By Taylor L McTootle for Boston Compass Blog
August 17, 2020
Key’Aira Lockett is many things. And that’s kind of the point! She moves through the world freely, contributing to the many communities that nurture her impulse to create and effect change. Key’Aira has shaped her career in a fluid, non-linear fashion. Her pathway is guided by empathy, activism, and community engagement. Key’Aira is also a black woman of the millennial generation, whose understanding of queer theory and of identity politics has shaped her radical stance and oriented her in the work of building a truly liberated future.
I spoke to her one Tuesday afternoon, in the unfortunate mayhem of the early quarantine days. There was construction going on in the apartment above me and anxiety from that day’s unexpected onslaught of COVID-19 and protest news had reached a high, but I was looking forward to our conversation. And once we got started, we quickly hit our stride. Our talk lasted for almost two hours. We traversed topics relevant to current events. She shared memories from childhood and I got a chance to learn who Key’Aira is. One story she shared really struck me as a true reflection of Key’Aira at her core—a mover and a maker of spaces. She described how her family used to live in a small home with not much room, but they made it work. In times of quiet and solitude, they would each claim their corner and through decided imagination and focus make those square inches a world all its own. With such faith and consideration, good things always come. Soon, Key’Aira’s mother bought a new house. Despite being a fixer-upper, this one had room to spare. She enlisted the help of Key’Aira and her brother to do the fixing and decorating, to make it beautiful and wholesome. “The way to make something valuable,” Key’Aira emphasized, “is to make it work for you.” She did that first inside the walls of her mother’s new home. Since then those walls have expanded for Key’Aira to include dance studios, schools, and now, Boston’s City Hall. She continues to make a home of these places, ensuring that people who look like her and who like her are deemed marginal, will be considered, welcomed and uninhibited in their movement as they, too, make space for others.
“The way to make something valuable,” Key’Aira emphasized, “is to make it work for you.”
Although she hails from Texas, Key’Aira’s ancestral roots are in Georgia—Sapelo Island to be exact. Historically, Sapelo Island was where black people, while subjugated to violent discrimination, still cultivated dignified community for themselves, fostering and continuing traditions. Key’Aira spoke at great length about Sapelo Island. She told me about a graveyard there, Behaviors Cemetery, where only Black folks deemed respectable and well-behaved by local power structures were allowed to be buried. The Black folks who did not meet these twisted standards were, at some point before they could meet a natural end, lynched and thrown into the swamp. This past February Key’Aira’s cousin, Ahmaud Arbery, met a similar end. He was from Georgia as well. And he was victim to the modern-day equivalent of a lynching. Bigoted white men hunted and murdered him as he was going for a run one morning. The last time Key’Aira saw him was at a family reunion on Sapelo Island in 2019. Key’Aira so clearly keeps the memory of Ahmaud as she presses forward in her work. Ahmaud’s death came just as Key’Aira was moving into her role as Communications Director under City Council President Kim Janey. In this role, Key’Aira supports policy and activism aimed at creating wealth among Boston’s black community, the importance of which is made even more distinct by her cousin’s death. While creating wealth doesn’t directly stop acts of violence against black bodies from happening, it does make it easier to nurture dignified community—like that on Sapelo Island—in this age of intensified capitalism. So much of the recent resistance and protest has been in response to the erasure of black life from space—From neighborhoods, from media, from art, from cemeteries. Counter to erasure is creation. And while protest makes our discontent louder and clearer, from there, we must proactively create a new world that makes erasures like that of Ahmaud’s dear life and the lives of those absent from Behaviors Cemetery, impossible—building wealth as a means of creation and protection in this here cruel world is a pathway to one we envision.
Key’Aira’s connections to her family and her history, her connection to Sapelo Island, are deep. In fact, an image taken on the island is the cover of her recently published book, “Freedom as Futurity.” A large open field lined with tree trunks, framed by hanging willow leaves. You can spot Key’Aira’s small brown figure leaning against one solitary tree in the foreground. She almost blends in with her surroundings. The cover art hints at the focus of her work. The wide green, unoccupied expanse representing her emphasis on the potential for reclamation and re-creation of our identities and communities; And Key’Aira’s form, leaning gently against that tree trunk, alluding to the centrality of typically marginalized perspectives so present in her work.
“Freedom as Futurity” began as a dissertation, capping off her postgraduate studies in dance at Hollins University. In probing her long held commitment to movement, she found and developed a fascination with identity and a resolve to uncover the connection between the two. All those who have endured silence, violence and persecution are evidence of something unsettling and deeply wrong with our use and manipulation of identity politics. In her studies of queer theory, womanist theory and blackness, she pulls from thinkers such as Jose Esteban Munoz, Susan Kozel, and bell hooks to illustrate her own unique perspective. She shares moving original poetry and in vibrant prose, Key’Aira illustrates the necessity for and the path toward re-imagining and creating a future world of liberated beings.
But Key’Aira doesn’t just write about it, nor does she solely work within institutionalized hierarchies of power. She creates opportunities of her own accord. In Key’Aira’s video series, Dinner With Key, she shines a light on those already practicing the ideals laid out in her dissertation; Black and brown creatives, unrestricted by societal expectations, moving toward a brilliant future and doing things their own way. Seated across from her guests at a rectangular table with a red brick wall for a backdrop, the energy between Key’Aira and each of her guests can be summarily described as comfortable and expectant. They are about to create a moment together, one full of vulnerability, wisdom, and understanding; And Key’Aira initiates, asking questions about passion, inspiration, process, and progress.
