Podcast

Episode 80 – Amena Brown, Poet and Performing Artist

When Amena Brown steps on stage, she carries with her not only a life full of experiences, but the ability to communicate her journey through a deep, vulnerable, hilarious, and bold artistic voice. Today, Amena and Jessica talk about the power of vulnerability and how we can change the messages that play on a loop in our mind. Plus, Amena shares the amazing story of collaborating with THE Tracee Ellis Ross!

amenabrown

TRANSCRIPT

Jessica: Hey everyone! Welcome back to the Going Scared podcast. This is your host Jessica Honegger, founder of the socially impact fashion brand Noonday Collection. Are you ready for honest and vulnerable conversations that will inspire you towards action? Join me here every week for conversations on living lives of purpose by leaving comfort and going scared.

I wanted to start off today with a thank you. I love getting to sit down and have these conversations with entrepreneurs, with therapists, with artists. It’s such an interesting podcast for me because we truly do talk to so many people from so many different backgrounds. And we wouldn’t be able to do that without you, our listeners. So, I wanted to just take a hot second to just share with you what some of our listeners are saying over on iTunes. @cmrosebrock says, “Thank you for selecting guests that always promote happy, healthy habits that we can implement immediately. Jessica’s relatable, encouraging, and I listen every week.” @Misheltie says, “I love this podcast and the amazing folks Jessica interviews. She asks great questions, always makes me think and apply a practical insight to my own life.” @KristinSchell says, “Weekly wisdom. I look forward to Jessica’s interviews every week. Challenging, thoughtful, and real. I learn something every episode.” By the way, thanks, Kristin. I’ll go hop on over to your podcast and leave a review, too. @lollylaurell86 says, “Approachable and inspiring. Great podcast. Jessica’s charming and relatable. It’s easy to love joining a conversation that she hosts. Love how approachable and full of actual business information this podcast is.”

Thanks so much for those of y’all who, first of all, listen, because I love knowing that I’m in your ears no matter what you’re doing. Whether you’re taking a break at work, whether you’re doing laundry, whether you’re on a run, whatever it is, it is such an honor to know that I get to be with you during that time. I love to know what you are learning. What you love, because that informs our guests that we have on this show, it informs the kind of conversations that we have with those guests. And we’re in the middle of planning 2020. So, if you’ll hop on over to iTunes and leave a review, let me know what one of your favorite episodes has been. We really do follow those insights. So, thank you so much.

So, if you do follow me on Instagram, or Facebook, or if you are a part of my email community, you know I’ve been remodeling my house for the last six months and living in an Airstream. I’ve talked about that quite a bit in these conversations. And we’re back in our house. We’re back in our house. The first morning I woke up, and I smelled the coffee that my husband was making wafting through the house, and I had forgotten what that smelled like, and tears came to my eyes. It has been so, so glorious. And we are going to be taking you behind the scenes to that home remodel. We purposefully are keeping it small, so we stayed within our footprint, and we hired an architect who also lived in a small house with twins and another child. And then my interior designer lives in a 1600-square-foot house, so I wanted to take y’all behind the scenes about what it looks like to maximize your space. So, we’re going to be interviewing my architect and my interior designer. What do you want to know? Hop on over to Instagram, DM me, and tell me what you would like to hear in that interview.

OK, I also wanted to tell you that I am going on the road in November. All of my email subscribers will get the details. I am going on the road to do Noonday Collection Trunk Shows. Noonday Collection Trunk Shows are gatherings where women gather their friends in their homes or their workplace. We shop, we use our purchasing power for good, we style each other. So, I’m coming, possibly to a town near you to personally style you and also to share some of the powerful stories of building a flourishing world around the globe. I’m going to be headed to Boston, New York, D.C., Greenville, Charleston, Savannah, and Atlanta, and I cannot wait. So, if you want more details, hop on over to jessicahonegger.com and subscribe to my email list. I’m going to be sending an email out in the next couple of days with all of that info.

Alright, without further ado, today’s podcast is such an honor, such a treat. It is my friend, Amena Brown. Amena is a spoken word poet, performing artist, and event host. She actually came and spoke at our Noonday Collection Ambassador conference last January. She recently wrote and collaborated with award-winning actress, producer, and activist Tracee Ellis Ross, which, if you are a Blackish fan, then you know who that is. She collaborated and wrote Tracee’s manifesta for her natural hair product line, Pattern. And this is Amena’s first time to get to share all of the juicy details of how that came to be.

And you guys have got to head over to Pattern and watch the video, the brand launch video, and listen to Amena’s poem. It will absolutely bring tears to your eyes. Amena is so, so talented. She also hosts a podcast, HER with Amena Brown, where she centers and elevates the voices, stories, and experiences of black, indigenous, Asian, and Latina women on a different theme each season. So, you’ll have to check that out.

Amena is so talented, and she lives life with such soulfulness and connection to the vulnerabilities around the world. And she’s also really hilarious. So, I’m excited for you to tune into this conversation.

 

Performance and Vulnerability

Jessica: So, OK. I wanted to ask you first about performing, because I have seen you perform in a little bar, in bars. I’ve seen you perform in stadiums. And there is something to me that is so vulnerable. It is one thing when you’re watching maybe a musician sing songs that maybe she hasn’t written, or even going to watch an actor perform. There is something entirely different when you are watching a performer perform her own words. It evokes a vulnerability in me because it just feels so vulnerable. So, I wanted to hear what has been your journey into actually performance art? What came first performance or the writing? Tell me about it, spoken word performance artist.

