Imaan Rajan, founder of Rani Creative (Rani Creative).
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? What is your role within the Rani Creative and what is your mission with this organization?
I started Rani Creative in my dorm at U of T, and I'm currently an international relations and political science student. I'm a rising second-year student, so we head back head back in the fall. Rani Creative was kind of started with the purpose of uplifting artists, and the idea really blossomed when I was just scrolling through my Instagram feed, and I find all these women, and I'm like I can't post my singing, I can't post my poetry, because someone else is doing it way better than I am. So you feel like you don't really have a starting point, you gotta be at the finish line. You don't really have a platform to grow.
The goal of Rani Creative was to take these women that you aspire to be or these nonbinary people that you aspire to be, and you just bring them into your community, So those you want to be, you just get inspired by them and learn from them. That was the goal of the collective—bring artists together of any talent level or experience level, and bring them all together to create a safe space for them to represent themselves.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have the artists who are immensely talented but don't have that platform—people who can't afford a studio in Brooklyn or people who don't really see themselves represented on these NBC shows and try to become part of that. But they don't really have a launch board or a starting point, so that's the goal of the website, to be that representation so hopefully people can come and say, where can I find the minority artists who are killing the game or the LGBTQ artists who are, you know, the new wave of our generation
How your has own identity plays a role in why you decided to found Rani Creative, or how has it shaped the organization's direction?
Rani is Hindi for queen, so it definitely has South Asian influence. Seeing as that is my heritage, I wanted to in a way make up for the lack of representation we have in our childhood. I'm sure you can relate, you know coming into this this nation and not having as much as a representation as even other minorities. We cling onto these now these Youtubers with some kind of semblance of representation, even if they might not fully resemble what we're going through. It's like oh ok, someone looks like me and someone is getting recognition for that. With Rani Creative, I really wanted it to be that people aren't latching on to representation solely because of race, but also because of other intersectional facets of it, and so that was the goal of this collective.
Definitely one of my favorite feedback from Rani Collective is having South Asian women come to me and say, “This is what I wanted during my childhood, this is what I needed. I’m seeing it now which is great, and the future generations can see it as well.” That's the ultimate goal and it makes it much easier now that there's GenZs that are just killing the game. It's definitely not like we are a new wave—we're just taking in that there's so many minority artists and LGBTQ artists, that you can't even like filter through it. We just want to have a home base and represent them and uplift them because it’s about time.
Filing through RANICreative’s latest edition, there are a lot of stories that caught my eye. For example, the piece on Sufi Sun and Made in Bangladesh, What does the decision making process for choosing themes and audiences to feature look like within RaniCreative?
I try to have as little input in that as possible. I definitely oversee it, and I think the only time we really censor is if it doesn’t match our beliefs and by that I mean if someone is putting down a certain race or is against people having their own choice in their body and their life. Beyond that, we have very little censorship and that might scare some of the aunties that go into our collective not expecting to see the curse words that go into the art, but that is art—it’s just raw art.
So for pieces like Sufi Sun and the #PayUp article, that was all by the creators. For example, Raia Karmali was the one who did the Sufi Sun article. I was part of like the pitch list—we email a bunch of people asking to interview them, and I'm a huge fan of Sufi and Anjali, so never in a million years did I think that they would be on the cover of our collective, but thank goodness Raia pulled through. She was able to connect with Sufi, and they gave us a beautiful interview.
What I think you’ll notice is that each page is drastically different. You see editorial screens Time magazine, but fashion lifestyle is very Vogue. I really don't want to have any overarching power, I wanted each page to be different, and that’s what the creators are doing. The visual art team and the RaniTube team—they're just very different people. The collective isn't just one thing, and so every issue, each team meets up and they go into what do I want to see, what do I see when I think this theme, and if I can't represent this theme, what artists can do that instead. For the last issue, Pride and Prejudice, I am neither part of the LGBTQ community, nor have I experienced the segregation or the systematic racisms that has occurred to the black people in our country, along with the violence that has happened in the past two months, and so I cannot relate to that at all. So, if I were an artist submitting to this collective, I would say you know what I'm not going to submit, I'm going to have someone else submit, and I’m going to find that person and make sure that their voice is uplifted. While our creators do choose what comes into an issue, they try to find the voices to submit if they can.
