J Wortham (they/them) is a sound healer, reiki practitioner, herbalist, and community care worker oriented towards healing justice and liberation.
J is the proud editor of the visual anthology “Black Futures,” a 2020 Editor’s choice by The New York Times Book Review, along with Kimberly Drew, from One World. J is also currently working on a book about the body and dissociation for Penguin Press. J mostly lives and works on stolen Munsee Lenape land, now known as Brooklyn, New York, and is committed to decolonization as a way of life.
Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations.
Produced by BlackStar Projects in partnership with Rowhome Productions.
Executive Producer and Host — Maori Karmael Holmes
Guest Co-host – Rashid Zakat
Producer — Alex Lewis
Associate Producers — Irit Reinheimer & Zoë Greggs
Managing Producer — Alex Lewis
Executive Editor — John Myers
Final mix and mastering engineer – Justin Berger
Music Supervisor — David “Lil Dave” Adams
Theme song composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by Lil’ Dave.
This episode features additional music by Terence Nance.
Going To Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project (directed by Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster, 2023)
June Jordan (1936-2003)
Audre Lorde (1934-1992)
Toni Cade Bambara (1939-1995)
O’Shae Sibley (1994-2023)
Black Futures (J Wortham and Kimberly Drew, 2020)
“We Heard Lauryn Hill, But Did We Listen?” (Still Processing podcast, 2019)
“America Has a Problem” (Still Processing podcast, 2022)
[00:00:00] Maori Karmael Holmes: As part of their enduring commitment to justice, equity, and expression, the Open Society Foundations are proud to sponsor Many Lumens.
[00:00:15] Maori Karmael Holmes: Hello and welcome to a live recording of BlackStar Project’s signature podcast Many Lumens, where we talk about and find meaning in the intersections of art, social change, and popular culture. I’m your host, just in case, it says here, Maori Karmael Holmes. And today, I’m joined by my best friend, the multihyphenate Rashid Anwar Zakat.
[00:00:41] Rashid Zakat: What’s up y’all? This evening we have the pleasure of speaking with the talented, the iconic, J Wortham. J is a…[audience claps] Oh yeah, please. No, let’s do that thing. No, let’s do that thing. J is a sound healer, a Reiki practitioner and herbalist, and a community care worker, oriented towards healing, justice, and liberation.
[00:01:03] Maori Karmael Holmes: J is a longtime journalist and staff writer for the New York Times Magazine. They are also a co-host of one of my favorite podcasts, Still Processing with Wesley Morris, and J also co-edited the 2020 visual anthology Black Futures, along with Kimberly Drew. Currently, they’re working on a book titled Work of the Body, about the body and dissociation for Penguin Press.
[00:001:03] Rashid Zakat: Dope. We’re really excited to talk to J. I’m personally curious to find a little bit more about community care, that practice around that. Their new book that’s coming and what they think about the future of AI, the Barbie movie. I think Beyoncé, we got to throw some Beyoncé questions in there. And long-distance Reiki and a lot more. So yeah, let’s give it up one more time.
[00:01:50] Maori Karmael Holmes: So I noticed in your bio that you list body work and healing first and not your journalism. So can you talk a little bit about why, what is your main focus right now?
[00:02:01] J Wortham: First, let me just say thank you both for inviting me to be here. I’m so excited. I stan in the, I’m CEO and CFO and CMO of the Many Lumens’ cult fan club. So just to say that-
[00:02:16] Maori Karmael Holmes: Oh, thank you.
[00:02:16] J Wortham: Y’all are powerhouses. I also love being invited to Philly. I grew up coming here. My dad is born and raised, not born, but raised in Philly. My two older sisters still live here, so it’s just very special for me to come and feel I’m contributing something to a city that contributed a lot to me growing up. I just want to say that real quick. Yeah, it’s so funny in my bio because I feel people are always like, “Are you employed? Do you have a job?” And I’m like, “You wouldn’t know, but I do.” But I also think that the work that I try to do for my immediate community and then people around me is the most important thing. And I also feel because I have been a journalist for so long and been at the Times for so long, that’s been such a crucial part of my identity in my 20s. And it also felt at a certain point into my 30s to detangle that and to let go of some of that institutional security and safety, and to really think about what mattered to me. And so it is those practices, it is those healing modalities. It is thinking about what it means to try to practice some care for myself and for others as being the thing that I do versus the thing I do for work.
[00:03:30] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. Are these long-time interests of yours, or were these pandemic discoveries? How did you get into these modalities?
[00:03:39] J Wortham: Yeah, I really love that question because I have always been trying to heal things with sticks and twigs, and my parents have always just been like, “Please put that down. What are you doing? That is not the way.” But I also grew up in a very southern and a very black southern tradition of not always having access or inherent trust in medical institutions and using what you have. So drinking pot liquor or putting garlic on everything, Tussin on everything. It’s just the way that my parents raised me. I had some skepticism about when I was younger and then when I got older I had that thing where you’re like, “Oh, these are actually gifts because these are ways of thinking and ways of honoring other ways of being beyond what we’re told we’re supposed to pay attention to.” So it’s been lifelong interest. And then right before the Panty Part One, I had actually done sound teacher training and it was a miracle because I think there were maybe, how many of us were there? 10 or 12 that came from all over. Some people flew in, people took buses. We all met upstate New York in late February of 2019, so it’s a miracle that nobody brought the virus. And we were in this incredible spaceship of a schoolhouse for two and a half weeks doing breath work, cacao sound baths, just really intensive healing. That was also for us. But then we were learning how to hold space, how to be trauma-informed, how to be aware of the needs of people of the global majority. And that was the last massive community thing. It felt really massive, but that was the last big community-oriented thing I did for then almost two years. We basically came back and then it was not too long after went into lockdown. So I think for me, it got really serious during that time. I was still able to practice very small. I would give small sound baths in people’s backyards and my practice always prioritizes black trans folks first and foremost. And then my day job supplements that so folks don’t have to pay. And then beyond that, it’s trying to serve a QBIPOC––queer, trans, BIPOC community. And so actually now it’s really interesting because I am getting booked for a lot of sound baths. And it’s so funny because I’m always like, “Oh yeah, I do do that.” But it has become a regular thing. And so it’s actually been really incredible. And then my other healing modalities, I did do my breath work training during the pandemic, which was pretty cool. And then before that I had gotten initiated in Reiki, so now they all, and then herbalism, I’ve been studying since I was very small, and watching my mom and aunts do things and now it’s become more and less formalized over the years, but I feel it’s a lifelong study and now all those things are blending together and becoming a facilitator and a co-facilitator in addition to writing. But it feeds the writing too, which I think is really interesting.
