Brooklyn born Radha Blank is reveling in the fact that she is now living in Los Angeles and participating in all of the Hollywood fanfare, including most recently the Golden Globe awards where Matthew Weiner, Mad Men creator and a fan of the Empire television series, flipped out when he met her.
"Matthew effing Weiner," she says incredulously, her voice deep and groggy in the aftermath of partying. “I know when someone introduces me, I’m not just Radha, I’m Radha from the Empire writing room. People love that show, they love Cookie, they love Lucious. I would be stupid not to embrace this moment.”
Still, she’s accustomed to being recognized for her work as an individual: as a playwright in New York, an actress, for her unique brand of comedy, her one-woman shows and as a director for Funny or Die for the lowest paid speech writer in politics, Donald Trump’s.
But most recently, she’s been writing on a topic that’s close to her heart, about the dawn of hip-hop in the 1970's South Bronx for the upcoming Netflix series The Get Down, from creators Baz Luhrmann (The Great Gatsby) and Shawn Ryan (The Shield).
Starring Jaden Smith and Shamiek Moore, The Get Down drops in August of 2016. The series has been touted as "a mythic saga of how New York, at the brink of bankruptcy gave birth to hip-hop, punk and disco", taking the viewer on a ride through The Bronx tenements, the SoHo art scene, CBGB, Studio 54 and other cultural landmarks of the era.
Radha has been getting the most love lately for her work as a staff writer for the wildly popular Fox hit series Empire, and was the writer for the penultimate episode in season 2.
With all of her different faces, at heart, like her mother who was a visual artist, her main claim to fame is that she creates. And she takes pride in and struggles with her creations. And then feels compelled to create some more.
Radha took time before the Oscars to talk to The Shadow League about Hip-Hop, play writing, her life as a comedian, the wild success of Empire, The Get Down, and last, but not least, Rakim’s sexy nose.
The Shadow League: Your father is a musician and your mother was a visual artist, how did growing up in that environment give you the courage to think you could make a living as an artist?
Radha Blank: I saw my parents struggle. I know what powdered milk and government cheese tastes like. I know how hard it is to get a grilled cheese sandwich out of that big old block of government cheese. As much as they struggled, they did it with such artistic flair, everybody wanted to come to our house. One time my dad was on his way home and we were like, ‘What’s taking him so long?’ and he was outside trying to break dance with the kids in the neighborhood trying to do backspins.
Everything we did we did creatively. When the lights went out, my father figured out how to get electricity out of the streetlight. I feel like they were like my first lesson on how to create art or how to do things creatively even through all of that struggling. But because they struggled so much, my first instinct was like, ‘I know I have this artistic thing in me, but I’m not doing that shit. I’m going to a business high school, I’m gonna get a good job, I’ll get some benefits.’
Benefits are like the golden fleece for black people. I had gotten a job with benefits, and I was gonna quit, but even my artsy mom was like, ‘No, you got a job with benefits!’
I was like wow, benefits mean a lot to black people. My father is a drummer and he played with some of the best drummers, but his hands are permanently stained from doing plumbing work. It’s a constant reminder that he wasn’t able to live most of his time as an artist. My mom was able to strike a balance between teaching and being an artist. She was a visual artist, painted, did illustrations.
She painted murals in children’s hospitals in Brooklyn when she was a young artist. She was able to use her art to impact people. She was like a therapist. She was learning sign language because she wanted to teach art to deaf students. She was teaching kids in favelas in Brazil. She taught in an elderly facility. She was trying to prove that anyone had art in them.
TSL: What was it like growing up in New York in the ‘70s in your house?
RB: My brother and I never had name brands. We would wear the same pants three times a week. By the time I was 15, my mom and dad had split and we were squatting in this artist community on the Lower East Side. And I was embarrassed.
Little did I know it was all about character building. It got me to the point where I pretty much accept anybody because I've been the person that was on the outside, or a little different, and I was judged as a result. Now I appreciate my mom for giving me that experience but also giving me the idea that as an artist I can also support myself as a teacher. I feel like I have a special connection to young people.
