By Aiano Nakagawa
kei [they/them] is a Soul-Folk Sonic Storyteller conjuring bokou magik from deep New Orleans roots. Having grown up in a family of multi-generational gospel and jazz musicians, kei has long engaged with music in a way that organically brings people together, eases the spirit, and stirs the soul. A Queer Black Vocalist, Flutist, Composer, Multi-instrumentalist, and Music Therapist, kei blends musical storytelling with community healing. They’ve composed and performed music for a range of cross-disciplinary projects, including theatre productions, musicals, dance/movement scores, sound installations, and more. kei believes in the restorative, life-giving power of music and uses this medium as a tool for healing, community-building, activism, and liberation. kei is a featured artist of awQward, the first talent agency for trans and queer people of color, co-creator of non-binary duo Spirit & Sparrow, and Director of Freedom Frequencies for Black Lives Matter creative platform #DiginityinProcess. Currently based in New Orleans and the Bay Area, kei is a self-proclaimed pencil enthusiast and is the he(art) and whimsy soul behind The Pencil Fairy. Their debut album Dark Fire was released in 2017.
Aiano Nakagawa: Ala Heben & Tracy from Another Round: What do you do and why?
Kei Slaughter: Music is definitely a very significant part of my artistic practice. I sing, I play instruments, I write and compose, I produce, I like...tell stories… I’m also a music therapist. As an artist and healer, I spend a lot of time working and playing inside of sound, and I especially enjoy doing this in collaboration with other people. My work also includes facilitating healing spaces for my community that are generative, culturally specific, and about our collective freedom. That’s where it’s at for me too. I like to say "let the music Be." For me, this gets at my commitment to a creative process and experience that is living and flowing from a source of radical authenticity, from a place of center.
At the end of the day, I try to stay open to what feels most alive. I’m really interested in the excavation and expression of raw materials, trying to bring ...form [into] what I might be feeling, hearing, seeing, sensing, etc. It’s a practice of deep listening. I do what I do because it brings me joy. It’s my he(art)work. I do it for my people. My Ancestors. For myself. Beyond that, I collect and celebrate the magic of pencils all day everyday! I really like to spend time in nature, especially near water and trees, and I play mouth trumpet and lots of body percussion any and everywhere because I just can’t seem to quit music… ever.
AN: How has your relationship with music evolved over time?
KS: I used to want to be a rockstar, when I was 14 or so, maybe earlier than that. I even made a sign with that statement on it and taped it to my wall. Teenage dreams and fantasies of a particular kind of fame. Now, not so much. I just want to be a Rock. Star. (smile). Grounded, really awake and aware, shining the light of Spirit, living on a high vibration. I do want to be clear though that I very much enjoy performing and touring and doing live shows AND I’d also like to name that there’s something beyond the stage that calls to me too. Growing up in New Orleans, my earlier experiences surrounding music really seeded the excitement and responsibility I feel today about being a musician. By the time I was in 3rd grade, I was picking up an instrument (flute) for the first time, digging into the fundamentals of theory and technique, playing in the marching band, singing (sometimes lead) in the church choir, and just soaking up all the deep, ancestral Black Sounds of my city. I was also learning how to be a collaborator and part of a team, part of something that was beyond myself. This musical journey has also allowed me to meet and connect with some of my closest and dearest friends, which has been really sweet too. All those lessons, tools, and social spaces to play and grow sparked something in me. I found something that I really loved, felt good at, and wanted to build on. Something that inspired, comforted, and challenged me at the same time. It wasn’t really until the last 8 or 9 years or so when I started creating more of my own material and writing my own songs. It’s been very healing and I know that I still have so much to learn, but the work that I am committed to making right now seeks to hold a particular kind of social, political, cultural, and spiritual consciousness and integrity. I always knew that I wanted “do” music in terms of my career. No matter what, it was always going to be a huge part of my life and my path.
Music and I have held a very close, intimate relationship over the years and we’ve shared many secrets and surprises. I appreciate how this relationship continues to evolve and open dimensions of possibility and how it is shaping collective processes I choose to participate in.
