Tajianna Okechukwu: The Multi-Disciplinary Creative Shaking Culture & Shifting Paradigms
Updated: Nov 15, 2020
I first met Tajianna in our college First Year Seminar class and we bonded over our love of acting, being from the Bay, and navigating double degrees. From 2015 to 2020, I've been able to witness her accomplishments on stage and behind the camera. Tajianna is a well-spring of wisdom, with a kind and generous spirit. Her heart of gold and ability to empathize with those around her makes her a storyteller so authentic and her work purely genuine. She has a willingness to see the world through different perspectives and explores all facets of what it means to be human, especially during a time when we are questioning our humanity. Tajianna's boldness brings her voice and vision to life. She is an actor, director, writer, co-host podcaster, social justice activist, I would add a businesswoman, and much more. She proudly wears many hats and refuses the notion that you can only wear one. Tajianna revels in her identity as a creative and a creative can do many things when passion is afire.
You're a filmmaker, actor, social justice activist, among so many other things. I know this is a hard question, but if you had to give yourself a job title, what would that be?
Haha man, this is why I stay away from labels! I most recently started calling myself an artivist (artist + activist) and multi-disciplinary creative just because of what I’m trying to do in my work and who I’m trying to be. Just being a multi-disciplinary creative is what I’ve started to result to because I have a plethora of interests and passions. I don’t know, I feel like I’m just a champion for change. Is it corny to call myself a culture-shaker?
No, not at all. I love it.
I feel like those are terms that kind of encapsulate not only what I do, but what I stand for. Multi-disciplinary creative, culture shaker, change maker.
What creative project has had the biggest impact on you creatively or personally?
There’s two of them. If I had to choose one, I would say my short film Disguised only because it’s terrible and it sucks because I was in school still learning and I had such a hard time pulling that together. I always resort to this one because it was one of my first short films and the principle of what it represents, what is communicates, was the catalyst for my artistry as a creative overall. It really has inspired the trajectory of my career.
I wanted to do a film with a Black person as the lead and to do something about workplace discrimination. It was a satire about this Black guy who applies for a job and when they see his ethnic sounding name, they’re like “nah.” So Andre, the main character, decides to use the name Bob instead. Then the manager is like, Bob sounds like a great guy! When “Bob” comes in, he has a white paper plate over his face, which alludes to the idea of whiteness equating to success. He gets the job and when he’s about to sign the papers, the film ends. It’s really a commentary on the stuff that still happens today.
That film really impacted me because the professor who worked on it very closely with me was so in it for the satire, the weirdness that it was, and was really aware of the story that I was trying to tell. I will always be grateful to him for that because I was struggling. The day before I was supposed to shoot, I couldn’t find an actor to portray the manager. I was so sad, stressed, and crying. It was my first time posting on a a casting sight as a director and my grade was depending on the project to pass the class. So I made a plea to God saying, “God, if the casting and all of this stuff doesn’t pull through by the morning, I will drop the major and I’ll know this is not for me. If this does pull together, I promise you that I will do this until the wheels fall off. I will continue to pursue this.” Literally, when I woke up, the actor that I would eventually cast submitted for the role. It was just a divine appointment and it was a confirmation from God saying, “Hey, this is going to be difficult, but this is where I need you to be.” I feel like that film has had the biggest impact on me and was the catalyst for where I’m at now because somebody believed in me and the types of stories I wanted to tell.
What propelled you to to delve into other aspects of storytelling rather than just limiting yourself to only being an actor?
It’s crazy, the statement “who you are as a kid is who you are going to be as an adult” is so true. My mom is a creative in her own right, so I grew up going to my mom’s play rehearsals and watching her direct her own features. I was 9 or 10 years old when I got into screen acting and training. Once I got into middle school, I was doing drama classes, taking other fine art classes, and joined leadership, which inspired the fire behind my heart for community and justice. Then in high school, in addition to my drama elective, I was in the Bay Area digital arts track learning filmmaking. So I was always going in between both mediums. I just love both worlds so much. People often ask which one I love more and that’s a tough question because I wouldn’t have doubled majored if I didn’t love them both. Granted, it’s not 50/50 all the time, sometimes it’s 60/40 depending on the project.
During my sophomore year of college, there was a moment that occurred when I was helping my Black girlfriend film her short film. We were in an amphitheater that’s near a noisy street and an airplane flew by. I had this inexplicable feeling, and I don’t really know how to communicate this verbally, but it was a feeling of me speaking, but not me speaking- it was a very spiritual moment. I yelled, “Hold for sound” because the plane was going by. As we were holding, I was like, "What am I doing?" I realized I was so in love with this process and added the cinema major the next day.
