E’mon Lauren is a “hood womanist,” a program manager, artist, educator, poet, writer, director, visual artist—-the list is endless. Representing the South and West Sides of Chicago, E’mon was the first Youth Poet Laureate of the city. Her book of poetry, COMMANDO, was published by Haymarket Books, and she’s been featured in Vogue Magazine, Chicago Magazine, and The Chicago Tribune. Her work has been featured in the Chicago Reader, and she was South Shore’s neighborhood captain for the Weekly’s Best of the South Side 2022. E’mon is also host of her own podcast, “The Real Hoodwives of Chicago.” 

The Weekly sat down with E’mon to discuss how her upbringing shapes her reality, being a Black girl with a dream, and radical self love. She also shares the title of her new book for the first time. 

Content warning: This interview includes mentions of self harm and abuse.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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South Side Weekly: Do you feel like where you are far from has any impact on your identity, how you navigate the world, and what you create?

E’mon: I want to say naturally, yes, Chicago is where all of my art is rooted in, that in itself being this whole membrane of culture with house music, with poetry. And also, I think the cultures that were raised in, like how to step, the music we listened to, and just the Blackness that seeps out of Chicago very much seep into my cultural upbringing. Naturally, just as a Black woman moving in a lot of marginalized neighborhoods, you learn different levels of protection, but also the history and generations of Black women protecting themselves. Some of my poems talk about the etymology of Chicago language, and how words are created here. Those are really the zygotes of my words or my creativity, specifically in media, it’s really important that I just show a different Chicago. I understand it’s dangerous everywhere you go, but Chicago is a lot more than just a crime mob city. Everything good damn near came out of Chicago. That’s really what also moves me as far as my art and passion and media. And as far as education and the work I do; it’s to give the Chicago youth a chance to show what is possible.

What is the genesis of your craft?

It’s “A Different World,” ironically [she gestures toward the TV, where “A Different World” is streaming]. I was raised on “A Different World.” We used to watch this at six o’clock in the morning every day. And this showed me art and culture and Black people, and being passionate about education, and being passionate about being somebody and it gave me history. Kim Reese—she had performed Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping.” And it was a beautiful episode about colorism and about reclaiming the symbols of our oppressor. So fast forward, when I first came to Young Chicago Authors (YCA), the first poem I ever saw Jamila [Woods] facilitating [was] “Ego Tripping” by Nikki Giovanni, and when I was looking at the poem, I was like, “I know this.” 

My mom just constantly kept me raised in culture; I was a big theater kid, she used to take me downtown Chicago a lot to just really show [me] the city. I got a book published when I was in elementary school, it was a poetry book, I won a competition. I got into speech competitions, that’s when I started learning Maya Angelou poems. I had a decent step ahead when coming into actually writing and being a poet, being familiar with people that had already seen some type of art or some type of inspo from their art before. 

You wrote COMMANDO when you were sixteen, who did you write it for?

It was [originally] a play that was based on a compilation of poems, very For Colored Girls now that I think about it. It was like dramatized blocking, and it was a one woman show. So when I got to get the book published, and actually put it together as a body of work, coming from BombSquad [YCA’s youth internship at the time], and being still in performance spaces, and putting the play together, come around to being eighteen and getting it published, I was like “This is bigger than me.” 

So I’m gonna always say that I wrote COMMANDO for myself, but also for Black girls—really young Black girls from Chicago who were just trying to figure it out, you know, and figuring it out means like, hustle, of course, identity, right? But also choice and what it means to have a choice and who has choices, right? 

I had the privilege of having a choice to be myself, to be queer, to be expressively Black, to be hyper feminine and not masc, when I wanted to. I had the privilege of those choices because of spaces that I came into, like YCA, like Kuumba Lynx. And also just navigating being raised in abuse, navigating feeling alone—very alone, and just not knowing what else is possible for you. 

When you’re a young Black girl, you don’t know that the world is trying to kill you. I didn’t know that the world was trying to kill me at that age. I was trying to navigate my mom being an alcoholic and having to fight her. I was trying to navigate abuse from a man—who was much, much older than me—navigating that physically abusive relationship. And like, you know, selling drugs on State Street and hustling, trying to make it—all I knew is that I had a dream, and I had a focus, and I had something to focus on. The saddest thing in life was wasted talent. So it was for the girls that know they got something, and they don’t know what’s coming or if something is coming. 

