D. Smith’s captivating documentary Kokomo City arrives in select theaters today.
Kokomo City tells a riveting story about the experience of transgender sex workers in their own words. Global Grind’s Sr. Content Director Janeé Bolden spoke with D.Smith about the creative process behind her critically acclaimed project, her partner, former B5 member Dustin Michael’s public proclamation of their love and the tragic death of one of the film’s stars Koko Da Doll.
Check out their Q&A below:
Talk to me about your decision to make the film in black and white:
D.Smith: I knew it was going to be black and white before I even came up with the title. I wanted to do something creative in filmmaking that felt artsy. I wanted something that felt independent and raw but I also wanted to use something that was really contemporary and that’s us — trans women so I thought that dichotomy, that juxtaposition, could be a really cute style.
How long did you know you wanted to make this film?
Maybe like six months. I couldn’t shake it. It was just haunting me to do. Just to create a new take on the narrative of transgenderism, in a creative way that felt enjoyable or provocative and fun and edgy. I wanted to do something like that.
Is it true you got the idea to do Kokomo City because you were blackballed from the music industry because you were transgender:
I’ve been doing music for about 15 plus years. It takes a lot to maintain yourself financially doing something creatively. I finally got to a place where I was able to purchase my own studio and my own place to live and had a really nice car. I worked very hard. I started out as a subway singer in New York. I never had it easy also I’m a really hard worker.
D.Smith Reveals She Was Abandoned By Music Industry Friends After Transitioning
The thing is that when I started to transition in 2014, all of those opportunities and relationships and contacts just slowly just but surely and steadily cut off and people stopped returning my phone calls. People stopped inviting me to the industry parties, people stopped coming to the studio. I mean people that were close to me. It also had me to go homeless, for years. I mean Grammy plaques, songwriting plaques, everything out on the street. Car repossessed. I was in denial. I think that’s kind of why I got into that situation too. I didn’t think I was being discriminated against. I had great relationships. I’ve always stayed out of trouble, but me being transitioned, me being transgender, really did a number on people and they couldn’t deal with it. They didn’t know how to deal with it. Long story short, I eventually moved back to New York and I was sleeping on floors and in cars and sh** like that.
I came up with the idea to do ‘Kokomo City’ and I had asked someone that I was staying with if he would purchase me this camera and lens after showing them my work on my camera and he did. I started doing my due diligence because before that, I was looking for directors to do it. Everyone basically said no or didn’t respond. A lot of people left me on read. It’s so crazy because I was looking at a text message that I sent to a director expressing how big I thought this could be and how dope. My words were with exclamations ‘It could be dope!!!’ But you know I never — I thought it could be big in an independent way — I never imagined it going to Sundance or being in a theater. So yeah that was the evolution of how I got to ‘Kokomo City.’
One of my favorite things about the film was the music — I actually unsuccessfully tried using Shazam to find this one song I loved so much, it sounded kind of like Lil Uzi Vert, where the artist is saying ‘She said she’s trans, I didn’t believe her but she proved me wrong…’
God girl I wish I was recording you when you said that so I could send it to my boyfriend. That was me on that version but that’s my boyfriend’s song and and everybody loved that song. He’s releasing it in a couple of weeks actually.
D. Smith Is Dating B5 Singer Dustin Michael, They’ve Known Each Other For A Decade
Speaking of your boyfriend Dustin Michael, he made headlines in May when he went public with your relationship. Was the announcement a surprise to you?
It was a surprise by way of him saying he wanted to do it, but I knew that he was doing it. I actually filmed him doing it. It’s so crazy because we were in Copenhagen and he randomly mass texted his family, all of his brothers, his mom, his dad, everyone was on this text message and he sent a picture of me and I think hearts on it. He said something that made it very obvious that we were together. It was just hilarious, he’s crazy like that.
I’ve known him since 2014 and to see the growth — he wasn’t ready for this then. He was ready for me but not this, not to claim and proclaim what this was. It took me some time but I had to learn that you have to be mature about this and allow men to process this on their own. You can’t force them into being your boyfriend alright, because you’re gonna be in a lot of hurt. It’s not realistic. We’ve known each other for almost 10 years now. There’s a lot of history. We’ve been through a lot and we have so much in common. We can’t stay away from each other. Him doing that, it was mind blowing for me. I was so proud of him as I was filming him, listening to him speak with so much authority and conviction. So sexy.
No matter what you look like, a man that exudes that type of confidence, I’m sorry I don’t care what he looks like, that’s fine to me. So to anyone, not even just trans people, you have to give people time and if it is really truly that you know to be, it will happen. But yeah I’m just super proud of him. So proud of him.
Was it difficult finding men who were willing to go on camera for Kokomo City?
It wasn’t hard at all. A couple of them actually approached me about being in the film. They’re all my friends I have known in the music industry, or gang members or something. I have an array of friends. I have basketball player friends, I have rapper friends, famous or not. That’s the thing about. I have great people in my life. I get along with a lot of people. People you will lose out on opportunity and lose out on a friendship if you close your heart, or your mind because of what other people think. There’s a lot of things that wouldn’t have happened if someone wasn’t cool enough to or confident enough to work with me or talk with me. So you know it was very natural for these guys to come in, but that’s what I see in my life. Men are very comfortable around me. It’s not always about hiding or showing up at night. That’s not all of our stories
D.Smith Mourns Death Of ‘Kokomo City’ Star Koko Da Doll
Your documentary features Koko Da Doll, who was murdered in Atlanta in April. It’s such a tragedy and we know it’s not an anomaly. I was getting chills watching the film and watching Koko talk about losing friends to sexual violence and to know that she died the way that she did I know it has had to have impacted you greatly. I wanted to ask about her as a person, what was it like knowing her and having her in the film?
I told her someone earlier that I’ve lost family members, you know real family members and I didn’t cry as hard as I cry for Koko. I didn’t know Koko before the film but it literally wore me out and physically drained me from crying. I couldn’t stop.
I’m sorry to get so deep but there’s something very spiritual about the whole story of meeting her and her being involved in this film. I didn’t know her. My friend introduced me to her and said I probably should talk to her and before a minute was over in the conversation of talking to her she was crying hard on the phone about how badly she would want to be a part of this and how grateful she was that I even called her to offer an opportunity. She just wanted to share her story so badly.
As a human to give another human that opportunity, it filled me to do that and it filled her so much. It’s just like divine, no matter what was going to happen that was her destiny. We don’t know how we’re going to go but the beautiful thing about all of this is that I was able to capture her, her true divine femininity and her transgenderism at its finest and in the most organic way and she was extremely happy seeing herself on the screen at Sundance and I will never forget those images of seeing her.
I don’t want trans women to feel that I’m judging them for doing sex work. I actually understand why they’re doing it now and I support it, but I just want I want other options for trans women, young trans women, to not feel that this is their only option. So that being said Koko’s life will play a big part in the trajectory of sex workers and trans women.
I also wanted to commend you on casting Daniella Carter, she really broke down the experience of transgender women like a sociologist:
She’s a star, that’s what she is. You don’t get a lot of that. You don’t walk around and bump into a star like that but she’s brilliant and I hope, I’m sure she’s aware of her gift. I just hope that she becomes aligned with more opportunity that allows her to continue to school and teach us.
Watch the trailer for Kokomo City here:
Kokomo City arrives in select theaters today, July 28, and becomes available on Video on Demand on August 15th.
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