Our paths had crossed on the scene and IMMA always was such an enigma. A classically trained dancer, she became a big hit on the club scene after moving from New York to London, entrancing audiences with her performances, technique and striking aesthetic.
I sat down to delve into her brilliant mind and to discuss her art, inspirations, fashion, and being a black trans woman.
CAN YOU TELL US MORE ABOUT YOUR STAGE NAME IMMA/MESS…
I’m no longer Imma/mess! When I moved to London in March 2014, I was this performance artist club “person” and I started booking lots of work under that name, but it always had this forward slash that broke it up. I wanted it to be this juxtaposing thing. People were like: “Well, your look is not a mess! Like, I don’t get it!’”
My real life outside of shows and parties was such a mess mentally and I think that’s why a lot of my performances at the time were really aggressive. I always knew that I was going to be transitioning, but I hadn’t told anyone.
YOU WERE HEAVILY INVOLVED IN THE CLUB SCENE AS A PERFORMANCE ARTIST BEFORE ANNOUNCING THAT YOU ARE TRANS…
On December 10th, 2015, I wrote an Instagram post just acknowledging the fact I’m a trans woman and I removed myself from club life altogether to step into my newness as a woman. It was tricky because I’m naturally and innately drawn to all things theatre and over the top; I’m kind of like the black version of Fran Drescher! Yes, the club scene is tricky because every now and then I go back to it and revisit it, and I find myself in such an unstable place with everything… not that I have anything against it, I enjoy it, I just find being on hormones make your vulnerability levels so high, your paranoia levels so high, you feel surrounded by people that you feel are attacking you, people that are trying to break you apart. That’s usually not the case, but with the club scene you don’t know if someone is some c*nty bitch or someone you’ve perceived to be that way. I realised that it was really unhealthy and once I stepped away I became much happier.
HOW HAS YOUR DANCE TECHNIQUE BEEN UTILISED IN YOUR PERFORMANCES?
It adds to my performances. My issues now need this type of attention and execution. When I performed in clubs people were drunk; they just wanted to see something pretty and fierce. Whereas in the gallery on a real stage, people are asking, “What’s the issue?”
My work has evolved because before I was going through this whole phase of masking, so everything I did was really heavy make-up, really heavy costume, you really couldn’t see or make out where I stopped and started in the process. I was like this fantasy creature. But now I’ve gone back to my roots, using my life as the content of my performances, and speaking to the issues; being trans, being black and trans, being a person of colour in art. Let’s talk about THAT.
DO YOU FEEL THAT PEOPLE UNDERSTAND THE THEMES DISCUSSED IN YOUR WORK?
I leave the door open for interpretation because I’m quite direct! If you really know me, if you read the hash tags, if you read the pieces I write, I say “These are my issues”, but I do it in a way that you can watch it and you leave saying “I think that’s what she’s saying this but I’m not sure; I know I feel this way but I don’t want to put words in her mouth.’’ I like that because then there’s a discourse about these issues.
YOU AND YOUR WORK STAND AT THE INTERSECTION OF RACE AND GENDER. IS ADDRESSING RACE IMPORTANT IN YOUR WORK?
I used to be that person of colour who avoided talking about race. I didn’t want anything to do with blackness. I didn’t know anything about black culture. I don’t even know where I’m from so how the hell do I sit up in front of people and say these are my issues as a black person? The need to escape drove me to all the fantasy and the crazy make-up. Now stepping into my older years and becoming the woman that I am, I’ve realised it’s ok if I don’t know enough about my blackness because me being black is enough!
I FIND THAT WHEN PEOPLE OF COLOUR ARE VOCAL ABOUT RACE ISSUES, THERE’S A PUSHBACK, A DISCOMFORT, ESPECIALLY ON SOCIAL MEDIA. HOW HAS THIS IMPACTED YOUR EXPERIENCES?
You’re probably going to lose some followers, some people will block you, but at the end of the day there’s a truth in it and there’s a utilisation of this tool to engage with people in a different way. There’s a chance to make a difference, and that’s when I was like, OK, that’s a validation of my blackness and trans-ness, that’s a validation of my being, so that’s what I’m going to do.
I’m not going to quote the “I have a dream” speech, that’s just not who I am, but power to the person that does that and uses that for their empowerment.
DO YOU EVER FEEL PIGEONHOLED BY AUDIENCES?
I’m in a place now where I can say, “This isn’t really me!” I’ve realised that people can control and manipulate you into being this kind of alternative trans person with tattoos so you are put in a box. I find that being a black trans woman discussing how race and gender intersect can be fetishized: “We have our token now!”
DO YOU FEEL PRESSURE TO CONFORM TO NORMATIVE OR CISGENDER BEAUTY AND FEMININITY STANDARDS?
No one can tell me how to be this woman. You need to embrace, encourage and guide me, but don’t try to manipulate me.
People ask me all the time if I’m going to get surgery. I mean power to the ones that want that, but that’s not for me, honey. I can’t even put glue on my head to put a wig on. I went through that phase of being like “Is this shaved tattooed head too aggressive? Will I ever be a woman?” And then one day I woke up and realised that I am a woman! And all that paranoia just went, I never thought about it again. People tell me I’ve changed and I’m glowing. I’ve unlocked my womanhood.