As you hinted at, creating Rani Creative was bold considering what aunties might think about the content that goes into the website. How did that result in any doubts or influence your decision making?
Honestly, the second I have doubts, I see every issues a wonderful circle of family friends that I have will repost Rani Creative. I always get a little worried because, as you know, our community is more progressive than most, but at the end of the day, it is still a little conservative—we like to hold onto these traditional values. Anytime I have any doubts, I look at this generation and I've never seen a bigger divide and in the best way possible. I don't think we could ever reverse what GenZ has done. I think that while traditions are great, I think being held to these traditions for so long is what made GenZ grow up to be the complete opposite of those traditions and say, “You know what, we're gonna push forward,” and I just I can't wait to see this generation as full-fledged adults, like taking what we've learned about how dangerous it is to hold on to traditions and concepts and ideas that are as old as time, simply because they are traditions.
So anytime I have doubt, I know that I have a team and readers who believe that that's the case—that we should constantly be moving forward. The best thing we can do is educate those aunties coming to our platform, because quite honestly, I've had some great experiences with like moms and family friends who can now list every letter in LGBTQ+ simply because of Rani. They’d just stop at gay and wouldn’t know what comes next. Now they can identify every single letter, which may not seem like a big deal, but if they have a kid or someone in their family who identifies as that, that is going to make all the difference in the world
I noticed that your site includes artists from all sorts of backgrounds such as singing, writing, photography etc.. What prompted your decision to expand RaniCreative into other mediums of artistic expression beyond writing?
For one, a multimedia collective is not something I started. There are plenty of collectives that are multimedia now, and I did apply to collectives before starting my own. I just didn’t really see South Asian or Eastern world in general being highlighted, they just weren’t really represented at all. While I do think that Black and indigenous people or color are represented, we should be including the whole spectrum of minorities.
I was really pushed towards a multimedia platform because I, myself, cannot focus on an art medium—I love singing, I love poetry, I love photography, I really can’t pick one, I’m starting to get really into fashion. So to ask my artists to pick one doesn’t make sense to me. I meant to show as many art types as possible, and what’s really cool, is I’ve noticed my editorial team members would like to dip into fashion for one issue, and then my visual art would like to dip into photography. It’s really ok since this is a learning platform, so we can switch into different types of art—there’s no judgement, this is not a talent show, it’s just representation. I think it’s a great springboard because you shouldn’t just be limited to one form of self-expression.
Another particular article that I found interesting was Police Brutality Happens in Canada Too. Can you tell us how current events and historical context in Canada has shaped your organization?
I am Canadian, but I think growing up in the states, I found that we are a very self-absorbed nation—we don’t really look beyond the scope of what is happening in America. That can be dangerous, especially when you wait until there is a war or pandemic to look into the lens of other countries. I am a little biased wanting to do international relations myself, and doing Model UN at a young age, I really wanted to be as global as possible. Beyond Canada, we have people in Hong Kong, Netherlands, and while that makes time zones difficult, we wanted to be as global as possible.
So when we decided to include the Prejudice aspect of our issue, we immediately went into the fact that many Canadians are saying, “We are like the upstairs neighbor of all the chaos going on downstairs.” But to really separate yourself from the issue and consider that you have nothing to change is beyond me because there are a lot of statistics that show that in Canada, while it may not be as publicized or extreme, you don’t want it to get there, so realizing that you are part of the issue and trying to solve it instead of saying, “That can’t possibly be us,” is really the best route to take. That article was written by a Canadian who is very aware of the fact that these issues are happening in Canada too, so it was a very well-written article.
One of the key impacts of the pandemic is an exacerbation of tension. One particular tension that is really evident nowadays is racial tension. Working with artists who are on the front-lines of expression around the world, how do you think rising awareness and increased political action is shaping the art world?
I think that because a lot of us were born in the year of 9/11, we’ve never really had a political rest. We’ve never had a point where we can sit down. I think you notice, as a generation, we are constantly fighting. I don't know if you've seen on Tik Tok alone, that one instance where people bought Trump's rally ticket. I've seen my friends go to protests and be at the front lines, and then be able to translate that into their art. I think we've just really grown up with no fear. I think we're a generation that expects change and that translates into our art, and I think that's going to maintain that way. Hopefully, we can continue on that with different generations.
