Ifeoma Ike is a Bedstuy resident and a woman of many trades. From her consulting with Think Rubix, to her entrepreneurial moves with Wild Okra, she is the true definition of a go-getter. Also, if you are looking for political commentary for us and by us, take a listen to her podcast, PoliTea.
Ify and I first connected over music and good food, but deepened our connections when I facilitated an arts and social movements session for one of her many projects, Black and Engaged, a series of civic engagement trainings for Black activists and advocates. Recently, we sat down to talk about Black activism, PoliTea, and of course, Black Abundance.
Let’s talk PoliTea. What is it and what are the segments people can look forward to hearing?
PoliTea is a 45-minute political podcast where people can listen to me and my sister-friend, Turquoise talk passionately and offer our unfiltered takes on the latest political happenings.
The segments are ‘The Brew,’ which is the things that are being talked about at the moment in the news, it’s quick and funny. ‘The Sip’ where we go in-depth on important issues, and 'The Pour,' which are final thoughts. We also have a concept called ‘Spilling the Tea’ that represents under-known policies and people where we get to sit in other people’s worlds and the communities they serve. For the 30-45 minutes in the morning, people have choices of what they listen to, and we just hope that people are ready for the day.
Originally, we were thinking we wanted to pitch it to a network, but then decided, no, let’s just do it, so, at the top of this New Year, we started it. Yes, there’s a part of capitalism that we aren’t engaging with, but that doesn’t mean that we gain or give nothing. We aren’t making money off of this, but when we tell people they can use our platform, it’s important. People share with us that it’s important. On my back, I have an Italian phrase that translates into “the art of making something out of nothing” because I love Eat, Pray, Love, for one, but also though, I feel like that has been my journey. Just when people tell me I can’t do something, I say well sit back and watch me.
Ify, I’ve loved listening to you in the morning. I’m extremely selective about the ways and amount of politics I’m taking into my day. I don’t want to hear a repetition of what everyone is saying, and you all make me feel at ease in this unease. Can you share a bit about the intention and creation of PoliTea.
In terms of the creation, both Torqoise and I were really bothered by the lack of representation in who is giving political commentary and also the style of that commentary. Everything is breaking news now, and everything is breaking, but the things that are breaking in our lives, they aren’t even reporting. Also, we are both attorneys and often times that is how we are introduced to the world. For us with PoliTea, it disrupts that. It’s early in the morning, and we haven’t put on our codeswitch makeup yet. We wake up, do a brief check in, and just go right into it.
We’re not trying to be your politically correct Black women. There’s no time to be light with politics when it’s fuckin' our lives up. We’ve had people say your show is amazing but you curse a lot. Our response is well when people are shitting on you, you say things like fuck, sooo don’t share with Grandma. I don’t expect it to be played in a school auditorium as an official announcement. I expect it to be played by people that lead non-profits, policy think-tanks and teachers. Those people are telling us that they will let their students know and spread to people who are learning.
How do you feel like PoliTea is changing things in terms of media representation?
Turquoise lives in Harlem, I’m in BK, we are African and Southern, light-skinned and dark-skinned and all of those perspectives get into the show. There was a poll that the median age for viewers watching MSNBC, CNN and FOX is 61, and that’s how we fucked up in 2016. What I hope Turquoise and I are doing is filling in a bit of a gap.
Look at the outlets that are supposed to give us news from the 6 o’clock hour. The view of them is social entertainment with a little political commentary. Then there is Bill Maher dominating airtime and being problematic as he always has been. Even in spaces that don’t want to deal with politics, you can’t avoid it. I like when people say that they can’t tell that we’re attorneys. We don’t ever want to come across as talking about or down. We take the perspective of explaining why that intuition people have is right and adding to that knowledge with some other things people might also want to know or do. There are some episodes where we are calling out Congressional Black Caucus members, and I love these people, I’ve worked with them, and served with them, but that doesn’t mean I can’t name when they’re being problematic. We want the full expression of civic engagement.
What really got you going with this?
Last August, I was at a civic data training, and there were two people from New Orleans going at it about who was going to win the mayoral race. I’m an outsider over here thinking New Orleans is great either way because the race is with two Black women, but it was a serious discussion. Watching this debate, it started off with the politics of it, but then also went into the “you know, I heard that she, etc etc,” and it got really heated, like running around the room HEEEATED, and I thought oh ok we got some PoliTea going on here. That’s how it started.
