Djaka Souaré is an actress, a producer and a recent film director. She just directed her first short movie, selected in several film festivals in New York: in Jazz in Wakanda, this 'citizen of the world' - as she defines herself - talks about identity, roots and female strength... Please meet Djaka, a beautiful, free, driven and strong woman who wants to change the world!
So tell us Djaka, who are you?
What made you want to become an actress?
My father was an actor, that must have played quite a big role in my decision! And although it can sound a bit "cliché", I do feel that I was born an actress, to impersonate characters always resonated with me. Surely because, for me, there's no art without activism, and that's why I wanted to become an actress: to change the world! Actors and performers are often seen as 'glamourous, or rich and famous', but let's not forget that originally, Greek speakers were a reflection of the society they lived in and played key-roles in it, contributing to political life... (also, in History, they often were the first ones to get their heads cut off!!). My conviction is that acting comes with great responsibilities (even more nowadays with social networks!): through a screen, through representation of every race and color and gender, through characters heightened emotions, you can really touch a million people!
Your first short movie was just released, and has been selected both at the Harlem Film Festival and the 2019 NY African Film Festival! Tell us about it!I wrote 'Jazz in Wakanda' July of 2018. In total, and that includes front and behind the camera, my team was composed of 75% women... The film is about identity and I wrote it after a complicated time at work. I decided that I was finally ready to express myself thoroughly. I also 'found my voice', driven by all that is happening in the world, politicians and their shameful use of populism in recent years. In New York, we voted 99% against Trump, we were really affected, the whole city was so silent afterwards. Even if we mustn't forget that he didn't win the popular vote, it's not the same voting system here. I also always wanted to write about how some people want to put others in boxes. When I was auditioning, back in France, I was most of the time either 'not black enough' for some roles, or 'not white enough' for others. I was offered the role of the cop, the model, the prostitute...! Talk about leading ladies. So, even after getting signed at two of the biggest French agencies - first Cinéart then Artmedia, I decided to leave France, with whom I have a complicated 'love / hate' relationship: I didn't feel like I really existed, there was absolutely zero representation of myself (here again, representation matters!!). I had no strong role model... so I chose Whitney Houston - she was the only one I could relate to! I was obsessed with her... I actually met her when I was 5 years old! She really has a big place in my heart... my biggest fantasy is to impersonate on screen!
And how did you become a producer?
In New York, I had the incredible opportunity to start producing documentaries and narratives for a big company: I worked there for 3 years, learning so much and collaborating with amazing people. But I wanted to make movies that spoke to me personally, so I took a leap of faith and started working as an independent producer last January, also developing my own projects as an actress and film director. The MeToo movement, voices of women finally coming together as one font and speaking out also galvanized me - it's a topic that I've always been an advocate for. Women's rights = Humans rights.
And this played an important role in your journey?
It did, and quickly got involved in the Time's Up movement. In New York, I'm a member of NYWIFT (New York Women in Film & Television), who advocates for equality in the film industry and supports women voices in cinema. Those past two years, I organized a couple of events for them at Sundance Film Festival and TriBeCa Film Festival, wonderful celebrations of women in the industry. The poor number of women directors, producers and in key roles in "show business", making movies, at festivals is a shame; those issues are finally being addressed and that's really exciting. I started theater at the age of 6 years old and started auditioning when I was 16. I've been working in this industry since and have had my share of outrageous moments. Not to mention shocking stories shared by my acting peers. I always knew that I wanted to be part of this industry, but even with an extensive willpower, that life obviously came with events that affect you and leave marks. Here, strength is a must.
Where does your strength come from?
I was raised by a single mother, it was a little bit the two of us against the world, so we had to be strong together. My mother is from a small town in Burgundy, she was working as a pediatric nurse for the Red Cross in Lyon when she met my father (my short film actually talks about his story), who had fled Guinea-Conakry, a dictatorship from which he tried to escape 3 times. After being thrown in prison several times, he managed to get to Dakar, then Marseille... barefoot... He met my mother in Lyon, at a Jazz club. They moved to Paris as a couple - there were not many 'mixed couples' at the time. I am the sum of these two strong personalities: my mother's last name is 'Chevalier', most probably descendants of the Knights of the Round Table. On my father's side, we're descendants of one of the 7 royal tribes of King Keita's empire of Mali (The Lion King!), the Mandingo tribe.
What role did the 'female force' play in your life, in your journey?
