How Art Advances Racial Justice and Representation, LGBQT+ Equality And The Intersectional Fights: A Conversation With Kah Yangni

by Jose Soto

As an illustrious illustrator based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Kah Yangni (they/them) uses their work to spotlight their lived Black and queer experiences and those of their intersecting communities through the lenses of joy and beauty. They aim to spark optimism and hope through their artwork in the midst of racial tension and pervasive discriminatory rhetoric targeting the LGBTQ+ community, namely transgender and non-binary people.

The Human Rights Campaign has partnered with community-based artists before as a way of providing a platform and communicational vehicle to not only the artists’ own artwork, but their intentionality and overall purpose centered in equality and social justice and progress, especially as it impacts multiply marginalized communities and communities of color. Our partnership with Kah Yangni helped us to celebrate Black History Month. Yangni’s “Black Resistance Lights The Way” observed this year’s Black History Month theme of “Black Resistance,” the culmination of Black strength, power and beauty throughout the years. This partnership, along with our other artist-based partnerships, allowed us to take part in a broader social conversation helping to advance social justice and progress, not only for LGBTQ+ people but all identities found within the LGBTQ+ community at large. Beyond visually honoring Black History Month and Black Resistance, Yangni and their artwork spoke to the importance of elevating Black queer experiences as a way of fighting for both Black and queer liberation.

HRC had a candid conversation with Yangni about these important issues:

As a Black queer artist, is there a specific moment or memory that helped you understand the importance your artwork plays in the movement for Black queer liberation?

I got commissioned to make this piece that says “we find safety in each other” to go with an Autostraddle article by Benji Hart about how police have no place in pride celebrations. I made it in about 3 days and sent it in. I was working on it right after George Floyd was murdered, so the article and the art came out at a time when a lot of people were thinking about what place police had in society. The art went everywhere. I saw it in an abolitionist reader and wheatpasted in Australia. I realized that if I really tried on purpose, I can make something that captures a moment or captures how people feel or what they hope for, and talks about people’s visions for what our lives can be like.

As you came into your own Black queer identity, how did that process and experience play into your artwork? Was there ever an obvious shift or transformation?

I have always turned to art to heal myself. I think like queerness, Blackness is something that you have to go through, the process of claiming it in the face of a world that can be hostile. I found myself using art to kind of talk back to the world and capture moments when I felt really confident in who I was, even when I wasn’t confident in being a Black queer person all the time. I can think “yeah, the world can be hateful toward trans people, but today I feel good so I’m gonna make this piece that says ‘Trans is Freedom.’”

America can be anti-Black and make us invisible, but I’m gonna make all these pieces that celebrate and center us. I’m going to paint us on a wall 50 feet tall. So then I have all this art that I can look at on the days I don’t feel strong. I made this light I can return to.

What was your experience like growing up in communities of color and marginalized communities? How did that help shape your artistry? How do you feel that experience helps to differentiate you from other artists?

I grew up as the only Black person in my classrooms and in most spaces for most of my life. I think that not seeing myself and feeling alienated has driven my desire to declare it a lot and kind of make propaganda. Movies and books and media were my way of connecting with other people like me. I was always disappearing into the majority around me, so I think it made me want to declare that I was there and I was valid, and make art that would make people feel less alone.

How important do you think it is for all Black folks, regardless of sexuality/sexual orientation and gender identity, to see many forms of Black representation in artistic mediums? How do you think that helps to create equality and unity among Black communities?

I think about this a lot because it’s been super exciting as a first generation West African to live through so many people getting excited about afrobeat music, and hearing people listening to Wizkid or Tems when I’m walking around in Philly. I think art is a way that we acknowledge each other as being real and truly appreciate each other. So the more kinds of Black expressions that are out there, I think, the more all of us will feel like we have a place. The more connected we’ll all feel.

Kah Yangni's "Black Resistance Lights The Way"

Tragically, the Black community, including the Black LGBTQ+ community, continues to experience alarming rates of violence, discrimination and racism. What role does art in the form of activism and advocacy play in combating and fighting back against these forms of oppression that stunt social progress?

Art feeds the soul and helps us keep the vision. It’s communication and good for sharing vision. I’ve experienced the depression of something terrible happening, seeing the violence and then seeing a piece that pulls me back from the brink or makes me want to keep going. When I feel mad at the world, I’ll listen to “Mad” by Solange; or when I want to feel pride, I’ll listen through the whole “Legacy! Legacy!” album from Jamila Woods and put myself in touch with all these Black creatives and leaders through her songs. I think art helps care for our spiritual health while we’re suffering and striving and doing the work to make things different.