersectional abolition work. Liberation for Black folk, my folk, my community— Black trans people, queer folk, brown folk, incarcerated folk. marginalized folk, young people, and old people through multidisciplinary art, storytelling, and tattooing. Whether I'm doing the work, or other folks are doing the work, I create spaces to bring people together.
When did your journey as a poet begin?
When I was really young my mom had mad cassette players and recorders, and she would make me record myself when I got home. I’d record things about my day, or random stories, or my poetry and that’s how it all started. I went through a phase where I would just shut down and not speak for days when I was triggered by something. I wouldn’t make facial expressions or laugh. It was around those times when she was like oh you need a way to navigate all of this, so she got the cassettes. I still have cassettes of all my journal entries.
Honestly, my mom was just hella smart. She was a poet for most of my life, and she literally still makes the joke that I took her talent. She was a poet poet. She would go to open mics and shit when I was little, but now she can’t write a poem to save her life.
I was also in this program in elementary school, the Young Writers Program, where writers that worked in the movie industry would come and workshop with the kids for like a month, and then you would write a screenplay. They were actually gonna help me write a book.
What does your writing process look like today?
When I write poems, I never write them down. I’ll say a line, repeat it, keep repeating it, add another line, and keep repeating while adding lines until I finish it. I memorize it and only then I write it down. Writing feels like academic work or a chore—something I’m not really connected to… Saying it out loud makes the poem real for me. I'm having conversations with myself, the world, spirit, ancestors. I can't do that if I'm writing on a piece of paper.
And with anything I create, even getting dressed and shit, I need the space to be able to fuck up and fall and pick myself up without any kind of input or reaction. Even when I was slamming and we would have practice, I would literally have to step outside the room because I can't do that in front of people. It’s a trust thing.
What is your history and relationship to political organizing?
I started organizing with Community Rights Campaign when I was 11 or 12, I was still in middle school. all of their work was very youth centered. I started interning which led to organizing,
Organizing was the first time I had been in a queer space. Well not exactly the first time. My mom is queer and my tias are queer. All of my moms gay ass homegirls were my tias and tios growing up. But they were all very conservative and cis and heteronormative. They were still very much like “I am the guy” or “I am the girl” in this relationship, and these are what the roles are. And all of the other queer spaces I had been in everybody banged and did drugs or sold drugs. So it was a whole different thing.
Going into the office and being around people who were talking about queer liberation, or what it means to be an ally, or trans shit, completely broke the mold of where I thought queerness could exist.
What was happening in the world of ten year old Mike that politicized you at such a young age?
My dad had just passed away and I was trying to figure out a way to navigate all the grief. I had a lot of resentment towards my dad, even in the grief it was like... I lowkey hate this nigga. We’re taught to villainize Black people. We’re taught to ostracize Black people. We’re taught to do away with people who have been incarcerated. Or folks who are in gangs, or folks who are struggling with addiction and mental health or have tattoos. What have you. For me it was like you’re gang banging… you're always in prison...you’re selling and doing drugs so that's why you’re not in the house. His absence was where all my resentment stemmed from.
He passed away in an interaction with the police. Right now, violence at the hands of police is really publicized. But I remember being ten or eleven and not seeing that shit on the news at all. It was a very different space and time. My mom had been organizing already, so she brought me into the space and I just dove in all the way. Coming into an organizing space where people were politically educated and had tools to resist, changed a lot for me.
Being able to finally see that there are forces I wasn’t able to name when I was younger, forces that are constantly working against us, changed everything. Getting politically educated helped me make sense of my grief. That's when I made all of the connections: prison industrial complex shit, addiction, gang shit, just being a Black person. Those were connections I just didn’t understand yet—especially in navigating my relationship with my father. We’re not taught that all of these people are people. That we are people. And I started organizing and I’m like ohh my dad is a person. That’s fucking crazy. I didn’t realize this nigga was a person.
A lot of the praxis I was taught helped me understand Black death in a new way. This had been my lived reality for my entire life and I finally had language for it. One of the first poems I wrote when poetry re-entered my life was a poem about my dad...I don’t think I had anywhere else to cope. I don't think anywhere else would have made sense.
