Hip-Hop Activist and DJ Fights Her Fiercest Battle–with Heart Disease and Fat-Phobia

At just 36, DJ Kuttin Kandi has a pacemaker, mounting medical bills and the courage to tell her story. Here, she explains what size, race and bias have to do with her heart.

By Akiba Solomon Apr 26, 2012

DJ Kuttin Kandi has been a force in hip-hop cultural spaces for more than 15 years. The first woman to reach the DMC USA Finals and a founding member of the [all-female Anomolies crew](http://www.myspace.com/anomolies), the Queens-bred Filipina turntablist has shared the stage with legends (Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa), big kids (MC Lyte, LL Cool J) and period contemporaries (Jay-Z, dead prez, Immortal Technique). In addition to beat juggling and competition-judging, she writes revealing poems, lectures regularly, does grassroots organizing and [serves as a mentor and educator at the UC San Diego Women’s Center](http://women.ucsd.edu/about/index.html). She’s also spearheading a compilation album, The Womyn’s Hip-Hop Movement, co-writing a book about Filipino-Americans in hip-hop culture, and she proudly represents the 5th Platoon crew, Guerrilla Words and R.E.A.C.Hip-Hop (Representing Education, Activism & Community Through Hip Hop). At the moment, though, the turntable technician known on paper as Candice Custodio-Tan is fighting the most critical battle of her life, with heart disease. Backstory: On April 11, Kandi went to a San Diego emergency room with intense chest pains, dizziness and shortness of breath. There, she learned that her [atrial fibrillation](http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/af/)–irregular heartbeat–was severe enough for a stay in the ICU. Two days later, her heart stopped beating for seven seconds. Post-revival, doctors told her she’d need a pacemaker and that she’d be taking blood thinners indefinitely. Telling your medical business to a judgmental world is not an easy thing. But Kandi has been documenting her experience in a series of Facebook posts called "Notes of a Revolutionary Patient." So far, she’s spoken of childhood sexual abuse and cutting, bulimia and exercise binges, suicide attempts and therapy, nonstop work and the trauma of living in a large body when the specter of fat-phobia [even interferes with medical care](http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tamara-mcclintock-greenberg/can-overweight-women-trus_b_470981.html). Think of her dispatches as a social media analogue to [Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals](http://litmed.med.nyu.edu/Annotation?action=view&annid=192). An excerpt from an entry she posted hours before having her pacemaker inserted: > [Over] the past 5 days when the doctors poke me, judge me for "not working on my health", not once have they asked me what road I have taken to work on my health. They just automatically assume I’m not working on it. All they see is my pounds and what they see on their charts. While much of the ailments make sense, the quick 2 minute talk in my hospital room, immediately dismisses everything I’ve been working on to just simply survive depression. Not once have they ever asked if I had an eating disorder." Kandi’s experience reflects [recent findings](http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/01/21/obesity.discrimination/index.html) about how fat bias results in women being misdiagnosed, receiving inaccurate drug dosages, paying higher insurance premiums and even facing delays in cancer detection. Via email, I asked Kandi to put her very personal journey into a larger context. Here’s what she told me, edited for clarity and space. **In one of your "Notes of a Revolutionary Patient" entries, "Oppression is Trauma," you describe how doctors have made your weight the central issue without asking your key questions about your mental health, past eating disorders or other relevant factors. How did you recognize that bias was a factor?** I realized I was receiving biased medical care the moment they didn’t ask me what work I have done and haven’t done to "be healthy." The moment they told me, "You need to lose weight" without asking my personal health journey, I knew they were judging me. They didn’t look at me as though I was a person; they just looked at my pounds. If weight is the issue, okay fine–let’s discuss the weight [and] what got me here. But i think it’s more than just weight. For any patient, doctors need to know the details. I know that there’s a whole herstory about me. I’ve [suffered] a range of mostly invisible disabilities including depression, bulimia and binge-eating/compulsive disorder. In my 30s I was diagnosed with anxiety and panic disorder, agoraphobia, diabetes, hypertension, sleep apnea, bipolar disorder and severe allergies that require two shots a week for three years. I also have an [Auditory Processing Disorder](http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/26/little-known-disorder-can-take-a-toll-on-learning/), which I occasionally reframe as a different learning style. Doctors need to take their time explaining things to people; many people have different learning styles. **Talk about how systemic racism has shaped your own medical care.