In the thrilling documentary Bronx Gothic, intrepid dancer and writer Okwui Okpokwasili vehemently confronts the world's denial of innocence for black girls. Directed by Andrew Rossi, the film follows Okpokwasili’s 2014 live performance of her piece by the same name, and unpacks the creative process of such a heartrending offering. In the past, she’s commanded stages in pieces that place women at the center of her work. Now, with Bronx Gothic, Okpokwasili uses her striking choreography and visceral monologues to magnify the plurality of both pleasure and pain in the lives of young girls. Drawing on her experience growing up in The Bronx, the performance is steered by Okpokwasili’s portrayal of two characters who grapple with adolescence, sexuality, trauma, and friendship in world that has abandoned them and their blackness.
More recently, Okpokwasili teamed up with acclaimed cinematographer Arthur Jafa to bring her evocative movement to the video for JAY-Z’s vulnerable “4:44.”
The FADER spoke to the brilliant artist about writing a piece that reclaims agency over the black body, the power of empathy and vulnerability, and the lack of innocence society grants black and brown girls.
How’d you get involved with dancing in JAY-Z’s video for “4:44?”
My entry into "4:44" feels quite strange and lovely. I feel this incredible productivity and connection that's happening across art spaces right now. I would never imagine myself in a music video, or never have, but [it happened] because Arthur Jafa and Elisa Blount-Moorehead and Malik Saeed and TNEG are traversing these lines that were left porous. For JAY-Z to entrust TNEG with his vision and make something that is absolutely not a video but some really special film. To have words colliding that you don't think would normally collide. To make a space for many other languages and space to emerge.
There's room to make videos that are formally complicated and ambitious. Also, where JAY-Z is sublimating himself:trying to lose the ego and strip away the things that have made up JAY-Z. Also, to undo celebrity and emerge out of all of these places. Maybe it's curated blackness, but a blackness that comes from what people are putting on YouTube. He seems to be entering this other global space, not as the thing from above but as emerging from and within it.
What did you think of the song?
We didn't really hear the song. They let us hear a little bit of it but we were doing it without the song. I knew the concept. I knew that it was in some way about a kind of contrition — an apology. I was looking at some interview with the women who were behind the video and they were suggesting that the apology wasn't just an apology to Beyoncé but also to himself. He's trying to open up a space that isn't necessarily opened up for rappers. It's a worthy endeavor to try and think about. What have you made up of the self? And how can you reduce all of these layers of postures?
What was your thought going in when you were writing the story for Bronx Gothic in terms of how you would reclaim agency over the outside gaze on the black body?
When I'm making work, I'm making it from a black/brown woman perspective. It’s about authorship of language of the body. Authorship of language coming out of the tongue of text. How to make something that is direct comes critically from a particular place. So Bronx Gothic was really about transformation, a return to one's self after massive upheaval and disruption. I think I was thinking about adolescence and how our women, young black women and our bodies change and shift. There isn't a lot of space made for us to change and navigate that shift. I feel like we're thrust into adulthood quite quickly and obviously growing up in The Bronx, you're just walking the streets like going to the store, going to school, so there isn't the protection of the car. I just felt the line between me and the world, there wasn't much protecting me from the world necessarily, outside from my parents — but they worked. I was just thinking about this time, this adolescence and innocence. I had started writing it, but it became clear that that was what the focus was going to be. When I got pregnant and knew I was having a little girl, again I start[ed] to think, Okay, when are black girls innocent?
When there's an image projection of innocence, it's never a black girl. And in fact, what we see about black girls is kind of unruly behavior. We see these things are supposed to be evident of pathology or inherited moral depravity. I just felt like there's something much more complicated. And, on top of it, I also wanted to think about what it is to try to make young women feel that they should not mind their bodies for pleasure, that any hint of pleasure or desire or trying to understand what that is will lead you on the path to moral depravity or this pathology that's supposedly waiting for you. I wanted to go through all these things and I started to think about twerking and how I knew girls back in the day and the way we would shake and what would we do with our bodies and our hips, but why is that an excuse to be touched?
“What would it be like to have every experience, every time you tried to find pleasure, the original transgressive act is replayed again on your body? How do you exist in those places?”
Why is it an excuse for people to transgress upon us just because we're in the act of discovering what our bodies can do, what we can send to each other, ourselves. I was just in that phase so thinking of transformation, the body becoming unknown and new and scary, but also what the impulses of that body would make you vulnerable to. I was also thinking about specific girls in my childhood who had sexual experience. On the one hand, they seemed to have quite a bit of knowledge and shouldn't that be empowering? And, on the other hand, there's a question of how they can achieve that knowledge. Where did they get that knowledge and who was protecting them? In all of that, even if there was some transgression, some violation, they still manage to find a way to find pleasure — or did they? I don't know. What did they have to separate or break apart to find pleasure?
