First of all, this lady is fierce. Second of all, she is hella creative. And, third of all she is definitely not scared of you. Meet Malikah A. Shabazz, my fellow name holder, queen of all things creative, and boundless in her determined, beautiful, shining energy. It was magical: two female filmmakers chopping it up; one from Detroit, and one from Baltimore, so you know we came correct. Read what Malikah had to say about being #BlackMuslimGirlFly.
Team BMGFly: #BlackMuslimGirlFly is defined as that “it” factor Black Muslim Girls & Women have that makes them amazing, dope, & fresh-to-death awesome. How would you describe your #BlackMuslimGirlFly?
Malikah Shabazz: My #BlackMuslimGirlFly is that I am eclectic because I have to exist in multiple communities at one time. There’s the Black community, and then there’s of course the Black women community, there’s the Muslim community, there’s the Black creative community, there’s the creative community period, and then you have those who are writers, you have people who are photographers, people who are editors. So, there are all these. Even though the big, main ones are being Black, Muslim, and Woman. Even with all those categories, there are sub-categories, and so many different places that you have to exist in; especially being Black, Muslim, and Woman.
We’ve always co-existed in all three spaces, even though there sometimes seems to be this initiative to separate them. Especially when it comes to women’s issues now. You know, Black women, we… like, #MuteRKelly is a “thing” now, but Black women have been screaming about that since the nineties. And, I don’t think we realize that we exist in these multiple communities, because we just do it. And, we always have. So, I think it’s unique. A lot of people exist in multiple communities, but, I think for us, people (especially certain Muslims) like to try to make you feel like you have to choose. No, I’m not going to choose between communities. You don’t. So why are you asking me to choose?
Team BMGFly: How did you grow into your Muslim identity? And, how does being a Black girl impact that? (Or, if you’re bi-racial, or of multi-ethnic heritage, how does that impact your Muslim identity?)
Malikah: I was blessed to grow up in a household, and in an environment, where you didn’t choose between being Black and Muslim. They co-existed. They were one. I’m in Imam W.D. Muhammad’s community, which came from the Nation. So, being Black and Muslim have never had to compete, as they shouldn’t have to. Not only that, I had an African education. So, I was always around different Black people from different backgrounds; whether they were from the Continent, whether they were from the Islands, whether they were Christians, whether they were other Muslims, whether it was people who were Buddhists or who practiced traditional African belief systems.
So, just growing up in an environment where being Black and Muslim was normal for me, I didn’t know there was any problem until I hit college. Even with middle school; when I went to middle school I went to Islamic middle school, and there were different nationalities. I didn’t feel funny about it. It wasn’t until college, when I got to the MSA, and I was like, “Oh, so y’all have a— “What? What is this friction that you’re trying to create?” That’s where having that balance as a foundation, and my parents intentionally making sure that’s that’s how I grew up, really helped; when I got to that point, especially in college, where people tried to combat that. Luckily, even though I was there, I still went to school in Detroit so it was nothing for me to get in my car and go back to my Masjid, and be back around myself, and be back around my people and my family.
So, it was being blessed to come up in an upbringing where those two things co-existed. There wasn’t a hierarchy, there wasn’t this, “Oh, today we’re Black. [And, then] but, today we’re Muslim.” Yes, we may have Qur’an playing, but we got Stevie Wonder playing. Yes, you’re going to break for prayer, but then my dad’s turning Tony Brown’s Journal back on. They co-existed. We just Black. We’re from the South. (I’m sure somewhere down the line, there’s an African. I haven’t done African Ancestry, yet. That’s one of my goals for this year.)
Team BMGFly: How do you maneuver your industry as a Black Muslim Woman?
