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March 25

“A Decision to Dream Bigger”: An Interview with Gem Nwanne

Class consciousness is being raised; people from all over the world are learning about revolutionary concepts; the youth are engaging with proletarian theory. This is all happening on an app built for lip syncs and meme dances.

For those who don’t know, TikTok is a social media platform where you can make and view brief looping videos. Initially, most TikToks just revolved around mouthing along to a song clip, but now there’s a lot of dancing, comedy, cosplay, cooking, and so on. The specific content you’re recommended will vary.

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why would u say something so controversial yet so brave? ACAB! abolish police!!!

A post shared by Gem (@urdoingreat) on

Gem Nwanne, whose TikTok is @urdoingreat, is doing something really cool with the platform. They’ve been making entertaining videos about radical subjects, and over the past seven months, their audience has grown significantly.

I recently spoke with Gem about TikTok, queerness, community, and the coronavirus crisis.

So, you started posting on TikTok in the summer of 2019, is that right?

I think my very first TikTok was like August, but it was kind of a bullshit TikTok, like I didn’t really have a plan. I didn’t have a plan for TikTok until like, honestly, November. I think that was when I made my first political TikTok. So this has been a wild ride, only been a few months.

@urdoingreatcuz u homophobic anti black fucks cant imagine a world where black queer people can theorize & plan & build all without ur input♬ It’s Up Freestyle – Lil Keed

Yeah, that first TikTok was just dancing and stuff.

Yep, I was kinda just joking around. I didn’t have a purpose on TikTok until I’d been on the app for awhile. After a few months, I saw the full spectrum of political thought on TikTok. Some of the kids are white supremacists, and some of the kids are communists. I wanted my voice in there too.

Totally, yeah. I’m curious, what drew you to the platform initially?

I had a bunch of friends who were like “Gem, you’d do well on TikTok.” For years, I would get on Instagram and rant about politics, or dance, or tell dumb jokes; so TikTok was definitely a good platform for me to do all those things. It’s supposed to be for the children, and I’m supposed to be an adult or whatever. So I didn’t get on for a long time, but I eventually gave in. I was like, fuck it, the kids are the future. If they like it, then let me see what’s up. And my friends were right; I fell in love almost immediately.

There’s a lot of zoomers on there.

Right. I’m at a point where I’m like, technically I’m not a zoomer, but I’m gonna call myself a zoomer. I’m definitely gonna claim it. I think the zoomers are the future. They’re a lot more forward-thinking than, I think, the millennials are. I’m kinda getting bored with the millennial lack of imagination.

You seem to value radical imaginations a lot.

Yeah, that’s like the biggest deal to me. I need us to be able to think outside of what we are given. And Gen Z is really good at that because they’ve grown up with the worst conditions. When you grow up in absolute hell, you kind of don’t have a choice but to imagine something better. I’m grateful for that, I’m drawn to that. That’s what I want to do with my own platform: force us to imagine something bigger and better.

For sure, for sure. There’s a lot of left-wing subject matter in your TikToks. Do you think you’re educating users of the app who hadn’t really been exposed to leftist theory?

I hope so, that’s definitely my goal. I want to expose folks who would never open a leftist theory book but will be on TikTok to leftist theory in a way that’s easier to digest and understand. Also less elitist, and less classist.

Totally, that’s a solid goal. So, videos with the hashtag ‘lgbt’ have around 10 billion cumulative views on TikTok. There’s been a lot of queer folks on the app for a long time, but a lot of the content feels lacking. It’s often very white, very cis, not very radical. Your work seems like a fierce departure from that trend.

Yeah, I got on TikTok and I was so bored with the representation. The TikTok algorithm is kinda terrifying in that it picks up on exactly what kind of person you are, and tries to show you people that it thinks represent you.

Yeah, it’s kinda creepy.

So TikTok quickly became clued-in to the fact that I’m a flaming queer. And I was being shown all this queer content, and it was so white, and so attached to the binary, and so cis. I was just so bored. I’m like, where is the radical queerness that I claim as my own. I just didn’t see anybody that looked like me. So I decided, if I was looking for that kind of content, then there would have to be other people like me who were looking for that content. Or there had to be people whose minds I could change, who would be willing to listen to this content, to see this content.

@urdoingreatlet’s get CREATIVE♬ Impossible – benny__no

Well you’ve spoken often about issues of community. In a tweet from November, you said “I’m tired of not knowing who my community is.” That really stuck with me. Would you expand on that?

