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Zindzi Okenyo is asserting herself through her art – on stage, on screen and in the recording studio. Here, the singer-songwriter and actor talks about growing up in different parts of Australia, travelling to her father’s birth country, and being comfortable in her own skin. “The older that I’ve gotten, the more it seems to me the way to be better is to know yourself as much as possible and then relax into it.” By Steve Dow.

The many facets of Zindzi Okenyo’s world

Zindzi Okenyo.
Credit: Indiana Kwong

Zindzi Okenyo sits in a room on a bed covered in transparent gauze, a make-up artist applying a brush to her lips. Her middle-distance stare gives way to a close-up as a tear rolls down her cheek, but the drama ends with Okenyo energetically dancing around the room to the rhythmic hook of “I’d do it all again”.

Lyrically and visually, the clip for Okenyo’s song “20/20” is a neat, four-minute distillation of where the nu soul and hip-hop performer has been, and where she is headed. Allowing herself to be vulnerable in her music and performances, Okenyo is enjoying a new confidence.

That boldness is demonstrated in “Woman’s World”, also from her debut EP, The Wave, released last year. A positive statement of her power, the video clip features Okenyo alongside a racially diverse group of crisply choreographed dancing women. She didn’t consciously write a feminist anthem, but the song was picked up for the Women’s National Basketball League’s season launch and VicHealth’s This Girl Can fitness campaign.

“The older that I’ve gotten, the more it seems to me the way to be better is to know yourself as much as possible and then relax into it,” says the 33-year-old, who studied acting at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney.

Okenyo’s stagecraft informs her songwriting, and vice versa. The seed for writing “Woman’s World” was planted, for instance, when Okenyo played African-American lawyer Jory in Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2016 production of Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play about otherness written on the skin. Critic Peter Craven lauded the production in The Saturday Paper, describing Okenyo as a “black woman of power [who] stalks and sizzles the stage like a natural-born star”.

“I almost understood her,” says Okenyo of rehearsing that role, when we meet for coffee in a favourite cafe near her flat in Sydney’s inner-city Chippendale, where she has lived for the past eight years.

“[But] I realised I was intimidated by her. I thought, ‘Oh, far out, I’d love to meet this woman’, or, ‘I want to be this woman.’

“She’s someone who walks into the room and she’s funny, she’s probably the smartest woman … Once I realised [that] piece of the puzzle, it was cool. I walked back into rehearsal and thought, ‘Just go there, just do it.’ I walked in for my scene, and there she was. I met her. That had never really happened for me before.

“Strange, interesting things happen when you play other people, but it’s you.” Okenyo laughs. “[Her] whole thing of ‘This is who I am; take it or leave it,’ that’s where [‘Woman’s World’] came from; it built from that character, and then my own personal experiences.”

Her busy schedule in 2019 will no doubt provide further material for her music. In May, she is travelling for three weeks with her Australian-born mother, Kathryn Gilbert, a retired teacher, to Tanzania and Kenya, including a journey to the village outside Kisii where her father was born. It will be Okenyo’s first trip to Kenya.

Next, on June 5, during the Vivid Sydney festival, Okenyo will perform a live set at the Art Gallery of New South Wales at a session called “Other” Voices, which also features a discussion about being Muslim artists in Australia, with rapper, poet and author Omar Musa and artist Abdul Abdullah.

Four months with a travelling troupe then awaits, when Okenyo will play Beatrice in Bell Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in 28 venues from Hobart to Cairns to Darwin to Albany. She looks forward to devouring the rom-com role but also has doubts about the Bard’s dubious treatment of female characters.

By early next year, she hopes, her anticipated debut LP will be released.

As a musical performer, Okenyo might be compared to the singer-songwriter Chris, aka Héloïse Letissier, known professionally as Christine and the Queens, whose complex stage persona has crossed gender lines with bravado.

Okenyo is already pushing herself, like Chris, to be more confident on stage than off, in an ongoing evolution of her performing persona. “For me, Chris is such an idol,” she says. She successfully lobbied to support the French performer’s recent Australian tour.

“When I started performing, I was much more feminine than I am [now]. I got a bit bored, because I thought, ‘I know how to do this; I know how to be another person.’ So I pushed myself to see who I was as a performer. That was really confronting, because maybe I’m more masculine than I thought, all of that stuff. My first EP was really pushing myself to be as vulnerable as possible.”

Her acting career began before her recording career, meaning Okenyo knew instinctively what to do when singing live. “I’m very open and honest, but definitely I’m an introvert. I spend a lot of time alone and much prefer one-on-one [conversation]. But then I’ve got this extreme side where I feel completely at home in front of hundreds or thousands of people.”

There will be a slow drip of new singles this year. Her most recent, “Hang Your Hat”, coolly deconstructs casual Australian racism through the lens of experience. I read Okenyo’s words back to her with my L-plated rap elocution: “Are you kidding / I never go to Bondi / ’cause I’m not blonde I / don’t fit in there.” She laughs.

I think of Charles Meere’s 1940 Neoclassical painting Australian Beach Pattern, in which some two dozen tanned white people are posed on the beach frozen in waxwork-like health, embodying the nation to the exclusion of others. Okenyo’s lyric about swimming “between the flags” is suddenly freighted with nationalistic, monochromatic weight.

