Welcome to our series BRN GRL WIN. Every Friday, we introduce you to movers and shakers who are KILLING the game. These are women of color we admire and are inspired by, and we want you to be too! (If you know someone who would be great for BRN GRL WIN, let us know!)
NIA & NESS
Dancer-poet performance duo
When BRN GRL SPK first invited Nia & Ness to be featured performers at our open mic in June, we weren't sure what to expect. We'd seen some of their work online, but nothing could have prepared us for how powerful it is in person. If you've ever wondered if dance and poetry can work together, we promise you it can, and it's amazing.
The duo, who are also in a relationship, met in 2013 but it wasn't until they'd performed together a few times that they decided to fully pursue their art. Since 2016, they've performed on stages across the country, been recognized as one of the Top 5 Artists of 2016 by THE CREATORS COLLECTIVE, and were crowned the 2017 winners of the Emerging Artist Contest at the National Women's Music Festival.
Through their art, they try to explore their realities as black, lesbian women, something that hit home especially hard earlier this week when they were verbally assaulted on the NYC subway Sunday morning. Thankfully, neither of them were harmed but their experience only highlights the dangers that exist for the LGBTQ community, especially people of color.
We spoke about how they're doing after the incident, the importance of their work, and what they hope to do next. Scroll down to read our conversation with Nia & Ness.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How would you describe yourself and what you do?
Nia: We are two black lesbian women who are also in a relationship and who are out here spreading our truth and spreading our story. One of the reasons why we started doing this is because our stories weren’t being told. We weren’t seeing ourselves reflected anywhere: in performances, on TV, on the computer. We just couldn’t see ourselves and we needed to start seeing ourselves.
Ness: For example, with the incident that happened over the weekend, I’ve been looking for different articles of similar instances. There was an incident in Dallas, an incident on the Q train over the summer, and another in Greenwich Village in 2006. In all of them, the media painted these incidences like we did something wrong or like the man is the victim. That’s not the whole story. That’s not our fault. We need to push that narrative: the one where we were assaulted and didn’t do anything wrong.
Let’s talk about what happened Sunday. I was heartbroken when I logged on to Instagram and saw your post. I'm so sorry you experienced that. How do you even begin to process it all?
Nia: [We were on the subway.] I was asleep on Ness’ shoulder and we were holding hands. I woke up to a black man in our face screaming that he wanted to shoot us and murder us. He kept going, basically blaming us for the demise of the Black Man, and saying how he would kill us right there if he could. This happened for about 15 to 20 minutes before he went away.
[Ness and I] checked in with each other and I said, “I love you” and she said, “I love you too.” That really set him off. He turned around and came back. During this time, I made eye contact with a white man and I knew he could see the fear in my eyes because I was terrified, but he didn’t do anything. There was a black woman sitting across from us and she didn’t do anything. There were people getting on and off the train and they didn’t do anything.
That made it worse: knowing that our lives didn’t matter. That, and also that he was a black man. The same man I’ve protested for and put my life on the line for. Seeing that and knowing that the Black Lives Matter movement was started by black, lesbian women, it cut really, really deep. Seeing someone with the same skin tone as you screaming all these vulgar things in your face? I mean, I was asleep on Ness’ shoulder, holding her hand, and woke up to this.
After we got off the train, we kept walking and walking and I just broke down into tears. We just held each other. I kept crying throughout the day. I keep crying and I probably will cry again today because I feel like I lost a part of myself.
What do you mean? Lost a part of yourself how?
Nia: [After the incident], people were telling us to take self-defense classes or go to therapy. So now I have to spend more time to recover from this? He needs therapy. Why do I have to do anything? I didn't do anything wrong.
I don't feel as happy as I used to feel anymore. I know one day I'll get that back, and I know I'll heal from this because I've healed from so many other things and black and brown women are resilient. I just don't know when.
Ness: A lot of people, when they commented on our post, they said, "If I was there, I would've stood up for you." And they probably would have. But if it was a black, lesbian couple you didn't know on the train, would you have done something? Regardless of race, gender, sex, or whatever, if another person were being assaulted on the train, would you help them?
One reason we don't like going out often is because of dealing with the commute. If we don't have money for a taxi, we have to deal with the emotional trauma of [the subway.] We want people to know this is happening in 2017 at 8:30 in the morning on a Sunday.
