The Cocoa Butter Club was initially born out of frustration.
Its founder, Sadie Sinner the Songbird, set herself the challenge of curating a multidisciplinary cabaret troupe of queer performers of colour to push back against a creative industry in which they are underrepresented, driven by a desire to “decolonise the arts”.
The showcase, which Sadie describes as a “creative clapback”, first opened in Camden, north London, in 2016. Two years on, it is no longer one of London’s best kept secrets.
Its mission statement, however, has remained somewhat the same. “We wanted to put people who culturally appropriate out of a job,” Sadie says.
The 28-year-old from northwest London tells BuzzFeed News: “The Cocoa Butter Club was born from a frustration of seeing people who blackface and who so poorly culturally appropriate being booked in abundance.
“I was just sick and tired of it — that black bodies aren’t getting booked, but bodies that can do things which have strong connotations to black culture are getting booked.”
It’s a few hours before showtime and Sadie, who wears multiple hats, is switching back and forth between mothering hostess, curator, and performer, as the troupe prepares for their showcase at the Underbelly, a pop-up venue just metres away from London’s Royal Festival Hall. She rushes around checking in on performers, calling for order, and delivering instructions.
The powerhouse personality she projects in her own performances is even more potent in close proximity. Huddled in a makeshift dressing room, the singer says: “There was a laziness on the side of the producers, with people saying, ‘Oh well, there just aren’t black performers,’ and, to me, that’s just the most silly thing to say in the world, because you wouldn’t say, ‘Why are there no deaf people in the show? Oh, it’s because there are no deaf performers.’ You don’t say that. It means, ‘I have not found them.’”
Assembling the first Cocoa Butter Club experience was a strategy Sadie describes as “bringing the horses to water”. Her goal was to create a showcase that would appeal to industry gatekeepers and make a point about the existence of nonwhite performers. “Sadly, they didn’t come,” she added. “It kind of taught me that’s the last time you do something where you try to prove the validity of your existence to white people.”
The humbling experience would be the catalyst for a shift in focus that moved the emphasis and interest to the audience, Sadie explains. “A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into creating just the launch, and so to walk into that room as it was filled with black and brown queer people, it was amazing.
“That kind of told me that while I thought I was making this thing for white audiences to see that we exist, I was neglecting the fact that black and brown people felt massively underrepresented [as an audience], and that’s why they aren’t going to shows. It’s about our human nature; we like to see ourselves in something, because then it’s relatable to us.”
On American shores, burlesque performances around the 1860s formed part of the derogative minstrel shows designed to mock African Americans while entertaining the general public. With their European origins and largely white audiences, both cabaret and burlesque as performance styles appear to be culturally at odds with what is stereotypically expected from black performers. It is this exact kind of thinking that Sadie is committed to dismantling.
“We have to rewrite our narrative, because all that is happening is that there is a limitation on what we believe black and brown bodies should be doing,” she says.
“I call it the white filter of approval, and once you take it off and have no concern for it you just realise that it’s limitless what our possibilities are. But, also, what do we consider cabaret? Again it’s a barrier to entry; that’s because it’s colonised — we don’t think that black and brown bodies belong in cabaret in this way.”
“That’s what we’re rewriting,” Sadie continues. “When I say we need to rewrite our narrative, it’s about understanding that we are capable of anything. All of these limitations that have been put on us throughout history are things that were written by people who are long dead.”
The Cocoa Butter Club features rappers, spoken-word artists, fire-breathers, burlesque dancers, and, sometimes, a clown. They’re all from ethnic minority backgrounds, and many also belong to the LGBT community. Sadie also believes there “is a discourse that comes from this, which is talking about racism in the performance context and decolonising that, and talking about racism in the queer communities and decolonising that as well.”
Sadie wants to make absolutely clear that the troupe is not about segregation, and her response to anyone who would claim otherwise is “everybody is welcome”.
“What don’t you understand?” Sadie asks, addressing any critics. “I’m just moving where the lens is; I’m shifting the focus. We’re just not looking at white bodies here; we’re looking at other bodies and other cultures. I wanted a show my mum could come to. I wanted a show that black and brown people could get dressed up in their glad rags to see. I wanted that for black and brown people because I don’t think we had enough things like that.”