Malikah: Working in television is a little harder than indie, per se. Because when you’re independent, you tend to align yourself with like-minded people. Like, the independent production I’m working on now, first of all it’s all Black people. Then, it’s diverse Black people from different religious backgrounds, different sexual orientations, so it’s just really diverse. But, in television, it’s still corporate. And, it’s still, at least for the station I was working for, ran by old, white men. Who think they can— I worked for a station that wanted to be at the forefront of multicultural youth culture, but it was ran by a bunch of old, white men. And, so, you constantly see things— and I’m the type of person, I’m not just going to sit there. I say something. And, if you’re a Black person and you say something, no matter how you say it, if it’s not in agreement then you’re “combative.” I had one Black co-worker who was told, “You know, you don’t have to be such a downer.” No, my job is to give you numbers, and so these are the numbers, and if they’re the numbers you don’t want that doesn’t make me a downer. That means your stuff’s not doing well. It’s just so many times where I know it’s “creating a problem.” But, I’d rather “create a problem” and have you know that I’m not afraid to speak up. And, then furthermore, you can’t say you didn’t know; because someone told you. And, you chose to do something else.
Not only that, but I think a lot of us who are a little bit more comfortable with speaking out, have to realize that everybody’s not like that. So, there are some people who think the same thing you think, but just don’t want to say it, because they don’t want to lose their job, or whatever, and it’s completely understandable. But, there are a lot of people in these industries who do talk. And, that’s why you have so many people starting their own things. But, it’s really interesting when you‘re working for a company that’s really tone deaf, and they’re trying to speak to your demographic, and they don’t want to listen to you. It gets frustrating. It pushes you to create your own content more.
I’ve studied the effects of media on the outside, but seeing the thought processes that go into it… These people just don’t care, they just want to make money. They don’t care. And, since diversity is “popping” right now. Everybody’s trying to be diverse, and have multicultural—but, you don’t know anything about it, and you don’t talk to the people who are a part of it. So, that’s why I need to find fellow creatives, because if not, it’ll drive you crazy. It can really drive you bonkers.
For me, it’s just really making sure that I have my circle of friends within this industry, and just a circle of friends period, who I can go and have those conversations. I can vent, and get it off my chest. And, they will understand where I’m coming from. Then, also having my creative circle, so it’s like, “Okay, so what are we creating, because, these white folks ain’t gonna get it. And, we can’t keep waiting for them to get it. So, what are we going to create? They can come and pay us, and put it on their channel. But, we’re still creating it.” That’s how I keep from just completely losing my mind. Completely.
Team BMGFly: What made you decide to take that leap of faith into indie filmmaking?
Malikah: Growing up, my parents were always conscious of what we watched on television. And, then as I got older, not only at home, but with my schooling in high school there was always discussion on things that we’d see. So, we went and saw The Matrix, and then came back to school and my teacher broke the whole thing down. We were always taught to look at everything from an objective eye. But, it wasn’t until I went to college. I was in undergrad, and I took an intro to film class. And, I took it just because it was an elective, and I just needed an art elective. But, it was a really good class. That was the first time I sat through, and actually watched, a foreign film. I was one of those Americans who was like, “Oh, it’s subtitles. I can’t catch on, blah blah blah.” But, we watched Run, Lola, Run. I was just like… Not only was it foreign, but that film period, just with the mixed media, I was just like, “What is this?” That really piqued my interest in terms of watching movies and breaking down scenes, and editing and stuff like that. It was a really good intro to it.
However, I was too scared to tell my parents, “I think I want to be a filmmaker.” So, I didn’t do anything with it. I just really hung on to it, and got an A out the class. It wasn’t until I moved to New York, and I thought, “Okay, I really want to do this.” So, I went back to school, at The New School, and kind of got that jump start into it. Also, by that time, YouTube was popping, so anything I didn’t learn in school I could learn on YouTube. While I was in school, I had access to equipment. So, I could really start practicing. Then, eventually I had my own camera now, and I have a tripod. So, I can go and shoot. And, I learned how to do basic linear editing. So, in the past few years I’ve really gotten into it in terms of just not only studying, but now watching as a filmmaker; which is different than just watching from an objective eye. I’m watching more than just concepts, but now I’m looking at shots, I’m looking at beats. I’m looking at all these different things. And, you know sometimes, people don’t want to look at movies with you anymore because I’m up here looking up at the corner of the screen, saying “What’s happening over there? Do you see that?” And, I already talk to the television as it is. I have a bad habit of asking questions, even before movies, that’s just Malikah. So, now add on this layer of talking about shots, and my, “That’s an interesting color treatment.” And, people are just like, “No, I can’t do it. Bye.”
