In 2020, following three celebrated albums, singer Teyana Taylor announced her retirement from music. “When one door closes, another one opens,” she said at the time, but as she reveals to NME now, she didn’t know what that new door would lead to or when it would unlock.
Fast forward three years, and Taylor is starring in A Thousand And One, playing Inez, an ex-con and mother struggling to raise her son in a quickly gentrifying Harlem. The directorial debut from AV Rockwell, which Taylor calls a “love letter to hustlers”, picked up the grand jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. In it, Taylor is riveting as she goes from stern to open-hearted, all while drawing from her own life experience and the women she knew while growing up in Harlem.
You’ve mentioned going on a “faith walk” when you left the music industry to pursue acting, was that leap of faith hard for you?
Teyana Taylor: “I feel like the people around me weren’t hearing me when I was saying I was ready to take this leap of faith. I didn’t know where it was going to take me, but I felt like it was going to declutter my mind and my heart. I realised that the best decisions I’ve made were when I followed my heart and didn’t follow opinions. It’s never failed me. I knew that if I was making this decision, it was a path that was already written for me. That’s part of having faith.”
When the opportunity to star in A Thousand And One came about, was it daunting to take on your first lead role?
“When I retired and took this faith walk, I was in the midst of receiving a lot of no’s. Months later, I got this call. They knew I was from Harlem, but they didn’t know if I had the acting chops. When it came across my desk, I knew I was fighting for it; it was mine to lose. The script represented so many of the women in my life, [including] my mum was a single mum. Not only was Harlem a big part of it, but it represented the resilience I saw in myself. I wanted to be in this love story to all the hustlers. I knew it was it. I probably would’ve bypassed this shit if I was still singing.”
Harlem feels like another character in the film and not just a backdrop. As someone who grew up there and has seen the impact of gentrification, how was it to portray that through the film?
“Filming the movie brought light to a topic that was very relevant in the ‘90s and 2000s and is relevant now. Rebuilding that coming-of-age era [on film] was emotional because I remember how it used to be. It was bittersweet coming back to my neighbourhood and seeing the smiles on my community’s faces. But it was hard seeing all the changes and knowing that none of it was for any of us.”
Your production company, The Aunties, directed Latto’s Coachella performance. How does your experience as an artist play into your creative direction?
“All my trials and tribulations have allowed me to give back. I wouldn’t have been able to play the character [Inez in A Thousand And One] if I hadn’t been through what I’ve been through. I pour into other artists because I want to give them something I wasn’t able to have. There are people that are like, ‘I don’t know how to love because I never received love,’ and then you have people that are like, ‘I want to love harder because I want to give you everything I wasn’t able to have’ and that’s me. Imagine retiring and taking the secret potion [of success] to the grave with me. Why would I do that?”
When you’re back on stage working with up-and-coming artists, do you ever imagine yourself making music again?
“Definitely a little later on down the line. People laugh when I say this, but right now, I consider myself a Glade Plug-In that can plug into so many rooms. Why plug into one thing when I can smell my flowers in every room? Right now, I have a plug-in in music. Maybe I want to plug into acting or put another plug into creative directing or into styling. I will eventually find that room again, but right now, I like that I can smell myself in every room I walk into rather than just one.”
What message do you hope people walk away with after seeing A Thousand And One?
“Definitely to appreciate Black women more and spread awareness to the things mums and women, in general, go through – especially Black women, who are the least protected seen and heard. Also, we need to feel like it’s OK not to feel strong 24/7. We’re strong women, but 90 per cent of it is not by choice, and I hope that’s what they walk away with. Even though the ending may not be seen as a happy ending to everyone, was it a happy ending for Inez? Take the time to wonder why she would smirk when she rode off in the cab.”
A Thousand And One is in cinemas now.