In conversation with BBZ

BBZ London: A club night/curatorial collective from SE London prioritizing the experiences of queer women, trans persons, and non-binary people of color.

Note: One should read this interview in the context of October 4, 2018 – this interview is published as part of QC and New Activism where Naeem participated as one of the panellist.

Why did you choose to name your collective BBZ?

Naeem: I wanted something that kind of nodded towards black British vernacular and the way we write text messages. When we were younger, we used to call each other “boobs” and “babes”, which I feel is quite a Jamaican Caribbean thing, so you’d type bbz when texting someone. I also wanted the name to be an acronym. I came into a certain affirmation about my own queerness and being Caribbean by reading Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. So, then it became Bold Brazen Zamis. Actually, after this understanding I used BBZ as a signifier for who the collective was for and who it was by.

Why do you specifically focus on queer women?

Naeem: I guess it comes from many experiences of clubbing as a woman in cis male-dominated club spaces and never finding safe spaces for queer woman to occupy, especially black women. There were a few people who runned parties for black gay or lesbians but not for queer people in specific.

How did you start BBZ?

Tia: First it was just a club night and it started because we both had a really shitty year in 2015 where we both went through a break-up. And we were going through many things individually, and we suddenly realized that there were almost no other people who were able to understand what we were going through. In a weird way, it was like a last-ditch attempt at trying to create friendships and a community. And BBZ was the perfect way for me to feel like I’ve got people around me.

Tia: What was the first thing we did that was separate from BBZ just being a club night? Was it with gal-dem at the V&A [Victoria and Albert Museum]?

Naeem: Yeah, I think so, and with people moving around us asking if they could join.

Tia:  For your information, gal-dem did the takeover for V&A and they asked us if we wanted a space for BBZ. This possibility made us realize where we are actually good at, and how much we really enjoyed curating. Without knowing it was curating at that time.

How many people are in your collective and what are your specific roles?

Tia: There are six of us now. Marly, a.k.a. Shy-One, is our resident DJ in charge of all things related to sound. Yo-Yo is the curator, programmer and project manager. Ria is more into social media and fashion related projects and is now getting more into film. Wraps is another DJ and is involved with some of our artistic projects. And then there’s me and Naeem.

How do you reach your communities?

Tia: Via Instagram – it was the first place where we were able to build a community. Now that we finally met in real life, we call, WhatsApp and text each other frequently.

Was it hard to connect with your audience?

Tia: I believe it went quite fluid actually. We connect with our audiences quite personally, it’s really easy and very accessible to message people and stay in touch.

Naeem: Because our ethos is clear, there’s no kind of fluffing about in terms of who we mean to reach, what it’s for or how it’s built. It’s just like, “OK, that’s me, cool.”

Tia: Also, we don’t have any strict limitations of who can participate. If you don’t know how to DJ professionally, but you are a selector, you can still come and DJ at BBZ. Or, if we heard through the grapevines that you write poetry, then we might invite you to give a reading for example. We work organically, fluidly and listen to our community closely.

I noticed you also work together with quite a few partners. The first time I heard about BBZ was via Tate. How do you choose your institutional partners?

Tia: It depends on how we’re approached. In this case, Tate came to us. They were really open, flexible and transparent. They just asked us what we wanted to do.

Naeem: They always send a woman of color, you know what I mean? (laughs) And then we’ll talk with her about what their requirements are and what we can get from it. I guess those requirements show how well we are going to be looked after and how much freedom we will have within the project.

Tia: You can really tell what people’s agendas are. There have been multiple occasions where people wanted to have us on board but then…

Naeem: … They didn’t know what they wanted from us.

Tia: Yes, they don’t know what they want, they just want the diversity box to be ticked. And you can tell straight away when that is the case. Same goes when they’re just after the money. We’ve been really naïve in lots of ways in the beginning and now we are getting more and more savvy with what our requirements are. Along the way we understood that we are bringing so much to these institutions and that we shouldn’t attempt even in trying to save the budget for them. We’re only now learning that we need to be paid well for our time.

Naeem: Yeah, you often don’t know your worth, until someone points it out to you. Half of the time you’re just glad to take up space for the people who do want to be represented in an institution. When we are making a decision on whether or not to partner with someone or an institution, it mostly depends on how it creates opportunities for people to be seen. It wasn’t necessarily about BBZ. It rarely is.

