She’s Critically Acclaimed and Reluctantly Canadian

Lidopimienta alejandrosantiago 300dpi 5256

Deep into her set at the Drake Underground in Toronto, Lido Pimienta relays a bitter tale about an abusive relationship before pausing. Then, she invites queer and racialized women to come forward and enjoy the next song in a space just for them.

Stepping back so others can pass in front of me, I try to imagine what it is like to be denied space. But Pimienta, an indigenous, Afro-Colombian immigrant who refuses to record in English, isn’t here to teach me a lesson — she’s offering security and belonging to those who don’t find it easily.

Last year, alt-right groups picked up on Pimienta’s practice of inviting marginalized members of her audience to come forward and promptly labeled her a “reverse racist.” It was part of a torrent of hate that hit weeks after her album La Papessa won Canada’s Polaris Music Prize. Past recipients include Feist, Arcade Fire and Tanya Tagaq.

“I think it’s one of the most remarkable wins we’ve ever had,” says Polaris’ executive director Steve Jordan — pointing out that La Papessa is the first-ever Spanish-language album to win, and it was released without any record label support.

I can’t really be proud to be Canadian, because the conversation of reconciliation is fake, just like the country.

Lido Pimienta

During her live shows, the electronic-pop singer likes to weave stories into her sets. The narrative at the Drake shared elements of Pimienta’s life story, one that began 32 years ago in Barranquilla on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. She and her two siblings were born to an indigenous Wayuu mother and Afro-Colombian father who owned a successful harbor. When she was 6, Pimienta lost her father to cancer, and her mother kept the business and family afloat. 

Given more freedom to roam, Pimienta was playing with punk bands by the time she was 11. When her mother relocated to London, Ontario (aka “Londombia”), she left her then 14-year-old daughter, who was fronting her own metal band, with relatives in Colombia. Five years later, in 2005, Pimienta was reunited with her mother in Canada.

 

But life in Canada brought more pain. In 2013 Pimienta’s brother committed suicide, driven in part by the difficulties of living as an immigrant and the country’s lingering racism. More recently, Pimienta lost one of her key musical collaborators to cancer.

Among the painful stories, however, there were tales of joy. They told of the birth of her son, and the child she was carrying during that night’s performance. The father of Pimienta’s second child is Brandon Miguel Valdivia, her partner and her percussionist.

Known for her politically militant views, Pimienta also incorporates messages of resistance into her performances. From the stage in Toronto, she paid tribute to Colten Boushie, a young Cree man killed by a white farmer in Saskatchewan. The shooter, who admitted killing Boushie but said his gun had misfired, was found not guilty. Pimienta chanted “Justice for Colten” throughout the night.

These interludes lend depth to her performances, and the backing tracks to her elastic, head-turning vocals are tailored for each concert. The sound wizard behind each production is Kvesche Bijon-Ebacher, who’s been performing with Pimienta since 2012.

“No show is the same,” says Bijon-Ebacher, who also features in many of Pimienta’s stories. She calls him her “ nightmare,” joking with the audience about how they clash. “We obviously have friction sometimes, every band has that, and Lido doesn’t hold back,” he says, chuckling.

But their affable sparring is kid’s play compared with the harsh words Pimienta directs at her homeland, which is the subject of her next album, Miss Colombia, slated for release in mid-2019.

She calls the album a “cynical love letter” to Colombia, inspired in part by Steve Harvey’s flub at the 2015 Miss Universe pageant when he announced Miss Colombia as the winner before admitting he’d misread the results. The reaction at home, says Pimienta, was vicious: “Some horrible names that you would expect from some Southern Trump enthusiasts in the States, those same things were said about Harvey.”

Miss Colombia was also driven, she says, by the country’s high rate of femicides (The Bogotá Post reports that on average 73 women are murdered each month) and Pimienta’s experience of “living within a hyphen.” “When you’re Canadian-Colombian-Indigenous-and-Black-and-this-and-that,” she says, “all these labels are given to you, and they mean more problems and issues to navigate.”

