Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Koko Jones, an American activist and a voice in the trans community, jazz percussionist and band leader that played for such artists as Whitney Houston, The Isley Brothers, Winard Harper, and Reggie Workman, the author of her newest album “Who's That Lady”. Hello Koko!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Koko: Well I would say that I’m a musician, writer, composer, producer, educator, Buddhist, a parent and a trans women of color.
Monika: The Huffington Post has just placed you on the list of “10 Trans Names You Should Know in 2015.” Are you happy about it?
Koko: Of course! I’m delighted! However, there are so many outstanding trans folk that are making a difference out there that were not on that list. That list could be in the hundreds or thousands. All of us that have transitioned or going through our transition are amazingly resilient. I find that every trans person I have met are incredibly creative, intelligent and wise beyond their years.
As an older teenager I started touring with Jazz great Archie Shepp and later on in the same year I began my tenure with The Isley Brothers; a relationship that lasted the span of 12 years. Of course, playing with Whitney Houston brought a lot of fame and other opportunities as well. I was able to meet and sometimes perform with icons in the music and entertainment industry such as Jermaine Jackson and Bebe and Cece Winans amongst others.
During the time I was playing with her, I started going through my transition. I was able to confide and open up to her. She was extremely supportive emotionally. I remember her taking me out on the terrace of her hotel room one night after a show and consoling me, letting me cry on her shoulder (literally). That should tell you everything you need to know about what kind of person she was.
|Promo. Photo by Rebecca Meek.|
There is a song that is dedicated to the memory of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson called “Turn It”, encouraging people to stand up against injustice. The song, “The Treasure Tower” speaks to the fact that all people no matter what their social status, race, ethnic group, possess an innate diamond like self. In Buddhism it’s called, “Buddha Nature” or enlightened life condition.
For me art has no gender and yet it has all genders; it has no color yet it possesses all colors. Being openly trans has it’s advantages and disadvantages. For me the advantages outweigh any disadvantage, in the fact that we get to live authentically. Also, for many trans people we have seen and experienced the two extremes in the gender binary. Which means that we are privy to what cis folk don’t experience. The disadvantages only pertain to financial success in my case. Since financial success is relative in a lot of cases I would say that being trans has been a great advantage for me.
|With her band at Joe's Pub.|
At the same time there is push back in America along the conservative front. There are still anti-discrimination laws that need to be passed to protect the rights of trans women.
Our stories collectively are vast and should be told. Unfortunately, at the same time there is an epidemic of violence against trans women especially trans women of color in America and around the globe.
In late 1999 I had to make a tough decision. My daughter wanted to come live with me and so I petitioned the court to gain full custody of her. My request was denied based upon the opinion of a court appointed family psychologist. It was either continue living my life and lose the chance of being a full-time parent or changing my appearance and have a chance to be an important part of daughter’s childhood and teenage years. I chose the latter. After my daughter graduated High School and went to college I was able to transition again for a second time.
I think the process of transition is always difficult. I haven’t met one trans woman who didn’t find the road a little bumpy.
|Drumming on Riis Beach NY 1970. Photo by Regina Jones.|
As far as trans women, Caroline Cossey (Tula) was one of them. But I think my role models were those in the community that were living their lives and had connection to the ballroom scene that gave me the strength to carry on.
I became close to women like Angie Xtravaganza, Jovanna Lopez, Carmen Xtravaganza, Mo’dayvia Labeija and many others during that period. These are the women I looked up to and still do today.
The hardest part was being separated from my child. I would also say the physical abuse that I endured because I was living in my truth.
Another difficult part was basically losing my music career for a time and enduring the stigma that I faced as I tried to keep working at a level that I was used to prior to my transition.
|With Sunrize, the backing band for the Isley Brothers.|
Many people don’t realize that there has been an active denial of rights of trans identified individuals from the early days of the “Gay Rights” movement. Our own beloved Sylvia Rivera who co-founded “The Gay Liberation Front” (GLF), experienced discrimination even amongst fellow members. Women in the movement often felt uncomfortable referring to Ms. Rivera as “she” and dismissed her referring to her as a man who dressed as a woman.
Ms. Rivera eventually left the movement because she was continually denied the right to speak publicly. I feel it’s important that all trans folk know our history. We can only know where we’re going if we understand where we came from.
|At Club 57/ P3ligro Dance Party.|
I do belong to TWOCC (Trans Women of Color Collective) which was founded in response to the murder of Islan Nettles here in New York City in 2013. TWOCC is about creating revolutionary change by uplifting the narratives, leadership and lived experiences of trans people of color. We were once a National organization and now TWOCC has gone global!
For me right now a relationship isn’t of high importance. I do think we all need love. We all need to be held and told that we are loved. It’s part of being a human being; a part of the human experience. But I have many people in my life that love me like friends and family. For me that’s enough right now.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
I just signed with awQward Talent, a booking agency that seeks to support and empower trans and queer artists of color. I will be doing all kinds of workshops and performances around the country including many colleges and universities.
The main photo credits: Rebecca Meek.
All the photos: Courtesy of Koko Jones.