[Feature originally published in HEROINE 14 in March 2021]
Jari Jones never set out to be an activist. The actor, filmmaker, model and photographer prefers the title of creative. For her, ‘activism’ has always been about survival, an urgent need to be heard, but such has been the impact of her work that ‘activist’ sought her out, almost by default. From becoming the first Black trans woman to produce a film at Cannes Film Festival with Port Authority (2019), to fronting Calvin Klein campaigns and dominating the runway for NYC-based brand Chromat, Jones is part of an increasingly high- profile collection of Black trans figures whose voices speak on behalf of those with none.
In-conversation with her is fellow American model Ebonee Davis. After emerging from America’s Next Top Model to become one of the industry’s leading faces, Davis has consistently spoken about her experiences as an African-American in fashion, most emphatically in her 2017 TED Talk. Here, the two women connect to discuss their respective journeys, shared ambitions of their activism and the creative power of Black collaboration.
Ebonee Davis: So how have you been? How are you now?
Jari Jones: I’m good, I’ve just come back to New York. I was staying in New Jersey for a bit, but I’m back. It’s good to be back in the city, it’s freezing of course.
ED: Are you from New York?
JJ: I’m originally from Jersey, but I’ve been here for like ten years now.
ED: What brought you to the city?
JJ: Musical theatre, originally.
ED: Oh, awesome.
JJ: I went to school for theatre and voice, which I still do as, like, my number one.
ED: I’ve seen on your Instagram, you’re an amazing vocalist.
JJ: Thank you so much. But yes, music and acting brought me to New York. I also used to take photographs back in the day, that’s where I started at and then kind of switched over. People were like, “Hey, ever thought of getting in front of the camera?” I was like, “I don’t know… I guess” [laughs].
ED: What was that transition like?
JJ: It’s funny that you say transition [both laugh]. That was like my thing. As a person behind the camera or even acting, I was comfortable to play a part. But with modelling, it’s like you’re baring your full self, right? And I didn’t feel comfortable really being in front of the camera like that. In acting, you’re doing a scene or you’re playing a part, whereas with pictures it’s totally you. So, I transitioned, which was a lot of soul-searching and finding my true self, and that’s when the jobs really started to come. Which makes sense, though – when you’re your full self, when you’re at your most authentic, people can see that and want to know more.
“It’s not like one day we woke up and we’re like, “Oh, Imma’ be an activist.” I didn’t go to college for organising, it’s something I had to do out of survival.”
ED: Yeah, for sure. I know for me, when I started wearing my hair naturally, doors started to open up for me. What was the process like for you, going from putting on characters to being comfortable exposing yourself, who you truly are?
JJ: People always make out soul-searching and self-love to be this beautiful, ethereal thing that’s going to happen to you. That shit was hard! It was haaard. It hurt, I lost a lot of people from it, I thought I was losing parts of myself that I’d fought so hard for. I always speak about when I first came to the realisation that I was trans. I remember speaking to my wife at the time, who was also trans and I was like, “You know, I don’t think I identify as gay anymore.” She was like, “What?!” I was like, “I don’t think I identify as a boy anymore.” And she was like, “Wait, wait, wait.” And you know for us, growing up in places that aren’t so supportive of that, it’s like we fought so hard for this identity and now you’re about to switch, you’re about to just let it go? And it wasn’t a matter of like, one day I want to explore. It was life or death. I felt it in my soul: this is not me, I can no longer identify. For me, at the time, gay meant white and a boy and I was Black and a woman.
ED: How important is identity? Do you think it’s important to have labels and identifiers and things that you can grab onto or do you think there’s something beyond identity? Because personally, I was being labelled all these things and taking on all these other titles and there was a certain point where I was like, “Well, to me, my freedom is actually not having any label.” So do you feel like having some sort of identification is important, or do you feel like you can do without it?
JJ: Totally, totally. You know I’ve been – I don’t want to say struggling, but I guess dissecting that idea in general. I live in a world that runs off identity and labels and things like that, but I would love to get rid of them. Because I think so often my gender, my sexuality, my expression is forever changing, it’s forever moving. I see gender, labels and sexuality like pit stops. I was here first and then I’m going to go back there and then I’m going to go back here. I’m always moving, I’m always exploring, I’m always trying new things. I’m always trying to create Jari, or get back to Jari. So in my perfect world I would love to just be, to just exist and not have to grab onto things. But you know, I also realise that I have to navigate this world and I have to maybe adhere to certain labels so that people understand some sort of me, right?
ED: I always say that I don’t necessarily want to be an activist, like I don’t want to have to advocate. I don’t want the world to be in a place where I’m having to create space for myself. In your ideal world, if you weren’t an activist, if you didn’t have to put so much energy into that, what would you be doing?