Backstage at a technical run-through for the evening’s big show, there is a visible camaraderie among performers who, perhaps in another situation, might be pitted against one another to book the few spots reserved for nonwhite performers, whether as a box-ticking exercise or an authentic push to broaden the roster.
Sadie says: “We’ve had three performers who are biracial, and they cried because it was the first time that all three of them have been in a room together, because they realised they will never get booked on the same show.
“What’s mad about that is, you can find on any other cabaret lineup probably five blondes who all look like Marilyn Monroe, but you can’t book three biracial women who all have 3C curly hair?”
What The Cocoa Butter Club presents is monthly opportunity that performers — including Symoné, a world record–holder who can hula-hoop with 50 rings while on roller skates and set to a dancehall soundtrack — say they can rely on.
Symoné, a 25-year-old born in Arlington, Virginia, made London her home seven years ago and found a family in The Cocoa Butter Club after meeting Sadie through the cabaret scene.
“It wasn’t something I even thought about or even considered growing up,” she tells BuzzFeed News. “I was a raver. I used to go to parties and I got into doing circus skills through the raving scene, so it was very untechnical, it was very much about feeling rather than technical ability and performance.
The value of spaces like The Cocoa Butter Club, she says, is particularly significant as a queer woman of colour. “It feels really comfortable to be in a show where I can do ratchet acts, I can be myself, I know the performers are not only professional but they work really hard, and they’re inspiring, and they’re good people to be around backstage. It’s definitely different to anything I’ve ever done, and it’s been a chance for me to grow as a performer in my own style.”
For Rhys’s Pieces, the journey to becoming a core part of The Cocoa Butter family was through word of mouth. The multitalented 26-year-old, who describes himself as a “one-stop cabaret troupe”, credits founder Sadie as the core component of the collective. “It’s just a beautiful space where black and minority ethnic bodies can come and showcase our amazing talents,” he says. “This may no longer be a unique platform, but there aren’t many places like it, and it’s because of the character that Sadie brings.”
His performance is inspired by power struggles. “Depending on how I manifest it, sometimes it’s about dysfunctional relationships, or it can be about the fetishisation of black and brown bodies in cabaret, onstage, and sometimes it’s just about being a performer onstage and kind of giving and taking,” he adds.
Saying he “can only speak from [his] own experience”, Rhys lays out some of the challenges he has faced on the cabaret scene. “You can find yourself facing microaggressions in some spaces, or just outright aggressions in other spaces. Racism, ignorance, fetishisation: How do we navigate it? With amazing grace.”
Demi Noire, a trained burlesque dancer and choreographer, says her experience has been more positive than some of her peers’. “I’ve been really lucky,” she says. “I’ve managed to work in some incredible places, but what I do see, which is something that has really shown itself, is that normally I’m the only one.”
By “only one”, Demi is highlighting the fact that it wasn’t uncommon to be the only ethnic minority performer billed for a show. Once she was offered a last-minute performance opportunity because the original performer had dropped out. Unsurprisingly, that person was a black woman.
“And then they came back again to say that another black burlesque performer had to pull out, and asked would I like to do it. The fact that she had to tell me that it was a black burlesque performer made me go, well … you needed it to fill it with another black burlesque performer, which then made me feel like a token. That person probably has no idea the effect that has on me or on the other people of colour, but there is that feeling.”
Demi says when Sadie presented her vision for The Cocoa Butter Club, she was sold. “I’ve known Sadie for quite a while, and when she first approached me and was telling me about this idea that she had and what she wanted to do with it, it was incredibly exciting,” she says. “What I love about The Cocoa Butter Club is that it shows that there is no excuse to say that there isn’t enough [black performers] to fill a bill. There is.”
Looking ahead, Sadie’s vision for the community she has cultivated is the embodiment of the African adage, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
She is sentimental and evidently protective of what has been built. “Curating The Cocoa Butter Club is just a privilege,” she says, beaming with pride. “[It’s a privilege] to meet all these people who have just been doing what they do by themselves on crumbs, to meet these people who have been getting by because we weren’t all together before 2016, when we found each other and became a family.”
With each performance serving as an opportunity to broaden the landscape of the cabaret scene, it’s unsurprising that Sadie wants more and more people to come and see what the club does.
“The Cocoa Butter Club, I hope, has a really bright future ahead of it,” she says. “I would love for us to have a touring production so that we can put on this show which is mostly a party … a celebration of black and brown bodies.”