In February 2020, shado hosted Build Love, Break Walls, a two-week residency in celebration of LGBT History Month. As part of the exhibition, we spotlighted 12 of London’s LGBTQI+ changemakers. shado’s Managing Editor Erin Cobby sat down with one of these changemakers, Tanaka Fuego, to find out more.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that some people seem to be thriving under lockdown. Whilst many media headlines keep pushing the idea: ‘you don’t have to be productive during quarantine’, and this is very true, my instagram is nevertheless full of people achieving impossible lifelong dreams, running more than their prescribed 5K and mastering crochet. One of these infuriating people dominating my newsfeed is spoken word artist Tanaka Fuego. However, it’s not just on social media that he exudes this enviable positivity. His voice, infectiously uplifting as we chat on the phone, is accompanied by a booming laugh, which makes me smile so much, that I believe, just for an hour, that I too might be able to win at lockdown.
One of his most recent achievements? Defying the odds and managing to land a new job despite lockdown. “Night shift at Morrisons, fuck yeah, gang gang”, he replies when I ask him the story behind his suited up post. He goes on to explain it wasn’t exactly plain sailing however, and this offer came after a few rejections, including from rival supermarket chain ALDI. “Their assesment process, I kid you the fuck not, is like an SAT combined with a GCSE. My girlfriend refused to fill it out, she was like: this is a fucking job in itself”. The process might not have been completely to blame for his rejection however, as during the interview, when asked why he chose to apply to ALDI, he replied: “because it’s fucking local”.
In spite of his tendency to be over-honest, it is his stellar attitude that has awarded him his success. He states that as soon as lockdown hit, a lot of jobs were cancelled, and therefore his main source of income.
Like, I was poor before but I could get chicken and chips; suddenly, I’m poor, poor, I can’t even get wings.”
Unlike many in Tanaka’s situation who understandably bemoaned the ability to go about their daily lives, Tanaka swiftly adapted. “I’m a grafter, I was so unfazed about what job I had to do. I applied for cleaning jobs and I’m not even good at cleaning. I get told everyday that I’m not a clean person. On a level of my room being a mess, I shower every day, don’t worry.”
Apart from landing this job, he’s also been keeping busy creating, finishing off co-writing a script which follows the lives of three south asian womxn as they find themselves whilst also defeating the patriarchy. “In short, it’s really good,” he says, “more interesting than that short synopsis, but I can’t give you everything”. This latest project is a good example of the fact that while this time has been a creative one for Tanaka, he’s not drawing his inspiration from recent events. “I’ve been writing poems on the sense of confinement and self-isolation in that respect, but also stay away from the topic as well because it’s not something I’m innately attracted to.” He goes on to explain that: “I’m a big believer in everyone telling their truth and telling their story, but also I feel like for me, as much as I respect it, I don’t care to hear everyone’s interpretation because the reality is not everyone is linguistically gifted. I literally saw a coronavirus poem, called ‘Corona Poem’ and it was just this guy reeling off facts, and I was like that’s not a poem, that’s the most unsatisfactory artistic experience of my life.”
Tanka’s own artistic experience began when he was 17 and living in Indiana. “I was going through life in a very emotionally and physically abusive space”, he explains. “One night I was like: ‘I’m done, I’m done with it all’. I just didn’t want to be here anymore. But then I wrote a poem on my phone, crying underneath my blanket. Afterwards, I went on Google like a narcissist, thinking: ‘I’m good at this shit, I need to get better”. Tanaka then sent the poem he had written five minutes earlier into a national workshop and received an email back the next day stating that he had made the state team to represent Indiana in the Brave New Voices Poetry Slam Competition. This was the beginning of performing for Tanaka. After touring with the team he moved back to London and started hanging out at open mics. “I got my first ever booking after six months, and I’ve been getting booked ever since”, he tells me.
I was lucky enough to be one of these bookers as Tanaka opened shado’s Build Walls Break Love exhibition back in February. Our only performer, Tanaka ditched the mic and clapped his own accompaniment, leaving our audience in awe. I would describe it, and he asks me to, as an “explosive experience”. Ever the wordsmith, Tanaka puts my description to shame, stating that those who are lucky enough to catch one of his shows should “strap in tight because it’s one fucking hell of a ride”. Laughing, he continues on a more serious note: “you get your ups and you get your downs, expect to feel very emotionally connected to yourself and don’t be afraid of those feelings, but also be prepared to crack up.”
Tanaka’s poetry, inspired by the likes of Porsha O and Rudy Francisco, builds on his own relationships, rather than external factors. “Every poem is a reaction or consequence of an interaction I’ve had with someone”, he explains. I use this opportunity to craftily transition into asking Tanaka about his appearance on the saucy F**cks Given podcast, in which he relayed some pretty raunchy relations of his own. “Segwaaaaay”, he shouts, cracking up. Although fantastically salacious, what impressed me the most about Tanaka’s accounts was how beautifully honest they were. I asked him whether it was the experience he has with bearing his soul in his own poetry that prepared him for airing his dirty laundry to the world. “I think I’m an honest person in general, if you ask me a question I’ll give you my most honest opinion, but I don’t give away honesty if it’s not warranted. I’m an open book if you open the book, but the book isn’t just gonna open.” Again he opts for a more sincere follow up: “I feel like what keeps me honest in interviews and panels is because in my head I know somebody else is afraid to say what they’ve been through or their perspective, so why don’t I be honest to allow them to be honest as well. Like open a door type shit.”
Another motivation for Tanaka’s honesty was the lack of diverse trans visibility we have in our own media. “As a trans man I don’t think we hear enough about trans men’s sexual experiences. I would have loved to have heard another perspective on trans men’s experiences other than those from white cis gender passing men on Youtube. And I’m not white and I don’t cis gender pass all the time. I just want people to have something else to resonate with if they’re looking.” This honesty is heavily featured on his own social media. I ask him about a tearful video he uploaded on Trans Visibility day focusing on the pressure he feels to perpetually be a trans role model. Expanding on this he said: “Most trans people we see in the media, trans men especially, tend to have a certain look. And I don’t fit that, so when people meet me, it’s like I’m another type of trans man and in that moment I have to sell myself. Especially with cis gender black men, I have to be like: ‘ah bro’s let me show you how human and regular I am’.” We discuss the evident way in which to do this, increasing the coverage of different kinds of trans people in the media, moving away from TV shows on transitioning which seem to mainly feature trans women over the age of 35. Furthermore, to feature trans people discussing subjects outside of their gender identity. “Exactly!” Tanaka exclaims. “Why can’t we have a Come Dine with Me, where there’s two trans people, and one can touch on the topic a little bit, but then after that we’re just talking about fucking trifle and our favourite shepherds pie recipes!”
Ever humble, despite the vast amount of evidence on his social media which proves his uniqueness, Tanaka ends our interview with an important statement. “Yo, I’m really regular, I’m not as much of a unicorn as people make me out to be. Even though I am magical, I’m not just magical because I’m just trans”.
Photography by Bernice Mulenga @burneece
Follow Tanaka @tanaka.fuego