Spoken word artist, vocal looper, and theatre-maker & producer Koko Brown takes pride in her roots and creates work about being ‘the other’.
One of the Evening Standard’s “Seven new playwrights to look out for in 2019”, Koko has performed with venues such as the National Theatre, Ovalhouse, and Soho Theatre, as well as at Glastonbury Festival and Latitude Festival. We spoke to Koko ahead of the streaming of the second instalment of her Colour Trilogy, GREY, via the Brixton House website.
What first inspired you to explore personal issues of identity via the genre of spoken word performance?
I was drawn to spoken word as an art form. After seeing poets like Vanessa Kissule, Debris Stevenson and Michaela Coel use it to tell stories and speak about real and honest things, I knew I had to give it a try. As someone who started as an actor in theatre, I knew I wanted to perform and be in front of an audience and I just found that Spoken Word added another layer or rhythm and weight to that.
Your work is a unique blend of spoken word and vocal looping – what is your process when creating a new piece of work?
When creating a new piece of work I think “What do I want to say?” and “What do I want it to look/sound/feel like?”. Then I explore the best way to do that. For example, some things I’ve wanted to say about race have been difficult and not something that would be best shared as a monologue so I made them into a song. Other things need more support so I’ll create an underscore and work with spoken word to add to the cadence of the scene.
Over the course of your career, you have been a Resident Artist at the Roundhouse and Associate Artist at the Ovalhouse. What was it like collaborating with these theatres, and would you advise other young creatives to seek positions like these?
Absolutely. I don’t know if I would have had the opportunities, support or guts to create my own work without the backing of these venues. I was able to begin my journey by speaking with them, telling them all my big ideas and then getting feedback and advice on everything. I feel so privileged to have that relationship with not only one but two celebrated venues.
For any young creatives or emerging artists wanting to take part in a venue’s artistic programme, go for it! Just make sure you know what you want, or at least have a strong idea, and then ask for it. Remember: they want to help you but you have to tell them how.
Your play WHITE is streaming on the Brixton House website from 25th June – 2nd July. The play was originally performed in 2017. Three years later, have you noticed any increase in artists discussing issues of mixed-race identity?
I’ve noticed a lot more discussions are happening and a lot of mixed-race people are discovering their feelings and thoughts about their mixed-race-ness out loud (instead of behind closed doors). If you are making work about mixed-race identity, let me know!
In WHITE you talk about how the first time you felt like you were black was when you joined a Black Lives Matter march. Especially in relation to the current Black Lives Matter marches, do you feel a particular responsibility as an artist to articulate your response to current affairs via the art you create?
No, because my response is personal. If it feels right to make it into art, then I will but I also might want to make art about something completely irrelevant. Making music, spoken word and theatre are my ways of examining things but they are also a way to escape. So, although I don’t feel a responsibility to do it, I do feel like I have the tools I need to articulate a response to current affairs.
The second play in your Colour Trilogy, GREY will also stream on the Brixton House website from 2nd July – 9th July. How does GREY relate to and expand beyond WHITE?
GREY is about another aspect of my identity, it looks at being a Black woman who lives with depression and questions how Black people are cared for within the mental health services. As it’s part of a trilogy, it has running themes and uses motifs from the first show like “I always knew what I was” and recurring melodies that tie them together. It has British Sign Language integrated throughout so it’s a step up for myself as an artist being able to work with another language in the show and also make it a little bit more accessible.
The third part of your Colour Trilogy is, PINK – tell us a bit about it.
PINK is about gender and what it means to be a ‘woman’ in society right now. It has a ways to go before being seen by an audience but I know that I’ll be collaborating with women, womxn, trans*, non-binary and gender non-conforming artists from a range of disciplines. It will have the same style as WHITE and GREY and it will contain the recurring motifs as those shows but will have accessibility at its artistic and creative core. But that all might change, who knows.
You also run a regular workshop, ‘Not Everyday Trauma’, on how black artists can explore autobiographical and personal work. How do you, as an artist, navigate creating work that is so closely based on your own personal experience?
I am always honest, that’s really important for me. Nothing is made up or embellished for dramatic effect. That rule makes it easier for me to discover what I feel comfortable to share. If I can’t be honest about it, then it’s probably not safe for me to share it with the world.
You’ve also recently launched ‘The Other Poets’ – have you got any advice for artists trying to keep themselves motivated to keep creating or coming up with projects during lockdown?
I’ve been curating The Other Poets, a weekly poetry mailout featuring Black and POC poets, since the beginning of the year. For me, it was a way to discover more poetry, get creative inspiration and share poems that I haven’t written with the world. It was a great thing to do when we went into lockdown because it forced me to keep doing something and kept me involved with that world. The best advice I can give to artists is to keep consuming. Consume plays, films, music, Contemporary art, poetry. Consume as much as you can because it is, hands down, the best way to ignite your creativity. The amount of times I’ve been at a play, something has sparked my creativity and then I just have all these ideas. Even if it doesn’t feel right at first, I promise you you will learn from it.
Can you tell us about any other projects you have on the horizon?
I have a few workshops coming up and I’m starting two completely different projects in the next few months but I can’t say anything about them right now! As soon as I’m allowed to shout about them, I’ll do it on my Instagram (@theKokoBrown) or my website (heykoko.com) so stay in touch!
GREY is available to stream for free via the Brixton House website until Thursday 9th July. Find out more here.