InspiHERed By spotlights phenomenal women in the Black queer community—everyone from artists to activists. Each week ELIXHER features someone whose personal journey and individual craft inspire us to dream bigger, laugh harder, and love deeper. This week we catch up with 23-year-old Unique Robinson, a Baltimore native and dynamic writer/performer.
ELIXHER: So what brought you to NYC?
UNIQUE: I got this job working with New York City AIDS Housing Network and V.O.C.A.L., which is this membership-led organization comprised of people with HIV/AIDS and formerly incarcerated people. Really great. Really freaking great. I was an organizer so I did some of the trainings and presentations on why we should organize and get the community together to rally around legislation and people with HIV/AIDS. Phenomenal right?
I did that literally fresh out of school. Like May I was graduated. June I was here. And I did that until this September. Unfortunately…fortunately or unfortunately, depending on who you talk to, it really took a toll on me physically. Emotionally, mentally, because one, I was the youngest person on staff. It was my first full-time position, first time really living in New York. It was just a lot to take on at once and it really fucked me over and burnt me out pretty badly. So I was like I’d much rather have my mental health in store.
I’m a creative person and I wasn’t able to nurture that working 50-hour workweeks. I was like I can’t do this anymore. I owe me too much. So I quit. And ever since September I just been like, thank the good Lord, I’ve been getting unemployment, but I’ve just been trying to nurture my creative side that’s been neglected for the last year and a half. Writing, performing, writing a ton, traveling, whatever I can do at twenty-three.
ELIXHER: What kind of writing do you do?
UNIQUE: I try to keep my hands in as many different pockets as possible. Poetry is my main vessel of communication—pretty much how I breathe. Spoken word because that’s the poetry that I perform, of course. A lot of it that isn’t performed is usually personal stuff. Plays. I’m writing plays with some of my peoples right now. Focusing on my own, trying to revise my play that I did for graduation. Short essays, creative non-fiction, a little bit of all of that. Raps.
ELIXHER: Are you also involved in the production of your plays?
UNIQUE: Yes! The one I did for my senior thesis, I really want to remaster, but I think right now it’s been put on the back burner because I am doing a collaborative project with two of my friends. I’m writing two acts and my friend is writing two, the other is writing two and we’ll put that together. You know, get some actors, get some grants and then try to put it on by June, but right now we’re still in the writing stages of it.
ELIXHER: When did you begin pursuing writing as a passion?
UNIQUE: I was ten. I don’t know whether it was so much a pursuit, but I definitely knew it was the form I wanted to communicate in for the rest of my life because it just felt so natural to me in a very unnatural setting. I was in school and they had this standardized test. They fucking bombarded us with standardized tests in Baltimore. And it was called “You’re a Poet, You Just Don’t Know It.” How cheesy is that? From then on I just started writing about any and everything. When I was in my early teens, like 14, I started becoming willing to bear my own burdens through writing, as well as comment on what the hell is going on in the world that I think people need to hear.
ELIXHER: What topics are you drawn to?
UNIQUE: There’s a vast amount of poems I write just to get things out of my chest and that stuff doesn’t really get shared. That’s just for me. I’m really inspired by my environment. I’m an observer of what’s going on around me. I was coming into my sexuality so I always needed to process what that meant to me and not just for myself, but also if I’m going to an open mic that’s completely fucking straight. I want to be the person that’s going to call out the elephant in the room. Not everyone in here loves men and loves a man with his locs. No. No, I’m sorry. I gotta tell me. So there’s definitely always a queer element to my writing. It’s me talking about my own personal journey being queer as well as, for example, the Goddamn suicides happening. I can’t let these moments go by without me formulating what I think and sharing it with the world in order to create some sort of dialogue. Definitely a lot of writing about Blackness and what that means and Black representation in media and just sort of pick people’s brains and say the things I don’t think anyone else is saying. At least from my perspective. And going there. I’m not just gonna give you a crowd-pleaser. I’m gonna say some shit that’ll make you be like, “Ouch!” I do it to be provocative but also to make people go, “Hmm.”
ELIXHER: What’s the biggest misconception people have of you?
