On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in June, about after Track season has ended, Knik sits in a barely lit office next to his own room, his legs stretched out in front of him and his blue Nikes up on a coffee table. Holding what looks like a chocolate cake shake from Portillos, he’s talking about how he recently started driving more.
“I haven’t been driving as much as I use to; let alone out the house these past 6 months,” he says. “ I go to class, then practice, then basically back home.” It used to be that driving was an escape from the world, where he would come up with ideas, Knik explains. Cutting it out of his life felt like a piece of him was missing.
“Driving around at night, like 1-2 in the morning, allows me to be to myself and just drive open roads without too many distractions.” he says. “Sometimes those drives are coming from parties or dropping a friend off or coming from a shorty crib and just got done doing whatever we do. Driving is one of the most pivotal things in my life.”
Driving was how Knik put himself in the mindset of thinking ways to improve himself. When he was trying to figure out how can he cut his 400m time, he would picture someone running against the car. “It’s a weird image I know…” he trails off. “Sometimes those drives send me into my own imagination, sometimes daydreaming so hard that I don’t realize it’s a green light in front of me.”
I ask him, as he takes a slow sip of his shake, whether in light of his recent triumphs, he worries at all that he’s had it too easy—whether there’s any risk that he’ll start taking for granted his ability to connect with people.
He sounds frankly disgusted with the idea. “I’ve never felt like, ‘Oh, people will bite at anything Knik said’s,’” he says. “I’m just not that guy. I don’t feel that way about anything I say… If it didn’t connect, I would have a huge problem.”
He pauses for a second, then continues, leaning into every word: “I mean, I’m really trying. It’s not like I’m just sitting here, just fuckin’ shooting with my eyes closed. Like, I’m trying. I’m really trying to make sure everybody good; my family, my friends, followers on twitter; whoever it may be towards.”
As he says this, Knik projects a practiced but convincing friendliness, and the effort he’s putting into making sure I know he’s being sincere is palpable and disarming. Still, looking at his newly dread hair, tied in a pony tail, and the beard that now covers the lower half of his face like armor, I remember the advice he gave recently on one of his twitter—Say less and move about your business.—and make a point of taking it.
This will be the first extended interview Knik has given since JamSphere published a story in January of 2016 that moved him to declare on Twitter that he would no longer be talking to Blogs. It’s also the first time he has opened himself up to questions about his life and those in it.
By the time we’re done talking, Knik will have address things that has happenein his life that hasn’t been said, and opened a window onto the superpowers that allow him, more than almost anyone else, to connect the way people feel that is new and unfamiliar, but still deeply, widely, and reliably resonant.
For most of the year, Knik’s focus has been on Track. Undertaking the high-stakes of coming off a season ending injury that sat him out the entire outdoor season last year, he tells me, required him to work at a slower pace that flustered him a bit. ” I wanted to work full speed as soon as possible, but there wasn’t no telling how healthy my hamstring was.” He says ” Culpepper being back, he wasn’t going to let me half-ass any of the workouts, so I always went to the trainers for stretching and icing on my hamstring before and after practice.”
The choice to play it safe was a response to growing up Knik says, he has realized that everything can’t be fixed over night. Knik and his coaches in particular, have learned to communicate better with what their plan is for him as well as for the team. “We’ve grown a lot over the years,” Knik says. “He used to be the guy that would track me down to my classroom. And now he is not that guy— doesn’t really have to do that anymore.”
He needed Beebe for this season, though, he says. “If I want to make the times I want to make, I have to go find him. I have to go sit with him, and we have to really put in effort.”
As he moves on to a new coaching staff next year at Tuskegee University, he feels bittersweet about it. “One of my main goals this season was to make the team more family orientated; I don’t know how I did it, but it happened. Definitely gonna miss everybody on the team though for real…”
Knik has made many goals for himself this year, pushing himself to learn and teach himself many different skills. “I’ve recently got into Dj’ing, but not like on actual turntables and stuff.” As I was confused, he gets up and walks to his room and comes back with a device that I’ve never seen before. “There’s this app called DJay 2, where you can DJ off your phone or iPad and I just really got into it, so I bought the whole set and I just self taught myself.” He showed me his cuts and transitions of popular songs that would definitely be played in parties or club. “I probably haven’t been to a party since mine in December.” he says “I hate that it snowed that day though, I was expecting like 600 people and maybe like… half showed up? I just made the best out of the situation. Still had a fun time though.”