AN: I love what you said about believing in the “restorative, life-giving power of music” and how you’re using that “medium as a tool for healing, community-building, activism, and liberation.” Can you elaborate on what brought you to understand music in this way and how you live this out in your practice?
KS: Music has always been a safe space for me. No matter the situation or experience, I could lean into it and let go. Singing in particular has almost always been something I did or experienced in community. I came to understand music in this way from a lot of different places and people, but my experience growing up in church is a big one. Some of the earliest memories I have of singing, chanting, getting free and conjuring with other people, specifically other Black people, came from the church. I also played in school bands and community music programs all the way through college. (I was a total band nerd and am very proud to admit that today). So I was always part of these collective musical, spiritual experiences which were really powerful and grounding for me. From singing spirituals with my grandmother to moving to the rhythms coming off the drums in Congo Square, these experiences shaped me. It brings me a lot of joy to collaborate and make music in and with community, charging the air with the energy and intention of our voices, our inner rhythms, our radical love, our sacred stories. I hold a lot of reverence for what my people can do when we sing, dance, drum together.
[M]y hope and intention is to create and co-create spaces, that serve to bring and invite people into a kind of freedom vibration, even and especially at a concert or show. Beyond all that, I just want to embody Freedom in my art, my music, and my life. All day every day. Not just as a performance but as a way to be y’know. I love that about music and about art. It calls me into deep inquiry and presence in every moment.
I think I’ve accepted that part of my role here is to be of service in community, to channel something of the sacred through my music, to be a sonic changemaker so to speak. Toni Cade Bambara offered this wisdom to us, that “it is the role of the artist to make the revolution irresistible.” YES.
AN: You talk about coming from a family of multigenerational gospel and jazz musicians, can you tell me more about this lineage and how you feel it has influenced your music and art making?
KS: My grandmother was the minister of music at the church I grew up in. She played the piano and organ and led the choir. She’s still the organist and music director at her church actually and every week my family gets together for “Sunday dinners” at her house in New Orleans. A lot of times we just break out into a song around the dinner table. On any given Sunday my cousin CJ might hop on the piano (or I persuade him to) and someone will just start singing or clapping and there we are, all caught up in it together. It’s fun.
My great aunt, Teedie, is also a pianist and church organist. My Uncle Percy plays trumpet and another uncle - Erion Williams - is the saxophonist for the Soul Rebels Brass Band. Kermit Ruffins (trumpet) is my cousin too. I also learned in the last several years that my maternal great great grandfather was a musician, sort of as a hobby, but he liked to play guitar. My mom jokes that the music gene skipped her generation but she’s very much a creative in other ways. I also have three younger cousins on my mom’s side who are some amazing vocalists - Asia, Autumn, and Li’l Eric. I love when they all sing together. They usually make me cry.
All that to say that I grew up in a very musical family and I feel grateful for that. I’m sure there are so many more people that I don’t even know about yet, but I’m excited to keep discovering more about where and who I come from. My mom and grandparents also played a lot of soul, r&b, and gospel records in the house. I absorbed all those roots and rhythms too and they no doubt show up in my music. So, this is what I know in my bones. I’ve been immersed in music all my life and my family has definitely influenced and shaped my music and art making in... powerful and meaningful ways. Singing in a living room with my folks is like breathing. We do it all the time. It’s the way we live and the way we show love too. That in any ordinary everyday moment we can and choose to access this gift and share it with each other. There’s a huge joy and sense of rightness in that for me.
AN: I’m really interested in The Pencil Fairy. The origin story of friendship, nostalgia, and creativity is so heartwarming. I felt really nostalgic for pencils - the smell, the weight, the sound. I see it’s a store, but it’s also a “community space and and movement centering the magik, aesthetic, and radical imagination of Queer/Trans/NB/GNC Black Folx.” Can you tell us more about the space and the movement aspect of it?
