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Photo Courtesy of Uzo Aduba

100 Women: Uzo Aduba Wants to Use Her Roles to Give a Voice to the Voiceless

We talk to the Emmy-winning standout of Orange is the New Black on how to be good, just as you are.

As a child Uzoamaka Aduba was insecure about a great many things. Her name and the now-famous gap in her teeth were among the number. "My mom would try to impress upon me constantly, 'Don't you know that in Nigeria, a gap is a sign of beauty? It's a sign of intelligence.' I'm like, 'We don't live in Nigeria, mom. We live in Medfield, Massachusetts.'" Thirty-seven-year-old Aduba is quite the opposite—dramatically, if you will. Currently chatting from a mountainside village in Mendoza, Argentina, she exudes total self-possession, and is crystal clear on not just her beauty and her talent, but on what she stands for ("Equality for all. Full stop.") and even her privilege.

"Whatever I think is hard is nowhere near what hard is. First solid lesson. Anything that I considered to be difficult, I don't have to reach that far back into my history and to my community stories to know what hard really looked like," the Nigerian-American actress states in a definitive tone. "Hard is moving to a country where you know no one and have five children. Hard is surviving a civil war. Hard is surviving polio. Hard is learning how to blend into a new culture without losing your own. You understand? Me figuring out which of the seven pairs of jeans I want to wear today is not hard."


Granted. Yet, the relative ease of Aduba's life should in no way negate the work she has done in carving out her own path. As a voice major at Boston University who fell in love with acting, she plotted her course before working her ass off. From an eager novice in theater, earning her stripes performing with the Huntington Theatre Company and the American Repertory Theater, and at the Theater for the New City and the Kennedy Center, to making her Broadway debut in 2007 (in "Cora Boy") and then landing a small screen television role five years later (in CBS's "Blue Bloods"), she pressed on.

And her role of Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren on Jenji Kohan's Netflix series Orange is the New Black, while seemingly destined for her, was in no way luck. It was not the part she auditioned for (she originally read for Janae, the track star), and once she signed on for it, it was supposed to only be a two-episode appearance. But the captivating versatility, genius physicality and depth of character that Aduba brought to her performance, cemented her as a formidable talent on the show and in the hearts and minds of viewers and critics alike.

If she had committed to the original plan encouraged by her parents, the world would have another, certainly phenomenal, attorney. And while her Screen Actors Guild Award (for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series), as well as, her 2014 Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy (and yet another in 2015 for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series) are proof that she is on the right track, Aduba was not always so sure.

But where is the tenderness, openness and vulnerability? Where is that version of us?

"The day I got Orange was actually the day I quit acting, and had decided that I should go on and become a lawyer somewhere and sort of take a more traditional route for most Nigerians," Aduba recalls. "I had had my doubts or worried, but I had never quit in my spirit…until I quit that day. Then I wound up getting Orange, and it solidified for me that this is my service, my ministry message. This is what I'm supposed to be doing. Just when I thought I was out, it pulled me back in. No, this is exactly what you are. The feeling you had placed in your heart is correct."

Her passion for acting will be necessary. That is, if she is to build upon, and in some cases help dismantle, the consistently reiterated narratives that are often wrongly assigned to African women. "Strong, hard, takes no nonsense, tough as nails. I know that woman, and I know that ability to walk in that space," Aduba says. "But where is the tenderness, openness and vulnerability? Where is that version of us?" The lack of diverse stories leaves much to do, and with such a wide-open field, Aduba's future plans are slightly ambiguous.

A return to Broadway? Absolutely, that's one of my greatest loves.

Immediate acting goals? Sharpen my craft, always. And find ways to tell the stories of the people missing from the tapestry of the artistic expression, and our history.

For now the Emmy-winning, screen-slaying dynamo is just happy to add to the African creative community that is currently being recognized just a bit more.

