Uncle Johnny’s Funeral, which was the day I met the Paytons and the Johnsons (Photo by Anita Johnson)

Uncle Johnny’s Funeral, which was the day I met the Paytons and the Johnsons (Photo by Anita Johnson)

 
 

Back in the day, people used to say, “If it plays in Peoria, it will play anywhere.” This statement echoed how Peoria, Illinois, was a good measuring stick for the forthcoming success of a Broadway show because of the city’s quintessentially American demographic and culture. As such, Peoria mimics the cultural behaviors of its larger urban counterparts – Chicago, St. Louis, Atlanta, L.A., New York – in that it has a large, concentrated African American population obsessed with hip hop music.

The urban hip hop movement in America precipitated from many factors: a history of racism, forced housing segregation, a strong culture of African American arts tradition, a rising black population, advances in music production and recording technology, and the mass popularization of hip hop music all over the world.

Peoria is also a notoriously difficult place to live if you’re black. In every year from 2015-2018, it was rated as one of the “Worst Cities for Black Americans” by 24/7 Wall Street. The rating compared population, median income, poverty rates, mortality rates and unemployment for both black and white residents, concluding that Peoria had some of the largest discrepancies in the country.

We All Kings documents the lives of two intertwining families, the Paytons and the Johnsons, in Peoria, Illinois, during the time when their family rap group, Killa Koumity (pronounced “committee”), tries to release its first album, Klosed Kasket. The project continues to document their lives as they change.

The title of the project, We All Kings, is derived from a conversation between myself and the group’s producer, during which we talked about why these rappers were striving to be successful in music.

Inclusion of both my documentation and their own documentation allows for a parallel, nuanced view into their lives and creates a space for examining the role of subjectivity in representational media. Additionally, occasionally seeing my involvement in their lives (and their involvement in mine) provides an element of transparency to the viewer that challenges the idea of journalistic objectivity and examines relationship-building in broader documentary practice.