TO ANYONE WHO CAN'T STOP THINKING ABOUT HOME
To anyone who can't stop thinking about home,
After a number of high points in Genai Nakama’s modeling career, she had the opportunity to rent her first one-bedroom apartment anywhere in Los Angeles. If you were to guess, what LA neighborhood do you think a 20-year-old creative would choose?
Genai is only 20 but she radiates the kind of wisdom and confidence we hope to have by the time we are 40. A multi-hyphenate artist, she refuses to accept any one title as her “thing”. She attentively balances her time between teaching for LA’s Cultural Affairs, working on campaigns for FootLocker, and pursing other creative endeavors. Recently she was even featured in an article written for VOGUE, and still she does not accept the idea that one pursuit is more special or valuable than another.
When we decided to collaborate with Genai and requested her address to mail our products, we were thrilled and surprised to see her address was less than a mile from one of our childhood homes. Turns out she is no stranger to San Gabriel Valley area; her great-grandparents own property in nearby El Sereno, providing a home to her family for several generations. When faced with the opportunity to plant roots anywhere in Los Angeles, Genai didn’t choose any of the creative hotspots like so many 20-something artists might. Instead, Genai chose Alhambra, a neighborhood just east of El Sereno. In her time spent there she has successfully developed her career exactly the way she’s always intended to: embracing Latinx beauty, uplifting other black and brown folks, and most importantly, prioritizing the creative growth of the neighborhood that raised her.
To those that love their home but might not yet see the creative community you are looking for, Genai reminds us why not start your own? Maybe the creatively saturated neighborhoods aren’t the best places to nurture your specific form of creativity. Who knows, maybe returning home is actually the best place for your creativity to grow.
STREET GRANDMA: What do you think of when you think of El Sereno?
Genai: El Sereno is comfort to me. You feel safe in your neighborhood, no matter how other people might see it. But I went to school in Frogtown and spent a lot of time in the Echo Park area as well. No matter where you live in LA, if you go to a different little city, the people are different, the culture is a little bit different. So it's been cool to be able to experience all those different niches within all the communities throughout LA.
As two people who grew up in the San Gabriel Valley of LA, we often felt like it was overlooked by creative-types. How do you feel about being an artist in Alhambra?
I love where I'm from and where I live now. Even though I'm in a familiar place, there is still so much inspiration and opportunities to grow as an individual and a creative. I always feel there is an expectation that to further your career, you have to live in trendy areas of LA. I want to switch up this narrative. Doing what I want to do the way I want to do it, where I want to do it, is important to me.
When did the creative side of you blossom?
After I got out of high school and got my emotional health in check, I was finally able to start exploring different parts of myself. Just being at home and having that little bit of extra time to do things that made me happy, whether it was painting or singing in the shower, added an element of happiness in my life. It was about that time I started modeling.
What incident led to you taking a harder look at your emotional health?
My second semester of my sophomore year my grandpa passed and I lost my shit. Even though I was always an A-student and tried to throw myself into school so that I didn’t have to think about anything else, I started to fail all my classes and I couldn't focus, so I took a step back to reflect. Even to this day, I deal with past traumas and battles with my emotional wellbeing. I've learned that emotional wellness is not a quick process; I am not perfect and I'm still learning to live in the present.
We’ve noticed that while most models or fashion-minded folks on social media tend to create a cold, mysterious, sometimes ominous persona, you go out of your way to share what’s going on in your life and often choose to be pretty vulnerable. Is that a conscious choice?
When you start off on social media, only your friends and family follow you so it’s just another way you communicate with them. I just continued to think of it as that - like i’m talking to my family and friends - because, you know, these are people that fuck with who I am as a person, so why not continue to just be who I am? That resonated with a lot of people so I kept doing it.
Do you find it difficult to be vulnerable with your audience sometimes?
