Welcome to Conversations with Black Creators! This month, we're chatting with NYC-based singer and actress, Nesha Ward.
Editor's Note: The Conversations series is intended to highlight Black creatives’ work in various fields. At Tako Agency, we are really proud of being creators--people who pour creativity and skill into beautiful projects that add value to the world--and we want to make sure that all creators have a platform from which to make every corner burst with life.
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-- Grace, Creative Director
Nesha Ward is a Florida-born singer and actress living in New York City. Whenever I come across someone in performing arts in the Big Apple, I’m immediately curious about their personality. “Making it” in music, on screen, or in theater can be disheartening anywhere (hellooo, constant rejection), but in a place that’s so renowned for indiscriminately chewing up transplants--man, that’s a whole other ball game.
It was clear from the word go that Nesha ain’t ever going to be chewed out by anyone--least of all a faceless metropolis. And lo, when I asked her what challenges the city threw her way, she thought hard a few beats before shaking her head and shrugging, unable to recall a single monumental struggle she endured at the hands of NYC.
I’m absolutely certain this has nothing to do with New York growing an uncharacteristically generous soft streak just for Nesha and everything to do with the fact that she sees difficulty as opportunity--opportunity to strategize, hustle, create, and laugh. “You have to want it,” she says. After spending just an hour and a half with her, I honestly can’t imagine Nesha deciding to want something and not making it happen for herself.
Hey Nesha! Let’s get right to it: you're a multi-talented creative--actor, singer, cabaret artist. If you had to pick one thing, one of the things that you do forever, what one would it be?
I love it. There's a depth of emotion I tap into when I sing that doesn’t come as easily with my other forms of art. I’m also a music junkie. I love music from all over the world. I'm huge into K-pop right now.
When did you start singing?
I grew up a Southern Baptist kid in Florida, so I started in the [church] choir and then moved into chamber choir, and then show choir. I was always singing.
How do you choose the songs that you cover? I watched a lot of your videos on YouTube and they're all over the place, genre-wise!
That's a really good question. I used to call myself a “lyric whore” because I love a good set of lyrics--exploring those words and what they mean. But I’d say that as I've grown older, I tend to be drawn more to the music itself [melodies, etc.] first. As I've gotten into international music, I’ve started to pick feelings off the music [since I can’t understand the words].
I’ve never really subscribed to a particular genre because the music I listened to growing up varied so much. For example, my dad was a big 60s R&B person but my best friends were Perry Cuomo people. <shrugs>
Basically, my preferred method is to find a song I like and make it fit my style.
I know that my ignorance is probably going to be staggering here, but your bio says you’re a “cabaret artist” -- what does that mean?
Oh! You know--like, one woman shows. That's the simplest way to define cabaret. They’re usually about an hour long, featuring a singer with a band. They’re small room performances. It’s funny, though, I actually don’t really consider myself a cabaret artist [anymore].
Oh, I just haven't done it in a while. I've been focusing a lot on acting lately.
What did you like most about cabaret when you were doing it?
I like to be in a small room. I mean, I’m not gonna lie--if you want to put me in MetLife stadium in front of 60,000 people, I ain't going to say no. <laughs> But I like to be in a space where I control the room; where I'm bringing you with me on the journey I'm taking. That’s why I prefer live performance over TV or film stuff. It’s just more intimate and it works well with my control...freak...ness. <smiles>
Yeah, that makes sense. If it's a one woman thing, there's nothing to distract attention. You do own the room because it's just you doing the things.
Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
So, you're clearly very comfortable with attention.
<falls back and laughs>
Have you always just been that way? Like, were you theatrical as a child?
I've always loved performing. I’m actually quieter than people often think, but I like the power that performance has. It can put everyone on the same page. Like, I can bring you to a place where you’re feeling what I’m feeling and the other way ‘round.
I had a lovely childhood. I had a good family, nice middle-class house, all that fun stuff, but I was the only Black girl in my group of friends and I definitely fell into a...performative place. (This is, like, years of analyzing and therapy you're hearing about right now, by the way. <short chuckle>) So really, yeah, it wasn’t a conscious decision at all--just something I fell into--but it worked for me and I like it.
Wow, that’s kind of beautiful. I mean--not that you felt compelled to fall into a particular character in order to fit in, but that you ended up growing into it and sort of claiming it for yourself.
Yeah, I know people with similar upbringings who fell into a quiet place instead, and they're now uber shy and have a hard time engaging with the people around them. I'm very lucky and I tell that to myself regularly.
