This interview has been a long time in the making. In the past few months knowing her, I've watched Aaron ride a wave of collaboration, press, and massive creative output. When I think about where I was at age sixteen, even where I am now in my practice, I am humbled by the drive and actualization she wields and am reminded that her work is a reflection of her immense internal power. In October we met at the MOMA sculpture garden to interview, then again at a studio in Brooklyn to shoot. We photographed to her "runway" playlist and danced to MIA, eventually parting ways in the rainy afternoon. Aaron glows. You don't need to know her at her deepest to see her light, but I hope this interview gives you a little glimpse into what makes Aaron so brilliant.
Okay, what’s your name?
My name is Aaron Philip.
How old are you?
I’m sixteen years old.
Where are you based?
I’m based in New York City. The Bronx. The boogie down!
Can you tell me a little about what you do?
Okay um, I’m an aspiring model, I’m a creative, and I’m a social rights advocate. All of these things tie into each other, but I feel like as a disabled person and as a non-binary trans femme, I incorporate my identity in all my art and passions. My main goal is to provide representation and accessibility for those in my community, since we don’t really have a face in the worlds of art and fashion, as of yet. I feel like it’s important for me to do what I’m doing. I love what I do but I love what I do even more knowing that people are so in touch and inspired and involved in what I’m doing.
I first wanted to interview you when I saw you on Instagram tagging all these brands. I love that. You’re engaging your community by asking them to tag these brands and they get behind it because they want to see you getting sponsored and in modeling campaigns.
You know what? I didn’t do that before but I recently decided. My friends have been egging me on to do this. They’re like “Aaron, if you wanna represent You. Must. Tag. Everybody. Tag everybody in your shit!” I did it and now all these brands are liking my pictures. It’s weird because brands give their customers visibility by reposting their photos and tagging them, but to get reposted you have to fit their aesthetic. What I don’t understand is how you exclude that many people out of what you’re doing. Based on “aesthetic.” That’s not aesthetic, that’s supremacy!
Do you think that in the near future we’ll be in a place where major brands will be deeply recognizing the diversity of the people who are wearing their clothes?
I hope so! Let me just say, major corporations are so based on clout. When brands have that amount of clout and money in what they’re doing they have any opportunity to boost themselves and make themselves look good by using marginalized identities. When they do that they get attention. Marginalized people come to [work with] them, but they treat us like we’re disposable. And we’re not. We’re really here to make a difference in how people see the world and how people see people of color, trans femmes, trans mascs, everybody. It’s just so interesting to note how major corporations are using this type of opportunity to go and recruit new faces (a.k.a. people who aren’t normally seen) just to get clout and money. It’s deeper than that! If you’re gonna benefit yourself, benefit us too. Get us on the pedestal we deserve to be on.
Wow yes I really agree. I noticed you said you are a social rights advocate. Can you tell me more about that?
When I was younger I had a blog on Tumblr called aaronverse. It got a pretty moderate amount of attention because I was documenting my life at such a young age (twelve years old) and talking about my life growing up in New York City as a kid with a disability. I’m black on top of that. No one had ever seen my perspective like that.
Through it I got connected with the CEO of Tumblr. I went to speak at the headquarters about my life. Since then as I grew up I realized that if I connect with the word “activist” I discredit real activists who go out and protest. I’m not an activist. I don’t go out to speak and protest. I completely respect that and I don’t want to overshadow that. I’m an advocate. Also it’s not just about me being disabled anymore, it’s me being black and non binary and trans. I realized that if I’m this outspoken about disability I have to be outspoken about all the other things too. They’re all connected. They all intertwine. That’s the beauty of the experience that I’m in. It’s hard but it’s unique. A lot of people can relate to that uniqueness and that’s why it’s so important for me to do what I do. I just want to represent my community the best I possibly can.
So, you started out on Tumblr. Are you moving now more into Instagram?
Oh my god let me tell you what happened... I lost my password to aaronverse!!! [Laughing] I had a really old email that I lost my password to in seventh grade. I was never able to recover it, so that’s why I stopped blogging and kinda disappeared. During that period I was like “Oh my god what did I do? This is SO BAD!” But you know what? I did what I did, I was young, now it’s time to grow. I chose Instagram to grow as an artist. I’ve been on Instagram for a while, since 2012. At first I was like weeaboo princess. It was bad, but people were really into that. I feel so bad now, like I repent for it. It was not cute, I was really appropriating Asian culture. I apologies for that so bad. I finally came out of that phase when I graduated eight grade. That was when the pro black wave started happening on Tumblr and Instagram. I was like “Wow I love this! Someone’s representing me!”
Art Hoe Collective was instrumental in that.
