When Zindzi Okenyo arrives for breakfast in Sydney’s inner-west suburb of Newtown, she is caught in a brief moment of scheduling quiet. Her latest project, a role in the upcoming Channel 10 television show, Sisters, has just finished shooting. Since forging her 11-year acting career, the 31-year-old artist has appeared as a Melbourne and Sydney Theatre Company stage actor as well as a Play School regular. In 2013, having been singing in various on-stage roles, she launched herself as OKENYO — an evocative chanteuse fringed with soulful epithets.
OKENYO is acutely aware of the challenges that come with featuring diverse voices in Australian media. Her latest single “Woman’s World”, the first single from her upcoming EP, is an exploration of formidable femininity tempered with quiet restraint. The video clip is powerfully inclusive, featuring a female cast that spans the ages of 9-40 and that represents many ethnicities, including OKENYO’s African-Australian heritage. ‘Version 2.0’ of “Woman’s World”, featuring guest rappers Miss Blanks and Jesswar premiered on Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 earlier this week, and available to stream below.
For our Women of the Future series, we sat down with OKENYO to chat about the demise of ‘risk taking’, an open secret in the acting industry that has kept minority voices in the shadows, how her artforms feed into each other and the women who inspire her.
Can you tell me how you got into acting and singing? Did you do it at school, was it in the house at home?
Yeah, I didn’t necessarily grow up in a musical household, but I always loved singing and I think that it was just something that being young I was just enjoying. I liked the sound of my voice and I would always try to learn harmonies, things like that. Probably where it shifted musically was that, every show I did as an actor, they’re always trying to see what other skills you have, like what you’re going to bring to the company. So I ended up just singing in shows, singing in different ways, having to sing in opera, singing in Spanish, singing in French, singing different styles, and I think over the years my confidence built, but also my range changed. So I guess I didn’t really have like a straight trajectory towards doing it. But when I started to write music, [I was] still really enjoying being an actor, but wanted to have more agency as an artist and have different ways to express my point of view.
From the acting point of view, I just always wanted to be an actor since I was a teenager. Around year 10 I got rid of all the subjects that wouldn’t really help me, like maths and things like that. I’m pretty focused and serious about what I do. I think I just went into that zone. I had great teachers that helped me with my auditions, I got into NIDA and the Victorian College of Arts, and ended up choosing to go to NIDA. So that’s how I ended up in Sydney. I graduated in 2006 from NIDA and have been based in Sydney but also worked pretty much all over Australia, mostly in the capital cities, and mostly in the last 11 years doing theatre. My focus in my career really has been acting, but in terms of the work I’ve been getting, theatre. I’ve also helped develop a lot of plays, I’ve worked on a lot of new works, so that’s – I feel very confident in that world and I know what I’m doing and all of that stuff.
I guess within the last 4 or so years, I would always write bits and pieces, but it was never a serious thing. And then I started writing and somehow, I made this little teaser video for my first song ‘Broken Chest’, and it somehow got shared very quickly just through my friends, with Cathy Oakes, who’s now my manager. She really liked it and took me on board. That was the beginning of taking music as a career. Now because I’ve been doing more tv and a bit of film and stuff like that, obviously Play School, I’m just trying to make them work all together. I think that if you’re an artist, which is what I call myself, you should be able to express yourself in lots of different ways. I remember a few years ago, a friend of mine who started out as an actor, and then she became a filmmaker and editor, doing stuff in that world – it was when a lot of people were becoming like ‘slashies’ — and people were like, ‘what’s a slashie’? When I started making music, a lot of people in the acting industry were like ‘oh, so have you given up acting?’. And it hadn’t crossed my mind at all. To me I’ve always just thought, if there’s a place for me to do it and agency for me to do it – and as an artist I have to keep creating – then why can’t I? Why do you have to label it? I think the thing about the slashie, I think the worry about that is gone now. I think writing music came at a time when I’d been doing the same practice, and I wanted — as an actor you don’t really have much control at all. It doesn’t matter if you’re talented or whatever, you just don’t have control over when you’re gonna get jobs or anything. It was important for me to have a project of my own, where I could be the director of that. Not that I was in my work as an actor feeling disillusioned, or not treated well or anything, I think it’s just that thing of wanting more and always continuing to try and get better at what I do. And the cool thing that’s happening now is that it’s all feeding back into me.
