Amirah Vann Brings Heart & Depth to Black Women’s Stories in Hollywood

Photo: Courtesy of Viktor Pacheco.
As the open-hearted matriarch Hattie Mae in Tyler Perry’s 2022 film A Jazzman’s Blues, Amirah Vann demonstrates a great tenderness and fierce love to both of her onscreen sons, regardless of the emotional cost. In one scene, after the two young men scuffle on the ground due to a toxic sibling rivalry reinforced by colorism, Hattie Mae runs protectively toward her youngest, the darker-skinned Bayou, to dust the dirt off his clothes. She reassures him, tells him he’s worthy and deserving, and encourages him to ask his crush to a dance social. 
“I wanted to make it clear that she loved both her sons equally,” Vann, 42, tells Refinery29 Somos. “That love was just — it was non-negotiable.” 
As Hattie Mae, a laundress, midwife, healer, juke joint owner, and the bedrock of the story, Vann’s character spends much of her time defending her Black sons in a Jim Crow-era small town in Georgia during the ‘30s and ‘40s. For the role, Vann dug deep within her newfound motherhood to showcase her character’s rich emotional arc. 
At just four weeks postpartum — she was a new mother to her daughter Nyla Fe Oyeku with partner Patrick Oyeku — Vann arrived on the set. Unbothered about a so-called “snapback body” so soon after giving birth, Vann felt comfortable in her skin and curves. “I was happy I didn’t have to change where I was at that point in my life,” Vann says. “Tyler was like, ‘No please, don’t be anything other than who you are.’ The point was that it wasn’t ever asked of me, either.” 
Photo: Courtesy of Viktor Pacheco.
The Afro-Nuyorican actor and performer built a robust theater background from her Off-Broadway years in New York City and across the country — acting in plays like Marley, Trouble in Mind, and The Mountaintop. On singing those melancholic blues songs at Hattie Mae’s sultry juke joint, “I just love that period of music. I love that soulful sound,” Vann shares. “There’s something very raw about singing and telling stories through song. There’s an anguish and a pain you can release without words.” 
The power of blues, jazz, gospel, rock & roll, R&B, and other Black music genres has helped vocalize the racial oppression of Black Americans throughout history, and prominently so during the civil rights movement. Vann, a Black Latina, was raised in the Black Baptist Church, and she brought this understanding to her portrayal in the film.
Hailing from Far Rockaway, Queens, Vann was born to a Puerto Rican mother from Santurce, and a Black American Brooklynite father. “I’m fully Puerto Rican and I’m fully African American,” she says. Vann grew up with her older sister, a visual artist and former assistant principal, and credits her Queens upbringing with getting to live alongside so many diverse communities from a young age. “I’ve gotten older, and just realized people have not had the privilege of being exposed to so many different people from so many different walks of life,” she notes. 
Her father passed away when she was very young, but Vann’s mother, a retired bilingual kindergarten teacher, immersed her fully in Puerto Rican culture, food, and music. Growing up with her mom’s extended Boricua family, including her abuelita and 10 tíos, she fondly remembers early memories, like “making music with pots and pans,” dancing salsa with cousins, and singing coritos at her first church, a Spanish-speaking Pentecostal church. 

“I’m fully Puerto Rican and I’m fully African American."