Amena: Yeah. The writing definitely came first. I was and I’m still an introvert, but I definitely was more introverted and withdrawn as a child. So, I just did a lot of journaling, and writing poems, and stories in my little notebooks all over the place. I always wanted to be a writer. I actually thought I was going to become a novelist because that was my favorite way that words could be put together was in a novel. So, I wanted to be young Alice Walker, young Toni Morrison. That was really my dream. So, I honestly laugh at the thought now that I am a stage person, because that was not really … Well, that’s not completely true. I would say, it wasn’t something that I would have thought of my younger self like, "Oh, that’s what I’ll be when I become an adult." I thought that I might be comfortable talking to people and crowds and stuff like that, but not performing.

“I was and I’m still an introvert, but I definitely was more introverted and withdrawn as a child. So, I just did a lot of journaling, and writing poems, and stories in my little notebooks all over the place. I always wanted to be a writer.” Amena Brown

But I will say this, I watched a lot of comedians behind my mother’s back when I was a child. And these were comedians that children were not supposed to be watching probably. I watched Eddie Murphy’s "Delirious" as a child. My mom had recorded it. I don’t remember if it became at HBO or whatever, but she had recorded it on VHS probably for her own viewing. And I was a latchkey kid. So, I was allowed to watch television for 30 minutes after school while I waited for my mom to get home before I did my homework. And I watched Eddie Murphy’s "Delirious" for three weeks straight as a fifth grader.

Jessica: A fifth grader.

Amena: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. My moment

Jessica: Not even an eighth grader. Eighth grade, I don’t know but fifth grade.

Amena: Yeah. Definitely fifth grade. And there were some parts of it that I was like, "I don’t understand what he’s talking about, but this is really cool." And so of course this was around that era of comic relief on HBO with Billy Crystal, and Robin Williams, and Whoopi Goldberg. I watched Whoopi Goldberg’s Broadway special, where it was just her, and she had that I don’t know if it was a white piece of fabric or white towel. It’s like a white piece of fabric, some kind of way. And she used it in these different ways to go in and out of these different character’s voices. So, I will say, I remember watching those as a child and thinking, "I do wanna be kinda doing something like that. I like that," you know? Just me and a mic up there, that was sort of my crazy dream that I was like, "I’m pretty sure I’ll never do that." But I loved it. That comedic part didn’t really come back to me until I was in my 30s as far as showing up in what I was doing on stage.

Jessica: Really?

Amena: Yeah, yeah. It’s kinda crazy now to think about that.

Jessica: That is crazy. And it’s hopeful. I mean, I didn’t really discover my voice, and my career, and my calling until my 30s. And I think that I just had one of my colleagues just turned 30 yesterday and she was just so mortified by it. And I was like, "Girl, girl welcome to your life, welcome."

Amena: Yeah. It’s just the beginning right there. Yeah.

Jessica: Oh, gosh. So, it’s so interesting because I feel it’s rare that I meet people that sort of knew what they were meant to do in the world and what they were meant to make in the world from a very young age that I feel that’s really powerful. So, you knew from a young age, I’m a writer. And then what was the journey of that, you know? In high school, were you winning lots of writing awards, did you go on to college to write? What spins your professional journey?

Amena: Yeah. I wrote for a long time just on my own outside of class. I probably started doing that in junior high, I think, because you have those pivotal moments in elementary school where you get to the poetry portion of the curriculum, right? And I remember really enjoying those projects. We made our own poetry books in fourth grade. And I remember really loving that. But I don’t think I really started just on my own when it wasn’t a class assignment writing until I was about 12. And my mom was very big on setting the expectations right. So, she let me know that she did not believe in privacy in her house. And so, she was…

Jessica: It wasn’t a core value.

Amena: Oh, no. She just let me and my sister know that right off the top like, "I don’t believe in privacy. So, if I find it, I’m reading it." So, this, of course, was before you would be texting your friends. There was no phone. You were writing them notes during class and passing them between whatever. So, if I was gone, that lady would open up … you know how we had all these fancy ways, you’d fold it, whatever, and she’d open up everything and read it. And so, she found some of my poems. And she still says to this day whenever she moves, she finds these little scraps here and there of little pieces of paper that I was writing poetry on. And so, she found my stuff and told me that she thought it was beautiful. She thought it was really great especially for me being the age I was. She thought I had something, but it was my mom. I totally didn’t believe anything that she said.

 

Spoken Word Poetry

So, I competed in speech competitions. I remember I did that. Our church had a Black History Month oratorical competition every year. And you could submit either your own work or you could memorize the work of another black poet. So, I would memorize Maya Angelou, or I’m James Weldon Johnson, or Paul Robeson. They had these really beautiful longer pieces that you could orate like that. I would never win, and it would make my mom very mad. And she would be like, "They let that other girl win because she did her own poem. Why don’t you enter the competition with your own work?" And I was like, "Nobody likes my work except for you, mom. So, I’m not doing that."

“Our church had a Black History Month oratorical competition every year. And you could submit either your own work or you could memorize the work of another black poet. So, I would memorize Maya Angelou, or I’m James Weldon Johnson, or Paul Robeson. They had these really beautiful longer pieces that you could orate like that.” Amena Brown

Now, this is also historically, right? I’m graduating high school in the late ’90s. So, you’re also watching Love Jones was a black romantic film that came out in the late ’90s. And Larenz Tate played a spoken word poet in that film. So, there’s a great generation of us, particularly those of us who are black poets, that are doing spoken word because we saw him do this in that movie. We were in high school or college, and we were like, "That’s what I wanna do.” Because it’s sort of married hip-hop wordplay with jazz rhythms and poetry. All in one thing." So, as I’m sort of going through this thing with my mom and the speech competitions. And my mom entered my work into a competition. If it won, I had to go there and perform my poem, right? All this is happening at the same time as…

Jessica: Would she secretly entering you into things?

