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What Is Paradise?
Is it a place, an idea, a time? Is it even possible? 12 figures in music, art, culture, and politics explain what paradise means to them.
Illustration Nejc Prah
What is paradise?
Kai Davis, poet, Philadelphia

Paradise wouldn’t be a place, it would be a sense of freedom to explore myself and the world, and my relationships with people in ways that my financial burdens don’t allow me to. As a person on this earth and also living in this country, these different systems — capitalism, racism, sexism, queerphobia — are always at play. When I think about what paradise would look like and who I would share that space with, it would be almost all people of color and mostly black people and mostly women.

I recently was on an artist retreat and there were mostly people of color and a good majority was women and queer folk. We were in the woods writing and sleeping in the middle of the day and taking walks into the forest. We were free of all the financial burdens, and we weren’t paying attention to what was on the news. As a human you deal with daily concerns and when you add being oppressed on top of that you have national and global concerns as well. Just to be burden-less and not have to serve anyone unless that service is of my own accord would be paradise.

What is paradise?
Blair Imani, activist, New York

Alhamdulillah! I am truly living my paradise. For me, it is a state where you are unapologetically committed to living your truth and doing good in the world. In this way it’s a mental and emotional place. I won’t say that I am over-the-moon ecstatic all of the time, but I am usually overwhelmed with joy at least once during the day. I try to find things to look forward to, things to get excited about, and things to celebrate even in moments of tragedy. Capturing my paradise, in a world that discriminates against women, Muslims, black people, and LGBTQ folks, means being resilient and relying heavily on self-preservation and self-care. Recently, paradise has meant eating yogurt with sprinkles. It’s the little things.

I had a colleague named Logan Anderson who used to say: “Protect your joy, sis.” I have adapted it as a life motto. Joy is something to cherish, and for me it means protecting my paradise against the odds.

What is paradise?
Alison Roman, food writer and author, New York

Honestly, it would be a very large, very well designed, rustic kitchen with a lot of really beautiful things to cook. Probably cooking lots of small fish that I catch or clams that I dig up —
something native to wherever it is that I’m at. I can usually get whatever I want in New York, but often it’s not really the same because nothing is coming from here. Every time I’m somewhere [else], I don’t want to go anywhere — I just want to be in that house and sink into wherever I am. It’s nice to give yourself over to the place that you’re in. I find that cooking is the easiest way to get in that zone. I’m not good at meditating but with cooking I can get to that place. To have my mind be quiet would be great, especially in a beautiful place and to be able to cook food while doing it.

What is paradise?
Nadine Davis and Tia Simon-Campbell, event organizers, London

We started BBZ because we were seeking community. Often [queer spaces] would feel really restrictive and oppressive, even though we were going there to celebrate. BBZ is a space that centers queer women, genderqueer people, and trans people of color. It takes you into a different headspace, when you know there’s a level of communal respect. There’s a moment in every single BBZ [event], when we look across the room, and we see exactly why we create this space. Because it’s so seldom that these particular people generally feel comfortable to take
up space, to take off their clothes, to be themselves and feel seen. That’s magic. That’s POC joy.

Afropessimism is the concept of what it is to be black; the way in which you have to work twice as hard, and you have a level of cynicism. For instance, women with natural black hair have to wake up an hour and a half earlier, and have to speak in code-switch throughout the day. [With BBZ], we really want to focus on Afro-joy, and Afro-utopia. I’m just trying to imagine that perfect space every time we put on an event.

What is paradise?
Khader El-Yateem, politician and pastor, New York

[Paradise] is people co-existing and living in harmony. Every day in my life I work very hard to achieve that vision here on earth. My whole legacy in this community is about building bridges and working with everyone. That’s really what makes my life and my ministry so unique: the ability and the willingness and the commitment to reach out to the other and to allow myself to sit outside of my identity and to experience the identity of the other. If you are building a bridge, you have to be able to be the first one to cross it. We cannot expect people to reach out to us, we have to reach out to others.

I remember shortly after 9/11, many of our children were afraid to go to school, and we had young white families who called and said “How can we help? We see the kids are not coming to school. We would be willing to go to their homes, walk them to school, and pick them up from school.” Just to give them a sense of security. That was a phenomenal experience, and it was a glimpse of paradise.

What is paradise?
Na-kel Smith, skater, Los Angeles

Lately, I’ve been working so much that paradiseis something I dream about. I’ve been having a recurring dream of me driving up a mountainside, all the way up to a grassy flat under a clear, blue sky, or maybe a sky filled with cumulus or stratocumulus clouds. On the grassy flat would be people I can laugh and smile with until the clouds turn into stars and constellations, and the laughing and playing turns into deep conversation about the dreams we all want to live out, and how we will accomplish them.