Team BMGFly: What were the steps you took to become a content creator?
Malikah: It’s all politics. At my last job, they “eliminated my position,” and then another position I was talking to them about wouldn’t be a “good fit.” But, I know exactly what you’re saying. They said, “But, if there’s any other positions in the company that you’re interested in…” No, I’m good. It’s okay. I understand that I’m seen as a threat, because I’m asking questions, which is what everyone says, “be bold, be real.” But, when someone is “bold and real,” you can’t handle it. Especially now with the onset of social media, and all these tools out there for people to create their own media. I’m really pushing myself, “Like, okay, Malikah. It’s time. Start putting stuff out there, let’s go! If there was ever a time.” Spike Lee said this whole diversity conversation happens, every ten years. I thought about that, and thought, “Hmm, you’re kind of right. The last time this happened was in the nineties. And, Spike Lee was the thing. So, that’s what I’m doing right now. I’m pushing myself right now to just create, and get paid to do it. In 2012, I went to the New School for my Master’s, and my main goal for going to graduate school was to get connections and to have access to equipment. And, I got both. I am good. I actually lucked out, because the first class that I took that was called Media Concepts or something like that, and different teachers taught it, but they had different curriculums. So, I was lucky to have a teacher who did an overview of just everything. Like, “This is how you do a composition. This is how you do lighting, intro to editing, all of that.” Whereas I had another friend and she took another section, and it was all photoshop, and she was pissed. But, I was blessed, because his class wasn’t the section I was supposed to be in. My section got cancelled, and so I was automatically put in his class. And, it worked out and we’re still cool to this day. He’s dope. Brian’s great. That was a blessing because I went in not really having any technical background, per se. I’ve played around with cameras with my father, who has an affinity for photography. So, I’ve played with cameras, and I’ve played with videos. But, in terms of the actual skill and trade of photo composition, and editing, and J cuts, and L cuts; and, telling the story on paper versus on screen, versus in Final Cut or Premiere or whatever you’re doing, that really helped me. It showed me the pathway.
I tell people, “You don’t have to go to school to learn how to make films anymore, because YouTube and the Library is there. But, you still have to do it.” Luckily, I had access to equipment, so I was able to do my first full short that I did in 2012. I look back at it now, and I think “Malikah, this is really not that bad.” So, you grow and you work on it. So, now I’m getting more into producing and writing. And, letting other people who are better with framing and composition, and lighting do that. But, it helps, when you know how to communicate those things to them. It helps when you’re writing your script, and you know what you want this shot to be. So, you can communicate whether this is a wide shot, whether it’s close up, the feeling. Being able to communicate those things to your DP helps. So you can be a script writer, and a producer, but it still helps to know what each person does. And, now I’m just at the point where I’m like, “Malikah just do it. Just go. Stop producing for other people. Do your own. Let’s go, Malikah!”
Team BMGFly: How do you keep aware of what you deliver as a filmmaker, and what you have that separates you from others in your industry?
Malikah: I think the term “content creator” is really interesting because the idea of ‘what is content,’ is changing. Like, people who have YouTube channels where they vlog, technically that’s content. Even looking back at the things I did. I used to blog at one point. And, every now and then, I would do a vlog when I just felt like it. And, I do take pictures to just strengthen my skills, and to strengthen my photo editing. Someone else said to me, “You know, you’re a content creator.” And, I thought, “This is true.” At first I wanted to be an editor. But, then I decided I wanted to be a writer. I love editing. Editing is great. I know some people hate it, but I like it. And, when I had to edit my first piece in undergrad, I remember thinking, “Oh, this is great.” So, in terms of becoming a content creator, it’s really just creating something for people to consume. Now with the onset of social media, what’s considered content is growing because now you have memes, and GIFs, and cinemagraphs, and people who are creating amazing content just off Instagram and all these apps. But, still being able to parlay that into making an actual film, it’s still a good start.
