‘Blackface has got to stop’: How this queer cabaret group is clapping back at appropriation

Exhausted from seeing “too much blackface and cultural appropriation in cabaret,” Sadie Sinner set up The Cocoa Butter Club.

From drag kings to burlesque dancing, The Cocoa Butter Club centres queer black and brown performers as a “creative clapback” to racism regularly experienced at festivals and in cabaret spaces.

“It was born from an anger, a frustration at people saying there were no performers of colour, and instead of saying there were, I decided to show people there are,” Sadie told PinkNews.

“Whether it’s blackfacing at a festival or microaggressions, I knew it wasn’t just me feeling there was a need for agency and autonomy of how we express ourselves both in cabaret and in queer communities.

The Cocoa Butter Club is so special to me because it looks at confronting racism in cabaret but somehow we are also confronting racism in queer communities, and that was a surprise to me.

“It’s for black and brown people to take up space and just celebrate themselves, and when we’re doing that, people will see and wonder: why does this only exist in this one space?”

Sadie added that some steps to diversify “are misunderstanding diversity for tokenism.”

She explained: “It’s no fun on-stage when you look at the line-up and there’s all white people and only one person of colour – it’s jarring to the eye.”

The Cocoa Butter Club (Roxene Anderson)

“It’s no fun backstage when everybody’s getting ready. There’s something so beautiful about The Cocoa Butter Club backstage, when you have all these people from a culture which I guess they’ve been told to suppress, then they’re backstage doing each other’s hair and helping with make-up. That’s what black and brown performers are missing – even when you just want someone to braid your hair, it seems like a small thing but it’s huge.

“We need to open up the culture of what cabaret and burlesque is for it to move forward. We know this because of the way that it’s attended. It’s one of the saddest things that I belong to an industry that allows black face to be a part of it.

“Cultural appropriation and blackfacing are real, big problems in cabaret as a whole. People are exploring themselves, that’s great, but are we looking at how we can celebrate the art forms that we so enjoy drawing from?

“I’m not just talking about someone slicking their hair back – I know black and brown performers who are afraid to twerk because they know that won’t get them booked. And I know some white performers who are incredible twerkers, and that is the reason they get booked. In what world is that fair?”

The cabaret scene needs a major shake-up (Roxene Anderson)

The Cocoa Butter Club was set up in 2016 in London and has since taken shows to Germany and Australia. They’re next next set to perform at the London Southbank’s Underbelly Festival in September, 2018.

“The creation of The Cocoa Butter Club has not been a straight story,” she said, laughing.

“It was not easy but I want to actually credit a producer who isn’t black or brown but who kind of planted the seed and showed me that it was possible to get a cast of really accomplished black performers together and do an event that people would want to come and see them at.

“It allowed us to have a cabaret show where we could show the whole of ourselves, not just some palatable version, but it really broke my heart that it was really poorly attended.

“I asked myself what are the barriers to this, and I thought black people would not be happy that someone non-black facilitated this because then does it ever truly belong to the black bodies that are in it?

Drag star Rhys Pieces performs as part of The Cocoa Butter Club (Roxene Anderson)

“Another performer had a similar feeling and we sat down together and created The Cocoa Butter Club.

“It belongs to all of us. Platforming and celebrating performers of colour. In a way, it was born out of a need to serve myself, my identity as a queer, black performer.

“My cabaret style is that I am me, through and through. At the moment, I’m singing lots of R&B and funk songs. At The Cocoa Butter Club, I get to sing songs by all the black women that I want – such as Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.

“We make a space that centres queer black and brown bodies. We’re not the only ones doing this at all,” she added, crediting queer collectives BBZ and Batty Mama.

Their next “extravaganza” is set to take place at the London Southbank Underbelly Festival (Roxene Anderson)

“Some people think: why do we need more division? It’s not about that actually – there’s something different about being somewhere you’re welcome but at the same time you know it’s not for you.

Their Underbelly Festival show will include burlesque, drag, voguing, roller skating, beatboxing and aerial performers – it’s “The Cocoa Butter Club with no restrictions,” said Sadie.

“It was always a dream to have an Underbelly show. It’s an incredible run of circus and cabaret shows on the Southbank – it’ll be an extravaganza, the biggest thing we’ve done to date.”

Buy tickets to see The Cocoa Butter Club at the London Southbank’s Underbelly Festival on Thursday 13 September, 2018, here.