Interview with Shala Japonka, Rocky Nti, Zackary Momoh and Kirsty Trindade from Artist Collective.
Shala Japonka is a multi-disciplined artist most notable as the lead female dancer in Jax Jones’ Breathe music video. She has worked alongside artists such as Dua Lipa, Pharrell Williams, Take That, Sean Paul and many more. She has also worked on screen as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s co-star in a Super Bowl 50 commercial and is one of the lead dancers in the newly released film, Rocketman.
Rocky Nti is an alternative pop/RnB recording artist and his next project with producers Stikmatik (Mad Teeth) and Jon Mills (G Eazy, Khalid) is in the works. He just stepped into a new role within the Performing Arts at Hillsong where he will be focusing on building a community amongst artists and helping them to develop their talents both within and beyond the church.
Kirsty Trindade leads the Hillsong performing arts team and puts on productions such as Hillsong London Carols and King of Heaven. She’s worked with One Direction, Demi Lovato, Leona Lewis, Neil Diamond and live shows such as X-Factor, The Voice, The Royal Variety Show, Nickelodeon Teen Choice Awards and the European MTV Music Video Awards.
Zackary Momoh is a dynamic actor who has graced both the stage and the screen. His most notable role to date is that of Seth Butler in the award-winning Netflix series, Seven Seconds, starring Regina King. This year he acts alongside Ewan McGregor in Stephen Kings’, Doctor Sleep, and stars in the upcoming biopic of Harriet Tubman, Harriet
You play a key part in running and co-ordinating Artist Collective. How would you describe what the collective is and who it’s for?
Kirsty— Artist Collective is for anyone who works within the Art and Entertainment industry – that’s anyone who considers themselves a musician, singer, dancer, actor, writer, producer, manager, director, sound engineer, casting agent, choreographer, stage manager or any other role – if you’re in that industry, it’s for you! Our goal is to create an environment where these artists can build community, showcase their art and converse around relevant topics: from creativity to purpose, responsibility to failure and more. We want to equip them to go back into their respective industries encouraged, stronger and more influential.
What makes Artist Collective so unique in comparison with the other collectives we have at Hillsong?
Kirsty— Well it’s particularly for artists who are usually very much in the public eye. The unique thing about this world is that often what they do, becomes who they are. Artist Collective is a safe space where they can come to be known as who they really are, not just what they do or who the public sees them as.
What does the collective look like practically and how would you describe an Artist Collective night?
Kirsty— We gather four times a year at Concrete Space in Shoreditch for a chilled night with a DJ, food, drinks and we just spend time cultivating relationships and conversation with each other. We’ll always have a showcase of some sort from someone within the community. One of our guys, Rayon Nelson, just released an EP so he’ll share a few songs from that, as well as McKnasty, who will be giving us a taste of Fireball Sessions – a monthly music night he curates at PopBrixton. So, it’s really a vibe! Then we have what we call “The Conversation”. It’s a chat between someone from our team and four industry professionals and it’s always around something that’s applicable to anyone who considers themselves an artist.
Can you tell us how Artist Collective is positively impacting the performing arts industry?
Rocky— As a creative, you’re constantly ‘lone-wolfing’ it, so it can get very lonely when you’re trying to push boundaries and jump hurdles – especially in a city like London. Artist Collective is like a retreat for us – it’s a place where we can rest and rest together. Creatives often have to fight for a place in the industry so when we come together, we’re a room full of fighters who can collectively encourage and empower one another to get back to their respective fights stronger than before. There’s always more people in the fight than we know and that’s so comforting. This kind of community is something that the world around us is in desperate need of.
Zackary— When we, as a collective, share our own individual truths it’s really powerful because we realise that we’re in this together. To know we’re not alone gives a profound sense of peace. We have a community that is alongside one another every step of the way.
Could you expand on how that has impacted your personal journey/career?
Zackary— The first time I was at Artist Collective, I was on the panel. I usually have a very small circle of people who I share personal struggles with, but being on the panel positioned me to share with a wider group of people. To see how what I said impacted them, did a lot for me. It made me realise that no matter what I go through, it’s never wasted – it’s always a learning moment and Artist Collective reaffirmed that for me.
Rocky— For me, it made me value my experiences a lot more because I realised that we can extract joy and wisdom from any form of suffering. I think that everyone is carrying around gold that we confuse as dirt and when we share our experiences with one another, we realise the immense value in what we’re carrying. It reminds us of the pursuit that God has put in our hearts to be artists. We’re all carrying gold. We just don’t know it.
