Flex Mami is quite literally the definition of a multi-hyphenated talent. You might know her as the Fairy Nut Mother you go to for the best vibrator recommendations. Or the gal behind your favourite deep chats podcast, Bobo and Flex. She’s the creator of the incredible and revealing ReFlex The Game, which encourages the kind of conversations you might normally only have at three am via the light of your phone screen. She’s a DJ, MTV presenter, social media force-to-be-reckoned-with and she picks the best Reddit AmITheAsshole threads to unpack in her Instagram stories.
Flex Mami, or Lillian Ahenkan if we’re using ~government names~, is so many things to so many people. As well as being endlessly intriguing to her 90 thousand-strong followers, she’s also looked to as a kind of unofficial advisor. Whether it’s plus size fashion brands, pronouns, masturbation or issues of privilege, when people on the internet have questions, you’re probably likely to find them in Flex Mami’s DMs. She’s built a platform that’s enabled so many taboo conversations to be aired out in public, but in the wake of the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement, that presents some issues.
Recently, she reeducated her followers on the importance of recognising all the unpaid emotional labour that people of colour are often tasked with online. “Within this time, particularly, I’ve had to kind of set boundaries and explain to people that there’s only so much a girl, a random 2D girl on the internet can teach you,” she explains. “You can also teach yourself.” Though it is great to see the new popularity of self-educating around racial injustice, Flex recognises the pitfalls of this being fueled and forged through social media. Digital activism has never had a moment quite like this, but performative allyship has also never been easier.
We caught up with Flex Mami to chat about how she’s been keeping her spirits up during isolation, the double-edged sword of becoming an authority online and how she deals with people and brands who aren’t showing up. If you still can’t get enough Flex Mami in your life, keep an eye out for her on MTV‘s four crispy-fresh new music channels.
How are you processing being something of an authority to people, especially as a Ghanian-Australian during the Black Lives Matter movement?
It’s a tricky thing. At the start, I made a concerted effort to cultivate a platform that was about two-way communication and breaking barriers and encouraging conversations that might not be able to happen elsewhere. And also giving people an open opportunity to ask their question or to start a conversation based on what they’re going through. I had to consider the other side of what that would look like, what happens when you’re not in a position to facilitate that conversation anymore? What happens when you’re still having the same conversation many years later?
What was happening to me is that I was becoming almost like the conduit to a lot of people’s additional learning about topics they could easily Google. And it really frustrated me, because if we’re talking about what it was like or what it is like to be a Ghanian-Australian during the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s a lot of really well-meaning people suddenly being illuminated to issues that they might not have seen before, which is awesome. But what happens is, every day I get an additional 50, 100, 120 people messaging me with their question, and their queries and they’re so genuine and they just want answers, but I’m also like, “if you really want to know, Google’s got you.”
While you can have this conversation from a place of just general curiosity, every one I have is emotionally tied. It can’t be one that’s completely logical or rational, and the stakes are so high that I’m like, “I can’t be this person for you.” The toll it takes isn’t worth the one conversation that needs to happen because as anybody knows, as any person of colour knows, you can’t convince somebody overnight. It takes conversations and conversations and justifications and rationale. It’s really difficult to be that person.
I do talk about performative activism a lot. And I always say, by definition, I think it’s a great tool when we are raising awareness about topics that are unknown to people. For example, when we were first learning about pronouns and people were trying to figure out who to show solidarity to, why is this important, it encourages a greater conversation. Because that was a new topic for most people and we all required a lot of education.
Racism, however, is as old as time. To be “raising awareness” about something that has been happening—and not even been happening, but has been so detrimental for so many groups of people—raising awareness implies that it wasn’t clear before. It honestly hurts to hear because what do people think that minorities and marginalised communities of any ethnicity or sexuality, were talking about? People weren’t just complaining because people were giving them side-eyes. There are systemic issues that really block people from living in an enriching lifestyle and to hear that suddenly, in 2020, thanks to a really horrific incident that we all saw suddenly everyone’s like, “I think I get it.”
Absolutely, and then it seems like influencers become figureheads people want to “verify” their anti-racism with.
