Amandla Stenberg Sees Beauty Underwater, and Strength in Maya Angelou

Damien Chazelle, who directed the first two episodes of “The Eddy,” a new Netflix series about jazz, wanted to capture the genre’s kinetic energy by having the cast improvise. Which is how Amandla Stenberg found herself riffing, both verbally and musically, in front of the camera.

“It definitely was not a piece of cake, but it was a really fantastic challenge,” said Stenberg, 21, who plays Julie, the impetuous daughter of an American pianist (André Holland) who pours his soul into his Parisian club. “We were told to just lean into our impulses and find the things that felt the most truthful to us, which was sometimes really chaotic but also birthed some cool moments.”

Lately, Stenberg’s moments have been limited to whatever entertainment she can conjure up while sheltering in Los Angeles. In a phone call, she chatted about the 10 best things — some longtime favorites, others fresh discoveries. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

1. “Zami” by Audre Lorde

I love Audre Lorde and who she is as a literary figure. I feel like so many of my experiences are reflected in her work, and I connect spiritually. There’s this amazing prologue in “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name” that kind of changed my life, where she speaks about almost being gender nonconforming or what it feels like to be nonbinary or to house multiple gender identities inside of you. She talks about wanting to be simultaneously a man and a woman, and how she holds these valleys and mountains in her body the way the Earth does. And as I experience more in the world as a queer person, and more with love and romance and life, I find that her words resonate more and more.

2. “Gang” by Clayton Vomero

This short film follows three ballroom dancers through the streets of New York. It cuts between their quiet moments and their moments of friendship and love. And then it’ll cut to them on the subway, just popping off these incredible vogueing dance moves. The vogue scene is something that is fascinating to me. My best friend is a dancer, and she introduced me to the concept and gave me a couple of very elementary moves that I can whip out at a function here and there.

3. @idealblackfemale

Mandy Harris Williams is an amazing thinker and a really close friend. But I knew her ideas before I knew her. She’s a phenomenal presence. She sets an expectation for those around her to engage in active equity. She encourages us to be constantly evaluating those filters through which we move in the world, particularly when it comes to proximity to whiteness and race. She’s a leader, she’s a teacher, she’s an artist. I think Mandy is going to save the world.

4. Molinere Bay Underwater Sculpture Park

It’s an underwater sculpture garden created off the coast of Grenada by this artist named Jason deCaires Taylor. The one that’s most well-known is the circle of children holding hands. When you see images of it, it’s pretty startling. The reference that one thinks of immediately is the Middle Passage. But the artist has said that he wanted to create that sculpture because of the collective strength of the figures as they form a circle to resist the water. My mom tells this story that in the moment that I was being born, she had this image in her head of a circle of women holding bundles and singing “Bringing in the Sheaves.” That’s the image that I associate with coming into the world.

5. “Violin Phase” by Steve Reich

I had this phenomenal pre-calc teacher in high school, and he played this video because he was talking about the connection between mathematics and music. The dancer’s name is Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. She’s wearing this beautiful white dress and she’s twirling around in a circle and creating patterns with her feet and it’s such a slow reveal. Finally you see that she’s created almost this mandala in the sand. You can hear her breathe as she is dancing.

6. Tierra Whack

Tierra Whack is one of my favorite rappers. She’s become so distinctive for her cadence and the playfulness of the way she raps. But it’s because of that silliness that she’s able to introduce these ideas that are really loaded and heavy and beautiful. There’s this video of her when she’s 15 and rapping on this channel called We Run the Streets, and she’s freestyling like nobody’s business. Her sense of self is already so defined. I just can’t get over that.

7. Ice Water Kanekalon

I usually get my hair braided at a salon or by a hair artist. But now that we’re in quarantine, I’ve had to learn how to do it myself, which has been pretty exhilarating. I’ve given myself at least three braiding styles. I gave my best friend, who I’ve been quarantining with, a full head of hair. A Kanekalon color that I discovered recently is ice water, like a lilac-periwinkle. I just really love it. There’s something so special about creating a hairstyle for your homegirl and then seeing the way that she walks around the house different, just like the little sway in her hip.

8. Maya Angelou with Bill Moyers

This is the interview where Maya Angelou says that it’s as if there’s a steel rod running right through black women. Maya is such a force of calm strength. She’s like the ocean. Moyers was kind of poking and prodding her, and she was just resolute and radiating throughout the whole thing. She talks about how the black woman is integral to the family unit — how they have raised black families but been at the center of white family units as well. She also talks about what it feels like to belong everywhere and nowhere, and the price that she has had to pay in order to achieve that sort of freedom.

9. “Du Gamla” by Hakan Hellstrom

A friend played it for me one night when I was feeling sad, and it transformed all the feelings I was having. The song is a spiritual originally performed by Laura Rivers called “That’s All Right.” Then this Swedish artist had an orchestra score it along with her voice. I listen to it every time that I have anxiety or I’m feeling unsure of the future, and it makes me feel like everything’s going to be all right.

10. My Grandfather’s Violin

I started playing violin when I was in the third grade. But by the sixth grade I was so tired of the traditional Suzuki method, and I hated going to competitions and seeing kids crying in the corner. This took all the fun out of it and so I quit. A couple of years later my dad rediscovered my grandfather’s violin. I remembered him telling me when I was younger that one day I would grow into it, and he asked me if I wanted it. And that was the thing that propelled me back into playing. I don’t think it’s actually a very good violin. I don’t think my grandfather was a fantastic violinist from what I’ve heard. But it’s so important to me, and hopefully I’ll keep it and cherish it and play it for others.

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