MALIK Nashad Sharpe, who was raised in America and now lives in London, performs dance under the name Marikiscrycrycry. His routines explore the experience of being black and queer against “our current political moment” and his new show, $elfie$, focuses on the US gun crisis and nationalism. He tells EDWIN GILSON about growing up with violence and challenging prejudice through dance

Is your treatment of politics in the show explicit or more subtle?

There are moments that people find quite overt but I think there are also elements that are less obvious. So it’s a bit of both. For example there’s a picture of my brother, who is black. At the same time, I’m holding an American flag. I don’t necessarily disclose the politics of that moment, but it’s definitely there.

Why is your brother included in the show?

I wanted to bring in a conversation about the fact that he’s in jail. There is this theme of nationalism in the piece and I wanted to talk about how black people in the United States are always really close to the bad things that are happening. My brother obviously shouldn’t be in jail; he’s not even 17 years old yet. And here I am, making work in Britain.

How long has he been in jail?

It’s the second time he’s been in jail, and it’s been a while this time around. It’s for petty things, and I always think if he wasn’t black he wouldn’t be in jail. I know that for a fact.

How so?

I grew up in a suburb in New York City with friends from all backgrounds. A lot of my friends were white and the things they would get up to...they were doing things that were bad. They would never get in trouble, though. I was there but because I was in the company of those people I didn’t get in trouble like my brother has. If you are with the wrong people you’re going to get reprimanded.

How do you cope with the sense of injustice you have about your brother?

It’s very difficult. The way I deal with it is to make new worlds in my work. In the act of making the dance, I feel like I suggest a new future and how we can look forward.

How do you go about imagining future worlds through dance?

Dance is really powerful – it can talk about politics in ways we can’t using language. I’m not trying to be dogmatic. I just say, “here’s a picture of my brother, here’s the American flag”. It might not make sense in the moment, but you look back and think, “woah, that’s a weird thing”.

I also talk about gun violence in my work. That’s one of the things we just refuse to speak about in the US. There’s a moment in the work when there is violence displayed in a matter-of-fact way for a really long time. For me, that’s replicating a feeling that I’ve had watching violence just go on and on and on. It doesn’t change or transform, it just continues.

There is obviously a gap between the imagined better universe of your work and how things really are. Does that get you down?

Oh yes. That’s why I’m a bit of a workaholic. After the premiere of my new show I felt so lost, down and defeated. Dance can do many things but I’m not saying it can change the world. It’s not going to get my brother out of jail or change the minds of people in the US who think the criminal justice system has to be extra hard on black people.

How do you come to terms with the realisation that dance can’t change these issues?

I keep making dance with the fervour that I hope it will do something. I didn’t grow up in an artistic household at all. My parents were immigrants to the US and they worked in blue-collar jobs. When I saw my first dance piece it changed my live. In that moment, I wondered if dance could change people’s lives.

You studied dance at university. What did your parents think about your new found passion?

I was always a weird, alternative kid so I don’t think it surprised them. They understand it now that people find my work interesting enough to pay me to do it. When I first started, they didn’t understand how it would make me a living. They didn’t want me to go hungry.

Did it take a while before you could make a living from it?

It takes so long and a lot of practice, because the things you first make might not be that good. Eventually people will notice and say, “wow”. I’ve been researching black and queer aesthetics against our political moment for years now. It was way before Trump.

Do people assume your work has come off the back of Trump’s victory, then?

Yeah. Some of it has come from that but the whole process of making choreography in this way started way before Trump and Brexit. It just makes it more relevant now.

What are the differences you’ve found between living in London and the US?

I don’t want to sound like a patriot but I have such a soft spot for England. People don’t assume I’m an immigrant because I’m American, but I’m trying to build a life here. Something about my life in the US was not working. Here in London is the first time I can live my life as an artist. I want to live a life that can be full of love and not a struggle. Mostly, people treat me like a human being here.

Why did you feel like you couldn’t keep living in America?

I’m married to an English man and we had a choice. But I wanted to get out of the US. The violence in America is unbelievable. It’s everywhere; it’s constant and it’s random. People want to downplay police brutality but I’ve seen it with my own two eyes. And that wasn’t even covered on the news.

Do you ever worry that you’re preaching to the converted with your performances? Is it not important to reach people who might not agree with what you have to say?

That’s a constant struggle for a lot of artists. But I once performed my work in Zagreb in Croatia and there were no black people there. After the show I got the biggest standing ovation of my career from people who know nothing about what it means to be black.

Malik Nashad Sharpe: $elfie$, The Marlborough Theatre, Brighton, November 25, for tickets and more information visit