[00:06:27] Rashid Zakat: I’m curious too, I came to your work as through when [you were] writing about tech and technology, and I’m so curious because there’s this technological side, but then there’s this other, like you say, playing with sticks, nature, healing. What’s the relationship between those two things? Is it a push-pull? Does one feed the other?
[00:06:47] J Wortham: Yes. Oh my gosh, I really love that question. And I fell into writing about technology. It wasn’t what I thought I was going to do. It was when I was becoming a writer, becoming a journalist. I feel I became a journalist first, and then I became a writer. But when I was training as a journalist and interning at lots of different places, one of the places I had the most productive and generative internships was at Wired Magazine, and they orient towards technology and the culture of technology. So that’s how I was priming myself. I was 22, so I was just like, “Let me just give them what they need.” But it turned out that I was really interested in it. It actually made a lot of sense to me. I was thinking about the way that my life was changing, the lives of the people around me were evolving and it all had to do with screens, devices, social media, so it made a lot of sense to be curious about it. And the conversations that we were having back then are so different from the ones we were having now. There wasn’t any acknowledgement of higher levels of black and POC adoption, how we shape these communities, how they take all their notes from us. We weren’t able to talk about any of that, but I was noticing it. So it’s been a really interesting journey and I feel the two things, maybe there hasn’t been attention, but maybe one offsets the other. Being so immersed for those early years into thinking about technology and paying attention to everything, using everything. It used to be my job to be on social media, which is really, we all know now as draining, exhausting, addictive. So I think I needed the other work and the other more nature-oriented time to help offset the intensity of the work I was doing.
[00:08:24] Rashid Zakat: No, it does almost this intensity of screens and then getting out into the real world and getting out into spirit, for sure.
[00:08:32] Maori Karmael Holmes: What I love about both of them, as you’re talking about, I was thinking about an early blog called Rhizome and it was a technology project.
[00:08:39] J Wortham: Yes, shout out.
[00:08:42] Maori Karmael Holmes: I’m thinking about you getting these sticks and stones and just mapping and roots and technology or even the net requires mapping, and they do have a connection even if it’s not necessarily one we would think about. I would love to ask you something that is a Many Lumens question. And that is what did Baby J want to do, and how did you end up in journalism?
[00:09:03] J Wortham: I want to say something else really quickly about technology before I answer that, which is that I also am coming into this awareness now as an adult that there are just so many technologies that have nothing to do with devices and screens. Reading is a technology, intuition is a technology, somatic knowledge, listening to our bodies is a technology. Our bodies are incredibly exquisite computers and machines, better than any device will ever have. And so the ability to just pay attention to what we know and to read it is this incredible somatic technology. So I think that’s something, too, just still thinking about the blend of those two questions. I think I’m coming into that awareness now as well, about all the innate technologies we already have and use every day. Okay, Maori. So baby J who I love so dearly, it depends on which Baby J we’re asking, but the baby J I’m thinking of is eight-year-old me, looks how I did now, big glasses, lots of curly hair everywhere, wanted to be a professional baseball player. And when I said that in class in maybe third grade, everyone laughed, and it really still hurts when I think about it. Yeah, that’s what I wanted to do. And I think I came into journalism very haphazardly. I come from people who are very pension-oriented, salary salary-oriented. Yes, go to college, never a question of if I was going to go to college, but was one of the first in my family to go of my cousins and me. But everyone was just like, “We don’t know what you’re going to do there, but you need to come out with a job.” So I really had a very stressful four years of just what major will result in a job? Which is not a question that most people are asking in college. People are like, “Well, then you become a doctor or a lawyer,” and I was like, “This is wild. These are the options or it’s just a free for all?” But I chose doctor and so that was not a challenge for me intellectually, but spiritually it was really draining and not what I wanted to do. And so during that time, I was feeling very adrift and I went abroad and I went to London, which was just such a great place to go as a 19-year-old. I had a very fun, big gay life, and it was amazing and I didn’t talk to anybody. I was just like, “I’m out here.” People would come visit and they’d be, I was going by Jenna then, and someone was like, “Where’s Jenna?” And it was just-
[00:11:29] Rashid Zakat: Out here.
[00:11:30] J Wortham: “We don’t know. Out here. Where are they?” No one could find me. And that was great, but while I was there, I was meeting a lot of creatives and a lot of people who taught me the art of the double hustle. It’s you do the thing to pay the bills and then you do the thing that you love, which makes so much sense. Now we all know that, but I just didn’t grow up in a house where people did that. You just did the thing that paid the bills. But my parents also used to tell me, “Make sure you enjoy what you do because you will do it for a long time.” And I feel that was also really instilled in me, how long I’d be working. Yeah, I feel really lucky to have parents who are just like, “You just need to be able to care for yourself and however you do it, we support.” So when I came back I was like, “Okay, I think I figured this out. I want to do something creative and I just need a job that pays the bills.” Being a doctor is not going to be that job. And I just started taking a bunch of graduate seminars and writing, creative writing, actually one class called, I want to say Grassroots Publishing, and that was really what got me, opened my eyes to the world of magazine writing and journalism, and so that was just the path from there.