Amena: Yeah. She absolutely secretly entered me and did not tell me until it won. It was three or four days later that I was gonna have to go to the thing. And my mom is not a mother that you negotiate with. You do not negotiate with her. If she said we’re going, if you feel a way about it, you feel that inside. You’re gonna do whatever that lady says to do. So, I did. So, she is in part because she pushed me much further than I would have ever believed in myself, because I got the experience of doing my work in front of a crowd of strangers, you know? I didn’t know any of the people that were at that award thing. And watching them applaud what I did and lean in to listen to me definitely pushed me forward, plus all the hip-hop that was going on in the late ’90s, and Lauryn Hill, and Missy Elliott, and I mean, all of that was sort of this great stew.

And I went to high school in San Antonio, Texas. And now, there’s totally a spoken-word scene in San Antonio. But there wasn’t then when I was leaving high school. So, I moved to Atlanta for college. And Atlanta did then and still does have a really thriving poetry scene. So, I just started going to different open mics, and failing, and doing really bad, and realizing that I was wack, and I thought I was so much better, you know, than I was. But in a way, that was good for me because it’s interesting that a lot of the comedic parts kinda returned to me in my 30s because the process for spoken word poets is very similar to what comedians do. When they discover they have a new bit, they have to take it to the open mic to work it out, to see if the bit’s gonna do the right things. And then exactly what we do as poets. You may go home in your room and write whatever you wrote, but you don’t know if it works until you take it out in front of an audience, and at least start reading it, start memorizing, performing it.

“The process for spoken word poets is very similar to what comedians do. When they discover they have a new bit, they have to take it to the open mic to work it out, to see if the bit’s gonna do the right things. And then exactly what we do as poets.” Amena Brown

So, I started doing that in college and really still didn’t think this will be my career. I still just thought like, "Oh, I’ll do this on the side." When you’re in college, you have a lot of grandiose thoughts about adulthood, right? So, I’m, like, "I know what I’ll do. I’ll become a professor. And on my school breaks, I’ll write my poems," whereas now, my friends who are professors are like, "That is the last thing that you’re gonna be doing on your break. You’re just gonna go to bed and take a vacation, please." So yeah, that’s kind of how I got my start as a performer, you know?

 

Old Rhythms and Broken Records

Jessica: OK, In the midst of all of this, you also wrote a book in 2017, How to Fix a Broken Record. And in it, you talk about how to stop the lies that we tell ourselves, the lies that say we’re unlovable. Where does this book come from in the middle of your speaking career and being a spoken poet? Why this topic for this book?

Amena: I think I was determined after my first book, because I wrote my first book a few years ago called Breaking Old Rhythms several years ago now. And I think, in part, I wrote that book because a lot of people were telling me in my career, it was time to write a book, right? They’re like, "Amena, you’ve done all these things, you’ve accomplished this and that, it’s time to write a book." And after the experience of having written that book, which I’m still feel like it’s the … I wrote the lessons I’d learned up to that point of life. So, I’m still very proud of that book. But I decided after the process of that book, that I would not write again until I felt like I had something I really want it to say. And not just feeling like because "it’s time," because that’s terrible for inspiration or anything. It’s like, "Well, it’s time." It’s like, "Well, it’s time to get married," like, no, no, no, either that’s what you wanna do.

Jessica: It’s almost like you’re doing it more for the outcome, than the creative journey of it.

Amena: Yeah. And then that’s gonna get you all messed up depending on how different things turn out, right?

Jessica: Yes, yes.

Amena: So, I decided I was just gonna wait. So, I waited quite a few years in between those two. And I started feeling that book sort of germinating, which is kind of how ideas come to me. It’s like at first, they’re kinda nagging a little bit. It’s a little nag like, "I got these things I want to talk to you about." That’s how my ideas are. And I’m like, "No, no. No, no. I don’t wanna deal with that right now. No, no." And over time, they just start yelling and banging their fists on the table until I’m finally like, "All right, all right," I’ll sit down and write. So, that’s kinda how this book was. But I knew one thing and even just talking about the comedy with you. There had been a summer that I read a lot of comedic books written by women. I had read Tina Fey’s Bossypants. And I’ve read Amy Poehler’s Yes Please.

Jessica: That’s one of my all-time favorites.

Amena: Wasn’t it so great.

Jessica: Oh, it came to me in my life when I needed it.

Amena: Oh, it was so good. I read Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns). I read Issa Rae’s The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. That was all within a few months’ time that I read all those books. And I knew then I want to write a book with this framework. I wasn’t sure what it was gonna be about. But I was like, "I wanna use this framework where it’s shorter chapters." And I wanted it to be a read that was depth-full and also entertaining, right? So, then it took me a few months to be like, "OK. Well, now you know how you, wanna write it," like, "what are you gonna write about." And I just started thinking about where my last book had left off. I was probably 28, 29 when the last book left off. And then I’d been living all this life in my 30s. And I always like to say that my 20s were this additional puberty. It wasn’t my body was going through the puberty, but my … I’m trying to figure out my values and who I wanted to be in the world. I just felt like wet cement a lot of that decade, right?

“My 20s were this additional puberty. It wasn’t my body was going through the puberty, but my … I’m trying to figure out my values and who I wanted to be in the world. I just felt like wet cement a lot of that decade.” Amena Brown

Well, then my 30s came, and it wasn’t that I didn’t still have places that were still I need to determine who that is. But I definitely entered that decade feeling a little more sure. But then there was still some shifting that happened there. And I was like, "What is the thread, here?" And I felt like the thread of my 30s was thinking about what were the broken records there, what were the messages about myself, about love, about relationships, about friendships, about my body, what were all of those things that, through different eras of life and through different times and experiences, became these messages that just were repeating? And almost so much so that you’re not even questioning if they’re true. They just become present there.

Jessica: Right. They feel factual.