It’s still a good start, but you still got to pick up a book and read. You have to watch films. You can’t make a film and not watch it. So, for me, it was sitting down and looking at all these tools and skills that I have, and saying, “Okay, well how can I use this to create content that speaks to me, and speaks to people like me, and speaks to people for me.” I know I want to deal with Black Muslim women, but not in the way that the media is. Well, the media DOESN’T talk about us. But— I’m working on a pilot now that is about a Black Muslim girl, but, Islam is not the centerpiece. It’s not like, “She is MUSLIM!” It’s a part of her life, but she still has other things that are influenced by Islam, and some of it is not. She’s got personal issues, she’s got professional issues, and so I think really normalizing this idea of Black Muslim Women, actually for ourselves; not even for everyone else. It’s just for ourselves as Black Muslim Women, because so many of us are still struggling to find that balance of “being myself.” Especially, you’d be surprised, people when they convert and they go to whatever masjid, and they encounter what they encounter, and it creates a conflict because there’s still this idea in the Muslim community that being Black is haraam, or it’s taboo. So, you got to be some other culture besides your own. Even though they’ll turn around and copy us.
So, I want to create content, that, if anything, just shows them. That’s what I like with Aminah. (Aminah Muhammad, @Poshmina) I said to her, “Hey, Aminah. You want to be a star. I got some ideas. You want to shoot some stuff.” Just ideas for little shorts that would be tongue-in-cheek, but at the same time, someone could watch it and say, “Listen, I know exactly how she feels!” Because, and that’s the thing with growing up, we’ve seen— It’s one thing to finally see Black women we can identify with, with certain issues. But, to see a Black Muslim Women, and say, “Listen, I know exactly how you feel. I’ve had my hair stuck in a knot in my bun, so many times that mess hurts.” You know, something simple like that. It sounds simple, but to see it on TV and to be able to identify…
Team BMGFly: What is your typical day like?
Malikah: Before, I would get up at six and seven, but I was dragging my feet because I gotta go to work. But, now, I need to get up and do my own things. I need to get up for a minute. Because, I tried to stay up after Fajr, but as summer progresses, I don’t know how much that’s going to work. But, usually by seven I’m up. Getting up, and just taking a minute to really just… Don’t check the emails, yet. Don’t check the phone, yet. Just really get into it. And, then just working on my day. It’s one o’clock, and I’ve been pretty productive. I have a production meeting later. But, I’m going to finish this picture. I’m going to work on “Amethyst.” And, it’s a productive day. So, just really working like someone who is getting paid to do these things, even though I’m not, yet. Yet. It’s coming.
Team BMGFly: What’s the number one thing you hope people will gain from watching your films?
Malikah: That Black Muslim Women exist, and we’re not a monolith. And, now that you have a lot of other Muslim women from other nationalities coming out, the question is, ‘Where are the Black women?’ Because you have them (meaning the audiences) thinking, “Oh, we all became Muslim because our husbands were Muslims. Or, we married somebody from jail, or we were in jail. I tell people how media is so powerful. Every Black person knows a Muslim, got a Muslim cousin, got a Muslim neighbor. “You’re not new to this, so why are you acting brand new all of a sudden?” And, I think it’s because of the images that they’re shown. So, when people find out that you’re Black and you’re Muslim. They’re just like, “Huh.” And, you can see the wheels turning in their heads like, “Wait, you’re Muslim?” ‘I’ve been Muslim. You’re uncle’s Muslim. You know.’
