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“It’s So Much Bigger Than Me”: KJ Smith Talks Her Journey On and Off Screen

In an exclusive conversation with Hollywood Melanin, actress KJ Smith talked about the force behind her dedication to the art of acting, producing, and creating a bridge for other success stories to form. As a multifaceted woman of color, Smith plans to hold an unforgettable legacy. 

Hollywood began to take notice of Smith after her breakthrough role in OWN’s drama series Queen Sugar, created by award-winning director Ava Duvernay and Oprah Winfrey. “Queen Sugar was the role that started me on the trajectory of really believing in myself,” the Florida native shared. 

Before that life-changing moment, Smith honed her skills by often collaborating with friends and acting in their projects. “I started off doing a lot of free work, web series, and comedy skits for friends.” She was a “background artist” for years before booking her role on Queen Sugar

Getting that first big gig did not just elevate Smith as a working actor but also gave her the internal push she needed at the time. “It did more for me mentally,” she shared, “Mentally, it reminded me to keep pushing, keep going, and that’s really what this industry is about.”

The never-ending process of motivating herself, overcoming doubt and fear of not using her gift had brought Smith into a new role as a producer. Her first feature film, The Available Wife, which she produced and starred in, was launched last year and nominated for Best Narrative Feature at the American Black Film Festival (ABFF).

KJ Smith photographed by Stephon X
KJ Smith / photographed by Stephon X

In 2019 Smith landed one of the lead roles in Tyler Perry’s Sistas, a drama-comedy series that portrays life unraveling between four Black women living in Atlanta. Smith, Mignon Von, Ebony Obsidian, and Novi Brown play the main characters. The women face many complexities of thriving in their careers while managing romance.

The show, which BET has renewed for a fourth season, has been a great success. Sistas season two premiere was reported the “most socially viewed cable program,” generating over 1.8 million views on Facebook and Twitter. Smith’s character, Andi Barnes, is a high-powered attorney.

“I feel like [ Andi] represents a lot of Black women in America and all over the world honestly,” the actress said. “Right now, Black women are the most educated demographic in the country. Andi, she has it all: an education, a job, and in her mind, she has the perfect partner.”

…It’s so much bigger than me. When I made it about myself, I was unsuccessful

Personal on-screen success is not all Smith strives for. Pouring into others and working for the good of the collective community is the ultimate goal. “What I’m learning, especially through my mentees, people from my hometown, and my younger relatives, is that it’s so much bigger than me. When I made it about myself, I was unsuccessful,” she told HM. Smith wants to continue to hold the light for other people to achieve success.

Through her personal and professional journey, Smith stays focused on the bigger picture – it’s about helping others and being the example of what is possible. Part of her legacy is making the world a better place and focusing on unsheltered and fostered youth. “I want to do what women who I admire and aspired me, did for me. Which is to encourage me to keep going and be the best that I can be.” 

As Sistas continues its run, Smith continues to book more roles. Last year, she starred in Netflix’s suspense thriller, Fatal Affair, with Nia Long and Omar Epps. She also made an appearance in Kenya Barris’ comedy series #blackAF. In addition, according to a recent announcement, Smith will join the Power prequel series Power Book III: Raising Kanan in a major recurring role.


Betti Halsell, senior writer at HM

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Interviews

‘Harlem’ Star Shoniqua Shandai Talks 3 Pillars of Success

Harlem Shoniqua Shandai

Shoniqua Shandai is fully immersed in the study of her success. Through her determination, Shandai found a way to reach the precipice of her goals. In an exclusive interview with Hollywood Melanin, Shandai shared an in-depth level of self-perception. She provided personal definitions of courage, confidence, and self-belief. 

The world is waking up to the power that Shandai holds. In the new hit Amazon series Harlem, the New York native brings Angie’s character to life. Many would look at her and say she is struggling, playing into the “starving artist” archetype, but if one looks closer, Angie’s only struggle is the battle with the conformity of the world. 

Series creator Tracy Oliver worked with Meagan Good, Grace Byers, Jerrie Johnson, alongside Shandai, to share a raw narrative of Black women who have the goal of living out their version of happiness.

Harlem
Grace Byers, Shoniqua Shandai, Jerrie Johnson, and Meagan Good / ‘HARLEM’ credit: Prime Video

Angie embodies liberty, a freeform display of what it means to be dedicated to pursuing a dream. Off-screen, Shandai knows the level of commitment it takes to create a world that fits a personal vision. It takes a custom-made level of courage, confidence, and self-belief. It takes a personal standard of hustle. 

Conquering the fear of being one’s true self ignites the labor in building confidence. Shandai admitted the process was in layers. “I found the confidence to be myself in having tried to be everyone else and it not working,” she continued, “I might as well show up as me–as vividly, as boldly, as audaciously as possible. You have to live for yourself.” 

