I first saw you perform at Yari Yari back in 1996. Since, I’ve witnessed your commitment and love for hip hop culture in all of your creative work but also in your teaching. In fact I remember having a conversation with you way back in the day about how when you were in the classroom working with youth you felt as if you were competing with contemporary music. You’re now throwing your voice in the mix with Hoteps Hoteppin’. Why now? And who is your ideal audience for this video?
After my play, Seed went up and I saw who showed up and celebrated that work –the diversity of the audience, I decided to no longer limit my idea of what my audience was. It’s audience is whomever the work resonates with. So far the sisters are relating the strongest to Hoteps, sharing past dating experiences with ‘Hoteps’…men who I believe, use rhetoric, ancient African and Egyptian symbols and the appearance of a holistic lifestyle to feel better about themselves while chastising women. It’s a practice of patriarchy and misogyny. Like how can you uplift culture but condescend to us?
But RadhaMUSprime and The 40-Year-Old Version (Mixtape) is my opus. It came out of a lot of grief and grieving. Grief was my frustration as a Black Woman Playwright who just could NOT get another production. I realized i was waiting on the industry to tell me I was great, worthy. Grieving was losing my mother, who was (no IS) my best friend, favorite art teacher and biggest supporter. I was in the process of writing a web series called The 40-Year -Old Version about a single, overweight, black woman playwright who, after choking a white theater producer, reinvents herself as an emcee…at 40!! We were one week away from shooting the first two episodes when my mom died. It shattered me. I divorced myself from all things art cause if she wasn’t gonna be here, the woman who told me at 8, I’d be a great writer one day, then what was the point? but I had all this music I had written as a companion to the web series. like 22 fkn songs. I shared some with her before she passed and mom loved it. The music is my connection to her…so two months after her death, I begin performing as RadhaMUSprime. And folks loved it. I’m gonna finish the mixtape this summer, put out more videos because my mom aint raise no slacker. I start my shows with a question: Where is the overweight, single, 40-year-old Black Woman’s voice in Hip Hop? For me the work says…I am STILL a part of this culture and this art form and I will NEVER age out of having something to say about it and through it. That’s right. Look forward to Shitty Diapers: A Mixtape.
Any surprising reactions from it, or about it so far?
Well I’m not surprised to the reactions to Hoteps Hoteppin but I’m both tickled and intrigued. The positive responses include reposts from Erykah Badu and Jean Grae. And these are my God Mothers of Word. So I was enlivened and lifted by the love. I was surprised by how small the disdain was. The love totally eclipsed what i thought would be an onslaught, a rising up, maybe even a summit of Hoteps meeting as I have joked ‘to take down the wayward heathen that is RadhaMUSprime!’
When i was in my 20’s, my partner at the time was a RIGOROUS writer, waking up at 4am to hand himself over to the work. I envied him. I then imitated him but when i went back and read the work it was booty. I’ve learned after 20 years to write as the muses and the Creator dictates. YES. Deadlines mean you gotta get up and write the damn thing BUT when it comes to original ideas, I allow the world of whatever I’m writing to come to me. I support this conjuring with music…what does this character listen to…? I make LOTS of playlists. But i also do nothing. I allow for space so that it can arrive organically. And then when it does, I hand myself over. I am it’s bitch. I don’t answer phones, or shower or eat. It’s my way. Erbody gotta find theirs.
You work in many genres. What kind of art is most fun or fulfilling? Television, playwriting, performing, comedy, music? What are the most challenging?
They’re all fun. And they all can suck. It’s always thrilling to get that first idea! And then ugh you have to make sense of it…for yourself. That can be daunting. But I love them all equally. It’s ALL story. I just let it manifest as it should. Some MEAN more…the music right now, simply because it’s all me…it’s not contingent on a producer, or theater or critic or budget. I make most of it in garageband and my friends are my audience. I hope that continues to grow. But the music is a hybrid of all of it. I always say if Moms Mabley and GhostFace had a baby it would be RadhaMUSprime. It’s where all these parts of my storytelling voices come together unhindered…unapologetic, playing with gender tropes and Hip hop tropes as well, a comedic lens…but a story of identity…me finding myself…in my own music. My own truth.
