Janani Balasubramanian and Alok Vaid-Menon of DarkMatter - Photo via Facebook
We’re lucky that DarkMatter exists. This spoken word duo dares to create—and break—their own rules. DarkMatter is made up of Janani Balasubramanian and Alok Vaid-Menon, a pair of South-Asian trans artists with backgrounds in design and community organizing. Their poetry is as vibrant and bold as their look, where they break down gender binaries through stanzas and their own bodies. In an interview with Alok, they noted that their fashion is “its own form of armor.” Both Alok and Janani wear clothing that not only reflects the artists within them but also empowers them. Their performances explore race, activism, gender, imperialism, trauma, and more—but for them, their work is just about their lives.
The pair met at Stanford University where they shared an interest in feminist studies and spoken word poetry. After Alok’s solo tour in 2012, and having received positive feedback, they approached Janani and asked, “Want to do this thing?” Janani said yes and so it began. They never imagined that they would devote their lives to what started as a “side project, an experiment.” For these two, “What rings true is since the beginning DarkMatter has been what we call our friendship (and the fruits from it) in public!”
Today, DarkMatter tours and shares their craft generously. “Our work shifts based on what we are going through in our lives at the time. Of course, it’s political because existence these days—especially when you’re trans and brown—is already political.”
I got the chance to exchange emails with (and send semi-creepy fan notes to) this rad duo. Here’s our conversation.
DarkMatter's Instagram is a haven of bold lip colors and bright fashions.
What's your writing process? How do you "build" a poem? And why spoken word versus other modes of creative expression?
We each have very different processes: Alok tends to write in dark corners of the room, like their emo days (#tbt but still going on). Janani will take a run or have a dream and then find a page. We make a first draft and send it to each other, talk about it, edit it, then decide if it will make it into the show (and where!). But one of the things we have been thinking through is what “process” means under capitalism. Because the reality is that in order to make this work sustainable, we have to create poems that people want to hear—which is very different than creating poems that people should hear. There’s that sense of compromise and it’s not always a bad thing, but we often wonder what our work would look like in other contexts—in some other slice of the multiverse. What kind of imagination could we have if it wasn’t about the “product” or “the show”?
While we started out doing competitive slam poetry in college, what we’re doing now feels a lot like drag, stand-up comedy, film, storytelling, runway fashion, performance art, and poetry—so it’s difficult to think of that just as spoken word!
How much importance do you give to audience reaction? And do these reactions affect the life of a poem?
The thing about this art form is that you can tell almost instantly if the audience doesn’t like you, which makes things extremely awkward for both you and the audience. So we have to think about the audience a lot or we’d make fools of ourselves if we tried to crack a joke and no one laughed. We’re always thinking about how to use our poetry as a way to give people permission to feel. It’s the art of constant communication and negotiation. Each time we perform a poem, it’s different because the audience is different.
More excellent fashions from DarkMatter's Instagram.
What does it mean to be trans South-Asian artists in a space where people who look like you aren't really represented?
Well, we get tokenized a lot. A lot of people are just excited by our identities and don’t understand that there is politics behind them. As with any other minority artist, it’s difficult to have people take you seriously. They always pigeonhole your work. We didn’t consent to being underground; we were forcibly submerged. People think that we are only speaking about “trans issues” or “race issues.” We’re never allowed to speak about things like loss or love, because the universal will always belong to whiteness and heteronormativity. Hmph! Guess we just have to make stuff so beautiful that they can’t help but listen.
I meet a lot of people who have so much in their minds and in their hearts, but are afraid to become “activists.” Did you two feel fearful when you first began performing your art, which can be considered a form of activism?
We still experience fear all the time! It’s because we live in a world that has so thoroughly and intimately taught us that we have to apologize for everything that we feel and that we are. Self-censorship in this country is an art form. It is a peculiar situation where speaking out is already a form of activism! We just had various people in our life look at us and say, “Hey, you matter, and what you have to say is important.” We didn’t really believe them at first, but it pushed us onto the stage and then it became a chain reaction.
How do you think would your lives would have been if you had the kind of role model and inspiration during your own adolescence that you both are?
Certainly they would be different in that both of us grew up with no idea that it was possible to look and exist as we do in all of our identities and within politics. But, nonetheless, a lot would have remained the same. Our society is obsessed with the idea of role models because we are so obsessed with hierarchies. Often we mistake loving someone else as loving ourselves. We project all of our own anxieties and fears and dreams on another body and that may actually prevent us from doing the more difficult work of confronting our own stuff. In some ways not having an icon was helpful because it forced us to be introspective, resourceful, peculiar, and real.