D. Smith is a two-time Grammy-nominated producer, singer, and songwriter and is now making her film debut as a director of the documentary Kokomo City.
In 2014, Smith decided to walk in her truth and transition into the woman she always knew she was. She was unaware that living in her truth meant that she would have to sacrifice the thing she loved the most, which was making music for a living.
The silver lining came with the creation of Kokomo City which has breathed new life into her. She devoted almost 3 years to it while sleeping on sofas. All the while diving into the lives of four trans women, Daniella Carter, Koko Da Doll, Liyah Mitchell and Dominique Silver who had a story to tell.
I had the pleasure of interviewing D. Smith, to talk about her life, telling the stories of trans women and the Black community coming together.
Ri: Please tell me a little bit more about yourself and what drew you to the film industry.
D: I’ve been producing music for about 15 years – working with everyone from Lil Wayne to Keri Hilson, Mark Ronson, and Andre 3000. In 2014, I decided to transition and things just kind of went left really quickly – a lot of my relationships in the industry were no longer available. Then I actually went broke and lost everything. For 4 years, I was living couch to couch, really struggling with emotional heartache; in denial that I was being ousted.
I was drawn to the stories of these women because, like them, I was also ignored or felt unprotected and alone. I didn’t even feel like I was a part of society a lot of times. It didn’t matter what I accomplished, “I was not good enough” to be a part of “the circle” anymore. Also, they’re never the ones with the microphone, the soapbox, or “the stage”. They’re always the ones that are being killed and I wanted to really focus on them.
You mentioned issues you faced within the music industry, how do you find navigating through the film industry?
I’m kind of still it navigating now. I’m learning a lot, but when I did this film, I didn’t have an agent, manager, lawyer, no sort of representation, or leadership as far as what I should be doing as a creative. It was just me and I’m so happy that it worked that way because I had no one in my ear saying this or that. I also encouraged the girls to really live outside of that. Let’s tap back into why we transitioned, and who we are as Black people and individuals. Forget about being trans, being Black. Let’s just tap into who we are.
I want to talk to those women. A true representation of who we are right now; outside of them being survivalists, sex workers, they are also, Black Women that are trying to find their place in this world. I just wanted to humanise them.
In a nutshell, how would you describe Kokomo City?
Kokomo City is a state of mind. It’s a place that only swaggy human beings are allowed to be. It doesn’t mean that everyone there is perfect, just that no one’s afraid to speak and say who they are and what’s bothering them. No organizations telling us how to communicate with one another, how to divide us. It’s not necessary to have to wave the LGBTQ+ flag. Just the place to exist, no one asks you to project where you are on that spectrum of queerness or just humanness. This is a new space for us.
Doing this film yourself, you’ve had a lot of creative reign and control over expression, taking on many roles.
I felt at home like this was my absolute calling and aligned with my true purpose. Music is such a huge part of my life, but creating is just who I am and being a leader in terms of just like “ hey, I’m not afraid to do this” or “I’m not afraid to say this”, or “I’m not afraid to not edit this out”. That is who I am. I have a clear vision of who I am as a director, as a filmmaker, as a creator. I’m just going to continue to walk in that vision of who I am.
What motives lead up to the birth of the film?
I wanted to press the reset button on how people should feel liberated enough to tell our stories – to give agency to people to just go for it and stop tiptoeing around trans people like you can’t approach, talk to or relate to us. That is so dehumanizing to me. We want to be treated, accepted and validated. I wanted to strip all of those rules and regulations and fortresses and just like throw them away and show us in our true vulnerable empowered selves.
The film is in Black & White, what was the reason behind this?
Black and white has always represented the truth and even though it’s in black and white, this film has been full of colour from beginning to end. The women’s personalities, stories emotions and voices against the black and white adds a grittiness. I just thought it was something fresh. I wanted to let people know that I’m here, I have perspective and I’m not afraid to experiment.
Kokomo City speaks on the colonial hold on ideals to live by within the Black Community. What do you feel the audience will take home?
I think that we know something is off as a Black community. I don’t know how we could possibly move forward as a community without coming together. It’s just so scary to me how comfortable we’ve gotten with bickering and judging and excluding one another. I wanted the film to be as Black as possible. It was important that Black people resonated with this film. As a trans woman, I know I could bring to the table a fresher conversation. This film will absolutely touch or help to understand, but I know it’s going to reach a lot of people and it will get people’s brains moving and turning on to being more empathetic, more respectful, and more curious.
Kokomo City is out now in selected cinemas