Prince said that sometimes it takes years to become an overnight success. Do you feel successful? If not, what would make you feel successful?
I’ve attained some success for sure as a TV writer. I will be working with my hero Spike Lee on his new series and I’m proud of that. I used to walk passed his old production office on Dekalb when i was like 19..then 20…then 21 and so on thinking “I wanna get in there.” And now I am. But I think our goals shift. Now I want my own show. To create it, yes. But I am the show too. I used to be scared to say that. To take that on. Not anymore. Fuck it. I am the show. Carol Burnett. Lucille Ball. Radha Blank. Ultimate success for me is buying a house as a creative. And ending the cycle of ‘broke ass artist” syndrome in my family. But thank God for my parents and raising my brother and I as they did. I wouldn’t change a thing. NOT ONE THING. Not one candle-filled, no electricity having night with gubment cheese. It built my character and my famously strong intestinal track.
Now that you are writing for television on one of TV’s most popular shows (EMPIRE) how do you see your theater and activist background influence your work on television?
(I no longer write for Empire btw) I think because I came to the industry later than most people do, I came out here knowing EXACTLY who I am. Thats good AND challenging. I am not very malleable…but I’m also not very malleable. I speak the truth ALOT. Some appreciate it. Others may not. And it may cost me at some point. But so far people know I’m NEVER gonna lie or say what you want to hear. NEW YORKER! I think there are still some people who want someone like that in their room.
In an interview, you said when asked about writing Cookie,“I’m from Brooklyn and Harlem, and I know that voice: strong, unapologetic and still all woman.” Are there any female characters you are eager to write and what about them will fill the voids on TV that you would like to fill?
I am eager to write about a Black woman creative from NY who is contemplating her life. Can we contemplate on TV? It’s what we do in real life and yet it is soooooo rare, damn near non-existent. So a black woman character who is not sure of her life, her choices. She’s messy. Not all knowing and sassy but contemplating, yes please!
You’ve been working in all these different creative and commercial realms, TV, theater, music —through your experience what are some of the challenges you have faced as a women of color and what do you think we can do to change things so the arts are more inclusive of our stories?
It’s still a lot of the same gate keepers. I mean they see the numbers of a show like Empire and go ‘oh shit. who KNEW there was such an audience?!’ But they still had to be convinced. They still hold a lot of power. To me, there’s only ONE way for artists/storytellers NOT to feel afraid to speak honestly, and tell their own stories and that’s to be your OWN gatekeeper. To create independently. When all else fails…and the industry aint fkn with me, I got RadhaMUS. NO ONE can take that away from me. So we need to study the indie models. I work in the industry but trust mines is an independent voice so I’m studying those models. I’m not expecting, because I got to work on these shows that Hollywood would then say ‘oh we would LOVE to do all of your original screenplays with black women characters in the lead!’ Why? When these stories aren’t exactly commercial.
What are you listening to these days? Reading? Watching?
Listening to Sampha, Bilal, KING, Laura Mvula, Bobby McFerrin (my totem), Badu, Stevie and Prince. (His passing, still a very hard pill) Chance The Rapper (woah just woah), The Internet, The Jones Girls, Dilla. Listening to Octavia Butlers audio books…books I THOUGHT I knew but to listen..to these powerful stories as they are told? MIND BLOWN. Oh and I still watch my favorite show of all time The Golden Girls. (bow down)
What have been some key factors in your succeeding to create the life and or projects you want?
There’s been LOTS of struggle. But the biggest hurdle being my own limitations on what was possible. Therapy has really helped me overcome a lot of the baggage I’ve been carrying as the child of struggling artists…the child of a former substance abuser…and curating my own friendships. I look up and I’m finally surrounded by people who love me for who i am, but that can only happen when you are and share your TRUE self.
You once said that the kind of theater that excites you is, “Theater with balls…theater that is not about pleasing an audience but the artist being true to themselves.” Now that you are writing for television do you miss the freedom you may have felt in theater? And if so how do you balance between paying your bills and being true to your art?