When I was a kid, we'd be on a train and there'd be a bunch of kids on the train talking about, ‘N**ger this and he wanted me to suck his d**k,’ and my mom would get up and walk down the train and go talk to these young people and engage them. I would beg her, ‘Please don't do this to me,’ and she would go do it and within five minutes the kids would be laughing and they would be apologizing to her and saying, Okay Ms. Blank, thank you.’
She had some magic about her. She taught me to never be afraid of young people and to engage them from a place of love. There are young people in New York that I have lifelong relationships with. In terms of my writing voice, I know young people. From a very young age, I was taught that is a very valuable resource we have, our young people.
She was a great teacher in many ways, in the classroom, but also in my home life. Something really invaluable. Which is why I think I was an asset at places like Nickelodeon. They don't just want a good writer, they wanted youthful voices and point of view.
I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her. She told me I would be a great writer one day. She put this seed in me when I was 8 years old. I wrote a science fiction story about this black family who, because of all the racism and corruption on the planet, build a spaceship and fly to another planet. They grow their own crops, but after a while they are like we need other people.
My mom just starts crying. At first she’s like, ‘You are going to be a great writer one day.’ Then she was like, ‘I’m so glad you see black people in the future!’ She immersed me in the masters of storytelling in film. She told me you have to see The Lady Killers. The classics. The Miracle Worker. I know who Spike Lee and Gordon Parks are and I know who Hal Ashby and Sidney Lumet and Rod Serling are.
TSL: What about point of view for Empire?
RB: As good as the storytelling that we do is, we want to make sure that the language is now and that it flows, it's rhythmic and is of today's culture.The writing room is 80 percent black and 70 percent female. Black women are heavily represented on that show, which is why someone like Cookie is such a strong formidable voice. She was voted best new character. For whatever reason people love her and her authentic voice.
Taraji really is a serious actor who brings a different shade and tone to every role she plays. She brings a flair to it that no writer can bring to it. But it's a combination of that and every writer in the room bringing their aunties, their big sisters, that cousin that’s in and out if jail, etc. This is someone we know intrinsically.
This is also Lee Daniels and the women in his family. It’s the combination of Taraji being the powerful actor that she is, black women in the room affirming her presence, and Lee bringing his family history. All of those things come together in bringing this historical character.
It doesn't make sense to do a story about a black family in Chicago and nobody in the room is from a black family in Chicago. I think now, Hollywood can't go back to where the rooms were predominantly white and the subject matter is of color or certain diversity because they now know that we exist, that there are writers out there that are telling these stories and are good at what they're doing.
I think executives are sitting back and saying, ‘Oh shit! What are the numbers for Blackish? How many people watched Empire?’ They're going, ‘Oh shit, we didn't even know that audience existed.’
Nobody expected Empire to be the hit that it was. That pilot got a 7.5 which is one of the highest. It is unprecedented for Fox, for a network television show to get that high rating. People were like, Holy shit!’
I compare it to the Obama campaign. It would not have been won without all the hungry black people that needed to see that. And all the very curious and open-minded white people that were excited by the idea. White people voted for Obama because they thought he was promising and projecting change. I think they also wanted to believe that they were not like their forefathers: ‘I voted for a black man so clearly I don’t have the racist agendas of my relatives.’
I think it made them feel good about who they were and the America that they lived in and I think it’s the same thing with Empire. I think they want to participate in something that’s hot, something that’s cool and let’s be real, black culture is American culture. It’s almost not cool that you don’t like Empire.
(The Empire Writer's Room, Radha Is Seated Far Left, Photo Credit: hollywoodreporter.com)
TSL: Did you struggle artistically—writing plays vs. writing for television?
RB: I think I struggled in terms of identity. Playwriting is one of the most purest forms of dramatic storytelling because you can’t hide behind special effects. It’s actors and the play on that stage. It’s about that playwright’s voice.