** Well, the simple fact that the health care industry is *not* [generally] educated in social justice, power, privilege and oppression* is* systemic racism. Any healthcare space treating people of different races, classes and genders need to be educated about systems of oppression. The better informed they are about the challenges that different people of multiple identities face, the better they are going to be able to understand the needs of that person. For example, if a doctor knew what struggles a Pinay like me faces, [he or she] would know that Filipino adults are 70 percent more likely to be obese in comparison to the rest of the Asian population. They would also know that in the U.S., 15.93 percent of Asian-American women have contemplated suicide in their lifetime and that there is a rise of depression amongst Filipino Americans. … They would understand cultural norms and know that there is a thing called "hiya" in where we don’t bring shame to our families by seeking something like mental healthcare. **How does sexual violence factor in?** It is important to understand that the sexual violence of womyn of color in itself already shows the intersection of sexism and racism. In general, sexual violence has always been a way to dehumanize womyn, just as racism is used to disempower people of color overall. So the sexual violence against womyn of colot is a combo of racism and sexism. These intersected isms, along with [negative] stereotypes increase the vulnerability of different womyn of color. **For young(er) women of color embarking on multilayered careers like yours–one that involves male-dominated competition, art, travel, teaching and speaking about often unpopular topics–are there any self-protective steps you can suggest?** It is important that when we give so much of ourselves to our careers, to our activism, to our communities that we are grounded. I’m surprised I have lasted this long, going the way I was going. I feel I’m already a pretty grounded person; I’ve been able to maintain my morals and values but yet I still fell sick. What I have been learning as of recently, is to really be balanced. Sometimes, we think we’re okay, that we are invincible and that we can keep on going. But the truth is, we might not really be. We need to listen to our bodies, our minds, our souls and our hearts. I need to do a better job of listening to my whole me. … If we can be honest [with] ourselves, be open and vulnerable in knowing that it’s okay to make mistakes, to see our own imperfections and still love ourselves, we will then be stronger for the long run–for a real revolution. **How long will you be on hiatus?** I will be in a long sabbatical, taking time away from organizing, and DJ performing for however long I need to be fully healthy. My body and spirit will know when it’s ready to come back and this time I will be listening. **What feedback have you gotten to the Facebook postings and to the [fundraising campaign](http://www.youcaring.com/fundraiser_details?fundraiser_id=2170&url=kuttinkandisrevolution) your loved ones have launched to help you pay for the $50,000 worth of medical expenses your insurance won’t likely pay?** Overall, people have been very supportive–family, friends and fans from all over the world have been emailing, messaging, texting me, visiting me and sending me flowers. It’s all been very amazing. Of course there have been the judgmental folks. Just as doctors don’t look at my whole journey, there are people who don’t look at the "whole" person. All they see is the weight. Of course, I take personal responsibility to the demise of my own health, but again, in tandem, we need to look at the systems in place that can prevent anyone from really living a healthy life. **Is there anything you’d like to add about balancing community work with healing?** I’m not going to judge other folks methods for surviving–we all gotta do what we gotta do. Personally, I’ve done different modes of survival and they will change from time to time. My healing is going to include all that I’ve done over the years through music, art, writing, hip-hop, community and love. It’s going to include healthy walks, healthy food, healthy discussions, healthy meditations. And it’s going to be filled with family and friends. And I’ll be doing all of this while I am still in the struggle. I wouldn’t have it any other way. To donate to DJ Kuttin’ Kandi’s medical fund, visit her [youcaring.com](http://www.youcaring.com/fundraiser_details?fundraiser_id=2170&url=kuttinkandisrevolution) page. For more information about her writing, music and activism, go to [kuttinkandi.net](http://web.me.com/kuttinkandi/Kuttin_Kandi/Home.html).