Local Lowdown: Talking Visibility And Values With OKENYO

In collaboration with The Plot.

Staying true to the lyrics of her bold Beats 1-selected single “Woman’s World”, Zindzi Okenyo is a very busy woman with a lot on her plate. Having worked as an actress for over a decade in theatre and TV, the Australian-Kenyan delved into the world of music a few years back, spinning influences spanning Erykah Badu and Frank Ocean into her stunning 2015 EP ‘Mirage’.

As well as working as a Play School host, she’s balanced writing for her forthcoming EP with a lead role in Aussie TV series Sisters and rehearsals for Belle Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Her soulful RnB-flecked cuts have already turned heads overseas, with the singer-songwriter being invited to play at CMJ in NYC, while on home soil she’s worked alongside hip hop favourites like Sampa the Great and Urthboy, and is slotted to support breakthrough pop purveyor Billie Eilish when she tours here in February.

For our second installation of Local Lowdown, we caught up with OKENYO ahead of her appearance at The Plot to discuss navigating through her creative spheres, being a voice for women, LGBTIQ and first generation Australian communities, and striking gold in vintage stores.

Best Before: You played at Macquarie Mall in Liverpool last Saturday. How was that?

OKENYO: It was good! It was a bit funny. I think that it’s really cool that we do those kinds of events, because it’s important to get different communities into hearing music, but there weren’t many people there, so I think it takes a little bit more organising. But it was a really great vibe. I’d never really been out to Liverpool – it’s really amazing out there. It’s just hard to get people out there, and if that’s not the aim, then the aim is to get people who live there to come. We went op-shopping and bought some fake Versace!

Amazing – it’s like a gold mine there!

Totally – we walked in like, “What’s this?!” And we all got these little plates! It was really fun!

Sisters has just kicked off on Channel 10. You’ve always balanced acting and singing, but is it getting any easier?

It’s definitely getting harder, ha! But I think that’s inevitable. My aim is to be able to do it all, but I’m in the time period now where, as an actor, I’m getting a lot of work, and then more gigs are starting to come through, so I’m kind of in a difficult period now. It’s definitely tricky, but it’s a good learning experience figuring out how to schedule things and make both work. That’s the plan: to be able to work in these different art forms, because in the end, they all feed into me as an artist. It’s really interesting seeing how if I become more confident in one, like on-screen working on set, then inevitably my trust as an artist and confidence then feeds into me performing live. I can see in subtle ways; it’s working in that sense. But it’s definitely hard to schedule!

So in terms of that confidence, do you think that it varies much between when you’re playing yourself, as opposed to when you’re playing another character?

Singing is definitely way more revealing. It’s totally a process for me. At the moment, I’m not feeling as confident as times that I have before, and I don’t know why that is – I guess I’m just trying to feel what that is. I think the work that I write is personal. That’s the way that I feel I can contribute and express myself, but what comes with that is revealing yourself and being vulnerable. That definitely makes it harder if crowds aren’t listening, for example. That stuff you can’t control, and I absolutely understand that, and I’m cool with it, but it’s totally exposing.

Whereas, as an actor, on Sisters I had to do some really emotional stuff, and I can tap into my own personal experiences in order to show the authenticity. But in the end, I’m playing a lawyer, it’s in a law firm, it’s about another relationship; there are all these masks to help me reveal that vulnerability. With my music, I have specifically pushed myself to be openly clear, because I feel like visibility is really important. I didn’t have that growing up. On my EP there are songs about anxiety and things like that, so I’ve definitely pushed myself to get to that space. But far out – it’s very exposing.

“As an artist, I have to stay engaged… otherwise it’s just kind of self-serving.”

“Woman’s World” was premiered on Beats 1 by Ebro Darden – is that positive affirmation?

Yeah, absolutely! I think I was saying to one of my managers – it’s been so cool that “Woman’s World” has had a really great response, because I am a pretty confident person and I do innately trust in myself, but along the way it’s great to have that validation. It make me go, “Oh, it does mean something to some people.” Pushing myself personally does have an impact outside myself. Yes, I get a lot out of it. But, ultimately, it is about the audience, the viewer or the listener.

You’ve talked about your work as both a presenter on Play School, but also as an auntie. Have those two roles changed your view on the impact we, as adults, can have on younger generations?

Yeah, totally! The amount of mothers that I’ve met, or that have written to me through watching Play School who have kids that are ethnic, it just means so much to them. Growing up, I obviously knew what my heritage was, but I was brought up to know that I had the same opportunities as everyone else, and that I wasn’t different in that way. When I hear all these parents coming forward and saying that it means so much to them, and that their brown kids are saying I’m their favourite, before they kind of even know – it’s just so cool to be able to see that. I’m lucky that a lot of the work I’ve done across theatre. Even now, on Sisters I’m playing a lesbian, and I know how important that storyline will be for queer people because we just never get to see it. I suppose, in all those ways, I take it on as a responsibility. That’s definitely a great reason for me to be doing all of these things – apart from loving it as well, ha!

You wrote a piece for Elle about the plebiscite – one part particularly moved me. You said “My blackness is confronting, my femininity is threatening and my queerness is somehow political.” What do you think is it going to take for that to change? Do you think enough progress is being made?

Yeah, I think things are definitely shifting, but I’m not sure. It’s actually really cool – I interviewed a group of 10 girls aged 10-15 for ABC on International Girl’s Day, and they were just the most extraordinary young people. There was an 11-year-old trans girl there who’s a trans activist. They were all so articulate, and they know all the language, like the “gender gap”. As well as it being a little bit precocious, it’s also totally genuine, and I just learnt so much from them. They’re completely across it. The thing I thought was interesting was that that they were saying “It’s totally up to us, girls need to band together, we need to challenge the stereotype, if I don’t want to wear a dress then I don’t have to, I’m still a girl, blah blah. I can be angry, I don’t have to be pretty and nice all the time.” No one was mentioning boys, and what boys needed to do. And I realised that with our generation, it’s been so much about the patriarchy and top-down stuff. That’s what I believe, anyway.

It really lifted my spirits that they were so connected to sisterhood. Of course, they’re little, so they probably don’t understand the patriarchy, ha. But, I thought that was really interesting. Maybe we’ll see the work that we are doing, which we all have to continue to do, in the next generation. There are so many positive things about all the conversations that we’re having around sexuality, feminism and gender, and I believe that as an artist, I have to stay engaged with that sort of stuff. Otherwise it’s just kind of self-serving.

With your new release, is there an overarching theme to it, like with “Woman’s World”?

Not really. It’s a six-track EP, and I suppose each song explores a facet of my personality. “Woman’s World”, in a sense, kind of stands on its own. The other tracks are quite big in sound and production – like “Woman’s World”, but a bit more introspective. I explore anxiety, and queerness, and relationships, but then with “Woman’s World” it’s more of an outwardly political thing, but also very personal to me as well. All of them stem from a mixture – this is the way that I write; a mixture of my own personal stories with stories that already exist, so I took a lot of inspiration from characters that I played in theatre pieces, and for me, that works as quite a good framework for how to tell a story.

What are you looking forward to most in the next year?

I’m looking forward to getting to that point we were talking about earlier, pushing through the tricky time of now, and understanding how to be all these types of artists, doing more gigs, and making everything work all together.

Check out the Josh Harris-directed video for “Woman’s World” here:

You can catch OKENYO live at The Plot on Saturday 18th November. Grab tickets here.

Photos by Jordan Munns.