TRANSCRIPT: Translash Podcast Episode 89 ‘Trans Hollywood and the Oscars’

As the 2024 awards season comes to a close, Imara reflects on the groundbreaking contributions of trans filmmakers and actors to cinema. First, she sits down with actress Trace Lysette to talk about her role in the critically acclaimed film Monica. Trace explains why self-doubt is a luxury in the entertainment business and how she’s struggled to find work after starring in Monica. Then, Imara is joined by D. Smith, who delves into her pivot from producing music to directing films, the stylistic choices behind her documentary Kokomo City, and what it means to make Black films.



Imara: Hey fam, it’s me, Imara. Welcome to the TransLash Podcast, a show where we tell trans stories to save trans lives. This past Sunday, the silver screens most glamorous stars and filmmakers gathered for the biggest night in Hollywood. Of course, there was lots of buzz around Lily Gladstone for her performance in Killers of the Flower Moon. But there were also some really big snubs like Monica starring Trace Lysette, which was denied a well-deserved Oscar nomination, despite a grassroots effort to get them into the running. And there were others, which made a big splash at Sundance, which is normally a precursor of big things to come at the Oscars, which never even made it to the big screen like Kokomo City, which is now on Paramount Plus. So, today I wanted to talk to the people behind two of these incredible films to talk about all of this complexity. First, I’m joined by the star of Monica, actress Trace Lysette, who opens up about her struggle to make it in Hollywood.  

Trace Lysette: My biggest challenge has been a lack of access, not about self-doubt. And I think that’s a luxury that a lot of our cis counterparts get to have.  

Imara: Next, I’ll chat with filmmaker D. Smith about the vision behind Kokomo City. 

D. Smith: That’s what Kokomo City is about. It’s not about sex, it’s about us. As Black people, how do we love each other and support each other?  

Imara: But first, let’s start out as always, with some trans joy. [MUSIC] It’s no secret that the filmmaking industry is very cis, very white, and very hard to break into. That’s why Joie Lou Shakur founded Comfrey Films. It’s a training program and production house that’s designed to launch Black transgender non-conforming and intersex storytellers into filmmaking. Since 2017, Comfrey Films has trained over 50 storytellers archived over 190 hours of Black trans footage, and co-produced 17 short films. But it’s just not about the output. The organization takes a healing justice approach, rooting in an embodied and land-based storytelling process. Here’s Joie Lou Shakur to tell us more.  

Joie Lou Shakur: In the future when little babies are growing up and they’re being inundated with this constant erasure of our beings, how do we also fight hard to make sure that we who are currently alive right now get cemented in history? At the heart of our work is a healing justice work. The work of resisting erasure is work of healing wounds that folks have grown up with, that folks are currently experiencing today. It’s about healing the wounds that violence lose behind, and the breadth of story that comes out of our community. Trans mermaids Under the Water to Francis Thompson and the legacy of, um, our folks that are archived in history. We’re storytellers at heart. That’s one thing for sure.  

Imara: Joie, you and Comfrey Films are trans joy.


Imara: I’m truly thrilled to be joined today by actress Trace Lysette. Trace has been a leading figure in trans representation on screen ever since her breakthrough role as Shea on the show Transparent. Since then, she starred along Jennifer Lopez in the film Hustlers and played a leading role in Ty Hodge’s independent film Venus as a Boy. Most recently, she captivated audiences as the title character in the critically acclaimed film Monica. It’s an intimate portrait of a trans woman who returns home to the Midwest for the first time in 20 years to care for her dying mother. The film received an 11 and a half minute standing ovation at the Venice International Film Festival, and Trace’s incredible performance in that film, garnered her an Independent Spirit Award nomination. She was also nominated for a 2022 Glaad Media Award for her work as an executive producer on the documentary Trans in Trumpland. Trace thank you so much for joining me. So I told another actor in Hollywood that I was gonna be talking to you and this person who isn’t trans said Trace carried that movie on her back. As an actor, what gave you the confidence to carry that movie on your back? I mean, as a person who hasn’t been at this level of a feature film before with Patricia Clarkson playing your number two, where do you think you got the confidence to take this on?  

