Interview by Sheila Dianne Jackson
The goal of EveTalks is to break silences and create a space for the untold stories and perspectives of women who are not being heard. I met Nia Malika Dixon several years ago at lunch with a group of writer-filmmakers, at a French restaurant in Beverly Hills. I was impressed by her dedication, her passion for storytelling, and the unique voice of her projects.
Nia is the Founder and host of Powerful Women Brunch – a monthly gathering of creatives; and the owner of Audaz Entertainment, her production entity. So when I started this blog I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to really catch up with Nia and learn more about her experience as a Black + woman + Muslim, who also happens to be a filmmaker.
Sheila: My first introduction to Islam was in the 70’s, after my piano teacher’s husband was released from prison. He showed up on our front porch dressed in a suit and bow tie to talk to my father about his conversion to Islam – more specifically, The Nation of Islam. Many of us, when we think of African-American Muslims, we envision those brothers on the street in bowties selling bean pies, and women with their heads covered. But the Muslim religion, as Malcolm X discovered is a huge, global community of believers that is diverse and multi-faceted.
Nia: Yes. I saw a poll that stated, out of all Muslims in the US, 35% are African-American – and that number does not include the Nation of Islam. The other 65% are dispersed through immigrant cultures. I’ve met Asians who are Muslim, whites, Mexican, Filipino…so many different cultures.
Sheila: How did you come to the Muslim religion?
Nia: I was born and raised in Baltimore. My mother was Catholic. But she studied and decided she wanted Islam to be her way of life. So she converted. She raised me that way, and that’s all I know. I consider myself blessed because my father’s family has a different set of Christian values, but supported my mother’s path. So I have these two families with very diverse beliefs that co-exist peacefully.
What most people don’t know is several generations of the people who were brought over on those ships in The Middle Passage were Muslims in their homeland, and they brought their Islam with them.
Nia: No. One profound story in particular is the “Prince Among Slaves.” It’s been made into a film narrated by Yasim Bey, a.k.a. Mos Def himself – for PBS. He tells the story of a Prince who was kidnapped and brought to Jamestown. The whole story is focused on the Prince’s efforts to get back home….and he never does. Imagine being a Prince, controlling armies, speaking several languages, hosting people from all over the world – literally – then being kidnapped and made to be an American slave and pick cotton.
Sheila: There are no words. That’s certainly a history that hasn’t made it into school textbooks. Where are you in your journey of storytelling?
Nia: Chrysalis is a web series I shot in Baltimore. It’s based on the feature film I wrote, of the same name, about a young black woman who becomes a drug king pin in West Baltimore. I received a lot of attention from the feature script, from name directors, and a few people behind the scenes who were interested in helping me get funding. However, it never got the legs it needed because every note that I got back was, “It’s to Muslimy.” Or “Can she be a stripper?” I thought, no. They don’t get it. That’s not the story. So I decided to put it on the back burner until I could get more money. Honestly, I even had a name actor attached. When he read it, he told me it was amazing. This was years ago. He signed a letter of intent. Then, I went around trying to get money. But because it was a Muslim-centered story, there were many people who wouldn’t touch it with a 10 foot pole, because of their preconceived notions.
Sheila: I believe it’s a problem when we don’t see our Selves and our experiences reflected in the media and on TV. We don’t even realize how damaged we are as a result. Art, at it’s best, is a reflection of reality. In a world where we allow media images to hold such power, without that mirror it becomes easy for society to buy into the negative narratives and stereotypes – of Black women, in particular. I believe this is why your work is so important. It creates another platform for our voices.
Nia: My struggle is reflective of the women who want their voices heard. Women who are seeking to elevate themselves and their families, no matter what the cost, in a patriarchal world that is already against them because of their trifecta – being black, being a woman, and being Muslim. Some of my characters are also disabled, and transgender.
There’s always ‘that thing’ that people don’t want you to profess as the norm and establish power with it. I include those elements in my stories because that’s what I want. I know for a fact that Black Muslim women in America are the most underrepresented when it comes to storytelling and are starving for these stories, because I’m one of them.
Sheila: It’s ironic that a studio exec would suggest people would not believe that you exist. People are often willing to believe a fantasy over reality, a lie over the truth – something we have witnessed the negative impact of here in America.
One thing the media has done to Muslim women is to equate you with your religion, as if there’s no other aspect of your identity, outside of your faith.
Nia: That was the impetus for my new project on Muslim women. I’m currently developing a docuseries that showcases Muslim women of very different backgrounds – all American born and raised. We are real people. We have real goals. One of the women is a singer-songwriter, working on her first CD. The other is a Muay Thai kickboxer who wants to go professional.
Sheila: Another narrative of Muslim women is that they are oppressed and submissive. What are some of the other things you want people to know about being Muslim and female?
Nia: With regard to Islam in America, there is a culture clash. A lot of the immigrants who are Muslim here in America, bring their culture with them. And a lot of it’s uber patriarchal, to the point of the tragic things you see like honor killings and genital mutilation. However, that has nothing to do with Islam.
As a Muslim, you’re automatically a feminist because what you believe in is the equality of both men and women in the sight of God – that’s it. That’s your faith right there. When people question my status as a feminist, I sometimes clarify to let them know the technical meaning of “feminist” is someone who believes in the equal rights of women and men….We are on par with men as women. And I advocate for that.
Sheila: Simply by virtue of telling your story, it humanizes even the basics.
Nia: I can create so much change for my community just by telling stories – authentic stories of Black women of different calibers and layers.
Nia is the author of “The Tao of Nia,” a book on self-fulfillment and self-guidance and the novel, “Sex, Love, and Halaqahs,” about the contemporary lives and relationships of five Muslim women in Baltimore. She is also working on her memoir, to be released in 2018.
You can enjoy Chrysalis: The Series, and connect with all things Nia at NiaMalikaDixon.com .