UNIQUE: I think because people tend to see me in social settings a lot, at parties, clubs, events, where everybody in the queer community comes out to, I think I’ve gotten this rep of this really rambunctious party-starter, which I think is true. [Laughs.] But at the same time I don’t think that, unless you knew me on a one-to-one basis, you wouldn’t know that I have this very chill side. Sometimes I like to tune out and I need the space to breathe.
ELIXHER: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to face?
UNIQUE: Being comfortable in my own skin. There’s so much adversary to being a number of things that we are. Being Black, being queer, being dark-skinned, being all these things, and you’re constantly told so much that you can’t be or you shouldn’t be. And people constantly shut you down at every turn. So it’s been a back and forth struggle even within my own brain with being able to just be here and be me and allowing people to just see that and if you can’t get with that then pretty much “fuck you.” I think it’s because I grew up in a place where there’s so much of the same thing. I love Baltimore to death, always have, always will but it’s so insular. Every body’s wearing the same damn thing. Every body’s thinking the same thing. And my personal journey with my spirituality, my sexuality and all of these things, and just constantly coming up against walls and feeling backed away in the corners, and feeling like the only person that’s defending these things. No one in my family is talking about these things because they’re scared to bring them up. Being challenged in terms of speaking up and speaking out about things has always been a challenge for me. I was a pretty quiet child actually. Really wild, really crazy around my friends but around my family really quiet and didn’t speak up, speak my mind about what I was thinking. That’s why I started writing because I could do that there. So definitely being comfortable in my own skin and being able to speak and make something verbal without the risk of people brushing it off or telling me I’m wrong. Being able to fight through that with confidence, with fearlessness and saying what’s on my mind.
ELIXHER: How did you overcome that?
UNIQUE: Just the knowledge of the women before me. Audre Lorde spoke a lot about silence and how dangerous it is and how we can’t fall into that. And then my mom, just knowing her. She’s this fearless woman, She’d tell you anything and everything. My grandma. They’re just mouthpieces. It somehow missed me but I’m learning that the older I get. So in terms of growth on my own and also a remembrance and an acknowledgement of the women before, it’s just like I have to. It’s your duty to say something. They’ve been silencing us for so long.
ELIXHER: Who or what inspires?
UNIQUE: My two major inspirations are my mother and grandmother. For one, for just being my moms essentially and for two, for just being the women that they are and how after everything they’ve been through, they can be so absolutely radiant and beautiful. My grandmother is 77 years old and doesn’t look a day over 59, I swear to you. My mom is 47 and doesn’t look a day over 35. They are literally so unabashed and so steadfast in who they are. And they’re definitely everything I aspire to be in terms of the way I present myself, very poised. I’m not that. [Laughs.] They’re so strong, literally two of the strongest women I know. Single moms, all that–willing to do whatever it takes to make sure their families and themselves are good. That’s where I got this spirit from. I definitely embody that as well. On a larger scale, I’d say all the women, poets, musicians, everyone before that ever had a word to say and knew they were going to say it in spite of what anyone thought about them. Obviously Audre, freaking Left Eye, every female Emcee because they just embody that fearlessness and in-your-face-ness that I want to be and aspire to be in my own work. June Jordan. All of ‘em. Fannie Lou Hammer. I could go on. Ida B. Wells. Ok, I’m done. [Laughs.]
ELIXHER: Do you emcee as well?
UNIQUE: Yes, kLeftamaniak is my alter ego.
ELIXHER: You have a few alter egos, right? You might have to break those down for me.
UNIQUE: Yea. [Laughs.] I’ve always loved alter egos. Like Wu Tang. They all had like nine names. I loved it! I was like, “Ooo, yes!” So, Unique is definitely…I’m gonna sound real crazy for a second. Unique is the very, introspective, social commentator, in your face going to say something and don’t care but really in a poetic kind of format. I didn’t want to replicate that with kLeft because I’m like Unique already does it and does it better, so I’m like why would I do that? So kLefta is the idea of snatching the game back from wackness, that’s the whole thing. I’m left-handed so it’s kLefta, not klepta. And she in a sense is super-dyke. [Laughs.] So it’s really completely unabashed. Just in your face. She has something to prove and she knows she has something to prove so she’s gonna say it. She’s going to say the things that make people cringe. I had this one line that was like, “I wanna write rhymes that your brother scared to touch/It might make him run away or maybe even blush.” But that’s not even the half of what the hell she has to say. She says a lot, but kind of like violent fantasy rap almost in the spirit of Boss, like gangsta emcees, female emcees. MC Lyte said, “Pop you in the microwave and watch your head bubble.” Stuff like that. Obviously not gonna do, but just to show that I mean business. So in that spirit taking their “arrrrhhh” unabashed obnoxiousness and rolling it into a ball and throwing it back, so that’s her role.