While her new album points a finger at her birth county, the singer has also heaped plenty of criticism on her adopted home. “When you come here, no one talks to you about indigenous people,” she says. “They’re not a monolith and they don’t live in a museum. … I can’t really be proud to be Canadian, because the conversation of reconciliation is fake, just like the country.”

Pimienta’s call-it-like-I-see-it brand, together with her raw talent and devoted following, is the reason many believe she can make a lasting impact on the music scene in Canada — and beyond.

“She’s not just purely a musician. She’s a visual artist, an activist,” says Jordan. “She can come up with a whole new version of the musical art form, just based on her artistic ambition and fearlessness.”

Asked what she sees in her future, Pimienta responds with a laugh — “My hope is that I get the hell out of Canada and that I bring my friends with me” — before saying she plans to remain in the Great White North while working abroad as often as possible.

Her obvious disdain for “Canada” — by which she means the federal construct that legislates against indigenous and other people of color — is a blow to a culture largely invisible on the international stage, one whose brightest talents often flee south for better pay and recognition. To change this — and to encourage artists living within hyphens to stay in Canada and promote Canadian culture abroad — the country might want to take a page from Pimienta and invite them to the front of the show.

10 Treats for the Weekend: The OZY Highlight Reel

H 3.00465755

A U.S. Supreme Court Justice hangs up the robes, reigning champ Germany shuffles back home after the World Cup’s first round and Harley Davidson rolls production overseas in the face of European tariffs — another week in a world of transitions. So now might be a good time to hit pause and shift into reflection mode by enjoying OZY’s very best from the past seven days.

#1: Exit Right: What Justice Kennedy’s Departure Could Mean for the Supreme Court

 

The SCOTUS swing justice’s farewell is a seismic event in American law and life.
Why You Should Care: Because the man with arguably the single most important opinion in America is soon giving it up.

Much more >>

#2: Separation Anxiety: Families at the Border Get 4 Minutes Together — and a Lifetime Apart

 

As cruel jokes go, this is a doozy: A separated family gets to meet in a dry riverbed at the border. The punch line? For only four minutes. Get it?
Why You Should Care: Because the family separation policy is much more than just a sticky political issue.

Much more >>

#3: Joys of Ambiguity: The South American Poet Embracing a Language of Maybes

 

Susy Delgado has helped reclaim Guarani, the best preserved native language of the Americas once considered dirty.
Why You Should Care: Because Susy Delgado isn’t just writing great poetry but also preserving an ancient language in the process.

Much more >>

#4: Mucking About: Mudslinging at Rival Candidates Works — If You Do It Yourself

 

This Arizona Senate race could be ground zero for rethinking attack ads.
Why You Should Care: Because in order to win the Senate, candidates might need to do their own dirty work. 

Much more >>

 

#5: Unsung Hero: The Untouchable Who Became India’s Jackie Robinson

 

Cricket star Palwankar Baloo touched the hearts of millions in India during the early 20th century.
Why You Should Care: Because some sporting performances are truly transformative.

Much more >>

#6: Stuffed Quirks: Welcome to the Macabre World of Dollhouse Taxidermy

 

This California creator puts her own tiny worlds inside vintage creatures.
Why You Should Care: Because reimagined taxidermy is just so cool.

Much more >>

#7: Homeland Footie: The Reverse ‘Migration’ Fueling Africa’s Soccer Hopes

 

Foreign-born players are joining teams from the African nations of their parents, and driving their campaigns at the 2018 World Cup.
Why You Should Care: Africa is getting some of its best talent back as soccer players turn away from Europe. 

Much more >>

#8: Counterfeit Butts: Why Libya’s Future Is a Haze of Cigarette Smoke

 

Libya imports more rolled tobacco than any other African nation and uses it to churn out contraband cigarettes that help fund its civil war. 
Why You Should Care: Its ongoing civil war has turned Libya into the region’s cigarette smuggling leader. 

Much more >>

#9: Paradise Lost: Danai Gurira Recalls When Zimbabwe Was the Wakanda of Africa

 

The Black Panther star has broken big, and she is determined to help her homeland do the same.
Why You Should Care: Because Danai Gurira and other storytellers are trying to help a continent regain its sense of potential.