I know you wear a lot of hats. What are some of the motivations for you and your work generally?
You know, the way I’ve met a lot of people, like how I met you, is through hands-on social justice work in the sense of being on the ground with people who are facing certain kinds of injustice. I think in a lot of ways the policy side of me has been the dominant side for about a decade but I grew up very much as an artist-writing, drawing, and singing, opera specifically. There is a part of me that is missing that. Art has always been really personal and important for me. It was so important as an outlet to help me connect with myself and other people.
Is that something that has continued to be an outlet for you?
Something after Ferguson shifted for me. Even though I was a writer, I felt like my writing was about breaking down systems, creating thought pieces especially in the civic engagement world with Black and Brown People Vote. A lot of our work was about how to break down civics and connect the ballot to our bodies because people were doing such a piss-poor job at communicating with us about why we needed to go out to the polls. It was disingenuous and people knew that.
You can’t go into a community and blame them for the representation that they have without doing a full power analysis of economic and social life. If you aren’t economically stable then you aren’t going to have as much free time to discuss what the most recent city council meeting was about or be available to go to it. Any ill in the world Black people are blamed for, but every two years, every four years we’re expected run to the polls, not even knowing if your vote is going to count. All of that, I call it civic fatigue, engagement fatigue.
What we were doing with Black and Brown People Vote is we were intermediaries to people we used to work with in various institutions, on the Hill, etc. Some of these folks are people of color that are more interested in respectability politics than our own people. Taking the stance, we will fight for these people but we won’t sit with them. I’m not saying that everyone needs to go to Ferguson, but I am saying you have the means to get to Ferguson and you are choosing not to, when the reverse is not always true. Not everyone in Ferguson can just up and go to DC.
I think being on the ground with my people was important. No one thought it was smart and no one was funding our idea- something that was criticizing the establishment and validating the experiences of people that others would label “low propensity voters.” We validated why they were not participating and also acknowledged the way they were participating civically through civil disobedience. A lot of my writings were around that.
In the midst of this, I was talking to my friends about cultural activism and understanding the Black art movement. I took art classes while I was in school but it was taught in a very academic lens and focused on white achievements. Most of my Black art exposure has been music, but not in the visual world. Through this art exploration for myself, I started a project of my own called Wild Okra.
Yes, more projects! Let’s hear about it. Tell us more about Wild Okra.
The word ‘Wild’ comes from a few places. The history of Okra in this country is interesting in that it has been long believed to have been smuggled in here by enslaved people from Africa, so that’s wild in itself. Also, part of the reason I called the project Wild Okra is that among my cousins I’m called ‘the western girl,’ so they see me as American. That’s typically how first-generation Blacks are seen. I’m from Trenton, NJ. I’m hood, and hood is fun. When I was in the street, it was Treton, NJ. When I was in the house, it was Coming to America, and that’s just all I knew. Them calling me that though always made me feel like a bit of an outsider. I wasn’t able to name it as a child, but now I understand it as anti-Blackness. It’s rooted in “we don’t want you to be THAT kind of black” “to be Afro-American” as they would say.
I am a first-generation Nigerian-American who doesn’t fall into my parent’s tradition of Nigerian norms, and also has interesting identity issues with Blackness here. I am very comfortable identifying as Black and Black American, but I also get the sense that people think I shouldn’t for a lot reasons.
What does Black Abundance mean to you?
When I think of abundance, I think of more than enough, so Black equals abundance. We are rivers, we are currents. We are literally what is current and we are the current. We aren’t lacking ideas. We aren’t lacking anything. In spite of the oppression we face, we give. We give to each other, that is a sign of abundance. People try to take from us because they recognize that abundance, even if that’s not said. You don’t take from something that is lacking. Why would you want something you viewed as less than? You wouldn’t. We are the embodiment of abundance.