This generation expects change and expects improvement and has always felt that way that you know, especially the minorities. Many of them say, “Well my parents weren’t born here, but I was born here, and I deserve equal rights,” and so I think expressing that is really constructive, especially because since we don't have an emotional break and things like therapy aren't really open to us, art expression and having that creativity aspect is really important. It’s been really helpful to me—I mean I feel like writing a poem or creating a song or listening to something has been life-saving sometimes.
Do you think burnout will be a problem with activism in this generation?
I think burnout will always be a problem quite honestly. I think it's just, you know, persevere as much as possible. We actually did an article on preventing activism burnout in our last issue by the wonderful Shannon. She created an amazing article and she really went into that fact. I think that was very evident in that two week Instagram period where everyone was super into what was going on and then kind of turned off. I think a large part of that was because of the very graphic and very unnecessary trauma videos that were being put around.
Educating people that that's not the sole way that you can get people to be on board for an organization, and educating for the long term rather than thinking that once Breonna Taylor or George Floyd have justice that occurs for the two of them, then we should stop. There's an endless list of names that haven't reached the graphics in Instagram stories, and so to avoid what, I really want to avoid this word, but to avoid trauma porn, trying to push those videos all around in hopes that people will flare up in anger and then flare down—it's just really not the way to go.
I think things like the activism burnout article and just expressing it into words, and educating using platforms like Twitter and Instagram to keep spreading those graphics is incredibly important. I think you see that in some accounts versus others the issue with that flare up, flare down is people burnout quickly, get emotionally upset and exhausted, and also see Black Lives Matter as a negative thing, whereas even if someone hasn't died or hasn't, like in this month, had violence inflicted upon them, that's the point where you should really be pushing it the most so that this sort of thing doesn't happen again. To educate in the times of rest is as important as to educate in the times where fire is being thrown around.
One other thing that I noticed about your website is attention intersectionality. For example, you have this raffle that people can enter if they donate $5 to supporting homeless black trans women. That’s such an interesting idea to me, can you explain how this idea came about?
Sure, well the donation alone, where the charity is going, it has started to get a little more attention, but it initially wasn't getting as much attention because, you know, black trans women they have a lot of violence inflicted upon them. I think trans women alone go through a lot, but then when you add the race intersectionality aspect to it, it makes it just that much more difficult. The violence that has been occurring against them, there’s just zero accountability or attention to this. That's why we, as a collective, found it was really important to not only donate to a cause that represented the intersectionality both in our issue, but also in our community as well. We definitely have minority LGBTQ members who really see themselves in this situation, and to bring attention to that and to show that we care is really important.
The raffle alone, that’s something that has been done by a lot of collectives. We just really wanted to, you know, put a personal touch and reach out to Black businesses who are more than happy to sponsor us. We had a lot of small Black businesses that FaceTimed us to show us the piece that they were planning to create—one was from Nigeria, one was from Somalia, one was from here in the US—all this beautiful, beautiful handmade work. That was where we hope is like you know art being created by Black people to help Black people, I think that's beautiful, and that was the ultimate goal.
I think that it is really incredible how you’ve managed to have both an international team and audience for your collective.
I have an incredible team, upwards of 40 people. Ashiana Sunderji has been leading the marketing team, the raffle was all her, she’s going to be joining U of T. Raia, who, as you know, did the Sufi Sun article and is also leading the mental health aspect and internal relations. Of course, my web designer who I can’t forget to mention, Vanessa Wyckoff, who is doing this website completely free because she believes in the collective, even though this is her bread-and-butter, it’s her job to create websites. Then finally, my content manager is Mesgana Teklu and Marta Anielska who edit the content every issue for our collective.
When there are so many minority groups that are under the surface in terms of representation, how do you balance that when deciding on minority groups to feature?
I think we try to cover a different facet of the issues going on in our world. I think I’m going to namedrop the theme for our next issue, I shouldn't do that yet, but I think I'm going to. The last issue was Pride and Prejudice, and even though both of these topics are a global issue, a lot of our topics stemmed from problems in the western world.
What we're going into the next issue is called An Eye into the Eastern World, which is really something that I'm excited about because it's talking about South Asian and East Asian and Middle Eastern countries—their issues, their culture, their history, issues like Kurdish attacks on Turkey, appropriation versus appreciation, going into really what chai tea lattes and yoga and chakras are, and the effect that they've had in the western world, primarily in LA where that's not really being talked about or covered. That's what I'm really excited about, I think we haven't really in our past issues talked about that at all, so to talk about that in future issues is really important.