JJ: Oh my god, creating. Art is the love of my life. To jump back a little though, I always think about activism, and especially when people label us as activists. It’s not like one day we woke up and we’re like, “Oh, Imma’ be an activist.” I didn’t go to college for organising, it’s something I had to do out of survival. It’s something I had to do because things were affecting me and if I didn’t make a stand, or make some kind of vocal noise about it, it wouldn’t be done. And I’ve found communities of other people who are doing that. So I hope that I can shed that label one day and get back to what I really want to do.
ED: In our industry, ‘activist’ has become a trendy buzzword in the past few years. I started doing this work because, like you said, things were affecting me, things were hurting me. I’m having to push back against the things that are pushing against me.
JJ: Totally! I also noticed how anything we do – because we’re marginalised folks – is going to be political, it’s going to be activism. Us stepping outside and daring to be happy and enjoying ourselves is going to be political. So I’ve kind of just chalked it up to that, right? Not to say that I don’t put effort into my activism, but it’s like me living and existing in itself is going to be activism. If I want to wear a short skirt and show thigh, show ass, it’s activism. It’s body positivity, right? If I want to wear my hair natural, it’s activism. So hell, give ‘em activism [laughs].
ED: I was thinking recently that, I hope one day me wearing my hair the way that it grows out of my head naturally won’t be a political statement.
JJ: Oh my god, yes.
ED: What are some of the ways you bring yourself back to you? When the world tries to tell you who you are, what are some practices that help you ground yourself?
JJ: I try to really dig into my childhood. I think it’s where I’ve found myself to be most centred, or my memory at least tells me that’s where I was most centred. It’s what I’ve led with in my transition. You know people think of transition – especially when we’re talking about gender transition – as a way of going from one point to another. I’m actually trying to get back, that’s where I see myself. Like when I look at pictures of when I was younger I’m like, “Oh, that was such a precious, young little girl in the world.” I see the grit and the fight that I had as a child. Being unapologetic, doing whatever the hell I wanted. I want to get back to that. I’m trying to shed all of this shame and hurt and labels or the way that people defined me and get back. So I look for stuff like that and I just remember the things I used to do: art, dancing, music has always been in my life. And even modelling. I grew up in this industry, my grandfather was a huge model back in the 70s and 80s –
JJ: Yeah, he was on the cover of Ebony and everything.
ED: Wowww. Do you feel like Black trans folks are included in mainstream conversations around Black liberation? Or is that a piece of dialogue that’s still missing?
JJ: [sighs] I feel like there’s a big conversation that’s definitely still missing. It stems from the idea of how close we are to the status quo. So I feel like when we’re talking about Black liberation we walk a fine line because are we talking about liberating Black people in general or are we talking about becoming what the status quo is? I think if we’re trying to become what the status quo is we will always fail because there will always be somebody left behind. The status quo says you need to be cis, you need to be masculine and you need to be straight.
So that’s only working out for Black men, but what about Black women? What about Black trans women? What about Black children? What about poor Black people? When do we hit all those? So Black liberation needs to include all of us. My fight is just as big for queer Black people as it is for low-income Black people, for the ghetto girl, for the baby mama, for the man who served twenty years in jail. My fight is for all of us to be able to move and be uplifted. It’s not for the Black person who made it and is now trying to move forward and move into the white neighbourhood. It includes them but it’s not for them.
“I see the grit and the fight that I had as a child. Being unapologetic, doing whatever the hell I wanted.”
ED: So where do you see yourself in five years, in ten years? What is the future of Jari?
JJ: It’s so funny, I express this a lot to the point where people are like, “Just quit!” I really see myself passing the baton out of modelling. I love it don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot, it is demanding and especially because of the kind of models we are, we’re not your regular face models, we’re the models and the voice. So it’s like, I’ve given you all of my body and now I have to go give you all of my thoughts. I wish that I can transition more into art and painting and voice and writing. I feel like my voice and body are my most precious things in the world, they are what keeps me moving, what allows me to connect with people.
So I hope in the next five years, I will do the big do, have my big campaign and I can bow out, “Thank you guys!” I can be in a comfortable place where I can start a family, I am having baby-fever like no other. I want a child so much. I want a lot of kids, I want to raise my kids like how my mum raised me, which is village-style. So I had 1,200 mums who were my aunts, my mum’s best friends. I want to live on a commune, I want to move with all of my partners and I want my friends and I want a big country house somewhere, I don’t know. I want to just be able to have the things that I love so much be my constant, my daily.
ED: Children and family and community – what do you want your legacy to be?
JJ: I think I’d want the tagline to be, ‘somebody who dared to’. I think that’s it. I don’t necessarily need it to be a success or to be this thing that blew up and became an icon, I just want to be known as someone who dared to, who had odds against them, whether that be identity, race, body type. Anything that the world threw at her, I still had the audacity to do it. Somebody who dared to.
“My fight is just as big for queer Black people as it is for low-income Black people, for the ghetto girl, for the baby mama, for the man who served twenty years in jail.”