Amena: Yeah. You’re like, "Well, I must be unlovable. Based upon these things that have happened in my life, I must be an unlovable person." And that’s why these certain circumstances have taken place. Whereas my 30s became like, "Let’s stop that record for a minute from playing, and ask, and critique is that even true? And if it’s not true, why do you believe it? Where did it come from?" And I think a lot of that process happened to me, I mean, still now, honestly. But it was beginning in my early to mid-30s and trying to unearth those things and where there were lies, stopping them from playing and replacing them with what was true, but that turned out to be this really excavating type of process in order to go through the healing process where you get to what’s really true about you.

Jessica: How do you think that impacted your performing?

Amena: I think it impacted my performing because it pushed me to be even more myself. I think having had a career where I was, in a lot of ways, a content creator, right, I was invited into a lot of spaces to compose poems for this different messaging that maybe an organization or a company had that they wanted me to write about. And those were great opportunities, too. I think those can be great uses for the gift of writing and creating whatever type of content you make. But if you don’t watch it, over time you’re losing your voice, because you’re so used to sort of taking on these aspects of whatever you’re being asked to write. So, as I was working on the book, once I finished the draft of the book and then it gets sent out, you know this whole thing how it gets sent off to some people to tell you if it sucks or whatever. And so, you’re waiting to hear back from them like, "Does it suck? What percentage does it suck," all those things.

Jessica: Will it sell 10? Will it sell 1,000?

 

Permission to Grown and Change Authentically

Amena: Yeah. What are we talking about here? In between there, I was also writing poems. So, I just found that that book birthed in me more courage to be exactly who I am. Even if I thought that might not fit people’s expectations, or it might not be whatever people hoped it was, or, Jessica, it might not be what I would have written about 5 years ago or 10 years ago, right? That fear too of people have been following you, they get used to a certain thing to come from you. And you’re like, "But I’m growing all the time and becoming as a person," which means I want my books, my writing, my poetry, my stage stuff to reflect that. So, I think in a way that book pushed me in some good ways to just be more honest, you know?

Jessica: It’s interesting because I feel anyone who’s being truthful with themselves is on this journey to discover our own authentic self, and to take off the masks that we inevitably end up putting on throughout our lives, perhaps especially in our 20s. But I wonder, is there a way to short-circuit the process because I feel most people do go through this kinda mid-30s. It seems like mid-30s on into the 40s is when … it’s you realize your hustling is actually not working for you, or perhaps you’re just sitting on the sidelines of your life is not working for you. It’s an awakening that can happen. I wonder if that can happen in people’s 20s. I haven’t talked to many people that had it happen earlier in life? Do you think that this is just part of age?

Amena: I do think a part of it is stages of development. But I do try now to do something that I wish … I either wish I would have asked more women about that were 10 or more years older than me. I either wish I would have asked them more or I wish even if I hadn’t asked that they would have told me and I try to practice this when I’m talking to women who are, at this point, I’m 39, so who are 10, and in some cases, 15, 20 years younger than me. There are some things that I like to say to them now about what that era of their life might be like, you know? I feel a lot of ways, 30 is this mountaintop for a lot of us as women. And there are things we think we will have or have access to by the time we get there.

So, we’re doing all this stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff in our 20s. Where it’s like, "We’re gonna get to this mountaintop." And then many of us get there and are like, "Hey, this is not at all what my 21-year-old self dreamed this was gonna be," or, "I don’t have the things that I thought I was gonna have," or, "I do have some of those things, but then I don’t have these other things," there’s all that. And I try to say this is a rough and tumble journey. It will not all go smoothly. You will be reinterpreting your expectations of your life all the time, and it’s OK. I’m always trying to give people in their 20s that permission. It’s OK. If you go to college, when you get out of college, just get a job. Even if it’s not in your field, just get you one, and you might hate it. And you might hate the person that you work for. And you might be sitting there going, "This is not my dream job.” And it probably isn’t. And you know what? That’s OK because every experience you have is just making the good gumbo, the good stew of who you’re going to become," right?

So, I do this a lot more now in my 30s when I meet women who are in their late 40s into their 50s. I ask them a lot more questions now about like, "What were you thinking when you turned 40, when you turned 45, when you turned 50? Is your life like what you expected it to be like? Are you doing what you thought you’d be doing now?" And that gives me a lot of freedom. So, I try to do the same thing to speak back to women who are feeling like they gotta have all this stuff together at 23 years old. It’s like, "Well by the time you’re 23, you better be in your career, and already have your PhD, and be married, and already have two kids," you know? Everybody’s journey is gonna be so different and giving ourselves more permission to live the life that we’re going to have, and not a life that anyone expects of us, and not anyone else’s life either.

Jessica: Right. It’s a river, not wet concrete where every step you make is somehow gonna leave some permanent mark on the rest of your life. I mean, there’s a level of letting go, and jumping in the river, and letting it carry you. It just sounds like your mom was definitely more the you get a job. You get a job. I don’t care if meets your passions, girl. You get yourself a job.

“[Life is] a river, not wet concrete where every step you make is somehow gonna leave some permanent mark on the rest of your life. I mean, there’s a level of letting go, and jumping in the river, and letting it carry you.” Jessica Honegger

Amena: She was like, "Do something, honey." And ironically, even my mom was a single mother, she married her high school sweetheart, and then was divorced within maybe within 10 years of that marriage, right? So, I think even watching her at the time in her generation, this is your dream life? You’ve married your high school sweetheart. You’ve had a child with this person. This is the dream life. And she arrived in her late 20s with a totally different life than she thought she was going to have, you know? But her agreement with my grandmother, because my grandmother is diehard about education. So, my grandmother was like, "I’m not gonna allow you to marry this man as a high school senior. When you graduate, I’m gonna let this wedding happen, but you have got to finish your bachelor’s degree. That’s your agreement to me." So, my mom finished her nursing degree, and that was her dream career.