Paradise is something I feel like I must work for. Something I have to earn. The few times I’ve scraped its beautiful, orange-ish, pink, hazy surface, it has been on accident — at times when I see the final sample of a shoe I’ve been working on, or rolling away from a trick that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Paradise finds me in the oddest moments.

What is paradise?
Jillian Mercado, model, New York

For me, paradise is a mental state of mind, accompanied by a serene, stress-free, and, most importantly, drama-free environment. Although I can also say having a day where everything turns out exactly how you planned and even more can also mean paradise to me. Usually, when I’m in that place — which honestly comes rarely — I hold on to that moment extremely tight. My most creative thoughts and goals come from that moment, and the love that exudes from my body is 10 times better. If I get a beautiful morning, when the sun is at its “hello,” I take the moment in, getting me my paradise for a few minutes everyday.

What is paradise?
Nastia, DJ, Kiev

The revolution happened in Ukraine in 2014, and many things have changed since then. Right now, in electronic music, it’s the best moment in the history of Ukraine. It’s a kind of protest culture. [In Kiev] the community is very strong and united. Closer club in Kiev started four years ago, and they ask questions on entrance: if you don’t know who’s playing, if you don’t understand why you’re coming, then you’re not allowed in. [Another party] Cxema is true, brutal, naked rave. It’s very fresh, and only local artists play there. The people that come to the party are really impressive. You can see, on the dancefloor, topless girls kissing, and no one cares. It’s an amazing feeling of freedom.

Paradise is the place where you can come and discover something that you didn’t expect, and feel [so] free that you don’t even realize that there’s a thousand people around you. In the middle of a big thing, you feel super private, and give yourself to this moment.

What is paradise?
Phlemuns, designer, Los Angeles

I thought it over a few times in my head and I kept landing on the same setup: surrounded by family, my closest friends, and my dog, in a tropical setting with good music, where money was not the root of society and financial stability. I’m pretty simple — those things make me really happy, and I would consider them, together, as an ideal setup of paradise. I’d probably be making all of my friends and family clothes, too. I would be doing what I do now, just giving pieces away to everyone for free if I didn’t need to exist in society based upon money as a means to survival. I definitely would still be making clothes because artistic expression is important to me. It makes me feel really happy and gratified.

What is paradise?
Scott McClanahan, author, West Virginia

Paradise sounds like a great scam if you ask me. I want nothing to do with paradise. Put my monument back among the people I struggled with and lived with and loved. Seems like everybody is trying to ascend the Sierra Madres to search for gold, but they have no idea what awaits: betrayal, madness, and attempted murder. All looking for paradise and the illusion of treasure. And how will it end and what will you find? You’ll be left hanging out with a wise old man who will laugh in your face when the gold dust is blown away by the wind. And the only thing you can do to is laugh too. Because that’s pretty much the only thing you have in life: Laughter in the face of such ridiculous ideas as paradise. Give me a toothache; give me a heart attack; give me a boring day at home; give me the death that awaits us all. I’ll find my paradise there.

What is paradise?
Amara La Negra, singer, Miami

[Paradise is] being able to live in a world where everybody gets along. Being able to have peace. A place where, if you are going to judge me, you’re going to judge me by my character and who I am as a person. Right now we’re going through all this stuff with Trump, and there’s a lot of issues with Latino immigration and there’s also so many issues African Americans are dealing with. In my case, I feel like I’m in-between. I’m not African American, but I’m still Afro-Latina, I’m still dark skinned. It’s sad because I can walk next to certain people and they hold tight to their purses or they step away from the sidewalk, just based off the way that I look. [Paradise would be] living in a world where people aren’t judging you.

[Also,] my mother is everything to me. Having her eternally would mean so much. Even though she would be there nagging, I still need her.

What is paradise?
Patrisse Cullors, Black Lives Matter co-founder, Los Angeles

It’s so often hard for me to identify paradise because the visual we get is usually beaches, the ocean — and often there are no black people in those images. And so, paradise for me is a future where black people are actually free — where our lives are not just about the fight to live, but we are honored for what we have given to this country and the world. A place where black people are free to walk down the street without the threat of murder, the threat of vigilantism. This is paradise to me. Where we can raise our families and not worry about if we’re going to see our children live another day. Not being tormented is true and complete freedom of expression. We have to get there. For me, it’s not even about do I think we will — I think we have to. Will we in this lifetime is the question for me.

What is paradise?
The Paradise Issue hits newsstands on October 31. Preorder it here.

Reporting by Aimee Cliff, Jordan Darville, Nazuk Kochhar, Leah Mandel, Patrick McDermott, Juliana Pache, Ruth Saxelby, and Myles Tanzer.

What is paradise?