"There is Value in Trying": Nikkita Oliver Talks About Being a Multidisciplinary Artist for Black History Month

Black History Month, Interviews
photo by Sara Dilley

In celebration of Black History Month, KEXP’s Alina Santillan interviewed numerous local and national African American artists about what Black History Month and Black Future mean to them. Nikkita Oliver is an educator, attorney, poet, and musician, who also ran for mayor of Seattle in the 2017 election. She was kind enough to come into our studios and talk about what Black History Month means to her. 

KEXP: What does Black History Month mean to you? 

Nikkita Oliver: Black History Month is a complex month for me. It's changed for me over the years what it actually means. When I think about the way I was taught to treat Black History Month in school, as a kid it was this very monolithic story that almost always started at the exact same place, it always started with slavery. And so when I think about the identity, that kind of experience of black history created for me as a child, it was one that didn't tell a lot of complex stories about who black people are, even though in my everyday life with my own family, my father's family, and my stepfather's family who are both black, I knew a much more complex nuanced story of who black people are. Over the years my relationship to Black History Month has changed. It's sometimes been one where maybe I even avoid the month, not because I don't want to celebrate black history but because I want to push back against this notion that we only think about black people in February, and native people during one month of the year, and women during one month of the year, and poetry during one month the year when these are all really important aspects of our shared history that should have a space in everything we do, especially when it comes to storytelling and narrative building. 

I think now where I'm at is treating Black History Month as an opportunity to even more intentionally push my students that I spend time with to think about the place of their story and a much bigger story that we tell. How do we teach young people to think critically and creatively, about pushing beyond this singular narrative that always pushes us to think first about slavery, and actually get them to think about all the other really incredible things there are to know about black folks within the diaspora not just in the United States but also on the continent and all the other places that black people exist. I mean, there are a lot of black folks and Latinx communities in other places around the world, and there is an immense amount of history to think about and to explore, everything from music and dance to technology and invention, and so really using this month as an opportunity to spotlight black history but also something that I think has been really dope. This particular Black History Month, there are groups in Seattle that are really talking about black future, and what does that mean, and what does it look like. And this month, the Black Panther comes out. Also, thinking about black futurism and Afro-sci-fi and how black folks get to play a big role -- not just creating a narrative, but creating even a bigger world that we want to think beyond the one that we're in. I love Octavia Butler. She's one of my favorite authors. So, for me this month, I've been preparing for a show at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute where we're creating original works from the parable, original songs. I've actually been really focused on Afro-sci-fi and that's really been kind of a new twist for me this year during Black History Month. 

Do you think that it's easier to come together in Black History Month as a community? 

You know, I think it's really about resource allocation, to be honest. Like in this month, there are a lot of resources often available for spaces to create intentional spaces for black and brown folks, specifically for black folks to gather and see each other and share space. And I think that's part of what some people probably struggle with when it comes to Black History Month is, especially in a city like Seattle, those spaces do not readily exist at other times the year unless we intentionally create them, and so it does create a ton for us to do. Also, as an artist that creates a ton of work, this is a month where I get a lot of invitations to go play places or do poetry -- everybody wants a black poet during Black History Month, but don't necessarily during the rest of the year. I think that does create a really challenging conversation for us on multiple levels. But for me, as an artist, it makes me think about how in spaces outside of Black History Month -- how am I still bringing performance of my identity and my craft and my art to those spaces to remind people like black people are still here, even though you may not see us gathered the same way you do during Black History Month?

I think what's beautiful right now is though Langston Hughes, NAAM [Northwest African American Museum], Life Enrichment Bookstore, are all places where black folks gather on a regular basis. And they're all kind of having this revitalization and I think they're taking advantage of Black History Month as a time to relaunch those spaces and remind people in Seattle that these are spaces worth sustaining and investing in, and they exist right now during this month, but also they can exist outside of this month. I also think that's part of what the everyday black exhibit is about, it's reminding that there are everyday black people and we're always around and we're always here and our history and our inventions and our creativity are a part of the fabric of our society and it exists every day. And so what I really take from that is a mandate from myself is and my work and the educational work that I do in the artists work that I do in the advocacy and activism. How can I be bringing a story of a black community and all of its nuance and complexity to the many things that I do?

I can imagine for young black girls and people with specific identities that relate to you, it must be really powerful to see someone who looks like you, and is like, "you know what? I want to be an attorney. I want to be an artist. I'm going to run for mayor, because I can do whatever I want and you can do that, too."  As a kid who were those people for you? 

There's a lot of a lot of people. The first that I remember are Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. I love musical theater, but in musical productions that my school was doing, there were not roles that were inherently for black people or that the white directors of our productions could imagine black students in our school performing. So, oftentimes you didn't see black or brown students in those roles. And so I found myself attaching to voices from that era. And that style of music that really spoke to me. And so those are some of the first, presently are folks like Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, Octavia Butler. Because writing has become such an important aspect of what I do. And there's obviously revolutionaries like Assata [Shakur] and Huey P. Newton. These are all folks who have inspired me both in my work as an activist, but also in my legal career and understanding the value of knowing how to use the law. And that's brought an interesting synergy to knowing that. As a black young person, we're often told that there are a few ways for us to find economic mobility, and it's usually through athletics or through music. The many figures that I've been exposed to in history -- both because of myself but also the community that I've found here in Seattle of black folks that are really digging into the vastness of Black History -- has shown me that we can be those things but we can also be a whole lot of other things. You can be an attorney and an artist and those things don't have to conflict. In fact, they actually can be really important valuable things. I've been thinking this -- even just this morning -- about the value of creativity and the work that we do and how much we desperately need creativity. And I find that black artists and writers have really pushed me to think about what that looks like and my everyday work and what I do as a human being, but also having a black identity being a queer woman. And what does that mean for that sort of change that I want to impact in the world?