"I am proudly African. My Nigerian household was culturally fundamental for the woman that I am today. It feels wonderful to see the positive response to what I do when it is entirely African in and of itself," Aduba explains. "We're living in a season of art, and theater, and music and film, sort of discovering and celebrating what my community is, and that's exciting. Be it with our Black Panther, be it with new African stories being told in the world of theater by women like Ngozi Anyanwu ["The Homecoming Queen," Atlantic Theater], Jocelyn Bioh ["School Girls; or The African Mean Girls," MCC Theater] and Mfoniso Udofia ["The Ufot Cycle" a nine-play series]. Be it with Wizkid and Drake or Afrobeats... I see my community celebrated more than when I first started, but there's still quite a ways to go. I'm excited but I'm cautiously optimistic, because I hope it's not a trend."

The moment threatens to be fleeting. However, according to Aduba, the key to sustained appreciation of, interaction with, and connectivity amongst the cultural innovators and artists of the diaspora is simply empathy. When we understand that we are all connected to the continent, she shares, we can grasp the concept of oneness. "The first time I really had that clearly laid out for me was when I was doing this musical called "Abyssinia" with an all-Black cast. We had a potluck one night. I had never been to New Orleans, and everybody was meant to bring something of their own. And I had two cast members who were both from New Orleans. One was gonna make jambalaya, and one was gonna make gumbo. And I was like, 'What is jambalaya? What is gumbo?'" Aduba laughs, expressing the lower octaves of her classically trained voice. "They were trying to describe it to me, and I couldn't quite visualize it. When they showed me the jambalaya, I was like, 'This is jollof rice.' And anybody who tries to tell you differently is lying. And then they showed me gumbo, and I was like, this is okwulu soup, another dish that we have in Nigeria. I realized, it is all the same, which means we are all connected. And if you can't see that right on our plates, then you don't want to see it."

2018 is already promising for Aduba, and not just because of her sixth season return on OITNB. She is in a good place—physically, at the moment, staring at a gorgeous mountain just off the small village she is visiting, but also mentally. Her resolution? No more making mountains out of molehills. "I started this year declaring, I am everything and I am good. Just as I am. I wake up every morning alive. I can breathe. I don't need, thank God, any medication…We always have our hardships, battles, hurdles. I'm not discounting that, but I'm not gonna add to it with stuff that I should be able to forgive, and love and be grateful for. I spent so many years doing that. I'm good on that. I'm not doing that anymore."

This concludes OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2018—a project highlighting the impactful work done by African women across the globe. Throughout March we have published a series of profiles, videos, interviews and feature stories on these inspirational women.

Click here to see the entire list of 2018 honorees.

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Photo: Kartson Tannis.

100 Women: A Playlist of Our Favorite Female Artists & Anthems

Featuring Teni, Amaarae, Calypso Rose, Oumou Sangaré, Solange and many more.

The month of March marks OkayAfrica's annual celebration of African women with our 100 Women list.

The list is our effort to acknowledge and uplift African women, not only as a resource that has and will continue to enrich the world we live in, but as a group that deserves to be recognized, reinforced and treasured on a global scale.

These women are disrupting the status quo socially, economically, and politically. They are creating safe spaces for African women globally, driving technological and scientific advancements, pushing for inclusivity in television, film, art and media and steering us toward a more sustainable way of living.

SEE THE ENTIRE 100 WOMEN 2O19 LIST HERE

Following that spirit, the ladies from the OkayAfrica staff—and, by the way, we are mostly women—decided to select some of our favorite songs that represent women making an impact across the globe for a special new playlist. We'll also tell you why.

Our selections span from newer names like Amaarae and Summer Walker to classic songs from the likes of Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, and Calypso Rose. There's also plenty of Teni in there.

Check it out below.

FOLLOW OUR NEW 100 WOMEN PLAYLIST ON SPOTIFY HERE AND APPLE MUSIC HERE.