We’re not taught that all of these people are people. That we are people. And I started organizing and I’m like ohh my dad is a person. That’s fucking crazy. I didn’t realize this nigga was a person.
I just found this photo of my mom and dad and I, that I've only seen digitally. I’m really young, my hair is long and I'm wearing a striped sweater vest. My cheeks are pressed up against both of their faces. My dad's eyes are closed and he's smiling, and my mom is looking into the camera. I think this is a visitation. I think my dad is locked up in this photo. I'm like a baby baby, pre-k or kindergarten.
How did these experiences shape how you move as a poet and organizer now?
I very much like the idea of being the bitch that's been organizing my whole life and being like yeah I'm not even an organizer, but I’ve been organizing for like 30 years. I imagine myself as an older head, a tia or granny smoking a cigarette on the porch. And she’s like yea I don’t even organize no more, I’m not no organizer baby, but the bitch has been doing this shit her whole life. I like that idea of not claiming it, but it just being what it is.
When I was young, I was taught a very specific idea of what organizing is. But after Vic’s death [Davis’ partner], I was like yeah I can’t do this shit anymore. I don’t have this on the ground, frontline, soldier, warrior shit in me no more. At least in the capacity that I did. Now I’m like what does organizing even look like for me? Can I even say that I’m an organizer? I know I'm not showing up in the ways that I used to. And I’m trying to figure out the ways that I show up now. It has been interesting allowing myself the space to shift.
How do you feel about newer models of organizing?
It’s so frustrating because so many terms for liberation or oppression are hoarded by academia. Words and the worlds of theory behind them, like gentrification or queer or micro aggression, are often kept from the people who are actually living the definition of these words.
It’s not the fault of language itself. It’s the way we use language to police each other. Just on some access shit, academic spaces aren't accessible to me like that. Sometimes people will negate the things I say because I don't necessarily have the language but I have the experience. People will try to invalidate parts of my identity because I don't have the language. And it's like, well what are you saying though? It feels really gross to have people tell me the shit I'm saying is not real because it's not academic.
I want to humanize people and make whatever I'm trying to get across as relatable as possible. I've experienced so much of the things I'm organizing around, but I won't necessarily have the theory down or the citation or book reference. I know I can speak to Black experience. I know I can speak to trans experience. I know I can speak to addiction and mental health shit, prison industrial complex shit. I’m just trying to speak on truth, and let that rock however the fuck it rocks.
I do appreciate the new perspective, where people are like yo fuck orgs. That makes me excited. For so long being an organizer equaled a campaign or a 501c3. So what are the linkups if it's not an org? What is the process for accountability? What does building long term relationships with the community look like if we’re not navigating through orgs or nonprofits? If we’re navigating outside of academia?
Do you feel a sense of pressure to show up in certain ways?
I don't ever want any part of my identity to come with an expectation from anyone. If me being an organizer comes with the expectation that it's mandatory for me to spit something at this trans march, I don't wanna do it. It stresses me out that people feel like they have ownership over me, or my body, or what I choose to do.
What would you be doing if you didn't have to organize?
I don’t know. My god, I don’t fucking know. So much of my identity is rooted in everything we’ve been talking about. I haven't been given space to imagine the possibility of a world free of all the things we need to organize around. I do know that that's definitely a conversation I’ve been having with myself. Of just wanting to have a normal, rinky dinky ass life. After Vic transitioned, I was like yo I want to get a 9-5, I want to go back to fucking school, I want to come home, and I want to water my plants. I just wanted to do the very normal, bare minimum shit to survive. But even in that, I don't think I ever got to the place where I imagined what creativity or having a profession might look like. I didn't even realize that was an option bitch! I'm still tryna get the bare minimum together. I haven't been afforded the time to dream of anything else.
What color is your city's blood?
Shit… red girl. It's red. It's blood. I don't have a poetic connection there. When I think of the blood of my city, I'm immediately taken to where I've literally seen loved ones on the floor bleeding out. My brain goes to very real situations. My folks lives are on the line, niggas are dying, ya’ll keep killing people. I wish I could transfer a photo of all the blood I see in my head so everyone could understand the weight. Which is why the blood is just red. The blood is blood. I don't want to make it pretty or make it anything but what it is. Lets call it for what the fuck it is.