Get to Know Multi-Disciplinary Artist, Darkwah Kyei-Darkwah
by Anna Waddell·
If you haven’t heard of Darkwah Kyei-Darkwah, it’s only a matter of time. They’re a multi-disciplinary artist — a title that includes being a presenter, drag queen, classically trained opera singer, content creator as well as consultant — whose sense of humour and determination to bring glamour and positivity into the world is palpable.
Darkwah’s creative journey is inspirational. Growing up in a Ghanaian family, they found ways to express their queer identity by learning skills that were not only a useful, but were an outlet for self-expression. Since then, Darkwah’s unique skill set and personal style has evolved with an activist-lens — their work is infused with messages and lessons about their queer, non-binary and Black reality with the intention to inspire and educate others. As they say, “it's sexy, it's funny, it's cute, it's weird, it's wonderful, it’s wacky, it’s Darkwah.”
We sat down with Darkwah to discuss their career journey, personal style, what it’s like being a second generation POC creative growing up in a traditional household, lessons learnt during the pandemic, and of course, their thoughts on jewellery. What follows is a fascinating and inspiring conversation that we hope you enjoy and take lots away from.
Hi Darkwah, thank you for being one of the STAXX Creators! Let’s start from the beginning — how did your creative journey start?
I think it started from just being a queer kid who didn't know how to express himself very well. I'm from a very Ghanaian family — there’s a focus on tradition, respect, and a certain way to behave — so trying to express queerness when there isn't anyone that you look up to in the media that expresses their queerness the way that you do, you had to find creative ways of doing it.
I didn't want to go home and feel like I can't be myself, but there are certain aspects of myself that I cannot parade in the fullness of their queerness and queer beauty at home. My parents have done a very good job of encouraging creativity, but they didn't understand queerness. I was the unicorn — the first unicorn — so it was a learning curve for them! And so when I got home, all of my exuberance and loudness and flamboyance and everything would instantly turn inwards.
So I started with making clothes for my sister's dolls, and then the clothes were nice but the hair didn't match the vibe that I was going for. So then I became a hair and makeup artist of Barbie dolls, then I saved up and bought myself a mini sewing machine which my parents loved. They were like “if you can fix the rip and trousers, all the better.” So I was being resourceful. And you know, learning loads of skills that I then wouldn't have to go to a dry cleaner to sew a button. You know, I'm able to do all of these things for myself and become self sufficient.
"If one person sees me existing the way that I am, and it makes them feel that they can also fully exist the way that they are, like the Internet has done its job. I've done my job."
As a member of the queer and non-binary community, what role has your online platform played in finding and cultivating a sense of community?
I do everything that I do because when I was younger I didn't have a role model. I looked up to Naomi Campbell, Vanessa Williams, Angelina Jolie and Lucy Lui. All women, all fab. But I didn't have anyone that looked like myself. So the internet has played a good role in allowing me to be seen and also allowing me to see other people who came before me.
It's facilitated a deeper knowledge and reference, so I know who came before me. And in the same way that Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, Munroe Bergdorf, Lady Phyll, all of these people's work is immortalised in internet archives and they're going to be examples for people who come afterwards. Now I don't need to be a huge role model. But if one person sees me existing the way that I am, and it makes them feel that they can also fully exist the way that they are, like the Internet has done its job. I've done my job. I'm good to go.
You call yourself a multi-disciplinary artist, what exactly does that role mean to you?
I used to categorise my work as a public speaker, but ultimately, I am a multi-disciplinary artist. Art fosters communication between different types of people. Art opens up people's minds to different ways of being and existing, art can educate and inform, so everything I do is art.
Whether I'm speaking at Instagram about Black History Month, or talking about diversity inclusion, whether I'm making an Instagram reel showing off the thongs that I make and my body. Whatever I’m doing, it's in a way that's still digestible and will touch loads of different people. It's sexy, it's funny, it's cute, it's weird, it's wonderful, wacky, it’s Darkwah, you know, so that's what I just wanted to communicate.
"I am not here to build a life, I'm here to thrive. And in order to thrive, I need to have an in-depth, understanding of all of the different things that make up my creative identity."
I also talk at different organisations about how they can better include and reach black queer people and the LGBTQ POC community. I am a performer — a drag queen. I am a classically trained opera singer which falls into my drag but also falls into the art that I create. I am a content creator, and content creation consultant, so I work with brands and actually help them develop content streams that better reach target audiences, but also in doing that also educate the brand on what they shouldn't be doing.
I am a multi disciplinary artist so any way that I can create, educate, inform and entertain I will do. So Lord knows, if it’s sand sculpture I'm probably going to try my hand at that next.
Is this always how you saw your career panning out from a young age?
