Guys We Love: J Mase III

The Black Trans Queer poet who’s making space for his community to be unapologetic in their anger and their joy.

“I’m a poet because I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.” 

That’s how J Mase III describes his work. A Black, trans, queer poet and educator based in Seattle by way of NYC, J Mase is driven by a passion for creating art, a commitment to fighting for his community’s survival, and a conviction that Black and Brown trans and queer people deserve to see art that reflects the full nuance of their experience.

J Mase III is the founder of the international performance tour Cupid Ain’t @#$%!: An Anti-Valentine’s Day Poetry Movement and founder of awQward, the first ever trans & queer people of color specific talent agency. This month we sat down with him to learn more about his art, his activism, and his vision for the future.

What do you do and why?

I’m the founder and an administrator for an organization called awQward. We seek to uplift the work of trans and queer people of color (TQPOC). We’re an all Black trans administrative team.

I can see the ways that anti-blackness and transphobia have prevented me from getting livable wages. It’s about finding a way for us as Black and Brown people to support each other around survival. When we’re negotiating with institutions around payment, we understand the ways in which university system has historically undervalued Black and Brown labor while greatly benefiting from it.

Institutions will ask me or other artists, ‘What your typical fee?’ And then they’ll say our fee is too high. But we‘ve done our homework and know what they’re paying white cis performers. We know what the going rate is and want to make sure that they’re accountable to that. We demand that the institutions that ask us for our work pay us for our time our brilliance and our legacy.

We also run workshops on financial sustainability for TQPOC artists so they can better negotiate and talk about their work. My work is rooted in cooperative economics — it’s not just ok to make sure that you’re ok, you have to also make sure others in your community are ok and love up on them in the same way you’re loving up on yourself.

What is your vision for your artistic work?

My artist practice involves writing poems when someone in my life fucks up. That could be someone I know, someone one the street, someone in an institution. That’s what drives my art as release, as catharsis, giving myself space to be unapologetic. I’m a very bitter person but happily so. I have a right to joy as a Black trans person. I have a right to be in community with other TQPOC artists and curate performances for an audience that values that.

People always say that my work is about teaching people who are not like you to accept people. That’s actually not what my work is about. I could give a fuck. It’s about looking at people who look like me and saying that we have a right to take space, we have a right to ownership of things that were stolen from us, including our brilliance, especially our intellectual property. It’s about looking at university spaces, media, magazines, and news programs that will use phrases like ‘lit,’ ‘on fleek,’ or ‘slay,’ but will never respect a Black trans or queer person to be at the editorial table or on the board.

How has your understanding of the LGBTQ community changed over time? What do you consider to be your community now?

Back in the day I believed in this cohesive LGBTQ community. And that changed for me when I was working exclusively at LGBTQ nonprofit organizations full time. I found myself talking to people who could tell me about many people in the community would be homeless, how many people would be physically attacked, how many people would unemployed, etcetera. But those same people did not trust the people who are the most vulnerable to actually be in leadership positions in their organizations. I was going to vigils and funerals that the Executive Director was only going to for the photo op.

The mainstream LGBTQ community is very invested in white supremacy and getting rid of things that are preventing white cis men from accessing their full power, rather than showing up for TQPOC, folks with disabilities, broke folks, undocumented folks and others.

My question is, Are you only down for the people of color that like you, or are you down for the people of color who are going to tell you when you fuck up? And the same thing happens with transness – they [cis white queers] find the trans people who are in closest proximity to what they look like sound like. And there are folks in our community who can’t play that game and look like that even if they want to.

What does solidarity and allyship within the LGBTQ community look like to you?

As a Black transmasculine person one thing that I had to recognize was that me being trans does not mean that I was immune to being oppressive to transfeminine people. As someone seeking to be in solidarity, you have to ask yourself, what are you willing to give up? If you’re not willing to give up something substantial you’re not willing to in solidarity with another community. Depending on your access, that can mean income, credibility or even a leadership position.

In particular, to white folks, the racialized wealth distribution in this country is real. Stop acting like it’s not. If you are connected to a job at an institution that has more than five people, if you are at a school, if you have a family network, you have access to more money than many Black and Brown people. Because not only do you have access to this money, but people are more likely to believe you about how it should be spent. So find ways to redistribute money.

As LGBTQ  organizations, figure out what your reparations plan is. Don’t just wonder how many more people of color and trans people can be absorbed into your organization. Make a plan. Many of these mainstream institutions that refuse to center the most marginalized have to die so that we can pour those resources into organizations that have been centering the most marginalized people from the get go. TQPOC led orgs must be centered.