I found the confidence to be myself in having tried to be everyone else and it not working

Courage is defined as “the ability to do something that frightens one.” To be one’s true self is nearly impossible without courage. It’s the secret ingredient to personal success. Before every interview, the repeated chorus from loved ones is “to be yourself,” but that takes courage. Shandai opened up and shared her process.

“Courage came from having to build confidence – I am who I am.” The actor and singer continued to explain that her support from her mother, adjacent to her self-determination fueled her confidence. 

Courage came from having to build confidence

To be unstoppable, there has to be a strong foundation of self-belief. The approval of others is fickle. Self-belief might be the only thread left to hang on to when no one else is willing to share blind faith in chasing dreams. 

The Amazon series star considered the solution to working when the motivation isn’t there, “I am incredibly future-oriented. Being so future-oriented has saved my life.” Shandai said. She admitted to reverting back, and taking baby steps in order to prepare for bigger strides. Each day, she pulled herself closer into the vision. 

Shandai said she is most happy when she is cooking success in multiple pots. Her next debut is coming in through audible wavelengths. As a singer and songwriter, she will be looking for a deeper level of self through music. 

Her first single, with visuals directed by her co-star Good, is called, Something About You. Nothing has been officially released yet, but Shandai is ready for this part of herself to rise to the surface. 

Through her personal definition of courage, confidence, and self belief, Shandai always finds the strength to keep extending her reach, to keep answering the calling on her life. Stay connected with Shandai on Instagram and Twitter. Bingewatch Harlem on Amazon Prime.

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Interviews

Robin Givens Talks Guest-starring on ABC’s Queens

Givens’ episode titled “Let the Past Be the Past” will air on Tuesday, February 8

Robin Givens is set to appear on the all-new episode of ABC’s music drama Queens. We sat down with the Ambitions star to discuss her joining the show and take a deeper dive into her pivotal scenes.

In Queens, we get a first-hand look at the dynasty built by the hip-hop quartet of women – Naomi (Brandy), Brianna (Eve), Valeria (Nadine Velazquez), and Jil (Naturi Naughton). Viewers meet the group on the verge of claiming their place at the top of the music game for the second time.

The upcoming episode titled ‘Let the Past Be the Past’ will feature Givens as Eric’s ex-wife, who will pay him an unexpected visit. Once the manager of the girl group, Eric will have to confront his former spouse to help save the future of Nasty Girl Records.

Last week ET exclusively released the first look images of Givens as Robin and her intense sit-down with Brandy’s Naomi – the woman who might’ve caused the breakup of her and Eric’s marriage. See the photos below.

Queens
Queens

The official ABC synopsis reads, “Queens follows a fractured girl group living in the shadows of their once prominent hip-hop dynasty. After their popularity skyrocketed with the success of their chart-topping single, “Nasty Girl,” they were once regarded as one of the greatest girl groups of their generation. However, the group was plagued by internal conflict and jealousy despite critical and commercial success. Estranged and out of touch, the four women, now in their 40s, reunite for a chance to recapture their fame and regain the swagger they had in the ’90s when they were legends in the hip-hop world.”

Watch Queens on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.

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Interviews

Eris Baker Talks ‘This Is Us’ Final Chapter and Pressures of The Industry

‘This Is Us’ has been making its viewers laugh and cry for six years now. NBC’s hit series and talented cast collected many nods and awards season after season, including several Golden Globes and Primetime Emmys. With the family drama on its sixth and final season, we sat down with one of the show’s stars, Eris Baker, who plays Tess Pearson, Randall (Sterling K. Brown), and Beth’s (Susan Kelechi Watson) oldest biological daughter.

Eris grew up on the show, and she calls her castmates and crew, ‘family’. She took on her biggest television role thus far at the age of 10. Now, at 16, Eris is ready to enter a new chapter of her life and career.

This Is Us
Eris Baker as Tess / This Is Us – “Yellow Brick Road” Episode 602 (Photo by: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

The oldest sister of 4 in real life, Eris never shied away from responsibility. So when the opportunity to audition for This Is Us presented itself, she gladly went after it. Convinced that she did not get the part, Eris later received the best news on Christmas – the role was hers. She admits that she did not realize how big this was back then and how massive it would become.

Eris says she never felt overwhelmed by her immediate professional surroundings as a child actor. Working on the set of This Is Us has always been comfortable and fun. However, Eris told HM, the pressures mounted from the demands that came with being in the industry – “You need a manager, you need an agent, you need a PR, you need to post this, you need to post that, you need to be this image for other people, and I don’t even know if I’m that image for myself,” she explained. A lot comes with being in the public eye, and the young talent says she is learning to navigate that.

Watch the rising star talk about working with her co-stars, reveal some of the pressures she faced growing up in the industry, and reflect on what lies ahead in her professional future.

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