Veronica Agard and I have come across one another in various arts, social change, and healing spaces from The Laundromat Project to Harriet’s Apothecary. When you meet Veronica, her kinetic energy and go-getter attitude are infectious. Veronica is a Harlem transplant who is dedicated to building bridges between her new home of BK and old stomping grounds. She is an alchemist, educator and connector at the intersections of Black identity, wellness, representation, and culture. In addition to all of this, she’s a writer who has been published in The Grio, Mic, as well as For Harriet, and leads the Alchemist’s Cypher, a monthly healing through writing gathering. We sat down at Sol Sips in Bushwick, to talk about her most recent project, Who Heals the Healer: the convergence, taking place this Saturday, May 12 at Mayday Space, 176 St. Nicholas Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11237.
What should people expect at the conference?
Well to start, my grandmother and I are going to open the conference, which is important in terms of intergenerational knowledge and legacies. When people ask me how I arrived at this conference, I say you need to know what my mother did, and what my grandmother did, so I asked her and my mother if we could bring some of our conversations to the conference.
Doors open at 10am and we’ll have rounds of workshops until 5:00 pm. There are 15 workshops, 20 vendors, and about 5-10 wellness practitioners who are going to be on deck for the wellness clinic. Then, we drag everybody over to Starr Bar. That part is important because then there is joy for people because there will be a lot of heavy things covered. If we can understand how sage and Palo Santo are being overharvested, then we also have to understand how we are being overharvested through this work without resting, without taking moments of pause and joy. Rest can mean joy-moments of being a daughter, a friend.
Also, the positionality of this conference is important. As a Black woman, I want this to center Black and Brown folks, especially Black and Brown folks at the margins. I did that intentionally. There’s also a group of indigenous folks coming from Utah, and they are going to bring different medicines from there in addition to the Harlem and Brooklyn connections we’ll have going on. I have one foot still uptown because my network and my base are still up there, but a lot of the new magicians, the new kids on the block, are here in BK, so I want to get everyone on the same page.
Ok, who else are you hoping will come to the conference?
I mean if you are somebody whose job, whether it pays you or not, requires you to show empathy for others on demand, this is for you. If you resonate with that statement, come. That’s the baseline. I view this work as an invitation, so it’s not “oh you have to be a certified reiki master” and have to do it in this particular way. The ambiguity with who shows up goes along with the ambiguity of the question. I’ve been lucky though and the moms have been coming. People are often seeking mothering, and there’s definitely the question of who shows up for the mothers. Because of that, childcare is something that is important to me. The last time I looked at it, there were about 15 kids coming. I know too many doulas and midwives in my life that want to go to things but can’t because the kids are too young. Also, guidance counselors, counselors of any kind, teachers, especially teachers.
What experiences moved you to create this conference?
There wasn’t one moment where I can say at this phase of the moon, in this hour, it began. It more evolved out of a question I was holding which was who heals the person who is healing everybody else. That came out of my own process of figuring out who was going to show up for me when I had spent so much time showing up for others. Then, when I took myself out of it, I realized it was a larger question because I know too many people who got activated politically, who then dropped out, moved on, and burnt out. I was like yo, I don’t want to be that person. I’m too young to be that stressed out. I have too much access to knowledge and power from my degree, from my mother, from my grandmother and those legacies. I know too much about how Black women struggle with this idea of trying to save everybody at the expense of ourselves. I know too much about that to be that person, I’ll be damned. Let me figure this out. In figuring that out, I had Who Heals the Healer mini-series that happened three times at Earth Arts Center. Doing it and being humble enough to know that I’m not the first person to ask that question but then also having the courage to say but I’m gonna ask it in my own way. It was different every time and beautiful every time.
What was the vibe at each of those workshops in the miniseries version and how do they connect to the Conference?
The miniseries had different crowds, the first one was teachers, counselors, social workers, a lot of social workers, non-profit philanthropy folks. The second session was more artists and creatives, art therapists, people who make technology to help calm folks-to have the vibrations of a sound bowl on your chest and things like that. The third one, the last one, had a mix of everybody. It was in between the first and the second that I realized I was going to have to do this again, but didn’t want to be the person exerting the labor every single time, which is what birthed the conference.
The tricky thing is that the same people who are presenting are the people who I would also want at the conference! It becomes this loop of who is going to take care of the people presenting, who is going to look out for me. Sometimes this all starts to spin around me, so I tap into my bravery and ask for help. You see me on the internet talking about it, asking. It’s so appreciated when people come with things that they want to bring to the table to support.