And then it just becomes a game of pointing fingers to discover who’s been anti-racist first, who’s doing the right things, who’s doing what needs to be done to be seen as someone who’s virtuous. Which is all fine and dandy, we all get to where we need to go in a certain way. The topic is a lot closer to someone’s experience than other people, I totally understand.
Black Lives Matters has really spearheaded and skyrocketed such a nuanced conversation. We can’t just be talking about racism without intersectionality, without intergenerational trauma, without land titles, without reparations, without white supremacy without all of these things that are harder conversations to have. But I’ve noticed that they’ve been relegated behind what’s easy to digest. “Oh, let’s get mad at the influencer wearing braids, right? That’s racism.” We’ve got bigger issues, baby. People are dying. I can’t be harassing some well-meaning person for what they put in their hair when literally, we’ve got issues that need to be handled today.
Do you ever find yourself struggling to find that nuance on social media, especially when things seem to be about distilling things down for easy digestion?
I mean, thank goodness, I have a podcast because it’s the only format I have to speak at length about these issues and it’s been quite easy to lead people in that direction if they really want the information. I can say, “Well, I’ve already spoken about it. Tons of times. Listen to one of these. I’m sure you’ll find an answer that suits.” But yeah, I definitely think that people struggle with relaying a complex and nuanced message through the tool of Instagram, because we’re so conditioned in how to use it. It’s gotta be pretty, it’s gotta be accessible, not too many words blah, blah, blah.
But it comes to a point where you realise that your discomfort, or what you’ve been known to do is secondary to what needs to be done. You can break your little grid to share something that’s important. You can share a little link, even though you haven’t before, these are all things that you can start to do moving forward. I know that making changes and getting into having hard conversations is difficult. But if you can’t jump over the hump of posting a picture that’s going to ruin your grid, then I doubt you’ll do what’s necessary to end racism.
I understand why people feel really impassioned to call it out if someone’s not posting, or call out that brand, but if they’re not doing it, it says enough. Why don’t we just elevate by those who are trying, as opposed to those who just don’t want to at all? It’s like… you’ve got your answer.
Speaking of brands, how do you navigate issues of sustainability and inclusivity when it comes to your fashion work?
Within the industry, there are problems and then there are solutions, and I’m a solution based person. What makes me a little bit less naive than the average consumer who’s finding fashion and realising the clothes aren’t made for me or buying beauty and realising the skincare products aren’t for me, is that I’m more interested in focusing on what I can have access to, rather than what I don’t. It’s just not a priority to me, to force brands to see that the average body type needs to be represented. It’s not rocket science. If they don’t want to do it, then I can’t force it to happen.
Instead of feeling like I’ve got to pander to brands who make clothes that just fit me, or express extreme celebration when a brand is plus size, I encourage them to do better. If your clothes can fit me, you’re still not representative of the general body type. Progress can be made. It’s not hard and in a lot of areas, it’s just that people don’t want to do it. Coming to terms with that makes navigating a lot of industries easier because you become more aware and able to articulate what actually happening.
The reason why plus-sized bodies aren’t considered in fashion is that people don’t want plus-sized bodies to be regarded as something desirable or acceptable. The sooner you know that the sooner you can say, “Do I need to keep yelling at brands or do I need to get off my arse and go get something made, or go be sustainable?” You have options and sitting on the brand who has shown you in more ways than one that they’re not here for you, is probably not a productive use of your time.
Like with most things, I think brands will get there. Right now we’re in this weird stage where accountability is a lesson that’s being taught to everyone. Right now we’re having the race conversation and that’s really awesome and amazing. But I don’t think that people in positions of privilege realize that the conversation needs to happen for every group, you know: having the size conversation, and the colourism conversation and the social class conversation, these all need to happen. It’s just a matter of how they’re being prioritised right now.
That tactic sounds very self-protective, like it helps you protect your own energy?
I think the way it’s perceived is that, “but you’re in a position of influence surely you must get the best of everything.” No, if anything, I just bear the brunt of what I don’t get. Most plus size woman aren’t actually talking to the owners of a corporation and saying, “Hey, why haven’t you thought of me?” But I’m going to be in the rooms where it’s justified, “Well, no we can’t make clothing for people of your size, you get that right?” or, “We will hire minorities, but you get why we haven’t right?” And it’s like, no, please explain it to me in plain English.
