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Life & Work with Dr. DJ Kuttin Kandi

Today we’d like to introduce you to Dr. DJ Kuttin Kandi.

Hi DJ Kuttin Kandi, it’s an honor to have you on the platform. Thanks for taking the time to share your story with us – to start maybe you can share some of your backstory with our readers?
I was born as Candice Custodio-Tan but I’m more known as DJ Kuttin Kandi. My pronouns are they/she. I was born and raised in Queens, New York raised by my im/migrant family from the Philippines. My mother, at a young adult age, traveled with one of her 6 siblings to America to seek a new life, one that would help and support her family back home. My father, also came to America at a young age and joined the Navy.

While my grandparents (my mother’s parents) were able to come to America not too long after my mother and her sister arrived, it would take another 10 years till the rest of my mother’s family were able to join them in the United States. Since birth, I was mostly raised by my Lola (grandmother, my mother’s mother) as both of my parents had to work. When the rest of my mother’s siblings were able to join us in the states, I was already 15 years old trying to understand who I was in this world as a curious and rebellious teen. While it was not easy living with 26 family members in our home, it was the reality of our im/migrant experience that taught me a lot about community care.

Both of my parents worked extremely hard as my mother who originally was a teacher in the Philippines worked in Manhattan in the direct marketing era of the 1980’s in the accounting department while my father worked different jobs as a service worker in the food industry. On the weekends my parents had a food vendor business selling Filipino food at street fairs throughout New York City. This brought extra income to our home as it was never easy to provide for 4 different families in one household on the corner street of our home in Flushing, Queens.

By the time I was 18 years old, my father was struck with cancer for the 2nd time in his life. He was lucky to have survived the first cancer when I was ten years old. At such a young age, I was already used to accompanying my grandmother to SSI to help her with her paperwork while also helping fix the dressing on my father’s back where the urine bag was attached. So, caregiving came instinctively for me. Nonetheless, it was still a painful and devastating experience watching my father slowly die from cancer as my mother fell into deep medical debt from trying to save my father’s life traveling city to city searching for different cancer treatments. This upbringing had a large impact on my upbringing and how I understood the im/migrant experience which really has much to do with my nature to be compassionate, caring, and passionate about social justice. I was 19 years old when my father died. I was in college studying to be a nurse but my father’s death played a big role on what shifted my career. While I was inherently a caregiver at heart, a certified Medical Assistant and worked at a nursing home, I knew that I could no longer pursue a career in healthcare as I was still healing from my father’s death.

Still, I knew that my father’s life would still influence my own life and bring me to a different path. His love for music and record-collecting hobby was instrumental to how I became a DJ. Rather than following a course of nursing, I took his life and death as a message that “life was too short” and I needed to choose a path that fulfilled and inspired me differently than what was originally inspiring me as a nursing student. At the time, I was also surrounded by a lot of DJs, many whom were Hip Hop pioneers who also inspired my direction and mentored me. I joined several DJ crews including IBP and the 5th Platoon. I also co-founded a gender justice collective, the aNoMoLies. Soon, I began to compete in DJ/Turntablist competitions in the mid 1990s. I competed in over 20 competitions and landed some wins including becoming the 1998 USA Source Magazine Champion. Eventually, upon invitation, I became the first femme DJ to compete in the DMC USA Finals in 1998, which is much like the Olympics for DJs.

My DJ career was an experience of a lifetime as I was able to travel all over the world, DJ with and for some of the most phenomenal artists of the 90’s and early 2000’s. Truly, they were some of the best times of my life. Hip Hop will always be a part of my life. It’s actually the premise on how I lead and live my life. Hip Hop feminism, a term coined by Joan Morgan, taught me about empowerment but it also had me understand the grey areas especially as a femme of color, as a Filipinx. Hip Hop is political as it was about expression and defying the experiences of the injustices that young Black and Brown youth were experiencing in the South Bronx. It was a strategy of resistance and many of the Hip Hop pioneers taught me about always giving back to the community. They taught me that Organizing was foundational to Hip Hop. Hip Hop taught me about solidarity, and the Hxstory of Black culture and that as an Asian American, a Filipinx, I am merely just a guest in Hip Hop culture. Thus, it is my responsibility to always give back to the community, to be in solidarity with Black folx and all oppressed peoples. This is what Hip Hop and Hip Hop feminism taught me. Hence, it led me towards the pathway of becoming a Community Organizer. A part of me always knew that my life was meant to be more than a DJ – I knew that my life had to have meaning, have conviction and serve a purpose. I knew that it had to be greater than my life – a life of servitude.