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100 Women: Kay Oyegun and Angelica Nwandu on The Power In Our Words

The founder of the Shade Room, Angelica Nwandu and filmmaker and TV writer, Kay Oyegun discuss staying true to their points of view, and the power in being allowed to fail.

In out latest video, Nigerian media guru and founder of The Shade Room Angelica Nwandu and Kay Oyegun, a Nigerian-Beninese writer and filmmaker, who writes for NBC's This Is Us and OWN's Queen Sugar, sit down for a frank conversation on the power of words and emotional connections, and how we can channel both into action.

"When you can make somebody feel something, you have their attention, and once you have their attention you can persuade them to want to change the world," says Nwandu.

The two share some of their experiences in their respective industries, opening up about how they've dealt with backlash, as well as the pressure put on black creatives to always be at the very top of their game.

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Twice As Tall World Tour. Flyer provided by Atlantic Records.

Burna Boy Announces 'Twice As Tall' World Tour Dates

The Nigerian star will be playing shows across North America and Europe this summer.

Burna Boy is hitting the road again.

Following the celebrated release of African Giant—which came with nominations at both the Grammys & BRIT Awards and a trophy for Best International Act at the BET Awards—the Nigerian star will be embarking on a long run of shows that will take him across North America and Europe.

The Twice As Tall World Tour will kick off in May in Atlanta, and will see Burna Boy playing concerts across the US, Canada, Norway, France, Portugal, UK, Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and more locations.

You can check out the full tour dates for Twice As Tall World Tour below and revisit Burna Boy's performance for Okay Acoustics.

Tickets are available now.

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Angelique Kidjo performs onstage during the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony at Microsoft Theater on January 26, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

'Take Africa Out of It and There's No Music for Y’all,' Angelique Kidjo on Success, ‘World Music’ & Championing New African Talent

OkayAfrica caught up with the legendary Beninese singer following her recent Grammy win and her feature on the collaborative electronic track 'Milambi.'

Last month, Angelique Kidjo won her fourth Grammy in the 'Best World Music' category. But it wasn't quite like every other year she had been nominated for the award. This time she shared the nomination with fellow African act Burna Boy, the first artist of the continent's current afropop scene to earn a nomination. While there's no question that Kidjo, who won for her 2019 album Celia, was beyond deserving (this was by no means a Kendrick-Macklemore scenario), Kidjo made the conscious decision to dedicate her award to Burna and urged viewers to pay attention to the wealth of new talent coming from the continent. "The new generation of artists coming from Africa are going to take you by storm and the time has come," said the artist.

Her vocal support for African talent isn't new though. As Kidjo notes, she gave a similarly memorable speech when she won four years ago for her album Sings, and she sounds fierce and impassioned as she speaks about it over the phone. After all, Kidjo has always been notably forward-looking in life and in music—experimentation doesn't scare her. Her latest work is on a futuristic, electronic project from Swiss DJ and producer Pablo Nouvelle and she expresses excitement about the novel methods in which African artists are creating and amplifying their music.

We caught up with Kidjo following her latest Grammy win and the release of her joint single with Nouvelle, "Milambi," to discuss her support of the new crop of talent emerging from the continent, fame, the controversy around the 'Best World Music' category, and remaining true to her identity in a Western-oriented music industry.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Grammys were a big moment. Why did you decide to dedicate your award to Burna Boy and acknowledge the new generation of up-and-coming African artists?

I'm always in contact with my continent. I go back on a regular basis, and that's where my source of inspiration is from. Throughout the years going back and forth, I've been seeing the entrepreneurship of the young generation coming up. When I started music—there was none of that. You just went to the studio, and you found people to help you do your music. Now you can be a self-producer. I have nephews and nieces, and I'll just say "Ok, what's new? Let me listen to the new stuff." And I just realized that the rest of the world has no clue about what's happening in Africa.

