Beyond The Boundaries of Color with Yaya Williams
"I never really connected well virtually in fact it’s fair to say I’ve been avoiding it with a lot of people lately, but I do enjoy it now, in this moment. I truly appreciate this way of communication and this right here is something I'm really excited about,” – NY Artist/Performer Yaya Williams is a force to reckon with. We talked our hearts out for 3 WHOLE HOURS on a Zoom call about all the good and the bad around us, her journey being a black artist and facing racism early on, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the #Covid19 Pandemic, Mental Health stories, love and relationships, and yes, sustainability! I'm actually starting to believe in this whole quarantine thing bringing out the best in us.
Yvette Yaya Williams - a Professional Make Believer, Singer, Dancer, Actor, Storyteller, Disciple, Artist, Poet, Activist, Animal Lover, she’s this and so much more. 'I Exist Therefore I Am' is a philosophy that Yaya truly believes in and lives by.
Originally from Ohio, Yaya spent a major portion of her childhood learning the true meaning of love and family. ‘I grew up on a small farm with my mom, dad and two brothers. I was always exposed to nature and building an intimate connection with your loved ones. Closer to nature, the closer to God. I came to New York to find myself and through the course of being here, I’ve worked on many different platforms – Film, TV, Music, Animation, Voice Makeover, Professional Modelling, and NOW definitely feels like a homecoming.’
She reminisces her Sunday times with the fam, Every Sunday, I’d host this potluck with friends - my chosen family “Soulfood Sundays” where we talk about things you want, things you go through, life, love, we even had a prayer box for special requests & silent calls for help. After the evening got over & everyone had left, I would go through all payer requests & offer as much support as I could. I actually grew up really spiritual, lot of my friends didn’t believe in church so I created my own church in a way! See, in the end it’s all about having your own crowd and gathering the love and light you find. It’s funny because this conversation, between us, is similar to my Sunday Potluck. It’s a concept of testimony and storytelling 😊’
If you’re wondering how we met, we haven’t yet! We’re just two souls who crossed paths and believed in the same ideologies and life theories and found a reason to connect and share our journeys. I got the opportunity to have a one-on-one with the #BossLady herself, and like a curious little cat, asked everything I had on my mind all these months being at home. Here’s what really went down:
We’re having this conversation right now because we’re going through the toughest phase of a changing world, a better world for black artists, even more specifically black female artists. I would love to talk to you about your journey through the same and how you see yourself in a transforming world of today.
I struggled with being a creator as a young person. I wanted to do so much and dabble in different avenues, for instance I wanted to be a vet because I’m an animal lover but then I wanted to make people laugh so I wanted to be a comedian, then an actor so that I could utilise the trait of connecting with people to bring joy into the world. Through the course of my journey, I learned that the more you experience life, you find yourself doing things you never even imagined. I've been pulled in many a direction and I've learned to adapt to every unimaginable space. Through living my purpose & being an artist, I discovered my true passion was always people and the study of human as a craft, and that’s how I embraced different parts of myself.
I’ve done a lot of volunteer work and whenever I’ve met someone, they’ve redirected me to my treasure chest filled with my true passion. People. They ask me, ‘What else do you do?’ and I tell them, ‘Oh I’m an actor as well” but I’m always human first. A stranger once mentioned they were writing a show, I told them I act and things sort of snowballed from there, next thing you know I was winning an award for best actress in a feature film. Every now and then, a new piece of treasure is added to my chest. You’ll always be rich if you find a lil' bit of treasure in everyone you meet, my chest is always full.
One of my mission statements is Live, Love, Serve. I want to help, I want to serve, and that’s how I believe I got things as well.
What were you, as a person, before you discovered yourself as an artist?
The truth is I don’t think I did discover myself until I discovered my art. You need an outlet to express your deepest emotions. I believe art gives you that, my mother introduced me to journaling and I would write all day. Even with music, I remember as a kid, I felt so much ALL the time, I would watch Mr. Rogers and cry! The very concept that I can exist and be in my own world, but I can still be a part of something bigger through creativity, art or any other medium. I feel like we’re all artists or actors in a way. We all hide behind our emotions and feelings, it's just that some people are really good at it and get paid, like me.
So, my mom was a healer before she became a nurse. Eventually, we just gave her a title and a uniform. It’s the same way with me. I was always that person.
Would you say your work speaks volumes about the kind of person you are or do you like to keep a side of ‘Yaya’ hidden from the rest of us?
