About My Business: How Mahaneela Is Showing Up For POC Artists As A Black & South Asian Woman Director
My name is Laurise McMillian, and I lead R29Unbothered’s social media team. Welcome to About My Business, our brand new career column. For years, I was getting tons of DMs like “How can I negotiate my salary?,” “I don’t know how to discuss mental health with my boss,” and “Why does this white woman insist on asking me everything just because I’m Black?” This is a safe space to answer your questions while spilling my guts, tips and tea.
This installment of About My Business is in celebration of Black Music Month. A few weeks ago, I got to chat with my girl Joyce Wrice about how musicians can maintain the rights to their own music. This week we’re going to look at another facet of the industry: on-screen visuals! Growing up, I remember seeing Hype Williams, Director X, and Missy Elliot create iconic music videos for the songs that soundtracked our lives. I would stay up all night, watching MTV Jams. Y’all remember those stations that only played videos back in the early 2000s? The neighborhoods they chose to film in, the casting, the costuming, the storylines — it was a perfection that seemed to happen naturally on screen; but in reality, there’s so much work that goes into that.
The way the culture of marginalized people shows up on screen matters. So I reached out to my homegirl Mahaneela to better understand the process and how we can see more of ourselves on screen, our way. Mahaneela is a storyteller, multi-faceted artist, DJ, filmmaker, photographer, and more. She’s directed music videos for many heavy hitters. Her work explores themes of diasporic history, music, and culture with a focus on the Black experience. She also emphasizes the depiction of Black and brown people in modes of joy and happiness. In a direct response to the lack of representation of Black and Asian people in mainstream media, she’s providing a new perspective that we need today: one that is bright, beautiful and authentic.
Laurise McMillian: Hey Neela girl! Tell us about your inspirations. Do you think back to any iconic ones and say 'that is the video that made me want to become a director?'
Mahaneela: “Michael Jackson’s ‘Do You Remember the Time’ was always a favorite of mine from childhood. I loved the storytelling and the costumes. I grew up in the ‘90s, so of course Hype Williams’ videos were also hugely inspirational, but I didn’t know I wanted to be a director until much later in life! I grew up wanting to be a singer, or an author.”
What are the biggest differences between directing a music video for a POC artist vs. a non-POC artist? Are there certain things you look out for?
“Honestly I couldn’t tell you because I don’t have that much experience working with non-POC artists, and if I have, they have been on the same page as me and pushed to have as diverse a set and crew as possible. The reason I like working with other people of color artists is simply because it’s where I feel I can add the most value. To help tell the story of another person from my community is part of my wider mission and vision for my work. To be able to relate more closely to the artist for me is always going to harbor better ideas and better flow working with them on set, and I think that’s important.
That’s pretty much my entire M.O. But even down to the details. Making sure sis’s elbows get some shea butter love for example (no one wants to be ashy out here) or making sure the glam team are well versed in creating looks for women who look like my talent, that’s also important.”
As a Black and South Asian woman director, how do you disrupt the male gaze with your work?
“My gaze alone is disruptive to the male gaze, simply because it isn’t that. My storytelling focuses on much more than just physical beauty or sex, although there’s still an appreciation for that of course.”
What are your thoughts on video vixens?
“I love a video vixen, although the stories I tend to tell with music videos have women playing a bigger role than just a vixen. My last ‘video vixen’ was in a music video for Tone Stith. She played a nurse during the pandemic, but also she was a bad b****, so it was about showing the duality which is a reality for many of us women in real life.”
Do you have an inclusion rider? I know you make it a point to go for all POC crews when you can. How do you push this agenda?
“Always. My policy is people of color first always, Black women to the front. I push this agenda I guess by having such a great network of people in those communities, so whenever I have any project, I push for those people and regularly hire my friends and wider community. I’m also never afraid to speak up and make it clear what my stance is with my clients! Usually, that’s partly why they hire me in the first place.”
Now, we all know that just because someone is Black, does not mean they're necessarily qualified for the job. Tell us how young Black creatives can come correct.
“Facts. My advice is to do the WORK. It takes time to hone your craft and you have to be hungry. Taking your own initiative and being able to learn quickly are all characteristics I look for in anyone I work with. Don’t expect to have things handed to you. It’s the work that speaks at the end of the day.”
How does someone even get on your radar to be on a crew with you?
“Honestly just reaching out and sharing your work. If I think you’re dope, it’s only a matter of time until I find the right project to bring you on to. It may not be immediate but there’s always something. There have been many peopleI’ve had assist me or work on set with me that have come from just an email. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there!”
Are there any educational programs or resources you'd recommend for people who want to do or currently do what you do?
“The biggest educator for me was getting a job in the music industry. Learning by doing is in my opinion the quickest way to learn! Finding a job that has a close proximity to whatever industry you want to be in will really help you to get more insight into what it takes and how it all works.”
Tell us about your latest work.
“My latest project is a new web show I created for Nike called “Come Thru.” It’s a place for Black women to have real conversations about shit we care about. It’s been a huge labor of love and I’ve brought on so many Black women creators to make it so special. Episode 3 is out now!
What do you want people to know about you and your work?
“I guess I want people to understand my mission, that we need more Black and brown joy on screen and the only way to do that is to work with those communities and provide them opportunities to shine and tell their own stories. That’s what I’m doing and I keep finding new ways to do it, so if anyone wants to give me money to make some cool shit that does just that. Holla!”
— Presented by BET —