FLINT, Michigan -- Inside a silent booth at Soriano’s Mexican Kitchen downtown Flint, 22-year-old Flint native Jo Ikigai sits, head lowered, with brown dreadlocks wrapped in copper and adorned with crystals that shield her as tears, one by one, run down her face. Our conversation’s contents, which started several hours prior, and would conclude several hours later, are heavy and raw. Every question answered: Every answer unearths deep pain and captures her duality. She fights back the tears, dabbing them with her fingers that contain a few rings and chipped black fingernail polish, reflecting on “all the threats I’ve received,” which leaves her “[sometimes] scared to speak my truth.”
Ikigai, fighting back her tears dabbing them with her fingers that contain a few rings and chipped black fingernail polish, reflecting on “all the threats I’ve received,” which leaves her “[sometimes] scared to speak my truth.”
Not trying to let the moment escape to speak the truth, Ikigai smiles and apologizes. All of this is a rare moment of vulnerability—publically at that—for a young woman photographed on the front lines of #BlackLivesMatter marches held across the city. It is a different look for her, who, hours ago, ran through fields of grass, climbed trees, and exuded the aura of an African warrior queen at a photoshoot. Different from her profession as a sex worker created as a way to “sustain my lifestyle” but also “because I know I can articulate myself, so you’re not going to be able to deny my intelligence—my skillsets,” or her womanhood. But situated in front of a spread of birria tacos, beans and rice, a Corona beer, and a Long Island drink, her tears are her truth.
“Men [have] said I deserve to be beaten and raped for saying what happened to me,” Ikigai says in between moments of silence. “It’s easier to attack me than attack your own thoughts. That’s what’s so interesting when the narrative started getting spun that I hate Black men.”
We’ve arrived at the point where Ikigai—a creative and musical artist, model, social justice, and sex activist—recounts the last three years of her life as “a constant evolution process of awakenings [where I] learned a lot about myself.” Amid that process, she revealed through social media her story of being assaulted by her ex-husband, a local businessman. Her story, met with skepticism, caused her to be “publicly attacked,” and the truth almost erased. Sitting across the table, she recognizes her life and story as one of the many narratives that Black women face, which are often swept under a rug and ignored.
“I identify with the word activist because I’ve been so connected to civil rights issues. Why do I have to die to prove my worthiness?” Ikigai says, reflecting on her reason for organizing Breonna Taylor’s Flint Solidarity March earlier this month and her own life. “They shot her and got her no medical attention because her life [held] no value. It put another fire under me to keep living, keep speaking, keep existing.”
This fire is what drives her to march and advocate for human rights and sex positivity. Although, at times, speaking the truth has been weaponized against Ikigai. It’s a remnant that rings back to her growing up in Flint, dealing with homelessness and “trying to do things the right way because I didn’t want to be judged.” But her story and the resulting aftermath of fearing for her safety added to a growing Flint #MeToo movement. Many women inboxed her “telling me things like, ‘I ain’t never told nobody, but this happened to me.’” Standing in solidarity for women like Breonna Taylor gives Ikigai hope that women’s justice across the board can be seen, heard, and acknowledged.
“I consider myself a defender and protector of women and children, which is interesting because I’ve been both of those things,” Ikigai says with a laugh. “If I didn’t wake up every day and fight for women and children, the disenfranchised, the elderly, what am I doing? What am I contributing?”
It’s this activism and pursuit of creative expression that she dropped her last name and adopted “Ikigai”—a Japanese word signifying to have found purpose or reason for being. Turning her feelings into art, Ikigai began modeling, making creative content, and writing poetry. She’s linked to a few music projects, including those connected to music duo PhZD
. Last year she participated in Kady Yellow’s, Flint Downtown Development Authority’s Director of Placemaking, “Poet for Hire
” event. Now she’s involved with Fli-City Blackout, a media news company with DeWaun E. Robinson and Darius Hollins, whose mission is “offering platform to Black voices, [and] finding solutions to our concerns.”
“If I can awaken everybody’s passion, I feel like I did what I was supposed to do. Outside of all the rage and frustration, what brings you peace? What do you do to make your soul sing?” Ikigai asks. “When I’m making music, when I’m doing certain s***, my soul started singing. When I feel [that] I know that’s something I want to keep doing.”
Whether expressing her inner geek, recording music in a studio or marching for Black lives, Ikigai is finding her truth and standing confidently in it. She is one of many women who actively and divisively change the narrative of what it means to be Black, a woman, and an activist.
“I pray to grace/That murder won’t be my fate. But because it chose you/I’m out here pleading your case,” Ikigai recites during her poetry performance at the march. “I have faith/That we can rectify these wrongs. And create an environment/Where Black women are safe.”
You can find Jo Ikigai on Facebook , Instagram, and on her artist profile.