So, even as a single mother having experienced divorce and having experienced plenty of setbacks in her life, I still got to watch my mom do the career she loved. And I think that really inspired me, yeah, inspired me. And just, she worked really hard so that I had the freedom to decide to become an artist. She would have loved for me to go to medical school to be honest. She still had a lot of hope. She was like, "You know, English majors can still go to med school because we need doctors to be good writers." And I was like, "Girl, I can’t add, and I don’t like science." And apparently, those are two things that are hugely important to becoming a doctor. But what’s funny is I wanted to be a gynecologist, Jessica, when I was, like…

Jessica: Well, this isn’t shocking to me.

Amena: Maybe middle school, I wanna say. But let me tell you what I thought. I thought that gynecologist works master hairstylists, right? So, I was like, "This is gonna be great," there’s gonna be a shampoo assistant who’s gonna do all the exams, and that person is gonna make sure y’all bodies is everything. And then after they finish with you, you’ll come to my office, and I will talk with you, and I will explain to you and answer your questions. So, I was gynecology is perfect for me. I’m basically gonna talk to women all day. And then my mom was like, "Let’s go on a hospital tour," introduces me to this wonderful black woman gynecologist. And the first thing she said to me, Jessica, "So my job is 75% surgery." And I was like, "Huh? What’d you say now, because where do the shampoo assistants go? What are they
doing? Why they’re not taking care of that part? I don’t get it." So, I’m still doing my dream career minus the surgery.

 

Collaborating with Tracee Ellis Ross

Jessica: Minus the surgery. Minus the surgery. That’s amazing. OK. Speaking of hair, speaking of hair, hello, hello, you just wrote and collaborated with thee Tracee Ellis Ross on her new natural hair product line, what the heck? What on earth? What on earth?

Amena: Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh.

Jessica: How did that even happen?

Amena: I still look back on it and I’m like, "That is crazy." I’ve never had anything like that happen in my life.

Jessica: Seriously, I have a chills right now just talking about it.

Amena: Oh, man. And what’s crazy is when 2019 began, I was experiencing high amounts of anxiety, Jessica, because I’m a person who just experiences intuition in my body, right? So, I could feel in my body that some things needed to change for me, career-wise, that I was letting myself make myself small in some spaces that I shouldn’t. And I knew I needed to change. I knew I needed to broaden even what I was doing. And I felt anxiety being in between because I knew that I needed to broaden from this thing I knew, I need to go on to this thing I don’t know, but I’m sitting here in the middle and I don’t know what’s about to happen. So, high levels of anxiety and just trying to figure out what does all that mean. So, in the middle of that, I get an email into my website. And it says, "Hi Amena. I’m so and so from this creative agency in New York City. We’re working with a black female celebrity client on a natural hair brand. We love your work. We would like you to write a soulful piece for us that our client can say on these promotional items." And I was like, "This is a scam."

“I could feel in my body that some things needed to change for me, career-wise, that I was letting myself make myself small in some spaces that I shouldn’t. And I knew I needed to change.” Amena Brown

Jessica: Yeah. Especially because they kept the “celebrity client” a little anonymous.

Amena: Because I mean, plenty of people can be … I’m a celebrity in Cleveland, you know what I mean? And you’re like, "OK. But I don’t know what that means for me. And I don’t know…" So, I forward it to my, now, manager. And I was like, "Just work on this for me and see if this is legit."

Jessica: See if this is real.

Amena: Yeah. And she writes back, she’s like, "It’s totally legit because they wanna tell us more information, but they can’t tell us anything until you and I both sign nondisclosure agreements." And she was like, "And that is telling me that this is not a celebrity who’s only famous in Cleveland." It’s probably someone else. So, I’m like, "OK. She’s also that person wants to talk to you on the phone tomorrow."

Jessica: Did your mind start of racing like, "Who is this? Who is this?"

Amena: Oh, totally, totally, because I’m, like…

Jessica: OK. Who were some of the five people you thought of who it was?

Amena: Well, first of all, we have to hit the triumvirate of black womanhood, period. So, we have to ask, "Is it Beyonce? Is it Oprah? Is it Michelle Obama?" We have to know first. Is it those three names?

Jessica: Those are your three. Those are your go-to three.

Amena: Because that’s a level of freak out where it’s … I have to quit work for a couple of weeks and just contemplate my life.

Jessica: You actually have to take the call from the bathroom. That’s how nervous the tummy situation would be.

Amena: Yeah. No. Yeah. It’s a lot. It’s a lot. And I’m like, "I don’t even know if my voice will speak on the call," I don’t know. And then I was like, "Is it Solange?" She was like, "No." I was like, "OK. So, we got those four names out." But honestly, in addition to those names, there are so many black women doing amazing things who I would just … I couldn’t imagine because there were so many that I would have been freaked out for it to be. And when she said, "It’s Tracee Ellis Ross." I was with my mother and my grandmother we were actually headed to North Carolina for a gig. I remember I got out of the car because we were at Starbucks where I had just signed the nondisclosure agreement.

I remember running around in front of the Starbucks in a random town of North Carolina. I definitely cussed my mom and grandma couldn’t hear me from the car doors because I’m sure they could. And I just couldn’t believe it. And I was like, "Oh, my gosh. And she wants to talk to me on the phone tomorrow? Are you kidding me?" So, of course doesn’t sleep, doesn’t eat food, because I’m just drinking Topo Chico just trying to make it until this call. And after you sign the NDA, you can’t tell anybody it’s her. And you can’t tell anybody what it is that you’re gonna be working on, right? So, I take the call…

Jessica: You can’t tell your mom and grandma in car.