This industry is about branding and sometimes people try to put you in a box. You just have to listen to your gut and if God wants you to go down a certain path, you will. You don’t have to have one thing, you can have multiple things and they can roll out at different times, they don’t have to happen simultaneously. People have different interests and endeavors. That’s life and that’s okay. We should be able to experience the wholeness of ourselves and I think that is the beautiful thing about being a multi-disciplinary person: I’m not just one thing. I will not be labeled, categorized, or boxed in.
Would you ever take on a triple threat project where you're the writer, director, and actor?
I’d say a hard "yes" because I think that’s so dope.
I’ve been getting into screenwriting during quarantine. I’ve gotten more in tune with it. It’s less intimidating and scary as I’ve gotten more comfortable and talked with mentors in the industry who encourage me to just write my own stuff. There is the ownership factor too. When I write my own story, that’s my intellectual property, I own that. So to bring that vision to life and to star as one of the characters. . . I think that’s so dope. And of course you have assistants helping out, so you’re not doing everything by yourself, that would be absurd. I definitely would take on a triple threat project where I could write, direct, and star in it.
"Shaking culture and shifting paradigms" is a part of the ethos of what you set out to do. Can you expand on that a bit?
I feel these phrases represent what I’m trying to accomplish and who I am trying to be. Shaking culture, essentially to me, is me through my work- anything that comes through my mouth and anything that my hands touch- is going to disrupt the status quo as we know it or disrupt things that are traditionally seen one way. The goal is to expand people’s worldview into something different. An example is Get Out by Jordan Peele, that was definitely shaking culture and shifting paradigms because there’s a lot of people who didn’t even talk about race before seeing the movie. He wrote this story in such an interesting way that is everyday life with a thriller twist. Get Out was another confirmation of yes, I really want to be a filmmaker.
Shifting paradigms is the same thing, basically changing how things are perceived by challenging perceptions. Paradigms are static, things that have a pattern, are systematic, and are set, so to shift paradigms means shifting the pattern of something, which tends to catch people’s attention. I think wanting to tell stories that are different and that stand out in a positive way will help challenge society’s norms. This will help our growth and understanding of each other, which of course has a lot to do with sociology and psychology, but essentially this is shaking culture and shifting paradigms.
You recently filmed your first ever music video. Congratulations! It was so, so good! What was that process like being behind the camera and being the decision maker? I would assume it’s a bit different than shooting a short film. Can you talk about the process?
I’m so thankful to Janel, the artist, for bringing me on board. The song is called "Queen," it’s about queendom, sisterhood, confidence in yourself, which all women of ethnic backgrounds can relate to. The process of a music video is similar to filmmaking because you’re still storytelling, there’s still a narrative even if you don’t have all the narrative elements. You still have to go through creating a deck: what is the vision we’re trying to create, what is the tone we’re going for, what set design supports the message, what is the lighting set up going to be to successfully communicate that message well, what type of shots are going to communicate what you’re singing through the lyrics? As a director, it’s also about making sure the artist’s vision is communicated well and when they’re stuck on something that they don’t necessarily have a vision for, it’s up to me to make an executive decision on how something should be portrayed. Literally months leading up to the shoot, I had been educated on music videos and creating project decks as a director, so it was divine timing and very helpful. We shot it in 5 hours.
Yeah, it was a very, very, very, very strict timeline. And that was one hour overtime.
I'm shook. I would not have thought it took 5 hours. It was so detailed, so well thought out. Wow, congratulations to all of you, that’s amazing.
Thank you. A lot of the set design had been done before, since they were planning to do this video months ago. I was just able to come in and personalize it a bit more as a director. I’m pleased with how the direction came out and I think it was good for the time that we had and for what it was. We were able to get a location that accented all of the ideas Janel had, so everything was mostly in there. It was a great first experience and since then, I’ve been hit up to do some more music videos. I have some coming out and then from there, onwards!
*(click here to check out the "Queen" music video by artist Janel Chanté).
How has the Coronavirus challenged you to adapt creatively in order to continue making art?
I just want to say that there is no pressure to be creating right now. It’s just a completely unfortunate time that we’re going through, that none of us have ever gone through in our lifetimes, so I think being able to give yourself grace is the first thing. There’s a whole pandemic going on, our people are being murdered in the streets, there’s a lot going on in terms of inequality and inequity in housing, food, education, racial injustice, and discrimination to those with different sexual orientations. I think being able to give yourself grace that you woke up to see another day is the start of everything and then you can go on from there.
I'm a different kind of person. With everything going on in our community, I have this internal drive to just create and channel all of these emotions into the stories I want to tell. It’s only probing the need for Black storytellers even more. For me it’s been a motivator, for other people not so much. It really is a challenging time to be creating and there’s no pressure to be doing anything grandiose right now, although there is still a need for entertainment because there are people looking for that. I’m definitely taking advantage of the time, but at the same time giving yourself grace and taking care of yourself is very important. Create when you feel inspired and channel your emotions into a piece, and if you’re not feeling creative, it’s okay to take a nap. Even just sitting and watching content is okay too because that can be inspiring.