Trace: Well, it was overdue, in my opinion, and that might sound cocky to the wrong person, but to a self-assured person, they might understand what I mean by that. I think the confidence came from my life experience, a very unconventional life, very unique life, a very prepared instrument, which is something that I was able to go and get myself when I was living in New York. And it’s all kind of intertwined, my life experience and my actor training and the fact that I had to go and find that myself in my mid twenties. And I’ve said this before, and some, again, some people won’t receive it and some will. But I hear a lot of people talk about imposter syndrome, especially in the actor world. And I think I had that maybe early on, but 12 years in the game, I feel like my biggest challenge has been a lack of access, not about self-doubt. And I think that’s a luxury that a lot of our cis counterparts get to have. And for me, it’s almost like you have to prove yourself 10 times over before they realize, oh, it’s not a fluke. Ms. thing can really act. She’s really here. She’s really prepared. And um, yeah, you throw me in a little Indie and a chance to lead as an opposite at Oscar nominated actress and I am not gonna drop the ball because my survival and my livelihood depends on it.  

Imara: Why do you feel compelled to act? What is it about your personality or your humanity that can only be expressed through acting? Beause that also has to be one of the things that keeps you going, like it’s so essential to who you are.  

Trace: Well, I’ve definitely thought about doing other things and then I realized, oh, I can’t really do anything else. I don’t really think I could. Besides music, which I’ve done a little bit of and I will do more, but acting chose me back. I mean, feeling like there was no other options. And knowing that if I stuck it out, I would eventually get bigger opportunities. But it is challenging when people come up to you and say, oh my God, that episode of Transparent was the best one in the series, or that was my favorite. And I’ve heard that dozens and dozens of times. And that’s no shade to any other episode or anything like that. It’s just that is my reality is having people come up to me with tears in their eyes saying that that episode meant so much to them. And I’m sure there are other episodes that meant something to other people from different walks of life, but when you hear that over and over, you start to wonder, well, when does that translate into the next thing? Because, you know, would I be fighting this hard if I wasn’t a woman who was also trans? Because I’ve seen stars be born with far less, far less, and then their follow-up opportunity to whatever that that thing was, is huge, especially for cis het white males. Uh, you see it all the time. And so I’ve just kept going because I felt like I couldn’t really do much else but entertain.  

Imara: You knew that you had to fight 10 times as hard. You knew that other people had gotten so much more with so much less. Did the response surprise you? Did the critical acclaim catch you off guard, or did you know during the filming that this was something special?  

Trace: I knew during the filming that we were getting great work. I could tell by the reaction of the crew. A lot of times they would be crying after any given scene, you know, or Andrea would come over to me after a take and be like, wow, that was really something special. And uh, one day he pulled me over and he said, come here, Trace, I wanna talk to you. And I, I thought, oh, am I in trouble? What did I do wrong? You know, it’s like always our first thought, sometimes. And he is like, listen, you have something very rare. I’ve worked with a lot of actors, and what you have is something that is innate and pure, and you’re gonna go on and do really amazing things, and I want you to know that everything you’re doing is, is really special. And, you know, that was just very affirming to me about midway through.  

You think you’re landing the plane, but you don’t really know. And then day after day, you’re seeing how people are reacting on set. And, and after so many, I guess accolades, you’re like, oh, okay, well maybe this will be special. Obviously, it depends on how they edit. And you know, a lot of things didn’t make it into the final. But I kind of knew then and then when we got into Venice, I was hearing more of that. And then you have to understand, like, almost a whole year went by before we premiered at Venice. So I kept hearing it, you know, over the course of a year and a half or so. And I guess it was validating, but then award season was so political that-that was its own battle as well. You know, it’s all about money.

Imara: We’ll come to the politics of the award season, which is very relevant to probably the whiplash surrounding the Oscars for you. But I was really struck by something that you said on the view about Venice, that when you got this 11 and a half minute standing ovation, that a part of you just didn’t trust it, didn’t believe it, and that you went into the bathroom and cried. And I’m wondering when you heard yourself say that, or when you think about that moment, what strikes you as you, you think about that? Because a part of you has incredible confidence, and then also as you said, you know, scarcity can just plant and use seeds of never ending doubt.