Much more >>

#10: Real Fake News: The Propaganda War Now Broadcasting in Eastern Ukraine

 

TV could become an increasingly powerful weapon in the four-year conflict with Russia.
Why You Should Care: Because sometimes TV is your only connection to reality.

Much more >>

Stuff Your Face With Seal and History at This Indigenous Restaurant in Canada

Dsc 2884

It was a freezing night in Toronto when I stepped into kū-kŭm in the heart of midtown. The restaurant had its heating up high, but the walls were radiating too. Prints in the woodlands style of Anishinaabe icon Norval Morrisseau guided my eyes toward a statement wall: a vibrant sweeping scene by Chippewa/Potawatomi muralist Chief Lady Bird and Haudenosaunee artist Monique Aura. The painting features three women and the landscape that fed their families. This is chef Joseph Shawana’s mother, mother-in-law and grandmother (or kū-kŭm, in Cree). They’re the inspirations for the restaurant’s name and for his menu.

Dsc 2955

Dishes feature a mix of foods from Shawana’s Anishinaabe heritage, French cuisine and local ingredients.

Source Courtesy of kū-kŭm

At kū-kŭm, Shawana turns out a fleet of dishes that combine his Anishinaabe heritage, his training in French cuisine and ingredients sourced only in Canada. The menu includes elk, caribou, goose, perch and seal — all combined with vegetables, mushrooms and herbs that are foraged within a 100-kilometer radius of Toronto, and often by First Nations communities.

This uniqueness, and perhaps the controversy, has made the seal dishes best-sellers. 

Shawana delicately sears seal loin ($20) and pairs it with beets and watercress, tossed lightly in local maple syrup. The sweetness of the accompaniments cut through the tender meat, resulting in a taste and mouthfeel unlike pretty much anything. Raw seal’s a little harder to swallow. That comes in the Arctic Trio starter, which costs $17 and features cured salmon and smoked rainbow trout.

 

This uniqueness, and perhaps the controversy, has made the seal dishes best-sellers. For me, however, one of the best items may also be the most unassuming: a $7.50 sorbet. It’s also the only dish on the menu that comes from Shawana’s home, the Wikwemikong Unceded Reserve on Ontario’s Manitoulin Island. As a child playing in the bush in “Wiky,” he explains, he’d eat handfuls of hard-packed snow from the forest floor, scented with aromatic notes of needles, sap and bark. The sorbet on the menu is topped with another bush treat: a purple-pink wild licorice root Shawana grew up calling “Indian candy.” The result is a palate cleanser that evokes a field of trees across your senses.

Dsc 2877

Beets and watercress combine for a fresh salad.

Source Courtesy of kū-kŭm

The sorbet may rekindle a childhood memory for Shawana, but opening kū-kŭm has done something far more profound. “It solidified that identity within me,” he says. Shawana grew up without a deep knowledge of Anishinaabe traditional beliefs and any understanding of Anishinaabemowin (his language), but through food he’s found a way to rediscover and celebrate that heritage. He’s also started learning his language, alongside his son.

Kū-kŭm isn’t the only restaurant in Toronto serving up indigenous dishes. It also shares the scene with NishDish and Pow Wow Cafe. Shawana is also considering more locations in the city. The chef says that indigenous diners tell him how his food has ignited a yearning to discover more about their own heritage.

Dsc 2912

The menu is mostly meat — from elk to seal. (There is one vegan item available: a plate of seasonal foraged items.)

Source Courtesy of kū-kŭm

But whatever your ancestry, eating here is an opportunity to experience bold, decadent flavors and ingredients that are naturally abundant but rarely celebrated in Canada — a chance to taste a contemporary spin on food that people have eaten on this land for thousands of years.

Danai Gurira Reflects on Africa’s Astounding Potential

Screen shot 2018 06 28 at 18.38.47

OZY Media’s third prime-time television show, Breaking Big, airs Fridays at 8.30 p.m. ET on PBS stations, OZY.com and Facebook Watch. Join us as we explore the unexpected journeys to success of some of the world’s most influential stars.