Amena: Well, my mom and grandma knew because my mom actually guessed because Celeste said after we went through my initial four names, Celeste said, "What rhymes with boss?" I couldn’t think. My mom was like, "Diana Ross." And Celeste said, "Your mom is very close." That’s when she said it was Tracee Ellis Ross. So, my mom and my grandma were basically under a family NDA, that unless we were together and in-person, they can’t talk about it just like I can’t talk about it, and they agree. So, I took the call from the car in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, right before I had to speak at an event.

Jessica: Oh, my gosh.

Amena: We’re on a conference call. So, the team from New York is there. Tracee gets on the call with a couple of members of her team. And they talk through everything with me. She tells me about Pattern. And she said, "We’re in the middle of a revolution. And people of color are at the center of that. And that is why now, it’s time for me to release this." She said, "It’s an idea that I’ve had for many, many years." She said, "But now, it’s time." She said, "I’m not not a language person, and I need someone who’s a language person to write something for me to say on this video, but something that could be for all of us who are black women, who are people of color, who have this hair that we’ve been told all these negative things about." She was like, "I want it to be something that celebrates us." And she was like, "Would you be interested doing that?" And I’m like, "Hey…”

“Tracee gets on the call with a couple of members of her team. And they talk through everything with me. She tells me about Pattern. And she said, ‘We’re in the middle of a revolution. And people of color are at the center of that. And that is why now, it’s time for me to release this. … I want it to be something that celebrates us.’” Amena Brown on writing “Every Curl Has a Story” with Tracee Ellis Ross

Jessica: "Let me think about that. I have to think about that."

Amena: Yeah crazy. And then she says to me, "Oh Amena," she said, I should have started with this. She said, "Your work is truthful. It’s soulful. It’s full of joy. And it’s full of lightness." And she said, "That’s why I want to work with you on this." And I died. And I have not come back to life, I have not been resurrected. And honestly, Jessica, what was … and that’s just like a tip of the iceberg of how amazing the experience has been so far. But even at that point, Jessica, if we’d hung up the phone and her team had written back to me and said, "Amena, thanks for the call. We’ve gone a different direction." Even hearing someone whose work I respect as much as I respect the work of Tracee Ellis Ross, hearing her articulate to me what I hope my work is doing, and knowing that my work is doing that, that I’m not a crazy person to keep pursuing, giving myself more space, to take up space and do that work, that by itself was everything to me. And it just got even more amazing from there.

 

Crafting Pattern’s Manifesta

Jessica: I’m on the floor. I’m on the floor. I still have the chills. I have kept a constant chill for the last five minutes. OK. So, tell me about that. What was the creative iterative collaborative process like for that project?

Amena: Oh, my gosh. So, I did another call with Tracee and some members of her team. And she had all this stuff that she’d been writing over the years, about Pattern and her vision for it, and even some of the wording that was gonna show up on the website, too. And so, we got on a call and she just read everything to me. And then she would stop at certain points and tell me different stories that had inspired her to write it that certain way. And then I just took notes from all the things that she said. Mainly, they were poetic notes in a sense of phrases that she said that I thought were really interesting or really profound, or things that she talked about that I wanted to make sure I could explore in whatever the piece was gonna become. And then at the end of that call, I said do you want me to write a draft of this and then send it to you? Because at that point, I knew that I was gonna go to New York to meet with her because she felt the energy would be better if we could be in the room because I was writing something for her to say, it’s different if I were writing it for me to say.

“I just took notes from all the things that [Tracee Ellis Ross] said. Mainly, they were poetic notes in a sense of phrases that she said that I thought were really interesting or really profound, or things that she talked about that I wanted to make sure I could explore in whatever the piece was gonna become.” Amena Brown

Then I could get to a point, "I could get through all the drafts, final everything, memorize it, I’m good." But because it was something for her to say, I knew that I would get so far in the writing process and then she and I would have to collaborate some kind of way in-person, over email, something. And so, we decided in-person would be the better thing, so of course, I was freaked out. I’m going to New York to sit in a room with Tracee Ellis Ross. What do you wear to that, what kind of makeup … Oh, I’m thinking about all the things. And then when I’m like, "So do you want me to send this to in advance?" She was like, "No, don’t send it in advance." She said, "My team said that they would rather film me hearing you say it for the first time." So, just bring it with you to New York. So, of course, I hang up and immediately goes to buy clothes.

Jessica: Oh, wow. Wow.

Amena: I was already prepared to what clothes I’m gonna wear just being in a room with Tracee Ellis Ross? But now I gotta be on video with Tracee Ellis Ross. And so, we need to figure out…

Jessica: That is the first priority. That is priority number one.

Amena: We need to see about this. So, I wrote on the piece after we had that call. And I took my second draft to that first meeting that we had, the beginning of April. And she is really sweet, and kind, and wonderful, and a boss. I mean, the combination of that is just wonderful to see in her. It’s just so great. So, when she greeted me, she hugged me, "Amena, it’s so great to meet you," we sat down, and it was just she and I, and a camera person there. And she said, "Read me what you have." And I read it to her.

Jessica: Were you freaking out? I mean, were you…

Amena: Was I dead? Was I dead? Yes.

Jessica: Yeah, were you shaky? Were you able to pull it together?

Amena: It’s kinda like there are two me’s. So, there was one me that had just fallen out on the floor and fainted right when she hugged me. That me had fallen out and was not able to wake up until it was time to leave. There was another me that has great customer service training, and somehow managed to be professional in this moment, and have conversation. But also I really believed and still believe in what Tracee is doing with Pattern. So, it was wonderful to work on a project that I wanted to help her with it, you know? So, I really walked in as a collaborator, there like, "This is what I have. I’m gonna hear back from you. We’re gonna walk out of this with something that you love," you know? So, I did have that element as a writer that I had gotten so far in the process. I was interested to hear what she had to say how I could make the piece something that she felt really hit the targets that she wanted.