Nia: I just want people to know this is happening. I know we didn't do anything wrong. I know it isn't our fault. And I'm not going to stop holding Ness' hand.
You say your performances help you deal with the reality of your identities. What about in this case?
Ness: It's definitely healing. We had a performance that night and I felt like I got a lot off my chest and out of my body. Not everything, but I was definitely able to communicate some of my anger and sadness. It was very helpful and it fueled the performance because if we didn't go through these things, it wouldn't be as powerful. No one wants to go through that, but that's the good thing -- if you will -- that comes out of it.
How did you two come to be Nia & Ness?
Nia: We met online first and then the same day we met in person, that evening, Ness read a poem and I dance to it. We though, whoa, that was intense and cool, but then left it alone.
Ness was doing her masters at Temple University and she had to do a final project. She asked me to dance to it. We did it and it was great. Then a year into our relationship, we did a 7-minute piece about our first year together. Again, it was great but we left it alone. A year later, I had to do my senior thesis and I asked Ness to be in it and she rapped.
Fast forward to a year and a half ago, there was a call out for artists on Dance NYC. It was around the time I was doing a lot of dance auditions and nothing felt right. We created a piece called Blind Spot. It's the one we did for the BRN GRL SPK event and we though huh, maybe this could be a thing. I'd never felt so safe with my body as a dancer until I started working with Ness.
For awhile, I didn't want us to be called Nia & Ness (LAUGHS.) I don't know, it's weird. Our art is bigger than ourselves and it will always be bigger because we're doing it for people who feel different and don't feel like they have a community or home or are being represented. We want them to know we're fighting for ourselves and you as well.
Ness: I always wanted Nia & Ness. We had all these different names to choose from --
Nia: No, no, no. No one needs to hear them! (LAUGHS) Everyone kept saying [Nia & Ness] had a ring to it and everyone was right.
What kind of response do you usually get from people when they see you perform?
Ness: There was someone who recently challenged us to go further and that was hard for me to hear because I try to be perfect and make sure everything's on point. When I head it, I was like, what do you mean?
Nia: We've gotten a lot of cheers over the year and a half from people who look like us and experience similar things and people who are completely opposite of us who have never experienced the things we've been through. We've also moved people to tears. Seeing someone cry is insane.
The woman Ness is talking about is Nia Love, who is a legend in the dance community and she came to a show we did last Monday. She's basically our mentor for which I'm very excited about and honored. [She told me] I was carrying a lot with me and not getting over it until I was almost done performing. She suggested not trying to force it off, but allow the audience to help take it off. A good audience member wants to be there for the artist and I have to allow the audience to help me heal through that.
Where do you two hope to go from here? How do you want to grow?
Ness: We want to open up a studio for art therapy at some point. We're really focused on touring right now, reaching out to colleges, art galleries, studios. We want to go international because it would be great to get our message out abroad as well.
Nia: I want to continue standing in our truth and being honest and being vulnerable as we perform. I've seen us grow tremendously over the year and a half we've been doing this.
My dream is to perform at The Joyce Theater. I used to volunteer there because I couldn't afford to buy tickets, so it would be full circle to come back and perform there. That's how I'll know I made it and can die happy.
Ultimately, I just want our message to get out to as many people as possible. We want everyone to see it and to feel it and be affected by it in positive ways. We want to inspire other people to be vulnerable and share their own stories.
We also want art organizations to really reach out to black and brown artists, especially black and brown women because we don't get the opportunities other artists get. I want people to see us and I want to get paid for it. [Some organizations] use black and brown women because they'll sell tickets but they won't pay the artists, and that's not ok.
What does BRN GRL WIN mean to you?
Nia: I just envision black and brown women coming together, helping one another achieve their dreams, and doing the damn thing. We're absolutely fabulous and incredible and resilient. Seeing what black and brown women have had to go through and they're still alive? It's incredible.
Ness: When I was six, I ran a race and I didn't win even though I came very close. The reason I didn't win was because I was too busy trying to help the other kids find where to go and it wasn't until it was too late that I realized I was supposed to be running and took off. I was so upset and wondered what would have happened if I didn't help those other kids.
Winning is about perspective. The real winner of that race was me. I helped all these other people and inspired all these other people and was cheering them on. That's what we need to do for each other.