So far, we’ve heard from Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, and restaurateur Eddie Huang. This week we turn the camera on actress Danai Jekesai Gurira. Best known as Michonne in The Walking Dead and, most recently, as Okoye in the blockbuster hit Black Panther, Gurira sees her success as an opportunity to tell untold stories of African women and of her homeland, Zimbabwe.

When Gurira — who was born in Iowa but spent most of her childhood in Zimbabwe — landed back in the United States to study psychology in college, she was on a decidedly academic track. But her inner storyteller yearned for more — so she researched master’s programs in fine arts, earning herself a spot at the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. This was where she had to go “to learn all the rules,” she says, “so I’d know how to break them.”

Tune in tonight to learn how Gurira broke the rules and overcame the obstacles to Hollywood success — to both create and perform while paying tribute to her beloved Zimbabwe and the passion she’s had since childhood for “women being considered equals.”

Future Breaking Big guests include country music star Jason Aldean, SoulCycle and Flywheel cofounder Ruth Zukerman, fashion designer Christian Siriano and acclaimed author Roxane Gay, among many others.

Thoughts, Prayers, Firepower and an Hour of Reckoning

Gettyimages 986606386 (1)

Five people in a newsroom in Maryland are dead. Shotgunned to death at work by a lone gunman who walked through the long-running Capital Gazette daily newspaper in Annapolis, looking for victims and finding them. He, himself, was eventually found hiding under a desk, his discarded gun across the room. No known motive, no ID, no warning.

Echoes of Parkland, Las Vegas, a church in South Carolina and a Florida nightclub are now conflated with mental imagery of a similar massacre 3,000 miles and three years away in France, at the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. The massacres are all different, but the similarities are stultifyingly similar: dead people and men whose understanding of their relationship to the world was trespassed on so significantly that the only response that made sense was the one that, minutes after it happened, we, collectively, greeted with thoughts and prayers.

What are we thinking and praying about?

Maybe most seriously that there was, as of yet, no logic to this crime, not even twisted logic, since that would leave a paper trail, and at the end of that paper trail would be a prime mover. A prime mover like anger at the press expressed as discontent over the recent Maryland primary election and maybe the Capital Gazette’s failure to endorse a favored candidate? Incitement from a president who has pegged the press as the enemy? An angry ex? A disgruntled employee?

Which is where we find ourselves on Friday. Short on answers, as usual, long on hope and not laughing at all.

These might provide reasons, but they only hint at rationales, since one thing should be aggressively clear by now: These killings are not solving anyone’s, including the killers’, problems. High school kids are still going to high school, and folks are still going to outdoor concerts, churches and discos and, in this instance, reading the news. 

It’s not even making them infamous anymore à la the coruscatingly brilliant Eddie Murphy–created assassin John David Stutts, whose murder of Buckwheat on Saturday Night Live whiplashed a fictional news cycle into a fresh, new media creation. No, they start sad, they get angry, then they get back at “us.” Wash, rinse, repeat, mix in thoughts and prayers. 

“He looked for his victims as he walked through the lower level,” Bill Krampf, Anne Arundel County acting police chief, said at a news conference Thursday evening. If all you have is a hammer, the whole world might look like nails. And if you have a headful of bad ideas, the whole world might look like victims, including yourself, first and foremost.

Now it’s Friday. Often early deadlines day in newsrooms. We’re short on answers, as usual, and long on hope. There’s a question to be answered: Who will write the first draft of history in this latest massacre? The gunman or the journalists? And what will that first draft say?

“I remember once at the Metreon theater in San Francisco, a guy just stood up and started shooting,” says Eddie Williams, a former undercover cop in San Francisco. “I asked him later why he had done it and he said, ‘People fucking with me.’ That was it.”

Really? “Really,” Williams says.

So there’ll be reasons, explanations, excuses and dead people. Again. Welcome to the new normal. Again. 

