Photo: TV5 MONDE
A weekend in Paris is the stuff of dreams, no doubt. But only when it happened to me the other day, in these times, did I realize how this might change my point of view. The City of Lights shed light on our whole situation.
By invitation, I was the first American to view a new film about black America, USA: A Recipe for Success, now released on six continents. The writer/director is Rokhaya Diallo, acclaimed young French filmmaker, activist and TV presenter. USA: A Recipe for Success explores blackness and Caribbean American identity through personal profiles that clearly also resonate with the black French experience. The film gives an international platform to a brave and potent cultural voice, with Diallo now as a major contributor for both TV5MONDE and the newly-launched BET France. TV5MONDE is one of the top three most available global television networks in the world. By 2017, USA: A Recipe for Success will reach 300 million viewers and will air in four languages.
Fatefully, in the sweep of her overall vision for the film, she chose to feature me among her subjects. I met Diallo by chance, standing next to each other at an independent film festival earlier this year. I introduced myself in broken French, and we broke up laughing way too hard for the red carpet. But that night she listened to my debut album, On a Turquoise Cloud, and emailed me right away to say she loved it. Over the months, we shared our work and our goals. Even by email, I recognized that what I want to express through music, she does through film and journalism. One day, she had the idea to have me share my story and music for this new project. She dove in deeply and quickly. In a matter of days, she and her cameraman were trailing me though the city, pausing for moments of interview or reflection.
One evening I asked her why the French, particularly black French people, would be especially interested in black America. “French people tend to look up to the U.S., especially when it comes to the civil rights or the black leaders,” she explained, “People will name Martin Luther King or Rosa Park, or Angela Davis, but never even think about anyone French.” In fact, France does not ask about race at all on their national census, as we have since the first U.S. census. That’s the kind of data that shapes both policy and consciousness. Roswell Agodjro, On-Air Program Manager at BET France, feels Diallo has a gift for creating new paths to a national conversation on race. “When we launched BET France in 2015, we knew we wanted her. She brings substance to entertainment, exploring the roots and the heart of a subject or community in a powerful way.”
Making music is what gets me out of bed and what keeps me awake and connected to the world. Though I share my deepest feelings with thousands of people, I felt very exposed filming USA: A Recipe for Success. I imagine it’s not even like a reality show because none of what I shared was fiction. Here I dove into my past, my parents’ past, and my grandparents’ past. I said that I hope that my generation and our children will live in justice, without state-sanctioned violence, with fair and improved education, healthcare and a greater sense of belonging. I shared stacks of faded family photos and I sang my music for her. Diallo asked about how it felt for me being black at Harvard when I come from a modest Jamaican family. I said that the same bravery and hope that brought them from Jamaica to the U.S. makes me believe I can do many things with my life.
My most exciting day shooting this film was the live rehearsal for my next video shoot for "On a Turquoise Cloud." Like most recording artists, I feel very private about my studio time. When I’m in rehearsal mode, it’s meditative, like I’m in a room in my mind. So it meant something personal to add that to the film. Knowing my album, she asked me why jazz legend Duke Ellington inspired my debut. As I heard myself talk, I could see how my life, my music, and amplifying my voice can encourage people to be more honest about their own beliefs. Today, that means more than ever to me.
As the USA: A Recipe for Success plays and moves to international film festivals, I’m glad to represent the USA. I will never shirk that because it is a privilege. Look at those who precede us and look at our younger people who need our support. Our Black culture is irrepressible and it’s transcendent. As our world shifts, we will introduce ourselves everywhere, we will broaden our influence through our choices. We must think for ourselves and seek our community across borders.
I went to Paris, and brought back that borderless Black Girl Magic.
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