If I'm perfectly honest when I was young I wanted to be a performer, I saw myself as like the black queer Beyonce. But then, as I was going down the route of performing I realised I love production too. I wanted to be in control of when the lights change, when the smoke machine is gonna fire, when the pyrotechnics are gonna go off. And then I also realised I also love styling. To my parents, I'm this chaotic ‘child of the universe’ who's like trying to do as much as possible and not tying themselves down to anything.
In the POC community, it's very much about: learn hard and get a job. Within minority communities, it's literally thought that this is the only way you're going to be safe. I know that's a survival tactic for our parents who came before us, who moved here and had to build lives. I am not here to build a life, I'm here to thrive. And in order to thrive, I need to have an in-depth, understanding of all of the different things that make up my creative identity. I had no idea that this is what my life was going to be like, or what my career was going to be like, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
"I'm hopeful for the future because I am the future, and my friends are the future. The only way that we can make a better future is to continue existing loudly, proudly and unapologetically."
What impact has the pandemic had on your creative life and work? What have you learnt from this period?
It’s forced us to sit still. Once I hit month four I realised: I need to start doing something. Typically I work in events and public speaking and now, the only person I can speak to is me. So I learnt things like improving how I hem garments, or how I blend a good eye, or the way that I style things. I took the time to get to know myself and what I want, and gave myself the time to learn things that when the world was completely open, I didn't have the time to do. The only person you need to keep up with is yourself and during lockdown, I have really learned that.
So, in getting to know myself, I know where I want to go and how I want to do it, and if something changes along the way, I'm fine, because I am not a train on a track. I am a natural being, there are no straight lines that occur naturally in nature. Everything curves and meanders and ebbs and flows, so why should we not ebb and flow like the tide too?
The last year has been incredibly turbulent for Black people, as well as queer and non-binary communities. Are you hopeful for the future?
I'm hopeful for the future because I am the future, and my friends are the future. The only way that we can make a better future is to continue existing loudly, proudly and unapologetically, and I know that within my circle, we're doing that. And I know that there are loads of other circles that are also doing that.
To those who have the upper hand by way of institutional structures that work against people like myself, they should take heed and actually listen, and actually understand, put their money where their likes are, and put their money where their comments are. If you want to collaborate, then pay me. I'm very hopeful for the future because I know that I am going to actively play a role in shaping the future.
So I while it has been bleak. I have taken up the mantle for myself and for people like myself, and I know loads of other people like me are also taking up the mantle, and we're pulling this thing forward. I have endless hope and positivity for the future because I know that I'm going to do my damnedest to make sure it's a good one.
"If my reality has been denied and disrespected for so long, I'm going to create a new one that is going to be so fantastic that everyone's going to stop, do a double take, and listen to the shit that I have to say."
Let’s talk about your personal style. How has your style evolved and what do you set out to communicate with your clothing, makeup and hair styling?
My personal style really only started when I started doing makeup. Because you can sell a fantasy with clothes, you can sell a fantasy by sculpting your body, but that's from your neck down. I am no longer here for half-assed fantasies, I want to give you the full effect. As soon as I started playing with makeup, I thought: this is a new dimension to my look.
With styling, you're giving a fantasy but typically you only see that fantasy in an editorial image within a publication. I don't want that. We've been living in this in quite a bleak reality for a while, especially as a black queer person. I still wake up in the morning and think, what person that looks like me has died today at the hands of police? What person that looks like me has been pulled out of a car and aggressed unnecessarily? What person that looks like me is actually struggling to even make ends meet, because algorithms on social media channels are hyper-sexualising Black and POC bodies?
So I decided from now on, I am not going to live in a bleak reality. I'm going to change my reality. I'm going to change my outlook on the world, and it starts from me. So if I want to give light into the world and I want to bring positivity and encourage conversation and open people's minds, I need to open my mind too. And that's where my style evolution really properly began. My style evolution also comes from wanting to centre the black queer experience, because there are countless references in the media, in anime, comic books, and advertising for whiteness. So I am making a point in my style expression to place myself in The Girl with a Pearl Earring, or to place myself in a Botticelli painting — but through a Windows 98 aesthetic.
I’m going to place myself on the cover of Vogue in the most outrageous, dramatic black tulle gown that I'm wearing to the store so I can get milk. I want to bring fantasies into life because if my reality has been denied and disrespected for so long, I'm going to create a new one that is going to be so fantastic that everyone's going to stop, do a double take, and listen to the shit that I have to say.
What role jewellery does play in expressing your personal style?
I love rings. I have very femme witchy fingers with very African man knuckles, so STAXX is actually quite good because I can stack them at the ends of the fingers instead of like past the knuckle at the top of the finger.
Basically, I’m a magpie so if I have the jewellery with me, I'm gonna wear it all. To me, it's another layer of communication. I use my jewellery to punctuate my statements because my existence is a statement, my existence is also a protest. So I'm punctuating it with the glam, just to let everybody know.