[00:12:35] Maori Karmael Holmes: I love that doctor is a healer, though, and I love that throughline, but I just wanted to ask you, who were some of the early writers that even in the back of your mind before you considered it, who were some of those folks?
[00:12:47] J Wortham: Well, my best friend in college gave me a thick tome of Nikki Giovanni poems and I know there was a film screening about her that’s here that I want to see. Wasn’t able to see it today, and I feel just her around the way writing really spoke to me. And I think it also helped start to demystify realms to me that just a kid in Virginia thought I could access. I was like, “Oh, she’s writing about everyday stuff and she’s this incredible nationally recognized poet, but her work is so relatable and accessible.” I think it helped me understand that maybe I could be a creative. And then I didn’t really… June Jordan has always been a long-time influence because she’s so multifaceted and she’s an incredible cultural critic and has just been or was just her whole life, which is something I only recently have understood the breadth of, but I feel I read, I got to read some of her in college. A lot of really rough-hewn, just handmade zines really spoke to me. I think the idea that people could just publish stuff and it could look however it looked was really meaningful. I just had this idea of that’s what they do. It’s going to be very hard for me to do this kind. And then I ended up working at the New York Times, just so wild. But I think I just had this idea of like I’m never going to be at that level of professionalism, so I want to go a more DIY, punky, very Cree Summer. I was very into making my own clothes during that time, era, so I thought that would be my path.
[00:14:09] Rashid Zakat: I’m thinking about your writing and I’m also thinking about Black Futures too, and I’m curious, do you consider yourself an archivist?
[00:14:16] J Wortham: Wow. I’m going to say no because I know that’s a very real thing that people do and spend their whole lives training and learning how to do, and it’s something that I’m only starting to understand the rigor and the depths and the knowledge required to do that. I do like to think of myself now as someone who is a steward and tries to maintain or be accountable to people’s legacies if that makes sense. Thinking about the work that so many incredible black feminist scholars do. I saw Alexis Pauline Gumbs in the audience here earlier, which was just one of those moments when you’re just like, “Ah!” I don’t get starstruck if I, well, Rihanna, but I’m not a famous person, person.
[00:15:00] Maori Karmael Holmes: Beyoncé.
[00:15:01] J Wortham: I see a famous person. I know Beyoncé. I did see her recently and I didn’t freak out. I was just like, “Hello.” But someone like Alexis, I lose my mind. But I feel the work that she’s done to just always bring forward Audrey Lorde’s name, to always remind us when it’s Toni Cade Bambara’s birthday. I feel that really inspires me to understand the ways in which as black feminist, black fem adjacent folks, that’s how we keep each other’s memories and names alive. And that’s the work that I feel very invested in doing and not just necessarily going backwards, but doing it very much in the right here, right now. And so that’s the context that I see Black Futures in, where it was like, “What does it look like to make an artifact now that can stand for tomorrow?”
[00:15:47] Rashid Zakat: Just to follow that up. I’m curious about your own legacy. What do you imagine that being or what would you want that being?
[00:15:57] J Wortham: Oh my god. Woo, chilly. No debt. No, I’m just kidding.
[00:16:00] Rashid Zakat: Listen.
[00:16:00 Maori Karmael Holmes: I’ll say. Right?
[00:16:02] J Wortham: Debt-free, please. That’s a really humbling question because I don’t really think about that and maybe I should. Maybe I should, actually, because I’ve been really working on trying to understand a vision for my life and it feels that’s a real luxury. A luxurious thing to have. A vision for your life versus the way I live now, which is very day to day, just trying to think about sometimes the next 24. What’s just the next thing I need to do to be okay and to make sure my people [00:16:30] are okay? But it would be really exciting to think at scale about my life beyond just what I’m trying to do right now or this year. And so I don’t know, I might take that as a real invitation.
[00:16:40] Rashid Zakat: Okay. I was going to ask you to do a rapid-fire, but I won’t put you on the spot for that now. No.
[00:16:47] J Wortham: Okay. I’m stressed. I’m like, “I need a legacy. What’s it going to be?”
[00:16:53] Maori Karmael Holmes: To be fair, J, someone asked me that same question this week, and I also didn’t have an answer. I live very project-based, from project to project. Not hanging out in the projects, although that’s okay as well.
[00:17:03] Rashid Zakat: That’s how I live, personally. I don’t know about y’all.
[00:17:07] Maori Karmael Holmes: But I also didn’t have an answer, but I wonder if Rashid has an answer because Rashid is a Capricorn, and I wonder if what your sign is and if that is why you don’t? I’m very curious.
[00:17:18] Rashid Zakat: What’s your big three? I’ll tell you mine, but I’m curious.
[00:17:20] J Wortham: Okay. An earth sign will have a legacy, though because y’all-
[00:17:23] Maori Karmael Holmes: Well, I’m a Taurus, but I don’t have any other planets in earth at all. I’m all air and fire. So that’s why I was curious.
[00:17:30] Rashid Zakat: We’re going to put a poll off for you guys of what is Maori’s legacy at the end of Many Lumens?
[00:17:38] Rashid Zakat: It’s part of it. This is a sliver of the legacy, I think, but that’s a conversation for another day.
[00:17:41] J Wortham: Oh my gosh.
[00:17:43] Maori Karmael Holmes: What is your big three though?
[00:17:44] J Wortham: Okay, so my sun in Scorpio, but I also have five Scorpio placements, which I love to say. I was at a dinner recently with a couple of other five x Scorpios, and then everyone just slowly moved away from us and we were like, “Smart, wise.” But you know that TikTok of all the cats on the table and they’re all looking up at the sky, and it’s that incredible sound? Anyway, I’m like, “That’s it. We’re plotting.” Even if we’re not plotting, we were plotting. Okay, Scorpio sun, a Gemini moon, which is really sweet. And Gemini moons also, the moon is the archivist, the moon is the keeper of legacy and information, and so there is something to that I should think about, which should be nice. And then I’m a Taurus rising. Yeah.