Why This Court Pick Is the Most Consequential Choice of Trump’s Presidency

Gettyimages 985943346 fix

For a brief moment on Wednesday, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch’s Wikipedia page, and thus the top of his Google search results, included the epithet “world-renowned ‘lib-owner.’ ” It was only up for six minutes — Wikipedians are swift to nix such larks — but the point was plain: The archconservative Gorsuch’s votes to damage public sector unions and uphold President Donald Trump’s travel ban, among others, are causing America’s liberals to tear their hair out at the prospect of having him on the high court for a few more decades.

Among conservatives debating the merits of their erratic president, “But Gorsuch” has become something of a jeer. Anti-Trump Republicans cannot bear juvenile insults, trade wars, cozying to dictators, using his post to buoy his business, obstructing justice, etc. They often characterize conservative elites who support Trump as the “But Gorsuch” crowd — willing to forgive everything for the sake of the Supreme Court.

26 percent of Trump voters said Supreme Court appointments were the most important issue to them.

As June comes to a close with monumental conservative wins on First Street and a new justice on the way after Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, the group has a spring in its step. “But Gorsuch and Kavanaugh” is a mouthful, but if D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Brett Kavanaugh or another similarly young-ish consistent conservative navigates the Senate, it doubles the delight of the right and solidifies Trump’s viselike grip on his party. And the president knows it. If Trump could clone Gorsuch, he would.

In 2016 — the election we’re doomed to relive until the end of time — Trump released two lists, adding up to 21 judicial candidates handpicked by conservative activists. He promised to choose one of them for the late Antonin Scalia’s seat, and he followed through. (The list has since expanded to 25, including Kavanaugh.) The former New York Democrat doesn’t have the ideological mooring of, say, Vice President Mike Pence, but Trump respects the conservative movement’s power.

 

The court may well have delivered him the White House. Exit polls from 2016 showed that 26 percent of Trump voters said Supreme Court appointments were the most important issue to them, compared to 18 percent of Hillary Clinton voters. It’s not a huge gap, but you may recall the election was tight.

It’s a truism that conservatives care more intensely about judges than liberals do. Republicans, staring down an enthusiasm gap, can motivate the base on the prospect of a conservative justice who could overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling legalizing abortion nationwide. But a nuclear SCOTUS war in the Senate shakes both sides. Women are already pissed off and more engaged than ever, both in running for office (witness 28-year-old star of the moment, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and in doing the political spadework to turn out Democrats in November. A massive fight over reproductive rights turns the volume to 11.

But will this all be settled by the time the midterms arrive? Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who knows a little something about the judicial nominations process, has pledged a vote by the fall. He’s not taking any chances on the slim odds of losing his majority.

It puts a lot of pressure on Trump to get this pick right — a false start costs him precious time if a nominee stumbles with Senate GOP moderates or some dark element of his or her past arises. At a North Dakota rally hours after Kennedy’s announcement, Trump vowed to pick someone with “intellect” who would serve for “40, 45 years.” (Hyperbole check: William O. Douglas is the longest serving justice of all time, at 36.5 years.)

With all that rides on this seat, the Supreme Court short list might be the only time Donald Trump sticks to the script.

Special Briefing: The Game That Took Over the World

Pua666587afda6e89aec274a3657558a27 1512685493 6325124 news

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.

WHAT TO KNOW

What happened? Though the game was introduced last July, Fortnite’s popularity skyrocketed after it introduced Battle Royale, a free-for-all shoot-’em-up version, several months later. When it comes to gameplay, imagine The Hunger Games: You’re dropped, alone, somewhere on an island, with 99 other players. You all try to kill each other, and the last person standing wins. Experts note the game isn’t exactly revolutionary — it’s just really fun to play, helped on by elaborate narratives, clever design, ease of use and opportunities for personalization. But that winning combination has made it the most popular free-to-play console game in human history, with 125 million people playing less than a year after launch.

Fortnite%2fbattle pass%2fseason4%2fjumbotron%2fvideojumbotron 1612x907 9f5299da2fe544cbbe0067fc372d1b8053138e0c

Game enthusiasts and industry personnel attend the Epic Games Fortnite E3 Tournament at the Banc of California Stadium on June 12, 2018, in Los Angeles, California.

Source Epic Games, Inc.

