There’s a setting used in some of the ambient noise interstitial scenes between videos in Meka Jean’s “visual long play,” Still (a) Life, released at the end of January. It first appears between tracks two and three, “Distortion” and “Too Good for You.” It’s within the abandoned frame of a building, likely in Alabama, where most of those short scenes were filmed. There is a foundation, but no roof. The sun shines hot on Meka Jean as she exercises to the cues of an off-camera personal trainer (who makes a couple of appearances later in the piece).
On the wall, there is distinct graffiti in white of doorways — all angles and lines and perspective. It catches the eye even more often than Meka Jean herself, despite her extraordinary presence. The doorways demand conversation. They seem to be saying, “Some doors just can’t open, and that’s OK,” but also, simultaneously, “I’ll make a door any-damn-where I please.”
Much of Still (a) Life weaves in and out of similar themes of wayfinding, both the kind that we grasp for ourselves and the kind that comes from letting go. Track four, “Fly,” is rife with this (and it begins following a several-second camera linger on one of those doorways). “Honey, can’t you see that you’re killing yourself slowly,” it opens. “Stop walkin’ around here with your eyes closed and your mouth open, yeah — or you’re never gonna see who you’re supposed to be.” Visually, it ping-pongs between scenes of Meka Jean riding a motorcycle around Cedar Rapids, vestiges of derecho damage lining the streets, browned and withered but not yet picked up, and the recurring imagery of her lying down, spattered in glitter, opening her body as a doorway, a conversation.
Meka Jean is the performance persona of T.J. Dedeaux-Norris, an artist and a professor in the art department at the University of Iowa. Or it might be the other way around, or they might just be two personas crafted on the same scaffolding.
“The whole point is that there are all these partitions of identity, and it can be whatever,” Dedeaux-Norris said in a recent interview. “In the context of the nature of the content, me being a professor is important, right? The fact that I need to build Meka Jean as an identity to talk about some of this stuff is the point, too. Professor T.J. Dedeaux-Norris maybe doesn’t have permission to twerk in a protest environment. … Meka Jean is the persona that can do that stuff.”
Meka Jean and Dedeaux-Norris move through the doorways of one another fluidly when we speak, although their roles and realities are distinct. Meka Jean internalized the stereotypes she experienced in youth, she internalized rap music and portrayals of Black and brown women in media. She both embraces and engages the problematic.
But, says Dedeaux-Norris, “We can mold ourselves into anything — all of it’s drag.”
“T.J. as a professor shows up in rectangles and triangles, doesn’t wear anything that reveals anything, really tries to be asexual … whereas Meka is all about it — and needs the controlled environment of the music video to feel safe, even, or the actual stage. The only way I can embody that language, that persona, that flirtiness is if I feel wholly safe … or to say some of the things that are being said politically or about feminism.”
Meka Jean, Dedeaux-Norris said, “knows how to get the point fucking home.”
“Rap as a medium is its own fucking crazy thing: It’s braggadocio, it’s hardcore. You gotta come with it.”
But Dedeaux-Norris knows the world that they live in, too: As a fine artist and gallery darling, they knows that they need to contextualize their work — the visual LP was released in tandem with a press release doing so explicitly, with references to Meka Jean’s earlier work and the current political moment, calling it “a powerful response to the actual and perceived limitations of Black identity in the United States today.”
That’s all true, of course. And as a piece of art, it accomplishes that. But it’s also a success inside its medium. Meka Jean and Dedeaux-Norris are on either side of a swinging door that they are constructing between mediums, between registers, between personas, between academia and art.
“It’s not an either/or,” Dedeaux-Norris said. “I do a lot of the same things in my painting, but it just presents itself in a different way. I can’t make a painting that says, ‘fuck you’ to white feminism. I don’t know how to do that. I guess I could, but I don’t even want to do that with my paintings. I want my paintings to be relieved of that responsibility,” they said.
Meka Jean dives deep into that space that Dedeaux-Norris opens up for her. She does, indeed, say “fuck you” to white feminism, especially in tracks like “Ivy League Ratchet” and closer “EZ Does It,” but truly in her whole being. She embodies a feminism that is distinctly gendered, but also distinctly Black, throwing up every perceived wall that a certain class of white feminists often finds off-putting about Black women — a different kind of aggressive self-possession, that braggadocio of rap layered onto a female body that owns the space it inhabits without apology.