I'd like at some point to talk more about indigenous peoples and have more indigenous peoples on my team to really give me a direction or an idea of where to go with that. But I think as someone who has felt like representation has been kind of lacking in the western world, bridging that could disconnect for every culture that I can within my expertise and within the expertise in my team, that’s really important. What we really do have to be careful about though is you know kind of virtue signalling and voicing for the cultures of other people, and so when we do choose our themes, we make sure this something that we can talk about within the bounds of our expertise in our knowledge and experience. If we can’t and we still want to bring attention to it, we have to go find those artists, we say we want to uplift them, here's our platform, please educate us, because we have a team but we don't know everything we're just representing. Very similar to a student body, we're just the ASB and we want to represent the rest of the school board, and so we do that as best as we can.
Okay, last two questions. It's easy to become pessimistic with everything going on. When I see your website, however, I become informed and optimistic for the future. What do you see as glimmers of hope during these challenging times?
For one, being able to show people like my little sister representation is incredibly important. Both of us grew up in Woodinville, WA, where it is incredibly white. I found that she wouldn't really want to dress up in cultural clothing or she wanted to edit our pics to make it a little more fair. These are subtle things, but they affect you a lot. I was often the minority token for administration of the arts at my school. I was always asked to talk to the Superintendent about the arts, which is odd because I wasn't always like a president or in a leadership position. I was just a minority. So just to show that there is an abundance of culture and you really have to tap into it, I think I definitely am blessed to be in a place like Toronto where there's a lot more diversity than there was in Woodinville. I think that was that kind of inspired this—if you just open your eyes, you're able to see that there is so much representation, and that's beautiful.
I think another thing is that, especially in the past few months, I did experience burnout. I think it was really challenging. It’s very emotional to see, you know, both the videos and the stories and to hear stories. Then, to have that kind of that community to tap into, and take that pain and turn it into art is just really great. I'm beyond blessed to have that especially during this time.
Also, I am a little concerned because I feel like the older I get, I don't want to ever be out of touch. I think we find that with our older generations, new concepts and new ideas are coming with every generation because we want to be as progressive as possible. My goal is to stay as connected as possible and listen to the younger individuals of my collective. The older I get, I don't think I'd want to hold onto these leadership positions if there's someone else who could do it better and represent the voice of the youth better. I think my ultimate goal for the collective is to remain as progressive as possible. Although it is a concern, I'm going to turn into hope that we maintain that as much as possible.
The last question I have for you is what advice do you have for elementary, middle and high schoolers who want to work towards the goals and missions of your organization?
For one, it's ok to not feel fully comfortable with who you are and your culture. It’s be yourself and except your culture, but that's a hard thing to do. When people are asking you if Henna is just Brown marker or poop on your hand, and then suddenly it becomes this like Coachella trend and that's when it's accepted. We experience those curves all the time in our childhood, and I think it's ok to tell a child that it's going to take time, especially if you are in an area where it's like predominantly white or not aligning with your beliefs. It's going to be hard to really love who you are, but to really tap into your community, look at the background of your culture. I don't think I fully appreciated the culture of Bollywood and the eastern world in general until I left the house. I was missing a lot of that home feeling. So as hard as it is to tap into your culture, try to go back to your roots as much as possible and find the beauty in it. I think finding the beauty in yourself in your culture is a really challenging to do but it is important to do it as much as possible. If you don't find yourself in our community, create your own.
I don't think Rani Creative is going to be like a forever thing, and I think that should you feel the need to create a group or create a home base or find a place where you're comfortable, create that. Express yourself—you don't necessarily have to share your art, but you can always create it. I think there's a lot of pressure to improve yourself, but you can always create an outlet.
Trust yourself and trust your emotions. That's basically it. Rani has never turned down a member, and so if anybody is reading this and will want to apply and join our community, it's an open-door organization. We accept anyone—allies, LGBTQ, woman, nonbinary folks, women of color—to absolutely express themselves and join as anonymous if you don't feel like you know you want to share your art with your parents or your community. We can always accept anonymous submissions, but whatever helps you express yourself and be your best self and be as creative as possible, we want to help you with that. So, that’s all really I wanted to say.