The Many Sides Of Key: An Interview With Key’Aira Lockett

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 have shaped her radical stance and oriented her in the work of building a truly liberated future.

I spoke to her one Tuesday afternoon at the onset of the pandemic. There was construction going on in the apartment above me and anxiety from the 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. I learned who Key’Aira is. One story she shared stuck with me because it revealed so much about her worldview. To start, she described how her family used to live in a home with limited space, but they somehow made sharing it easy. In times of quiet and solitude, they would each claim their spot and through decided imagination and focus make those square inches a world of its own. Soon, Key’Aira’s mother bought a house with more space, a fixer upper. And she enlisted the help of Key’aira and her brother to do the fixing, 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 inside the walls of her new home, but 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, and welcome.

“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 called Behaviors Cemetery named such because the Black folks buried there were those who the local white power structure deemed respectable and well-behaved. The Black folks who did not meet this twisted standard were, at some point before they could meet a natural end, lynched and thrown into the swamp. Key’Aira’s cousin, Ahmaud Arbery, 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 February morning. The last time Key’Aira saw him was at a family reunion on Sapelo Island in 2019. Key’Aira so very clearly keeps the memory of Ahmaud as she moves 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 the agenda of creating wealth among Boston’s black community, the importance of which is made even more distinct by her cousin’s death. So much of the recent resistance and protest has been in response to the erasure of black life from space--From neighborhoods, from books, screens, 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.

Key’Aira’s connection to her family and her history, her connection to Sapelo Island, is 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 and framed by hanging willow leaves. In the foreground you can see a small brown figure--Key’Aira. 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 our communities; And Key’Aira’s presence, leaning gently against a bent tree trunk, alludes to the centrality typically marginalized perspectives 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 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.

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 that future and doing things their own way. Seated across from her guests at a rectangular table with a red brick wall for the backdrop, the energy between Key’Aira and 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, and process.

Typically, Key’Aira is not well acquainted with her guests beforehand. But she has found that one thing though, that is guaranteed to get the juices flowing--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. It is comfort and familiarity. It is intimacy. Sharing a meal, breaking bread, helps create a home-like atmosphere during her interviews, where guests feel settled enough to be their most authentic 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. 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 often party to lively and enlightening discussions. She always wished she could record and share these encounters. Key’Aira knew there were other artists and entrepreneurs who would appreciate a platform where they could educate and impart hard earned wisdoms. In Dinner With Key, Key’Aira has created such a platform.

I asked her which interviews had been her favorite, and she could not choose just one. She began listing all of them-- her interviews with artists like Stanley Rameau, with Dzidzor, with Black Picasso, etc., and explaining in detail why she loved each one. She told me how one of the best parts is being able to follow and support the progress of these artists and their projects after the interview is over.

Reflecting on how far she has come, Key’Aira described her career path as non-linear. She pursues autonomy and representation through independent projects in movement and media and pursues justice within established social and political institutions. The duality is admirable. 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. Roles like Key’Aira’s are meant to act as a bulwark for students and a resource for teachers. The myth that Boston is a progressive city runs alongside the reality of the systemic racism present in its social, political, and educational institutions. Key’Aira’s frustrated experience in this role, a role specifically geared toward eradicating discriminatory ideology in the classroom, is indicative of the liberal mask that hides the deep impact and staying power of racist policies and curricula, particularly when those who keep it in place have no true desire for change. Key’Aira confided to me that her difficulties as a Culturally Responsive Pedagogy leader soon became tiresome. Administrators and teachers often undermined her efforts to effect change by tone policing to avoid responsibility or by prioritizing irrelevant policies. It was a lonely road to walk-- one that did not yield the kind of harvest Key’Aira expected.

The myth that Boston is a progressive city runs alongside the reality of the systemic racism present in its social, political, and educational institutions.

She 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 culture 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 creators to share their work and reap the benefits, and for cultural patrons to gain access to the enriching creativity they have been looking for.

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 flat. Addressing this takes intentionality and boldness. 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. 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 guiding Key’Aira in her many 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 far Key’Aira’s reach of concern and action goes. She shines 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. There’s an uncompromising commitment to her convictions that guides 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 he or she moves. 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 along side her.

Key'Aria can be found on IG @keyairalockett and Youtube here. Check out her book, “Freedom as Futurity” on Amazon.

Taylor L McTootle can be found on IG @tayslore.