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Origins Interview: Koji

In this Origins interview, Sophie Porter speaks to musician, artist and activist, Koji, to find out where it all started, how it’s evolved and where it’s at now

SP: Can you tell us a little about your earliest influences; any music genres, bands or musicians that caught your interest and inspired you with their music or words?

K: I grew up with a lot of Hawaiian, surf, and soul in my house hold. And then at age 11, I discovered punk. Bands like Propaghandhi, Refused, and Fugazi turned me onto radical politics and justice work.

SP: Did you always want to be a musician; can you remember the first time you picked up a guitar?

K: Looking at childhood photos, I always carried a toy guitar or camera so it made sense that I started playing music and making images. My dad had a classical guitar that he used to always play Beach Boys songs for me and my brother. I remember being very young and strumming the guitar and thinking it was the most amazing sound. When I play guitar nowadays, I still get that feeling.

SP: Did you have any music projects that came before Koji?

K: I played in high school bands, but was also very focused on putting on shows and running a non-profit. It was really important to me to make a positive impact through art, so I ran a community space that held music, visual art, film, poetry, and political discussions while also operating a food pantry that fed the surrounding area. That experience very much shaped my creative practice today.

SP: Live and in the studio, the Koji band has featured a number of musicians.  You’ve also released splits with the likes of Into It. Over It and La Dispute; is collaboration important to you and in what way?

K: Collaboration is key. I’ve been so lucky to play with some of the best musicians. To have recorded and performed with members of La Dispute, Title Fight, Balance and Composure, Mindset, etc. or a producer like Will Yip has been such an honor. I respect all of their contributions to music so much and to be a small part of their story is very special.

SP: You have a super impressive discography under your belt across a number of wonderful labels. Can you tell us about your writing process?

KP: My writing process is always evolving. Some works are a labor of time, but some songs just pour out. I think there’s a baseline now of wellness that I use set the table for inspiration. Staying connected to nature, mind, body and community is crucial.

SP: In your online bio, your influences are wonderfully varied; from musicians to artists like Ai Weiwei and Cy Twombly, to writers, activists and speakers like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. Can you you tell us a little about how and why these artists and writers inspire you and what impact it has had on your creative outputs?

K: I’ve always been interdisciplinary as an artist, so looking to other mediums for inspiration has been important to me right from the start. But lately, I’ve been so inspired by creative organizations of color such as the Mujeristas or BUFU in NYC or activists working on anti-gentrification campaigns in my neighborhood like Mi Casi No Es Su Casa and G Rebels. If it weren’t for punk rock bands who put me onto Chomsky and Zinn, it may have taken me much longer to tap into social movements or my own sense of place within systems of oppression.

SP: Can you tell us a little about the organisation you founded, COLORMAKE? Is it still going?

K: Colormake as a creative and activist collective has been dormant for some time, but there are new projects in the works. Stay tuned!

SP: Can you also tell us a little about your involvement with other activist groups and projects and whether this has had an impact on what you talk about in your music?

K: In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, I helped produce poetry, comedy, music, and art events that were very black/brown/red/yellow, femme presenting, non-binary, queer centered. We worked to address issues such as immigration, prison abolition, sex workers rights, literacy, hunger, etc.

One of the most rewarding actions I participated in was a disruption at a community meeting where we were able to delay the rezoning of Bushwick, which gave us precious time to organize against those who are seeking to displacing working class communities of color in favor luxury hotels, housing and retail. Being Japanese/Filipino American, I understand something about oppression and erasure from history. It felt good to be able to make a tangible impact in the place I was living, to help keep my neighbors in their homes a little longer to continue the fight.

SP: I listened to a couple of interviews in which you talk about your studies in art before pursuing music full time, and your particular interest in modern art. What is it about modern art that you love?

K: Art is such a meditative thing for me, so it’s difficult to put words to. I know that I don’t like the business of fine or commercial art. For instance, much of the “street art” in areas undergoing redevelopment is artwashing to make way for the gentry. And much of the museum and gallery system is propped up by dirty money. It’s hard to seperate the economy from the work, but there is some art that transcends and is truly human.

SP: Also, what draws you to art and music as modes of communication and language?

K: Drawing and photography have been mediums I’ve always felt called to, as much as music. I tend to think of 2-d work as music and music as something visual. It’s hard not to love the energy in DIY right now. This is such a moment for makers, but especially people making zines. The way people are able to report on their condition to their communities in a tangible way that takes us off the feed and that demands our attention in the physical world is great.

SP: Do you find that the themes you are interested in cross over in your art and music?

K: I think mindfulness and healing are important themes in my work. I’m always looking at the health of relationship and connection between living things.

SP: In one interview you talk about how the formal training you have in the arts is not present in music. Did you purposefully make the choice to formally train in one and not the other, if so why?

K: I was so interested in making records that all I could ask my guitar teacher about was studio engineering. And once I got in the studio for the first time 13, I just started to learning all the skills to make the recordings or the artwork. I liked the wide view of projects and knowing how all the pieces work. For whatever reason, guitar playing and singing have been the skills that have remained the most intuitive and least technical.

SP: And, finally...what role do you think artists and musicians have in today’s society?

K: One of the most impactful experiences on me as an artist recently, was going to a punks of color festival in Brooklyn organized by a group called BUFU (By Us For Us), a queer, femme, non-binary black and east asian collective. I hadn’t really ever been to a punk show full of minorities. In Pennsylvania, my home was full of love but life in public wasn’t so easy. I was raised in the state with the highest concentration of organized hate groups and a punk scene with a strong Nazi presence and here I was in NYC experiencing the exact opposite of my childhood--just steeped in diversity. I don’t know what the role of artists are because that’s for each person to self-determine, but I know what is possible in music and art because of the transformative things that can happen at a show. The punks of color fest, I felt a weight lifted that I didn’t know I was carrying and I’ll be forever thankful for that. When I think about what I do now, how I move through music, there’s a knowingness now that I couldn’t grasp before. My responsibility is to keep moving towards that light.

Keep up to date with Koji on FacebookInstagram and Twitter

Sophie Porter is a musician and artist based in Norwich, UK, and publishes, writes and interviews for Gorilla.

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