So, it’s really just, showing images of us that aren’t perfect, because we’re not perfect. And, I think a lot of times when it comes to some Muslim films, they are very “perfect.” They’re the “culture-nice” products. You’re not necessarily going to have somebody out here on the pole or whatever. But, it’s not going to just be all perfect, and cotton candy because that’s just not life. There are real issues. That’s why I want to see “Jinn.” I feel like that’s why her story is really so important to show. Even though she was born Muslim, in the movie the protagonist is not. So, to see that balance, of that struggle in trying to develop. Those are the stories we need to see from us. We need to see various narratives of Black Muslim Women, it doesn’t always have to be hard. No shade to Regina King on “American Crime,” because she was great. But, it doesn’t always have to be hard, and serious. We can tell jokes and stuff like that, too. That’s what I want people to see about Black Muslim Women. We exist, and we are different. And, we are FLY. It’s a fact.
Team BMGFly: How does your career impact the other aspects of your life, including your family?
Malikah: I’m trying to get up on these multiple streams of income. I really need to look at what can I do to work on… Because, my parents don’t understand the concept of having to do some productions for free. Sometimes you got to. It’s almost like an internship. You got to do one, to get a job somewhere. And, so, while yes I may take this temporary job as a dental assistant or whatever. I’m still working on this production because I need that experience. Because, I need that imdb credit. My parents are cool with it. They just want me to be able to pay bills. When I was in my industry, they were fine when I was working nine-to-five. But, now they’re just like, “So, are you only looking for jobs within your industry?” I had to tell them, “No, Dad. I’ve applied for some other jobs.” Their concern is more of just making sure that I’m okay. And, so I think since, especially, my father, they’re from a different generation, the concept of just risking it and not knowing if you’re having a check coming doesn’t work for them. They’re just like, “No, where’s your check? This is crazy.” So, some stuff I’m planning, I don’t even tell them, because their first question is “Are you getting paid?” And, I have to say, “Well, no, but…” And, they just shake their heads. They’re supportive of it, but I know they’re worried. So, I’m like, “Let me get this stuff popping, so they can see that this can happen.”
Team BMGFly: Who did you look up to while growing up? Who inspires you now?
Malikah: Growing up, my Mom. Up until high school I wanted to be a nurse, because my mom was a nurse. And, then I did an internship for a summer with the Detroit Medical Center and I was like, “No. This is not for me.” So, my Mom, and my Dad. Especially your Mom as a woman, and seeing how like— especially as I get older. I remember when I was in school, I was still working while I was in school. So, I would have to go to work, and I got to go to class. And, I got to try to film this stuff on the weekend. And, I’m just exhausted. And, my Mom was working full time, was getting her Master’s, and still had two children at home, and a husband. And, made it work, and I remember she got her Master’s the year I got my high school diploma. Now, that I’m older, I can have conversations like, “So how did you do that, again?” It was Mom and Dad, because they kind of set the standard, and they set the tone. And, they made sure they were very particular with the things I was exposed to, and the people I was around. As much as they could. Because, you know, as you get older, as teenagers, you do stuff. But, I could never say I didn’t know better. Like, I made choices but I knew better. So, as long as you know better, then your parents have done their job.
Currently it’s Issa Rae, just her business model. I’ve literally put on her “Inside Issa Rae,” and just let it loop, just let it play. Just listening to her method of how she’s really building her own empire. Her story, from how she…because I remember watching Misadventures of a Black Girl. I remember the Kickstarter, and I remember when Pharrell picked it up. And, then the HBO talks came. And, I remember how at first they weren’t going to do it because…I don’t know what it was but she didn’t agree with it. Then, they came back around and now we have “Insecure.” So, just watching how she moves, and the things that she’s doing as a filmmaker. And, bringing other people into it. That’s someone who I’ve really been studying lately. She’s the main one right now. Only because I’ve been really studying the things that she’s doing, and how she’s taking her platform and she’s bringing other people along with her. Currently she’s the one who I’m just studying right now, and I’m thinking, “Okay, Issa. Let me get to work.”
Team BMGFly: Can you describe a moment where you felt defeated, and how did you overcome that?