I’ve just been in a learning and executing mode. It’s kinda weird having opportunities during quarantine when everything feels like it’s falling apart while my career is elevating. It just seems so unfair, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to be able to still create in this time. And I’m not forcing myself to come up with things to write everyday, but I will write ideas down. I’m trying to practice mindfulness, being holistic in the sense of how I live as a person and from there, creating the stories that I want to in the capacity that I have the energy to. But if I don’t take care of myself then I won’t be able to create.
You have to fill yourself first before you're able to pour out.
Many times questions are asked to Black creatives about the struggles of being Black in a white, male dominated industry. Instead, I’d like to ask you how has being Black helped you to succeed in the industry?
For me, especially during this time of racial unrest and the past summer as it reached a boiling point, it’s been a joy to be a part of history and to tell people’s stories that need to be told because you’re really just helping yourself and your community by telling the stories of your people. I think it’s such an honor and such a beautiful thing to be able to tell stories about us for us, for our own joy and delight after hundreds of years of misrepresentation and underrepresentation, considering cinema was birthed in racism (example: Birth of a Nation, Hattie McDaniel winning the Oscar for a Mammy role). Being able to redeem and reclaim this space and put positive depictions of Black people out into the atmosphere, I don’t take that lightly. It’s super important because we have the younger generation watching and the older generation watching, who never thought it would come. It’s just wonderful. Also, not every story has to be about blackness from a Black creative. We have a plethora of stories to tell and we can tell stories about different things that don’t necessarily have to do with social issues, although that is my forte because of how passionate I am about everything that goes on. Some of the work I do is not always as cut throat, like the "Queen" video, it’s more lighthearted, very positive, and joyous.
I think it’s great to see the places that we’re going, the doors that are opening for us, and the space being made for Black creatives to elevate themselves. Yeah, people do just kinda feel bad, but I am happy that people are really challenging their networks, challenging their production companies to tell stories that haven’t traditionally been told. I think that’s what makes everybody a better storyteller as well, whether you’re an executive, producer, director, or cinematographer, it’s for everybody’s good to be able to see that kind of content because we’ve been able to see everyone else’s.
The landscape in Hollywood has started to change, like more female directors, more inclusion of actors of color, and narrative diversity. In my opinion, we still need more BIPOC creatives as studio/production heads to really implement structural change, to fix the system. Do you see that happening in the next few years or do you think that’ll take a much longer time to get BIPOC leaders in those positions?
I hope so Mayreni, I really do. I feel like you definitely do have a point, I think it will take a little bit longer for executive roles to be diversified. I think it is harder having higher-ups, where there’s more seniority, a different type of status, making those specific types of structural change decisions. It does need to be diversified because a lot of the decisions have to do with money handling, with overall creative direction, and logistics about distribution, what is and isn’t okay. Sometimes I think that things can be translated wrong if the executive is not of a specific community, even if they hired someone who is BIPOC to lend their voice. It just depends. Hopefully, as we move towards a new direction, there will be more executives and people in entertainment business to help make those decisions and help trickle that down to directors, producers, and people in HR who are sensitive to those topics.
Hollywood has a rep for making movies based off of real events, many times traumatic ones. Right now the world is living through the atrocities of the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmad Arbery, and Jacob Blake to only name a few. In my opinion, Black stories shouldn’t just be about racism, they should also be a celebration of Black lives, right? So if someone in Hollywood decides to make a film about one of the before-mentioned lives, do you think it would be disrespecting or honoring them or would it just be fueling the narrative of struggles that Black people have gone through? The world is living these events, do we need a movie as well?
Not everything needs to be on screen, it’s just overwhelm. For me personally, taking into consideration context, we already see Black people in a negative light in the media, whether through Hollywood or the news, so being aware of your context is super important. I’m so big on context because even I had an idea for a script that I started writing and even though I had a great intention, I was like do Black people really want to see themselves on screen with police right now? Is that something we would really be interested in? So I had to take a step back, not that it’s not a great story, that’s not the point, but it’s all about context and gauging the temperature and the pulse of society because that will determine how well a story does depending on the time. You really just have to read the room and be sensitive to that.
I can only speak for myself, but as a Black person first and a Black creative second, I don’t want to see any films that are necessarily highlighting the atrocities that have been, rest in peace to all of them, their precious lives, but I don’t think I want to see that portrayed. I think it’s too soon to put anything on screen because we’re still living it. These folks are still seeking justice and their families are still grieving. The family has the ultimate say, but you also don’t have to watch everything. Censor yourself. Just because some creatives decide to put things out there doesn’t mean you have to watch it if it’s going to be detrimental to your mental health or you don't support it. You don’t have to watch it and that’s okay. I think you just really have to gauge for yourself.
