written by: Ari Surya
On a cloudless Sunday morning I was standing outside of Nyallah’s tall, yellow apartment building, in a quiet South Central neighborhood. I called to let her know I had arrived and was waiting for her downstairs. She answered the phone joyfully and gave me the code to get in. After strolling upstairs to the third floor, she greeted me at her door in a brightly patterned ankle-length dress and a warm smile on her face. Her spacious studio apartment felt bright and cozy as the sun shone through her wide windows. Her wall-art hangings were eclectic and quirky, including a Post-it wall full of inspiring affirmations. The sun enhanced the smoke from the incense and sage burning, and invited the many crystals set on her windowsill to gleam. As I entered, she asked me to remove my shoes and offered me water.
As she poured me a glass we decided to have breakfast delivered. We searched through the endless possibilities on Postmates and found the perfect breakfast cafe. Nyallah pressed play on an episode of That’s So Raven and lit a joint. When the theme song began we sang and laughed together, and as it came to an end Nyallah hollered, “that’s a bop!” She sat on her big bed full of pillows, complete with a tapestry hanging over head, while I sat next to her on a cushy little couch seated in front of her TV and coffee table. We chatted about the episode and a book I noticed sitting on her table, You Can Change your Life by Louis L. Hay. Our food, surprisingly, arrived before we expected. Nyallah quickly greeted our driver graciously and we immediately got to eating. She ordered a smoothie, fries, and a breakfast sandwich. I kept it simple with a parfait. We paused the show and over food we communed in conversation. She answered my inquiries with ease and authenticity. This is what I learned...
Nyallah at The Back House, by Miriha Austin, 2019.
Ari Surya: Can you describe yourself or identify yourself with a five-word story? Why did you choose those words?
Nyallah: My Life as a Negress, because I’m a “ black, queer femme” and my most life changing and influential experiences stemmed from something relating back to me being a black queer woman, whether it be microaggressions, discriminatory acts, being on campus at USC, or being underestimated and being treated differently overall.
Can you say the same about your 13 year old self?
No, because my perception of my blackness wasn’t there yet. I was just starting freshman year [of high school], living with my grandparents in a new city, Baldwin Hills, but going to school in the valley before that. I didn’t really have black friends because of the lack of diversity in the gifted magnet schools I'd attended. That was a time when I was just exploring my queerness and being a black woman.
You often speak openly and candidly about issues that affect yourself and others within the communities you are part of and connected to. You often shares stories of others journeys and publicly support your community members online. What benefits do you feel come from these forms of social action? Are there any negative impacts of that on the flip side?
Supporting other people is also supporting me. Just by reposting, listening to others, connecting others to resources, conversing and connecting through posts creates friendships and gives more of a community. It’s nice to know who to go to for things needed. I think it’s important that we hold space not only for ourselves but for each other. it’s a community. you know, we love on each other.
Can you share any strategies or coping skills for resisting the larger powers you, and many others, face daily solely because of the ways in which you identify?
I know someone will roll their eyes but...self-care! Whatever that looks like for you, and create your own routine that helps you not be stressed and navigate through life.
In what ways, as a youth, were you encouraged or discouraged to understand and get to know yourself and form your own personal identity? How has that informed your identity today and in turn, your art?
Growing up my parents had more of a “do you" attitude when it came to personal identity. They supported me being Black and having a voice about it. Being queer was a little more of a challenge but by the time I discovered that was a part of me my father had passed and I only had to tell my mom.
In school, growing up black, it was not so encouraging to understand and get to know self. I was bullied by the other kids simply for being black. Although this made navigating through identity challenging it did teach me how to have a voice, call shit out, stand up and hold space for others. I didn’t like experiencing events without black artists so I created a space, “Loft Sessions”, [at USC] for black artists and myself to showcase our work. If we actually want to heal together we must do the work.
Nyallah in her Los Angeles apartment, by Miriha Austin, 2019.
Can you tell me a little bit about who has influenced you and your art?
Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Luther Vandross, and Charlie Wilson-artists that create their own world because we’re all pretty much saying the same thing from our own perspective.
Solange is a big influence for my art now. She does everything with intention, has no problem being vulnerable, which I think is really beautiful because it didn’t come easy to me. She talks about the liberation and that its hard as well.
