Free To Be: SAFE SPACE Artist Elizabeth Kaikai on the Media and Why She's Passionate About Storytelling
Bri Heath: Thank you for agreeing to talk with me, Liz! Could you introduce yourself?
Elizabeth Kaikai: My name is Elizabeth Kaikai, I'm twenty-one years...young, and...
Bri: [laughs] You ain't that old!
Liz: [laughs} And, I go to Columbia College Chicago majoring in Broadcast Journalism.
Bri: What do you like about that major? What led you to that field?
Liz: So, journalism I chose because I am interested in telling stories. When I was young I felt like someone always formed my story for me. So, when I chose journalism I started to become comfortable in who I am, and take ownership of my own story. That led to wanting to let others know that it's okay to form your own story. My parents are from Sierra Leone, and I've found that it is very common among foreign parents to want their child to become a doctor or lawyer, something like that. My dad had my life all set up for me. He was like, "When you become this age you gon' do this. You gon' get this...and when you're done you gon' get a Master's. He had my life all planned out for me. Even though I knew he had my best interest at heart, I just knew that it wasn't something what I wanted to do. I ended up losing myself along the way. I had to start over. I had to reform my own story. When I noticed it was something I couldn't carry on with, and something I needed to break free from, I wanted to do the same for other people, standing as someone in service to people. I knew that I couldn't tell others what to say like my dad did to me, but I wanted people to look to me as another tool they could use to help find themselves. When I came to Columbia, I was like, yeah, journalism + artistry = storytelling. This was before I knew about the fabrication in the news and things like that.
Bri: We gon' talk about that [laughs]...
Liz: I chose journalism because of storytelling, and I chose broadcast/radio because I felt like it was a strong medium for me. I know how to put words together, and convey something either when I'm trying to appeal to someone's emotion or appeal to someone's strengths.
Bri: Talk a little bit about the "fabrication in the media." What does that mean to you?
Liz: Well, when I first found out about it, it was kind of disheartening, and I felt like it turned my art form into something that was less credible.
One of my professors was talking about how to write stories and how to use facts [alluding to changing facts]. I raised my hand, and said "Well I don't think that's right." She said, "Let me tell y'all a story. My first job in Chicago was in the number three market. As I wrote my story, I did exactly what you said, Elizabeth. I put the facts in the story exactly how it happened, and I turned it in. My editor and producer looked at me as if something was wrong. So I asked what was wrong. Did I make a mistake? They said, 'I know you're new in this business so let me go ahead and rewrite this for you." They rewrote it and gave back to hear, telling her to read it. When she read she saw that they didn't just edit the mistakes, they edited the content, and made the story appear false. They responded like, "Oh no! We just Fox-ified it." When my professor told us that story--and this isn't the first story I've heard before--I immediately felt like this isn't the type of journalism, broadcast, media I want to do. It is basically promoting the issues in our world today.
The media has power. So, whatever they put out in the world, people consume it. It's entering their minds, whether they reject it or accept. And, I can't stand to go into a business where I'm feeding people lies. I feel like I'm doing a disservice not only to the people who are listening to me, but I'm doing a disservice to myself because I don't believe in that.
Bri: So, what is your artistic process like?
Liz: My artistic process...I am an observer. I observe a lot. I watch a lot. That's why I love the big windows in my apartment [laughs]. I'm NOT a stalker [Bri and Liz laugh]! I don't be looking into other people's windows or anything like that. I just watch people. I'm always curious like, "What did that person do today?" "Why is that person looking like that?" "What are they about to do?" "Ooo! They look happy. They must be going to 'so-and-so' place."
After I observe people, I want a story to match every emotion. In my mind, I know that everybody's had a time when they've been sad. Everybody's had a time when they've been happy, and everybody's had a time when they've been unsure. So, I'm curious about what that looks like in different cultures, in different spaces, with different genders, and just in different vessels. Every time I listen to the people around me, the people whom I'm close to, I'm amazed at how--even though I live with these people--their experiences are still different from mine because they live in a totally different body, a totally different vessel. They perceive things differently.
So my creative process is exploring those questions. Before I start writing a story, before I start talking to someone, I already have a list of questions in mind. That's why my words sometimes get jumbled. I'm quick to throw out my thoughts because I already have a list of questions in mind. To some of [those questions] I try to predict what someone's answer might be; it amazes me when their answer is totally different from what I thought it would be! So that's something that interests me in my creative process.
I also love words. A word placed in the front of sentence means something different than when it is placed in the middle or the end of a sentence. So taking things from journalism and putting them into something like poetry it's amazing to me. It takes on a different art form. That is really interesting to me. I [also] thrive off of nature and the information people give me. Whether I'm outside or if someone says something to me--these are points of inspiration for me. Whether it's a word, phrase or action, I always ask myself, "Why did they do that? Why did they say that?" And, I keep thinking and thinking and it leads to me creating something.
Bri: How are you putting all of these ideas into practice? Of course, you're a journalist, but what are your other outlets? What do you want to do with what you got?
Liz: Umm...that's a question I'm still asking myself [laughs]. My plain and simple answer when I was young--when my mom would ask what I wanted to be--I'd tell her I just want to be free. Everybody is telling me to do something--I just want to be free. And, I didn't know how big of a word I was using because freedom comes in all different kinds of ways. Freedom to some people might mean I want to free myself from injustice. Freedom to some people might mean I want to be free in my art--free to write, free to do whatever. But, in that moment [of talking to my mom] freedom meant everything to me. I just wanna be. I just want y'all to leave me alone [laughs]. Let me be free from everything y'all are telling me to do, and free from everything y'all are telling me to become.
Coming back to self, I knew the things that I enjoyed growing up, but when I ask myself now about my art forms, I'm like, "Oh, I like to do poetry; I like to play around with music; I like to write stories. But, then I ask myself, "Is my creative medium something I like or something I'm good at." I always question myself, "Am I good at writing poetry? Am I good at writing stories? Is that serving a purpose? Is that good? Or is it something that I consider a hobby, something that I like?" Those are things I wrestle with everyday.
When I ask myself what I want to do in the future, it's helping people achieve those same feelings that brought me happiness. Feeling that freedom to create...especially with kids. That's where it started for me. I had to discover myself all over again. So many people tried to do the thinking for me while I was growing up. I had so many big shoes to fill. To my family, it was like, "Oh, your brother didn't do this...your sister didn't do this...so now it's all on you." So, I just want to help people feel comfortable in their art form. I know that as a journalist, I can't do it in the same forms that they are teaching. Big markets, ABC, WGN, and all that stuff. I see myself in a place where I'm not only helping people, but also helping myself. I hope that makes sense [laughs].
Bri: It does! It makes ALL the sense [laughs]. Thank you Lizzy Liz!
Liz: No problem! Thank you!
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