Theater AINT free (or very freeing for me right now nor has it been) lol. True I can write as many plays as I want. But who shall produce the plays of the contemporary Black American female voice? I know we were very hot at one point…but let’s be clear its usually the APPEARANCE of hotness because one or two of us permeate the mainstream and become the constantly produced/published playwright. And those sisters surely pave the way but theater is slow going because they will continue to produce the same folk…when there is a PLETHORA of voices needing to be heard. The fact that Eisa Davis’ plays aren’t being done at every damn theater across America? *shrugs* But then again…she’s almost too dope for the American theater landscape. Like the language? Insanely genius. I can’t even take her! lol.
How did you make the transition from theater to television?
I’d written for Nickelodeon for a number of years in the early 2000’s. But my plays got me out here to L.A.. Shawn Ryan and Stephen Adly Guirgis were forming a room for Baz Lurhman’s Netflix series The Get Down two years ago. Stephen is the Wholy Grail of N.Y. playwrights. He knows he can get serious character mining from a playwright. We knew each other from NY. Ultimately Shawn Ryan read, Seed. We spoke over the phone but what a lot of people may not know is Shawn Ryan, the Wholy Grail of Showrunning, started as a playwright, so i think he has a soft spot for us. We spoke over the phone and that was it. Bad Lurhman. Lee Daniels and now Spike Lee. I’m not sure any other TV writer can say they worked and learned from all three. So I’m blessed.
My plays ain’t exactly getting produced these days lol but one of my plays…Casket Sharp…seems to resonate with folks looking for a new voice or fresh prospective. So it’s bittersweet…playwriting got me out here…and yet my agent is still out there saying to N.Y. theater..’guys..she’s got the stuff!’ Maybe my TV work will get my plays done? lol
Who are some artists that we should be paying attention to?
Keith Josef Adkins’ plays…Jesus. The language makes my mouth water. It’s soooo good. Naima Ramos is a filmmaker who I think is so dope and fresh and honest. Khadim Diop was just 14 when he was the lead in my play, Seed…now he’s in college and in this movie called 72 hours directed Raafi Rivero and shot by cinematographer Shawn Peters. It’s about a young black kid from Brooklyn who’s about to go off to college…and he’s in love and he’s contemplating…cause again..WE DO THAT. Shawn Peters also has this amazing interactive, virtual reality project called, The Art of Dying Young, where through the murals of people gone too soon, we see the shifting identity of Brooklyn communities. Oh and Busayo Olupona. She’s a fierce Nigerian designer who is about to take over the podcast world.
What would constitute a perfect day for you? Old movies and avocados
What is your biggest regret? Not trusting myself sooner.
Who are your role models and why? Fannie Lou, Morrision, Zora, Badu, Jean Grae….women who don’t apologize for being themselves.
Who is your celebrity crush? Sampha.
When did you last feel hopeful? This morning when I had this idea to work out.
Disappointed? This morning when I realized it wasn’t gonna work out.
What is your greatest fear? Not having all of my plays produced before i die.
Which living person do you most admire?
Elissa Blount Moorehead. She’s a badass artist, producer with TNEG film prod co-author of P is for Pussy AND a fierce mom of two beautiful and funny brown kids who dress cool too. She’s serious about artists owning homes and is helping to put Bmore back on the map as THE Black arts and culture enclave. I look at her and think…damn…Brown Women are fucking amazing. We can and will do it all!
What do you most value in people? Their sense of humor.
What is your most treasured possession? My sense of humor.
What does the future look like? I dunno. But I will after I schedule some time with my Bruja in Nueva York.
What are the consequences of silence? Enlightenment.
Black lives matter, hip hop, your role in it, any comments?
Being black and living in your truth is a huge contribution to the movement. Oh and speaking out about The Bullshit. The most exciting convergence of the music and the movement was J Cole’s Be Free…his response to the murder of Mike Brown. It’s time to go back to fearless artistry. The days of Harry Belafonte.
You are stuck in a car for hours, who are you listening to?
Sampha, KING, Prince, EWF, Kamasi Washington’s Askim….that song purifies…I can listen to it over and over…and it feels like flying so it’s a good road trip…plane trip song. Open Mike Eagle, Thundercat, Moses Sumney, Nick Hakim and Laura Mvula and Lil Simz
Words to live by: TROOF…otherwise what’s the fkn point?