I used to think that the characters or roles I play are different from me but lately I’ve realized all the work I’ve done, the people I meet, it’s like I give a little bit of me to everything I do. The truth is it’s still coming from within me! No matter what I do, I know that my work will speak volumes about the person I am today.
I’ve always loved Harry Potter! I used to feel real anger towards Malfoy; same thing with Game of Thrones & the Lannisters even. There is real despise based off of fictional characters & the opposite, real LOVE can be found in character portrayal too. As an actor, our job is fulfilled if the audience believes. Success is believing.
What has been your best work till date?
With every job I do, I always try to make it my best work. Once you agree to it, you have to put in your 100%. In fact, I’d say some of my best work was in college when I was younger. I dont’t have any videos for those past performances, neither was I paid to do them but I know it was some of my very best work.
Here’s a powerful moment from our conversation:
She also talks about one of her Broadway performances, and how it had a major impact on her career:
Our primary education, in one way or another, shapes us into the beautiful souls we become. How were your early childhood days like?
My mum had me very young, she was 16. It’s like I grew up with her. When my mum had my younger brother, she wanted to be more than just a mother figure. I remember being 12 Y/o with a pager and babysitting two kids, cooking, cleaning, everything. The difference between my mom and I – I didn’t really make the choice to become responsible, I grew up like that. I learned feminism at such a young age with my mom just being free and bold and so in tune with herself. My dad wasn’t always present in my life but he was a big part of my life. We grew into a very happy, passionately young family. We learned a lot and sort of grew up together, all at the same time. We went on vacations, did everything together, created family group chats to send updates, still do. They gave me permission & enough space to be an independent, free, vocal human being since the very beginning.
Here's one of her most prized memories. It's amazing how the very incident shaped her into the person she is today!
Growing up, your identity was about what you could achieve as a human – which wasn’t connected to colour. Did you ever truly understand/feel we’re living in a ‘black and white’ world? And were you prepared for anyone who did not see you in the same way you saw yourself?
I lived in a very diverse area in Southern California initially. When I was in 7th grade, we moved to Ohio & suddenly happened to be the only ethnic people in the neighbourhood, well on the street considering we were in the middle of nowhere. We were always constantly judged - how I talked, how I dressed, how I looked, how my parents looked, literally everything. I can remember there were always so many questions. My dad is Cuban but could definitely pass as white & my mom is from the Caribbean & definitely looks ethnically ambiguous herself so my brothers & I stood out like a sore thumb. I was just a kid, and I felt so uncomfortable being bombarded with so much conversation about who I was, where I came from. I had never thought of race before. It was my very first experience. It made me feel that I had to choose only one way to get out of it. Either I wasn’t black enough for black folks or simply not white enough for white folks. You try to fit in so hard that you break yourself into tiny bits until there’s nothing left, you feel broken and all alone. But my mom always told me this – “Your destiny is yours & yours alone”. You’re the only one who gets to choose your own reality. No one can take that away from you! That advice gave me the grace & dignity to face the world head on, foot first. This is why sharing our stories are so important because it makes people feel less alone, there’s always someone out there who can relate.
My mother introduced me to self care. She taught me how to put on makeup, let my hair down, & how to "turn a look". She taught me how to embrace my beauty & be my own person separate from race & I saw how the world treated me differently. Suddenly, my beauty, style & energy became my currency, & bought me a seat at "the table." I know that I’m never going to realise what white privilege feels like but I do know what privilege is and I intend to make good use of that.
Ive been in an interracial relationship & I have many Caucasian friends. Indeed, there are different experiences and different things, us as BIPOC folks, express and relate to. In this country, Black people have their own experiences and we can’t really talk about all of them, and we shouldn’t have to. There have been times where I was furious about explaining myself to friends or my significant other and couldn’t find an easy way out of aggressive conversations based on race. I’m still in that said interracial relationship. And maybe some of my past trauma and experiences reveal themselves in my behavior at times and to me its doesn't feel misplaced, dramatic or crazy, but I understand how the way I see the world is different because I am a black woman and that’s just what we come with, our own reality that is pretty hard to believe let alone relate to, especially if you’re not black.
Have these people ever made you feel inferior to them or like you don’t belong here with the rest?