I remember being on a train once and this was in Brooklyn in my neighborhood, and I was sitting next to these two women and one talked about how she was having sex with somebody and she was like, "But this other guy came in," and was like, "He was still fucking me but it wasn't him," and I thought, Wow, that is PTSD. What would it be like to have every experience, every time you tried to find pleasure, the original transgressive act is replayed again on your body? How do you exist in those places? In general, it is about doubling and tripling. How do you exist in multiple places?
What are you trying to suggest within exploring that multiplicity?
I do realize there are multiple signals. I'm trying to suggest that there's the capacity for innocence, even if you've been violated, and the task [was] to try to go back to the moment before the violation. Was that even possible? It's like the girl has to go back to herself. She has to look again and be like, Okay, that happened to my body. That violation happened to my body. Can I first of all face that? Can I finally look at you and admit that I am you? And then, how? She has to say, I admit that this violence happened on myself, but then how? Is there a way after the admitting of that? Can you ever strip away that violence again? Can you ever get to yourself again before that violence? Perhaps not. Must be like a death. I've been knowing all of these women, knowing of women who've had these horrible things that have happened to them, sometimes by people that they are closest to — fathers, step-fathers.
And also knowing in some cases, there's some women who have had these horrible transgressions happen to them and then they are treated by the person who did this violation as having deserved the violence and having provoked the violation. In the world we're living in, Arkansas tried to pass a bill where any woman seeking to terminate a pregnancy has to get the permission of a man. Ostensibly, the man who is the biological father. What if that is a rape? I’m trying to call out from this place that women must be able to possess our bodies and speak out against violation. And also speak for the continued excavation of some pleasure.
“I’m trying to call out from this place that women must be able to possess our bodies and speak out against violation. And also speak for the continued excavation of some pleasure.”
In the performance and film, there are two girls passing information to one another. One girl obviously knows way more than the other about life and sex. Often times with black and brown girls, there’s an assumption that she’s fast if that’s the case. But I never want to discredit a young girl or a woman for their knowledge or autonomy.
That's right. And if a young woman who has been violated can still find pleasure, you should celebrate that. But then there's also a way to make sure that we're taking care of her. Trying to also make sure that she can find that pleasure and not in replicating that initiating violence. But it's true that it's a very complicated space. Even in terms of the movement, if I'm going to do this play for 30 minutes, what might be underneath the movement? If you can get beyond virtuosity, what can be unwrapped? What can be stripped? How can we get to something essential and unpredictable and human? Here’s [the movement] that's something to look really hot and be beautiful. But what if we keep doing it and keep doing it and keep doing it, what does it reveal about a psychic condition?
In this world black girls and women are ignored and only paid attention to when being consumed for some sort of profit or gain. This extensive movement for 30 minutes sort’ve makes the audience look at you.
Right, I'm not totally making them. They don't have to. For fifteen minutes, they can actually not even be in the space, they can go to the bathroom. They can talk to each other. But there's a point where the sound changes, the lights change, and it's like at this point now it's time to call your attention to this specific event. You may have not been paying attention to it, but it's been happening. My hope is that I've been charging an energetic field. So even if you haven't been paying attention, something has happened to you by the time you turn and look. It I'm trying to figure out how to make a space for another way of looking, too, which is like looking through the body.
They watch for 30 minutes, but even for 15 minutes I feel like there's enough time for people to check out, check back in, check out, check back in. There's time enough for people to make their decision to look and to think. There can be some awareness about the fact that you've had to make the choice. I'm not making them look, but I'm making a condition wherein eventually they can choose to look. There's something about trying to make a space for them. I'm looking at everybody for a while, but there are times where I've looked around and looked at a couple of people — they were not looking at me. Or, they would look away.
In that sort of space, I think it's hard not to look.
But then when you hold somebody's gaze, oh it's very intense. It's sending something back to me. There's actually a channel between bodies that we can move across through each other. We can move towards each other. We can traverse this channel back and forth.
“I believe that all of these bodies travel. I believe that people leave imprints on you, but then there’s also you.”
During your last performance in the film, you return home to The Bronx. Afterwards, you had a cathartic moment and you cried, and talked about how as a black girl, you really have to do the work to love yourself. What were you feeling at that moment?
I believe that all of these bodies travel. I believe that people leave imprints on you, but then there's also you. It's all of yourself. Maybe there's some people who are advanced and leave their past selves behind. The young girl I was, that's a past life. The adolescent girl, that's a past life. I'm in that body and not in that body. Being back in The Bronx, that body just emerged in a really intense way. All of a sudden, the geographical space reached out and pulled me back to that girl. It was very overwhelming.
The girl who was trying to figure out how to navigate a world where she is invisible and trying to come to terms with how to find her own value and her own being. I think I always felt there was some point after I was told so often that I was ugly, I was like, Okay, but I'm gonna be kind. I'm gonna be loving. I'm going to be curious. I'm going to learn things.