amirah vann
“To this day, I could be exhausted or in a bad mood, and as soon as someone plays salsa music, something wakes up inside of me and I could go for another hour,” Vann shares. “It speaks to a different part of me.” 
On a trip back to Puerto Rico in her early 20s, she joyfully saw parts of herself reflected in her fellow Afro-Boricuas, from her thick type 4 hair, brown skin, and “my same shape and size,” she gushed. 
“I’ll never forget the peace that came over me, ‘Wow, no me tengo que cambiar,’” Vann says. “I’m not the outlier. I never felt that until I got there and found peace on the other side of it.” 
Vann’s Afro-Indigenous roots run deep, too. Her maternal grandmother, born in Jayuya, was honored by the Taíno nation as the oldest living Taíno before she passed, and her maternal grandfather was an Afro-Boricua from Vieques. Vann feels immense “orgullo” as a Latine, and she’s passionate about raising Nyla to be bilingual and speak Spanish. 
Photo: Courtesy of Viktor Pacheco.
When she sings her favorite Juan Luis Guerra song, “Bachata Rosa,” to her child, she switches up the lyrics for her daughter to finish it. They often listen to Black Spanish singer Buika, so her precious toddler understands that Black people, especially darker-skinned Black people, also speak this language. 
In recent years, the Fordham University and New York University Tisch School of the Arts alumna has portrayed a plethora of multi-dimensional Black women onscreen. Vann’s career is currently in ascension mode, stemming from her breakout role as Ernestine, the complex and audacious enslaved head of house on Underground, for which she received an NAACP Image Award nomination. That stint catapulted her to TV dramas like Queen Sugar and How to Get Away with Murder. In the former, Vann played Parker Campell with cold-hearted precision, a calculating lobbyist who came off as a greedy land grabber toward the Bordelon family. In the latter, she played the queer attorney baddie Tegan Price, who stunted in an array of stylish fits. Throughout the series, Price always had Annalise Keating’s (Viola Davis) back, but she was never afraid to check Annalise or call out her messiness, either. 
“I made her Afro-Latina,” Vann reveals. “When I looked at Tegan Price, and she spoke Spanish, I was like, ‘Oh, well, she’s me.’ I didn’t even think that hard about it — I’m clearly a representation of who she is.” 
Photo: Courtesy of Viktor Pacheco.
Vann’s other noteworthy characters — Ernestine on Underground and Hattie Mae from A Jazzman’s Blues — share several commonalities. They’re both resilient Black American maternal archetypes who survived through reprehensible times, chattel enslavement and segregation, respectively, and both live in Georgia, where Vann’s paternal family is from. For her, these roles are ancestral tributes and a part of her personal history. 
“I poured personal interest and desire [into those roles] because that’s [my] heritage,” she says. “I’m not far removed from that experience. I mean, any one of those narratives could have been my narrative.” 
Unsurprisingly, Vann didn’t see herself in U.S. Latine media growing up. For so long in Hollywood, white and non-Black Latines have been the default representation of Latines and have positioned themselves as the Latine storyteller gatekeepers. Until maybe a decade ago, Latine publications and entertainment were featuring many of the same chosen few Afro-Latina celebrities, who were usually lighter-skinned. 

"It hurts me and I’m not even dark-skinned. At the end of the day, we’re one of the few places that can teach the world that this is another version of what a Latino looks like."

“It hurts me and I’m not even dark-skinned,” Vann says, reflecting on her light-skinned privilege. “At the end of the day, we’re one of the few places that can teach the world that this is another version of what a Latino looks like.”
Colorism, along with featurism and texturism, are systemic, which is why more darker-skinned Black Latine writers, directors, producers, and casting directors need to become executive-level decision makers within entertainment across the board, but especially for Black Latine stories. In fact, early in Vann’s career, every time she was up for a Latine role, she’d run to the beauty salon to blow-out her natural hair. She wasn’t alone. This very familiar “pelo malo” trope has socialized countless Black Latinas into “taming”’ the gorgeous, thick, coarse, kinky hair that grows out of our heads. 
But Vann has finally realized the power of her crowning mane. “I am Latina. I have thick big nappy hair, and why am I changing it? Like every bit of me is Latina.” 

"I am Latina. I have thick big nappy hair, and why am I changing it? Like every bit of me is Latina."

Amirah Vann
And the work has followed, too. Vann is in post-production for Shirley, the film biopic starring Regina King as the late Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-NY), the unbought and unbossed political icon who became the first Black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. She’s also currently filming a recurring role as Kim Valentine on Apple TV+’s series Changeling, based on Victor LaValle’s fantasy horror novel set in an otherworldly New York City, starring LaKeith Stanfield and Clark Backo. 
Through her impressive repertoire, Vann showcases how she embraces all her layers and superpowers: being a Black-American and Boricua woman, a mother, a life partner, a daughter, a sister, an actor, a singer, and especially, just a girl from Far Rock. 
“To me, as a New York Afro-Latina, I’ve always advocated for both sides of myself,” she says. “I’ve always felt both sides are important, and I’ve always fully felt a part of both communities.”

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