Growing up in a big city like LA, sometimes you have to be closed off. As a woman in LA, being cold and acting like you don't give a fuck is a way to try and stay safe. This fear can trickle into your personal life. I was definitely experiencing it for a long time. It's never easy to be vulnerable - you feel like you're waiting for someone to use it against you. In some respects, I'm still like that. But I am trying to grow out of that phase because the reality is it isn't benefiting anyone - me, my friends/family, or my followers. My goal is to set an example for people in a way that lets them know it's okay to feel, to talk about feelings, to be vulnerable. This is an important message, especially to young girls, to set them up to not have to deal with the same situations that I have. I never want to make anyone feel like they need to be cold, mysterious, or fit into these molds that have been created because it's so saturated. I'd rather encourage people just to be themselves.
What are your thoughts on social media as a whole?
It's complicated. It's where I started off in my modeling career and how I met so many dope creatives that are still in my life, so I'm very grateful for that side of social media. But it can also be a scary place because it can exasperate feelings of insecurity and jealousy. These feelings are valid, but they are a struggle to deal with. Social media is made to make you want things, and sometimes when all you see is a perfect picture, all you can think is, "Oh my god, I want to be you." It can make it hard to see people as being human and more than just a face online.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility to show people more than a perfect picture?
I definitely think being authentic is something that should be done more. But I also get it's not anyone's obligation to do that. You don't necessarily owe anyone anything. I have to remind myself that I can’t control what other people do or how they feel about me. But what I can control is the content that I’m sharing, or how long I spend online, who I choose to follow, and what I allow to take up space in my life.
You describe your style as elevated basics, but you still have elements that are bold with bright colors, oversized pants, and graphic tees. What do you want your style to communicate to others?
That it's okay to be authentically yourself. To not let anyone’s idea of what’s normal, make you feel bad about yourself. It’s been a process building my confidence, but as long as I'm happy, I’m cool with who I am.
Where does this influence for your style come from?
My parents and my grandparents. The first person I saw wearing a pair of Air Force 1s was my grandpa. My mom's has this grungy style - always in bomber jackets and lots of neutrals. My dad is always wearing a crisp pair of Dickies, Levi's, and white Pro Club Tee. My grandma would always wake up early, blow dry her hair all big, and crease her pants before work, even to this day. She creases her scrubs - I don’t know anyone else who creases their scrubs. But every morning she would crease her pants before work, even to this day. At the end of the day you're influenced by circumstance, so of course, my family has made a large impact on my style. My Pinterest moodboard is always a source of inspiration too!
At 20, you’re just getting started. What are your goals for the next few years of your life?
First and foremost I want to be working with kids, I always wanted to be a teacher, and if the opportunity presents itself, to continue on this modeling journey. I want to be a form of representation in both spaces. I didn't see people that look like me or were from my area growing up so to be able to continue to create paths for people where they are taking up space in predominantly non-brown places is something I want to continue doing.
Do you plan to stay in the San Gabriel Valley/El Sereno area long term?
My goal has always been to put back into the communities that helped make me who I am. I feel a lot of people that are from my area don't necessarily have old money or generational wealth. We don't have the means or the resources to just go and buy a piece of land. So getting to that point where I can buy property, uplift the people that made me who I am, and help create community-owned neighborhoods and businesses, that is my ultimate goal.
How do you maintain this level of contentment and happiness you give off?
I read this book recently (The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor) and it really resonated with me. We are ingrained with this idea that in order to be happy, you have to be successful first. But that’s false. Investing in our happiness can fuel success. It can make us more focused and engaged in reaching our goals. Because think about it, if you’re not okay with yourself, it makes it harder to accept a compliment, feel you deserve a job you’ve received, or even feel like you deserve to take up space in a room. I want everyone to be able to get to a place where you recognize your own worth first.
Top Right Photo: Genai for Adidas, Shot by Brandie Wed
Bottom Center (title): Genai in El Sereno, Shot by Thalia Gochez
This interview has been edited and condensed.