I personally am dedicating myself to telling stories with not too much grief. I just feel like we don’t want to see ourselves having to struggle or any negative things on screen. I think we’re just so tired and we just want to see ourselves laugh, be normal, and be in love on screen. That’s what I’m trying to dedicate myself to. I do see the importance in telling their stories, it is very important, but in the current times we’re in, I think it’s okay that there doesn’t need to be a film about everything. Conversations can ensue without the need for a film about it. That’s kind of where I’m at right now, but maybe my mind will change in the future.
Can you tell us a little about Brown Skin Girls Conversations?
Brown Skin Girls Conversations is an Instagram live event series dedicated to highlighting Black women of darker skin tones, complexions, and hues because colorism is huge. It is prevalent in the media, on screen, and in our community as well. Specifically, it’s to help start and lead these conversations as someone who is in the light skinned category within our Black community. There’s so much hurt and pain. Even if you just look at the recent atrocities of who has been incarcerated and who has been murdered over what they look like, 9 times out of 10 it’s going to be a person of a darker skin tone because their skin tone is demonized. So there are certain struggles that I won’t experience that my brothers and sisters who are of a darker skin tone and complexion will.
I had this idea mid-quarantine to do live interviews with Black women because we are at the bottom of the totem pole and darker toned Black women face so much strife. I have been interviewing two people per interview and then the interview ends with a performance, a song or poetry, etc. I was feeling inspired by my friend and singer Victoria, which led me to create Brown Skin Girls Conversations to be able to have a space for darker skinned Black women to share and for lighter skin Black women to learn, to support, and to be allies.
I’m thinking of ways to expand it because colorism is the daughter of racism, so that’s why we need to eradicate it as well because there is a hierarchy. The closer you are in skin tone to being white, the closer you are in proximity to whiteness, to being more accepted. Even though we are all black, we do have different struggles because of skin tone and things of that sort. It’s so important to have conversations about colorism. We shouldn’t be scared of the conversation, but rather engage head on and see change.
In 10 years where do you see yourself?
Oooh yes, the question of the decade. In 2030, I hope to have made a lot of people feel seen, to have smiled, and to have told someone’s story, even those who don’t look like me. I want to do this on either side of the camera, whether it’s with a role that I was able to portray or with a visual piece that I was able to bring to light. That’s essentially it. I just see myself being happy and content with storytelling. Tangibly, I will have a larger body of work that will consist of stories that highlight social issues by putting a mirror up to society and examining the zeitgeist of what is going on at the time or what has gone on in the past. Just telling stories that are raw and authentic.
As we round to a close, what would you tell your 12 year-old Tajianna self?
I love her. I would say, “Girl, you’re gonna do such great things, just keep going. Don’t take everything that people tell you with such sensitivity.” I wish I had a little bit of thicker skin at that age, I’m still sensitive as a person, but I’ve grown thick skin in this industry, you grow it quickly. I would just tell her to keep her head on straight, keep going, don’t give up. It’s going to get really difficult and you’re gonna feel incapable a lot of times, but you know more than you think you do and you don’t give yourself enough credit for the things you have the capacity to do. Use the day before as knowledge for the next day and keep moving in that fashion and you’re going to accomplish the goals you set out for yourself.
What is a movie every person should watch?
Who are some upcoming artists we should keep our eyes on?
Janel Chanté @janelchante
Liv Heavenly @livheavenly
J.P. Pressley @iamjppressley
Aaliyah Filos @aaliyahfilos
Do you have a life mantra you live by?
“If you want something done, you’ve got to do it yourself.”
How do you define success?
Success is when you become happy with achieving your purpose.
Bay or LA?
Bay! Of course.
Favorite food in the Bay that you recommend?
Home of Chicken and Waffles in Jack London.
I can always guarantee you'll have a good meal there. That's such a hard question though, there’s so many good places in the Bay.
Hypothetically speaking, how would you spend your last day in the Bay Area if for some reason you had to leave for the rest of your life. How would you live your last day in your hometown?
I would go to the beach in SF to see the bridge one last time. I'd go eat in Downtown Oakland, maybe go to Jack London to the Chicken and Waffles place or maybe Solely Vegan. There's also some paint and sip places there as well. I would just try to find as many activities to do in Downtown Oakland as possible and hang out with friends and chill. And then when I leave to wherever, hopefully Nigeria, half of my heritage, hopefully I could send money back to build a studio in Oakland, so that technically I left a piece of me here. So yeah, that would be sweet. ♦
*Follow Tajianna and her work through these links:
Brown Skin Girl Conversations on IGTV