Trace: Well, I don’t think I was wrong. And I say that because an 11 and a half minute standing ovation for any other cis actress would’ve meant she came home to offers, multiple offers on the table. And, uh, I sat and waited and waited and waited, and then got a nomination for Indie Spirit Awards in a, in a category with legends, Jeffrey Wright, Natalie Portman, Jessica Chastain. And I waited some more and I still haven’t had an offer. And I had dinner with the director of Monica two nights ago, and he’s like, so what’s going on? What are you doing next? And I said, well, I haven’t had any offers yet. And he said, what? And he was in utter disbelief, to the point where he said, no way, the next role that I have that is a cis woman that is right for you, you’re coming to play it.  

And I said, well, thank you. That’s very sweet. You know, but it, it shouldn’t all come back to him. You know, it, it should multiply and branch out. And, you know, he, he knows my worth, but I’m not sure why it’s not translating to others yet. Um, maybe it will. I had a really good heart to heart with Sarah Paulson going into award season, because I knew she had kind of navigated that before. And we were newfound friends and she hosted a screening for us. And she said, listen, when I finished OJ and won everything in the land, I watched all of my male co-stars go off and do project after project after project. And I sat there for eight months out of work, and I was the one who brought home the trophies. And she said, some of that is just being a woman. Some of that’s being a 40-year-old woman, or 40 plus, and you’re also trans on top of that. And that to me, broke it down in a way that could make me, uh, help me make sense of it. But I try not to live in that because I, I, I don’t wanna give that energy. I just wanna understand it, understand what it is, and release it and know that somebody is making something, somebody’s writing something for me that I just haven’t seen yet.

Imara: Nothing that happens ever happens solely in a vacuum. It may not be linear.  

Trace: Right.  

Imara: Do you know what I mean? Like, it’s not a linear process. It’s, it’s a linear process for Tom Cruz. It’s a linear process for Denzel Washington. You know, but it’s not a linear process for, for people like you. I think Angela Bassett’s experience in Hollywood, you know, never, you know, never winning an Oscar. Sometimes it doesn’t make any sense. But I think that if people are giving you affirmation, Whoopi Goldberg gave you affirmation. Your CoStar, Patricia Clarkson gave you affirmation. This director’s giving you affirmation. That means that your instinct that there’s something out there for you that’s coming is probably right.  

Trace: Yeah. I have to believe that. I just can’t wait for it to feel real. And by real, I mean like financial. I mean like, oh, I can buy a house in my mid forties. Okay, now we are doing something, you know.

Imara: It’s consistent healthcare insurance, by the way.  

Trace: Exactly. Oh, I don’t have to worry about losing my health insurance. Okay, got it. Okay. Now I’m seeing the real life benefits of my talent, of my craft and this journey. 

Imara: When you’re sitting in those moments and the phone isn’t ringing, and you are wondering how you’re gonna keep your healthcare, ’cause you gotta act so many hours a year to be able to do that. Like, how do you keep going? Like literally, how do you keep going? It sounds like you kind of answered that, but I’m wondering if there’s even something else that you do to just put one foot in front of the other.  

Trace: Well, I’ve been through worse. And that is what Hollywood will never be able to take from me, is that they can’t take a couple things. They can’t take my talent and they can’t take my journey. And if they knew where I’ve been, then they would know that as crazy as this can be, it’s still a far cry from the rock bottom that I know. And so I try to zoom out and say, oh, okay, they’re trying it again. I see you, it’s fine. Uh, something will come. And, uh, I have really amazing friends who are also actors and they lift me up, DeVere Rogers, Laverne Cox, Pepperman, all of my good good friends, Johnny Sibley, you know? And, um, thank God for my tribe, you know, I just feel like if I didn’t have my friends and my mother and my trans mother, I would be a little lost. But they keep me going.  

Imara: What did it feel like for you to even be mentioned as an Oscar contender? I imagine that that added to the confusion of everything that you’re describing.  

Trace: It did. Yeah. I mean, it’s beautiful in some ways and in other ways just felt confusing because I knew I wasn’t getting the same press opportunities. And, uh, if you’re not in the conversation, you are not, you don’t really have a shot.  