Do you find that if you’re going between jobs, that exploring one part in say, music, will unlock something that you can reach in acting?
Yeah, definitely. Because my music is so personal – I mean I just write about personal stuff. I try to be as open and vulnerable about my own personal stuff, not for people to be like ‘poor Zindzi’, or even to care about my own experience, but all I want to translate is that it’s authentic, so hopefully other people can feel whatever they need to feel. In the beginning, making music and performing live was really scary. After years of being myself within the guise of a character, which is very freeing – I might be American in a whole other time period, but I’m still Zindzi. It’s like a safe space to be authentic or vulnerable. With music, it’s just you. That was really weird and cool at the beginning, and I’m still learning about it, but definitely that allowed me to be more okay with who I am and naturally then as an actor, I’m becoming less fearful about showing people vulnerability. Especially, like this TV show, I haven’t done heaps of TV before, but working with a camera is so different to working theatre. The camera’s so close, you just can’t lie. You just have to be there and allow people to see you, which is really fucking scary sometimes. But it’s also really exciting when you can push through it. I guess Play School is a good example. It’s cool, it’s a very different world I guess. I’ve been doing that for like 5 years now.
Is that a great job?
It’s so great. It’s actually a really difficult job, the show’s really specific. The tone, how you have to relate to the child but it’s just a camera, and it’s actually quite technical with the toys. You have to be genuine. I remember in the audition, I had to do a bit of each of the kind of segments. One of them was a song about an elephant stomping. And I remember doing it and I guess I was a bit self-conscious, and the directed was like, ‘just go for it. You can’t have any reservations about looking like an idiot’. Once I locked into that — and I do stupid things in my family for my nephews and nieces, and there’s no guard up there. I think that’s the thing, just getting the tone right. I think because I’ve been doing it for a while now, I understand it. But it’s a great job. I was at the marriage equality rally a few weeks ago, and I ran into some parents with a little girl, and the little girl was kind of sleeping. And they woke her up and they were like ‘look, it’s Zindzi’. And they were saying that I was her favourite, and just like the look on her face, she just like, softened, and she was like, she was probably only 3 or something, but it was the same look on every child’s face, they’re like, ‘oh, my long lost friend’. It’s just so open, they really think you’re their friend, like their really close friend. It’s so beautiful, it’s the best kind of fan to have.
To go back to what you were saying about art feeding back into you, I was reading something you wrote for “Woman’s World”, and you mentioned how some of the characters you played inspired the song.
Oh yeah I completely forgot about that.
Can you tell me a bit about the characters and how they informed the song?
Yeah, for sure. The way that I’ve always written — I guess it’s changing a little bit now, because I’m becoming more confident with myself as a musician and a writer – it made sense to me to write music in the way that I was used to playing a character. So when I started writing music it was always about melding stories that already existed. In the case of my early work, always the classics, so myths and the Greeks, and melding it in with my own personal stories. The best thing about the Greeks for example, is that it’s very domestic. It’s always about family and relationships. When you pair it right back. But when they deal with love and hate, violence, sexuality, it’s pushed to the nth degree. It’s humans feeling emotions as much as they can. Sometimes when you go through something terrible or completely joyous, it feels like that. So that made sense to me. And then when I went to write the EP and I was struggling writing, not knowing where to start, I just decided to go back to that way of writing. I wrote out characters that I played and tried to write as them.