We know that performing arts industry is one of the most competitive out there – how do you manage to cultivate a healthy competitiveness? One that doesn’t lend itself to the ‘dog-eat-dog’ mentality.
Shala— First things first – you have to support the person next to you; however, my motto is that if you don’t strive for excellence, there’s no point. If I’m competing, I’m not going to be all fluffy – it’s a competition. Sometimes people think that’s wrong, but in a battlefield, you need a battle mentality. Nevertheless, it’s key that when you finish a battle, you go back to being a human again. And when you’re watching other people in the battle, are you going to tear them down or cheer them on? In the ring, you can intimidate people, but out of it you need to support them 100%. Once I was auditioning for the Spice Girls and we had to freestyle it. A lot of people don’t like freestyling, because they don’t know what to do, whereas I love freestyling and the choreographers knew that, so they thought it would be funny to challenge me by playing Swan Lake (a piece of classical music, most commonly used in ballet). So, I decided to do Hip Hop to it. I was in my battle mentality, but when the 60 or so other dancers were doing their auditions, I was at the front cheering them on. A lot of people noticed and were inspired. Humility is such an important part of this world. You have to know which hat to put on at which moment. You have to have both a competitive edge and a humble spirit.
How would you encourage fellow artists who are trying to establish their careers in a city like London that is so competitive and fast-paced?
Zackary— Live! Don’t make what you do your ‘be-all and endall’. Sometimes we can get so soaked up by what we do, that what we do is all we do. The more I’ve experienced life fully and shifted my thoughts away from what I do and where I want to be, the more I’ve been able to create and incorporate those experiences into my art. It’s easy to live, breathe, sleep and talk what you do, but don’t become so enveloped in your job that you forget there’s a world out there. Don’t be afraid to break your own rules – there’s no one way to ‘make it’. Feel free to be unapologetically yourself and part of that is discovering who you really are. And have faith. You have to believe that there is a reason for whatever desires are in your heart and then go after those whole-heartedly without worrying too much about the destination.
Rocky— Creatives can often focus on the being, not the doing – for example you may want to be a dancer but you don’t want to do the training or the practice. A lot of people want to be artists so that they can be famous, but they forget the artistry of the craft behind it. Start with the doing and trust that the Holy Spirit will lead you from that. Even personally, I’ve focused solely on being the artist, but now I focus on creating the art. Rather than limiting yourself to the destination of fame, prioritise the craft and it’ll lead you to places you never knew you could go. If you only ever focus on the framework of being an artist, you’ll never fully embrace the art.
What are some of the ways in which you keep yourselves ‘grounded’ in an industry that essentially puts you on a pedestal?
Zackary— One thing I’ve done from the beginning of my career is make sure I don’t get sucked into social media and the pitfalls of it. I had everything – Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Black Planet – but the more I took my craft seriously, the more I found my purpose and my passion and the less it became about keeping up on social media. When you start looking at and comparing yourself to others on these platforms, you find yourself trying to create a fake version of yourself. I went off social media for about eight years, and when I came back, I made sure I knew who I was and that whatever I was putting up on it wasn’t for likes but that it was an expression of me and an expression of gratitude. You can get carried away, so you need to make sure your art comes before commerce.
Shala— For me, it’s making sure you’ve got someone you can trust, who will shut you down when your ego gets in the way. It’s easy to get a kick out of fame, so you need people who will call you out with love. It’s so easy to get arrogant, especially when you’re touring with big artists, making loads of money and living a luxurious life with all the big parties and fans. It’s easy to get caught up with fame but you need to have people who will lovingly step in and bring you back down to earth.
What are some of the best things that you’ve seen stem from the Artist Collective?
Kirsty— It tapped into something that was needed and had not yet been done. It created a space for like-minded people to gather and go away feeling encouraged, knowing that there are others like them and that they’re on the right track. There’s a sense of common ground and the connections between people become so strong. It’s so easy for this community to live on the fringe of church because of the nature of their careers – they’re often on tour or on set or in a show, making it easy to get left out. When you’re living that life it’s difficult to build deeper relationships within church because you can’t attend a weekly group or be there every Sunday. But this has become a really good space where we can build a real sense of community and where we facilitate the right environment for those authentic and essential relationships to be made. We recognised the huge need and we just wanted to get it right. It started with a lot of experimenting and through that, it’s become a lot clearer and we have a strong foundation beneath it.
