Djaka Souaré

Djaka Souaré is an actress, director and producer. She has just directed her first short film, selected in several film festivals in New York! In Jazz in Wakanda, Djaka talks about identity, roots, openness and feminine strength, all subjects that are dear to this 'citizen of the world' as she defines herself... A fascinating encounter with a free, beautiful, strong and committed woman - who wants to change the world!

My name is Djaka, I am an actress, producer and recently a director. I am also a jazz singer, a former dancer, a woman of color, and above all a citizen of the world! I was born and raised in Paris, then lived in Hong Kong before moving to New York. Since January I have been living in Los Angeles, which allows me to combine my creativity with the business side of the industry I am in. In fact, right now I'm constantly between New York and Los Angeles, so I kind of live out of a suitcase!

What made you want to become an actress?

My father was an actor, I think that had something to do with it! And if it sounds like a cliché to say that I think I was born an actress, it sounds very true and very deep inside me. Probably because, for me, there is no art without activism, and that's why I wanted to become an actress: to change the world! Comedians and actors are sometimes put in the box of 'rich and famous people', but we must not forget that at the base, in the society, it is the Greek orators who brought the word and who contributed to the political life... they were a reflection of the society (they are often the first ones to have their heads cut off in the History!) So it's a very important place and it comes with a lot of responsibilities (even more nowadays with social networks!): through a screen, through the representation of moments of life, of emotions, you can really touch a million people!

Your first short film was just released, and was selected for the Harlem Film Festival and the NY African Film Festival 2019! Tell us about it!

I wrote 'Jazz in Wakanda' last July. If you count in front of and behind the camera, my team was 75% women... The film is about identity, I wrote it after a complicated time in my life at work, I decided I was finally ready to express myself fully. I also found my voice, driven by everything that's going on in the world, the politicians and their shameful use of populism in recent years. In New York we had voted 99% against Trump, we were really affected, there was a silence in the city the days after. Even if we should not forget that he did not win the popular vote, it is not the same voting system here. And I've always wanted to write about the phenomenon of trying to put people in boxes. For example, when I was cast in France, I was either 'not black enough' for some roles, or 'not white enough' for others. I was offered the cop, the model, the prostitute...! As a result, while I was signed with two of the biggest French agencies, first with Cinéart and then with Artmedia, I decided to leave France, with which I have a somewhat complicated 'love/hate' relationship: I had the impression that I didn't "exist" as much, I had no representation (we're back to representation on the screen, which is so important!). I had no role model... so I chose Whitney Houston - she was the only one I could identify with! I was obsessed with her... I met her when I was 5 years old! She really has a big place in my heart... my biggest fantasy is to play her in a movie one day!djaka

And how did your producer's hat come about?

In New York, I had an incredible opportunity to produce films and documentaries for a big company: I stayed there for 3 years and it really shaped me as a producer. But I also wanted to produce films that spoke to me, so at some point I had to 'take a leap of faith' as they say. I left that company last January and started as an independent producer, obviously also to develop my own projects as an actress and director. It was right in the middle of the #MeToo movement, with women's voices finally being emancipated, it galvanized me, it's a subject that of course has always animated me.

And this has played an important role in your journey?

Yes, because I got involved right away, as soon as things started to move in fact, especially with the Time's Up movement. I started acting at the age of 6, and casting as a teenager, I've been in the industry since I was 16... I think I know a little bit about this business, and I have a ton of revolting anecdotes. Not to mention the stories of my actress friends. In New York I'm part of NYWIFT (New York Women in Film & Television), which fights for women to have a voice in the film industry. I've organized several events for them, at the Sundance Film Festival and the TriBeCa Film Festival. The number of women directors and producers at festivals or making successful films is an embarrassment, so these are all issues that we can finally start to address, without being seen as a pain in the ass or an ambitious bulldozer... I always knew exactly what I wanted, and especially what I didn't want, I think I have a great strength of character in relation to all that, even if it still affects me a lot.

Where does this strength of character come from?

I was raised by my mother, it was just the two of us so we had to stick together. My mother is from a small town in Burgundy, she was a nursery nurse in Lyon when she met my father (whose story I tell in my short film), who had fled from Guinea-Conakry, a dictatorship from which he tried to escape 3 times. After being thrown in jail several times, he managed to arrive in Dakar and then Marseille... without shoes... and then he met my mother in Lyon in a jazz club. The two of them went to Paris, there were not many mixed couples at the time. I am the mix of these two characters, both very strong: my mother's family name is 'Chevalier', a priori descendants of the Knights of the Round Table; and on my father's side, we are the descendants of one of the 7 royal tribes of the Mali Empire of King Keita (it is by the way the story of the Lion King!), the Mandingue tribe. So two very strong people from their past.