Imara: And is it solely a matter of press attention drives the Oscar contention? Or are there other things as well? Like, people always talk about the machines that movies build in order to, et cetera, all of that stuff.  

Trace: It’s everything from the budget that you have to produce the movie, which, you know, we were a $1.7 million film and Killers of a Flower Moon was, you know, 200 million or something. And then, uh, at dinner the other night, Andrea told me that Maestro, which was a Kerry Mulligan film, he allegedly, he said that their budget for award season press was 20 something, 29 million. Which I just thought that was, I’m like, are you sure? Uh, you know, uh, I thought, I thought I knew people spent a million or two, but I couldn’t believe, I just couldn’t believe that that number would be accurate. But that’s what he said. But the point is, a lot of these films have a lot of money to spend. So it’s not a meritocracy. It’s not, it’s not like sports where the person who trains the hardest and has the most talent runs the race, the fastest wins. It’s just not like that.  

Imara: Yeah. It’s, it’s not like that. It is not a merit-based competition. 

Trace: Right.

Imara: Particularly.  

Trace: Right, right.  

Imara: Last thing I’m wondering, when you look forward to the career that you’re gonna have, ’cause we’re just going to step that affirmatively,  

Trace: Let’s call that in.  

Imara: I’m wondering what type of roles do you wanna be known for? You know, I think about Meryl Streep is known for playing these really complicated women with, you know, contradictory size that they’re trying to balance. You know, Angela Bassett is known for playing women who are strong, but also really brittle, kind of at their breaking point. I’m wondering for you, when you have had the career that is continuing to develop for you and you look back, what do you want to be known for? What characters and what qualities of the women that you play do you wanna be known for?  

Trace: Well, uh, complicated women is something that, yeah, I would love to, I would love to play more of, but I would love to play complicated trans women, but not be limited to trans characters. Uh, so all of, it’s all of that. I-I-I would also love to do action. I would love to do comedy more. I mean, I don’t always have to be naked and crying. I think that a lot of times they think, oh, she’s trans. She comes from this particular life. Let’s see her trauma. Let’s, let’s, let’s pull it out of her. Let’s, oh, let’s get this, yeah, let’s get this gold from her. You know, like, let’s get this pain. And what they don’t always get is that, like, me and my friends laugh a hell of a lot at the pain because we have to. And so there’s comedic gold there as well, that it doesn’t always have to do with our trauma. Uh, or if it does, we find ways to make it funny. And I’m really into that. 

Read TransLash’s article about how seeing different characters in media help folks discover and explore their gender and sexuality.

Imara: Well, and part I understand why they may want you naked, because you may be 40 something, but the body is bodying and the face is facing. So what are you gonna do? You know? You gotta use it.  

Trace: Yeah. And I, you know, I’m still searching for my husband, so they might as well get me naked while I still got it.  

Imara: Listen. Well, you may not be getting an Oscar this time, but clearly your performance is giving, it’s giving Oscar. So I’m sure that we can anticipate that in your future. And I just also wanna say that so many people in our community were so buoyed by you even being in the conversation. And I know that you have inspired other people to continue to dream big in terms of their acting. And there will be people that continue their career because they see possibility in you. So thank you so much.  

Trace: Oh my goodness. Yeah, that’s that. Thank you. That’s been my life’s work is to hopefully knock on that glass ceiling, you know. 

Imara: And shatter it.  

Trace: Yes. And shatter it.  

Imara: Thank you so much.  

Trace: Thank you.  

Imara: That was actress and star of the film, Monica, Trace Lysette. I’ve been really looking forward to this conversation with award-winning producer, singer, and director D. Smith made waves last year with a premier of her debut documentary film Kokomo City. This truly remarkable portrait of four Black trans sex workers has scooped up some of the industry’s most prestigious awards, including the Sundance Next Innovator Award, as well as the Berlinale Audience Award. It’s since been picked up for streaming by Paramount Plus and Showtime. But before Sundance, D. Smith had already racked up two Grammy nominations during her career as a music producer, singer, and songwriter. After being discovered while singing in the New York City subway, she began collaborating and performing with artists like Stacy Barthe and Lil Wayne. She’s also produced and written for other big names like Katy Perry, Andre 3000, and Billy Porter. D. Smith was forced out of the music industry after beginning her transition in 2014 with her resilience and incredible work on Kokomo City landed her on the 2023 out, 100 most impactful and influential LGBTQ plus people list among other awards. D. Smith, thank you so much for joining me.  