[00:18:32] Rashid Zakat: Okay. That’s putting a puzzle together. I’m also thinking about the Gemini moon in terms of writing as well, and language, and communication. But the Scorpio sun is this deep dive. I’m thinking about the part you said as well, and I’m imagining five Scorpios just staring you at a party and it just getting really, really cold.
[00:18:52] J Wortham: Yes, it was deeply sexy and also murdery. Everyone was really turned on but scared for their lives. And we were all like, “Yeah, that’s what it is.”
[00:19:04] Rashid Zakat: I discovered most, I want to say 90% of people that I’ve dated has their Venus as a Scorpio, and I’m like, “Damn. That’s what it is.” It’s a little sexy, little murdery.
[00:19:17] Maori Karmael Holmes: But did they have plans for their lives?
[00:19:21] Rashid Zakat: Yes. Yeah, there were some plans that went in some different directions.
[00:19:26] Maori Karmael Holmes: Okay.
[00:19:27] Rashid Zakat: Yeah. Nonetheless.
[00:19:30] J Wortham: That was such a Capricorn answer. It was like, “I’m just going to completely be over here and just keep it moving.”
[00:19:35] Rashid Zakat: Give you the most business answer I can give. For context, sun and Capricorn, moon and Capricorn and Taurus rising. So all Earth in the front, just the big ass brick wall.
[00:19:47] Maori Karmael Holmes: I really think Rashid’s astrology is wrong. I don’t buy it.
[00:19:53] J Wortham: Wait, what do you think should be in the mix?
[00:19:56] Maori Karmael Holmes: I don’t know, but just air firstly.
[00:19:57] J Wortham: More air, yeah.
[00:19:58] Maori Karmael Holmes: Definitely seems there’d be some Libra somewhere. More Gemini.
[00:20:01] Rashid Zakat: Mars.
[00:20:03] Maori Karmael Holmes: But in the first three, it’s just you are not a brick wall. You are too lovely for that astrology.
[00:20:12] Rashid Zakat: I’ll take that. We should talk more.
[00:20:15] Maori Karmael Holmes: I think we should talk.
[00:20:16] J Wortham: We can talk about astrology all night.
[00:20:19] Rashid Zakat: Let’s go.
[00:20:19] J Wortham: Let’s f’ing go.
[00:20:21] Rashid Zakat: Actually. Well, I’ll ask just because we’re talking about Earth signs, and I’ll talk about everybody’s favorite Virgo, Beyoncé. Have you been to the Renaissance show yet?
[00:20:28] J Wortham: I have been anointed in the Renaissance, yes.
[00:20:34] Rashid Zakat: How many times?
[00:20:34] J Wortham: What was that?
[00:20:34] Rashid Zakat: How many times?
[00:20:35] J Wortham: Just one, but I’m going to go again.
[00:20:40] Rashid Zakat: Okay. What was the experience like?
[00:20:40] J Wortham: Look at my face. Amazing. Someone earlier today was they were leaving to go to see Beyoncé and they were like, “I’m going to go to a Beyoncé screening.” And I was like, “No, but it is. It is a full multimedia experience.” I was thinking so much about how she’s also giving us a renaissance of her career and her life. I think every show has been different, but the show that I was at, I was so moved by how much fun she was having and just how much, what a wicked sense of humor. Virgos you got to watch out for. Because the thing about-
[00:21:15] Maori Karmael Holmes: We are both members of the Virgo Mom Survivor Club, so-
[00:21:18] Rashid Zakat: We made it.
[00:21:20] J Wortham: Welcome. I don’t have a Virgo mom, but also deep welcome. Here’s the thing, a Scorpio has the drive and desire to cause harm, but a Virgo knows how they’re going to do it. You know what I’m saying?
[00:21:29] Rashid Zakat: Listen.
[00:21:29] J Wortham: A Virgo has the blueprint.
[00:21:30] Rashid Zakat: We have the plans and a Google Doc somewhere. Listen.
[00:21:35] J Wortham: And the tools, and then you’re just like, “Oh, but I was kidding.” And the Virgos like, “Me too.” And you’re just running for your life. But okay, so the show that I was at, Beyoncé did this incredible thing where she sang “Love on Top”, and then she just was like, “Now you all sing.” And you know that song, the key changes just keep going up? And the audience is like, we’re like, “We’re the one that I love.” And then she goes, “Keep going.” And everyone’s like, “Baby, it’s you.” And then she goes, “Keep going.” For five times. And I was crying because she was just maniacally laughing, and I felt she was just like, “You cannot do what I can do.” Not that you needed a reminder, but just in case anyone here, it’s like when she was asked to prove about the national anthem. Remember that? When they were like, “Beyoncé didn’t sing the national anthem.” And they held a press conference and then she came and just sang it all, and then goes, “Any questions?” But didn’t take any questions, just left. It felt like that. And I was just dying. I was like, “Wow, she’s on one.” And then there was this moment when she sang a “Crazy in Love” medley, and then she had her entire band just continue to flesh it out and you had this eight, 12-piece band just playing Crazy in Love. And I was like, “Beyoncé also wants us to know it’s not just the current songs that can handle an orchestra of rendition, it’s the whole catalog.” She just seemed so confident. And so I felt we were really witnessing someone’s philosophy on life and love and an evolution of it. And it’s complicated. I live in New York and I live in Brooklyn and my communities are really grieving the murder and content warning, I’m sorry to say, but it feels really urgent not to mention it, a community member named O’Shae Sibley who I’ll just say, if you want more information, look it up because I don’t want to unintentionally bring something up or activate anybody, but this person was grievously harmed while singing Beyoncé and performing at a gas station not too far from where this show’s having. And I think I’m really sitting in the tension of the precarity of visibility and what it means for Beyoncé to invite almost 100,000 people to sing “You Won’t Break my Soul” in a stadium in New Jersey and really mean it, and feel transformed in that spaceship of a space. And then what it means to have somebody doing the exact same thing outside of the safety and the economic comfort of that, because it costs a lot of money to see Beyoncé. And so just thinking about these two tensions and what we do with all of that. And I don’t think it’s Beyoncé’s to solve, but I think the concert just brings up these questions just in the way in which it is this transformative forest that has swept the world since May through the end of September. So I do see it as an invitation to talk about black culture and community and commodification and safety and violence. We’re in a really violent moment right now.