As a person dedicated to self-healing, what practices do you use to ground yourself and to continue to grow?
I use traditions and practices to help me shut off my mind, like Capoeira, which is an Afro-Brazilian tradition, mainly rooted in Africa. When I started learning about the roots of the tradition, I understood more fully the lessons of Capoeira. If you get hit, in Capoeira, it’s your own fault because you weren’t responding to that person’s body. If you’re actually paying attention, you will be able to anticipate that person’s move. I take that philosophy to the rest of my life. I’ve done Capoeira on and off for two years now and that has presented some of my greatest lessons.
I’m also learning from my elders like the people in my family, so I can pass the knowledge down. In terms of other groups or places, Harriet’s Apothecary has taught me a lot in terms of how to volunteer, the emotional supports, and how to hold space for a lot of people at one time. Sacred Vibes Apothecary curated and conjured by Master Herbalist Karen Rose is amazing. She trains a lot of people in the community how to bring herbal medicine to the people.
Also, being a child of Emergent Strategies by adrienne maree brown, I went to see her on a panel at The National Black Theatre, and I was just in awe. I had such a fan-girl moment and went up to her with my book to ask for an autograph and shared with her that her book saved me from myself, and the idea that I didn’t deserve to do the work by myself. Reading that book showed me that there is a way to do this with intention, but also naming that this shit is messy, and it’s a dialogue. Everyone is invited to the dialogue, but not everyone will make it and that is ok.
What motivates you to create all of this?
Well, there are some days when I wake up and I’m cocky, and I quote Drake and I say “I’m the only one who gets the job done.” I have this innate sense of if I don’t do this, I won’t feel right. All the readings I’ve had recently have been telling me to expand, think bigger, travel, so I’m like alright how can I do that without exhausting myself. Part of it is just kicking open the door.
Between my Dad’s military and Caribbean background and my Mom’s Southern background, I don’t do things just for the sake of doing them. If it’s not with intention and integrity, then I’m not gonna do it. There are way too many people out here in the healing community who do herbs, ceremonies, etc., and do it just for the sake of doing it because the demand is so high. I understand why the demand is high, but I also know that too many people deplete themselves by trying to match the needs of the people they are in service to and doing disservice to themselves.
On that point what does it mean to call yourself a healer?
The word healer is very overused now. I’m more so an alchemist, a connector, and an educator, and somewhere between that is my healing work. It’s ongoing because healing is not linear. It’s a journey. I’m not a master of knowledge. I’m in my own process. I’ve healed myself enough and trust myself enough to let other people in on that process, which is who heals the healer.
What does Black Abundance mean to you?
Black abundance means resilience,
like plants growing against barbed wire,
no matter what happens to us, as a people,
we will still have joy.
The fact that we can still have joy in the face of everything means we are abundant enough to contain multitudes. We can be in pain for how we lose our people to state violence but then also listen to dancehall play and have fun.
If you’re involved in criminal justice reform in NYC, then Darren Mack won’t be a new name to you. I met Darren as part of the New York Civil Liberties Union Community Organizing Institute. He’s a powerful advocate and abolitionist with an unwavering commitment to liberation and Black joy.
Darren was born and raised in Brooklyn in a community battling a lack of investment from its own city. At the age of 17, Darren was arrested and sentenced to up to 40 years. His first time in the prison system, Darren served 20 years. Since then, Darren has actively engaged in dismantling New Jim Crow practices with a strong focus on closing Riker’s Island. Darren is also a member of JustLeadershipUSA and was awarded the very first Lawrence “Larry” Gelber Award for Justice in 2017. You can catch Darren speaking out on criminal justice issues regularly, such as his recent talk at the Beyond the Gates conference at Harvard University.
I sat down with Darren to talk Brooklyn and his work as an activist. He shared so much BK wisdom, resources and borough history, that I couldn’t fit it all into the interview! If you want to learn more, don’t miss the Darren Mack exclusive reading list at the end of our conversation.
There’s a lot of conversation about how Brooklyn has changed, and I know you’ve had roots here for a while. What was it like back in the day?