D. Smith: Oh, thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure.  

Imara: So how does it feel for Kokomo City to be out into the world for it to be out on Paramount Plus, after a year when it made a splash at Sundance, kind of, you and The Stroll were kind of the standouts from Sundance last year. So how does it feel for it now to be living and breathing in the world?  

Explore TransLash’s Guide to Sundance 2024.

D. Smith: Obviously, I’m very gratified that, you know, I finished the film and was able to, you know, share it with people. That is really what filmmaking is all about. You know, it’s been nonstop, literally just nonstop. And now Showtime Paramount Plus has, uh, you know, acquired it and it’s kind of like a, another like flare up of just like people and, and new supporters. And, uh, it’s been very exciting. Like there are even billboards, uh, two huge billboards in Times Square and, uh, Berkeley Center and Atlanta Airport everywhere. So the [inaudible] getting out. And very proud.  

Imara: You had a storied career in music, like literal storied career, you know, multiple Grammy nominations as a producer, worked with so many of the biggest of the big names: And for you, what is it like to jump from the thing where you knew and you had made such a powerful career and impact to a new medium for you, which was filmmaking?  

D. Smith: Well, I mean, music was my world. It was my life. And I was so dedicated to creating, producing, and writing music, and it was my world. And so when I decided to transition in 2014, you know, people really didn’t know how to act to respond. Like I think that they were, and when I say they, I mean more Black people. ’cause that’s who I was dealing with, to be honest with you. Like all the managers and some of the, you know, executives and producers and stuff like that. We had a hard time 10 years ago. We’re, we’re doing a little bit better, but 10 years ago, it was just like never heard of, uh, a producer, Black producer, a male producer to transition into female in the music industry, had never happened. And people didn’t know how to respond other than stay away from me. And so years past where I just couldn’t get back on my feet as a, a creator and a person. And I just had this idea given to me to do Kokomo City. And, you know, I, I was pondering on it for a couple years actually, but it just came to me that it was time for me to do it. It was like, I’m not, I can’t wait for the music industry anymore to come around, I just had the urge and the itch to create, and I did that.  

Imara: Was that scary to go to something new or by the time it came, you were ready for it?  

D. Smith: I had nothing to lose. I had nothing to lose. It, I, it wasn’t scary to me at all. Like, I, it immediately felt like an opportunity not just to get back on my feet, but to prove myself as a creator. Like, you know, as a gifted individual that just needed the opportunity, um, the opportunity wasn’t given. It was taken, I took the opportunity, you know, I moved full speed ahead. You know, it wasn’t that easy to do ’cause there wasn’t any money involved or funds or anything like that to support me. But I, I made it through and it was just a, such a tremendous experience for me.  

Imara: Well, that’s the other part of it is that this was a self financed, self-directed self, you know, fill in the blank project. Like you just literally decided that you were gonna make this happen.

D. Smith: Oh, yeah. And honestly, when you have something in front of you that you vision, you can’t ignore it. And, and it’s a reason why it comes to you. And even when it came to me, I looked at it as a fantasy. Oh, that would be cool. But when your back is totally against the wall and you’re, and you’re just physically tired of, uh, not moving forward with your life, you gotta do what you gotta do.  

Imara: One of the things that you do with your, the subjects of the film who are like trans sex workers, is you kinda elevate their stories to almost kind of heroic stories, right? Like, they are given the same treatment as you would give, you know, the most storied people that you would wanna hear about. And I am wondering from their perspective, have you heard what impact that’s had on their lives? ’cause I am always fascinated by what someone who tells you their story when they see that story told the impact that it can have on them. 

Read TransLash’s article on Mary Jones: 18th century Black trans sex worker and socialite.

