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  • Writer's picturePalesa Buyeye

A Conversation with Taraji P Henson

By: Palesa Buyeye

2020 so far has been a year of tests, feelings of failure, doubts and questions about the future, our existence and worth. With black lives mattering still being up for conversation around the world and black women and the LGBTQ+ still finding themselves fighting for space and to live. With all that is happening around us I went back to some of my old archives to try remember how capable I am as a black woman.

As Beyoncé said “You are welcome to come home to yourself.”

A year ago I had the opportunity of interviewing Taraji P Henson during her stay in South Africa. A life changing moment as the award winning actress is one of my biggest inspirations, a woman that has defied all odds proving that it is possible despite, race, age, gender or circumstance. Something I and many of us need to remind ourselves of especially during these trying times. Below is an interview of her time in South Africa as well as some life gems she shared with me.

The actress was in the country promoting Empire with back to back interviews on some of our favourite radio stations but took time to explore. “Seeing the state of some of the country hurt my feelings because even though I know Apartheid is over I’m still seeing the mess that was left afterwards and it’s just like the Civil Rights Movements in America.”

We tend to be very parallel in history. It breaks my heart,” Henson says reflecting on her experience at Constitutional Hill and the Apartheid Museum, a reflection that is still so relevant and present today."

“There is progress made from apartheid but there is still work that needs to be done because there was so much damage done that has not been rectified. So many people still have to deal with that.”

“There are people who are living with horrible images in their head and experiences and they are still suffering, there is a lot of disparity here and the land does not rightfully belong to the people.”

Besides conducting press work and taking pictures with fans the Oscar nominated actress spent a lot of her time in Soweto and believes in the importance of travelling and truly connecting with people of different countries, not just as a tourist.

“Every time I come I go to Soweto, that’s the people, that’s the hood and I am from the hood so I feel more comfortable there,” she laughs.

“It’s interesting because I was talking to my security and driver and I was telling them that hood is the same everywhere you go. It’s just a different country.”

She shares on how her grandmother’s house in the South has dirt roads, train tracks, shacks and no streetlights like many of the roads in Soweto.

The hustle culture of black people as well as trying to save each other from getting robbed is another common trait Henson found. Although the trip was very emotional and eye opening, it inspired the artist inside her.

“I have filled my body with so much information and history, I just want to explode and it is going to motivate me to do something.”

“I’m going to tell you what I won’t do is keep my fat mouth shut that’s for sure,” she jokes as I try and get a glimpse into what she might be thinking of working on.

“I pick films that I hope helps people to provoke change and puts images up that will enable people and move them to do something.”

From Hustle and Flow, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Acrimony and Hidden Figures, the star has a long list of work that is meaningful on a social level.

As we speak it has just been announced that the street outside of NASA Headquarters has been named the ‘Hidden Figures Way’. The film was about mathematicians who worked at NASA during the space race but had been written out of history due to them being black women. “I was very happy that Hidden Figures did come my way because I am always about woman empowerment and unity and the movie certainly addressed that.”

The actress has been a strong symbol of representation for many black women in every sense including beauty standards.

Her big chop was inspired by her first trip to South Africa back in 2016 and has been growing her hair naturally since then. “It’s still very natural and I love it! I am never going back to putting heat in my hair, I love my natural curl and I embrace it,” she tells me. “When you see me in public I wear a lot of wigs because I protect my hair because there is a lot of heat so I’m sure when people see me they think I’m wearing a wig,” she laughs. “The reason why we’ve relaxed our hair for so long was because of no representation, we were told our hair was nappy and ugly and that people don’t get jobs with natural hair. We were beat down for it mentally. I mean people getting fired.”

Henson emphasises the double standard that often take place where braids and “nappy” hair seen in fashion week or on white women is regarded trendy and appropriated without giving a historical background or reference.

“We’ve been doing it!”

Although Empire led Henson to Prime Time queen status with her Cookie Lyon role, the actress almost did not take the job.

“I was on a television series and TV for me is like corporate and I’m an artist, and what I mean by that is that there is a different feeling in studios and networks and so many opinions and hands so I felt I had no control of my instrument. I didn’t like the feeling.”

Henson then went back to theatre, where she was trained. “I always said if I ever got frustrated or felt some type of way like I thought I was not serving the character, material audience or craft I would step away so I was in that limbo and thought before I did that let me go back to theatre and so I went back to LA and went back to theatre.”

Although Los Angeles is not a big theatre going state, Henson was tracked by Fox and asked to read the script.

“I was like why are they here I’m trying to hide out!” She laughs.

“I read the script and I was scared of Cookie, I thought I was going to be pigeon holed again into playing this edgy ghetto role even though I am a trained actor.”

“I realise that was me moving in fear and once I satisfied the fear and stopped judging I really looked at Cookie as a human and dug a little deeper.”

She knew that if she judged the character, she would not be able to empathise which would not translate to the audience.

“I knew it was going to take someone to play her right otherwise if she is not played well she will come off as a stereotype.”

Addressing the fear and not letting it get in her way is something she has had to do throughout her career, even in the beginning.

“When people were saying I was too old or had a child when I moved to Hollywood I had to know that they were projecting their fears on me just because they didn’t make it at 25 or were too afraid to move to California.”

“Once I figured out that people were projecting I didn’t listen to it because I had a bigger picture and once you get a clear vision of what the bigger picture is other stuff becomes like white noise. Your bigger picture is so clear and so in focus that when the naysayers come along it’s like hearing the peanut gallery.”

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