As Nafessa Williams proudly declared, 2018 is the year of the black superhero. We’ve had the Black Panther, now its time for women to take the reins: playing the first black lesbian comic star, Anissa Pierce AKA Thunder in Black Lightning, Nafessa is proving the significance of representation. “I didn’t have a superhero that looks like me growing up”, she explains, but now she’s the role model our world needs. Playing an out and boldly unapologetic lesbian provides her fans and the public alike with someone like them in a position of power, and living their life to the fullest. You’d think that would be a whole lot of pressure for an up-and-coming actress, but Nafessa Williams is rising to the challenge and enjoying every moment.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, she trained to be a lawyer but found there was always something missing, and that thing was acting. Starring in the 2017 Sundance hit Burning Sands before landing the role of Thunder, Nafessa is taking the industry by storm (pun intended). Outside of that, she’s already founded a fashion boutique with her best friend with the aim of empowering young aspiring women and hosts VIP Happy Hour, to teach girls to become the boss they can be. An exemplification of our kind of muse, Nafessa Williams is giving back the good and celebrating the beauty in unity, so we sat down to talk how to be the world’s and your own superhero.
How does it feel to be a part of this movement at the moment?
It’s a dream come true: I’m doing what I love! When I’m at work it doesn’t feel like work it just feels like play, especially when I’m putting a superhero costume on! I cried my first time putting it on, that gives you an idea of how meaningful it is to me. I didn’t have a superhero that looks like me growing up, so it’s really a dream to be able to be that for black children now. There’s been such a shift in Hollywood with black superheroes, like Black Panther and our show, so I’m really excited and honoured to be a part of that wave.
And your character’s the first black, lesbian superhero on TV ever…
When you think about the history behind it it’s crazy: the magnitude of that for our society. I’m so grateful to be an inspiration, for people to look up to someone they haven’t had before: especially young black lesbians. To me, that’s the most rewarding thing, it’s so fulfilling.
Is it weird to think of young people looking up to you as a role model?
I think I knew that that came with the territory, but I do think about it. I think that’s why it’s so important that you take on roles you’ve thought about and are meaningful. I feel like that’s what I’ve done, so I hope that it helps someone somewhere.
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"I didn’t have a superhero that looks like me growing up, so it’s really a dream to be able to be that for black children now."
Did you grow up with film and TV as a part of your childhood?
I was a TV addict! I would come home and I would write out my TV guide… When I was young I loved the Huxtable family, I used to look at Rudy and think “Oh my god she looks like me!” (laughs). But I saw her and I just knew I wanted to do that. It was that visual, that image, of a young black actress who represented me. I just felt so inspired by these women: Tatyana Ali [as Ashley Banks] on Fresh Prince of Bel Air, [Lark Voorhies as] Lisa Turtle on Saved by the Bell. I wanted to tap into those characters that they played, I fantasised about being like that; I could escape from the issues of the inner cities into these worlds. So I knew very early on that I knew that this was what I wanted to do.
So was that the moment that you decided to become an actress?
I think that’s the moment I wanted it, but I had no idea how I’d get there. I wasn’t surrounded by it so I didn’t know it was possible to get there. It was later on in life that I thought yeah I have to fulfil that… So I grew up thinking, “Oh, I’ll be a lawyer” – but then Clare Huxtable was a lawyer (laughs)! I went to college to study law, I graduated, I worked at a DA’s office in the homicide unit, and I did common law. But I was sat at the desk and I thought, I’m just not happy. I knew I had to go for what had been inside of me since I was little girl, and that was acting. Eventually, I got fired for going to an audition! (laughs) And that was the moment, when life really started for me. When I became my own superhero and decided to follow my dreams.
You’ve got your own brand and you talk about fashion a lot, how would you describe your style?
I just wear anything that I feel in the mood for to be honest! I really go off of my moods and don’t fit in any boxes: sometimes I’m girly, sometimes I’m tomboy, sometimes I’m street-wear. It really depends and I like that, I’m a chameleon. I’m confident in my body now and I don’t mind showing skin, but I also feel super sexy when I’m completely covered up. It’s all based around my mood.
Who are your style icons?
I like to think of Rihanna when I think of fashion, my goal is to go shopping with RiRi one day. Love J-Lo. Tracee Ellis Ross is my main inspiration.
Would you like to do any other sort of fashion endeavours?
I’m focusing on my brand, Saturday Dreaming, at the moment: I founded it with my best friend Michelle Savage to make affordable pieces for women who are making it but want to look like they’ve already made it. I know what it’s like to be in college and not have the budget to fully look the way I want to. So it was for those women. We launched it 2 years ago now, and we made it with them in mind.
Do you feel like it’s a positive time post-Weinstein and with the Time’s Up movement?
I think it definitely feels like a positive time: I feel like women are more connected than we’ve ever been as a community and we’re supporting each other. Out of this tragedy and trauma came unity. I believe we get there quicker when we support each other, as a sisterhood, we’re stronger as a collective. So something positive came out of such negative situations.
What do you think still needs to change?
In terms of diversity I think the shift is already happening: with Black Panther and with our show, it’s the year of the black superhero. But I hope it’s a permanent shift, that we see this over and over again. I’m happy to be a part of the wave, the new school.
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"I feel like women are more connected than we’ve ever been as a community and we’re supporting each other...We’re stronger as a collective."
What’s your personal relationship like with social media?
I’m a little addicted to Instagram! I’m not on it as much when I’m filming, but I love it – being able to connect with your fans and have conversations. I want to feel reachable, and to be as real as possible. Reminding the young girls that we’re all the same, and to just be yourself.
Do you think social media has the power to be a place for change?
I think it’s a great platform to get our voices heard: from start up businesses to musicians to activists. It’s a great place for people to show off their truth.
Are there people you follow who you feel exemplify that for you?
Oh you know who I am so obsessed with at the moment: Yara Shahidi. Her, definitely! Issa Rae for sure, and Tracee Ellis Ross again. Shout out to all the women in ‘Nice for What’ by Drake (laughs). There are so many who I’ve been watching progress, my brand even was based off social media and for women on there, so it’s a cool place if you use it right.
What would you like to see less of online?
I would like to see less of – and I don’t want to offend anybody when I say this – but I think we’re in an era where people are getting so much surgery done to themselves, that we’re all trying to look the same. And it is so boring. And so overrated. I’d like to see the end of that, celebrating natural vibes or who we are. Embrace our individuality, and be shaped differently. I don’t have big boobs, I was waiting for them but they never came, but I’ve learnt to not compare ourselves. I think we need to stop with the trends of bodies and faces looking the same, big fake butts. But if you want to, you’ve got to own it, and own up to it: so little girls who look up to you don’t feel insecure. We should celebrate exactly what God blessed us with.
Finally, what’s next for you?
More movies! Comedies I hope, and my dream is to be on Saturday Night Live. So I’m going to do everything to make that happen. I want to do a love story… There’s so much I want to do. I see myself venturing off into the beauty world, expanding my fashion line, and see that all flourish. And we start season 2 of Black Lightning soon, and it’s out in October.