ELIXHER: So now is U.N.EYEwitness who blogs on Bklyn Boihood different from kLeftamaniak and Unique?
UNIQUE: U.N.EYEwitness, hence the name, is just sort of an observer. On the blog I just really speak about things that I see and just put my two cents in it. It’s not really as artistic as other two, but it’s definitely got that voice and that spout that I think is necessary.
ELIXHER: What makes you proud to be part of the Black queer community?
UNIQUE: What makes me proud is that I’ve been waiting to be here my whole damn life. And to be in a place where I can be my full self. Again, growing up, I’ve always had to downplay or hide parts of myself—my weirdness [Laughs]. I think I’m a weird person, but in a good way. In high school, I was stupid weird. I used to wear tall Dr. Seuss hats and backwards overalls and mismatched Chuck Taylors and whatnot. And kids would be like, “Yo, what the fuck?” And I’d be like, “Fuck you. You don’t get it. Be yourself!” But I think now that’s just meshed itself into my adult identity in a way that I really don’t give a shit what people think. In this community, there’s so much of that energy, of just people in their own individuality and just displaying that and letting the world catch it. Do what you want with it. I love that. I think everyone has a mutual respect for each other for the people that they are and that’s what I’ve always wanted and just needed. Just the sort of womanhood and trans folks too, just everybody just appreciating themselves and each other. Whatever we may go through. There’s definitely a support in this community for that and each other. Love it.
ELIXHER: Is this support and acceptance exclusive to NYC?
UNIQUE: We understand queerness a little better. I don’t think smaller cities have a grasp on that. I think it’s still very binary. Are you dom or are you femme? You top or you bottom? At the end of the day, it’s not about that man, it’s us. We are all in this shit. I think NYC definitely, like many other big cities I imagine, has opened up the door for people to express their full selves. I don’t consider myself to be dom or femme, butch, none of that. I’m Unique. If you must, I’ll say andro-queer. [Laughs.] Just throw it out there. Gender presentation is that. It’s the culture of New York that embraces everybody for who they are and also the fact that there are so many transplants here, so we’re all bringing all of those energies here and it’s just this big ass pot.
ELIXHER: What changes would you like to see in the community?
UNIQUE: Like many other communities it’s very cliquish. Some people that I’ve met, I feel like they’re so welcoming, but a lot of people are still like, “Who are you?” and I’m like, “Who are you?” is the real question. What is that about? No, that’s not ok. It’s just young shit but that’s everywhere you go. And I also think there’s a lot of conversations that we aren’t having. We are definitely unified by the fact that we’re Black, we’re queer, mostly female, female-bodied, but we don’t really discuss class much and I think people come from very different class backgrounds. It’s assumed that we’re all alike…and it’s not true.
ELIXHER: What’s next for Unique?
UNIQUE: Well for one, I know I need to record more, so I can really get out my mixtape—and that’s poetry and kLetamaniak. Two, I’m just going to keep writing. I’m really trying to put together unemployment memoirs. Sounds crazy. “Fun-employment Memoirs,” I call it. It’s just including all the stuff I’ve been working on recently. Three, I want to see the world, man. I don’t want to feel so confined. I just want to head west. Head abroad or something. I don’t know where, but I just want to go somewhere. It’s that, you know, my money’s funny. Um, yea. In the next five years, I want to go back to school, and by five, I mean three. I don’t know where that number came from. I really want to go back to school and get my Masters. Honestly I need to find a piece of work. I think I want to work in reproductive justice. So that’s what’s next in the sort-term and long-term.
ELIXHER: Is there anything else you want to add?
UNIQUE: Keep love alive. [Laughs.]