 

Born in Adelaide in December 1985, Zindzi Okenyo, her mother recalls, constantly ran around as a child, more so than walking. Being busy. “She mentioned it the other day,” says Okenyo. “I think it’s a good quality in me. I love when I have responsibility.”

Straight out of teachers’ college, Kathryn, who is white, spent all of her 20s in Kenya, teaching first at primary level through a volunteer teaching abroad program. She met Okenyo’s father in Tanzania. The couple went on to have four children: daughters Madeleine and Imani, born in Kenya; then, when the couple moved back to Adelaide, son Alexander and youngest child Zindzi.

When Okenyo was four, the family moved to a remote Indigenous community, Amata in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands in South Australia, near the Northern Territory border, where Kathryn worked.

“On those communities, she was teaching Indigenous women to be teachers,” says Okenyo. “We travelled a lot because of her job. During her later years she worked with refugees and asylum seekers.”

Her parents’ marriage didn’t last. “They divorced when I was 10, and my father then estranged himself entirely from our family, so I didn’t grow up with any [Kenyan] culture at all.”

Kathryn was a sole parent for a few years, raising four children. She took Zindzi, then aged 12, and her siblings to another remote Indigenous community – the Northern Territory’s Lajamanu community, on the northern edge of the Tanami Desert.

“I had a really amazing childhood, and it was so fun and buoyant and full of so much love,” says Okenyo. “I look back and I see that my siblings raised me, as well.”

Kathryn then met and married Okenyo’s stepfather, Brett Gilbert, and the family moved to Hobart.

Okenyo says she “always knew and loved that I was brown, and different, and even since [I was] a kid I’ve always had a pretty good sense of self and self-worth. I guess I was raised to think any opportunity is available to me, and doors are open. So that’s what I believed, and that’s what I did.”

During her school years, however, she was often “the only black person” in class, as she would be later when performing early stage roles with the likes of Sydney Theatre Company. Gaining theatre parts usually played by white actors “has never really been a problem for me”, says Okenyo.

“I started my career when I was 21, working in theatre all those years … I’ve always been able to play roles that were usually reserved for white people. [But] in the last couple of years, because we talk about diversity so much, and people are almost desperate to be like, ‘My cast is diverse’, I tick all the boxes,” she says. “I’ve only recently started to question: ‘Oh, maybe all those years I wasn’t just there because I was really right for [a role].’”

Frustration has been a constant, though, as Okenyo has been pipped for screen roles several times by lighter-skinned candidates. She believes the Australian screen industry is about “20 years behind” that of the United States in terms of diverse casting. She has, however, been a Play School presenter for several years, a role she cherishes, and had a part in the Channel Ten drama Sisters, since picked up by Netflix.

“I feel black in my own way, which is very valid, but at the same time I mostly feel pretty white,” she says. “Because my work is all about visuals and what people are reading from you, I think I was really naive until my mid-20s, when I realised people were viewing me as something else because of my colour. I felt like I wasn’t protecting myself by not knowing anything about it.”

The music industry, meanwhile, would present a challenge to Okenyo’s personal power when she began performing in the black genres of hip-hop and R&B. “Bar a few people, I didn’t really feel accepted. Maybe this is my own shit or not, who knows, maybe a mix, but I definitely didn’t feel I was black enough. I’ve spoken to a lot of non-white people about that aspect, and that is a very real thing.”

The trip to Kenya promises to be a rich meeting of extended family members. Okenyo’s mother speaks fluent Swahili, and the performer hopes to take in some music while she’s there.

While her mother is one of her best friends, Okenyo is not in contact with her Kenyan father. “We’re not in touch. My brother reached out in 2008, for his own reasons, and my dad was not really that interested. I don’t really have many feelings towards him, and my memories of him are really great, actually, because I was little. I don’t feel so much I want to reach out to him, but I’m interested in my culture, which is why I’m going overseas.”

Okenyo explains her siblings “are straight and married and so that has always been my example”. She is currently single, but says, “I really love the idea of marriage and the idea of being with someone who knows you better than anyone else, for life. I really genuinely love that.”

She hates more specific sexuality labels, “because it means you’re immediately talking about sex”, but is comfortable with the word queer.

“People are so much more open about being queer now. I’ve always been really open, and it’s never had implications for me, but I’m very aware it has implications for a lot of people.

“Early in my dating life I was in a lot of relationships where I was made invisible. I was with people in the industry [for whom] that was their choice: this [relationship] was going to be invisible, and then I was invisible. That stuff’s really damaging.”

Lending her name to the 2017 marriage equality campaign, Okenyo was convinced the Australian public would vote to maintain the legal exclusion of same-sex couples after a “hurtful” anti-equality campaign that made her and her friends feel “other” and “not normal”.

She felt relief when proved wrong. “I’m not with anyone at the moment and I don’t want [marriage] as much as I wanted it because I’m just really happy with not feeling abnormal.”

Since turning 30, Okenyo says, she has made an effort to strive for more balance in her life, having been “obsessed and focused” on her career in her 20s.

Her story may have some surprising twists ahead. “I really have always wanted to have children, and that’s something that’s clicked in my mind. How do you do that and also be an artist? I think it’s achievable.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 25, 2019 as "Zindzi’s world". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.