Well my grandmother on my father’s side came to Brooklyn in 1950s. She was a live-in domestic worker for a white family, and every two weeks, on the weekends, she would come home to her own apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant. My father came up too after having been sharecropping with my grandfather in South Carolina for a while. Once he got a job, my mother and older brother came up to Brooklyn too. Then, in 1974 or ’75, something like that, we were living in Bushwick and the housing project, Borinquen Plaza Houses, was built. That’s where I was born and raised. It was primarily Latino and we were the first Black family in there.
There was a lot of love. Every mother was like your mother. You could go to their house and eat dinner, and they had the authority to discipline you. It was all love. People looked out for each other a bit more. It’s different now. I think things have become more individualized.
What, in your mind, really caused the neighborhood to shift?
For me, it goes back to ‘77 and the big blackout. People were burning out buildings and Bushwick was demolished, especially Broadway, and there was no reinvestment back in rebuilding the communities. There was an investment in one thing though- policing and law enforcement. There was a lot of investment in that. The same thing with Brownsville and Bedstuy. Now, Bushwick has one of the highest rent prices in the country. There’s a lot of investment by the city now.
These things like hyper-policing, redlining, and the War on Drugs, paved the way for what Brooklyn is today. Another thing that changed the neighborhood was the public housing ban. When you got a criminal record, you couldn’t move back to where you were from, where you grew up, so a lot of families moved out because of that.
As much as the city invested in the War on Drugs, they need to make an equal amount or even more of an investment in communities that are directly impacted by mass incarceration through investment in affordable housing, education, substance abuse treatment, and employment for youth. That’s what it will take, also ending practices like broken windows policing. They need to end broken windows policing, man because it’s racialized.
Definitely, what’s your view on how broken windows policing impacts the Black community?
They don’t practice broken windows policing in Park Slope, they practice it in Brownsville and East New York, so that’s a big issue. It’s a tool to crack down on poor people. The theory is that if you arrest people for quality of life crimes like public urination and jumping the turnstile, it will prevent larger crimes like robbery and assault. That’s the theory, and the theory is flawed. The number one arrest in New York City is fare evasion-jumping the turnstile. Thousands of New Yorkers, especially young people of color, are getting arrested for $2.75 and getting sent to Riker’s Island. That’s all part of broken windows policing and it’s continuing today funneling people of color into the criminal justice system.
What do you think people can do to push back on that?
Well, I participate in resistance tactics with organizations like BYP100 and their Swipe It Forward campaign. With that, they swipe people, especially poor Black and Brown people onto the subway and they educate people that it’s totally legal to swipe somebody on the subway station, as long as you don’t take money for it. They are alleviating people from jumping the turnstile and getting involved with the criminal justice system in that way.
So, I know you do a lot of work with closing Riker’s Island and it’s been getting more and more attention lately. What’s going on with the campaign to close?
This jail is actually, literally destroying people’s lives and needs to be shutdown. The #Closerikers Campaign launched in 2016 on the steps of city hall with about 40 organizations, advocates, and directly impacted people. I was there from the beginning going to actions, attending meetings, sharing my ideas. At the time, the Mayor said closing Riker’s was unrealistic and other people were calling it a fantasy, but directly impacted people and concerned New Yorkers came together and a year later there’s a plan to close Riker’s. He said ten years and that’s a big success but we’re still fighting because that’s too long. Ten more years means over 400,000 New Yorkers going to Riker’s Island, ten more years means billions of dollars into the failed jail system. We can’t afford ten more years, so we’re still fighting to move the Mayor to close Riker’s sooner rather than later. And you know, I do this work voluntarily because I am directly impacted by Riker’s, and it’s just a place that no human being should experience, so I’ve been advocating for a shutdown.
Can you talk a bit about the link of Closing Riker’s with black liberation and abundance?
The history of police, prisons, and incarceration in the country is a history of controlling and terrorizing Black people. I think that’s why people like me become abolitionists, you know, then and now. They had the overseer and today we have the officer. It’s evolved over the years, actually, KRS One made a rap song about that and played on the role overseer, officer – they play the same role-social control of Black and Brown bodies.
Once you get into the system and get a felony you are legally discriminated against for a thousand different things. In certain states you lose the right to vote for the rest of your life. In other states, like New York, you can’t vote until you get off parole or on probation. There are also job controls. In some states you aren’t allowed to get certain licenses. In California, they have women that are fighting fires while incarcerated, but those same women can’t get a job as a firefighter when they get out of prison because they have a felony. That’s slave labor.