I deleted all my old pictures from Instagram and I started posting images of really strong black women and through that, I saw myself and realized that I don’t have to adhere to these societal pressures of how the world enforces your femininity.
DO YOU THINK PERCEPTIONS OF GENDER ARE EVOLVING?
On dating apps I often get asked: “Are you female to male or male to female?” When I tell them I’m male to female I get: “Oh, so why don’t you have hair?” I didn’t know that hair made a woman! They feel that because you’re not in this feminized body you need to conform and play the part, and that’s the script I’m not willing to learn.
After deleting apps like grindr I realised it’s not fair that I have to remove myself in order to exist, so I downloaded everything and approached it with the same openness I do my Instagram. I used to send old pictures of me looking macho because I wasn’t comfortable with my transition but then I stepped into it fully, deleted all the boy pics on my phone and I realised I don’t need to feel that vulnerable
People say: “Well you’re going through this change so you’re putting yourself in a position to be asked about these things!” I get the same with my tattoos: “You obviously got them for attention!” No, I got them because I like them! You’re always combatting people’s sense of entitlement to your body, and here I am: full of tattoos, trans, and black, so imagine!
I think that perceptions of gender are changing. There’s hope and that is really exciting, but I feel that trans can be perceived to be a ‘’fad.” I think that’s something that will also change in the next few years. Being trans is something that has to be taken seriously, there are a high percentage of trans people that de-transition, my doctor was adamant about informing me about this. Attitudes are changing but we still have far to go.
WHO INSPIRES YOU?
I love FKA twigs, it’s just weird how that happened and now we’re friends…. she’s been a huge support, telling me “You don’t need a lot of make-up. You’re innately feminine, get into that!’’ She told me that I didn’t need to conform. I didn’t get it, but now I look back and I’m like oh my god you saw it first!
I love Laverne Cox too, she’s actively visible in this community, standing for a difference, but then we have to think about all the trans women after that. Where do I fit? I have a part to play; I have to give my effort so the trans women above and below me can also do their part. The moment one person isn’t doing their part it’s doing an injustice.
EX-CLUB KID, MODEL, TRAINED BALLET DANCER, PERFORMANCE ARTIST, SOCIAL MEDIA STAR, AND NOW ACTRESS. TELL US ABOUT YOUR NEW PROJECTS?
I’m in a movie called Almost Saw the Sunshine and the director is Leon Lopez, starring Munroe Bergdorf who approached me to co-star; “I think that as a trans person of colour in the community, you are someone that people look up to. You’re really open about your transition.’’
I was really nervous because I look at her and I see a woman. I wondered if I could match up to that on-screen. I didn’t want to look like a little boy in make-up next to this voluptuous woman: the hair, the waist, and the tits. But then I started the movie and I realized how integral it was that I was part of this. I realized that I am someone, and that I should be part of this to show someone the difference, that I am a trans woman too.
YOU HAVE A HUGE SOCIAL MEDIA FOLLOWING…
I feel like I’ve been really supported. I owe that to social media making me so visible, and allowing me to share how I feel about this moment in my life and being able to communicate with so many people worldwide. I get messages from cisgender people, transgender people, and non-binary people, telling me that I’ve inspired them. It encourages me to be truthful.
I’ve gained followers, but I’ve also lost them too but I can’t control that. I can’t be upset about that because that’s not what I’m using this platform for. It’s not a popularity contest. I’m thankful for the amount of followers I have but if I had 10 followers I would still post the same stuff.
AFTER BECOMING FRUSTRATED WITH DANCE YOU APPLIED TO CENTRAL ST MARTINS, GRADUATING WITH HONOURS IN FINE ART, SPECIALISING IN PERFORMANCE ART. WHAT WAS IT LIKE MOVING TO LONDON?
It was a heavy feeling of dysphoria and not belonging, not just in my blackness but in my being, like here I am studying my masters degree around these really rich people, and it’s so disconnected from my reality. How did I make it through? I honestly don’t know. Once school was over and I was thrown out into the real world I didn’t know if I could handle it. I didn’t realize that leaving CSM was the moment that I was truly in London! There are issues and when you step out from behind those beautiful glass doors you realise that those issues are very potent. There’s a person on the train with a problem with me having my nails done, there’s a person that doesn’t want to sit next to you because you’re black, there’s a person that’s looking at you because you’re wearing a sports bra…
DO YOU HAVE ANY FINAL WORDS?
There’s always a war, and the ability to march in that war is not innate. You have to learn to march and you have to march heavy. The thing about marching is that it never goes backwards; it’s a forward action. You have to be courageous in the march, diligent, focused, outstanding, and powerful, because the march is the action that is only taking us to the next level, and if we don’t march as a community then really we’re just standing still.
photographer HARIS NUKEM
stylist EMI PAPANIKOLA
creative director JOEL JAY P
styling assistants NATHALIE PIERRAT AND GABRIELLA TAVANI
The Autumn/Winter GENDER issue of Noctis Mag is available to buy now.