With “Woman’s World”, there were two things. The way it started was because I was doing a play at Sydney Theatre Company called Boys Will Be Boys, which was an all female cast. It was about a woman in her 40s who was a very successful stockbroker but she just behaved terribly. She behaved like an awful, misogynist, sexist man. Because it was all played by women, I played like a young dude who was just like an arsehole. It brought up these questions of like, ‘how do you live in a man’s world? What is that? What do you have to do?’. So that’s how I started writing the play, just kind of, that idea of the woman’s world. But I think the real catalyst for it, I guess the ‘busy woman’ aspect — I was doing a show last year, I was playing this amazing woman called Jorie in this play called Disgraced. She’s like a woman who is New York, super formidable, doesn’t suffer fools, really super wealthy and successful, there was nothing extraneous about anything that she said. She was straight to the point but she was also very in herself and very light and fun and funny. I was understanding her, and then I got to a point where I was like, ‘I can’t actually be here, there’s something happening’. And then I realised that I kind of wanted to be her and was intimidated by her. So then I decided to meet her on that level, which is a weird thing to think about, but as soon as I decided I was going to be that woman and have no fear, the next day when I went into the rehearsal room, suddenly, it was just there. I walked into the room and I was like, ‘I own this room’. She would walk into a room and know that she was the smartest, the funniest, the hottest. She’s someone getting it done, she’s like ‘I’m busy’. I think that whole thing came from this character, and I learned so much about myself. Why did I think I couldn’t be that?
I wanted to write something where I felt like Jorie, and share the experience of how I was feeling if I was that woman. And that woman is not perfect, she’s flawed. But it’s really cool now hearing what people think of the song, I’ve had so many people say it’s unlocked this thing of just ‘oh yeah I can do it’. I wanted to make sure the song was not in anyway ‘you can’t sit with us’. That is not me at all. I’m not better than anyone. I wanted to make sure it was more about sisterhood and making each other feel better, rather than — I think it’s cool, but I think this thing of ‘I’m a queen, and I’m a thing’, there’s a hierarchy to that.
There is a hierarchy to that, and I think at times it can feel unattainable.
Yeah. And my family means a lot to me. I know my niece Coco looks up to me so it’s important for me to be a good role model. When I was growing up, I didn’t have any brown women to look up to, in the media or anything, and also being queer, I definitely didn’t have people I related to. Or if there were, like I guess lesbians, I didn’t identify as that, so yeah I just, I didn’t really have anything to look up to. I feel like that’s part of what I’m trying to do — and it comes back to what I’m talking about in terms of being authentic — if I push myself to show myself as I am, then hopefully that will connect with people. So it’s really cool, especially with “Woman’s World”, seeing and hearing that it is connecting with people. And obviously I get heaps out of it, but it’s not about me.
Listen to Okenyo’s “Woman’s World 2.0”, featuring Miss Blanks and Jesswar:
It was a while ago that it came out, but if you saw the diversity report from Screen Australia, the results were disappointing. My feeling is that there are so many people, particularly women of colour and queer women, whose voices are categorised into like “niche pockets” — just because it’s a voice that’s not the central controlling one, it’s like, “therefore, it’s niche”. Do you have any thoughts on how we can move that beyond that?
It’s a great question and it’s a really tough question because, as you say there are so many amazing artists out there from these “niche” groups. But to me, this is why it’s disappointing and it’s why we have to keep trying. Those artists and people, creatives, are always going to keep making work, we want to and we have to, but it absolutely has to come from the top down. Which is why my heart sinks a little bit because I know that that is such a slow process. I can’t speak so much about the music industry because I’m new to it but in the acting industry, there’s this whole thing of ‘risk taking’ and assuming what people want to see. It doesn’t make any sense to me because people are watching content from all around the world because they want it. That’s why I’m excited about Sisters, this show coming up, because it’s pretty much about just women – female relationships between sisters, mothers and daughters, same sex relationships, and it’s directed by three different females. They’re all female stories, but I’m pretty sure people are interested in that. It’s patronising and condescending to everyone, and because everything comes from the male gaze, it’s like ‘what do men want to see, do men agree with this?’. But you know the gig I did a couple of nights ago at the [Chippendale Hotel], it was such a good vibe, but the majority of people who came up to me were young men. And they were like ‘that was sick’, and I’ve got three other women on stage with me. And I guess it’s surprising to me, but it is mostly young men coming up to me going ‘that was an amazing show’, which to me is great. I just think it needs to come from the top down, and that’s what’s disappointing about it, but that’s why we have to keep keep keep pushing.
