Koko Da Doll, Black Trans Sundance Star, Killed at Age 35
Koko Da Doll, the star of the Sundance hit documentary Kokomo City, was found murdered in Atlanta on Tuesday. She was 35.
According to the Atlanta Police Department, on Tuesday at 10:42 pm, officers responded to reports of a woman shot in the Westhaven neighborhood of Atlanta and found the victim was not “alert, conscious or breathing.”
“Homicide investigators responded to the scene and are working to determine the circumstances surrounding the incident,” the statement, which did not explicitly name Koko, read.
D. Smith, the director of Kokomo City, confirmed Koko’s death in an Instagram post on Friday. “I created Kokomo City because I wanted to show the fun, humanized, natural side of Black trans women. I wanted to create images that didn’t show the trauma or the statistics of murder of Transgender lives,” Smith wrote. “I wanted to create something fresh and inspiring. I did that. We did that! But here we are again. It’s extremely difficult to process Koko’s passing, but as a team we are more encouraged now than ever to inspire the world with her story.”
In a phone interview with Rolling Stone, Smith says that she met Koko through a mutual friend who suggested she may be a good fit for the film. She says that within thirty to forty seconds of their call, Koko started crying, because she was so grateful to be considered for the film. “Her energy came through the phone and touched me,” Smith recalls.
“Opportunities for any trans woman to tell their stories doesn’t come very often,” Smith adds. “[Koko] wanted to be liberated so badly she would have done anything for the opportunity no matter who was presenting it to her. She was desperate to impact the world in any way.”
Born Rasheeda Williams, Koko was one of the four stars of Kokomo City, along with fellow Black trans women Dominique Silver, Liyah Mitchell, and Daniella Carter. The film, which won two awards at Sundance when it premiered in January, follows the women’s lives in New York and Atlanta and documents “their love/hate relationships with cis men, their relationships to their own beauty, and the full array of attitudes that confront their lives on a daily basis,” according to Rolling Stone‘s review from earlier this year.
Smith recalls that Koko was excited to visit Utah for the Sundance Festival earlier this year and was thrilled to hear that the film had been picked up for distribution. “I call her Koko the code, because she was the code we needed in this film. She bridges people together.”
The last time they spoke was a week and a half ago, when Smith congratulated Koko for one of her songs being featured in the next season of Lena Waithe’s series The Chi. (Waithe is an executive producer of Kokomo City.) On Wednesday, she was informed of Koko’s death via Instagram DM. “I thought it was something cruel, and someone was being mean,” she says. “It was just so random.” She later spoke to Koko’s sister and confirmed that Koko had died.
A GoFundMe set up for Koko’s funeral arrangements has raised a little more than $12,000 as of this writing. “Koko was well known in the LGBTQ community here in Atlanta,” the description for the GoFundMe reads. “Koko was one of Atlanta’s finest and most loving transgender women. Koko had a heart of gold and spread nothing but love and light to those she came across. To know Koko is to love her.”
Koko’s death is one of three violent incidents involving transgender women in Atlanta within the past month, according to a post from the Atlanta Police Department. “While these individual incidents are unrelated, we are very aware of the epidemic-level violence black and brown transgender women face in America,” the APD said in a statement.
According to a Human Rights Campaign report issued last year, 32 transgender or nonbinary women were killed in the United States in 2022 alone, with at least 81 percent of the victims being people of color. One study has suggested that internationally, at least one transgender person is killed every three days. The last few years have also seen a steep rise in anti-LGBTQ legislation, with at least 467 anti-LGBTQ bills being tracked in the United States, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Smith is hopeful that Koko’s legacy will live on in Kokomo City. “It’s not gonna take much except people seeing 10 seconds of her and her smile and her genuine honesty” for audiences to know that Koko “really is the code,” Smith says. “I want people to get any opportunity they can to see her in her truth, and speaking so openly and candidly about her life, and her goals. It was a blessing to know her.”
Update Friday, April 21, 2023: This post has been updated with comments from D. Smith.