Four years ago, when I received my Grammy for the album Sings, I said "Brace yourself, because Africa is coming. You have to open your heart, your mind and ears to listen to what is going on and what is coming from the new generation of my contient"— I said that four years ago, and the time has come because [with artists like] Burna Boy, Wizkid, Davido, Yemi Alade and many more from Nigeria, and Sho Madjozi from South Africa—you have so much happening culturally in Africa. I have the feeling that sometimes people just completely turn their head away from Africa and I just wonder how one could possibly turn their head away from where they come from, because Africa is the cradle of humanity. Culture comes from there—there's no music on this planet that doesn't have Africa in it.

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Is this why you've chosen to work with a lot of younger artists from the continent like Yemi Alade most recently?

I'm so proud of this new generation of musicians that are using the technology to tell a positive story about Africa. It's no longer about our suffering. Everybody suffers. So, why should people be focusing only on our suffering and not seeing just the human beings that we are, and how joyful we are? Then suddenly, you realize that joy becomes political because if your society, your people are perceived as joyful, then a leader cannot complain anymore that something is wrong. Beyond all that, [I do it] to pay tribute to the entrepreneurship of the young generation. They aren't waiting on help from anybody. If you are famous in your country and on your continent, there's nothing that can stop you. You have billions of people that will love you, so why should the rest of the world look aside when you're passing by? They should pay attention.

That's why I use my platform to bring the attention of the media to this new generation coming. They don't want to be caught by surprise because I've been telling them to pay attention. If something happens, and they don't pay attention, at least I've done my work.

I do think it's really amazing how new artists have been able to gain traction and put their music out despite their not being a lot of support by African leaders for creative industries. Do you think that African governments, and the folks with money should invest more entertainment?

I think they should because we create jobs. People make money, and it's not only the artists. There's also the people helping them make videos, or cut tracks—music creates jobs.

I think we have to educate our leaders and our business people in Africa. Who can carry their brand better than us? Who are the best ambassadors of our cultures, our countries and our continent? It's us artists across different forms of art, from painters, to storytellers, to people in theatre and movies. Every form of art is about telling the story of ordinary people and the people that have come before us. How do you know about your own history, if not for the elderly people that tell you the story of who you are?

In order for us to tell our story, we need to have a voice. We need to say it through different mediums. Music is one of them. We shouldn't let anyone else tell our stories anymore. That time in history has passed. We have new narratives, we have proof of how entrepreneurial we are. Africans can make money in Africa and anywhere else. The world is open to us—the world is ours. No one can stop us.

So many African artists look to you as an inspiration and a model for longevity in the music industry. I'm wondering which artists served that role for you when you were first coming up.

There are many, many of them. I would say it started with traditional musicians because I was a very curious child. I come from that background of traditional musicians telling me stories through songs. [Growing up] my brothers were playing music, my father brought the instruments for them, and freed a room in a crowded house for them to rehearse. I heard every genre of music in the '60, '70s and '80s through them, but my role models start with traditional musicians, both male and female. [But at a certain point] I noticed that every album that would be brought home had just men on the covers. I was like, "Okay, so women don't sing? They can't do albums too?" Then you had Western women start coming in and I was like, "Okay, at least some women are making it through [in the industry]."

Then Miriam Makeba came and Aretha Franklin came. The day Aretha Franklin came, the singer of my brother's band—who had such a fucking ego, you couldn't even put it anywhere—said "there's no song I can't sing." [But] Aretha came and he couldn't sing. I'm like, "What? A woman is whooping your butt. I like that."

So, there have been strong men and women as musicians that have informed the music that I make today. The only way I could absorb it and make my own music, and become a role model to others today is because I am proud of my culture. I know where I come from, I'm not trying to copy anybody because everybody copied what we have. There wouldn't be any music in America without the input of enslaved people that came from Africa. The blues came from slaves. It doesn't matter how hard the slave owner wanted to dehumanize us—they even took the drum away from us. But we had many ways of celebrating culture. We had many ways of celebrating our humanity—singing was one of them. We sing our pain to lift it up. We sing our joy to share it with people. That's what African music is. The essence of what music is comes from that place. We've seen it all, we've been through hell, yet here we are prevailing still.