D. Smith: Yeah. I mean, I think when I presented the idea to do Kokomo City, they were all curious, but very excited of the idea of this new angle and perspective of telling our stories. It excited them. But, you know, all of them, even Coco, uh, rest her soul, she was extremely grateful. Uh, she told me all of the time through text messages, dms, uh, videos, interviews. Any, any interviews that she’s done, she’s always showed a great deal of gratitude. And for the remaining girls that it was a wake up call for them too, to understand that they have a lot to bring to the table, to the world. And it’s totally up to them as it is all of us to, you know, kinda seize the moment. And I think they’re doing that and I’m very proud of them. So, you know, they’ve all individually told me thank you and showed a great deal of gratitude as I am towards them.  

Imara: Yeah. I mean, um, one of the things that everyone says comes through in the film is how much they trust you and how much that trust then transforms what they’re willing to share and the impact on audiences. I think that’s one of the things that everyone says. How did you go about developing that trust actually?

D. Smith: It was a process. I don’t think it took that very long. Um, but I think the strategy for me was to be myself, number one, and not come across like, uh, a know it all, or a diva or someone with endless amounts of means. But I was just very transparent about what my intentions were with the film. And I think when they saw me lugging the bags and the, the light stand and the things by myself, they knew it was the real deal. They knew I wasn’t playing any games, but they were very receptive to my process. And I think the main thing was when I filmed them, even if it’s for like two or three minutes for the first couple times, I would turn the monitor on the camera round and show them an example of what I was doing. And they loved it. They were like, oh bitch. They was like, girl, yes. And so I was just very encouraged by that. They were so open, you know, and I, I think after that, I didn’t have to show them anything. They really just just went for it.  

Imara: How did you know to develop the visual language that you did? Because one of the things that everyone also says is how beautifully shot it is. That’s one of the things that came up, of course, in you flipping the camera around. And again, like, filmmaking is not your first medium, right? So how did you know to develop this as a visual language that you use throughout, and then how to develop the technical skills to execute that?  

D. Smith: It was so important for me to do a film that I would personally wanna watch. So I personally just created a film that no matter where it went, that I could just turn it on and watch and enjoy it for myself, number one. But I thought if, if it’s something I like a lot, people feel like it, I have a pretty good taste and style and, and vision, you know, art. But I also knew that style would be super fresh and it would stand out from other things no matter what they were. Um, not saying that it would be better, but I just knew that it will have a real high chance of cutting through other documentaries and, and the fact that the stories are about trans women we’re so used to seeing a very sterile measured, you know, way of telling our stories. I really wanted to do the opposite. Something fun, provocative, and something that felt elevated.  

Imara: How did you come up with the idea to use actors for certain things? Because that’s in a way breaking format, right? In a documentary. I think that’s probably one of the reasons why there was so much interest in both your documentary and the stroll, because in some ways you both kind of break format in documentary and then elevate it, turn it into something new. How did you decide that you were gonna do that? ’cause a lot of times, you know, that’s considered to be a huge no-no in documentary, but you did it. And, you know, it’s worked to stunning success.  

D. Smith: Mm, thank you. I mean, I don’t know the, what the rules are in, in making a documentary, and I don’t care to know. That was definitely an advantage for me. I didn’t have any worries about what I’m doing right or wrong. But, you know, at the end of the day, it was just a, a creative choice. And sometimes to me, documentaries, no matter what the subject is, sometimes I just wish, sometimes I just wish there were more creativity in them to tell the, the story. And especially depending on the subject, sometimes if people feel like, not everyone, obviously intellects live for it. I-I-I do live for it. I don’t consider myself an intellect, but, but I, I definitely live for a really smart documentary, but sometimes I just wonder what’s the holdup? Like, just, uh, where’s the swag and what, where’s the, how many people are you trying to reach? Like, it’s just important for me to have reached the biggest demo that I can with Kokomo City. So I just had to bring a lot of bits of elements in it to, uh, to make it feel fresh.  

Imara: How has making Kokomo City changed to you? How are you different at the end of it than you were in the beginning?  

