Bronx-based ballroom legend, Christopher “Afrika” Quarles (they/them) expands from walking runway to acting in film and launches their own healing crystals company. The multi-talented artist caught up with photographer Hatnim Lee to discuss ballroom, growing up queer in the South, and their role in the iconic film, Port Authority featuring Leyna Bloom, which explores the kiki ballroom scene.
Originally Afrika was cast for the role of Tekay, a ballroom dancer who is caught voguing by the main character Paul, however, director Danielle Lessovitz had a different direction in mind and ended up placing Afrika in the role of Mother McQueen, which was much more suited to Afrika’s natural character. “Who you saw on the screen is who I am in real life, a nurturer.”
Join us in conversation with Afrika.
Afrika, you are an artist of many traits including acting, modeling, and dancing. Tell me how each medium lets you express yourself?
Each of these mediums allows me to just be flexible within my mind. To first be able to account for the talents that I possess comes with gratitude. Now as far as how I express myself, I feel like it’s the same light for all! I come with a sense of passion and honestly and just knowing that I can complete and accomplish is what keeps me thriving and moving forward.
You were raised in South Carolina. What was that experience like growing up in the south as a gay black man? Do you think much has changed for youth growing up LGBTQ and POC?
I grew up in Greenwood, SC under the roof of a pastor. It wasn’t the best experience when it came to self-expression. I was a child who never hid his colors, even though I was taught to stay ignorant to certain things I felt didn’t deserve that ignorance. As far as change, I mean LGBTQ (community) helps out on so many platforms everywhere, they have no choice but to accept the greatness!
When and how did you come out to your family?
I wasn’t given the opportunity to do so. At the time I hid it even though my parents had the feeling. I was told that if they found out I would be cut off. So my first lover decided to make that happen by making that phone call one day. At that point, I couldn’t run anymore.
You are part of two houses, The House of Juicy Couture and Saint Laurent. What do you perform for each house and how are they different?
The Innovative House of Juicy Couture is attached to the Kiki scene where the base is surrounded by HIV prevention and keeping youth off the street and comfortable in a more youth-focused community. I’m in the House of Juicy, in the Kiki scene and I am known as the legendary runway diva. So, I am a natural leader who loves my scene.
I am also in the Iconic House of Saint Laurent and this house is a part of the main ballroom scene. In this house, I am a child and I walk European runway. I’ve been a part of this house for a few months, but they are a family I could never break apart from. The support they unconditionally give is magical.
How has ballroom changed your life? Do you think the scene has changed since it is getting more mainstream attention?
Ballroom brought out a thicker skin in me. They taught me how to live life and be myself on all spectrums. I was so comfortable I shared my story of how I was diagnosed with HIV because my Father Luna Khan and my big brother Jaszi Alejandro were the first huge assets in my career as community workers and providers.
The scene has definitely changed but in a great way! Doors are opening for the talented people of color within our community and I just want us to make sure we all can eat!
You are in the critically acclaimed film, Port Authority, which was recently released online for streaming and playing in select theatres. What role do you play in this film and how did you prepare for it and what was your experience working on it?
I played the role of Mother McQueen in Port Authority. To start off, it was magical and such a privilege to be cast (originally) by Damien Bao and Kate Antognini for Tekay’s role, but the director and friend Danielle Lessovitz saw more and what my role was in the community and made me an important factor in the film. It was truly an honor. Who you saw on the screen is who I am in real life, a nurturer.
How long have you been in NYC? Do you see yourself staying here or is there another place you’d rather be?
I moved to NYC in 2010 from NC after finding out my HIV diagnosis, I wanted to live, I wanted to chase my dreams, and I wanted to prove to everyone that I wasn’t going anywhere but up. I see myself in a big house in 3 years with my dogs and a man, haha. With a name that will be known across the world.
COVID was a very trying time. On 1/30/20 my father parted ways and is now resting. Losing one of the most vital parts of my life during the pandemic taught me to grow up even more. I was hurt and it definitely showed on me. I then took that energy and started a small business called Christal Is Key because healing crystals and spirituality kept me grounded and sane. So, I felt it was necessary to share my love, my passion, and my creative side in a way that would honor him even after his passing.
What are your aspirations for the next 5 years?
First thing is to find an agent and from there, the magic can happen.
If you had to look back now, when was the happiest time of your life?
The happiest moment in my life was when Port Authority premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. It was such a magical moment to be able to grace the red carpet that so many of my favorite actors and actresses have stepped on like Eva Longoria, Will Smith, Gabriel Union, and my inspiration—Angela Basset. I mean you can never ever take that away, and trust me I want more!
What are you working on now and where can we see you next?
I am working on a lot of exciting new projects and of course, there will be lots of ballroom shows this summer. I am looking forward to finding an agent or an agency that sees what I can bring to the table and to the world.
Follow the adventures of Christopher “Afrika” Quarles on social media
Interview and Photography: Hatnim Lee @hatnimlee
Styling: Gabriel Held @gabriel_held_vintage
Stylist assistant: Evan Tommy @evantommyxo