"I have to be able to sing my songs till I die."

You've always championed African culture and identity, whether it's through singing in Yoruba, or representing Benin through various endeavors. Did you at any point, ever face pressure from the industry to tone down your "Africanness" to appeal to certain audiences?

They have a saying in my country, that "the advisor is not the payer." [It's about] what you do with the advice people give you. I'm always listening, I'm always ready to sit and hear constructive criticism. But if you want to critique for the sake of criticizing me—I've heard some journalists say that I'm not African enough in France because my music sounds too Western. I said, "What is the music of the West then? Tell me." Take Africa out of it and there's no music for y'all.

For me, I respect everybody, particularly the differences because there lies the genius. We all don't think the same.

People said, "Why don't you show your titties?" I'm like, "Well, I don't feel like showing my titties because my titties ain't singing. My voice is not in my breasts." You've got to be somebody, and I am African. I come from a rich culture. Why should I change to look like what? What do you want me to look like? I've never ever allowed anyone to say to me, "You can't do this." I have fought some producers that try to change my music. I say, "If that's the case, you take the microphone, you sing, it's not mine, I'm out of here." You have to stand for something. If you are afraid of not making it, then you become a fool to somebody.

People will say what they want to say. If I want to dress differently, I do sometimes. When I received the NAACP award, I wore a suit. A well-tailored suit, and I kill it too in a suit. It's not what you wear, it's who you are.

I always say, if anyone wants to work with me, I'm open. The bridge I'm trying to build, everybody's welcome on it in the respect of each other's differences. My strength might be your weakness, and then I supply. My weakness might be your strength. It goes both ways. I don't have the answer to everything, but one thing I know is that if we stop bitching at each other and blaming people for all the things that aren't good in our life will be better off because when we start doing that, what do we do? We create fear, and fear is dangerous.

I wanted to ask you about the controversy surrounding the Best World Music category at the Grammys. Many believe that it doesn't truly encompass the diversity of music coming from the continent. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Don't underestimate the recording academy. They have been thinking about it way before this. It's a conversation that we're going to be engaging in. Africa is not a country, it's a continent. The Latin Grammy exists. We should have the African Grammys too, because it's a continent, because it's vast, it's huge. So, it's a conversation we started having because the academy is also realizing this, and they are, at least, having that conversation. Right now, if you look at the "French Grammys" coming up, there's not one person of African descent [represented]. Not one. They just completely ban what is called "world music" out of it and we're in the 21st century. So, I think criticizing is one thing, finding solutions is another.

Let's work with the recording academy and find out how we can help to come up with something that works for everybody. That's all I'm about. I'm always about solutions. The thing is that we also need to recognize that we cannot be discriminating when it comes to culture. If we don't speak to each other, and we're always blaming and pointing fingers, there's no conversation possible anymore. We should have an open discussion about this and be creative about it. That's all I say.

Speaking on shifting genres, you recently worked with Pablo Nouvelle on his new project Eliso, I saw it described as your "maiden venture into electronic music." What was that experience like for you?

I started with electronic music. If you ask David Byrne, he would tell you that my first album, Logozo was completely electric, but African electric. So for me, working on this album brings me back to the beginning and, I'm not done doing that. I'm going to do it more.

So, we can expect a lot more of this electronic sound that you've already been working on?

I'm not saying anything.

We can't have a hint?

No, nothing, because I always follow my inspiration. If my inspiration changes a little bit, I have to change [my direction].

You just go with whatever feels right?

I have to be able to sing my songs till I die. All my songs, if I can't sing them, with just my voice and a guitar, it means it's not good. When writing a song, less is more because if you add too much stuff, then you kill the song. You're overstating it. Do the minimal. If it feels good to you, and you can sing it in your sleep, wake up dancing to it, and you can feel it in every beat in your body, it's right.

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