KS: Thanks for checking out the origin story! The Pencil Fairy is he(art)work in progress for sure. It is a store through which I’ve sold a few swag items, like tees and tote bags, but it hasn’t had its official launch just yet. My vision is for it to not only be a Queer and Black-owned pencil and stationery business, but for it to also be a platform and a movement that inspires people to use pencils again - to write, to draw, to compose, to doodle, to make lists, to journal, whatever it might be. To feel the joy and magic in the small things. I talk about it being a movement because I want to create a shop that’s both a virtual and physical space for queer and trans people of color to engage with pencils, and where the creative brilliance of Non-Binary Black Folk like myself can be centered and celebrated. I also envision a series of workshops and pop-up pencil spaces that can and will also serve to bring community together in some intentional, transformative, and even quirky ways. Hopefully the online store will be up by March. In the meantime, The Pencil Fairy (and my sharpener Ducky) is on Instagram @thepencilfairy_.
AN: When and where do you make your art? How do you make the time and space in your life to make it?
KS: Lately I’ve been traveling and moving around a lot but I try to carve out time every day to make art or do something art-full wherever I am. Sometimes the most creative thing I do in a day is [take]time to carefully curate my outfit or [make]the oatmeal with a little extra flare. Art as life yknow? And some days that’s enough. In terms of music, I look forward to having a small home studio and music room again, a space I affectionately like to call the “Play Room.” But I’m always creating even if I’m not playing an instrument or singing a song or working on anything in particular. Sounds, rhythms, songs, lyrics, ideas, and stories speak to me all the time - in the kitchen, on a drive, in conversations, in dreams, before I go to sleep, when I wake up…so many places and moments.
Some artist residencies and retreats help to support a more spacious process for art-making for me so it’s nice when I get opportunities to do those. My main goal right now is to conjure the energy of the playroom wherever I go. One of my composition teachers once said that you can’t just wait for the inspiration to make something, or even the right set of circumstances, sometimes it’s just got to be “butt in chair” and you get to work. I try to keep that in mind.
AN: What is a struggle you often find yourself coming up against, and how do you move past it?
KS: Fear and anxiety, the feeling that I’m not enough, preoccupation with lack and scarcity, which can tip into shrinking back from my own fullness. These kinds of things can be distracting to say to least and feel challenging to move beyond at times. [B]ut I try to lean on the resources, practices, and people that are available... to help me get through. Like meditation, prayer, journaling, spending time in nature, talking things out with people I trust, people who see, affirm, and love me, and definitely turning to the art, to music. When in doubt, sing. That’s a big one. I also do my best to return to affirmations of abundance and worthiness and gratitude. To focus on what’s true and what I know and believe in my bones and that is that I am more than enough and that I get to be - and frankly I must be - the fullest expression of myself on the planet. We all do. Another really big help is my partner who has agreed to start pillow fights with me when I get stuck in my head and start to spin out a little bit. (thanks sweet pixie).
AN: What current projects are you working on?
KS: Well, so many things. I’m getting ready and excited to launch my sound healing business S O U L F O L K Sounds, to get the online Pencil Fairy store up and running, and I’m really excited for my new recording project this year, ?35, which will dig into my history as a (youth) minister, coming into my own queerness in relationship to my faith identity and my leadership role in the church, healing generational trauma, and how these things talk to each other. I’ll have more to say about the project pretty soon but it’s something I’m working on and can’t wait to share. I’m also collaborating with multidisciplinary artist ChE, Founder and Artivist Director of the Black Lives Matter creative platform #DiginityinProcess. We’re gearing up for a series of artist residencies in the Bay Area and otherwise stirring up some freedom dreams. Plus, my New Orleans-based duo with Spirit McIntyre, Spirit & Sparrow, has some shows coming up and we’ll be curating a number of events throughout the year as well. I’ll also be continuing my work as Co-Music Director / Composer for Last Call New Orleans Alleged Lesbian Activities, which is a musical for New Orleans’ lost dyke bars.
AN: Where can we find your work and how can we keep up with you?
KS: My online home right now is keislaughter.com. I’m also on Instagram (@keislaughter), FaceBook (Kei Slaughter @keislaughtermusic) and sometimes on Twitter (@kslaughtermusic). My latest solo album Dark Fire is available online at CD Baby, Bandcamp, Apple Music, Amazon Music and for streaming on Spotify. There’s certainly more to come, so Follow me, please :-)