Qil Jones: Forging Ahead

I think I just made a new friend. One of the best things about this column are the people that I get to meet each week. I happened to see Qil Jones on an episode of “Localish” on ABC and was inspired to get in touch. Jones is a Metal Bender, self-described Machine Witch, and the creator of Blackmarzian, a company inspired by traditions of black queer radical feminism as well as the folk art of blacksmiths in Africa. From the moment we started talking it felt like I was catching up with an old buddy. The interview took twice as long as it normally would because they spent as much time querying me as I did trying to find out about them. Safe to say, Qil Jones is a curious human. Fortunately, I was able to get in a few questions in with Jones whose statement, “I am dedicated to being a strangely useful character, all things considered” rang true throughout.

Are you a native Philadelphian?

I am, I am. My family has been here for several generations. My childhood home was over by 60th & Walnut, and I also spent a lot of my childhood in the Lansdowne and Yeadon area, and the farthest south I’ve lived was Cheney, PA. It’s interesting, coming full circle, I can still walk by my childhood home.

Nice! How big or small was the family?

Relatively big, I have 5 other siblings and I fall smack in the middle. 

How would your family have described you as a kid?

Hmmm, I would say they’d say I was smart. Yeah, smart, artsy, and strange. I had the perception of being the smarty-pants in the family. I was definitely the weirdo, freaky, outlier kid. And adventurous too, I still am. I’ve always had a little shock factor with my presence, which my family has always been cool about. 

Qil is a name I hadn’t heard before. Do your siblings have unique names too, or are they Bob and Cathy, etc.? In my family, everyone has gender build names. My brother is Hillary, my father was Leslie and my mother is Toni. I’m the gay one and I’m Suzi. 

That’s funny. I’d say we were all unique, I grew up in a Muslim family, so most of our names are Arabic, and one of us has a Swahili name. 

As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I always wanted to be some kind of inventor, I loved drawing and coming up with different imaginative designs for things. I also really wanted to work with metal, I played a lot of games that made me interested in forming a material relationship with metal. Video games that had sci-fi and fantasy elements, swords and magic, and all that. It definitely motivated me to want to learn how to work with metal. 

What was a favorite game?

It’s from 2006, and it’s called “Elder Scrolls: Oblivion.” I don’t really play video games anymore, but every once in a while I get that itch, ‘I think it might be time to play again!’ It’s a classic.

Who was a favorite teacher?

I’ve had a few inspirational teachers. I always think fondly of my kindergarten teacher, Miss Hayes, from Alden Elementary who was instrumental in teaching me how to read. That set me up for life. In high school I had some great science teachers who really pushed me to struggle through and learn STEM concepts. I’d made a big transition and went from a public middle school, with a lot of poor, black, and brown kids to a very wealthy private high school that was mostly white. I was lucky to have some good teachers who really cared and paid attention to what I was experiencing.

What were some of the most difficult parts of making that transition?

The hardest part was just a major shift in how I was racialized. [Laughing] My whole concept for understanding my race shifted to a completely different space. I was also beginning to think about gender and sexuality at the time. I was lucky that the school had sex-ed classes which not everyone can say, but I found that while other kids may have had attention paid to their burgeoning sense of sexuality and gender, I felt seen only as just a black person, if that makes sense.

It does, we’re often either portrayed as hyper sexual, or totally neutered. 

Yes! I still think about those experiences, and it’s not just in school, but the world at large. 

There was a poet, Becky Birtha, who had a funny piece about not fitting into the black community because she acted, “too white,” and then going to a predominantly white school where they assumed she was the authority on everything black. I’d guess you had a similar experience.

[Laughing] Oh, I surely did! And it took a toll on me and my body! I became the resident rapper, I had to learn to dance, people wanted to touch and pick my hair, and oh, my it was a crazy experience. I’ll have to look up that poet. 

Changing gears, what’s something that looking back, your folks would say, “Well, that should have been a clue that Qil was going to be on the LGBTQ+ scale”?

Ha! Aside from my entire life? I would say there was a noticeable difference in the way I inhabited my queerness in high school. I’ve always been seen as a rebellious kid but in high school I started experimenting with makeup and different looks. Without really talking about it or asking permission, I just came home like that and it was pretty obvious that I was a queer kid. 

What was your queerest item of clothing?

This probably deserves a deep psychological dive, but I think it was my Thobe. Are you familiar with them? It’s the traditional garb worn by Muslim men.

I think so, looks like a caftan? 

Yes, and for me as a child, it was interesting to put it on because it felt like a dress to me, which was kind of cool. I wore it like a dress and I felt confusingly queer in it. And sometimes I would wear my mom’s khimars which are the long, layered dresses the women wear, or her niqab which is the veil.

I’m giggling to myself because in my ignorance, when you said ‘Thobe’ the first thing that popped in my head was a combo thong and robe! 

Ha! I love that! I’m also a fashion designer, I’ll make some sketches! We may be on to something! 

[Laughing] Well I get 5% in royalties! Okay, I watch too much Shark Tank. So, back to you, you went on to Drexel. What did you study?

I went to school for product design, which is learning how to manufacture things, the design research and the process and how to use machinery. It was not always the best experience there but I’m glad I went through the process. 

