Welcome to KQED Arts’ Bay Brilliant, a series celebrating 10 local artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2018. Driven by passion for their own disciplines—music, dance, theater, visual art, performance, writing, illustration and more—these artists are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
Nia Levy King is a keeper of stories—a role she undertakes with great care.
Whether she’s producing the newest episode of her podcast, We Want the Airwaves, self-publishing a new volume in her Queer & Trans Artists of Color series or writing for publications like the East Bay Express and Colorlines, King has built a growing, living archive of queer histories.
After self-publishing two volumes of her Queer & Trans Artists of Color series, King has her sights on a third volume after successfully raising funds to pay every artist, editor and contributor.
In every episode of her podcast, King offers herself up as a partner in conversation, with raw vulnerability and transparency. For King, a queer, mixed-race artist and activist, housing is a queer issue. Health care is a queer issue. Poverty is a queer issue. And her continued fight against inequity starts and ends with creativity.
So you've been creating zines since you were 17. You're a comic artist, filmmaker, podcaster and now, a published author of two books. But what is something that people don’t know about you?
My first instinct is to be like, "I'm an open book." But that's not true. I consider myself a pretty private person. I think I want people to know that I try hard to do my work in the most ethical way possible. And a lot of the work is relationship-building and relationship maintenance, and managing artist personalities. And that work is not visible work.
Editing is also not visible work, but being a holder of stories is also being a holder of community in certain ways. You can't make everyone happy all the time, but I really try.
What are things that you do to keep hope alive in times that are not so hopeful?
I don't get a lot of feedback on the podcast in part because I don't have a comment section, which you can probably imagine why. But when I do get feedback from listeners, that's what keeps me going.
I got a sweet, very short message from a woman, a black lesbian woman in Missouri who told me, “I don't have any community out here, and your podcast is my connection to community.” She made it sound like my podcast was a life preserver.
What keeps me going is knowing that the hours I spend editing alone in my room instead of having a social life is making a difference to someone—making another queer person feel a little bit less lonely.
You are fully funded for your third publication of Queer and Trans Artists of Color. What are you hoping that people will take from this third book that's different than the other two?
The hope is always to push the conversation forward and have a more advanced and thoughtful dialogue than the previous book. I feel like in the first book, it was more economically focused, which might have been a strength, but it was also more QTPOC 101.
The conversations in QTPOC communities are evolving. In book three, colorism and anti-blackness are going to be big themes, because I feel like those are conversations that are happening in the QTPOC community right now—and in the Bay right now—that are important.
Do you have any rituals or traditions before approaching a project?
No. That would suggest that I stop to think about things. I'm more of a go, go, go kind of person. Is budgeting a ritual? There's a lot of planning. There are a lot of spreadsheets.
When you feel a block creatively, where do you go and what do you do?
I mean, with the books and the podcast, it is less about creativity. I think editing is somewhat creative. But for me, it’s also a very intuitive process. Having edited 89 interviews and two books, I have kind of a gut feeling about what's a cut and what's a keep.
I think you have to take breaks. You know, get outside, go for a walk, watch some Netflix, whatever. Call your mom. Just step away from the screen.
A piece of advice you’ve given to artists over the years is not to work for free. What other lessons do you want to impart on QTPOC artists?
It’s complicated. I've written essays on when it might make sense to work for free. But in general, I try to discourage it because as you know, when you're a young woman, person of color, queer, trans person, there's no end to the number of people that want to exploit your labor and not pay you for it.
Once you start working for free, it can be really hard to stop working for free. But sometimes, especially when you're very new and emerging, unpaid opportunities are the only ones you get. The more artists work for free, the harder it is for any artist to make a living.
So, now, to answer your question. There's something—I'm going to paraphrase—that Star Amerasu said in our interview.
When I asked her how she was able to do what she does, she said good friends, low rent and a flexible work schedule. Artists need the same thing everyone else needs. We need low rent, access to health care and day jobs that pay us a living wage.
What does your ideal future look like for artists in the Bay Area?
We need stronger rent protections. We need an end to the evictions. We need a much more affordable Bay Area in every way.
I honestly feel like a lot of the greatest artists of my generation are bagging groceries at Trader Joe's. What artists need is what everyone else needs. We need the cost of housing to stop going up. We need wages to go up. And we need health care to be affordable. Because the things you need to make art are just the things we need to live, you know?
Learn more about Nia Levy King here.