My mother is the most important person in my life: my parents separated when I was 6 and my father left to Los Angeles to pursue his acting career. I grew up in a French middle-class environment, with some highs and some lows, but with a very strong women bond. My mother always told me 'I trust you 100%, do not betray this trust'! She was always behind me for homework (I loved school!), she taught me how to read at 5, I had a strong literary and philosophical culture, and was already trilingual: French - English - Spanish at 10 years old. So I grew up with a lot of culture around me, even when my parents were still together: African music, Afro-Cuban rhythms, jazz: one of my first memories is Miles Davis on TV... and a lot of MGM & studio movies from the 30's, 40's, 50's, 60's, like Casablanca, Mogambo, Lost Cargo... Rita Hayworth, Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Humphrey Bogart... I grew up with this Hollywood Golden Age! I am an old soul, always a bit nostalgic... I don't feel very connected to social networks - except for work!! I prefer meeting people in real life, especially if they're super different, and traveling!
Here we talk about hair: what relationship do you have with yours?
As a child, I wanted to have straight hair! It took me a while to realize that it was the societal beauty criteria, of films, of magazines that I was attracted to. I didn't see myself anywhere, apart from in a few African magazines. It's finally starting to be a bit more mixed! And now of course, I have subscriptions to magazines who portray women who look like me! I remember the pain when my mother was brushing my hair to detangle it. She'd seen my father, with his 'African comb' and its big teeth. Even if that was better, today, I would say 'no, let's barely touch it, let's use natural products and leave it alone!' My most traumatic anecdote: I was going to Spain every summer, staying in my best friend's family. That year, I was 7, her mother decided to get my ends cut: but the white Spanish hairdresser didn't have a clue how to deal with my hair! She completely messed up and ended up cutting my hair super short. I went home looking like a little boy, it was terrible... When you touch one's hair, you touch one's identity, it's very intimate...
How did you learn to love your hair? When did it happen?
When I was 18, I would braid my hair after washing it and leave it braided for the night. That way, in the morning, it'd lost its volume - it was as if I was trying to straighten it by any means! My girlfriends were asking why " It's so beautiful with the volume, you have incredible strength with it!" What my entourage saw, I could not see... Most probably from a lack of role model. The real freedom came when I spent a year studying performing arts in the United States, at 17 yo. The African American family I was living with took me to dedicated places with products made for my hair, it truly was a revelation! Back in Paris I went to Barbès, and even if I couldn't find exactly the same products - more "Carribean" and "African", less "Afro Americain"- it was good! When I was living in Hong Kong, my mother sent me products from France - it cost her a fortune! And last important thing: finding the right hairdresser is essential... Here in New York, I found amazing hairdressers who understand and love my hair.
The 3 questions we ask all our Shaeri girls:
What is your #hairtop?
When I finally found and bought (for the first time in my life!) a hairdryer: the ideal hairdryer, with a great diffuser, which I found in the US at Deva Curls! It makes my hair looking like Beyonce's, with incredible volume... it may sound silly but I feel even more like a woman now, because I finally own a hair dryer;)) I always saw my mom with a hairdryer, but I coud never use it - as it normally kills the curls - but not this one !;)
And your #hairflop?
When I was 20, I wanted to test a new hairdresser who'd just opened on the Champs-Elysees in Paris: It was at the time of Mariah Carey's wick. He was black, came from London, I trusted him... but he used the curling iron - it was the first time for me, and I quickly realized that it was burning my hair...! To make things worse, he cut my hair after straightening it, with a half of fringe, and persuaded me toget purple highlights... It was a disaster... After that, I learnt how to say no at the hairdresser!! I think hairstylists are frustrated artists, that get asked to just "cut the tips please"...
I must admit my true phobia: that my hair would catch fire! One day that me and my girlfriends were at a house party, a girl's curly hair caught fire, she was near a candle. My girlfriends always bring back the look on my terrified face and laugh, they say they'll never forget it. Absolutely my biggest fear!
And do you have a #hairtips?
I use virgin coconut oil every day to moisturize and nourish my hair, it's really great. And also sometimes I do not wash my hair like for 5 days: it's super rare, but my hair loves it!
Finally, tells us about your latest projects?
I just shot 'Nairobi', a short film written and directed by Philip Youmans (a very talented 19-year-old director who just won Tribeca Film Festival 2019 Grand Prize for his feature length "Burning Cane", starring Wendell Pierce), produced by Solange Knowles and her Saint Heron agency! Nairobi talks about the Muslim and West African communities of Harlem and Uptown. And I have several projects in development - docs, narratives & TV series - all celebrating diverse voices and multi-dimensional characters. I'm also writing my father's life story...
Shaeri ❤️ Djaka