The City Bureau network is full of incredibly committed community builders. Their contributions are at the bedrock of what we do and a fundamental part of what makes City Bureau a force for change. Get acquainted with the City Bureau family as part of our new blog series Between Friends.
This month we are excited to spotlight artists Tonika Johnson and Roy Kinsey, who are headlining City Bureau’s Soap Box Ball celebration and fundraiser on September 19. For a limited time, tickets are 20% off—buy them now before they’re sold out!
The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
WHO are you and what do you do?
Tonika: My name is Tonika Johnson. I am a photographer and a community advocate for my home neighborhood of Englewood.
Roy: My name is Roy Kinsey, aka the Rapbrarian fka Blackie.
HOW did you come to be a part of the City Bureau community? And how did you two meet?
T.J.: I was a 2017 summer fellow with City Bureau. I made such good friendships with the other fellows and all of the City Bureau team. They've just become my reporting family. They helped push me out of my comfort zone and explore other mediums like audio.
I met Roy on Instagram. I came across his music on OTV [Open Television]. That's when I first got introduced to Roy's music. Then I went down a rabbit hole, like hold up, this is some real hip hop right here! I sent him a message praising his music and then asking if he could come perform in Englewood as part of So Fresh Saturday. Then as we started learning more about each other's work, we just knew we wanted to do something together.
R.K.: I am connected to City Bureau in a few ways, the first being my album and story having the pleasure of being covered last summer, when [reporting fellows tackled] Black wealth in Chicago. While interviewed, I was reminded that what I do as a researcher, putting my findings into raps, was valued as a contribution to culture. It was City Bureau reporting fellows who helped me to understand that about the work that I was creating, my most recent album, Blackie: A Story by Roy Kinsey. I was able to meet journalists who cared about the culture of Chicago. As a librarian in Austin, many of the fellows have come to the library inquiring about the neighborhood for their most recent research on housing. It’s pretty full circle.
These are some of the most brilliant minds I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, people who really advocate for the people of Chicago and their stories. The trust that must be developed and nurtured between the people and their media is present there.
WHAT are you working on right now?
R.K.: Together, Tonika and I get to work on telling the story of our ancestors, in what we jokingly call the “On The Run: Social Justice Tour.” Currently I am working on the follow up project to Blackie, called Kinsey. It's a continuation of the Blackie story, but hones in on the personal story as it relates to the collective story. The Blackie album represented memories, the past and ancestors, while the Kinsey album is being approached in present-day.
T.J.: We worked on the Blackie project together and later our special presentation as part of the Dimensions of Citizenship exhibition was an extension of that. We wanted to prioritize education in our communities and how they haven't been a priority for the city, basically. That's why we performed outside in front of my old grammar school, now closed in Englewood. And there’s the possibility of another outdoor performance in the Austin community.
I'm working on the next iteration of my Folded Map project, which will include the northwest neighborhoods of Chicago as well as the West Side neighborhoods. I’ll be comparing those two areas. I'm also starting a new project called Belonging with UIC (University of Illinois at Chicago) that is providing a platform for Black and brown teens to express themselves about specific locations in Chicago where they have been racially profiled and made to feel like they don't belong. That is going to be a photography and audio project where I'm photographing the young people at the sites of incidents, accompanied by audio stories and photography.
WHEN did you know you wanted to be a storyteller?
R.K.: I think I was a storyteller before I knew I wanted to be one. I was writing and telling stories for a while. My grandmother was the first person who gave me a book where I was the protagonist. Being able to see myself in a piece of media shaped me and my love for words, and books, and storytelling. After taking a storytelling class, one of my last formal classes while acquiring my master’s in Library and Information Studies, I understood how old and how powerful the story has been in human civilization.
T.J.: I participated in Young Chicago Authors when I was 13 years old. I was in the third class of YCA. I discovered that I enjoy writing poetry, expressing my perspective and telling stories. They introduced me to an official photography class at 15 and then my storytelling changed. I stopped writing as much and I just started taking a whole bunch of pictures. It was clear to me in high school, I loved documenting my friends and my neighborhood.
WHERE are you in your creative trajectory right now?
T.J.: I just realized that I can do my work in art as my profession. I was not in that space last year. Realizing that has enabled me to imagine new work projects around issues I want to help amplify. I feel like this is the purpose and path that all of my experience has led me to discover.
R.K.: I am understanding that I am different, and that we all are. I am understanding that my voice is unique and necessary. I’m understanding that I’m lucky to have art as a container for my lessons and healing. I’m learning, however, that my purpose is to have and shape my life to be what I want it to be. I’m learning and understanding so much about my value and my self worth. I’m understanding that the shame and guilt that was present in my life, though it helped me to survive, there are healthier ways for me to grow in this next stage of my life.
WHY do you believe an equitable and inclusive approach to storytelling is important/necessary?
T.J.: There is no one objective way to tell a story. It's only when you have a collection of different perspectives that you actually see themes—gaps in information or communication. If we are going to truly dismantle some of these large systemic issues in a way that's sustainable, we have to know how each person or each culture or each city has come to the issues that they are facing. And you cannot know that just from a one-sided point of view.
This world is made up of so many different people, cultures, perspectives, and unfortunately, traumas. In order to truly care about someone, you have to know where they are coming from and you have to know their stories.
R.K.: They say history is written by the winners—the winners of money and power. We know who traditionally has had their stories told. It was important for me to know that I come from a people who were doing much of the heavy lifting.
I know that slavery was but a blip in the history of the African, but it takes up so much of our thought, and I’d like to acknowledge those stories, also, while adding to our histories. There’s layers to the magic. I’d like to extend the bracket before 1619, and after 2019, for more.
Ultimately, knowledge of self helps us to be great designers of our existence. I’m interested in excavating, taking inventory and evolving. Merely being aware of our story helps us to move through the world. The stories we tell ourselves, the stories we have to stop telling ourselves. The knowledge that we are co-creators and creators of our stories, is necessary.
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