April Kae is an activist and musician, and the creator of Imanigold. Her work centers on empowering the community around her, with a particular focus on young people of color and queer black femme identity. She uses social media to build spaces for frank discussions about civil rights and to tell stories of solidarity and strength, as April believes such spaces are essential to bringing about the non-violent change she works to create. She also partners with community stakeholders to bring these digital spaces to life. We caught up with her a few weeks back to chat about self-care, and discuss how she balances protest and personal growth.
N: If your movement could be summed up in a few sentences, what would you say it is?
AK: I like that you say movement! I also sometimes go with “revolution.” And by revolution, I mean the notion that all people deserve access to self-actualization. To use a particularly timely example, in concrete terms, this means that if a woman says she is a woman, then she is a woman, and must be treated as such, which is to say, as a whole person with an infinite range of thoughts, feelings, and possibilities.
N: You are clearly very interested in technology and social media. Where do you think conversations about mental and physical health can exist on the internet?
AK: As a black woman, my body has historically been considered for public consumption, rather than something that is my own. The first step in creating equality in health—mental, physical, and societal—is to acknowledge my ownership over my body. In the past, I’ve felt that my body was not my own: that it was something to be shaped, to be positioned, to be adorned for the pleasure of others, and that my only other option was to self-destruct or to hide. And to a pretty significant extent, I don’t get to choose or reject this reality. Self-obliteration and hiding have historically been thrust on us black bodies—but not just historically, now too. See: the prison industrial complex. See sterilization. See skin-lighting. See: photoshopping our bodies slimmer.
However, I’m constantly aware that there are ways I can protest this erasure of myself and those like me — and those who don’t have my light-skin, and straight-size, and many other privileges. Social media is just one tool I use to this end. Recently my friend Jessa Jordan shared a picture on Instagram that was part of a creative project in Brooklyn. During a topless photo shoot in the city, she was threatened and told to hide her body. Amidst the reactions on social media and in person, ranging from affirmation to violence, she boldly asserted that her body is her own. I do this differently, but our tactics have a lot in common.
Social media is ever-changing, so for me, it’s all about making sure what I’m putting out there always has a home, no matter what the popular platform is. By far, I have the biggest following on Instagram. It works well for me because I can curate my feed, and it isn’t subject to some mysterious algorithm that I have no control over. I use my personal Facebook page to talk more intimately with folks about things that are a little more nuanced because, with the way Facebook’s set up, there’s space for that. I also check Twitter about once a day, though I’m clearly not very concise when it comes to expressing my beliefs, so I don’t use it much for activism. I also have a Soundcloud where I post curated playlists monthly. And a website and email list.
I’d never say that I think everyone should be as expressive on social media as Jessa and me — far from it. Exposing ourselves online opens us up to hate and aggression. I’m lucky in that I’ve experienced very little of this, but I’ve heard stories about stalkers, threats, and worse.
But if you’re aware of and comfortable with the risks, then, please, claim your digital safe space. Use social media to lead by example, and speak frankly in your voice or through elevating the voices of others, about the changes you’d like to see.
Really though, to speak more broadly, it’s about constant vigilance. I urge you to push yourself to think about all of the little ways you can infuse your life with moments of activism on social media, and off.
N: Can you tell me more about the connection between music and mental health?
AK: For a long time, I didn’t think I could be a writer or musician or activist because I figured it meant I had to sacrifice things like health insurance and quiet, safe spaces (like my bedroom, and the cute neighborhood businesses I frequent). I’ve worked hard to reframe this by spending time getting to know myself, and realizing I can carve out whatever space I please, with the right resources.
Creating music is exceptionally difficult for me. I’m not talking about picking up my instrument and playing something somebody else wrote; I’ve been playing long enough that that’s pretty easy. But the process of writing music (and creating anything original, like establishing a platform for activism, for example) requires a lot of preparation. I don’t go out much because it drains my energy. I always make sure to get a good night’s sleep. I go to both group and individual therapy every week. This is all in large part to prepare for the approximately 10-20 hours a week I spend working on music. But I truly am glad to do it. It’s tough for me to find enough silence and space in my mind for my words, so I do these things to make that space and am grateful for it.
