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.