Malikah: Oh shoot, that happens often. I don’t know if defeated, but it’s like, you second guess yourself a little bit. It’s happened quite often these past few weeks since I’ve been home, and so I’ve been with my mind more. And, it’s always, like, “Man, I don’t know.” Then, something will happen. Either somebody will call me or something, or an event will happen and I’ll go to it. Even, at least today, I have this production meeting later. Even though it’s a production meeting, it’s still with fellow Black creatives. And, we’re constantly building each other up. So, it’s something that happens when you’re truly indie, and you don’t necessarily have those multiple streams of income, yet. You tend to question yourself a lot, like, “Should I be doing this?” But, I think the biggest thing I want to read more about is fear of success. It’s something that I’ve finally admitted to myself. When you really admit it, it’s a big thing. A thing I do is that I’m one of those excessive planner. So, I’ll sit down and I’ll plan it out, and plan it out, and plan it out. And, I’ve planned it out so much that I haven’t done it. I think, “Malikah, just stop planning. There’s no need to plan. Just go do it.” So, that’s something that I’m always trying to overcome. The defeated feeling happens a lot when you don’t have income.
Team BMGFly: Can you describe a moment where you felt like you defied odds or broke barriers?
Malikah: Probably one of my two class projects. Probably Vortex, because that was the first time I had ever shot anything. It was the first time I sat down and came up with the questions. And, I had to do the interview, with the b-roll. Even in the class, when he wanted a rough cut. I told him all I had was my interview laid out. He was like, “Let’s show that.” And I showed it and, he was like, “Okay, I can see the story coming along.” Then, when I finally showed it, he was more excited about it than I was, for some reason. But, just seeing that. And I remember showing it to a friend, and he was like, “Malikah, this is really good.”
Team BMGFly: What would you cite as the foundation of your success?
Malikah: Having faith. Whatever belief system people subscribe to, you have to have faith in the creator, faith in yourself, and trust the process. You have to really believe it’s going to work. People say that all the time. It’s harder to do it than say it. To really be at that point where you’re in your apartment, eating spaghetti because it’s the cheapest thing you can make. And, you’re just like “I don’t know.” But, you’re still editing and pushing things out because I know this is going to work. For me that’s being blessed to grow up with parents who said, “Well this is what you want to do, well go for it.” And, never having them tell me, “You can’t do that.” To say, “Oh, that’s what you want to do then, go for it. It didn’t work out, well then try something else.” And, I think that’s really helped me. Because, a lot of people try this and they don’t make it. And, I’ve been blessed to be here nine and a half years. It hasn’t been a walk, a stroll in the park. I’t’s been a blessing to have been here this long. To have gone from, being here the first two weeks and I’m working at McDonald’s, to fast forward to having a Master’s, to working in television and networking and meeting people. So, just really having that faith, and really having that relationship with my Creator. Without that, I would’ve been like, “Bruh, I don’t know.” Just praying on it, and getting to work.
Watch More From Malikah Here:
Team BMGFly: #BlackMuslimGirlFly is an empowerment brand created to uplift and remind Black girls that they are FLY in many ways. What advice would you give all the Black Muslim girls out there, worldwide, to cultivate their own individual #BlackMuslimGirlFly?
Malikah: There’s nothing wrong with you. That if there’s something you want to do, do it. You want to design clothes, design them. You want to sing, sing. You want to write, write. You want to design buildings, whatever it is, study it and do it. There’s nothing stopping you, especially now with the age of technology and everything available to us via YouTube and Google you can. Granted, if you want to be a doctor, maybe you should go to school. But, so many other things, there are resources that you can start now. If you want to do it, just do it. It sounds cliche and people say it all the time, but it’s true.
Team BMGFly: What’s something you haven’t done yet, but would like to do next?
Malikah: I would love to swim with dolphins. I want to swim with them and whisper, “I’m so sorry for what the humans have done.”
Thanks again for sharing your story with us and the rest of the world. I believe it’s very important for us, Black Muslim Girls and Women, to stand up and speak up and let the world know we are here and we’re making things happen. For far too long, we’ve been made to be invisible.