What do you wish the mainstream LGBTQ community knew?

A while ago I was reading a study about the brain stem, and it was talking about how usually when you have a brain stem injury it’s assumed that it will never heal. The study said that it’s not that it won’t heal, it’s that we don’t live long enough to see it heal. And I feel the same thing about empathy in our society. Most organizations have not reconciled with the fact that they don’t see Black and Brown trans people as human, and they may not live long enough to do that. But TQPOC don’t have time to wait for folks to come to that.

I want mainstream LGBTQ organizations to accept and understand their role in white supremacy, transmisogyny, ableism, and Islamophobia. And I want them to decide to do something different. And not do this thing where we say progress has to be slow. We all saw Trump come to office and those executive orders coming in. We’re only slow with progress when we’re comfortable.

Who are your role models? Who inspires your work?

When we think about the role of capitalism in the role of our heroes are – we believe in this exceptionalism that only allows a few people to rise to the top. As TQPOC, I believe we are all exceptional just coming out of our homes every day.

When I think of who inspires me, it includes Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi, an artist I get to work with through awQward, who sings, dances, and writes books and plays. I think about folks like Regie Cabico who taught me how to be a full time artist.

I think about people like my colleague Kavi Ade who’s a Black trans poet, who works with the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement, and does great workshops on breaking down toxic masculinity; and Coming Out Muslim which does important work around what it means to be out as a Muslim and a queer person, which is still pretty hard in queer communities.

And Elle Hearns, the former organizing director for Black Lives Matter chapters internationally. She started Trans Liberation Tuesdays and organized the first ever national day of action for Black trans women in the US. She’s truly prolific.

Where does your work go from here? What projects are you working on right now?

I’ll be touring this summer as part of a group called #BlackTransMagick. We’ll be doing performances, and free writing and sustainability workshops for TQPOC artists. We’ll be in LA, New Orleans, New York, Philly, DC, and a few other cities.

We’re almost a month into the Trump presidency. As we face this tenuous and scary moment, what gives you hope? Do you have self care practices that keep you going?  

I’ve had the blessing of being in communities that are perpetually doing resistance work. I know this is part of my legacy. Black liberation is in my blood.

A lot of my interviews might sound very serious. But for me performing is about my right as a Black trans person to have joy. Whether I’m making people laugh, or I’m doing something serious, we as Black and Brown people, as trans people, have a right not just to our pain but to our joyous liberation.

You can find J Mase III online at http://jmaseiii.com/ & http://www.awqwardtalent.com/, and on Twitter at @JMaseIII and @awQwardtalent.

GO: What do you wish the mainstream LGBTQ community knew?

J Mase III: A while ago I was reading a study about the brain stem, and it was talking about how usually when you have a brain stem injury it’s assumed that it will never heal. The study said that it’s not that it won’t heal, it’s that we don’t live long enough to see it heal. And I feel the same thing about empathy in our society. Most organizations have not reconciled with the fact that they don’t see Black and Brown and trans people as human, and they may not live long enough to do that. But TQPOC don’t have time to wait for that progress.

I want mainstream LGBTQ organizations to accept and understand their role in white supremacy, transmisogyny, ableism, and Islamophobia. And I want them to decide to do something different. And not do this thing where we say progress has to be slow. We all saw Trump come to office and those executive orders coming in. We’re only slow with progress when we’re comfortable.

GO: Who are your role models? Who inspires your work?

J Mase III: When we think about the role of capitalism in the role of our heroes are – we believe in this exceptionalism that only allows a few people to rise to the top. As TQPOC, we all have to be exceptional coming out of our houses every day.

When I think of who inspires me, it includes Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi, an artist I get to work with through awQward, who sings, dances, and writes books and plays. I think about Yellow Rage, a group of Asian-American spoken word poets—they’ve shown me that it’s OK for my anger to not always be serious.

I think about people like the poet Nikki Giovanni; my colleague Vision who’s a black poet, works with the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement, and does great workshops on breaking down toxic masculinity; and Coming Out Muslim which does important work around what it means to be out as a Muslim and a queer person, which is still pretty hard in queer communities.

And Elle Hearns, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, is one of the most amazing organizers that I’ve had the pleasure to know. She started Trans Liberation Tuesdays. She’s a prolific leader, though it seems like only black people know who she is.