Interviewed by Jherelle Benn
Podcast by Jasmine Thimothé and Leah Shaw
Article by Jherelle Benn
It was uncharacteristically quiet on the platform of Times Square subway station around noon when The Lion Kueen started setting up. The musky underground air stood still as people walked briskly to and fro, coming from all directions in the bustle of several connecting train lines. Armed with her new microphone and amp, the Kueen opened her mouth and began to roar at unsuspecting commuters. Her roar was in the form of a unique blend of spoken word poetry and song.
“Everybody’s in a rush. We should slow it down!” And at her request they did. Some simply slowed their pace as they turned their heads towards the direction of her voice. Some even made a full stop to observe the performer. The Lion Kueen stood at 5-foot-3 with long dreadlocks as her lion’s mane, wearing clothes she had designed herself. After a few minutes a man walked up and dropped a crinkled dollar into the briefcase that lay open on the ground to collect tips and donations. His smile was brief before walking away, notably much slower than before. The briefcase was spotted black and white, an original from her clothing line, Sour Dapper. Designing clothing and street performance were just a few of The Kueen’s many talents that blossomed once she moved to the Big Apple.
Erin Danielle Williams evolved into The Lion Kueen when she moved to New York City in July 2014. Once here, she immersed herself in the spoken word poetry culture of Brooklyn and joined a community of buskers, underground artists who have made a living with street performance. Buskers have become an integral part of New York City culture. Williams has attributed much of her growth and newfound confidence in her street performance to moving to Brooklyn.
“In Brooklyn, people really respect music and hip hop and just rapping and being an MC, being a poet,” said Williams in her oral history interview. “They respect it a lot more in Brooklyn than they do in other places.”
She has thought a lot about what it takes to be a busker. “A busker to me is someone who just has no fear,” said Williams. Busking can look like a young dance group performing daring acrobatic acts around subway poles, a soothing barbershop quartet or a mariachi band or someone playing solo keyboards in a station.
Williams, 26, was born in a small country town in North Carolina. “Tobacco and corn,” was how she described Rocky Mount, the place where she was raised. As a girl, she was always singing, dancing in the mirror and entertaining people. “I loved to make people smile so I knew I would have to do something like entertaining making people smile, feel better, something of that nature,” she said, smiling wide herself while reminiscing about childhood antics.
Williams says she chose to use “Kueen with a K” because of her ability to straddle the thin line between masculine and feminine energies. Her name is reflective of that ability. Her strict and religious parents disagreed with her lifestyle and gave her the option of conforming to their standards or moving out. She chose to leave, forcing teenage her to live like a Rolling Stone — moving around from home to home until her journey led her to living on Saint Croix, the largest of the U.S Virgin Islands.
In the islands she lived the “good life,” working odd jobs and enjoying herself. There she adopted the popular phrase “Hakuna Matata”, a Swahili term which roughly translates to “no worries,” as a way of life. This mentality in a sense birthed her unique style of free flowing spoken word hip hop.
She found warmth, friends, and romance on Saint Croix but she knew she couldn’t stay forever. After a couple months on the island, Williams decided she did not want to move back to the South where things were slower paced. Instead she chose New York City where “you have to hustle, you have to grind,” she said. “Being here has changed a lot for me. Just my mentality, my purpose, my mission all has more of a bigger meaning to me now being here in New York.”
Williams started busking in early 2016 after watching a video of Erykah Badu performing in Times Square for money. Inspired, she bought a small amp and mic and went out to freestyle and perform her poetry in Times Square too. After teaming up with a visual artist, her busking career took off and she’s been spreading good energy and encouraging subway riders to slow down and enjoy life ever since.
Williams is often photographed, recorded, and tipped while performing on the trains. But she doesn’t do it just for the recognition and the money. “You really can touch people,” she said. “You don’t realize how much you can affect other people until you start actually seeing people come back to you and tell you to keep doing what you’re doing.” It’s the energy she gives and receives from her unconventional audience that makes it all worthwhile.
She now also works teaching poetry at an after school program in Queens, but she still busks a couple days a week. For her it’s important to continue reminding New Yorkers to slow down and enjoy the beautiful surprises this city has to offer. “I respect buskers a lot differently now and I hope that people can soon realize that it’s not just because, ‘oh we’re starving artists,’ but it’s also like ‘hey you have to respect what we’re doing,’” she said.