D. Smith: Mm. “I guess a lot of changes”, but I think the main one or two is that I, I’m in a position where I’m not really chasing right now because we lose so much of our energy and our days and years chasing. You know, I’ve chased and lost so much chasing music and what I thought was success in the music industry, and so quickly forgotten. Like, people don’t care about how hard it was for you to even get in front of them to present something that they would probably say, no, not what I’m looking for. You know, I think for me right now, just to be honest with what I have to say, as a filmmaker, I definitely feel more balanced, you know? And also being able to put music into my films, it’s so fulfilling. So all around I feel so balanced. I really do. And I also feel like I’m aligned with my purpose, you know, telling stories.  

Imara: So, as you mentioned, like, I’m wondering, transitioning has so many different flavors to it, and your transition gender wise actually prompted, you know, not willingly, but prompted this change in career, literally this career transition. And I’m wondering for you, if the response that you’ve gotten over the past year to this film has somehow been a huge affirmation point for you and all of the choices that you’ve made that somehow everything new that you’ve done and the bravery that it’s taken is, is paying off?  

D. Smith: Oh, I mean, absolutely. I, I don’t think it was really bravery that got me here. I think it was audacity, you know, for me to sit back and ask, what the hell, after everything I’ve accomplished in the music industry, why am I laying on somebody’s couch? You know, why, how am I in this situation? You know, am I really gonna allow some people that obviously that didn’t care about me or don’t know me, or am I really gonna allow them to put me in this corner for the rest of my life? And that’s essentially what I was doing. I was on timeout for six years, worried, scared about what people were saying about me, my people. And you know, as much as that hurt, I still care about my people. And I think Kokomo City wasn’t made for the LGBT community. I didn’t make a, a queer film.  

I made a Black film that features queer people and Black men and Black people, you know. And that was very important for me because when my last grandmother, uh, passed last year, I was invited to the funeral. But I was also warned, and my mom was also warned in the middle of her morning that if I, if I sang at the funeral, which I’m just like the family singer, you know, that’s just what it’s always been since I was a child, whether it’s a funeral or a wedding, I, I’m like, it’s automatic I’m gonna sing whether I want to or not. So, at my grandmother’s funeral, obviously, I expected to sing. She was a huge fan, loved me, and supported everything. And I was warned by my uncle that if I sing that he wasn’t gonna do the eulogy, he wasn’t gonna preach. I was so hurt and I was so close to not showing up.  

But that is one reason out of a thousand why I did Kokomo City, never thought in a million years that-that would happen to me. But the same thing that happened in the music industry, I took my position in who I was for granted. I thought because I’m a nice person or because I’m talented or I made labels a lot of money that they don’t care if I wear a dress. They just wanna get to the money. It wasn’t that they didn’t even wanna deal with me. So to know that someone in my family, you know, would say something like that, it, it was just very triggering.  

Imara: I mean, one of the things that strikes me about that story that you just told is in all the stories, is that these experiences with marginalization and marginalization within your own community, and those were the exact stories that you decided to tell through Kokomo City. 

D. Smith: There you go. 

Imara: People who are the most marginalized in their communities. 

D. Smith: Yeah. Subconsciously, I suppose I pulled from my experience that really encouraged me to do Kokomo City as well. I mean, I was pretty much blackballed from the music industry years ago because of my own people and then my own family. And I’m not the only one. I, I am not the only one that have been discriminated against. But it’s, it wasn’t to point fingers, it was just to talk about who we are as Black people from day one on this planet, who’s in charge of our thinking on, and our ability to grow as full, healthy minded humans. You know, that’s what Kokomo City is about, it’s not about sex. It’s, it’s about us as Black people. How do we love each other and support each other?

Imara: Did the response surprise you at all?  

D. Smith: To be honest, no. No. 

Imara: Tell me why. 

D. Smith: Even before I started Kokomo City, I was like, this, this is gonna be crazy. I didn’t, even if it’s on YouTube, I didn’t, I didn’t know where it was going, but it was gonna go somewhere, that’s for sure. And, you know, once I started showing people little clips and bits and pieces, just like texting people, and they were just like, yo, what is this? This is great. Even my straight friends like men, they were like, y’all, this is crazy. I mean, I saw it, but you know, your opinion doesn’t matter if everyone else doesn’t feel the same way like you. So all I knew is that people needed to see it. And I still feel that way. I, the billboards are great and da da da, these are great. But it may not happen overnight. I, I still think the machine is churning. I still think it’s going to be years when people are still finding out about Kokomo City, and that’s totally fine. That’s, that’s how it should be. It should be organic, and people should not feel like it’s being pushed down their throat. It should just be something that they hear about, stumble upon and, and just curious about. 