What was your media intake like as a youth and how did that impress upon the formation of your perception of self?
I was curious to learn about other cultures and communities of color. I remember watching anime, dressing up after studying the cultures, reading up on Chinese zodiac charts and Chinese New Year.
What daily rituals do you have that ground you and/or remind you of your personal power?
Posting affirmations around my room- it's actually something that I got from a friend in New York. She had things posted like “ I’m Revolutionary," “I’m Powerful,” “I make important art...” Also, journaling, verbally listing the things I’m grateful for as soon as I wake up, creat[ing] checklists for the things I need to work on, and checking in with self and loved ones.
Are there any fixtures in your neighborhood in LA that make you feel at home?
Leimert, Simply wholesome, and the Underground Museum.
We, as humans, can’t do much all alone. What resources, that have become part of your community, could you not produce your work without? Tell me about the places that feed you, the energies that fill you when you are in a creative slump.
Leiminspace has been very essential to my growth as an artist. I have performed at a few events in this space and also spaces like- Underground museum, African American Museum, Space 1520, Residency. Spaces we create as a community have been the most beneficial.
Where do you get your hair braided?
A friend located in Inglewood, _braidsforyou .
What’s your ideal weekend spent in LA like?
I usually go to art events in Los Angeles. I often go to artists’ events that I don't know to support. mostly black artists.
Nyallah released her EP “Reflections” in January 2019 which speaks a lot about self-growth and identity. Can you tell me a little bit about your project and the influences behind it?
Reflections was written in 2017 after depressive episodes, anxiousness, and just leaving an unhealthy relationship. I was at a point where I was feeling alone, had to learn how to be my own
best friend and do the work by myself. a lot of lyrics are affirmations for myself and others.
Nyallah at Culver City Farmers Market, by Miriha Austin, 2019.
Nyallah moved to New York!
These are her favorite local spots in her new living community
"Im a vintage thrifthead. I love finding unique and colorful pieces for the low so thrift stores are like my lost love. Going to Goodwill's in LA with my mom while growing up taught me how to rummage through bins of clothes. L Train Vintage and Urban Jungle (though very hyped-up) have blessed me with fire signature looks all under $15 each! I love L Train because I can spend $50 and get at least 6 good, quality pieces that'll last me for a few years. If you're ever in Brooklyn, I suggest going to either of these spots.
One of my favorite things about NY is it;s diverse cuisine. Minus Mexican food and a few other dishes, haha, food in NY is pretty good. The produce is rough. Coming from California, I's having a tough time adjusting to produce that dies so quickly. I'm still adjusting and figuring out how to go about cooking in this city, but I am doing my best!
Like most people in this city, I'm on the go most of the time. Sometimes the easiest, though not always affordable, thing to do is order takeout or delivery. Here are some of my fave spots I've gathered since visiting NY a few years ago. No, you won't find Mexican food on this list, haha.
"For Women Who Smoke and Meta Den. I strongly suggest buying from either of those groups. Both are QTPOC-centered spaces focused on circling their resources and information back to local BIPOC communities. Meta Den herbal blends are perfect for smoking and ritual practice, while For Women Who Smoke has a cannabis menu available for purchase. Check either out and support Black femmes, trans and otherwise!"
"Universal Botanica is my go to for all spiritual needs."
• Joy Day Party: "Another beautiful, Black, queer/trans space. Hosted by some other loved ones, it's a super fun monthly day-party that features various BIPOC DJ's and vendors. It's a vibe and everyone is always serving looks!"
• A Ratchet Realm: " Hosted and curated by my homegirl Jewel. A space where Black femmes can exist, be safe and twerk their booties off! Held every month with a different theme, it's very much a vibe."
"Fulton and Prospect Parks. There are so many parks in New York! These folx are privileged out here with the trees, haha. Prospect Park is actually one of my faves because there's so many different areas and levels, it's pretty impossible to see it all in one day. I love going to a park and having a phone call with my mama, taking a lap to get some air, or just laying down in the grass. These are some of my favorite parks as of now."
Nyallah Noah // vocalist, songwriter, community organizer.
Ari Surya // writer, multimedia artist and Reiki healer.
Miriha Austin // interdisciplinary artist, educator and organizer.