[00:24:41] Maori Karmael Holmes: I would love to talk to you about your transition from technology into culture writing, and what prompted that for you? Was there a particular interest that moved you into that space?
[00:24:54] J Wortham: This is a really good segue because I think for me it just started to feel really urgent to talk and write about things beyond technology. I feel there was a certain narrative that was being uplifted that I was uplifting, which was about a certain type of technologist, a certain type of person who was creating some technology that lots of people were using and they’re making a lot of money from it. And I started to feel, what role am I having in the boom of Silicon Valley? It just started to feel a little confusing to me. And so there were just other things that felt more urgent and things that I wanted to write about. And I wanted to have a more dynamic experience as a journalist, I just got tired of writing about a particular white guy, if I’m honest. I just was like, “How many more of these meetings can I sit in?” And it’s not to say that I didn’t feel those ideas and companies and products weren’t interesting.I just didn’t, there’s a particular way in which you write those stories. I was in the business section and I just felt I needed more room to write about it from a critical lens and have a criticality to it that you can’t if you’re writing just purely reporting on the news. So that prompted the shift, and it’s actually amazing because that’s also what prompted Black Futures was a desire to push myself and to do more arts writing and arts criticism, writing in particular a black culture writing. And I didn’t want to wait for a place to tell me what I could and couldn’t do. And so I was just like, “Let’s make a book.” And then five years later, because books take a very long time, that came out. And so I think it was that. I think it was me wanting to really expand, also feeling there were more threads that needed to be pulled together. If I think about the timeline for that in my life, it was probably 2015, 2016 and so the world is also starting to have a very different conversation about social justice and civil rights and vulnerability and precarity as black people in the world. And I just threw my iPhone across the room and it was like, “Enough of this! I want to do something else.” But it felt really urgent. So that was, I wanted to push myself, but I also didn’t want to wait for permission to do it either.
[00:27:02] Rashid Zakat: I’m just thinking about the collaborations. Still Processing is a collaboration with Wesley. Black Futures is this collaboration with Kimberly, but then also the conversations that you get to have working on both of these projects. And I’m just curious too, are there any gems or anything that you’ve learned in some of these conversations that’s affected you, that stuck with you or that you’ve been carrying?
[00:27:23] J Wortham: Yes. Okay. That is such a brilliant question because being a writer is such a lonely process. I always imagine myself hunched over a little crone and I’m like, “Ah,” in a darkened room just lit by the glow of a computer screen. I do think that’s true to life, how it feels to be a writer a lot of the times. Just stuck with your own demon, so to speak. And so it was really incredible to collaborate with other people and learn other ways of making things, other ways of hearing input. And those relationships became and still are two of the most important relationships in my life, which is also really strange. It’s a strange thing to say, to be like, “I have these business relationships that are familial.” That’s usually a thing that you don’t want. You two know a lot about this, I guess, which I would love to hear you talk about it. I don’t know. If you feel comfortable, why not? We can talk about it. Didn’t the moon just go into Aries? So it’s a fiery topic. But I feel I learned a lot about, thinking about care too, I think I learned a lot about how the work always gets done, but it’s most important that everybody’s okay in the process. And I feel a lot of times when Kimberly and I would come together to work on Black Futures, sometimes we wouldn’t work on the book at all. And it would be stressful because we’d be like, “Well, we really do have this deadline.” But also what today called for was something really nurturing because we’re both high-functioning, overworked, highly visible people. And sometimes we’d get together and just be like, “I think we just need to go sit in the park or get a pedicure.” And it would be great. And that’s also work. I think it’s easy to forget yourself [00:29:00] when you’re a high functioning person and that the goal is to always be outputting, to always be creating, to always be making something. And it’s hard. We have that saying, empty cups can’t pour. But it’s so true. It’s a cliche because it’s true. And I think I learned that, and I definitely learned that with Wesley because don’t get Mr. Morris started because 20 minutes later, he’ll still be talking about the beans he had for lunch, and you’re like, “20 minutes.” I’ll time it. And I’ll be like, “We’re still talking about this.” And I love that. I am really just like, “Wow, he’s really never in a hurry.” And I think that is for better or for worse.
[00:29:34] Maori Karmael Holmes: Because he’s from Philly. No, I’m just kidding.
[00:29:39] J Wortham: I think his priorities are right, and I think that he experiences life very fully as a critic. I think he sees the same, I know he sees the same amount of value in thinking critically about the meal that he just had in the film that he just watched, and he’s just not afraid to talk about it. And I think I just really learned that from him. It just can’t be all business all the time. But I will say that when I do that with him, he doesn’t always respond. I just send him that really great meme of Amy Adams from Arrival where she’s holding up the, if you’ve seen that movie, she’s holding up the whiteboard to try to talk to the aliens, and it’s like, “Are you here to see Beyoncé?” It’s so funny. And he didn’t respond, it’s been two days, but that’s okay. It’s okay. We’ll talk about it when I see him again. But I do think I’ve learned a lot about letting go of the steering wheel sometimes. Trusting that the work will happen, that we all are on the same page, we’re all on the same car, going to the same destination. It’s just we’re going to take different routes. So I’ve learned to really relax and just take things a little bit easier with myself, which has been such a gift. And that’s where I’m arriving today, which is, let me tell you, is a blessing.