That's beautiful. Love it. What’s your creative process look like?
<laughs> Procrastination, let's start there. It's procrastination. BUT, once I’m done procrastinating? Is that what you mean?
No, procrastination is a very important part. I understand the need for contrived urgency!
<laughs> The easiest way for me to describe my process is...it’ll take me forever to come up with a complete idea because I’ll ruminate on it forever. I’m a borderline perfectionist, so I just want it to be right. But once I have the idea set, I know the road I'm on and exactly what steps to take.
It sounds like you're pretty methodical, like about <motions lines> this, then this, then this...
I can appreciate that. I'm the same way; very methodical. I get very anxious when people are like, “Go with the flow!” ...I don't know what that means.
<laughs> Well, actually I do feel like I can go with the flow, but...I [have to be intentional about it].
Let me explain what I mean: I have friends who are also frequent professional collaborators of mine, and I have one who was serving as the Director for one of my shows. At one point he had to be like,“Nesha. Stop. Stop, stop, stop. Just stand on the stage and sing. I have this. That’s why I’m here.” And I’m like, “But I, but th--” And he just...
I had to very consciously say, “OK, I’m going to take off my Director's hat and give it to you.” That way, I can just be an actor. Otherwise, it’s really hard for me to play just one role because I'm constantly looking at a project from every angle. To me, that’s the biggest flaw in my creative process.
What do you mean?
Well, I'm just always thinking and trying to understand. I'm always saying, “OK, I'm seeing it this way, but how is this other person going to see it? How’s that going to read?” You know?
I believe that words have a lot of power, so all the words I choose, even down to the songs I use--I’m very particular. I want to make people feel something with the things I make, but I also want them to understand why I chose to make it.
I think I got that from Ani DiFranco. There’s a quote in the liner notes on her first album where she says, “I speak from what I know and who I am. If any part of my music offends you, please do not turn it off. Just take what you can use and move on.”
That’s always stuck with me, so now I’ll listen to a song somewhere and I’ll purposefully avoid the music video. Like, I don't want to know what you [the artist] think about it until I know what I’d take from it on my own.
Then I'll go back and watch and be like, “Oh, that's what they meant. I feel something totally different.” Or “Oh, ok that's what I got.” Whether I agree or not, I see both sides--what I got from it and what the artist’s vision was. I hope to give those same things to others. Does that make sense?
Yeah, absolutely. That dual-sided understanding is so important--especially in such polarizing times, like what we’ve experienced in the last few years.
Next question: have you experienced any unique challenges to being Black creator in America?
I would say yes, challenges, but I would not call them unique because I feel like, regardless of your struggle, there’s always someone with their own version of the same thing.
I’ve spent a lot of my life rebelling against the idea of what you see [is what’s there]. Like, every time I go into a singing audition--I look like an Effie and sing like a Deena [from Dreamgirls] and that’s baffling to people: “You mean you can’t belt soprano?” And I’m like, “Do you hear me speak? I’m clearly a tenor. What makes you think I got those notes?”
I’m also not a fan of the stereotypical curvy Black woman character I grew up watching. It’s sort of an unwritten law in Hollywood that--ah, what's the line from The First Wives Club? Goldie Hawn’s character says it...
“Women have three roles. You're either Girlfriend, District Attorney, or Driving Miss Daisy.”
With Black women, it’s usually only two: you're Jezebel or Mammy. Because I’m curvy, I’ve always been Mammy. I've been playing some version of that role since I was 15 years old.
I turned down parts in college because I knew I’d be better for a different part, but I didn’t get it because I'm Black. For instance, I auditioned for a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and I genuinely feel that I would have been a really awesome Maggie [the lead character]. I was objectively better than the girl they put in that role, but they cast me as the maid. I was like--you know what, I’d honestly rather build sets. I would rather use a saw than be the maid in this production.
Another similar situation happened back home in Florida with a casting director I knew. We were best friends. She was casting for a show and I went after this one role. She actually said, “You’re the best one for the job, but we’re in the Bible Belt and I can’t cast a Black girl in this role.”
Yeah. So many Black creators struggle with that same thing. One of the things that pisses me off about The Pelican Brief with Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts is that they don't date. Like, why? In the book they’re dating and, on screen, they clearly have chemistry, but test audiences in the 90s didn’t want to see Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington in a relationship.