There are thorns that are stitched into our cultural fabrication. I know these wounds aren't always inflicted on purpose, but I also know every rose has its thorns. Guilt is a hard pill to swallow, as hard as hate. I love my boyfriend beyond the difference of our race and I hate that our relationship has to be a protest, but even I am guilty of blaming him for every white person who has made me feel less. Together we have learned so much about how to survive the sometimes unbearable heat of today’s social climate, but above all else we have learned to let love have the last word. My most recent encounter with ignorance is a testament to this, maybe it’s because of where I was or perhaps it’s because it happened the day before Martin Luther King Jr's birthday, and I don’t believe in coincidences or the inability to love beyond the limits of our prejudice experiences:
When it comes to the film industry, have you ever been offered a role that contradicts your values?
I was offered a role where the plot was around the news and voice for inner conscience for black people, political situations, about Trump, about innocent black lives being taken. I had to do a scene, a monologue about police brutality, against black people. In the scene, it was me and two other cops, one Latino & one black. I had an issue with it because you see, my brother is the Deputy Sheriff of my town. His inspiration of being a police officer was legendary actor, Will Smith in Men in Black; even before he knew the world was black and white, he wanted to be in the Academy. This is why Representation matters. How can you be what you’ve never seen?! I can’t see a world in which we abolish police all together but what would the world look like if there were more black and brown police officers, more people in power for us to relate to more of us with the power. In my heart,the scene was compromised and it was our duty to depict the scene better and my honor to use my voice to stand up for what I truly believe in.
Truth be told, the Director changed the scene entirely.
Meanwhile, here's a snippet of Yaya sharing with us one of her best works portraying black culture, back when she had barely stepped foot in the industry:
Do you think there are enough scripts for black actors?
Absolutely. Every script COULD be cast using a black actor, but that’s not how Hollywood works, the America we live in, or the way we see the world.
Would you like to talk about the POC (People of Colour) representation within acting and art, specifically your fields of interest?
More often than not, I’ve played stereotyped roles - I’ve played a crackhead, baby momma, broken abused woman more than once. I feel it’s about making room for scripts irrespective of race. It has less to do with morals and more to do with money. It’s like how we’ve always seen - Beauty resonates with white people! Black folks don’t fit into the “fairytales” that sell millions b/c the world would like to believe our stories are less complex, nuaunced or love & joy filled than they actually are. We are beyond compelling. We don’t just need more black actors, we need more black directors, casting directors, agents, writers, crew, AND BEYOND ENTERTAINMENT more black nurses, doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, politicians & PEAPLE IN POWER #BlackPower
I LOVE ANGELA BASSETT – one of the first actors that I ever saw on TV in 'What’s Love Got To Do With It'. She's given breath-taking performances and yet she isn't as recognised as the rest.
What is the pay disparity in the industry like?
Similar to all other industries, women are always paid less.It’s the same discrepancy in every business. I learned early in my career to negotiate my own contracts and I’m the only one who can cash and sign my checks. There are always little miracles that lead me to have faith and believe in all that's good in the world like the one I’m about to share with you now. This was when I booked a role in 'I Feel Pretty' with the one and only, Amy Schumer:
Soon after, an LA Film Critic reached out to me and appreciated me for my work and the decisions I've made in my career till date!
Every actor receives some sort of feedback or criticism on their roles during the course of their professional career. What was the one piece of advice that changed your entire life from that moment on?
So, this was my first ever professional production! It was a musical and the director told me not to get too emotional while doing a song – you can’t allow your emotions to get in the way of your objective. That piece of advice carried me through so many different parts of my career and life! You are not your feelings, you have to learn to let them go and focus on what you want, it takes time and practice.
There’s a whole lot happening around us at this very moment, the #BLM movement, the Covid-19 pandemic, #MentalHealth is more vulnerable than ever, what are your thoughts on that? Do you feel a personal connection with any?
There are times in my life when I have acted out of character or shocked myself even with the countless manifestations of pain through my behavior. I constantly have to remind myself, “ You are not your mind. You are not your feelings. You are more than you could ever imagine and greater things you shall do”. These are individual protests; they support a collective energy. There’s never really a justification for suffering. But we would not have gotten to where we are today if it wasn’t for a change. And to bring that change, we gotta start somewhere, so start with every moment of every day. It is my belief that the root of all suffering is - To resist what is; as in to resist the NOW, the present moment. We are changing EVERY DAY. Quite literally, every cell in our body is constantly changing and rearranging to form our unique authentic selves. It is up to the individual to believe that, and we must not resist that as a whole because just as we were all formed from one single cell that manifested into many, our collective energy can rearrange to find that wholeness again and together we can cure the world.