Do you believe you can change the culture of institutions from the inside or would it be better for initiatives/DIY culture to focus on their own thing?

Tia: It really depends on the institution. For example, there was a big online radio station in London called Radar Radio. They had a few allegations of sexual misconduct, of not paying their staff properly and not looking after their LGBTQ+ staff members. Radar Radio had shows at Pussy Palace, a club night that prioritizes queer women of color. And when they highlighted the many issues at stake, Radar just didn’t listen. Pussy Palace later released a public statement, as a result Radar Radio was shut down.

Naeem: Institutions sometimes don’t have the capacity to be introspective. The people at the top shut down when they have to think about what it actually means to be intersectional. And I feel like any institution, either small or large, needs to be completely deconstructed before it can even begin to benefit from any collaboration. It would be great if small initiatives could do their thing, but eventually they would have to become an institution themselves in order to stop the bigger institutions from putting us against each other. Using our identities as validation, we would have to all come together as some sort of, I don’t know, ‘’intersectional mafia’’. So that we can go into those spaces and give them the validation of our bodies, our time, and our work.

Tia: I’m unsure what the best way is. I feel like a lot of institutions don’t even deserve our time. Like, why are we helping them?

Naeem:  And to consider that consultation is actually very expensive, especially the level of consultation most institutions are asking for.

Tia: They don’t even see the value of how we could be beneficial to them, so I don’t feel like they deserve our hard work. There are certainly individuals in institutions who are just magical and who can inspire you in wanting to make a change.

Tia: Creating something is labor intensive. I see how tired Rachel is, the curator of the Young People Program of Tate. She has to be the mediator between us and the people at the top.

At the opening of the Turner Prize you took a stand against nominee Luke Willis Thompson and his Autoportrait (2017). Could you tell us more about that and why you felt that was necessary to do?

Tia: They [Tate Modern] asked us to play during the event. Rachel had emailed me, and I was like “Anything you ask me to do Rachel, I’m down!”. But later I realized that this was actually for the launch of the Turner Prize. And, I couldn’t just DJ without saying something, that would’ve been completely off key. We were thinking about the fact that we’ve been given opportunities to work in these institutional spaces where we were surrounded by a lot of white people. It’s evident they are using us for our music, it’s whatever, it’s fine, since we are still getting paid. Being a DJ in these spaces is very invisible. But how can we also be visible and take a lead in these spaces with our collective?

We were thinking ways of speaking up that wouldn’t give Rachel a heart attack, or wasn’t going to cut all ties with Tate, and basically wasn’t going to hurt ourselves. Ultimately, we wanted to be connected with them and have some kind of relationship, without having to remain silent in this occasion. We called our squad together in order to have some kind of physical evident presence in the space. And I swear that of all the people, our squad was pretty much the only POCs (people of color) at that event.

Naeem: We had to say something. We understand that it’s also a privilege in itself to be in that space. If we were going to be there feeling the way that we do, we should make that very clear.

How did the public react? And Tate?

Naeem: Tate? They didn’t holler. They didn’t say anything while we were there. A lot of galleries reacted, but I honestly feel like Tate expected worse. But, again, we were the only POCs in the space. At the end of the event the curator came in. And they kind of [quietly] told him what was going on. I think for them it was the best result they could’ve hoped for. It wasn’t too much, it wasn’t too bad. It brought the work to light and made visible that the debate isn’t finished yet.

Tia: I had quite a few people coming up to me asking what it was about. I feel like that was good enough for me to make sure that people were aware of the f*ckery of that piece of work.

Naeem: A lot of the staff asked for the t-shirts on the hush. The only POCs were like “Can I grab one?”

There are a lot of collectives emerging and doing their own thing. What do you think of the emergence of a variety of ‘’safe spaces?’’ Could it also create more distance between people?

Tia: I think it’s great that all of these different intersections are being transformed into physical spaces. And I feel like there are so many crossovers. We’re all trying and should continue to collaborate whenever we can.