Absolutely. I think the issue is, when we say queer, right, for me “queer” is about politics. Queer is a way of viewing the world. It is a decision to remove myself from the binary, from the confines of gender. It’s a decision to remove myself from politics as we know it, a decision to dream bigger, to want more.

A lot of the time, I’ll talk to people who identify as queer, but are still very much stuck in the way that we’ve been socialized. I’ve talked to other queer people that are very much trapped in the binary, can’t think outside of boy and girl. Can’t think outside of Democrats and Republicans. Can’t think outside of capitalism and the idea that this is all we have, that we’re stuck here.

Queerness, to me, is a decision to think past that; to dream past that, and to work with my community past that. It hurts a lot, actually, to be in “queer” spaces with people who are content with capitalism, who are comfortable in the binary, who are okay living in a heteropatriarchal white supremacist society. It’s painful to not be able to build community because the word ‘queer’ has been so bastardized and diluted. That’s where that tweet came from: I need to know who my people are. Like, are you anti-capitalism? Are you against white supremacy? Are you here for the freedom of all, or are you not?

We need to be able to say this shit out loud, and decide where we’re going from here. That tweet came from a very angry place. It’s frustrating to interact with these people who share my identity, but have not allowed themselves to dream as big as we need to.

So that ties back to your point about having a radical imagination?

Exactly, yes. Very much so.

I guess a lot of what you’re talking about came up recently, when Pete Buttigieg was running for president. Being a trans woman, people would ask me ‘What do you think about this – a queer man running for president?’

“Queer?” Haha.

@urdoingreatelectoral politics are a waste of time & resources!! pas it on!♬ NEXT CALLERRRRR – willeauxwillzz

Yeah, I was like ‘there’s a gay man running for president.’ To me, queerness means something very different from what he represents.

Yeah.

So, we’re in the midst of a pandemic.

Ha. Well that was a segue.

Haha, yeah. Oof. Well, anyway, anarchists from all over have been coordinating mutual aid, organizing rent strikes, and generally mobilizing people. Do you think this crisis will highlight for folks the overarching cruelty of capitalism?

I think it has to, and I think anarchists and other leftists are doing exactly what we’re supposed to be doing right now. We’re showing up for each other, and showing people that the ways in which the government won’t help you, your community can and will. I think if people want more, want a difference, they’ll look around and see who was there for them when shit got hard. It’ll be us, it’ll be the anarchists, it’ll be the ‘crazy leftists’. And that’s exciting to me. I think in the times where capitalism fails, there is mass suffering, and for that I’m sorry. But there is also mass opportunity. There is an unbelievable amount of opportunity for us to prove that our shit works, that our theories work in real life. Mutual aid is keeping people fed and alive right now. In New York alone, we’ve raised thousands for the black people in New York that can’t eat, can’t pay rent. We did that, just us. Shit like that is happening all across the country, all across the world. The ways in which celebrities aren’t helping, billionaires aren’t helping, the government is not helping. We are helping each other, and that’s incredible.

@urdoingreatit is NOT what it is♬ original sound – urdoingreat

Yeah, and it does seem like everybody is angry. Even those who aren’t in radical circles see that there’s a problem.

Yep.

Do you think there’s an issue of a lot of people not being able to name the problem? Like, they can’t yet say “this is capitalism.”

I don’t think it’s an issue of not being able to name the problem. It’s a decision not to name the problem. Because once you say it out loud, like “capitalism is the problem”, then you have to start interrogating the ways in which you’re complicit, and start a process of unlearning. I’m looking around, and I can see a lot of liberals, a lot of folks who don’t want to consider themselves left-leaning. A lot of their hesitance is rooted in not wanting to do the work of unlearning. It is work, it is so much work. If anything at all, this crisis will put people up against that wall. Like, either we unlearn and start to build something new, or we keep getting trapped in this cycle and let this shit kill us. Those are our choices. The failing of capitalism puts you up against that wall. Will you die, or will you do the work? I’m watching a lot of people decide to close their eyes, but I’m also seeing a lot of people decide that it’s time to fight. I hope the latter group will outweigh the lazy ones.

It’s certainly harder to demonize the radicals if they’re the ones showing up.

Exactly that. I haven’t seen mutual aid pop up from the Democratic Party. I know Bernie has sent some money, but I think that’s all a part of that leftist swing to it, right. We are the ones doing work right now. How could you hate the people who are showing up for you right now?

Gem is @urdoingreat on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok.

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Tranarchy

"Tranarchy!" stands at the intersection of trans identity and revolutionary Leftist politics; it consists of radical news and analysis by journalist Evelyn Kronfeld.

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