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OKENYO on Queerness and Self Love

By Rose Bassett, Ella Clair and Jake Amy

Photo: Indiana Kwong

Expressive, fierce, honest. These are the words that spring to mind when I think of Sydney-based artist OKENYO, blending her personal identity with charisma, confidence and style. A dynamic performer Zindzi Okenyo has made a name for herself across both acting and music worlds, paving her own space. I recently spoke with Zindzi about her queer identity, music and the importance of representation and self love. During the conversation I was unable to keep the smile off my face. Since coming out as queer to my peers five years ago I have felt an incredible pull to hear, read and engage with the plethora of stories within the queer community. I have often noticed during these conversations or readings that I have felt a sense of belonging and place, feeling myself represented and mirrored in various ways, all the while listening to experiences vastly different from my own. Within this series I aim to continue this theme, speaking with LGBTQI+ artists within the music community of so called Australia. Zindzi was the first of many.

Can you talk about your relationship with your sexuality and how much it influences your artistry?

I’m 34 now and I think I “came out” at around 23-24. And that’s because I suddenly had a girlfriend and that just felt really right. For me, it’s always been that shame and homophobia have been external. But my personal relationship to my own sexuality… I really love it about myself! And I guess I love it about myself because it’s me. I can’t do anything about it and I wouldn’t want to. Once I realised I was attracted to women I felt more myself. Being with women; they respond to things that I love about myself and I think that really reinforces it for me as a positive thing.

Recently I’ve been reflecting on how there is [now] safety in coming out and how this is a really wonderful thing! I guess generations of queers before me might feel this as well - I think it is an amazing change that sexuality is now so openly fluid and it is a safer space for people. It’s more free!

I guess it’s hard sometimes to think about how people have been out for so long with no allies, or [the experience of] being in an industry where no one else was out; often being that courageous one and how lonely that would be. And so I guess you carry that with you.

Photo: Indiana Kwong

In terms of my work, I think that for a lot of people “coming out” very much becomes a part of their work (in their expression) which is excellent. I’ve had a bit of a different experience because it was never something that I felt needed to become a part of my brand; it’s just a part of me. I can understand why people might use it as part of their brand, but I hope they’re not using it as a tactic or a “cool thing”. People want authenticity and it seems like branding has evolved into that. But often to achieve authenticity you have to use this very personal thing to create your brand. And, I recoil a bit with that because all that stuff is so private, you know. I think a lot of the time artists put so much into their work that they go that extra mile. I guess for me that stuff lives within my work, but I don’t believe we should have to monetise it. It really is tricky.

Do you feel you have a sense of place in the music industry?

I feel like I kind of carved my own way in. And I’m really proud of that. I guess in any space, feeling comfortable and confident as an artist has got to do with how comfortable I am with myself now. It’s all intertwined. Whether I like it or not it’s all part of my quality; my public persona. And I’m so much more at ease with my relationship to all of those things. I think that once you feel okay with yourself, you can go forth and feel comfortable in any space. Comparison kills your joy. That was a great lesson I learnt very early on, especially being an actor. So, I’ve never really compared myself to other people which has really allowed me to be free in my own space.

In your opinion, what are the implications of being an openly queer artist?

I’ve found that in the music world, it’s a lot more free; people tend to understand things differently than in other artforms. Music is clearer. Like, the musician and the person that I am looking at represent this [cohesive identity], rather than say, an actor, who is playing another character with another story. It’s different.

There is definitely a privilege in being feminine and straight passing. I think the history for queer men especially has been really hard. I had some queer relationship experiences early on where I was invisible, and that was really damaging. So after those experiences, I dug my heels in and just said; never ever be invisible. Don’t make someone feel invisible and don’t be invisible. I think that's kind of the antidote to the shame that people are going to put on you. I think, sadly, that still exists. It’s always really important to recognise both that aspect and the privilege you might hold.

What was your experience coming out as openly queer?

So, when I was in high school, I wasn’t interested in women. I was always interested in my male best friends. And, guys just didn’t seem interested in me. And, although that was disappointing, I kind of just let it go. I was more interested in school than in sex! So I came to dating quite late. When I realised I was attracted to women it just made a lot of sense, but it was quite tricky in those years to identify as queer. Obviously, queerness has been around, but not in the way it is in popular culture today.

It was tricky to first come out because I didn’t have the examples that are there today. I didn’t really identify with lesbian culture or what I saw in the clubs; it just wasn’t my vibe. So, I was definitely quite lost for a while. It makes it hard when you’re coming out to your parents if you don’t really know what's happening.