At a very young age, I realized that there were other things that were more important than beauty for a young girl. If I could go back to that place when I was working on that, where the pain of being called ugly so much. Then you just look out at the world and it's true. Anyone that looks like you is also put in that framework, if they're even visible. All of the work, the work that it takes for your parents, your mother to make you presentable, to make you ready to be seen, even though you're not even seen. It's to make you ready to be nominally seen. There's so much work and there's so much pain involved. And so much stress involved. Sitting on the chair by the gas stove, watching the comb as it comes to your head, and all of the little baby hair in the bottom they try to straighten, but are gonna go so fast. They're gonna revert right back. All of that work and just trying to be still and manage it and just wondering, Why do I have to do this? I have to do this so that I'm beautiful in someway or not even beautiful but so that I'm at least not as ugly. [Laughs] Somehow being in that space just brought all that shit back.
“The gift we could give ourselves as black women is the gift of vulnerability.”
What did it make you recall about the girls you grew up with?
When I was younger, my friends who were more experienced, I tried not to judge them. I was not sexually active, but I was exploring myself even though I was ashamed of it. I didn't talk about it. But I'm like, if they're finding pleasure with people and somebody loves them, why is that bad? I didn't say that, or say that to them, but there was a feeling early on of finding pleasure within your body by yourself or with others was bad, but why? At the same time, I didn't think that some things could have been happening because of abuse. It wasn't until later. I mean there were things like you would see like boys grab girls, pull their breasts, I used to see a few girls get dry-humped against the schoolyard. Some of that stuff is in the piece. You would just see these acts of violation and no one seemed to do anything about it. And even now, I feel like there was an article in the paper about the instances of sexual abuse and violence and assault in public schools in the city and how many women and the girls are often penalized for it. But, I didn't think about that. You'd hear about, “Oh that girl got a bunch of those boys followed her home and did this and this.”
There's no protection for us.
No protection and no recognition of the innocence or the need to be protected. And there's people saying this too of black girls, there's this assumption or projection of adulthood projected onto them at a young age, which also means there's this projection of blame or culpability on these girls when it comes to these acts.
In the film, you were in that sort of sit-down discussion with young women and you stepped out and cried after they shared their stories of trauma. Empathy plays a role in what and how we create. How does it play a role in for you?
The gift we could give ourselves as black women is the gift of vulnerability. It’s hard because there's this way we have to present or represent. Many of us are making these spaces, but I keep thinking about Alice Walker and The Color Purple or I think about Zora Neale Hurston and her intention and need to make these spaces for complex range within being a black person, for black humanity. There's so much work we've had to do, when we are projecting ourselves or shaping ourselves into the cultural milieu. The way they typed us sort of has us prove that we are worthy. That we are smart. That we always work against the assumption of being conflicted. I'm trying to make a space where I don't have to worry about those concerns. Where I don't have worry about presenting or representing this particular idea of black womanhood, but where I can just construct these complicated characters under complicated circumstances.
Part of what makes that is making a space of vulnerability — so there's a hardness and a softness. I want this space that can hold vulnerability and mystery and also be reflective of a large humanity. I want something that's reaching out and bringing in. That's the life of the work. If I want to reach out to people and I put out my hand and they grab it, I'm definitely not going to let it go. Whatever charge comes from that, I'm gonna absorb it. I'm gonna be grateful for it. Because that's the work.
I imagine that willingness to establish that connection sparks something in the audience and how they receive it.
You have these conversations — some girls are like, “I don't even know what you were saying.” Part of me is also okay with that. I know what I'm doing, you may not know what you're seeing. But then, we have these conversation and maybe it starts to bloom in your mind after the fact because you were there receiving something. And then we can talk about it afterwards. There's something really wonderful about that because I'm not trying to make a thing where I explain exactly what this is. I'm not interested in doing that. There might be things that you've accessed that I couldn't have imagined. All I know is that I can go as deeply into process and shape the results of that process and share it with you and I hope you come to me, like I'm stretching my arm to you in a space of gratitude. In a space of hopefully as a gift.
I've worked my ass off to make this very specific, and what I hope is a special thing. I don't know how you're going to receive it. I'm not trying to control how you're going to receive it. But I'm giving it as a gift. If you receive it, you come, we hold it. Maybe I have to come and sit and talk about what the shape of it is or what's going on with it like sometimes I have to do with my daughter. That's fine. I'm happy to be there with you in your act of discovery after the fact, but in the space of the event, I'm trying to make an engine that is a channel that opens up for both of us. And then afterwards, we can talk about it. I don't know. I want that engine, that space to remain complicated.
After such an immersive and intense performance, how do you come back down to your usual frequency and to yourself outside off the stage?
I feel spent. I keep thinking about this. I was talking to someone earlier and they said they were asking about pleasure. It's hard for me to say that word, but there's some person who said [after a performance there’s] no pleasure, it's more of the tension and the release of tension. I feel the release of the tension and I have to say I feel soft. Maybe that's what I'm looking for too. I feel like a layer's been stripped and I've done the work I've needed to do.