So that’s what I mean--everyone has their own version of the same struggles. You're seeing a lot more Black creatives now, but to be clear, it’s not that they all weren't there before. People are just giving them more attention. They were always, always there.
What does Black joy look like to you?
Oh, gosh. <long pause>
I don't know if it's trite or...I don't--I don't know if I'm going to say this right. There are a lot of answers; I look for Black joy in many places. If I had to pick one, I would say that it's freedom of movement. Let me explain…
Freedom of movement is Black people being in spaces where we’re not worried, at all, on any--even the most minute--level about how we are perceived. Just “I'm in this space being loud... or being quiet... or being nerdy... or talking about comic books or quantum physics or football or basketball or… whatever!” Having conversation with friends that might be all Black, all white, or a mixture of different races, rich… poor… and not worried at all about how those around them perceive them. I always strive for that. I don’t always get it, but it’s important to try.
That's beautiful. I love the words you chose--freedom of movement--because I don't think I would have thought about it like that. Thank you for sharing that. Speaking of joy, I would venture to say that you are a little bit of a comedian!
Is that something that you've ever considered pursuing, like doing standup or producing comedy shows or anything like that--or is that not your bag?
You know, this has come up multiple times from various people over the years, so I probably should do standup. I feel like Black Jesus has told me in several different ways, “Girl, get on that.” And I'm like, “Jesus, no man.” And he like, “Girl, I’ve given you gifts. Don't waste them. You want Peter to reject you? Peter will reject you.”
<laughs> What's keeping you from doing it?
I used to work at Gotham Comedy Club and watching those people... <eyes widen> I have no problem saying that is the one form of art that scares me. Such a scary thing. Which is probably again...yes, Black Jesus, I hear you: “Why don’t you do it?” Because it's SCARY.
I did say for years it was not my bag. Quarantine has made me more open to it. I have a friend in my “bubble” who’ll come over and we’ll just be talking and he laughs the whole time! He’s asked me why I don’t do comedy too. I don’t know. I just want to touch the world; so I’ll either be Olivia Pope or I’ll be on a stage doing comedy. Who knows?
New York City is a hell of a place to try to be successful in anything, let alone something like performance art that's so fluid--and oversaturated, to be quite frank. What kind of challenges, if any, has the city thrown your way and how have you dealt with them?
Outside of the fact that everything is expensive? <chuckles>
I actually would say none, really. I love it here. There’s a quote from The American President that goes, “America is advanced citizenship; you gotta want it bad.” New York is that way. You have to want it. If you don’t, she will throw you out. If you’re not meant to be here, New York will let you know right quick. She ain’t got time to play with you.
I lucked into a really good apartment here, but even before that, I felt like the city was just like, “No girl, you’re where you’re supposed to be.”
That's awesome. Alright, two more questions...Do you feel that creativity is innate or do you believe it can be taught?
I think the latter, and I think it’s actually sometimes harder for innately creative people to be successful. For example, in my hometown I had above average talent. (Not sure I’m above average in New York, but there--I was.)
The fact that things came so easily for me created a challenge, because I never had to work for it--and working for it is a skill. I didn’t have to struggle with that “Why can’t I get this?” feeling. For the most part, it was like, “Oh you want me to learn this dance move?” Done. While other people were having a hard time, I’d sit and read my Sweet Valley Twins book and life would be great.
People who don't have that innate creative talent, but want it--the Britney Spearses of the world--are workhorses. To me, she never had above-average talent, but she was clearly a workhorse. Whatever she was going to have, she was going to work for it. She did that work and became phenomenally successful.
So I think workhorses can learn to be creative. Do I think everybody who doesn't innately think creatively will be able to get there? No, but I do think it's possible!
Alright. Last one! Do you like tacos?
<suspicious face> Yes?
Seems like it should be an obvious question but I have received one “no.” I immediately left the interview.
<laughs> Uh, yeah, I would have been like, “OK, It's been fun! Click, bye.”
See ya later! <laughs> What is your favorite taco filling? I know it's like, the hardest question I've asked you.
Well, Taco Bell has this great--I'm totally kidding.
I almost hung up.
I watched your face. You went from a smile -- this is what your face just did. You went from a smile to like, <wtf face>.
<laughs> Gave myself away there.
Literally anything spicy. There's a taco stand near where I live and they have a spicy pork taco. That’s usually where I’m at.
Yeah, spicy, for me, for you, makes sense. <laughs>
Yeah. Love it.