“I really believed and still believe in what Tracee is doing with Pattern. So, it was wonderful to work on a project that I wanted to help her with. … I was interested to hear what she had to say how I could make the piece something that she felt really hit the targets that she wanted.” Amena Brown

And so, I read her the piece and she was quiet for a little bit. And she said, "This is effing epic what you’ve written." She said, "It’s epic." And then she’s like, "I’m gonna read it." And she read it. And then we just spent two hours, going back and forth, shaving different lines taking some away, and some, she would be like, "Can you maybe…" she’d be like, "How can we say this? I wanna add this, how can we say it?" And we just worked on it, chiseled it together for two hours. And then she was like, "Can you go tonight and write something that’s kind of like this and do something kind of like that that we could add to it and bring it back to me tomorrow?" And I was like, "Great." So, I walked through New York and just cried my little black girl tears.

And went to McDonalds just because that was the only closest place I could walk to that I knew was far enough away that no one who worked at the agency was in there. And I called my mom and I was like, "Oh, mom, I mean it." And then, called my husband and like, "Hey. Baby…" like, all the feelings. And then I went back, and I wrote some more, added the things that she had talked about adding and kind of chiseled what we’d worked on some more, and met with her again. And we met together for another hour. And then she was like, "This is done." She’s like, "This is it."

 

Ghostwriting and Game-Changing Poetry

Jessica: That’s really powerful for me to hear from her. She had a lot of clarity and she puts so much trust in you. And she leaned into you. And she didn’t even know you, but she trusted your work and she leaned into the process. And that’s just powerful for me to hear as … I mean, I’m the Chief Creative Officer of our company and just knowing that, yeah, I don’t know. It’s like you were her midwife, she was your midwife, I don’t even know. But what you all birth is so beautiful. It’s so beautiful. And were you there when they filmed the video then? Or you at that point, it’s like, "You’re done."

Amena: No. Yeah, I was done. And I was kind of like, "Well, this was a great experience. Summer camp’s over, you know? I’m just gonna go home and contemplate that this amazing thing has happened." And in my mind, I was like, "And that could just be it. That could be it. And if that’s it, that’s great," you know? And so, they went ahead and did the video shoot. And then I talked to her team again and they were like, "We have a couple of other writing things." They were like, "We want to do a glossary on the Pattern Beauty website that has words and terms that correspond to natural hair, but we want them to sound poetic and lyrical in line with the Manifesta." So, I worked on that. And then I saw some rough cuts of the video, but they were just sort of general shots. And then I didn’t see anything else until I got to LA for the launch event.

And when I walked in and saw Tracee, and hugged her, and hugged Rachel, who’s VP at Pattern, and I’d worked with Rachel a lot, and got to meet other members of the Pattern team there. And Rachel and Tracee were both like, "You haven’t seen it? You haven’t seen the video with the Manifesta?" And I was like, "No." And they were like, "Oh, we can’t wait. We can’t wait for you to see it." So, it was my first time being there at this LA launch event where there were all these powerful black women, some famous black women. I mean, it was … if black girl magic could be an essential oil, basically, being at Tracee Ellis Ross’s launch in LA for Pattern, I just wanted to take the mist of the air, and distill it down to be a black girl magic essential oil, that I could put in my diffuser and just experience it in my lungs. It was so wonderful.

And Tracee is so kind and generous. She brought me and Mkhaya Carter who worked on all of the visuals for the Manifesta. She brought us both up in front of everyone, and thanked us, and told us why she worked with us on this project. And those are just things that I really treasure about having worked with her, because someone in her position having had the illustrious career that she’s had, and just being at the status she is in her career, she does not have to do that. She could literally be one of those people that’s like, "I’m giving you exposure, enjoy it, enjoy it," enjoy it.

Jessica: Yeah, yeah. Or even just, like…

Amena: Or just erase you from it, like you said.

Jessica: Yeah. Yeah, that’s what I mean just be a ghostwriter and just almost take credit for it. Wow.

Amena: Yeah. And the fact that she brought us both up there and just thanked us, and then she was like, "Here’s the Manifesta." So, this was my first time watching it. And I was like, "Amena," I was trying to have a conversation with my tear ducts because I was like, "Listen, what we don’t need is to roll into an ugly cry we can’t come back from." Because there’s a pendulum swing on the ugly cry, right, where there’s a restrained ugly cry where you’re like, "I feel it in my chest. I feel my feelings. I have two tears that come down. I dab, dab. I’m OK," or…

Jessica: Get a big swallow.

Amena: Yeah. Or you get to the ugly cry where it’s rolling now. And I was like, "Don’t do that because you don’t wanna be in the corner …" You don’t wanna do that here, you save that when you leave here. So, I shed my tears because I think in that moment, Jessica, prior to watching it, especially being there in that room after the public announcement had already happened that Tracee was releasing Pattern, and that she had founded this company after seeing that, I think before all that, I was just excited about it creatively, you know? I was just like, "Man, this is amazing to be a part of creatively." And watching it there and being in that room with all the black women from Black Lady Sketch Show, and Lena Waithe is there, and Kerry Washington is there, and Tika Sumpter is there, and some of Tracee’s siblings are there, and powerful black women who aren’t celebrities but are doing this amazing work in these different areas. I met Tanisha who’s the senior buyer for Ulta, the senior buyer for Ulta is a black woman, like…

So, to be there in that room and watch this video and think this isn’t just like an amazing creative project, it’s a game-changer. I got to be a part of a game-changer that is gonna be adding great things to the conversation about black women and just people of color in general. But I think in particular for Tracee, for black women and black people to love our hair and love our skin, and the fact that she is using her platform, and these products to celebrate that, I cried my black girl tears. And then after I cried my black girl tears, Jessica, Robin Coste Lewis who is the poet laureate of Los Angeles walked right up to me and said, "Amena, this that you have written is beautiful." She said, "It’s beautiful. It’s wonderful." She said, "You were not given an easy task. And you did it. And it’s amazing." She said, "You should be very proud." Please, please, grab carpet and roll me up in the carpet, and carry me out like I just.