What role has the 'female force' played in your life, in your career?

My mother has been a very important presence in my life: my parents separated when I was 6, and my father left to pursue his acting career in Los Angeles. I grew up in a French middle class environment, with ups and downs, but with a very strong female understanding. My mother always told me 'I trust you 100%, don't betray that trust'! She was always behind me with my homework (I loved school!), she taught me to read at a very young age, I had a real literary and philosophical culture at a very early age, and by the age of 10 I was trilingual in French - English - Spanish. So I grew up with a lot of culture around me, even when my parents were still together: one of my first memories is Miles Davis on TV, and then African music, Afro-Cuban rhythms, jazz... and a lot of MGM movies from the 30's to the 60's, like Casablanca, Mogambo,... and then Rita Hayworth, Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Humphrey Bogart... I grew up with this "old time" Hollywood! I'm an old and nostalgic soul... and I'm not really into social networks (except for work), I like real contact, travels, real meetings!


 Here we talk about hair: what is your relationship with it?

When I was little, I wanted to have straight hair! It took me a while to realize that it was the societal beauty criteria of movies and magazines that made you "sexy". Except in African magazines, I didn't see myself anywhere. Now that it has started to move, it mixes more! And I subscribe to magazines where I see women who look like me! I remember my mother pulling my hair to untangle it, but it hurt! Or seeing my father with the African comb! But today I would say to her 'no, you shouldn't touch it or hardly touch it, you should use natural products and that's all! My personal traumatic anecdote: when I was 7 years old, I used to go to Spain every year to the family of my best Spanish friend, and one year her mother decided to cut my hair: but the white Spanish hairdresser didn't know what she was doing! She ended up cutting my hair off, and I went home looking like a little boy...! It was horrible... when you touch your hair you touch your identity, who you are, it's very intimate...

How did you learn to love your hair? When did it happen?

When I was 18, I used to wash it and put it in two big braids that I left in the night, and that way when I woke up it had lost its volume - it was as if I was trying to straighten it by all means!... And my girlfriends would say to me "but why? it's so beautiful! You have an incredible strength with it!" My entourage could see it, but not me, I couldn't do it... Probably because of a lack of role models. And then the real freedom I found in the United States, at 17 years old; I lived with an Afro-American family, and they took me to specialized places with products made for my hair, and it was a revelation! When I came back to Paris I went to Barbès, I didn't find exactly the same... it was different, more "Antilles" and "Africa", less "Afro American"! Then, when I lived in Hong Kong, I had my mother send me products from France, it cost her a fortune! And last but not least: finding THE right hairdresser is essential... Here in the US I have found great 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 hair dryer: the perfect hair dryer, with a great diffuser, that I found in the US at Deva Curls! It makes my hair look like Beyoncé's, with an incredible volume... and it's silly but I feel like a woman because I finally have a hair dryer ;)) I used to see my mom with a blow dryer, but I never had access to it because it normally kills curls - but not this one! ;)

And your #hairflop ?

I was 20 years old, and I wanted to try a new hairdresser who had just opened in Paris on the Champs-Elysées: he was black, he came from London, I was confident! And then it was the time of Mariah Carey's lock...: but he used the curling iron - it was the first time for me, and now I realize that it burns my hair completely! Then he cut me on straight hair, with half a fringe, and persuaded me to do purple highlights....Bref, the cata... Now, when a hairdresser offers me something I don't want for my hair, I know how to say no! Hairdressers are often frustrated to just "cut the ends"...
I also have a real phobia: my hair burns! One day when I was with some girlfriends at a party in an apartment, a girl's curly hair caught fire, she was near a candle. My girlfriends still talk to me about the pure horror face I made, they tell me they will never forget it. I'll admit it's my haunt!

And do you have a #hairtips?

I use virgin coconut oil every day to moisturize and nourish my hair, it's really top notch. And also from time to time I don't wash it for like 5 days: it's super rare but they love it!

Finally, last question: what's your news?

I just shot Nairobi, a short film written and directed by Philip Youmans (a very young 19 year old director who just won the grand prize at the Tribeca Film Festival 2019 for his feature film "Burning Cane"), produced by Solange Knowles and her production company - she's a fan of this young and talented director! Nairobi is about the Muslim and West African communities in Harlem and Uptown - and I'm starring in it, I'm super proud...

Shaeri ❤️ Djaka
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