[00:30:48] Maori Karmael Holmes: It’s interesting not to talk too much about me, Rashid, but he is definitely on a different schedule than most people. But it’s definitely from me, and that is something I’ve had to learn to appreciate as well because it’s like, “Okay, we won’t have that planned in advance.” And that’s all right.
[00:31:06] Rashid Zakat: He may not come when you want, but he’ll be there right on time.
[00:31:14] Maori Karmael Holmes: Just like Jesus. I really love Still Processing, and I have, ever since it began, I’ve just been talking and talking and talking about it. And one of the things that I love is that it is an equal amount of rigor as it is love. I have so much admiration for critics who bring their love into their work, and one of my favorite episodes, and one that we talk about a lot, is the Kanye and Lauryn Hill, basically-
[00:31:37] Rashid Zakat: Geminis.
[00:31:37] Maori Karmael Holmes: Gemini episode. And it was just no one could have done that episode but y’all. Just bringing it full circle musically, but also their life experience. And it was just I’ve never seen any reportage in that manner where it was because you knew these catalogs back and forth, because you knew these people’s histories, it was just phenomenal. And most of your episodes are similarly phenomenal, and I just appreciate that work.
[00:32:04] J Wortham: Oh, thank you. That’s really kind. Thank you. I think we’ve done three episodes about Kanye at this point, which appropriate.
[00:32:12] Rashid Zakat: Respect.
[00:32:14] J Wortham: It needs volumes, apparently. I think we’re done for now, but volumes is required.
[00:32:18] Maori Karmael Holmes: We’ll see. Yeah.
[00:32:19] J Wortham: Yeah.
[00:32:21] Rashid Zakat: I’m thinking a little bit about what you were saying about visibility and being a really visible person, and I’m curious about how do you navigate boundaries IRL and URL, online and offline?
[00:32:33] J Wortham: Wow, I’m still working on that. I am really working on that. I think that my relationship to the internet has shifted so much lately because I am working on a lot of bigger scale projects that require just more of my mind. And so I’m really precious about now where my cognitive energy goes. But except for TikTok, because I love, listen, I call it like watching my stories. So I love TikTok. And they’re always, “Do a big TikTok story,” and I’m like, “You can’t take the thing I love.” You cannot have, it cannot become work. It cannot become work. So I’ve just really resisted it. But it’s so funny because I feel I go into a fugue state and I’ll be usually in the bathtub or something and just sending, I’ll just be watching and just giggling and just be texting people. Then the next day I’ll be like, “Oh, my entire outbox is TikTok URLs and no one responded? Cool. Yeah, no problem.” I find that to be very embarrassing, but also thrilling.
[00:33:35] Maori Karmael Holmes: Scorpio.
[00:33:36] J Wortham: Right? Exactly. It’s the perfect combo. I’m like, “They love it.” And everyone’s just like, “Jesus Christ.” But I do think that having taken a really hard reset in 2021 and taking a sabbatical did really reset my boundaries around work and my personal life I think. I don’t know how I navigate in the world though. I think I’m still figuring that out in terms of sometimes being a little recognizable. I try to live in the Cuddy if I can. Doesn’t always work. But sometimes it’s really fun. I think I’m also just trying to move through life in a way where I’m just always trying to be very easy and dilated and just whatever’s happening is what’s happening. And in a bodega the other day, trying to get some tampons off of a high shelf, and this person was just talking to me and they were like, “I love your work,” and this, and I was like, “Word.” And I was like, “Can you get that for me?” And they were like, “Yeah.” And I was like, “Thanks.” I was like, “So what’s your name?” And I think before that would’ve really upset me like, “I’m trying to take care,” And I think now I’m just, I don’t know. It’s life. I don’t know what to do anymore. And so I’m just trying to really accept everything that comes and also really develop a sense of listening to my body and really, “I’m feeling really grumpy today,” or, “I’m feeling resentful that I have to work or something.” And then it’s like, “Okay, but what’s underneath that?” And it’s like, “Oh, I need more playtime.” I didn’t play enough this week and maybe I don’t always get to play because we’re busy adults and humans with real responsibilities and what are we supposed to do? But when the moment arrives, I was at the beach yesterday for a friend’s birthday and some folks were playing Frisbee, and I just, without even thinking about it, I was like, “Can I play?” And it’s like, “I’m not good at that game,” but I was just like, “Let me play. Let me just play for 20 minutes.” And it really did nourish something in me. So I think I’m trying to let go of an idea of myself as a person and just be a little bit freer. What else are we here to do?
[00:35:30] Maori Karmael Holmes: That I think is a perfect segue to talk to you about your new book about the body and dissociation. So what inspired you to investigate this?