Zackary— It’s a ‘watch this space’ type of thing. We get feedback from people sharing how they’ve been encouraged or how the collective has planted seeds within them that have reignited their drive and given them the push they needed to keep going. Right now we’re just beginning to see what people are going away with, but I think we’re going to come back and see amazing ‘fruit’ from those initial seeds. We’re going to see the growth of people alongside the growth of this collective.
Dancers can push themselves to the extremes physically, when you’re absolutely exhausted, how do you push through?
Shala— It depends on how I’m feeling and what kind of mood I’m in. If I’m feeling good then I can usually ask myself, “Who am I doing this for?” Then I can serve as though I am serving unto the Lord and I’m able to push through. But, if I’m in a bad mood, I don’t think like that. I feel horrible, but I remind myself that there’s forgiveness and mercy and that I don’t need to beat myself up. Sometimes listening to worship helps, because I know that when I give unto the Lord, He gives me something back and there’s a joy I can’t explain and can’t compare to anything else. If I’m in my room I’ll put on music and go nuts and worship Him like crazy!
The world of TV encapsulates its fair share of opportunities and obstacles. What would you say is the best and worst thing about the TV industry?
Zackary— A major con is the ideals it imposes on people to be a certain way in order to be successful. It’s a very prevalent thing in the industry: it’s difficult to get in unless you change yourself to be what the ‘gatekeepers’ of it want. There’s also a constant striving for the latest trend, but as soon as that trend changes, they’re left behind. Ironically, because it’s a creative industry, one of the pros is that we have full licence to be unapologetically ourselves. So, despite the pitfalls of trying to change yourself, authenticity eventually garners success. However, the question lies in how we achieve it. As artists, we’re also capable of emitting healing and Christ-likeness – not necessarily by evoking the Word of God but just by being like Jesus. When people watch something that makes them experience certain emotions, we’ve successfully affected them. That in itself is powerful – it’s eliciting some sort of internal change. It’s difficult to see ourselves in our day-to-day because we’re kind of just muddling through life, but when we recognise part of ourselves on screen, there’s a connection to something deep within. It can be beautiful for people both inside and outside the industry.
As someone who is familiar with being in the limelight in the secular world, how do you best maintain humility when doing the same things in a church environment? Have you ever struggled with that shift?
Rocky— I believe that Christ is in everything – I just think of John 1 where it talks about how in the beginning there was the Word and the Word was with God, so I see the universe as a product of God and creativity is a stream of that. I don’t see it compartmentalised as ‘inside church’ and ‘outside church’. I can still go to a gig and have a near-religious experience without a single mention of Jesus. So for me, I’ve made it my mission to break down that divide. There is a lot of tension in both communities as to what should be championed, but I just think, if I’m a vessel that God inhabits, the more Christ-like I become and the more Christ-like my art will look – irrespective of whether or not it says Jesus’ name. I think a lot of Christians feel like they can’t express their creativity if God is not mentioned, visualised or promoted. A lot of creatives leave the church because they’ll do things like sing songs about love or heartbreak and then think that they can’t go to church on a Sunday because of it. That’s crazy because that’s also their ministry – our crafts are ministry too. These tensions have existed for thousands of years, so it’ll take a long time to break them down. But our goal as creators and Christians is to break down those walls so that we can make people see that God is everywhere and in everything. So I think there is tension, but I’ve navigated that tension all my life and I’m so up for fighting against it. A lot of creators don’t see their crafts as biblical, but I see the Bible as people wrestling with the same things we sing, write and talk about today. Whatever your art looks like is a continuation of that wrestle. Keep wrestling and don’t feel like you have to wrestle in a confined space – you’re not going to get truth from that.
What would you say to an artist looking to join the Collective?
Kirsty— Put the date in and just come! And through that, you’ll meet other like-minded people who are going through the same types of situations you are. We hope that you’ll leave a bit better, a bit stronger and more ready for whatever is next in your journey.
Looking ahead now, how do you think it will evolve over the next couple of years?
Kirsty— We’re empowering the next generation. It’s so important that it doesn’t end with us. The future is coming through and I feel like we are getting stronger and more able to set the next generation up as leaders and a real force to be reckoned with. We’ve even been talking about doing a festival for young people who are emerging artists in the music industry and this would give them a platform to showcase both their art and talents!
Rocky— The scope is massive. There is so much we can do – we’re talking about doing film premieres, writing groups, festivals, showcases: who knows what could happen!
We host various Collectives across our Hillsong, each in a different sphere of influence, which serve to connect, inspire and empower people who share the same passion and interests. To find out more about the different collectives and how to get involved, head to hillsong.co.uk/collectives