You could call it his emotional imagination. But in fact it’s something more specific: a gift for understanding people and intuitively knowing how to activate, and lay claim to, their feelings. Knik is an interpreter, in other words, of the people he is trying to reach—a person who can speak or make tweets that wide swaths of listeners and readers will want to take ownership of and thoughts that we will all want to discover answers to ourselves as we walk down the street.
When I ask Knik about how he gets audiences to identify with him in many ways, especially now that his life is so extraordinary and strange, he sits up and lays out the elemental chemistry of life.
“We may be worlds apart in the sense of, you know, how you came up, how I came up, what are my focuses in life, what are yours—but what are we talking about?” he says. “We’re talking about human emotions. We’re talking about love, which I know is a touchy subject to some, but I’m not afraid to touch on uncomfortable subjects with people. People limit themselves to relate to someone due to them wanting to be guarded all the time and it’s not healthy. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing—you gotta at least hear what I’m saying to you. And I pray that it helps.”
At this he interrupts himself. “Not to say ‘helps,’” he says. ‘“Helps’ is a weird word. I don’t ever want to think I’m ‘helping.’ It’s not about helping. It’s more like, even though we’re not carrying on a dialogue, I hear you, you know? I understand where you’re coming from and I can relate to some extent. Everybody is interconnected in some shape or form.”
You can tell he’s thinking this through as he says it, and as he goes on, it feels kind of like watching someone earnestly arrive at a mission statement on the fly: “Like, I’m a very understanding person.” he says. “I know everything. I know everything that’s being said about you. I know everything that’s being said about me. I’m very in tune with life around me.”
As the interview goes on, I’ve noticed Knik’s phone was constantly vibrating as if people were trying to get in contact with him. I was curious on why he hasn’t picked his phone up. ” It’s a habit now not to pick up my phone as much. I kind of self taught myself not to be on my phone as much. When I went almost 6 months without a phone number it made me interact more personally because I wasn’t on twitter or texting while I was out in public. Interpersonal commutation happens when both people are focus on each other and not on the phone half way listening, so I’ve been giving people my full attention now.”
He picks up his phone for a minute and looks at his phone for a minute. “Well the GroupMe experiment is done. Guess I have to call Huffington in the morning.”
Knik was 1 of 100 GroupMe group leaders for their specific school, doing a study of how GroupMe is becoming a widespread of communicating with students that’s already on their school’s campus or are incoming to the campus. The focus was who do students naturally gravitate to and what/why reasons. “It’s a smart study, but it’s hella risky. The study itself is to push colleges to use social media more to connect their incoming students before they even get to the campus. The risky is playing catfish for a while. I got paid a nice amount to participate in this study so I’m not really hurt by all of this. I just used a girl I knew and just copied old texts so whatever brought up ain’t even in my words; just verbatim from old texts. But man, they grilling the fuck out of me in this chat.”
As he shows me what’s being said, the word “fraud” and “fake” was thrown out a lot from his peers that seem to be his friends at one point. “They really did they research on this one. Even went out they way to go get the real girl. Like they really went out the way for this one. But it’s alright. I’m still getting paid for the study and really no real harm was done. I spoke to the girl that I used in private and explained the situation. She came to me maturely and ask my side and we laughed about it. Heads still up; I’m confident I’ll bounce back soon.”
The start of a new thing of Knik is the start of his own Tumblr page. Something he says he wanted to do a long time, but wasn’t able to figure out the website itself. “That website has so many twists to it, I just gave up at one point. Beginning of April I was like I’m gonna try again.” The look of the page you can tell it fits Knik’s persona of music, African American history, sports, food and the list of things goes to oblivion. A particular tab, Ex’s and Interludes, struck out to me more than anything. “The tab is like my closure with women I didn’t get to have closure with. Many my relationships were left with things unsaid and I hate that feeling. So the tab is my way of telling my story of it and just saying when I needed to say.”
