ZINDZI OKENYO: These Types of Conversations
A captivating and dynamic multitalented performer, OKENYO may be better known to younger Australians as Zindzi from Play School.
Growing up across Australia, we discussed the importance of visibility in role modelling and challenges of staying true to yourself during screen show castings. Recently releasing new music and supporting URTHBOY on his national tour, Okenyo takes some time out to explain why conversations like this are important to our generation.
THE PIN. You’ve previously said you grew up all over Australia, can you tell us a bit about your family and childhood?
ZINDZI OKENYO. My dad’s from Kenya, my mum’s Australian and I was born in Adelaide. My mum teaches English as a Second Language (ESL) so we lived in lots of different places. I grew up in remote indigenous communities, then lived in Queensland, South Australia and then my mum married my stepdad and we moved to Hobart in Tasmania.
Growing up I didn’t necessarily want to live in places like Lajamanu, which is smack bang in the middle of the Tanami desert, because I was thirteen and had moved to so many schools. Now, I feel grateful for having the experience of living in parts of Australia that a lot of people have not had the experience of. To me places like Lajamanu are so quintessentially Australian.
Did one culture dominate your household?
O. My parents divorced when I was ten. Though, my memories of my dad are positive ones. Because he was estranged from the whole family, we didn’t grow up with his (cultural) influence. I also think that is mostly to do with him not being connected to his Africanness. He grew up in a really, really tiny village and studied hard to get out of Africa. In a way,though, I can’t speak for him, it feels like he left that identity behind and therefore, it wasn’t passed on to us.
Recently, as an actor and a singer, it’s something that I had to understand in order to own it. I am going to Kenya for the first time next year which is really cool.
What ideas around identity, ethnicity, race and culture did your parents instil in you as you were growing up?
O. I don’t think that we ever talked about it or anything. As a kid, I was pretty self-assured. I knew that I was the only brown person at school but I can’t remember any bullying for it. These things have become more apparent to me as an adult. I suppose the older I get the more I think about what it is to be a woman, to be black and have a girlfriend. It’s great that these are the kind of conversations everyone is having.
Who do you look to for inspiration?
O. I look to the people that are close to me. I get real inspiration from the people that I love and the people that love me. Family is a huge part of who I am. I would say that I don’t have heaps of friends but I have a core group of people. These people really understand who I am and respect and love me. As a performer, it’s a huge reason why I do what I do.
When I was growing up I didn’t have anyone that looked like me so as an artist I hope younger African-Australians can look at me and recognise something of themselves. I think that’s really important.
You’ve previously acted and appeared on the Australian kids program Play School, how important is it that we show different representations of Australians in media?
O. It’s an imperative. It’s absolutely important. Play School is probably the most diverse show on Australian TV. Play School is such an institution - this year it’s celebrating it’s 50th anniversary. For a lot of generations of Australians it’s a big part of their childhood. I often work with Luke Carroll, who is Indigenous, and every time I look over I think, ‘this is so cool!’ We’re both brown!
On the other side of that, I find it really hard to get screen work in Australia because it’s really conservative. I’ve had really bizarre conversations about my hair and changing it. There’s a subtle affliction for actors of colour to become more white. A lot of people make that choice to change and are rewarded for it. It’s a conundrum because you want to work but you also want to not feel compromised.
Play School is amazing because children are like a blank canvas. They’re so accepting and not marred by anything. My nieces and nephews (aged from 7-14 years) generation don’t see gender or sexuality. They just don’t see it.
Do you find your identity changes when you travel overseas?
O. It’s fascinating. Every time I go to the US I just felt like there are no questions. They like great strong, powerful, independent women. Whereas here, I feel like Australia is pretty conservative and it’s still trying to find out what the hell it is. That’s going to take a really long time. In America I felt really accepted, like ‘I can do this’ and ‘I can make it even bigger!’
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
ZINDZI OKENYO. I’d say never compare yourself to anyone. You are the only you that will ever exist and find the power in that!
- This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo credit: Daijah Johns