Bringing it back to BK, what are some places that give you that community vibe you mentioned earlier?
My favorite spot that I go to all the time is Starr Bar on Starr St in Bushwick. It’s the only social justice bar in New York. It’s a place and space for fundraisers, they have a stage and film screenings there. It came out of this other space called the Mayday space which is a space for organizations to do retreats and stuff like that. One night they had Sasheer Zamata. She came through one night. Roy Wood from the Daily show came through one night. It’s a dope spot, man. They also have this event called Queer Abstract focused on queer people- poetry, music, partying. It always crowded and always live.
People should also check out the vegan spot Sol-Sips. They opened up on April 5. Started by a young Black sister and her mother as a pop-up shop, and now it’s a full-fledged restaurant. Also, Sweet Science, which is Black-owned.
Who are some Brooklyn activists or movements you think people should know about?
Samantha Johnson is an organizer and New York City chapter leader from Million Hoodies that was founded by Dante Barry. They do work around police brutality, immigration, freedom cities and stuff like that. Samantha has also been a big supporter and advocate for the #Closerikers Campaign. Also, people should know about Mariame Kaba.
Oh, Mariame Kaba is from Brooklyn?! I sat down with her awhile back when I was in Chicago doing school-to-prison pipeline work. She is SUCH a force.
Absolutely, yup born and raised in Brooklyn, but in Chicago for 20 years. She’s brilliant, man. She is a powerful educator and organizer- the Ella Baker of the 21stcentury. She’s on twitter @prisonculture and you’ll learn a lot just by following her.
I’ve experienced and talked to people about the tokenism and other false expectations put on Black people in various work environments. Is that something you’ve experienced in your work?
You know, generally, things are good. When it comes to criminal justice reform, people of color are disproportionately impacted so I think it’s inevitable that those voices are the ones that need to heard, and people are speaking out and becoming advocates themselves for criminal justice reform. Sometimes people, though there’s you know trauma porn. They want to hear your story and the trauma you’ve been through, and it makes them feel, sad or guilty or whatever and then they donate to your organization. If it’s going to get people to put money to the organization to do social justice work, then it’s a good thing, but if it’s triggering for the person telling their story then it’s a bad thing.
Since you speak up a lot, what advice would you give to help someone decide whether or not to share their story?
If you’re not comfortable with telling your story, then don’t. You can still do the work. Also, some people also need to see a therapist, and that’s where they need to talk about their experiences.
On this point, you do so much work and also have such a peace in presence. I’m curious how you maintain that for yourself.
It’s probably because I’m an introvert and because of my experience. Incarcerated 20 years, you have to be patient with a lot. You gotta wait for this, you gotta wait for that. You gotta wait for everything. I think it’s that and my hope that things will get better.
Also, I’m a student of history. People are fighting for their freedom and equality. Knowing where we came from and the struggles, shows that things change. You just have to keep on working to make that change. That’s what keeps me hopeful in a nutshell. Even if I don’t see the fruits of my labor now, I know that the pendulum is swinging the other way because I’m pulling it that way, and the next generation will see the benefits of it, so I’m cool with that.
What does Black Abundance mean to you?
Blackness is not homogenous or a monolith. That idea comes from institutions and the media. In the Black community, sometimes you can hear that critique of ‘he’s not Black enough.’ It’s complicated. Those discussions have been around for generations-colorism and who isn’t Black enough. People don’t even know that they’ve sometimes internalized and are perpetuating white supremacy or anti-Blackness. It’s an educational thing. I’m still learning. I just started learning about patriarchy, and I got a lot to learn and a lot to unlearn as well. It’s complex. We’re human beings. We’re flawed. We’re going to make mistakes, but we have to learn from those mistakes and keep it moving. Those mistakes don’t define us.
Black Abundance means seeing and recognizing the wide variety of Black cultures, creativity, and magical brilliance that has always existed will always exist. For instance, Black Panther is Black Abundance. There were Black directors, Black co-writers, Black leading characters, Black costume designers. That’s Black Abundance and it’s breaking records.