That’s what we’ve seen throughout history. It does take time, but if you commit to it for something important, things do progress. If you’re trying to change, like whatever generation it is, like we might not see it in our lifetime or get to live with it for too long, but like all the things before us – in terms of women’s rights, queer rights, even thinking about marriage stuff, I think about my mum who married an African man at a time, in Adelaide, when she would’ve been the only one doing that. My Mum’s Australian, my Dad’s from Kenya. But we do overcome issues.
I think there is that general creep up the ladder, and there’s definitely more awareness, but it’s frustrating.
It’s still so slow and it’s frustrating because you feel like you’re always always pushing, and then for women there’s that like, you begin to push, and then it’s like oh she’s too angry. But I think what’s happening now which is cool – I mean sometimes I get frustrated with the internet and people being like, ‘this is what I’m thinking,’ they’re not formed thoughts, you probably wouldn’t say that to someone’s face, but at the same time if you do say something not okay, like not that I’m condoning public shaming because I don’t agree with that, but you just can’t get away with it anymore. So, if you don’t, say on films, if you don’t hire women on the crew, you will be called out on it.
It’s also like, with the music video, it was super important for me to make sure that anything that I’m showing visually – like I have control over casting. All the women in that video and all my videos, to me they’re all really beautiful but they’re also individuals. And we also shot everyone individually doing their own free style. In that video, the cast is from age 9 to 40 and from all ethnicities. To me, that’s Australia, and I’ve not seen that before. That’s the fun part about having my own project, I get to choose that stuff.
In your experience as a woman of colour and a queer woman, have you felt the kinds of challenges and limitations we’ve talked about in terms of trying to get booked?
I was talking to my friend about this last night. She’s half black and half white, and we were having this conversation of sometimes, not feeling black enough or something [laughs]. It’s complex, and I think I’m still understanding it. But Fortunately, I haven’t come across that a lot, which could be a mix of a few things. I very much recognise that as an actor in the theatre world, I’ve been able to play, I guess, “white roles”. But when there’s cool black roles, I get to play cool black roles, so I’ve been really fortunate. But I’m also aware that part of that is that… like Obama can be president because he’s like ‘the relatable black’. I’m aware of that thing like, like passing. Which is really complex, and I kind of feel bad about it, but then why should I feel bad about it? I feel like I’m going around in circles because I don’t really know what I’m talking about, it is complex. It’s a hard one because you want to take the opportunities you get. I think throughout my 20s I was very career focused and therefore very oblivious, I didn’t really care what other people thought of me. It wasn’t until my later 20s that I realised that because of what I look like, there is a political thing to it. Like if I’m on stage as part of a family, as a daughter where the parents are white, because I’ve just been cast, some people will be thinking ‘oh how is that their daughter?’. Or like, not so much, but a white woman married to a black man. I genuinely didn’t even think about that stuff until people told me that was what was happening.