Working for television is very much about collaboration. I have to check my ego. I am used to being referred to based on my work. Having to shift from this solo storyteller where I am sharing the work, sharing the burden, sharing the shine.
As an individual it doesn’t matter, it’s about what we create together. This acclaim and that award means nothing, how can I shape this story with these other people. It’s an adjustment and it’s about ego.
(Bridgit Antoinette Evans, left, and Jocelyn Bioh in "Seed" by Rahda Blank, Photo Credit: dominionofnewyork.com)
TSL: Your plays have received a lot of critical acclaim.Talk about Casket Sharp.
RB: As a teen I started acting out and joined one gang called the Tropics. A little petty gang in Brownsville. I joined by default because I was dating somebody in a gang. But I wasn’t really in a gang until I was with the Decepticons.
That was short-lived. Their activity was so scary, I just ran away from that shit. I always had fascination with gangs and always wanted to present them in a human way. Not dismiss them, but really try to understand them so we can provide the resources they need.
Having been a teacher for some 20-odd years, I work with young people who are in gangs and I never judge. I understand what that’s about. I’m not like you need to get out of the gang. I’m like, ‘Why are you there? And is it meeting your needs? If not, is there another way to meet your needs?’
That’s what “Casket Sharp” came from. It’s about this black MBA who moves back to his hometown. I never say what the town is, it’s just Deprived Black Town, USA. It could be anywhere the economy is atrophied. His father has run a funeral parlor for 30-40 years and his father has died and the business is failing and this young man has to decide if he’s going to profit from all of the death of black males that’s been happening with gang violence.
A gang member dies and the guy becomes the mediator between the boy’s mother and his gang family about how he should be buried. One of the elements of the play is rights-of-passage. Funeral is a place where they get dressed and get celebrated. Hollywood seems to love that play. I am both excited and scared by that. It’s about black survival, so it’s always interesting to hear a white executive say it’s a play they love. It’s getting me a lot of meetings. My friend says it’s just that it’s a well written play.
TSL: So what about The Get Down on Netflix. I would think this would be close to your heart, coming from New York and the time period it’s set in.
RB: The Get Down was definitely a show that I was more closely in line with because I was this kid. I came of age in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. When I was called for work on the project it was a dream job. I think it will be really special when it’s available to see. You haven’t seen these kids in this light. The culture hadn’t even called it Hip-Hop yet.
It was children taking their resources and making equipment out of discarded shit, which to me is the culture of making something out of nothing and not naming it. It’s the mainstream that gives it that name. For the kids that are participating in it, it’s life, it’s another level of fun. It really is play.
I think what you will watch is the kids realize there’s something to this form of play, we can monetize it. We were just doing this for fun, but we can get shine, we can get girls, we can get money, we can get fame. You see these kids who fall in love with the culture for different reasons, two kids from the same neighborhood, same age, but two very different characters. You just rarely experience black male youth explored in different colors.
It’s a series and its 13 episodes and a person can watch it all in one weekend. It will be cinematic. It will feel like a 13-hour movie. In the way that Once Upon a time in America is, it’s about these young boys coming of age in a time in America. And because of their background and circumstances, they became their own family as they discovered what this culture was.
Creators of the show really strive to make it as authentic as possible. Part of that was hiring us, part of that was reaching out to people like Kool Moe Dee, who came in and talked to us. Creating a touchstone with the forefathers of Hip Hop and having them give their seal of approval, but also not relying on them because this isn’t a documentary. You will see a part of the Bronx that people may have written off as very scary and turbulent, you’re going to see beauty in it.
TSL: Tell me a little bit about Rakim, speaking about Hip-Hop. I know you like his, well, his nose.
RB: There’s only been a couple of noses like that in history, James Evans, Marvin Gaye had that arrow nose, and the arrow is kind of pointing down at the goods, like its right here baby. If me and his nose could just run away together and populate the world. That nose is...it’s telling you, ‘Yo this is a f----Ashanti warrior. I could make love to you or I could stab you. I could go in many different directions.’
