Kalen Allen is more than his viral acclaim, identity or even his many diverse accomplishments— he is joy personified.

Since becoming a social media sensation and going on to build a stronger platform with regular appearances on The Ellen Show in 2018, Allen has been a recognizable and trusted voice online. Now, a student respectively attending New York University and Julliard, starring in movies like Netflix's upcoming holiday film Meet Me Next Christmas and Amazon Prime’s With Love, hosting various digital series and podcasts, and staking his claim as a singer/songwriter—he continues to raise the bar for himself and others in the most genuine fashion he knows how.

Kalen Allen took a moment from his busy schedule as a multi-talented creator to talk about where he is at in life and how he stays focused on his own path.

EBONY: Many of us vividly remember watching you on YouTube, The Ellen Show, and seeing you soar after. Since then, you’ve been busy creating your own lane, and it’s so apparent that you've bet on yourself the whole entire way. Why is it important to bet on yourself and follow your dreams?

Kalen Allen: That's a deep question. Personally, especially because I grew up in Kansas City, I feel when you live in places that are not big cities like New York, or Chicago or Los Angeles, you kind of feel like there's a ceiling that you will eventually hit—even if you are a big dreamer. Some people don't even dare to dream big because they don't think that they will be able to accomplish them just off of what resources they have or environments that they're in. For me, I always knew that I was meant for something more than what Kansas City had to offer me. I was determined to figure out what that looked like and where I needed to go to make that happen. That's why I moved to the East Coast immediately after graduating from high school and went to school in Philadelphia at Temple University.

There's also the fact of not wanting to leave this world thinking of what I could have or should have done. I wanted to do it all. I wanted to live out every dream and aspiration. I was a kid that loved living life, getting up every morning and just experiencing the world. I didn't want to wake up one day saying that I didn't get to experience anything.

Once you reached that place of loving life fully, what were the keys that grounded you and made sure that you never settled or compromised the joy that you found?

Survival. When I moved to Philadelphia, I was all by myself. Then I went to Ellen, and I was by myself again. This is an especially unique situation as I'm also an only child. Additionally, there was a long period of time when my mother and I were not close due to my sexuality as well. So a lot of that idea of survival came from the fact that I knew that in this world, it was me, myself and I, and I wasn't going to allow myself to let myself down. I needed to be my own cheerleader and support system; I knew that the inner child within and younger Kalen deserve the world. I do believe that younger Kalen would be very proud of who I've become today, but I also think that if he saw the sacrifices that he had to make, the love that wasn't there and the cost of it all, he'd be disappointed that that happened.

I've been in this place recently—as it pertains to queerness and even Blackness—and I notice that anytime we are asked about our lives, we tend to always focus on the pain. To me, Black people in general are used to having to endure and being resilient survivalists. However, we don't allow ourselves to accept joy. We think that it has to come with some like deep cost in order for us to be happy. Now, as I've started to look back at all the stuff that I experienced, I feel like I've gotten the reward for all that pain and trauma. I've already come on the other side of the rainbow, so I'm more focused on wanting to celebrate the joy that I live in. What's real for me today is that I am living a life that I would have never dreamed of, and I want to be able to soak up every moment of that.

Whether using joy as a form of resistance or as a force to get up in the morning, why is holding on to it so important?

The struggles of our daily lives are inevitable—they are going to come no matter what. But one thing that I can control is how I react to something, how something influences me, or how something makes me change who I am. There can be beautiful things made out of joy as well, not just pain and trauma. I just want to be free. I just want to celebrate, I just want to be in the joy because everything has been so heavy, including what we experienced with the pandemic and everything else socially during that time. To this day, you get on Twitter and all anyone does is argue all day long. That doesn't feel good. I think I am starting to work in a place of everything I do needs to be based on how I feel. I don't want to be around or be anywhere where I do not feel joy. If you don't fit the vibes, if you have weird energy, if you come to me incorrectly, I'm going somewhere else. I'm not participating in that stuff no more.

Also, a big part of this came from my mother's battle with breast cancer and chemotherapy. Afterward, she still has side effects from it. I often have to remind her, that yes, she may have a side effect, but she is a survivor. She still gets time on this planet. You may have your issues here and there, but at the end of the day, it could have taken you out of here. That perspective reminds me that we get so stuck in marinating in the woes of us. It can be hard to live outside of that or accept and show gratitude for the small things, you know?

Image: courtesy of Emily Assiran

As you continue honing your craft, how do you find balance, and not burn yourself out?

I'll be completely honest about that— I have recently felt the burnout coming. There are moments where I know that I'm doing so much, but question if it matters or if it is being seen by the right people. Am I existing in my purpose? Or am I just doing a lot of stuff to just say I'm doing it? When I look at my career, people loved the food videos, but I just feel like I've outgrown it. That was a major part of my life and it was fun. But every time I do them now, I get a feeling in the pit of my stomach because I wonder if I'm going backwards. Then I get nervous about how it will be received or if I'm psyching myself out. On the other hand, I just did a Netflix movie and have worked on so many new projects along with going to school, and my soul feels completely fulfilled when I am in those moments. That's what I allow myself to listen to in order to counteract all the other thoughts that come into my mind.

I'm taking off the entire month of July because I do believe as creatives when we are on the go nonstop, the lessons that we are learning don't get time to soak in. It doesn't get time to get into our bodies. I think we have to do a full stop to just let that marinate and soak into our pores. Then, by the time we come back, we're refreshed, renewed and we've grown.