She Rocks!

In Living Color: An Interview with Artist Tamara Natalie Madden

Have you ever come across an amazing work of art and thought, “I wonder what the story is behind this piece?” Well, after looking through painter Tamara Natalie Madden’s collection, you will undoubtedly be asking yourself, “What’s the story behind this artist?” Madden’s self-taught gift for painting actually stemmed from a life-threatening kidney illness that she battled as a young girl. Thankfully, Madden conquered the illness thanks to her (at the time) long-lost brother who agreed to a kidney transplant. Painting continued to serve as an expressive tool long after her recovery. Madden may have come to the United States in her teenage years, but the large influence that Jamaica, her mother country, has had on her work can be found in the bright colors and organic textures that she uses. In honor of her astounding project “Never Forgotten,” Madden has recently received a grant from the Puffin Foundation.

BLACK GIRLS ROCK: How did painting help you battle your illness? Do you consider painting a therapeutic art form?

Tamara: I suffered from a rare form of kidney disease called IGA Nephropathy, in my early twenties. It was a shock to my young mind. Illness is never expected at that age, but I didn’t seek relief until I really began to see the effects of the disease. I had always sketched, and done pastel work, but I really began to delve more deeply into it when I became ill. The dialysis treatments were the most challenging: physically and emotionally.
My saving grace was my sketchbook, and my headphones. They helped me to escape the reality of what I was dealing with, somewhat. Drawing and painting became my only means of freedom during those times. I know that creating art is therapeutic. It soothes the mind and soul, and that’s essential when people are troubled by their difficult realities. I’m not sure where I would be if I didn’t have art as an option.

BLACK GIRLS ROCK: As a young woman, who were some of your mentors and influences?

Tamara: My first influences were my Uncles. Both of the uncles that I interacted with were Rastafarians, and they were both highly creative. My uncle Carl was the most influential because he lived with us. He would make woodcarvings out of scraps, and I would sit and watch him in awe. I was completely fascinated by the process. He also drew pictures in pencil, and that was a source of inspiration, as well.

Many of my influences also came from the books that I read, and the images that I would see on the covers, and sometimes inside of the books. Not only would I study the words, but I also studied the images. When I got older, and came to America my mother had a friend who was an artist, and her watercolors enthralled me. I have to say though, that one of my greatest mentors was an art teacher in summer school when I was 14. I don’t know his name, but I’ll never forget him. He taught me how to draw faces, albeit Caucasian faces, but faces nonetheless. At the end of the year, he told me that he could see my passion for art, and he encouraged me to keep at it. He gave me all of the left over art supplies. I never forgot that, or him because his encouragement made me believe that the possibility was there.

Black Girls Rock: What are some sources of inspiration for your paintings?

Tamara: Everyday people, hard working people who are often overlooked, inspire me. I began painting them in their literal form; many of them were working, cleaning, carrying baskets, and raising children. As I remembered these people from Jamaica, I remembered how beautiful many of them were internally. They were neighbors, and friends who would share a meal with you, even though they barely had enough to give. They would come by and help you clean, or sit and keep you company during trying times. Many had their own internal struggles that they were dealing with, but once they opened their mouths, they talked about their blessings, and they praised God relentlessly.

These people are often judged and looked down upon by society, and I found that when I painted them, the same thing happened; they were judged and looked down upon. I decided that it was important for them to be seen for who they were intrinsically. The kings and queens are my interpretation of those people and their internal & eternal beauty. The paintings make you stop and stare and wonder who these people are, when before, no one gave them a second look. Beauty is so much more than physicality, and though my paintings may capture a beautiful essence, that essence belongs to the soul of the people that I’m inspired by. The birds are a personal symbol of my freedom from dialysis, and illness.

Black Girls Rock: What has been your greatest challenge in your career?

Tamara: The sacrifice. Being an artist requires a lot of sacrifice. It requires patience, and faith. It can be a challenging journey with lots of bumps along the way. Unfortunately, in the art world, I’m not just considered an artist; I am ‘black’, then ‘woman’, then ‘artist.’ All of those titles present there own unique set of obstacles. In addition, to trying to meander my way through the visual art world, while being taken seriously, and not loosing my integrity; I have to be an educator. It’s essential that the new generation of black children learn about the arts, and the value of the arts. They need to understand that art is an investment, which will benefit them for many generations. They also need to know that art is the keeper of history in many cases; it’s an essential doorway to their ancestors.