I’m just gonna bring it up ‘cause it’s important to me,” he says. “I was at my cousins prom send off—had to been the freshest nigga at prom—and my brother called me. He was just like, ‘I don’t know if you’re aware, but, yo, they’re trying to end you out here. They’re just spreading, like, propaganda. Where are you? You need to come here.’ So we all circled up at my crib, and sat there as I’m reading tweets of shorty just rambling about bullshit in no shape or form was true, and these guys flip-flopped [about how] they were gonna do this, that, and the third.”
He proceeds to make a call and ended up visiting the person the same night. “Given the circumstances, it felt right to just remind people what it is that I do,” Knik says, a proud smile creeping into his face, “in case your opinions were wavering at any point.”
When a reply on twitter came to be more lies, Knik could hardly believe it. “This is a discussion about credibility, and no one is showing proof of it?” he says, speaking with a furrowed brow, as if reliving his incredulity. “You guys are gonna leave this for me to do? This is how you want to play it? You guys didn’t think this through at all—nobody? You guys have high-ranking members watching over you. Nobody told you that this was a bad idea, to engage in this and not have something? You’re gonna engage in a conversation about who did what for people, with me? And not have anything to put forth on the table?”
As the days ticked by and a rebuttal from DJ continued to not materialize, Knik became almost offended at the lack of hustle the other team was putting in. “It was weighing heavy on me,” he says. “I didn’t get it. I didn’t get how there was no strategy on the opposite end. I just didn’t understand. I didn’t understand it because that’s just not how we operate. So i just left it alone. ”
Knik’s relationship to people, and the mark he wants to leave on the world they live in, is something he has addressed more than once in his tweets. When I ask Knik what it would mean to actually do those things, I half-expect him to say something about getting young people to realize that the internet is ruining their ability to lead authentic lives. It’s a technophobic stance that he has hinted at before—even as he has demonstrated, over and over, an utterly fluent understanding of digital culture and how to harness it.
His choice of words here is revealing: Knik wants people to feel like they’ve grown up with him, like they know him and see him as a human being who is a part of their lives. “I watch other people from the past in awe—in awe of the preparation it must have taken to, like, be that individual—the grandiose production of [it],” he says. “And I’ve sort of gotten by just being myself.”
That, more than anything, Knik tells me, is the mark he hopes to leave: “I just want to be remembered as somebody who was himself and didn’t have to be hood or anything like that,” he tells me. “Not a product.”
It’s not a risk-free proposition. Because the truth is, people don’t like it when their friends change, and since Knik is intent on evolving, it’s inevitable that some people will start identifying less with him and more with the spurned allies and ex-girlfriends whom he describes in his pettiest tweets—the people in his life who resent him for drifting away from them or getting so big for his britches. The tough, guarded tone Knik took on life has undoubtedly cost him the loyalty of some who were attached to the softer openness that he is known for —and his growing dominance as a highly respected person surely contributes to the type of Twitter fury he faced during the #LastNightAsAViking.
As our interview wraps up, I ask Knik whether he actually feels that way—and what he imagines he will be, at Tuskegee and beyond, if he toughens up so much that he loses the approachability that has always distinguished him. “It’s never about toughening up. I don’t even know if that’s, like, cool, being tough and shit,” he says. “Not being vulnerable is never gonna be my thing. I’m always going to share with you what’s going on in my life.” What has changed, he explains, is that he doesn’t have any doubts left about how good he is, or whether he deserves the spot he has fought to secure since emerging into the public consciousness six years ago as a beguiling, expressive misfit.
“Vulnerability, to me, sometimes comes in the form of being naïve about where I am in the pecking order of all this,” he says. “So I think I realize where I’m at now. And I think I realize that I’m gonna have to be OK with not having that many friends that are peers.”
And with that, Knik is out—done talking, and ready, at long last, to head to the gym, where he says he and his trainer will be trying to increase flexibility in the hips they initially thought might increase speed off the blocks, but now aren’t so sure. Knik seems confident they’ll figure it out though. He’s looking forward to doing the work.