Naeem: I don’t think we’re creating more separated spaces between people at all. It’s actually the opposite. It makes sense to everyone’s individual experience, so when we do cross paths, we invite each other to create a communal space. We’re all covering our bases. BBZ can’t be everything to everyone. I’ve learnt so much by going to other people’s events and understanding that maybe the space that I thought was ultimately safe for everyone, was actually not. The crossover will come but all the groups are still babies. It’s about having the space to come in. Many times, you get on a bill for an event and you’re like, ‘’We can put on four artists,’’ or ‘’We can do a collaboration’’, but you can only choose so many people. Maybe it’s more about creating a festival together, like Girl Fest is doing. Creating a huge room for everyone to be heard. But at the moment, we’re still struggling to get the fee for even just one of us to do it.

Tia: We’ve got a calendar that has five different events and separate organizers – where everyone adds to the calendar when they’re throwing a party. We can see clearly when and where there is going to be a clash. Luckily, a harmonious kind of energy exists between all the people who create and organize.


Do you feel like our generation is more activist than previous generations?

Naeem: Definitely. I saw a tweet the other day that said ‘’Our parents were tasked with survival and we’ve been tasked with self-actualization’’. I guess generation wise, we’re just angry with the position we’ve been put in, we’re not quiet about it and I don’t feel like we need to be.

Activism is being turned into some kind of commercial thing, it’s cool now. It’s great that a lot of people are tapping into it at the moment. But I definitely don’t think my parent’s generation had even the option, the state wouldn’t protect them in the same way.

Tia: I also think our anger is more displaced. For example, racism used to be very blatant in our parents’ generation, same goes with homophobia. With our generation, everything is far more insidious and it’s a lot harder to put your finger on why you are so angry or why someone made you feel uncomfortable. We have more of this bubbling internal anger.

Naeem: And the people who can articulate that anger end up being in the forefront of the conflict.

I also think the internet is a huge part of enabling you to voice your opinion.

Naeem: I do get worried that the internet is becoming a sort of an echo chamber. Everyone seems to be saying the same thing in one space, and it’s not being heard outside of that.

However, it is a tool to connect people. When it then comes to meeting in real life, you can connect face to face. 

Naeem: Cloud communities. That’s how we actually came to connect with Tate in the first place. We talked about cloud communities and the effects it has on activist movements.

What are some of your experiences being a queer black woman in London?

Tia: I used to tell that I wasn’t queer to men and to my family based on the way that I presented myself and I suppose because for a long time I wasn’t queer. Which in turn made me question certain things about my identity, until I was able to access my own community where I could feel grounded. And then in terms of my race, I’ve grown up in really white spaces and it took me a while to figure out my own identity because of that.

Tia: It takes a while to figure out who you are and how you fit into the puzzle.

Naeem: I think I was always so scared about having all those different parts of my identity and seeing so many (bad) stereotypes growing up/ And having a Christian and a Caribbean home felt like everything was wrong about being a woman or being queer amongst many other things. And not wanting to be exactly how they’d pictured or placed me, I was almost stunted by it, debilitated. When I went to the university, I was convinced that I was going to be the next Steve McQueen, an upper-class film maker. And I was obsessed by all these white filmmakers and by having a middle-class white partner who would validate my queerness and make it okay. And then it just broke me down. At the time, I didn’t know it wasn’t me, but that it was a fake ideal to strive for in the first place.

Would you like to take BBZ to any other cities or maybe even take it outside of the UK?

Tia: Yes, we’d like to hit all of the major cities in the UK. And ideally do a tour around Europe. It’s about engaging with [local] communities that share similar views and ideals. We don’t want to travel to a country and be like ‘’Yo, we’re BBZ.’’

You should come to Rotterdam!

Tia and Naeem: Yes!

What would you like BBZ to leave for the next generation?

Tia: Property. That there’s a kind of capital for the next generation making sure that they can level up. So that they don’t have to start from the position we started in. I hope that in twenty years’ time someone can say ‘’Do you know where all queer POCs hang out? Oh, it’s this place here!’’ (laughs)

Naeem: Resources and an archive. That I’d really like to leave behind.

An archive of?

Naeem: Just of our existence. Of black British or black queer community leaders and artists. Google comes up with nothing, but maybe I’m not digging hard enough. It’s probably tucked away in some of the tiny institutions across the UK. But I want it to be easy to access and draw from. Everything about our blackness or queerness comes from the United States, however we’ve been here for a minute now. And we should continue to build on our experience and our own identity.

Interview by Charmaine van Leyden
Photo credits by Fatima Jabor