Darren Mack Reading List on Criminal Justice Reform
Opal Hoyt & the power of casual blackness.
Opal Hoyt arrived at our interview with a giant American flag sweater framed by her Marley twists and green winter coat. Strolling unapologetically in a giant USA flag, Opal perfectly encapsulates the quiet rebellion of what she terms "casual blackness." I first encountered this BK beauty vibing on the C'mon Everybody stage with her band. She was moving the crowd with her deep vibrato and working the black keytar. After a long week, seeing her carefree but powerful Black girl spirit on stage was exactly what I needed. Following her set, we had a short conversation about the have to’s, want to’s, and must do’s of life and I knew she would have a clear point of view to contribute to Black Abundance.
Opal is the lead singer, pianist, and creator of the neo-soul rock band, Zenizen, which recently came back from the SXSW stages performing songs from their debut EP Australia on Don Giovanni Records. In our afternoon together we talked family, Brooklyn, TV and her tactics for keeping it chill in the face of ignorance.
You mentioned that you are all about casual blackness. What does that mean to you?
The idea that you can just exist, have fun, live your life, be casually yourself and Black and no one cares. It’s not trying not to be Black but also not having to be heavy all the time. I think we all feel the same thing but are trying to tackle it differently. I experience that flip side with “oo you are so Black, so be the poster-child” then there’s this responsibility for all of blackness as though you’re a representative.
Do you find the people in the music industry try to put you in a box based on your blackness?
Yes. 100. 100. And some people buy into it because they would rather have a seat at the table than just nothing at all. Other people get in there and hope they can change things from the inside. Anyone who is selling stuff or marketing stuff is looking for an angle and being Black is high key “an angle” for some people and especially now.
What do you mean by especially now?
Afropunk is definitely a part of it and Black influencers, like André Leon Talley. It’s good that people are taking us seriously as consumers but it’s still about us giving and spending money. It’s just weird when your work involves buying and consuming. I saw Black Panther when I got back from SXSW and my friend was like “oh so you DIDN’T contribute to opening weekend…?” She’s not wrong. That movie is great, but doing all of that is not being carefree about being Black. That’s just all considerations, all of the time, with and before everything you do. If you’re actively making these decisions about how you are going to be Black well shit man, I can’t even just be and breath.
Do you feel like people have more to say about your Blackness because you have a multi-racial band with white people in it?
Well, I’m adopted and my parents are hella white. We lived in Jamaica, Vermont, and DC, and I went to school in New York. At least for me, there are all kinds of people everywhere and I picked my bandmates based on my connections through life. I went from almost exclusively white friends to having exclusively Black friends in Jamaica, so after a while a lot of stuff is the same, especially as a kid. You’re just interested in having fun with your friends and who’s cute. So now, you know, I didn’t sit down and be like I need a band so out of everyone in the world let me pick. I was already in a band with Ben who plays guitar and had already been in a band with Harry who plays drums. Taja and I met and were like yeeeeees, let’s do it. It wasn’t calculated but I do think that it’s a problem for some people sometimes where they’re like why didn’t you think about who was in your band more. In Zenizen, I have the final say in everything, so I don’t really stress about that.
Some people want to keep their spaces exclusively Black and that’s fine. I understand that, but I already have white parents by default so I already missed that boat. Also, as a musician, some people have an agenda but it’s much more exploratory for me. I was not planning on playing music so I’m less worried about the image part and how Black are you outwardly. I’m on the Everyday People and Afropunk Instagram and those people and platforms are really important. It’s just not my personal style. I think about how can I contribute without, without…
Performing your own Blackness?
Yes, performing my own Blackness, and just contributing in my own way and being how I am.
You mentioned that you didn’t start out with the plan to be a musician, so how did you get started?
As a kid, I was in chorus and band and jazz band and all the bands. I just stopped though after high school. In college I was booking shows for other bands with a friend and after college this one band I really liked asked me to plays keys with them. At first, I was like umm no not under any circumstances, and eventually I was ok with filling in regularly.
Why were you resistant to it?
I was worried about finding a job but also felt really uncomfortable with it because I’m very much a perfectionist. I felt like I wasn’t good enough to justify doing it. I wasn’t just having fun and didn’t think I could do it to the level necessary, so I didn’t want to add that pressure onto myself. Now, I feel like it just doesn’t matter. Do whatever you want, at whatever level you want, and whatever pace you want. I was not able to do that or think that until I got older and more mature.