Why does it matter? Fortnite may be free, but it’s still a financial juggernaut. Nearly 68.8 percent of users have spent money buying clothes or dance moves for their avatars in the game, an average of more than $58 each, bringing in $318 million in revenue in May and $1.2 billion since its launch. Unlike Pokémon Go, which launched big in 2016 but saw revenue decline shortly after, Fortnite appears to have more staying power, with fans saying it combines the most addictive features of role-playing games and first-person shooters. Organized into seasons like a TV show — the fifth season begins July 12 — Fortnite’s creators also offer weekly challenges to keep players logging on.

 

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

Next-level. Fortnite creator Epic Games announced in May that it would put up $100 million in prize money for competitive Fortnite events this year. Fans got a preview at the Fortnite Pro-Am tournament two weeks ago, which paired Fortnite celebrities with actual celebrities to win a total of $3 million for charity as more than a million fans watched online. As with any sport, Fortnite has already developed a few superstars — like Pro-Am winner Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, currently pulling in $500,000 per month from Amazon Prime subscriptions — who may be a draw. Upcoming tournaments may uncover more heavy hitters, and qualifying matches for next year’s planned inaugural Fortnite World Cup will begin this fall.

His-and-her controllers. Female gamers, who make up 46 percent of the gaming population, were likely in mind when Fortnite expanded to iOS and mobile versions. Women account for 63 percent of the mobile gaming market and are 36 percent more likely than men to make mobile in-game purchases. Fortnite’s reached out to female players in other ways: Of the game’s available avatars, 35 percent are female, a high proportion for the gaming industry. Fortnite is also one of the few shooter games to feature female characters in its ads, which can be a fraught proposition in an industry where disgruntled male gamers have been known to lash out at franchises for so much as featuring female characters.

Bait and switch. As the game has hopped from platform to platform — PC to iOS to Xbox to Nintendo Switch — gamers have taken their curated characters (and all those in-app purchases) from console to console with them. But Sony drew fire from players when it blocked such cross-play on the PlayStation 4, something the company’s done before with previous games. So far Sony’s response has been tepid, with PlayStation head honcho Shawn Layden promising this week that the company is “looking at a lot of the possibilities.” Meanwhile, Android will finally get its own Fortnite later this summer.

What about the children? Dumbfounded parents are again worried about the potentially addictive properties of violent games, especially after the World Health Organization classified gaming addiction as a mental illness earlier this year. And while a 9-year-old girl in the U.K. made headlines when her parents sent her to addiction counseling for playing the game too much, psychologists largely seem unbothered by Fortnite, comparing it to game crazes of the past. Meanwhile, the U.S. again revisited the possible connection of violent video games to real-life violence this spring when President Trump met with industry executives and the Parents Television Council after the Parkland school shooting.

WHAT TO READ

How Fortnite Captured Teens’ Hearts and Minds, by Nick Paumgarten in The New Yorker

“What people seem to agree on, whether they’re seasoned gamers or dorky dads, is that there’s something new emerging around Fortnite, a kind of mass social gathering, open to a much wider array of people than the games that came before.”

I Played Fortnite and Figured Out the Universe, by Robin Sloan in The Atlantic  

“Sometimes, we have a lever against the vise of game theory, and in this case, it is a single bit of communication. I mean “bit” in the programmer’s sense: a flag with a designated meaning. Nothing more.”

WHAT TO WATCH

How Fortnite is Transforming the Gaming Industry

“Fortnite is impacting how modern games are developed, and how they get popular, stay relevant and make money.”

Watch on The Verge on YouTube:

Watch Gameplay from Fortnite Battle Royale

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATER COOLER

Educational value. While some schools have banned Fortnite from their classrooms, others are embracing the game: Ashland University in Ohio is the first institution in the country to offer an esport scholarship for the game. “Honestly, I’m still somewhat in shock,” said 22-year-old Devin Sharp, the first player signed. 