[00:35:39] J Wortham: Yes, thank you for asking. Okay, so what inspired my book? I realized that, I don’t know if people know that term meat suit. You put on your meat suit, you’re walking around in your body, but it feels like something you’re wearing, not necessarily something you’re inhabiting. And I just had a moment, I think in 2015 actually when I just realized all of a sudden I was like, “I’m always here. I’m not in here. I’m here and I’m here.” And my solutions at that time would be to drink a lot of caffeine, to try to wake myself up or drink a lot of alcohol, to just forget that I’m even feeling that way, or just stay so busy that I couldn’t really figure out why I felt so often so weird. But I was in a therapy session and I still had a white therapist at that time, but she used the word, so it was already very contentious, but she was like, I was describing something stressful to her, and she goes, “It sounds like you disassociated.” And I go, “What’s that word?” It was just that moment when someone says something and you’re like, “Oh no, that’s the thing. That’s the thing.” And I don’t know, I just had never come across that word before. And then she got nervous. She was like, “No, don’t get so hung up on the thing. Let’s just keep talking about how you felt.” And I was like, “Write it. Can you spell it for me?” I was like, “I got to write this down. I need to [00:37:00] look into this.” And it just became this really interesting obsession. And I used to keep a little notebook and I was like, “Let me write down when this is happening, how I’m feeling.” I felt I was a detective. I was like, “I’m trying to find myself.” And it became this bigger project and it felt like a book project. I was working on it while I was working on Black Futures. And it was exciting because it was the first time also I realized I had a creative nonfiction project and a lot of writers, very established writers were very kind to me when I was at the beginning of figuring out myself and my journey as a writer. Kiese Laymon, Ta-Nehisi Coates are two. But a lot of people encouraged me really early on and told me, “Keep going.” And I think those boosts really got me into that project. And now it’s become, I was really obsessed with this idea of what does it mean to live outside of your body? What are the historical implications of that for black people in general? And now it’s become this book that’s also about what it means to dissociate from societal ideas of who we’re supposed to be to dissociate from ideas of gender, which is a huge topic in trans studies and mad studies, psychological, the intersection of understanding what it means to always be pathologized as crazy or unwell as black people and the way you get dissociated from normal society. So it’s becoming this really unwieldy philosophical thing. That’s so fascinating, which I think is a gift for a book project. Every time I dive back in, I’m really excited about it.
[00:38:30] Rashid Zakat: Is there a timeframe for the book, or is that the worst question to ask an artist?
[00:38:34] J Wortham: No, it’s a great, great question. I don’t have an answer, but it’s a great question because we would all love to know, including me. But I am editing the essays right now, which feels really exciting. So there is a manuscript, it is being edited, and I have a plan. I have a plan for editing it. There wasn’t one for a long time, so that feels really exhilarating.
[00:38:57] Rashid Zakat: Dope. That’s exciting. That’s really exciting.
[00:38:57] Maori Karmael Holmes: We’re going to wrap up soon, but I want to ask you about another project that you founded called Sunlove, which is a care practice that centers black, queer and trans folks through sound healing, herbalism, breath work, and more through a justice and harm reduction lens. So can you talk a little bit about how that started and how it’s going?
[00:39:15] J Wortham: Yeah, so I started Sunlove when I finished my sound teacher training. And I got the name because my friend Tourmaline, who is a filmmaker and an artist and just incredible person read my chart and was like, “Oh, when you were born,” there’s so much astrology in this, I love this so much, but she was like, “When you were born, Venus and the Sun were right on top of each other, and so everything in your chart is infused with this sun love.” And she kept saying it over and over again, and I was like, “I love that word.” And it just really, I love the color gold. I just always want to look like a glazed donut and be glowing. So it’s like-
[00:39:51] Maori Karmael Holmes: You’ve succeeded.
[00:39:51] J Wortham: Thank you. I’m always I want to just look dripping. Anyway. But yeah, so I realized that prior to the panini [pandemic], I was like, “I think I want to try to figure out how to be a facilitator,” and whether that means having a practice or having a space or just doing one-off events, I’m still getting back into figuring that out, but that is essentially the hub for all of that. And it’s interesting because I was recently lucky enough to go study yoga with a teacher of mine, Amy Meredith Cox, who’s a black feminist, body practitioner, academic choreographer, dancer, just an incredible human. And I went on a yoga retreat with her and she asked me at the end, we were talking about co-facilitating something together, and I was just really moved because that had been a dream of mine four years ago, but I just forgot. I don’t know. It’s this the last handful of years. It’s there’s been so much resizing and reorienting around even who we are and what we’re doing. And I was just like, “I completely forgot that that was a goal of mine,” a dream, a legacy maybe even of trying to think about care and care practices. So that was really exciting to be like, “Okay, Sunlove, even though I’m not actively working on it in the way that I was a handful of years ago, it is having this resurrection of its own right now,” which feels really good.
[00:41:10] Rashid Zakat: That makes me want to ask, do you have any planets in Leo?
[00:41:13] J Wortham: Do I have any planets in Leo? Not that I know of, but astrologists tell me that even we don’t have planets in our chart, we have that energy because the whole sky is in, so it’s in there somewhere and I don’t know where.
[00:41:27] Rashid Zakat: Okay. Her, just the Sunlove. Yeah.
[00:41:32] Maori Karmael Holmes: We’ve talked a lot about breath work and self-care modalities and things like that, but I would love to know where you find refuge? And it doesn’t have to be a wellness practice. Is there anything ridiculous that you do that brings you back to center?
[00:41:48] J Wortham: Yes, thank you for asking. Right now, I am really into games, just straight up old-fashioned game nights, and I’ll play any game. I am not good at a lot of them, but I will truly, except for Spades, but I’ll show up for any game that wants to be played. So it’s Uno, Dominoes, Codename, Charades. It’s just been the last, actually all year. All year, I’ve been meeting up very regularly with two distinct groups of friends and one of the groups of friends, everybody likes to get high. And it also becomes very funny because you’re just like, “What are you talking about?” We’re always just like, “What is going on right now?” But it’s so silly and it’s so fun, and it’s just such a different way to get to know people. And I’m a sober person. I stopped drinking almost two years ago. And so I think for me, I can be in a bar and I could hang out and I can go out, but there is something, I think when I stopped drinking, I got really worried that I wouldn’t have easy ways to connect with people and build intimacy. I thought that the spirits were the only way to build those bonds, and so games have actually been this incredible way to create those relationships. But it’s not just the games, it’s like the silliness that the games allow for, and it’s you just giggle and you laugh and you get to know how people’s mind works. And of course everyone else is also imbibing and doing whatever, but I think for me, it’s just been really reassuring to have these other third spaces beyond a bar or a very professional event just to be in the home. And in New York, we’re not really in each other’s homes, so it’s very special and sacred when someone invites you over. It’s not a small thing so that’s been my refuge for the last year. It’s been so fun. We were supposed to have a game night two nights ago and it got canceled, and my friend that was hosting was pregnant, so nobody wanted to push her too hard, but we were all like, “Are you sure?” It was like, “You can lay down, you don’t have to do nothing.” And she was like, “I can’t host y’all, n-word.” And we were like, “Oh, okay. Yeah. No, that’s okay.” It was so funny, the group thread, everybody was like, “No, booboo, it’s okay. You don’t have to do nothing.” And she was just like, “I’m going to bed.” And we were like, “Okay.”