It’s not like I’m completely chill now, I’m just less concerned about the way that I am. Before I used to think this is right, this is wrong, I need to do this in the best way possible. Now, I’m like girl, just live it.
On your windy path to the music industry, were there people you looked up to when you were young along the way?
While I was desperate to be regular I was also 100% seeing myself in Destiny’s Child, Mariah Carey, and Christina Aguilera. It was very that, very yes bitch singing all the runs and hands. I also really loved listening to The Pointer Sisters. So when I fantasized about having that life it was the divas: the Whitneys, the Beyoncés. I also had my Ebony magazine every month and whatever they were serving me at that time, that’s what I was into.
Is there a culture of support among Black artists?
Definitely. That is very much a thing now. Spotify might make a Black playlist but the organic version is us uplifting each other. Plus, there’s a really good and supportive scene here in Brooklyn. We’re lucky.
Support is important because I definitely know artists who can’t get booked because people will say ‘oh we already have our Black woman.’ Even the fact that Beyoncé is the first Black woman to ever headline Coachella.
What are your tactics for responding to racism in the industry or elsewhere?
I can usually smell that shit coming from a mile away. It depends on the situation. I went to an Ivy League college and once a topic invited opinions on being Black, and white people were involved, honestly, I was out. I’m not doing it. Same with business, I’m not going to go to a diversity anything to be quite honest. It’s usually when people are actually trying to open a dialogue that I can smell it. I haven’t had anyone be aggressively racist on tour. It’s always the people who are like “let’s discuss.” You know they don’t want to discuss.
Yea, you know that they really want to tell you what they already “know” about Black people.
Exactly, so I’m just like no. It depends what matters to you too. I’ve experienced the standard-ass casual racism of being mistaken for another Black person, or of being fetishized, or people giving you that look when you walk into a store depending on what you’re wearing. I do tend to let it roll off my back, but some people handle it differently. Some of my friends have a much different radar for that. I’m so used to people being ignorant, it’s just an eye-roll and walk away. I’ve learned that what works for me is to pick my battles. Some people do need to be checked, and when I feel it, I do. That’s one of those times too though where the outside thoughts come in of “are you being Black enough” “are you repping enough” “should you be confronting everyone who does something racist.” I haven’t, but maybe I should.
Maybe, and also having peace and being happy is important. There are so many people who are racist and misguided, and if we spend all of our time chasing them, then what time do we have for ourselves?
Right, you have to pick what you’re going to do. Also depending on what platform, you have, people are angry about your choice. People get angry at celebrities for popping off, not popping off, or what they decided to pop off about. People are problematic, and it’s your personal calibration for what is over the line, so it’s deciding what is over the line problematic for you. Even on twitter, you’ll post something and Black Twitter’s like nope, wrong, cancelled, you’re done, and it’s like woooooah. That’s why I keep it casual and escape some times.
So you mentioned watching Netflix for that. What are you watching to escape?
Black Mirror, To Wong Foo, Men In Black. I also re-watched all of That '70s Show and Buffy. Just snuggle up in bed, eat a chip, and watch some television from your childhood. It’s constant nostalgia.
And how about your Brooklyn spots. Where do you go when you need to decompress?
I spend a lot of time at Birdy’s. My friends work there and friends of friends so it’s a nice hang. I also love Bed-Vyne and Lovers Rock. Brooklyn Blend opened when I used to live around the corner, and I’m definitely into their juice, plus they’re Black-owned. I also really like C’mon Everybody, and we play there a lot. Prospect Park is also a love. When I was kid, I would run the loop, so I really like that trail. It’s nice to have a place that you know.
What does Black Abundance mean to you?
I think that for Black people there is a stigma around having a full and enriched life and this sense that you’re supposed to be struggling and just trying to survive. It can feel like there is this sense of guilt that comes or is supposed to come when you have things or are satisfied when you’re Black, so having a free, de-stigmatized, and fulfilling lifestyle is what Black Abundance is about for me.
Check out the new music video from Zenizen Nicer There from the Australia EP on Don Giovanni Records/NuBlack Music Group.