Danai Gurira Recalls When Zimbabwe Was the Real-Life Wakanda

Gettyimages 684790196 copy

Danai Gurira is taking a break from promoting her blockbuster film Black Panther to talk to a group that does not include any Hollywood reporters. But the playwright turned movie megastar is not actually taking a break from talking about the movie: She is sharing the film’s message with an audience that probably appreciates it more than any other will. “The thing I love about that film,” Gurira tells a group of wide-eyed teenagers at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, is that it “shows that world where we think beyond whatever trauma we’ve experienced as a continent, and we reclaim ourselves and our greatness.”

Black Panther may be a box-office success, but it is all about the power of storytelling to inspire that act of reclamation. And so is Gurira, whose remarkable journey to stardom is the subject of this week’s episode of Breaking Big, airing at 8.30 p.m. ET Friday on PBS. “This continent is powerful and wealthy and has astounding potential,” Gurira, 40, informs the energized audience.

I’ve got these stories right here that need to get told.

Black Panther star Danai Gurira

And it is a potential she has witnessed swelling — and diminishing — firsthand in recent decades. Gurira’s home nation of Zimbabwe was far from the real-life Wakanda of Africa during her early life there in the 1980s and ’90s, but the resource-rich southern African nation once represented the promise of that continent. Until, that is, it endured a social and economic free fall that set Gurira and millions of others adrift and on a long-term quest to reclaim their homeland’s greatness.

Zimbabwe’s longtime dictator, Robert Mugabe, once said that he would rule the southern African nation until “God says come.” Last November, however, it was not the hand of death but his own hand (following a military coup) that finally deposed the autocrat after 37 years of rule. Like another post-apartheid leader, Nelson Mandela, Mugabe was a political prisoner who helped liberate his people from white colonial rule. After Zimbabwe gained independence from Great Britain in 1980, he endorsed racial reconciliation and was even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

At the time Zimbabwe held enormous promise: It had paved roads, airports and a strong education system, not to mention rich soil that helped make it the “breadbasket” of the continent. Mugabe himself recognized that he helmed the “jewel of Africa.” It was into this propitious atmosphere that 5-year-old Danai Gurira, born to Zimbabwean expats in rural Iowa, returned in 1983. Gurira tells OZY Editor-in-Chief Carlos Watson that she had an “idyllic childhood” in many respects. “Zimbabwe was in a very prosperous place,” she says, and she enjoyed a good education at an all-girls Catholic school in Harare. “Zimbabwe’s kind of known for being the nerd nation of the continent,” she quips.

 

Gurira, a self-described “Zamerican,” and her siblings performed plays in their backyard, and in the seventh grade she made her theatrical debut. Still, as a young person, the star of the hit television show The Walking Dead was more interested in being an activist than an actress. “I grew up in a home where I was allowed to assert my opinions and feel confident that they mattered,” she says — her high school friends even nicknamed her Megaphone. Gurira soon learned, though, that her voice was not valued so much outside of her family and friends. “I was in a society where women had less of a space to do that [speak out]. And I felt that incongruence very quickly, and it jarred me,” she says.

Meanwhile, Robert Mugabe was jarring an entire nation. The strongman began a brutal crackdown of political opponents and a violent program of seizing white-owned farms and redistributing them to his cronies. By 2008, a country that had enjoyed one of the highest economic growth rates in the world in the 1990s suffered from hyperinflation. Millions, including Gurira, who returned to the American Midwest to attend Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, fled the country during that period.

Mugabe may be gone, but it will take years, maybe even decades, for Zimbabwe to reclaim its promise. And in that process of restoring a nation, and a continent, stories matter: The stories that African children see on their screens and stages — and that shape how they view their own potential — matter.

In addition to her work in film and television, Gurira has written several staged plays, including the Tony-nominated Eclipsed, which tells the story of five Liberian women caught in the middle of a civil war. Gurira says that she wants to continue to tell African women’s stories, and there are so many more stories to tell. It’s clear from the reception her words receive at the African Leadership Academy that she is not just a storyteller but a leader too. 

So does the vocal expat still want to be an activist, or even a politician? “I’m not saying I wouldn’t,” she allows, “but, right now, I feel like I have to get these stories told. I’ve got these stories right here that need to get told.”