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D. Smith on her new documentary 'Kokomo City' that follows four trans sex workers


In the new documentary titled "Kokomo City," D. Smith brings us an unrelenting view into the lives of four Black trans sex workers - like Daniella Carter, who talks about the men she's met.


DANIELLA CARTER: In no way are they there to protect us. They're there to exploit us, to fantasize us. And so whatever we face as a reality, once we leave that experience that benefited them, they don't give a [expletive]. But so many of us are caught up telling each other like, oh, girl, don't worry about getting a job. Oh, girl, don't pursue your real dream. But they don't tell her how easy it is when you lose a sense of yourself, when the only thing you know of value to yourself is what a man put on you.

RASCOE: And there's much more in "Kokomo City" - love, rejection and wisdom as people work to live as their most authentic selves. Director and producer D. Smith joins us now from New York. Welcome to the program.

D SMITH: Thank you so much for that intro. That was wonderful.

RASCOE: Can you start off by explaining the title of this film?

SMITH: I wanted to come up with a name that didn't necessarily play off anything LGBT or queer or trans - like, you know, "Transaction" or - you know.

RASCOE: OK, yeah.

SMITH: I really wanted something that was going to be singular. And so I was actually looking for copyright-free music from, like, the '30s and the '40s with, you know, Black soul artists like Muddy Waters and Lead Belly. And I came across this song called "Sissy Man Blues." And in the song, one of the lines says, Lord, if you can't bring me some woman, please bring me some sissy man. And I'm thinking, wow, here's a Black man in the 1930s. His name was Kokomo Arnold. And I thought - I loved that if it was "Kokomo City," and I thought it was just a great backstory, but also the name was just perfect.

RASCOE: How did you come to meet the women you profiled in "Kokomo City" - you know, these women who are working as sex workers and are trying to, you know, figure out their life, figure out what they're going to do next?

SMITH: Initially, I found the girls online on Instagram. I went to some of the celebrity trans women and went to their comments and found the girls that way. The girls represent different spaces of the spectrum, and I think that's a great start, you know, for us as a community to just all of us be represented, not just the girls that are in shows or movies, you know. We have to make sure we grab everybody as we're moving forward.

RASCOE: This film - it looks at not only the struggles that Black trans women, you know, face from society writ large, but discrimination from Black people themselves - not just, you know, Black men, but some Black cis women who don't accept them. And as you may have seen on social media, there's a lot of discussion about a Black comedian who's talking about trans women. And there's a lot of arguments about womanhood and periods and all of this and that and the third. What do you make of that conversation?

SMITH: My truthful opinion is that all of these women that are involved are hurt. They're upset. They're misunderstood. They feel unheard, and rightfully so, on both sides. This tension that we're feeling and seeing on social media - I'm glad that it's happened. I hate that it's happened this way, but it needed to because we're tiptoeing around what needs to be discussed.

Listen, a lot of people are going to be hurt. A lot of people are going to be offended. A lot of people are going to be discouraged. But we have to face this. We have to do this as a community. Especially after doing "Kokomo City" - this is part of the reason why I wanted to do "Kokomo City," so that we could talk for us, about us, to us. That's what's so important. We're missing that.

RASCOE: You wore a lot of hats for this film. One of them is that you filmed a lot of this yourself. Like, why was that important to you?

SMITH: Yeah, I did the cinematography. I directed and edited. I actually edited it on iMovie, which is crazy now that I think about it. But listen, when I did this, I didn't have any money. I was sleeping on couches. I was going from couch to couch. I couldn't get it together, couldn't get back on my feet, you know, after being ostracized out of the music industry. I really was just lost on how to get it back together.

But I think working with anyone at that time would have really distracted me. It would have slowed me down. If one of the girls said, hey, I'm actually free today, could you come? I don't want to, you know, have to call a director or someone to see if their schedule's free. You know, it's just - it felt so liberating, and I was so empowered to just go, go, go, go, go, go.

And when I wasn't filming girls, I was filming B-roll. I was, you know, coming up with other scenes, you know. So it was a non-stop experience for me. And I'm actually very grateful it happened that way.

RASCOE: You mentioned that you were in the music industry. So you've produced music for people like Kendrick Lamar, Lil Wayne, Ciara, but then you transitioned. What happened?

SMITH: You know, I had songs in the pipeline. That means, like, the labels are about to purchase a song, and the artist has already sang it, and I'm going to get paid, and the song is going to be released. I was always invited to obviously industry parties, and I always had people at my studio. So when I decided to transition, all of those relationships and all those connections and colleagues - they just went away.

And for so long I was in denial. And I just - it was in disbelief that me just being transgender was going to completely turn people off. I thought maybe they'll be shocked and, you know, maybe a head shake here or, you know, like, wow, OK, well, you know, D. is just being an artist, you know, or whatnot. Now I'm starting to, like, really let trans women know that, you know, it was tough. And you have to prepare to kind of walk the walk alone. You can't just expect people to turn off and turn on this emotional faucet whenever you feel like it and how you think they should. Like, it was a big, big deal for people to really comprehend why I did that and how to work with me, how to communicate with me.

But it was very hurtful. I had mostly Black people around me that was - you know, it was like, the music industry, and then there's the Black music industry. Those are the two music industries. And some of my people that came to my studio was Andre 3000, like, just to hang out - like, Lloyd - or sitting with people that - just trying to just make the world a better place, you know? And there's no drama. I'm used to that. I miss that.

RASCOE: Have any of the people from the music industry reached out to you since you started on this new journey and making the documentary?

SMITH: (Laughter) Yes. But ironically, I don't need them. You know, any music that I'm doing is going to be for any film that I'm doing in the future, and that is fulfilling me as a producer. I don't need to chase any artist like I used to eat, you know, and to use my last bit of gas to get to the studio to produce a song that they might not even use on the album. Those days for me are over. But I will always want to make music. I always want to do music. I am open to working with people, but you know, I'm just positioned differently, which I'm very grateful for.

RASCOE: What do you hope that people take with them from this documentary?

SMITH: I want them to know that trans women are just as human as you are. We cry. We laugh. We love a good kiki. We love a good, you know, conversation. And we just really just want to be supported. We just want to be recognized. We want to be recognized as humans. Not - to me, not praised, not praised more than everyone else - I don't need that. I just want what everyone else has.

RASCOE: D. Smith's new documentary, "Kokomo City," is in theaters now. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.