So, while in the long run, I retired publicly as a DJ (I will always be a DJ at heart), after 25 years, I was still doing something with my life that was inspired by my upbringing, and my father’s life and death. All of it’s connected – all of it about surrendering to the unknown path, the “unexamined life” to be more critical about the self, and the world around me which continuously leads back to always finding purpose, all to find meaning – all about caregiving, justice and serving the people.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
It definitely has not been an easy road to get where I am today. And I don’t think it will ever be easy, I don’t expect it to be which is why I’ve been a fighter my whole life. In a society that has intentionally designed systems that tells you that you’re never good enough because you don’t fit the “norms” as a disabled, queer, gender-fluid femme – there will always be an obstacle and a challenge to prevent you from attaining not even a resource that you may need and rightfully deserve. I’ve definitely experienced a lot of trauma because of it all – and while I may both be “resilient” and “resistant” – no one should ever have to experience such a harrowing journey. I’ve definitely had a lot of joy in my life too. Both of my parents did a lot to protect me from knowing their own hardships but I was a pretty aware child growing up – I saw the struggles and eventually the lights not turning on because bills couldn’t be paid, the loss of our home, the distress of medical debt and the toll it took on my mother. I saw it all.

It only prepared me for my own hardship in life including surviving near-death experiences, mental health conditions, a major heart surgery in 2012, and my own medical debts. And of course, when you choose a career such as the music industry – it’s not an easy road with having to work full-time jobs in the day with dj gigs in the nights and the weekends. I didn’t finish college so I didn’t have the resume to prove I was worthy of “careers” so I had to rely on my networks and my innate entrepreneurial wits to be able to land jobs. Had it not been for that kind of survival instincts I don’t think I would have made it out of every twist and turn of being broke and brokenness. I’m also a parent with 2 children both whom are Special Education students, one of them a child with Down Syndrome. Being a parent is definitely not easy and it teaches me everyday about what it means to “show up.” But somehow I made it through – landed really good jobs in academia such as UC San Diego’s Women’s Center for seven years specializing in social justice & diversity programming and within Student Life at Diablo Valley College in the Bay Area to becoming a known lecturer and public speaker across the states the last 20 years to leading local to national organizations. Yet that didn’t come with no easy feat – the struggle was definitely a lot that sometimes I still surprise myself that I am still here breathing.

My grandparents and my parents have endured so much so I can be where I am today. And their parents before them. Our ancestors had to resist and fight to get here. And my life today is dedicated to the struggle so the next generation doesn’t have to struggle. But its more than just struggle, it’s about principled struggle, one grounded living with values such as collectivism, transformative justice and solidarity. And honestly, it’s because of those values I am where I am today. The collectivity of the community who have all mentored me, shaped me to be who I am today – all of who have inspired me, supported me, who gave me grace and taught me to be accountable… how to live my life in solidarity…. all of this comes full circle. I’m here because of them. I am here because of those values.

As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about what you do?
I’m mostly known as a “People’s Hip Hop DJ Scholar” due to my wide variety of skill sets and scholarly work I have done as both as a Hip Hop DJ and Community Organizer.