And what are you doing these days?

I was creating a lot of pieces for sale during the pandemic, like my head crests and jewelry, which are the things you saw in the ABC segment. But now I mostly design for myself. Those things are interesting to make but they weren’t driving my play with metal, which I need. If I’m not playing with metal, experimenting with it, it’s hard for me to do other things. I make tools that are specific for me and if other people like them, then I’m happy to make something for them. 

Now I make what I consider tools of Afrofuturism and I’m learning about the possibilities between micromanufacturing, folklore and Afropresentism. I like to make items that can be worn that involve some kind of experimentation with the public. I try to wear things every day that promote conversations with strangers. Some people will say, “You look like you’re from Wakanda” [chuckling] and I’m like, “No, I don’t even like Black Panther.” People see me as so many different things when I step outside, and I do my own research on those points of interaction. I take field notes and go back to refine the products that I’ve created. Like on my eyes right now, I have something that I call an under frame. I think it has an influence on the way we relate. 

I guess it works because I find my eye drawn to the piece in the middle of your glasses which forces me to have much more eye contact then I might normally have. 

Yup, yup, yup, that’s part of the phenomena! 

What is your process for design?

I love working with machines, so I have a makers space on the upper floor of my apartment, I have… [Qil goes on to describe a LOT of cool sounding machines, including 3D printers and a lot of metal work stuff]. My work is rooted in visual and fabrications. I like to use both when creating.   

What’s a favorite piece?

My favorite would have to be the under frames. The way people interact with them versus the head crests is different. It’s just so exciting being able to experiment with eye contact. In the society that we live in there are so many variables in the way we make contact, I feel like this kind of piece is really bringing my attention to the way we relate. I’ll get back to the head crests at some point but right now I’m working on new things including electronic wearables. I’m wearing one right now that was incredibly difficult for my brain to decipher; I’m happy that I finally figured out how to at least get it around my neck and functional, but I have far to go. 

I understand that you teach as well.

Yes, I work over at the Community College of Philly. I’m their junior stem academic mentor. I work with middle schoolers, high schoolers and college kids teaching them how to code, how to do robotics, and how to work with machinery. It’s been very fulfilling. And it helps me with balance and discipline! 

I’d imagine so! Let’s talk about your LGBTQ journey. 

Sure, I identify as trans and so does my partner. As for coming into that, I’d say in 2016 or so I was spending a lot of time with Black women feminists who were very inspirational in helping me understand how I inhabit my body and how I relate to the world. I mean I’ve been out for a long time, so it’s difficult to try to imagine a time when I wasn’t. I came out first as pansexual and then as I looked closer at the sexuality and gender aspect, I realized that I’ve never felt like a cis-normative person. I’ve discovered that where I am now feels right. I first made a social media statement about it in 2020. I’ve since had childhood friends whom I’ve reconnected with who said, “Well, you were always just like one of the girls and that’s how we thought of you” and it was like, “Wow, thank you for healing that part of me that forgot that I was having trans feelings as a kid.” 

It’s always great to be validated. Now let’s go to some random questions: I would love to be stuck in an elevator with…

Fascinating. I’d say Rhiannon Giddens, do you know her? She’s a very prominent  Black singer, fiddler and banjo player. I would love to talk to her because music is a very big part of my work. Music making and also tracing my lineages. She has so much history related to banjos and the black style of playing them. Do you have a personal relationship with music? 

I sing, but I come from musicians. My great grandfather conducted the Negro Symphony in Chicago and my grandmother was a prodigy who specialized in the piano. Her brother played classical violin and the fiddle. My brother sings too, and a lot of the next generation are musicians, my nephew is a choir teacher and plays the piano. It’s like the generations switch, instrumental then vocal then instrumental. Do you play any instruments?

I do. Several! I play the kora, the one I have is a 22 string West African harp; and the kamele ngoni, which is sometimes called the “young man’s harp”.  I play the xalam which is the jeli ngoni and an ancestor of the banjo. I also play a six string banjo, and the mbira which is sometimes called a thumb piano. 

Do you listen to music while you work, and if so what’s on the play list? 

It depends. Sometimes I just need that quiet space with nothing else happening other than my thoughts and the tippety tapping of my hammer, other times I listen to anything from African music to T-Pain. I listen to hyper-pop, electronic music, and every once in a while I’ll do some ambient. 

Let’s end with a favorite word that begins with the letter Q.

It’ll have to be Qil! The other night I was having a community gathering at my place and people were cracking up because one of the people said, “I always thought your name was ‘Quill’, like the pen. Why didn’t you ever correct me?” And I said, “Well, sometimes I kind of liked it because I do a lot of writing! So being called Quill on occasion was fun.”

So that I have it correctly, you pronounce it like Kill, yes?

[Laughing] Yes, which is interesting saying to strangers at times. 

Imagine if you were Tarzan! “You Jane, me Kill!” 

Right! Or saying, “It’s Qil… as in Kill!” [Laughing] I have to be very careful how I introduce myself. In actuality, my name in Arabic means “wise, intelligent old man” and that’s followed and defined me in lots of interesting ways throughout my life.

From what I know of you, that sounds more appropriate. But I did appreciate the laughs! 

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