INTERVIEW BBZ (UK)
A conversation about creating a safe community, how to positionate yourself towards institutes and about new activism.
BBZ London: A club night/curatorial collective from SE London prioritising the experiences of queer women, transpersons, and non-binary people of colour. Get Me visited them in London to have a conversation with founders Tia Simon-Campbell and Naeem Davis.
Interview by Charmaine
Images by Fatima
Why did you choose to call 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 quit 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 Audrey Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, so then it became Bold Brazen Zamis. Actually, after that 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 clubbing as a woman and just not finding safe spaces for queer woman to occupy, especially black women. And like there are a few elders who run parties for black gay or lesbians but no for queer people. And I think a lot of club spaces are spaces cis male-dominated.
How did you start BBZ?
Tia: It was just a club night and it started because we both had a really shitty year in 2015 and we broke up. And we were like going through things as individuals and looked around us and just realised there were no other people that were able to understand and talk about all the emotional shit we were going through. And I was like this is fucked isn’t? it’s rubbish. In a weird way, it was like a last-ditch attempt at trying to create friendships and community and it was like this perfect way for me to feel like I’ve got people around me.
What was the first thing what we did that was separate from it was just being a club night. Was it the Gall Dem at the VNA?
Naeem: Yeah, I think so, and people just keep gravitating towards us and asking if they could join I guess.
Tia: So Gall Dem did the takeover for VNA and they asked if we wanted a space for BBZ. And I think it just made us realise we are actually good at it, we really enjoy curating without knowing it was curating at that time.
How many people are in the collective and what are your roles?
Tia: There are six of us now. Marly, a.k.a. Shy-One, is our resident DJ in charge of all things sound. Yo-Yo is the curator, programmer, project manager. Ria is more into social media and fashion related projects and now getting into film. Wraps is another DJ that’s part of the collective and is involved with some of the artistic projects. And then me and Naeem.
How do you reach your communities?
Tia: Instagram. That was the first place where we were able to build a community. Now that we met those IG friends in real life we can call people, WhatsApp, text each other.
Was it hard to connect with your audience?
Tia: I thought it was fluid. It’s really easy and very accessible to just message people.
Naeem: I think because our ethos being so explicit as well helps and there’s no kind of fluffing about in terms of who is meant to be there or what it’s for or how its built. It’s just like, “OK, that’s me, cool.”
Tia: Also there are no like limitations of who can participate. If you don’t officially know how to DJ but you’re a selector, you can still come and DJ at BBZ. Or if we just heard through the grapevine that sometimes you write poetry then we might invite you to give a reading, things like that. So that made it easy.
I’ve noticed you’ve also work together with quite a few partners. I’ve heard about BBZ first from Tate. How do you choose your institutional partners?
Tia: It depends on how we’re approached. For example, Tate came to us. They were really open and just like, ‘’What would you want to do?’’
Naeem:They always send a woman of colour, 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 let us know how well we are going to be looked after and how much freedom we’ll have within the project. No façade, completely transparent.
Tia: You can 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. And also money. Money is a real, real thing. We’ve been really naïve in lots of ways in the beginning and now we’re getting more and more savvy with what our requirements are and the fact that we’re bringing so much to these institutions and that we don’t need to be trying to save budget for them because they are huge institutions. I think now we’re learning the we need to be paid well for our time.
Naeem: Yeah you often don’t know your worth, until someone just 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 [a museum f.e]. A lot of the time when we’re making a decision about whether or not we want to partner with someone, it was so people could have the opportunity 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, not paying staff properly and not looking after LGBTQ+ staff members. Pussy Palace is a club night that prioritizes queer women of colour. Radar Radio had shows there and organizers highlighted that there were loads of issues but Radar didn’t listen. Pussy Palace later released a public statement and, as a result, Radar Radio shut down.
Naeem: [Institutions] sometimes don’t have the capacity to be introspective. Because the people at the top just shut down when they have to think about actually being intersectional, about what that would mean. And I feel like any institution, any big institution, needs to be completely deconstructed before it can even begin to benefit from any collaboration. I think it would be great if small initiatives could just 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 we can go into those spaces and give them the validation of our bodies, time, and work… and its hard work!
Tia: I don’t know what the best way is…I feel like a lot of institutions don’t deserve our time. Like why are we helping them?
Naeem: That’s so expensive. Like that kind of level of consultation… for us to come into those spaces and do that work.
Tia: They don’t even see the value of how we could be beneficial to them, so I don’t feel like they deserve that. There are certainly individuals in institutions that are magical and just take it for granted and they make you kind of want to make a change. Creating is labour intensive. I see how tired the curator Young People Program of Tate is. Because she has to be the translator between us and the people at the top. I don’t even know if you have the capacity to gather the information. Cause you’re just tired! (laughs)
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: [Tate Modern] asked us to play during the event. But then I was like, wait, this is actually for the launch of the Turner Prize. I can’t DJ there without saying something because that’s just completely off key. So, we were just thinking about the fact that we’ve been given opportunities to work in these institutional spaces surrounded by a lot of white people. They are using us for our music, it’s whatever, it’s fine, we’re still getting paid but how can we also be visible because just being a DJ in these spaces is very invisible, you’re getting BBZ on board but (Naeem: – just shucking and jiving) you might as well have sheep in front of it.