Right! Art Hoe Collective is amazing, I have so many beautiful friends there who have done so much for their community. I love them genuinely and I support them in anyway I can. I’m so grateful that I have these people in my life, you know? They really inspired me. So I got into that movement and then realized this was not just about being pro black, but that it was time to explore myself. However, that summer I was also in the hospital for surgery. Even though I was suffering in pain, I kind of... dug into myself. It gave me time for self reflection and artistic exploration. When I got out of the hospital I went through my little punk phase. It was period of account changing, name changing, pronoun changing. It was a lot. I simmered down when I finally got into my sophomore year of high school. I think that was a pivotal point in me wanting to discover myself and fully finding myself. People often say that because I’m a kid I don’t know myself, but I think I do. When you’re in the position that I am you’re kinda forced to explore yourself at a young age. And you build off of that and you help people explore themselves too. My sophomore year I “solidified” my identity. This summer made me realize like “Hey, it’s time to go and shine. It’s time to go and do everything you wanted to do all these years, cuz you’re here. You’re where you are now.” I think I realized this when I got my septum piercing [Laughs]
I got my septum pierced this summer because I wanted to look like FKA Twigs. She was my biggest inspiration and she still is. She’s just a big part of why I love myself, why I learned to love myself. All her work is such a big self reflection into who she is, her love life, her sexual identity. It’s beautiful. I really loved her and I wanted this septum piercing so I could look like her and be you know, cool and edgy and sexy and free! After a while it went from me wanting a septum to look like FKA Twigs to me wanting it for me. I got it this summer, with the approval of my mother, and I looked at myself in the mirror for a couple minutes and realized like “Wow, I’m where I wanted to be all this time.”
I go to Antigua to visit my mother and I spent three months there this summer taking pictures and visiting her with my family. I had three months of loving myself, so when I came back to New York I thought “Okay it’s time to spread that love to the internet, see where it can take me.” That’s when I put that post on twitter about my aspirations as a model. And it went viral. Like, really, really viral. That was huge, because I didn’t think I could go viral like that. Ever. I had gone viral on Tumblr in the past but it didn’t get me anywhere closer to where I am now. But because of that Twitter post I now am doing things like this interview!
By the way, those photos you posted from Jasmine were SO beautiful.
Oh my god, let me tell you about the photographer Jasmine Weber. Jasmine Weber is simply a genius. I think she’s a genius. She has so much substance and so much heart behind what she does. She felt my energy, she felt what I wanted the shoot to feel, she felt that I wanted some angelic energy behind it. She really made that glow happen! I’m not sure how she did, but she did it! It’s a genuine connection. I can’t wait to work with her again.
I want to know how location has effected your creative work.
Oh wow, this is a great question. Okay. It’s weird to note because I was born in Antigua, but I came to America when I was three for medical attention. I’ve been living here since. My mom still lives in Antigua but for a long time growing up I thought that America was my place. I didn’t let myself connect with Antigua like that, even though it was my home. Now I feel like the people there have my heart. They have my heart and my mother has my heart. When I’m there the artistic energy is so pure and vibrant. I have so much space to grow.
Do you feel like you’re doing more emotional labor through your online presence? Is there struggle that you’ve felt because of being so open about who you are online?
You know, I prepared myself. I realize that me being an openly disabled black trans non-binary femme in the world, I’m gonna get a lot of hatred and opposition coming my way. Before I made the viral twitter post I actually sat down and listed in my head all the things that could come from posting it. I listed the nazi’s that could be in my messages, the alt right, the racists, the transmisogynists, all these horrible people coming my way. But I realized “Why should this hurt me? Why should this hurt me if at the end of the day I’m growing? They’re just reflecting their hatred onto me, projecting their insecurity. There’s no room for that. I am here to thrive, and if you can’t get down with that that’s your problem.” I can’t believe that there are really that many people opposed to me trying to grow. It’s so interesting to reflect on.
It has been beautiful to have all of the support too though. The amount of support I got was almost overwhelming. But it’s also like, why couldn't y’all love this before? Before I popped out? There are so many trans femme activists who have done what I did. Why can’t y’all support them the way you support me? Can you do that next? We have to normalize trans people thriving. It’s unnerving that people are so shocked to see us in the headlines if it’s not for being killed or in the face of negativity or drama. Marginalized identity needs to be amplified. If you have privilege, use it. I talked about this last year at a speech I did at my school’s pride fest.
Can you talk about public speaking a bit?
When I gave that speech for Tumblr at twelve I had to have the mindset that me speaking was going to impact someone. So I did it, and it was good, but it was so hard. At first I was extremely nervous, I could hardly talk, but then I eased my way into it. I feel like public speaking as a whole is weird for me. Especially now that I have anxiety. It’s hard to tell that I have social anxiety because of how much I talk to people, but one-on-one is always different from being in a crowd of people. When I’m at school it’s always hard because there are all of these people I haven’t connected with. I feel really anxious because of it.
Okay, can you remember or think of a time when you felt powerful?
Wow. These past few weeks have been really hard for me, dealing with life issues, family issues, trying to exist. This week I was in school (where I have anxiety) yet I was able to talk to as many people as I wanted to. Maybe if I said hi to someone this week it made them feel better, because they’d never seen me say hi to them before. You don’t know how many people are looking at you in a day and feel interested in you and want to be your friend, but they don’t have the energy to do anything about it. When you put in energy you get energy back. And that all comes from being powerful. Power contains energy. When you put energy into the world like I am as this aspiring model, social rights advocate and creative, you’re gonna get something back. It’s all about input and output, and that’s powerful.
Wow, I love the trajectory that took. That was so ideal. Thank you so much Aaron!