the radical vulnerability of okenyo

We caught up with the singer just hours after she finished work on her first EP to talk about making a changing world change faster.

by Shannon May Powell
07 February 2017, 4:35am

In a time that demands a more subversive and inclusive approach to all creative industries, Australian-Kenyan Neo Soul songstress and actor Okenyo is creating her own change. As a queer woman of colour, navigating industries that favour tried-and-true over revolution is a uphill battle, but one she's well equipped to win.

Okenyo writes with a mix of vulnerability and pride. Her lyrics are liberating and cathartic. We caught up with her the day after she completed her first-ever EP to talk about the intricate connection between acting and music, and finding your own voice.

You just finished work on your EP, while it's so fresh in your mind can you tell us about the feelings and intentions behind it?
It's most important for me to just be very honest and vulnerable, especially in the lyrics, and be true to myself. I started to think about all the different roles I had been cast as an actor throughout the plays I've done, and the idea that all of those characters are all me. I did a show with Sydney Theatre Company about two years ago and it was called Boys Will Be Boys and it was an all-female cast, centred around one female, a very high-powered stockbroker and the idea that, as a woman, how do you survive in a man's world? So that became a catalyst to write a female anthem.

You mentioned before how much truth and vulnerability is important in your music. Do you use your song writing as catharsis?
It's something that I think about a lot as an artist, how to be excellent as an artist but also not lead a completely solo, closed existence. Some of the songs on the EP are about anxiety, and that was quite full on to write about. The beautiful thing is that once it's out there and people are singing along, they're just experiencing it as something fun. And that exchange is cool because you can share it.

Your acting career is very entwined with your music. There's a lot of conversation around the way women are represented in film, what have your experiences been?
Australia is really behind. I think part of why I turned to music is because I have complete control over it. It's my project and I can just be me. And a lot of people are now creating their own projects in film and TV. Especially now with the political climate everyone is obviously freaking out, but there's something good about when you're pushed to that level. People start to think ok what do I stand for? What am I going to say if I'm going to say anything? I've had a very fruitful career in theatre but only in the last couple of years have I even been considered for the screen. I'm about to start a channel 10 series where I'm playing a lesbian on the show. And I'm gay, and I'm black, in that sense things are changing.

That's really refreshing to hear. And you're going to Kenya next year, is this for personal exploration?
The older I get the more I want to connect with my African heritage. I was brought up really Anglo, I'm half white, half African. And people always ask about it, but I'm at the point where I can't really say much about it and I want to say more, I want to know more and I'm really ready for it.

How important do you think it is as an artist to connect with your roots in order to find your voice and own it?
It's super important. It's funny because, in terms of minorities, I'm a woman, I'm black and I'm gay and I kind of fluctuate between those things but none of them define me. As an actor, because I am so on display, I'm more aware of that. But with music it's a very liberating way to explore sexuality and all of that stuff.

You have collaborated with other African-Australian artists such as Sampa The Great, you seem to be involved with the vivid neo-soul scene here in Australia, tell me about that?
Yeah its fresh! Collaborating with Sampa was amazing. The Neo Soul scene is really present here in Melbourne compared to Sydney. And it's interesting because it is separate from the kind of soul that comes out of somewhere like the States. It still references those influences, all art references something you can't escape that, but it is its own thing and it kind of feeds off itself here, which is really exciting.

Okenyo will be performing at The Social Studio's Block Party March 4th.


Text and photography Shannon May Powell

music interviews
the social studio