[00:43:58] Rashid Zakat: I’m really, really loving how often play is coming up in this conversation and the parallels between play and healing. My next question has nothing to do with that. I’m just really curious about are you going to join, are you on Spill?
[00:44:11] J Wortham: Oh yeah.
[00:44:11] Maori Karmael Holmes: That’s messy, Rashid.
[00:44:12] Rashid Zakat: I know. Putting it out there in the streets.
[00:44:19] J Wortham: I just turned into Spacole. I am like, “Awesome, threads.” I want to join all these services. I just haven’t yet. I don’t know. I’m really in this moment where I’m thinking so much about a culture of feeling and not culture of thinking. I feel overthought. I don’t want to think about more things to think. I don’t want to have to think about more things to say. I just want to feel things. And I feel the problem, I’m interested in Spill because it’s black-led and it’s former Twitter folks, so I am curious about it. And I reached out to them and was like, “Oh, we should talk,” because I want to support. And I’m also just like, “I don’t really know what else I want to say.” And I personally feel very saturated with other people’s ideas and I’m still taking them all in. But I think that’s why I like TikTok so much because it really is about a feeling or visual comedy or humor in a way that is also about processing culture. It is. TikTok’s not silly. It is silly, but it’s also really about trying to digest everything that’s happening. But I don’t really… Honestly though, the last time I used Twitter, I reshared an article that I thought was really great about concerts and the way people are regathering for the first time in years. And I was just like, “This is a really well-written, thoughtful piece,” and I reshared it. And then someone wrote back and they were like, “Yeah, it’s all fun and good until you die or something.” And I was just like, “What?” I don’t know anymore. I don’t know. It feels hard to say things, and I think there are other ways I want to say things right now. Are y’all on Spiller Threads? No?
[00:45:52] Maori Karmael Holmes: I signed up just to hold my name. Speaking of legacy.
[00:45:55] Rashid Zakat: Same.
[00:45:55] J Wortham: That’s smart.
[00:45:55] Maori Karmael Holmes: That’s it. I’m not on there.
[00:45:55] Rashid Zakat: Same.
[00:46:00] J Wortham: Okay. Maybe I’ll do that. That’s smart. Okay.
[00:46:01] Rashid Zakat: No, similar to TikTok though. TikTok for me has been my most recent obsession. I think for a similar reason because it is a form of play or it feels like it’s a lot of play in that app too.
[00:46:09] J Wortham: Okay. What’s your favorite TikTok? Just like anyone quickly. What is it?
[00:46:13] Rashid Zakat: Oh, wow. Oh my gosh. Oh, I’m similar to you where-
[00:46:14] J Wortham: Just real quick. Yeah.
[00:46:16] Rashid Zakat: Oh, what’s been the most recent TikTok? Mary! Who breeds your Mary?! If you know that TikTok.
[00:46:22] J Wortham: I also love the way people who really are into TikTok will just do TikTok sounds where it’s like, “Kim Kardashian.”
[00:46:27] Rashid Zakat: Right.
[00:46:30] J Wortham: There’s no way to describe it. It’s just like, stunning, and everyone who’s not into it is just like, “Hm?”
[00:46:37] Rashid Zakat: I’m sure. I know we got to wrap it up, but what’s your?
[00:46:40] J Wortham: I love Tony Talks. If anybody knows Tony Talks, which I highly recommend checking out. They get remade as these CGI cartoons. But it’s always with Tony is always with themselves, and they’ll just be like, “Welcome to Starbucks.” And then it’s like, “I have a graduate degree.” It’s very surrealist, absurdist black humor, and they never go where you think they’re going to go. And there’s always a sing-along with Tony and Tony. I think that’s high art. I think it’s actually one of the most artful TikTok accounts out there. So I highly recommend Tony Talks. @TonyTalks. But it’s weird.
[00:47:20] Rashid Zakat: That’s my style. You were going to close this out. Let me not.
[00:47:23] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. No, I just want to say, J, thank you so much.
[00:47:24] Rashid Zakat: Thank you so much.
[00:47:26] Maori Karmael Holmes: It’s been so wonderful.
[00:47:27] J Wortham: Thank you both so much. I think you’re both incredible and so smart and creative, and I am always here for anything you all are doing. So it’s truly my honor to be here tonight.
[00:47:37] Rashid Zakat: No, samesies. Can we hear a round of applause?
[00:47:44] J Wortham: Thank you.
[00:47:44] Maori Karmael Holmes: That’s our episode. Thank you so much.
[00:47:45] Rashid Zakat: Thank you all.
[00:48:00] Maori Karmael Holmes: To keep up with more of J Wortham’s work, you can follow them on Instagram @Jennydeluxe. This season of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations. It is produced by Black Star Projects in partnership with Rowhome Productions. The host and executive producer of Many Lumens is me, Maori Karmael Holmes. This episode was produced by Alex Lewis, associate producers are Irit Reinheimer and Zoë Greggs. Managing producer is Alex Lewis. Executive editor is John Meyers. Justin Berger is our final mix and mastering engineer. Our music supervisor is David ‘Lil Dave’ Adams. Our theme song was composed by Vij Mohan and remixed by Lil’ Dave. This episode features music by Terrence Nance. If you’ve liked what you’ve heard so far this season, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts and let us know what you think of the show.
Sending you light and see you next time.