That’s what’s kind of complex – you carry a thing, but I didn’t ask to be part of it. My theatre career has been very full and great, but definitely when it comes to screen; I’ve been working for 11 years professionally, and I’ve only just in the last couple of years, like just started to get screen auditions, maybe. I did come to a point where I was like, ‘okay, I’m not a screen actor. I guess that’s my lot’. Because I just wasn’t – I was a risk. But I feel really excited about my character in Sisters, [she] is black and queer. And they explore the queer aspect, they don’t talk about my blackness, which is awesome, but that’s like commercial tv, at prime time. I was always there, people of colour were always there, but we weren’t allowed to step through the door. Finally I get to do what I’m good at and what I was trained for. It is complex knowing that you come with a risk, or that you’re ticking some diversity box. But personally that’s not helpful for me to think about why I’m there. And there are people in my life who, in such a valid way, it’s very much in the forefront of my minds: ‘am I here because I’m black? Am I not here —’. Each to their own experience, but for me, because the industry is so, you have to have such an unreasonable amount of self love in order to vibe it I guess, and good people around you and all of that stuff, I try to stay out of the negative stuff. And I totally get why people who have had a worse experience than me around race stuff are really angry. I totally get that.
“I think that if you’re an artist, which is what I call myself, you should be able to express yourself in lots of different ways.”
You’ve recently partnered with WNBL, can you tell me about that?
Yeah, it’s really cool! They got in contact, I was so excited about that. It’s just such a good fit. I just felt like a really amazing union, for a team that’s really pushing to be in the spotlight and prove to people that this is as valid as the male team, we’re just here, we want to play sport. It’s just so important for girls, for little girls, to know that they can do whatever. My sister, who was in the video, her daughter is Coco, she was saying to me afterwards how amazing and how cool it was for Coco to be around all these strong women of colour. She was just totally amped by it. She’s pretty cool anyway, she seems to not care what people think and things like that. And to be around positive influences — I had that with my sisters and my family, really positive examples of women, and also my brother, a great man in my life, but outside my family I didn’t really have that. It’s the same with Play School, I get a lot of people, mothers write to me that have boys or girls but, the kids love me because they recognise their skin colour, which they can’t articulate, but they gravitate towards it. Which is awesome.
Who are the women who are inspiring you at the moment?
It’s hard, you know them and then when you’re asked — I don’t know their names, but last night at this poetry slam, it was run by the Bankstown poetry slam but it was at Western Sydney Uni. Essentially it was a pretty small crowd and very niche, it was mostly women of colour, it was a female focused event, a lot of Muslim women. And they got up – they’re poets as well as just having their uni lives, and they were so powerful, so strong, so full of passion, and rage, and just, like the way that they expressed what they were feeling was so extraordinary. It was a like, here are these extraordinary women, imagine if someone like that had a platform. Here we are in a small room in Western Sydney, but this is some of the most inspiring stuff I’ve heard, in forever. So I think on a local level, there are so many women who have things to say, and I love where that’s going in all the artforms and that those voices are finally being heard.
One of my favourite shows is Transparent, and Jill Soloway who created the show, she’s so inspiring, she’s such an extraordinary person. I don’t know if you heard that keynote that she did, but she talks about the female gaze, and it’s so worth watching. It was really eye-opening for me, because I guess it just articulated that that’s the world, essentially, how we receive it, like 95% or whatever, is obviously extremely problematic. And the male gaze doesn’t mean that that’s 100% a bad thing, it’s just that it’s coming from one point of view. So I think a show like Transparent, obviously in terms of queer content, it’s amazing to see people you might be similar to, but more importantly, people who are just really flawed, and are just people. So, yeah. She’s super super inspiring to me.
Also recently on Sisters, I’ve been working with Magda Szubanski, and I always just thought she was the best, like obviously so hilarious and all of that stuff. But yeah, I guess it’s been really cool to know her personally and hear more of her experience. It’s people like that — I’m not just talking about LGBT stuff — but it’s people like that that do put aside their ego, and the impact that’s had in Australia. There’s no one who’s spoken about that publicly. Even like when Ellen Page came out. Every time someone stands up for what they believe in, it allows other people to think that’s okay to do it.
This article is part of our Women of the Future series, featured in issue #793 (available now).