Typically, Key’Aira is not well acquainted with her guests beforehand. But she has found one thing that always seems to provide an authentic connection between them—Food. Dinner with Key is named such because in each episode she prepares and/or eats dinner with her guests. Key’Aira explained to me that food serves as a natural common ground for us all—"breaking bread” some call it. Food makes people more present, more vulnerable, less likely to rely on affectation or hide behind the mask formality . It is comfort and familiarity. It is intimacy. Sharing a meal, breaking bread, whatever you want to call it, helps create a home-like atmosphere. During her interviews guests feel settled enough to be their truest selves while sharing their world with viewers.
Food makes people more present, more vulnerable, less likely to rely on affectation. It is comfort and familiarity. It is intimacy.
When I asked how she got started doing Dinner With Key, she described it as something that was always meant to happen and she has her dance community to thank for that. Key’Aira began touring with the Dallas Black Dance Theater II at the age of 16. She has since danced at the Boston Conservatory and the Frankfurt Ballet while earning her undergraduate degree, and at Hollins University in Virginia while earning her MFA in dance. In the company of fellow dancers, she was a part of so many lively and enlightening discussions. She always wished she could record and share the laughter, poetry and prose that echoed inside the mirrored walls and high ceiling of a dance studio. From the excitement of such encounters, Key’Aira gathered that there must be a slew of other artists and creatives with more wisdom, poetry and laughs to share. With Dinner with Key, Key’Aira offers these artists a platform to attract listeners, patrons, like-minds, and perchance even some collaborators.
I asked her which interviews had been her favorite, and she couldn’t choose just one. In fact, she began listing them-- her interviews with artists like Stanley Rameau, with Dzidzor, and with Black Picasso were among those she named. And as she listed them, she explained why she loved each one. She told me how one of the best parts is being able to follow and support the progress of creatives and their projects even after the interview is over. Like Key’Aira they are covering ground, approaching their career in a non-linear fashion and fostering rich potentials for freedom as they go. Key’Aira, in particular, pursues autonomy and representation through independent projects in movement and media and pursues justice within established social and political institutions. The duality is admirable and she’s come such a long way. Key’Aira started working in Boston Public schools as a Culturally Responsive Pedagogy Leader when she first returned to Massachusetts after earning her Masters. Anyone who has worked in education, understands that the cultural and psychological needs of black and brown children are often overlooked. Schooling may even become triggering when teachers ignorantly impose racist ideologies in the classroom in a faulty attempt to relate to students. Key’Aira’s role as Pedagogy Leader directly addressed this pattern. She did all she could to express the urgency of her work to peers and higher ups, but she eventually grew frustrated with the limitations of the position, limitations that came to her in the form of tone policing and prioritizing irrelevant or harmful policies. At all levels of the educational systems there is much work to be done when getting justice for marginalized students and families.
Key’Aira eventually left BPS to work for Black Market Nubian Square under Kaida Grant. Black Market is a pop-up and cultural space that promotes black cultural and economic progress. This was a better fit for Key’Aira. Black Market is in the center of historically black Dudley Square, recently renamed Nubian Square. The organization offers opportunities for artists and creatives to share their work and commune with patrons. It is a space for authentic community. Key’Aira beamed about working with Kaidi Grant, as well. “Kai plays no games with economic justice,” she said. In Boston, racial disparity dictates the way Black and brown people experience schooling, housing, and employment. The median net worth for whites here is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. For Black residents, it is $8. Addressing this takes intentionality and audacity. Key’Aira described how Kaida encouraged her to work outside of her comfort zone and to make herself heard. Key’Aira was asked to engage top city officials on topics such as black ownership. There’s no doubt that this work readied Key’Aira to take on the position she holds now as Communications Director for City Council woman Kim Janey. Kim Janey’s take on issues affecting Boston residents align with the ideological and practical concerns that up until this point have guided Key’Aira in her undertakings.
Explorations of identity in Key’Aira’s book, “Freedom as Futurity,” indicate a concern with eradicating inequity through the theoretical reimagining of these identities. The exposition of entrepreneurship and free thinking in her series, ‘Dinner With Key’, is Key’Aira presenting to the world, evidence of success when Black and brown people work outside of and in resistance to inequitable systems that attempt to destroy their creativity. It is truly beautiful to see just how Key’Aira’s professional journey has come full circle. In all that time, she’s consistently shined a light on all the magic being made in her community and this is a moment to, in turn, shine a light on her. Key’Aira Lockett is indeed many things. Talking to her that Tuesday afternoon in June, I was able to better understand what drives her in all her endeavors. Her uncompromising commitment and stalwart conviction guide her every movement. If you have ever seen a dance performance, you know a brilliant dancer from a lukewarm one by the purpose with which they move. The brilliant ones mesmerize and inspire as they transform the spaces they move through. Keep an eye out for Key’Aira and expect to be mesmerized, inspired, and even moved to action alongside her.