Everything’s fine now, but it took some time for some people in my family, only because I think they just didn’t expect it all. Back then, there were no examples of it. Nothing in the media, no language around it. A lot of people didn’t even have gay friends or friends who were out. I think, ultimately, because I’ve been so sure of it in myself, I can also be quite stubborn or stoic. So if people who are close to me are taking a bit too long to get on board I’m just like, no, you have to do it now. Because this is who I am. We need to keep growing our relationships otherwise we have fractures in families. But I think at the core of it, it got easier. And as it did, I became more and more comfortable in myself.

What are some of the biggest barriers facing audiences and performers who are queer?

I think from a gatekeeper (top down kind of perspective), people are still very much put in boxes. We’ve seen the way that people programme festivals; we can talk about any minority and we’ve had to put quotas in place to diversify. So I think that can be a really minimising experience for queer atists or any minority. Because, we understand how much we are just ticking boxes. It’s so obvious, we are living it. Unfortunately, I think that’s how things change over time. You have to force them to make change. Otherwise people will keep making the same choices they want to make. You can apply that anywhere. So I think that is a barrier, because the minute you think you’re in a box, it can be a really minimising feeling. It’s a very systematic thing.

In relation to white iterations of sexualities, do you see a difference in how these are spoken about or normalised comparatively to sexualities in the BIPOC community?

That’s a big question. My first instinct in yes, of course, there is a difference. I think the biggest issue is when the intersectionality is not recognised. The white experience is prioritised and then becomes the reference point for when we talk about queerness.

Photo: Kate Williams

I can only speak of being mixed-race African/Australian. Within African diasporas, there is so much depending on where you come from. But I didn’t have a connection to my culture growing up, and I know people who are really committed to their Africanness and the relationship between their culture and being queer. A lot of places in Africa are still not okay with homosexuality, and so that experience is already so different to what is being shown as the white experience of queerness.

When I see these [white] representations of queerness… like they don’t really speak to me. And then, between the male gaze and whiteness, it's like wow, how do you even tear that back to get to the root of something you might recognise; something that might help you grow? Because it really is a case of; you need to see it so you can be it and so you can imagine that you can grow in that way. I think that is so powerful. I just finished watching The Haunting of Bly Manor on Netflix, which is such a cool show. And one of the actors in it is a woman called Tenia Miller. She’s British, black and queer. She’s in her 40’s and she’s a lesbian. So when you see “it”, it’s just rare. I just feel alive when I think about her existing! I don’t think that is something that you can’t understand unless you’re queer.

What sustainable practices could we implement post-pandemic that would help us facilitate a more representative and diverse music industry?

At the core of it, as gross as they are, I believe that you just have to have quotas. Otherwise things just don’t change. But I also think that in order for things to actually change in a meaningful way… you have to go deep. You have to be really courageous to do that. It’s not easy. Unfortunately, I think a big barrier is when individuals making big decisions don’t really look at their relationship with these things. It’s tricky because none of us as artists have control over that. That is something that, ultimately, is up to the individual. So I guess that’s where quotas really have to be in place. But also [there needs to be an] understanding of why they are there.

It’s been heartening the past few months for black and queer communities to come together. But there is also work to be done within our communities, which is about building each other up. That’s a really hard thing to do when you feel like you’ve been taught not to band together.

The reality is that you can’t learn about anybody else's experiences unless you actually listen to them. But you know, it’s very hard to be a good listener. Because, everybody is thinking of themselves, and I’m not excluding myself from that. It’s something I think about a lot, wanting to be a better listener. I think everyone really has to; that’s the way for it to work.

We need people from different backgrounds in those top positions, which means fostering from the ground up, getting rid of the idea of “risk taking” when you hire someone from diverse backgrounds. I think that is a really bad disease in Australia. It’s so aligned with all of that tall-poppy, small-minded kind-of Australianness. Just do it. Go forward and be that pioneer. We all just need the people already in those positions to be bold, to put their foot down and vote to change this. Because that is actually how we start to really filter through.

Photo: Kate Williams

When you do that, you’re engaging with people from different backgrounds and you then naturally also become a more expansive person. You’re not just around the same people, not looking in a mirror, you know. Because every single unit of people is a mini system; whether it’s your friendship group or your workplace, they are all mini systems.

So, we have to really do that work, especially if you are a white person. If you do the work, the reading, the research and really start to understand or get closer to understanding what other people's life experience may be… we can then share that in our systems; telling the people you know, the people you love, people you’re already engaged with what you have learnt. It’s starting small and filtering out.

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We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other First Nations people who have read this article.

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