Imara: So have you now just gotten the filmmaking bug? Do you think that this is what you’re going to be doing for a while, just making films?  

D. Smith: Well, I actually, I don’t know. My friend has a farm and I’m kind of thinking about just, no, I’m just kidding. Of course, I’m…  

Imara: I was gonna be like, I was like, I was like, oh, this is really, I-I-I-I can’t wait to hear where this is going.  

D. Smith: No, I, of course, working on, uh, an an incredible project. I’m, I mean, I’m losing sleep about it. I’m super excited it, it’ll be announced sooner or later, but, um, you know, but I’m, I’m taking it slow and steady, um, and being realistic about what feels right and what is a priority to me. But I definitely have a clear vision of where I’m going.  

Imara: And that’s more films.  

D. Smith: Oh, nothing but films. Yeah. Documentaries and narratives.  

Imara: Feature films like…  

D. Smith: Feature films, full on. Oh yeah. Super excited. And of course, music, you know, find and work with some new talent, uh, and, and put them on and, and, uh, just work with people that are hungry about doing, you know, some different new cutting edge stuff. That’s where I’m on right now. I’m just, I just wanna bring people on and us create some magic.  

Imara: Well, thank you so much for your creativity and for taking us into the powerful journey that you had to arrive at a powerful film. And I know that we’re all incredibly excited to see what these future film projects and music projects and all the other things that you’re gonna create are going to be. Thank you so much for, for coming on. Really appreciate you.  

D. Smith: Thank you. You were amazing. Thank you guys so much.  

Imara: That was Director and Producer D. Smith. Thank you so much for joining me on the TransLash podcast. Now listen all the way through to the end of the show for something extra. Special thanks to Squid Inky Dink for giving us a five star review on Apple Podcast. Squid Inky Dink, how many times can I say that without laughing? Says, as a non-binary queer person raised conservative, I thank you for all of your work. I lost my parents and my community due to awakening my true identity, which continues to be nurtured through this amazing body of talented, bright, inspiring, beautiful people. I appreciate all of the joy here. Thank you so much squid Inky dink for those heartfelt remarks about our words and for an amazing handle. If you who are not squid inky dink want to help support our show, then please go ahead and leave your own five star rating on Apple Podcast it’ll help us combat the haters, and you might just hear it on the show. The TransLash podcast is produced by TransLash Media. The TransLash team includes Oliver-Ash Klein, and Aubrey Calloway. Xander Adams is our senior sound engineer and a contributing producer. Alex Guerra is our social media producer and digital strategy is handled by Daniela Capistrano. The music you heard was composed by Ben Draghi and also courtesy of CZK records. The TransLash Podcast is made possible by the support of foundations and listeners like you.  

This week, I’m really happy to be going to, uh, GLSEN Awards, which is unlike a lot of galas, we’ll focus on educators and lifting up educators who are fighting for and supporting trans youth across the country. And so this is always a thrill for me to engage with people who are out in the country day to day, doing the work of supporting trans people and trans kids without a lot of pats on the back and in hostile circumstances. So, meeting educators at a GLSEN Awards is what I’m looking forward to. 

[outro music]


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TransLash tells trans stories to save trans lives. As a trusted source for journalists, thought-leaders, movement activists, researchers, and those wanting to know about trans people, we produce narratives about and for the trans community—accurately and reliably. At a time when disinformation about trans people is being used to undermine democracy and human rights, TransLash Media serves as a beacon of hope through the voices that we share with the world.



TransLash tells trans stories to save trans lives. As a trusted source for journalists, thought-leaders, movement activists, researchers, and those wanting to know about trans people, we produce narratives about and for the trans community—accurately and reliably. At a time when disinformation about trans people is being used to undermine democracy and human rights, TransLash Media serves as a beacon of hope through the voices that we share with the world.


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