I am a Co-Founder and Executive Director of Asian Solidarity Collective as well as the Director of Campaigns & Organizing for the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans. I am a Co-Founder of national organizations, the People’s Collective for Justice and Liberation and the University for Justice and Liberation (UJL) including several local grassroots organizations in San Diego. I’m appointed by San Diego County Board of Supervisor Nora Vargas, where I serve on the Committee for Persons with Disabilities. I’ve also been recently appointed as a Human Relations Commissioner of Chula Vista and take my oath of office this month of January 2022. I am a Global Hip Hop Cultural Ambassador by Next Level’s Meridian International Center, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs where I serve as a Site Manager for Next Level. I’m also involved with the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance – San Diego, the Intersectional Feminist Collective, the Filipinx Igniting Engagement for Reimagining Collective Em(POWER)ment Coalition (F.I.E.R.C.E.), Filipino American Educators Association of California. I’m a strong Disability Justice and Special Education advocate with a Dis/Crit practice as I also serve on the Chula Vista School District’s Special Education Parent Committee. In 2020, I received an Honorary Doctorate in Pinayism for my endless dedication to radical sisterhood, critical praxis, and transformative solidarity.

Today, I still DJ as a hobby or when community has a special request, but I mostly consider myself retired from DJing publicly. Although, at one point, I was widely regarded as one of the most legendary and accomplished womxn DJs in the world in my previous DJ career in the mid 90’s early 2000’s. I’m a published writer and co-editor as I have written several chapters, blogs, articles and books. A few years ago, myself and co-Founder of Krip-Hop Nation Leroy Moore, co-developed the Hip Hop for Disability Justice Campaign and co-wrote “Hip Hop & Disability Liberation: Finding Resistance, Hope & Wholeness” for Disability Visibility Project’s anthology. I am also the Co-Editor of the book “Empire of Funk: Hip Hop and Representation in Filipino/a America.” Most recently, I co-edited a new anthology with Dr. Amanda Solomon Amorao and Jen Soriano titled, Closer to Liberation: Pin[a/x]yist Journeys of Possibility and Power which is to be released this Spring of 2022. I’m a Midwest Academy Alumni, a 2018 Rockwood Fellow, a 2018 San Diego International Airport Artist-in-Residence with Kristina Wong and Samuel Valdez. I am a also Poet, Theater Performer, Educator, Hip Hop Feminist, and Community Organizer for over 25 years. When I am not performing I am community organizing, speaking, writing or lecturing. I am a public speaker and lecturer and have spoken at over 150 colleges/universities across the United States. I am also a trainer in organizational development, coaching for liberation and I provide various lectures on diversity, gender & sexuality, race, disability justice, Hip Hop Feminism and etc.

What sets me apart is my critical artist and organizer approach, “As an artist, cultural and community organizer that often shift-shapes into other practitioners such as DJ/turntablist, poet, actress, theater performer, director, musician, public speaker and community organizer; I evoke the emotions of the spirited activist and skratch in the invisible warrior stories onto stage and into life. My artist and organizer work is rooted in reverence to Hip Hop Culture, intersectional feminism and the struggles as a disabled queer, gender-fluid femme, Filipinx, Pina/xy, Asian American, womxn of color. Through my art and organizing, I continue to explore race, gender, class, sexuality, disability, desirability politics, healing and trauma as I challenge and address anti-black racism and the multiple oppressive micro and macro-aggressions from individual to white supremacist cisheteropatriarchal institutional systems. By the turn of every table, I am continuously calling-in the often ‘other’ed’ as I am (re)claiming space and igniting the ‘bruha’ within who has been forgotten and shamed.”

What I am most proud of – Being a parent to two children whom I get to raise and inspire them to be a contributor to this world with principled struggles and lived values. I hope to inspire them to create not only a more just world but bring all of us to our collective freedoms with solidarity, transformative justice, collectivism and abolition in all of our hearts and minds.

How can people work with you, collaborate with you or support you?
Visit these websites.

Kandi requests that events she/they participates in are inclusive as possible in regards to performers and speakers as well as audience. Kandi prioritizes events that are coordinated with an intersectional and cross-racial solidarity framework that centers QT/ BIPOC (Black, Brown, Indigenous, People of Color) peoples and communities. All events should provide accessibility accommodations to the audience she is serving as well as the presenters and coordinators of the event. Each event Kandi participates in, a percentage of the lecture, speaking or performance fees will be donated to organizations she either works closely with and/or supports.

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