“To be there in that room and watch this video and think this isn’t just like an amazing creative project, it’s a game-changer. I got to be a part of a game-changer that is gonna be adding great things to the conversation about black women and just people of color in general.” Amena Brown

Jessica: Oh, I just love this story for so many reasons. I love that you weren’t trying to claw your way. It was this gift that came to you. It was just so collaborative, and beautiful, and important. I mean, such an important piece of work. And then it seems your experience that of all, you were so present and you were so … it was all gift, and it wasn’t like you were suddenly like, "What else is this gonna get me? And who else can I connect to at this event that’s gonna…" I mean, maybe you were, I don’t know, but what I’m hearing is just gratitude. God just opened up this beautiful door in 2019. And you just walked through it.

Amena: It’s true. I’m still, every now and then, someone will still like one of my posts that I’ve put up or liked the picture of Tracee and I that I posted. And I’m like, "Oh, my gosh, that’s my life. Oh man. Wow. Wow."

 

Amena Brown Going Scared: Creation with Volition

Jessica: So, has this been a sort of commissioning? I mean, does it open up doors? I mean, you said you started 2019 thinking, "I need to start taking up space," in the space you know you’re meant to take up. So, aside from this project, what else does this open up for you?

Amena: I think one of the things that having had the chance to work on this with Tracee and just the Pattern team, I think it opened up for me just asking myself the question at this season of life what is it I wanna do? What is it that I want to create just have my own volition? What’s the stuff that I wanna make? And how do I wanna make it? And how do I wanna put it out into the world? I think it gave me a lot of powerful questions to ask myself because having come from … having been mostly for so many years in faith-based spaces, one of the things I loved about the work I did there, is getting to gather together with people around a cause, right? And everyone believed in that same cause. And anything we all created together was around that. And I loved that in this case, with Pattern, I got to do a similar thing, even though it wasn’t about faith, or religion, or any of those things, but I got to gather with other amazingly creative people and make something that we all believed in, right?

“It opened up for me just asking myself the question at this season of life what is it I wanna do? What is it that I want to create just have my own volition? What’s the stuff that I wanna make? And how do I wanna make it? And how do I wanna put it out into the world?” Amena Brown

And so, I think that really has broadened my scope of what’s possible of what can be, you know? And I was listening to this interview of Amanda Seales, who was also a fantastic comedic voice and comedian, writer, actor. She’s just fabulous all around. And she said something to me, I think the combination of … I mean you know she felt like she was saying it to me because I was in my car, you know? But she wasn’t talking to me individual.

Jessica: I actually thought, yeah, I got you.

Amena: "Amanda, you don’t know me, girl." She don’t know me. She does not know me, yet. I hope we know each other sometime, but Amanda don’t be knowing me. But I was like, "Amanda, you talking to me. Even though you’re on the interview, you’re talking to me." And I think the combination of the things she said in this project getting to work on this with Pattern, she talked about how when she creates her comedic work. She’s thinking about the framework from which she creates. She’s thinking about who she’s creating it for and why. And those really are the three powerful questions that I’m left with in the work I make going forward, what’s the framework from which I make what I make.

And I’m realizing a lot of that, for me is Southern and black, that that sort of very particular framework with which to create, and to make. And the phrases I might include in a poem are very Southern and black because that’s who I am, and that’s the people that I come from. And it’s gonna be some Spelman and some HBCU vibes is gonna be included there. It’s gonna be the nerd that read all of the books and loves to tell a good story. I mean, all that stew, all that gumbo, right, that makes me me, that’s a part of the framework through which I make things. Some of that is gonna be comedic, right? That’s part of my framework, too.

And in thinking about who are the people that I hope feel seen when they hear my work and focusing most on that lens, and that doesn’t mean that other people can’t enjoy or experience your work, they totally can. But you know that you are making that thing or saying that thing for those people in the audience. One of my girlfriends said, she’s also a poet, and she was like, "I call them Easter eggs," right? When you’re writing, you make a reference in your piece that you know maybe only a black woman is gonna understand, but you leave that Easter egg for her. And maybe it went over the heads of everyone else in the room. But that black woman, when you said, you put your hand over your mouth like Sealy, she’s immediately like, "Yes. Oh, yes. Yes." So I’m excited about this next season for me, Jessica, is really going to be me going back to writing and writing some new stuff, and I told you, taking it back to stage and fumbling it, and messing it up, and being like, "I do good things, everyone. Even though you didn’t see a good thing today, just know that I also do good things." And get those things to where they’re ready to go on the road and other audience to experience them, you know?

Thank you so much for joining us in today’s conversation with Amena. If you want to see Amena in person, and you have been on the fence about joining our entrepreneurial tribe over here at Noonday Collection, I’d love for you to join us. Start your own social impact business, come to our conference in January, Shine, and you will get to meet and see Amena in person. And if you can’t do that, I would love for you to just go follow Amena, head on over to amenabrown.com to keep up with all things Amena, or you can head on over to her Instagram account as well.

I started off today’s podcast sharing some of the reviews that you guys have left. If you haven’t been able to leave a review yet, I would love for you to do that. So, hop on over to iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, leave a review, tell me what you’re learning, tell me what you’re listening to, tell me what resonates. We’re planning our 2020 season, and we want it to be outsourced and informed by you, our listeners.

Our wonderful music for today’s show is by my good friend Ellie Holcomb. Going Scared is produced by Eddie Kaufholz, and I’m Jessica Honegger. Until next time, let’s take each other by the hand and keep going scared.