I really just wanted my book to be a time capsule [to show] that I was still alive, and that I made it. I never thought I would make it to twenty-six. I didn’t think that it was going to be some [outside] force that was going to take me, I always thought I was going to kill myself. So I was like “OK, this is something I’m gonna use to take me wherever I’m gonna go,” and it took me places. So that’s who it’s for; it’s for the Black girls with a dream. 

How do you practice and or experience radical self love?

I guess it requires me to break down what is radical to me. What I always identify as radical is pushback, but also acceptance. Having love for nuance, but not necessarily gray area—clarity, but being clairvoyant. So thinking about those is like, what is radical to me? I be alone. I be alone. That’s a real one lately, I be the f*ck alone. And that is reclaiming it to me, considering that I was a lonely ass kid, and felt like everybody f*cking hated me, and all I had was like, you know, it was me against the f*cking world. I’m at this point now where I’m reveling in gratefulness and constantly renewing myself. 

I guess just really trying to take care of myself and really allow myself rest. I’ve been teaching since I was fourteen with Kuumba Lynx—most Chicago kids, we all been teaching since we was fourteen, damn near, but like being in this work for a long ass time, it requires you to be an adult and a kid at the same time, especially when you’re a kid. I had to teach myself how not to [attach] my livelihood to a check. I don’t want to be surviving; I had to make a choice where I was like I don’t wanna survive, I want to live, I want to thrive. I had to learn how to rest, I had to learn how to take care of myself and also learn how to forgive myself. 

I think also the first thing that came to my mind when you said radical is activism, and then I thought about pleasure activism. Which is also the root of my work; pushing past the whole Madonna thing, and also rebelling against older Black women and that harm that’s put on our Black bodies. I didn’t want to have to learn self defense by fighting my mom, that sh*t is crazy as hell to me. I didn’t want to have to learn defense for myself by fighting an older nigga off of me, that sh*t is crazy to me. So with allowing myself access to pleasure to just reclaim my body, that meant turning my stories around. I learned a lot about what I like being sexually positive, being very proud of my body, having autonomy over myself. 

How did your production company and your podcast, The Real Hoodwives of Chicago, start?

When I was in YCA in the teaching artist co-hort, I had just spewed the idea. I just had the idea and I just started it. I was in the music scene and in community with a lot of music people, and just really utilizing my connections, utilizing my spirit and my energy, and just figuring out how to do it. I already knew who I wanted to talk to. I knew what I wanted to talk about. Since Dominique [James] and Kush [Thompson] were right there in the [teaching artist] cohort, I was like, well, y’all be my first guest. I had a connection at Music Garage, his name was House, and I was just like “Can I come and talk to you? I want to do this podcast.” He had a homie who also had a podcast, and that’s when he had put me on. Got a mic, Jamila [Woods] gave me a microphone, recorded on my iPad. And I was just doing the podcast in…a room in a building. I think I started The Real Hoodwives five years ago, and it has grown and grown. We’re four seasons in now. 

The Real Hoodwives of Chicago is inspired to be a living archive for Black girls to have real and true, unedited, unwashed, unmasked stories about sex, about relationships, and how they play into autonomy of their bodies, and also for them to have autonomy of their bodies. I felt like Black people didn’t have a place for us to have sexual education or history with an entertainment lens attached to it if it wasn’t whitewashed, or if it wasn’t through some toxic scapegoat, ie Love and Hip Hop, or the Real Housewives-of something, or even a lot of our Black love stories are all written by white men or Black men. Matt [Muse] was also in the cohort and I originally wanted the podcast, the show to be just for women. And Matt was like “I really think that you should open it up to men, because niggas got something to say too.” I’m like we hear men talk about sex all the time! But he was like, you could hold it down and have the real discourse. I was like, that’s a fact. So, I think the whole Black community needs to have proper health and sexual education access, that is still entertaining, that is still fun, but amongst their peers. 

What are you excited for?

I am excited for my future, I’m excited for my life. I’m excited to see my production company grow, BlkHoneyBun Productions. I would like to get more people on my team. I would love to be able to support young Black people in Film and Media eventually, but right now we have my show. I’m also collaborating with Rise Above & Prosper, we have a cooking show that I’m co-producing on there. We also have a short film that we’re writing right now, a few music videos under our belts, and a conceptual photoshoot. So we do everything; writing, directing, producing. I’m excited for that, girl. And I’m also excited for my second book to be coming out, title Finesse. [we scream and laugh] You get the title, I am so happy to have that moment with you!

COMMANDO by E’mon Lauren is available on haymarketbooks.org. You can find E’mon on Instagram @laurenlikepolo, and her podcast @hoodwivesofchi!

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Chima Ikoro is the Weekly’s Community Builder.