This is something that pains me to even talk about, but I’m sure it’s much harder when others have to go through it. How are black women affected by police brutality? And how do you think they’re shaping the concerns, strategies, and the future of Black Lives Matter?
I think we are the movement! We are also the victims but those stories aren’t being broadcast as loud b/c the voices you here on the Telly belong to the mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, grandmothers, aunts and other women who helped raise these prophets who are being murdered and it’s like it’s in our DNA to protect and honor them. Black women are beyond loyal, strong and brave, and have always been the ones to stand up to oppression because we literally give birth to the oppressed. But who will stand up for us? Black women are all too often caught in the compromising position of defending ourselves while still protecting our own.
I did a film about this. In that, my character was pregnant and a victim of domestic violence yet afraid to call the police because of the fear they might hurt or even kill her husband/abuser based merely on racial profiling.
The thing is we’ve always had to be protectors. That care, that nurture, that fear is always with us from the start, but so is our magic, it’s how we survive.
Magic doesn’t come from talent, it comes from pain. Every ounce of pain makes way for a glorious present.
With #BLM, activists are using the momentum behind this movement to also raise other issues, like economic inequality and LGBTQ discrimination. What are your thoughts on this?
Through the concept of being woke, you start to see everything else that needs examination. People become more aware and take advantage of the moment and pay attention to other social & global issues as well. It’s like, ‘Okay now that I’ve got your attention, here’s something more we could do.’
Let’s switch to a lighter side of the conversation –
We hear so much about the downside, the brutal side of living in your truth as a Person of Colour. What are the glorious upsides of being you?
It’s the joy and love that we embody through our culture, our traditions, our style, our music from our acestors to our newborn baptized babies. No matter where we go, we are always connected and we wear that commonality on our sleeve and somehow after all the years of wrongdoing, that shared beauty black people possess still covers all our scars collectively and we are still #PROUD To be able to talk to the younger generation of who, what and how we are and how we survived as humans. The journey, the experience, the legacy, its empowering, really. There is a stoicism bred into us from our past that is present in my people. I think we recognize it in each other and its that togetherness that really lets us be real and human.
How are you spending your days now when the world seems to slow down a little?
I spent a lot of time in Ohio with my family, with my horses, on the farm, had some adventures with my beau journaling – even have plans to write a memoir or a book. I’ve always done charity work but I still don’t have a non-profit in my name. I think I’ll plan to do just that! :)
Let us in on some secret projects of yours that you’ve been working on.
Haha! Yes. So, I wrote a show about two years ago and we were working on it just before the pandemic. Of course, I fine-tuned it now. Let’s wait and see what happens with that.
But this right here is what I'm really excited about. I can’t wait to see the path this leads us to!
Your full name is Yvette Lashawn Williams, we want to know how you gave birth to the moniker, Yaya?
I changed my name to Yaya on Facebook back in 2012 to sort of separate myself from the media. I used to think that Yaya and Yvette were two different people, instead I made the choice to combine the two and become a new version of myself, another lesson I learned from mum - YOU CAN ALWAYS REINVENT YOURSELF. First YaYa was an alter ego, but now it’s more than just a stage name. Yaya basically means - Saying yes to life two times - YA YA!
Could you guide us as to how we can become better allies to your culture, your truth and your reality?
I’d say just keep the bridge open, keep the possibilities for unity alive. Practice empathy instead of sympathy. Our stories are different but keep telling stories, and stay open to listening and asking questions, leave room for the stories to be heard without fear or judgement, or blame. Be better, not bitter.
I couldn’t let you leave before asking this – I’m a firm believer in environmental justice and sustainable living, be it the choices you make daily as an individual, or even preaching the concept to the masses. What are your thoughts on this? Do you feel this is just a phase or is it really going to stay after all?
I’m a real supporter of the entire sustainable movement! I’d like to believe in the same way the moon goes through different phases to reflect its light, and there are times in its phase we don’t even see it, what looks like a crescent to me might look like a full moon to you. Everything is healing, most of the time you can’t see it and it’s not a coincidence. You have to believe in change, you can’t have one without the other. In fact, the next generation will be a part of the very movement we're in right now, a new phase and journey to wholeness, like the sun & the moon, we share the sky but we’re worlds apart!
Just remember, wherever you go there you are, and it’s not about the destination, but the journey. You always have a choice, you are in control, your destiny is yours alone, follow your bliss.
Listen to how beautifully she wraps this up!
Thank you, Yaya! I hope your story goes far and wide and inspires us to be better, more kind humans today and every day.