Thursday 23 April 2015

Interview with Koko Jones

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor 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!
Koko: Hi Monika!
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 woman 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 is incredibly creative, intelligent, and wise beyond their years.

Koko leading her band. Photo by Peter Salo.

Monika: You can boast a spectacular music career …
Koko: My musical career is long and I have had a lot of amazing experiences because of it. I started playing professionally at the age of 13. I was with a band of young musicians that were all around my age. We backed a boy band called “Spoonbread” who had a hit record on the soul charts back in 1972. We toured a little bit and from that moment on I realized that I could do something I loved and get paid for it. We opened the shows for many greats in the soul industry at that time; The Four Tops, Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, The Isley Brothers, War, and many others.
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.
Monika: Whitney Houston was one of the great artists that you worked with. How do you recollect her?
Koko: Whitney was such a kind soul. She was full of love and compassion. She was graceful, well-spoken, and a very hard worker. She was amazingly talented. I was in awe of her talent from the first show on. There were nights when I would be on stage playing with her and I used to get goosebumps during the show. It was an experience I will never forget.
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.
Monika: Your recent album “Who's That Lady” seems to be a very personal artistic journey with many references to your transgender experience, inspirational Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, as well as Buddhism…
Koko: Yes it is. While I make references to my gender identity I don’t overtly talk about being trans. I feel that music is for all people. I look for ways to be inclusive of all people in my lyrics. I thought about how others could connect to my story in total. It’s about living in your truth no matter what that truth is.

Promo. Photo by Rebecca Meek.

My hope is that this music will inspire one to be unapologetic about who they are and nurture their own sense of autonomy. 
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.
Monika: Did the transition change your artistic perception of the world? What does it mean to be a transgender artist?
Koko: It’s a yes and no answer. In some ways, my artistic perception has stayed the same because I still draw on my past musical experiences. But in other ways, it has changed because I am drawing on the inspiration of what I am currently experiencing whether it be on a social level (meaning interactions with people), inspirational stories or narratives, and what I’m currently into musically.
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 its 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. This 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.
Monika: Contemporary music has produced a new wave of transgender female artists, just to name a few of them: Mina Caputo of Life of Agony, Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, Marissa Martinez of Cretin, Amber Taylor of The Sexual Side Effects, Namoli Brennet, Sissy D├ębut, and Jennifer Leitham, and many others. Are we going to see more and more transgender artists in mainstream music?
Koko: That’s hard to answer but I would have to say yes. I feel that it will mirror what’s happening in society. All of those artists that you have mentioned above had to go through obstacles to live and stay true to their art. My hope is to see many more young aspiring trans and queer artists break through the structural barriers that exist in the music business.

With her band at Joe's Pub.

Monika: What is the present situation of transgender women in American society? 
Koko: I think that we are slowly trying to move out of the darkness and into the light. In the past so many of us have been objectified by the media. It has been the outspoken voices of folks like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox that have started to change the conversation away from sensationalizing our bodies and narratives to finding out about the lived experiences of trans women.
At the same time, there is pushback 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.
Monika: At what age did you transition? Was it a difficult process?
Koko: Well, I actually transitioned twice. I started my transition in the late ’80s at the age of 29. I was a late bloomer as they say. It was difficult at first to weigh my career aspirations and my commitment as a parent against my need to live authentically. Eventually, with the help of other trans women who I met at that time, I was able to successfully transition and live the life I was meant to live.
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 on 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 my 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.

Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Koko: When I first transitioned there weren’t a lot of role models that were easily accessible. I would say that my first role model was my mother and my sisters along with a host of other powerful women.
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 a 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.
Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Koko: Well there are so many that it’s hard to mention them all. A few that stick out for me are Janet Mock, Lourdes Ashley Hunter, Ida Hammer, Miasha Forbes, Kiara St. James, Katrina Goodlett, Sidney Chase Marie, Nala Simone, Vanessa Victoria, Carmen Xtravaganza, Laverne Cox, Gisele Alicea, Elizabeth Marie Rivera, Melissa Sklarz and Marlo Bernier… (I could keep naming names for a very long time).
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Koko: Well I don’t really use the phrase “coming out”. I prefer to use blossom or living in my authentic self. But I understand what you mean. I would say there are a couple of things.
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.

Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities. Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Koko: I don’t think it has anything to do with the letter being last but it feels like the T was stuck on there at the end as a compromise of sorts. There is a very long history of our exclusion from the conversation along the lines of LGBT rights.
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.


All the photos: Courtesy of Koko Jones.
© 2015 - Monika Kowalska

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