N: The fact that you live in NYC is interesting because on the one hand, there’s so much opportunity; you have a chance to be involved in virtually any group or activity that you could dream of. On the other hand, it’s a very stimulating place and people I know there are all-too-familiar with “the grind.” What’s the right balance for you?
AK: Yeah, a lot of what I mentioned about staying home and sleeping more I didn’t have to implement as forcefully until I came to New York. Austin, Portland, Florence, and Philadelphia, cities I’ve lived in before, are certainly not small, but New York has its rowdy reputation for a reason.
Basically, for me, it’s about being clear about what my priorities are, and constantly monitoring how much time I’m able to devote to them. If I notice I haven’t played music in a week, I look for other things I can cut back on. If I notice I’m feeling tired, I make sure to schedule time to relax and watch cartoons or hang out with my girlfriend. I also make a deliberate effort to get out of the city every month. In March I went to New Paltz and Memphis, and next weekend I’m doing a semi-staycation at a hotel in Brooklyn.
N: Sounds like you’re pretty committed to your self-care practice. Can you talk more about that?
AK: Gladly! Well, in addition to monitoring my energy levels and going to therapy, I also care for myself through my relationships with others.
To step back a bit, for me, feeling respected is crucial. I don’t see people like me — queer, black, femme, disabled, and so on — much at all, let alone in respected positions, let alone doing the things I’m trying to do. I’ve learned that mentoring, which is to say, the experience of giving advice to others and having that advice be heard, is massively strengthening. So, things like giving career guidance and editing my friend’s work are crucial parts of my self-care practice.
Perhaps you call this “external validation,” which apparently I’m not supposed to want, but why not? I say, there’s no reason why not. For me, to be validated is to know the work I’m doing is helpful. As humans, like most animals, we’re communal creatures. Even as a strong introvert, I’m acutely aware that my existence is meaningless without other people. So, feedback from my community and the people I love is a helpful way to know I’m growing, and doing as good a job at can at the whole “being a person” thing.
N: These days, I often feel guilty when I do things for myself. There is so much activism to be done; there is always something I could be writing about instead of doing something purely for my own enjoyment. I have a feeling a lot of people, women especially, feel that way. How do you think it is possible to find the right balance between personal growth and community engagement?
AK: I do agree that you can’t serve from an empty vessel, but I also have to be realistic with myself about how empty (or full) my vessel is at any moment. For example, after the election I felt very driven to stay inside; I didn’t feel safe outside of my home for various reasons that I’d rather not go into right now. I had to be honest with myself and admit that attending the protest in Union Square was not a healthy option for me at the time, as much as I felt obligated to go.
So anyway, one of my proudest moments since November, was sending a 19-year-old black woman to her first protest, the protest in Union Square I just mentioned. See, the editor of Subvrt Mag put out a last-minute call for a photographer to cover the event with her. I reached out to all of the photographers I knew, and the 19-year-old woman I mentioned responded immediately. I then connected the two of them, and not only were they able to get some excellent coverage of the event, they also made a powerful statement about what they believe in.
Instead of going out, I meditated on what might be the best way for me to speak my piece. Ultimately, I ended up hosting an event called “Lean on Me” at a small communal space in Philadelphia on the eve of the inauguration. I played protest songs like “Times They are A Changin” by Bob Dylan, as well as some soothing self-care themed tunes like “Blackbird” by the Beatles and “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. I threw in some original songs and poetry, too. We called the event a safe-space and protest, as the idea was to give folks a place to experience their feelings (about what was happening politically, generally speaking) in a communal space. Because, in a world where black women aren’t allowed to be angry, and women in general aren’t allowed to be sad, experiencing the full range of emotions is an act of protest.
So, let us experience these feelings so we can listen to them and learn what the right next steps are. It’s not about controlling emotions, just as much as it’s not terribly helpful to let ourselves be completely guided by emotions. Like most things, it’s about finding a middle ground, knowing when to listen to our empathetic and tender parts, and when to take a step back and let logic take the lead. Though I have to admit, for me, when all else fails, my tendencies toward love and care tend to take over. And you know what? For now, that’s fine by me.