“Black women, we’re out here, we gotta be our own mamas, our own daddies … It’s something that I feel strongly about, that I negotiate. I’m under five feet tall! I don’t give a fuck what kind of fantasy people have in their mind about the strength of Black women. Fuck you; I’m tired! And I want to not feel critiqued for being tired. … I had to create T.J. because when I go into the university environment, I don’t want to portray any level of weakness or femininity or something like that,” Dedeaux-Norris said.
“It’s fucking exhausting,” Dedeaux-Norris says of existing both as T.J. and as Meka Jean “but it is the only mode of survival. Nobody gave us a fucking handbook when we showed up in this bitch. Nobody. … In that way, I feel like I am doing the most resourceful thing I can do in these times to survive in a world that requires me literally to be a lot of things at once.”
Still (a) Life balances that strength and those perceptions of strength as well. There’s the interstitials where Meka Jean engages in strength training exercises, as well as the other in-between scenes where she layers on clothing and stares sedately, holding a strength in stillness. There’s the strength of her gaze as she demands or rejects the viewer’s focus. There’s the strength of bravado in opener “Thought I Told Ya” and the strength of admitting weakness in “OxyContin,” two tracks that both play, in opposite ways, with the imagery of guns.
Dedeaux-Norris tells a recent story of getting locked out of their new studio space in Coralville, and the refusal of facilities workers to help them get back in, and the awkwardness and discomfort of having to reach out to a colleague for help. It’s an example of the way in which they have yet to feel comfortable in a space like Iowa City, despite the ostensible prestige that comes with being a professor. But as they prepare to move from Cedar Rapids, where they have lived since moving to Iowa five years ago, to Iowa City, they’ll have to learn to extend their notion of self and strength.
“Truth be told, I can never hide my Blackness in real time and space. I can on the phone. I can suspend your belief for a little while, right, by being T.J. Dedeaux-Norris. You don’t know what the fuck that is. But Meka Jean explicitly holds the sort of ethnic, genderized — I still want to retain an identity that houses [that]. I am Black and proud. I am. I really am. And Blackness is many things. Blackness is more American than fucking America is. Obviously. We’re watching it.”
The negotiations of place and identity are a third thread weaving through Still (a) Life. Many of the videos were shot in Cedar Rapids, in Dedeaux-Norris’ home and yard. One, “Too Good for You,” was shot in New Orleans. The title track was shot in Los Angeles. Each new space navigated, each threshold crossed, holds a new consideration of identity for Meka Jean. She is the chameleon; she makes space for herself anywhere; she opens doors. It’s not always that simple for Dedeaux-Norris.
“Across many universities, most people of color, most LGBTQIA, most queer, most first generation, cannot afford to live on primary real estate of where their university is, of where they are employed. And if they are, they’re house poor. It’s hard.”
L.A. was similar; Dedeaux-Norris lived there for 15 years, went to community college there and then UCLA — their style was honed there. They left at 30 for graduate school and found themself priced out when they tried to return, living in a warehouse in Inglewood — a “tin can” with no insulation.
“It would’ve been cute for me in my 20s,” they said, “but I’m fuckin’ grown.”
That’s when they applied for the Grant Wood Fellowship on a whim, thinking that nine months in Iowa was manageable, and promptly fell in love with the new art school building that had just been built.
“I don’t think I’m going anywhere,” Dedeaux-Norris said — despite recent challenges: the threat of tenure elimination, the pressure in the legislature to ban the 1619 Project from schools. “There’s just more bandwidth. I can use my intelligence, I can use my resourcefulness here, and it will get me a lot longer than living somewhere else.”
But making a life in Iowa work means doubling down on a conscious opening of doors — a wayfinding toward each other: the hard work of making communication and collaboration happen between BIPOC people in the region.
“It’s going to require more conversations like this,” they said. “We have to do a more radical job of getting in the room with each other.”
Genevieve Trainor is still trying to find an identity and a connection to place after almost 19 years in Iowa, but is starting to think of that process with excitement instead of dread. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 292.