ED: On the other side of that, whose legacy do you find yourself following or watching closely? Who are the ancestors that inspire you?
JJ: Oh my god, if we’re talking about on a bigger scale, Marsha P. Johnson or Miss Major [Griffin- Gracy], trans women who, like I said, didn’t wake up one day and say, “I’m going to be an activist,” but saw that there was a need for a strong Black trans woman to lead a revolution – and they did. On a more personal level, my grandfather. He is so embedded in my soul, I tell people this all the time when I do photoshoots.
I’d never remember the shoot because I feel like he takes over. People ask me, “Oh how was the shoot?” And I can never fully put it together, it’s always fragmented. I feel like something takes over my being when I’m in front of a camera. When it’s on, it’s on. I’ve just chalked it up to being him because he always wanted me to express myself and be the best that I can be. So I was like, “This is him, this is his second life within the modelling world and he’s able to live that through me.” I feel like he takes over, so I allow that and I’m inspired by it and it’s gotten me to some really great places.
ED: That’s so beautiful. I really want us, as a community to awaken to the fact that we have so much spiritual power within us.
JJ: Oh my god – so much. When I say it literally runs through my veins, it’s like no other.
ED: We’re not out here alone.
JJ: Absolutely not.
ED: I did a shoot last year with my family shot by Renell [Medrano] who I know you also worked with. The blue image – that was one of the most striking images…
JJ: Those are the kind of collaborations that I mean. I feel like so often in this industry, I’m kind of mind-blown that people don’t hire Black photographers or Black artists, it’s like, do you not see what the product is? It blows my mind. It’s like, do you not see what comes out of that? I’m not saying that I don’t connect with photographers or artists from other backgrounds, but when I do connect with somebody who understands my journey and my experience, you know it’s going to be something special. Because there’s that commonality. So I want more of that.
ED: For sure, it’s so interesting how shooting with somebody who understands your background and shares that commonality can almost capture that, even in still photographs.
JJ: Oh my god, totally! When I was shooting with Renell, it was a lot of stature, a lot of stillness. I worry about that sometimes because so many industry people or designers have me moving and stuff like that. Renell was just relying on me bearing my soul in this stillness, fully naked and just having her capture me. It is to this day one of the most powerful pictures I’ve ever seen of myself. It says so much and I can feel movement even though there’s nothing. That’s so important.
ED: Speaking of being photographed naked, how important is it to you for your naked body to be seen?
JJ: I think it is important in a sense of who is seeing it, right? I think it’s because of social media and because of how public those images are, everybody’s going to take something different from it. I’m more focussed on who’s seeing it, so I’m excited by the people who’ve been battling with their bodies for years to see that kind of confidence. I’m excited by the trans person who may have not even done anything, but can see what that kind of body can look like and how it can be respected and uplifted and empowered. Even me being blue, Blackness is still very much present in those images, so for the people who are going to take that and be empowered by it, those are the people I’m excited to see it, and that’s why it’s important for me. And for everybody else: here’s a treat [both laugh].
ED: So I saw your silhouette challenge [A trend that began on TikTok which sees users create a silhouette of themselves to promote body positivity].
JJ: [laughs] Which one?!
ED: I was like dayum… How do you play with your sensuality? What is it to play with your sensuality?
JJ: Oh it is so important to me. I think for so long I’ve been told to cover up, I’ve been told that my body is not worthy of that kind of praise or that kind of movement. Even in dance, where you shouldn’t shake your body like that. You’re a big girl so everything is going to move, right? Of course it is. So with things like that, it’s like what I was saying: everything we do is activism, everything we do is political.
JJ: My views on my stories hit around 3 or 4,000, that day it was like 45,000. I am currently in a polyamorous relationship, I have a wife, I have a boyfriend, I have a partner. Even that – being a Black trans woman who people have told that no-one will love – I’m being loved by three people, sweetie. Three people appreciate this body, three people are in love with me. So to see that on a public platform and just to show people that, I think it’s so important. I think it’s the love and the appreciation of Black women, I think it’s the love and appreciation of fat women and the love and appreciation of trans women, and all those together as an intersection. So I think, though I enjoy the scandal of it [both laugh], it’s going to impact people in the right way.
ED: What would you tell someone who’s struggling with comparison or self-esteem, not fully accepting who they are?
JJ: I would tell them it’s a dead end. We can take and grab from people and try to make it our own, but for you to just want to be somebody and that’s it, strip away all of yourself, it is a thing you won’t win. So if you know you won’t win it, why not try to love yourself? Why not try to take in all of you and really work with what you’ve got? I see no problem in changing and kind of moulding to what you want to be, but if you’re pulling so much from other people and not really looking into yourself, you’re always going to be changing and moving and moulding. So I say, try and get to the core of yourself and just love it so hard and so fiercely, because you gon’ be stuck with it for a while [laughs].