Film

Nigerian-American Actress Adepero Oduye on 10 Years of Taking Control

Interview with Nigerian-American Actress Adepero Oduye (Dee Rees's Pariah). Oduye discusses what she's accomplished, her venture into writing, and her upcoming roles.


Adepero Oduye featured in Elle Magazine. Photo: Thomas Whiteside.

*Interview by Maryam Kazeem

It’s been ten years since she started acting and, while Nigerian-American Adepero Oduye knows that her successes are nothing to be shy about, the actress beams with humility. Known for her performance in Dee Rees's Pariah, the progression of Adepero's career demonstrates there's not much of a gap between the kind of actress she wants to be and is. With recognition in Time Magazine's Great Performances (2012) Adepero's name has also been widely circulated for roles she hasn't even auditioned for. The controversial casting of Zoe Saldana in the upcoming Nina Simone project has come with suggestions of alternatives and without a doubt, Oduye's name is in every article, blog post, comment or rant.

In milieu of Hollywood's 'myth' of the tragic black female actor, suggestions that black women cannot succeed unless they take roles playing maids, slaves, or hypersexualized somethings, or that to thrive one must definitely pass the paper bag test, become particularly involuted when we think about a Nigerian-American actress such as Oduye. Born in Brooklyn, NY to Nigerian parents, Adepero is proud of her Nigerian heritage but also cognizant of how her identity interacts with the roles she finds in Hollywood — to others, that is. Her upcoming role in Steve McQueen's Twelve Years A Slave highlights some of the complexities that African actors face when seeking employment in Western based film industries, particularly Hollywood (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Adepero have been somewhat questioned for being Africans, cast as African-American slaves, because that makes so much sense when you really think about it given the temporality and history of the whole thing). When we consider how the world operates in terms of race, notions of beauty and blackness, Adepero's success in Hollywood speaks to something: her will to create and engage in spaces that seek to question or problematize these ideas on a representational meta level, but also through the content of the films she has acted in thus far.

The first time Adepero and I meet we have a long discussion about hair, because let’s face it, amongst “naturals” the conversation is bound to come up. This interview is our third encounter and our conversation flows as we discuss how Adepero looks back on her somewhat abrupt decision to try acting, her growth as an artist, and all that other great identity stuff. I ask Adepero about her five years in the industry, and while she corrects me that she’s actually been acting for ten years, her decade of acting comes as a surprise to her as well, in the way that usually occurs when you're doing something you love.

When I’m acting it’s amazing. I think ten years in what’s been amazing is that when I first started I really had no idea what the journey was going to be like or what it was supposed to be like. All I knew was that I had this thing in me — this passion in me- to act. At the time it was random, but when I look back it actually wasn’t random at all.  So for me to be at this point from where I started? It’s surreal, especially because I knew what I wanted to do but I didn’t feel like there were any examples of people who had done it before me- that were like me.

I thought for a while that maybe I was trying to do something that was impossible. I remember thinking “no one wants to see someone who looks like me on the big screen.” Fast forward to being at Sundance and doing the Q&A and at that moment just thinking like “Wow. How did I get here?” Now I know that anything is possible. Right now I almost feel like "now what?” It’s one thing to dream a dream and another thing to do something about it. I feel like at this stage in my life I’m interested in writing, and collaborating and creating projects.  I’ve never really been a person to wait so now I want to be a part of creating more work that I want to see out there. And that’s a new challenge.

While her focus has been acting, Adepero has also started pursuing other aspects of her creativity which come with their own challenges:

I’ve been writing stories; and coming into myself as a writer is a journey I’m experiencing at the moment. I feel like everything has set me up to this point where I feel ready to try and expand and build on what I’ve experienced and achieved. But, in some ways, I also feel like I’m starting out new every day you know? I wrote a short film recently that I’m going to shoot — and before I would be scared to even say I wrote something, but I’m in a different place now where I’m not afraid to mess up.

Next Page
Interview

A Candid Conversation With Olamide & Fireboy DML

We talk to the Nigerian stars about the hardest lessons they've learned, best advice they've ever been given and what Nigeria means to them.

Olamide and Fireboy DML have been working together for three years, but the first time they sit down to do an interview together is hours after they arrive in New York City on a promo tour.

It's Fireboy's first time in the Big Apple — and in the US — and the rain that's pouring outside his hotel doesn't hinder his gratitude. "It's such a relief to be here, it's long overdue," he tells OkayAfrica. "I was supposed to be here last year, but Covid stopped that. This is a time to reflect and refresh. It's a reset button for me."

Olamide looks on, smiling assuredly. Since signing Fireboy to his YBNL Nation label in 2018, he's watched the soulful young singer rise to become one of Nigeria's most talked-about artists — from his breakout single, "Jealous," to his debut album Laughter, Tears & Goosebumps, hit collabs with D.Smoke and Cuppy, and his sophomore release, Apollo, last year.

Even while he shares his own latest record, UY Scuti, with the world, Olamide nurtures Fireboy's career with as much care and attention as he does his own, oscillating between his two roles of artist and label exec seamlessly. His 2020 album Carpe Diem is the most streamed album ever by an African rap artist, according to Audiomack, hitting over 140 million streams. When Olamide signed a joint venture with US-based record label and distribution company, Empire, in February last year he did so through his label, bringing Fireboy and any other artist he decides to sign along for the ride, and establishing one of the most noteworthy deals on the continent.

Below, Olamide & Fireboy DML speak to OkayAfrica about their mutual admiration for each other, what makes them get up in the morning and how they switch off.

Keep reading... Show less

get okayafrica in your inbox

popular.

Adekunle Gold Is Living His Best Life

We speak to the Nigerian star about how marriage and fatherhood have led him to find both newfound happiness and newfound freedom as an artist.