“The Cocoa Butter Club gives a voice to The Other. We exist to promote the fact that performers of colour are creating in a multitude of mediums, and whilst our cabaret may not always look the same, please consider how artists draw on their past, present and futures and create work which reflects this.”
After three hugely successful London shows, Ivy Wilde spoke to Sadie Sinner about why she created The Cocoa Butter Club and her hopes for the future of performers of colour in the UK and beyond.
‘I wanted a space where I could sing the songs I grew up listening to, the songs my mother danced to,’ says Sadie. ‘Ultimately, I wanted to sing songs I connect with, and as a black woman this meant songs sung by black women or about the black experience. Whether it be love, musical theatre or jazz; I wanted a space where I could sing the songs that tell the stories that matter to me, and I didn’t feel like I could do that unapologetically in the spaces that already exist.
‘Add this to burlesque’s compulsion to appropriate and it was evident that we needed a new space where those who feel trapped because they are suppressing their otherness could flourish. When I say suppressing otherness, I mean every act a person of colour takes to fit in. Perhaps as a black performer they do not twerk in their act/shake their butt too much, because this would be read as ghetto/not burlesque even though we all know there are many non- POC acts whose acts are built on them shaking their butts or performing impressive twerking.
“We have created this space, where (white) producers and our non-POC performing peers can come and see this POC talent, which they’ve happily proposed doesn’t exist, for free. I’m not asking people to leave their comfort zones, which they are evidently resistant to do, otherwise we wouldn’t have this problem.”
‘Another example is the 1950s aesthetic and how this seems to be the most accessible kind of look for burlesque,’ Sadie adds. ‘This was not a good time for POC, so why do we shame ourselves and shrink ourselves and imitate that aesthetic? As a black African (note: not American) the 1950s pin-up aesthetic means nothing to me, but what does mean something to me is Nina Simone, Diana Ross, Tracy Chapman, Candi Staton, Whitney Houston, Eternal, En Vogue (and so on).
‘Ultimately, I wanted a space where I could be unapologetically black in cabaret and pay homage to my past and I want that for everybody – to be themselves shamelessly. I could see all these POC thinking their art wasn’t valid, because our current scene didn’t recognise it or perhaps they simply don’t consider it art. All these people going un-booked because their art, their story, doesn’t come in a package some non-POC producers bother to decipher.’
Your events feature a networking hour before the show, how important do you feel it is to the success of your events and what do you hope this will achieve for your performers?
The Cocoa Butter Club’s Networking Hour is bringing the horse to water and praying it drinks. We have created this space, where (white) producers and our non-POC performing peers can come and see this POC talent, which they’ve happily proposed doesn’t exist, for free. I’m not asking people to leave their comfort zones, which they are evidently resistant to do, otherwise we wouldn’t have this problem.
What we are lacking is the non-POC performer/producers desire to actively research and talent scout, so I’ve done the job for you. Here is a free showcase, in London, with networking hour. If you still say there is something missing or an obstacle, that’s on you. I’m doing all I can to give POC that same feeling of belonging and having valid art that our non-POC peers are showered with as soon as they leave the burlesque schools.
Your launch in September was reported to be an astounding success, how do you feel it went?
“It honestly surpassed all my expectations! The room was at capacity, with people standing on tables and chairs to see, plus a sea of beautiful queer POC faces staring up at me as they sat crossed legged on the floor. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined a better launch for us.
It allowed me to see how important the project is; post-show so many BAME audience members exclaimed how they felt not only included but celebrated. The cast was truly outstanding, Lilly Snatchdragon had the audience in hysterics, Travis Alabanza and Miss Cairo both brought the room to tears and Demi Noire and Darren Charles set the tone perfectly with their exquisite duet from their full production Fever. The launch gained amazing media attention too, with both Attitude Magazine and QX Magazine covering the event and publishing interviews with Lilly, Travis and myself.
October’s Cocoa Butter Club celebrated Black History month, how did the event go?
This show was so special to me; it was a true honour to share the stage with such a courageous and provocative cast! Unintentionally the cast comprised solely of one of cabaret’s most exciting types of performers – the gender non-conforming artist!
I got to work with a long time idol Victoria Sin and share the stage with beloved Miss Cairo again. Katy Jalili captivated their audience immediately with their fearless performances. And an act who will always hold a special place in my heart as the first performer to submit an application to The Cocoa Butter Club, FKA, whipped the audience into a frenzy with their unapologetic performances.
We were also able to introduce award winning Coco Deville to a queer London audience, who I don’t believe were familiar with her great work. We opened the show by listening to a recording of Nina Simone’s Young, Gifted and Black. It was a really special show.
What are the future plans for The Cocoa Butter Club?
We currently have a monthly showcase at Her Upstairs in Camden Town, and a quarterly super show at creative industries member’s club The Hospital Club, Covent Garden. As the super show features the acts of the previous three months, I’d love to be able to stage a yearly revue, featuring as many acts as possible. The event would take place in a music hall like Horsey Town Hall and we’d have West Indies catering for our guests, with cabaret seating – essentially a dinner show. Imagine that – a stellar show that’s comprised of some of our best Performers of Colour with a range of talents, proving just how versatile and thriving our art is.
“What we are lacking is the non-POC performer/producers desire to actively research and talent scout, so I’ve done the job for you. Here is a free showcase, in London, with networking hour. If you still say there is something missing or an obstacle, that’s on you.”
The UK already has some outstanding initiatives – The Batty Mama, which is a ‘Black and Brown Performance Artists, Visual Art and Interactive Media Club Night’. Duckie also produce great events showcasing POC artists. Although we are yet to have quantity, we certainly have quality when it comes to these events.
What I would like to know The Cocoa Butter Club was a catalyst for is the desire for our non-POC peers to step into the worlds of the POC artist and appreciate how our otherness manifests within the art we create and want to celebrate that.
With regards to expanding out of London, we are already entertaining the idea of an exchange with performers in Denmark, as proposed by a wonderful producer there!
Quoted in major international newspapers and held in high esteem and affection by the international burlesque community, 21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.