It’s powerful and black and African. You feel protected because he’s got a spear on his face. He’s got all of Africa on his face right there. I call men with that kind of nose a JEN—a James Evans nose.
When I think about him as an artist, he was a grown ass man at 18. He was young, but he was so grown. He was so clear and focused and unapologetic about how he rhymed. He was right, he’s not no joke. You’re gonna listen, you’re gonna pay attention cause he’s not trying to dazzle you or be shiny or cute. He always had that grimace.
The video—Move the Crowd—I feel like that’s the first time I saw hip-hop refer to that image of the black man as God. The power, with being an emcee behind the microphone, equated with Malcolm X behind the podium. He’s saying that this is the way Malcolm X moves the crowd, that’s what I do. I have the power of speech and words and I am an eloquent speaker. I’m smart. He was like a general in the video. So he’s saying, ‘These words are my weapon. I use these words to move people. I use them to get people ready for battle.’ He was and is one of our most intelligent emcees.
TSL: Do you want to make films?
RB: Since I was kid. In film, you can create this piece of art and it will be this thing that exists in the ether forever. I feel like I am in preparation for that. Building my chops in television, proving that I can tell stories so that one day I am putting out an independent film.
In the end, I feel like story is my art and there’s no higher level to me than film. That sticks with you. Something about a great independent film, it may not have a big audience, but when you create a film and it makes an impact, it’s very special to me. I see filmmakers and they may have only made one film, but they get all the respect in the world from me.
I know it’s not an easy thing to do, to create and have an impact - how to master collaborative art forms, the sheer independent voice of the painter mixed with the ability to collaborate and pull all of these different people into the making of your painting. I’m dusting off my screenplays, writing some new ones.
TSL: What about being a comedian? To me that seems to take even more courage.
RB: I feel like I’m a funny person and I’ve learned to monetize that or push it forward in a way that people who are funny in their everyday life don’t. It’s not very hard for me, what’s hard is making jokes feel fresh.
That comedy industry is so racist and sexist. It’s not just about telling jokes, it’s about acting. You have to act like the promoter and producer you’re dealing with did not just insult you, and you have to go out and make a joke.
Someone would introduce you and really they’re taking a crack at you. They’re like ladies are you ready to be represented? It’s like how do you know what my jokes are about. I joke about when you take your first shit around somebody you’re supposed to be in love with. Or getting my first colonic. When you introduce me like that you’re short changing me or diminishing me.
I have had black male comics say you better blow up or I’m stealing your shit. The art of making comedy is not funny at all. You have to divorce yourself from that to remember why you’re doing it. I’m inspired by comics like Dom Arara or Ellen DeGeneres, who make jokes like when you go in the elevator and there’s a crowd there and they press the button and you press the button anyway. It’s like, ‘I know y’all pressed it, but I’m gonna press it because I know it’s gonna come faster’, just about everyday life. It has nothing to do with gender.
TSL: How do you feel about the journey?
RB: I couldn’t have dreamed of the opportunities that are coming my way. What I’m learning is that as a writer you have to be able to shape-shift and be able to use different parts of your instrument so that you’re not waiting for that breakthrough.
One may be a mixtape, one may be a pilot, one may be a screenplay or ensemble play. It’s just working something until something breaks. You will get a whole lot of rejection and at some point someone will go, ‘What is this? This is so interesting.’
The rejection is not personal, it’s about who is willing to risk their resources and put it on the line for your project. A lot of times the determining factor is this person is known, there’s some kind of traction behind them. Rarely is it, ‘I’ve never read anything like this, I’m gonna take a chance, no one knows who this person is.' That’s rare. But sometimes it happens.
I am meeting people who are not afraid to embrace my kind of storytelling, they don’t want to put it on the backburner. It has been a very interesting journey for me.