I used to tell people that I wanted to be a singing missionary doctor. So, I had already made up my mind that I could do all of these things. Slowly, some of those things fell off. I discovered missionary, maybe it wasn't my cup of tea, and anatomy and physiology in college were like really hard. But I think as a young person, I hadn't quite yet been boxed into the idea that I have to do one economically viable thing. I was in college at a predominantly white wealthy institution. I started out a music major and eventually became an English Lit Major. And over time, I was like these things are never going to help me sustain myself. What's beautiful is, I'm kind of back at a place in life where I don't feel like I have to do one thing and in fact, I think for me doing one thing actually puts me in a place of less creativity. And it's really important that I move around and find ways to use different skills. And I see that in a lot of the black folks and the heroes that I idolize are people who have the capacity to do a lot of different things in society, whether it was teaching or writing or art or activism or practicing more. I mean, ultimately I went to law school because I read about Huey P. [Newton] carrying around law textbooks and the constitution. And when police would stop them for something or when they saw police messing with someone, they would roll up, they would have their guns, they would know the law, and they'd be able to cite it to them. And that for me was was the moment where I was like, OK, I think I need to get my law degree and while I'm anti-establishment, knowing how this legal system works actually becomes a really important thing for the community that I say want to serve. And so over time I think I've gotten back to that kid who thinks that you could be three or four things at one time, and you know, I think that's a really beautiful thing. 

Why do you think that music and art matters?

Great question. I remember when I was in school, I got to my senior year and I had four academic classes and four music classes. And I was in a musical, and auditioning for theater, and at the end of the day, I didn't necessarily go to school because there's some law that says I'm supposed to go to school. I actually went to school because I wanted to go to choir rehearsal. And I wanted to play viola in the symphony. And those are things that really I think increased, in particular, my emotional intelligence. I think people read my poetry or hear me speak and I think, oh you're so good at expressing your feelings. And it was really actually being in that setting that helped me figure out what I was feeling so I could even get to a place to express it. The beauty of music is you don't need words to say how you feel and where words fail, I think music is really able to fill in the gap. And so for me, well it was a reason I went to school, it also became the thing that I think helped me become a more creative thinker that I didn't have to have just what academic says are the right tools but there are actually tools outside of those tools that might make me better at using those more traditional tools. 

And so over time working with students, working in schools, part of the reason I really emphasize arts and the work that I do and even as I teach poetry there's always music involved is about engaging young people on multiple levels, engaging their multiple senses, engaging their multiple emotions in their multiple persons, creating a space where you can actually think compassionately. There's something about engaging in a theater piece and maybe even playing a role you never thought you would play that forces you to think about what someone else is dealing with. An example, for myself personally, as I was in this film called Girl Justice that's being created by Santina Vernon and it tells a story of two black young women and a black trans woman and their experience moving through the juvenile justice system. In the film, I had to play a corrections officer. When I first got invited to do it, I thought I was gonna be a social worker. Like, immediately I went to the role that I play now, and then I get there and they have this like weird blue uniform for me to wear. And I'm supposed to move one of youth around while wearing a jumpsuit, and I think, "dang, I don't want to do this." But after five hours of playing that role, I'm thinking about the different things that CEOs go through being in that role within a prison setting. It really made me start to think differently about the impact of that role. Maybe not definitely about the existence of the role but like what does that role do to a person and what is it like to have to play that within the big story that we're telling as a society. And so I think theater and drama and music and art have the capacity to create a sort of empathy that makes us think more humanly about each other, and so we need more of it in school not less. 

What would you say to encourage young black youth?

Great question. I think I would tell youth to just try things. To be honest, I was not the greatest at anything in high school. I was not the greatest viola player -- in fact, I stayed second chair for all four years of high school because there was this young woman who was always first chair who's a year behind me. But she had private lessons, and so she was always just that little edge beyond me no matter how much I practiced. In choir, I got into all of the top choirs, but could never get into the top seat, could never get the lead role in the musical. And there was a point where I think that became very discouraging because everything that I had done was based on just my own hard work. It was based on literally going to the library and finding books on vocal performance or how do you play guitar -- I taught myself to play guitar. I think what I learned from that is there is something about trying. I know, Yoda says don't try just do. I actually don't believe that. I think there's value in trying, there is value and resilience, and there's value in hard work, and it may not pay off exactly the way that you wanted it to and the moment you're putting that hard work. I never got the lead role in a musical but you know 14 years later, I can look at all of that hard work and I can see that it paid off into really getting to do a lot of the things that I want to. I am getting to make music. 

And so I guess what I would actually tell young people is don't really need to plan your life out so succinctly. It's actually OK to just be in the present moment, try new things, have the resilience when it doesn't necessarily work out the way you imagine but it works, and figure out how do you make lemonade out of lemons? Or if you don't like lemonade, throw the lemons or something. I mean, there's always something to do with the materials that are in front of you. And it may not always be obvious but you sit with long enough, you'll figure out something. 

For more and a litany of amazing interviews featuring the incredible African-American musical artists that have shaped our lives, click here for all our Black History Month coverage.

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