With all of that educating you have to do, what self-care practices do you lean on? Have they had to change?
I’m starting at like a set point that’s a little bit higher than most people. Feeling like I have to assert myself, feeling confident, these are all quite innate things that I’ve done consistently. Perhaps if they weren’t innate, then it’s a muscle that I’ve just been using for years now. It doesn’t take as much out of me as I imagine it does for most people to have a hard conversation, or to educate or whatever it might be.
I think my threshold is a lot higher. Self care practice to me, in terms of how to manage my mental space when I’m having hard conversations, is to log off. There’s nothing you can do to bear the brunt of a world that’s kind of inherently nonsense. So I think for me, it’s less about what practices I do to heal myself afterwards, but more about how to acknowledge when I’m getting to the point where I need to stop. So healing is less difficult afterwards.
And for the longest time, I just think I used to be relentless. Every conversation needed to be had, everybody needs to be checked, everyone needs to be clarified, I needed to narrate, I needed to storytell. So it gets to the point where you’re like, “It can wait a day,” or, “you don’t even need to be this person!” Protect your spirit, protect yourself. It will be done, it just doesn’t have to be done by you, whenever everybody else wants it.
That’s also the other thing, in this social media age people are so used to urgency and getting a response as soon as they want it. I totally understand that this brand would love me to come in and give them a speech and diversity training, urgently, right now, but I don’t want to do that now. I’m mentally exhausted.
Right. It’s also urgent to look after your brain right now.
Exactly. During this time a lot of publications have been asking me to write articles on how to check your racial biases or racism in Australia. And I’m like, “No,” because these conversations aren’t easy to have. I think you want me to be the front face, to deliver it to an audience who is going to ridicule me, who’s going to make a mockery of me, and there will be no aftercare. These are all things that you’re setting me up for, like the worst of the worst. So in anticipation, let me just avoid that, mind my business, watch some TV and go to bed.
Or pay to get a Simpsons cartoon drawn of you.
My life’s motto is “big enjoyment.” It’s such an inherently West African phrase to use and I’ve never really thought about as an adult, but I’ve heard it a lot as a child. Big enjoyment is the practice of prioritising leisure, pleasure and joy by any means necessary. Nowadays, it feels like it’s a difficult conversation to have, but I feel like it’s nothing for me to go and spend 20 bucks for someone to illustrate me as a Simpson. And that’s going to add value to my life. Can I be so happy?
It’s not something that requires very much justification, because finding joy is the hardest thing you can do as an adult. Especially in a minority group, especially as a woman—all of these things are really difficult for everyone really, because that’s just the way life is set up. If you can set up your day to day where you’re constantly reminded of goodness and joy and glee—that’s just amazing. It’s why I spend so much time making my apartment cute, because who doesn’t want to waste up in a space they love?
Have you been listening to any artists or albums in isolation that are lifting your mood?
Music is something that I listen to when the mood is up and fresh and good and right. Because I imprint a lot on to music that I’m listening to, what I’m feeling, specific instances, I’ll attribute a certain song to that time period, right? If I’m too sad, then I just don’t want to taint any music. You know what I mean? Because then you have to think about it and be like, “wow, I was sad when I heard that.”
I’ve just been listening to a mix of Ari Lennox—she’s this alternative RnB artist. I’ve just gotten into Eurovision. I’ve been listening to that song, “Think About Things,” the one that won last year… this year? It’s so good. It’s a disco-boppy type thing. I’m just loving it. And then I’ve been listening to a lot of Tory Lanez. I listen to Benee, she’s a local artist, New Zealand based. Then I have this playlist that’s just old school pop-punk music that just takes me back to a time. It’s a mix of all of those.
As well as everything else Flex Mami is also an MTV host extraordinaire. MTV has just launched four new channels MTV HITS, Club MTV, MTV Classic and CMT (Country Music Television), and you can catch Flex Mami on their social platforms soon profiling and interviewing some amazing new emerging musicians.
Lead image via Instagram @happylittleginge.