Ultimately, you still want to be engaging with them and have some kind of relationship, but also still say something. We just got our squad together to have some kind of visible presence in that space and I swear that all of our people were pretty much the only POCs (people of colour) there at the event anyway, so it just felt necessary considering we were asked to play there.
Naeem: It’s also a privilege in itself to be in that space and if we’re going to be there feeling the way that we do, we should just make that very clear. We had to say something.
How did the public react? and the 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 we’re the only POCs in the space. And I guess we were just doing that physically with T-shirts on and I don’t know. For people like that any press is good press, you know what I mean? 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 like the best result they could’ve had. It wasn’t too much, it wasn’t too bad. It brought the work to light, but “it’s a debate,” you know.
Tia: I had quite a few people come up to me saying “What is this about?” I feel like that was good enough for me to be able to make sure that people were aware of the fuckery of that piece of work.
Naeem: A lot of staff asked for T-shirts on the hush. The only POCs were like “Can I grab on?”’
There are a lot of collectives emerging and doing their own thing. What do you think about all these ‘’safe spaces?’’ Could it be also causing more separation between people?
Tia: I think it’s great that all of these different intersections are being turned into physical spaces. And I feel like there’s so much crossover. We’re all trying to collaborate whenever we can.
Naeem: I don’t think we’re creating more space between people at all. It’s the opposite. It makes a sense to everyone’s individual experience, so when we do cross paths, we do invite each other in to create space. We’re covering our bases. BBZ can’t be everything to everyone, you know. 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. We’re all like foetus groups. It’s just about having the space to come in. So 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. It’s about maybe creating a festival, like Girl Fest are 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, separate organizers, where everyone adds when they’re throwing a party. We can see where there is going to be a clash or when someone is throwing their night. There is this a harmonious kind of energy between all of these people that are creating so we can exist.
Do you feel like your 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 and 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, so it’s cool right now. It’s great that in this moment a lot of people are tapping into it. But I definitely don’t think my parent’s generation had even the option to because 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, homophobia was very blatant. With our generation, everything is far more insidious and it’s a lot harder to put your finger on why you so angry or why somebody’s made you feel uncomfortable, so we have more of this like bubbling internal anger.
Naeem: and the people who can articulate that anger end up being in kind of the forefront of the conflict.
I also think the internet is a huge part of being able to voice your opinion.
Naeem: I do get worried that the internet is becoming sort of an echo chamber. Like everyone is saying the same thing in one space and it’s not being heard outside of that.
But it’s also like a tool to connect people. Luckily, when it comes to meeting in real life, you’ll be in a space meeting each other face to face. You can connect.
Naeem: Cloud communities. That’s how we actually came to connect with Tate in the first place. We did a talk about cloud communities and the effects its had on the activist movement.
What are some of your experiences being a queer black woman in London?
Tia: I was always told that I’m not queer by men and by my family because of the way that I present and because I suppose that for a long time I wasn’t queer. I suppose that’s one of the main things is misogyny. 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 like my race, I’ve grown up in really white spaces and again it has taken me a while to figure out my own identity because of that. It takes a while to figure out who you are and how you fit in to the puzzle.
Naeem: I think I was always so scared about having all those different parts of my identity and then seeing so many stereotypes, bad stereotypes, growing up. And having a Christian and Caribbean home, like everything was wrong about being a woman or being queer and many other things. And wanting not to be exactly how they’d pictured or how they placed me, I was almost like stunted by it, like debilitated. When I went to university I was convinced I was going to be the next, like, Steve McQueen. Going to be this upper-class film maker. And I was obsessed with all these white filmmakers and obsessed with 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 it was a fake ideal.
Would you like to take BBZ to any other cities or maybe even 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 as well. It’s just about finding [local] communities that we could access. We don’t want to just come to a country and be like ‘’Yo, we’re BBZ.’’
You should come to Rotterdam!
Tia + Naeem: Yes!!
What would you like BBZ to leave for the next generation?
Tia: Property. So that there’s some kind of capital for the next generation so 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 of the queer POCs hang out? Oh, it’s this place here!’’ (laughs)
Naeem: Recourses 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. Its probably tucked away in some of the tiny institutions across the UK but I want it to be so easy to access and draw from. Everything about our blackness or queerness comes from the United States but we’ve been here for a minute now. And we should be building on our experience and our own identity.
Photos by Fatima Jabor
Interview taken by Charmaine van Leyden and Fatima Jabor
Text edited by Laurence