Black Girls Rock: Do you have any advice for young women of color interested in the arts?

Tamara: My advice is to never stop dreaming, never stop believing, and never stop challenging yourself. You have to strive to achieve your personal best. Don’t ever compare yourself or your work to others because no one in this world can do what you do. Each person is truly unique, so you must embrace that.
The other piece of advice is to throw your ego out of the window, and stomp on it! 🙂 In order to grow, you have to take some level of criticism. It may hurt, but it makes you better at your craft. Art is not a business for the faint of heart, so if you feel like you’ve got the gift, the willpower, and the faith, then dive on in…and forget the life jacket, it’s sink or swim. My mantra: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

She Rocks! Three Fashionistas To Watch

Spring is a time for rebirth, renewal, and regrowth. It’s also an ideal time to update your wardrobe, so out with the mess, and in with the fresh! Thanks to sites such as esty and ebay, a plethora of online boutiques and shops have sprouted all over, each offering a unique fashion statement and stylistic vision. As shoppers, we now have access to a wide range of clothing and accessories like never before–the virtual sky is the limit. In addition to providing us with one-of-a-kind duds, these über-talented designers have made their daydreams into reality by embracing an entrepreneurial business model. Meet two designers that stand out from the large crowd. What’s best is that they both incorporate elements of Black culture and style into their designs. We guarantee that these women will have you funky, fresh dressed to impress and ready to party!

Tennille Mcmillan

This native Brooklyn virtuoso challenges convention with the bright graphics, old-school swag, and larger-than-life concepts. Mcmillan, who also goes by America’s sweetheart, currently has two labels: NaKIMuli (appropriately translating to “flower”) and Shanae, both of which feature women’s fashion. Like a breath of fresh air, Mcmillan disregards the notion that emaciated equals beautiful and that tall means model. Most of her groundbreaking designs come in plus sizes, a fact that sets Mcmillan above the crowd. Did we mention that she also models these designs? Measuring in at a petite 5’2”, Mcmillan models her own label attire like none other. Her fun personality shines through each and every photo, adding yet another rockstar dimension to her designs. Recently, Mcmillan has added a collection of snazzy leggings, cute bowties, vintage jewelry, and afrocentric bangles to the NaKIMuli website. Keep checking HERE for the NaKIMuli collection and head HERE for a sneak peek at her upcoming spring collection!

We at naKIMuli want to create a fashion revolution: replace the cookie cutter model with one that embraces individuality, comfort, and fun. Become your own trendsetter. -Tennille Mcmillan

Rachel Stewart

From the earliest civilizations to the new millennium, jewelry has been known to make as loud of a statement as clothing. In the case of Rachel Stewart’s jewelry line, her earrings, necklaces, and headbands make artful proclamations, affirming the glamour in natural beauty and Black culture. Born in North Carolina, Stewart was drawn to art of multiple mediums since birth, particularly painting. What began as a small interest in making and selling peacock earrings soon grew into an in-demand jewelry line. Whether you’re a diva, african queen, bohemian sister, or b-girl, Stewart has something for you. Especially noteworthy are her pieces that feature Black entertainment icons, such as Stevie Wonder, Pam Grier, and Micheal Jackson. Even some of the earrings’ names–Assata, Makeba, and Ankh–demonstrate a recurring theme in Stewart’s work. She clearly understands the importance of remembering and celebrating Black culture and has found a way for her customers to look fierce in the process. Clutches, purses, and personalized pieces are next in store for Stewart’s line, but in the meanwhile check out her store HERE. Hurry though, because her pieces sell fast!

Art is whatever you have the NERVE to do. -Rachel Stewart

Maya Amina Lake

When it comes to breaking new ground, there’s one simple formula that continues to stand the test of time–fuse an old school concept with a new school twist. Hip hop producers have done so with sampling, Converse has done so with Chuck Taylors, and now Maya Amina Lake has done so with her woman’s clothing line, Boxing Kitten. When describing the look of her line, Lake uses the term “ethnic rockabilly” to define her extraordinary pieces. Reminiscent of West African fashion, the african wax block print fabric used for each outfit takes center stage in Lake’s collection. Because of the arbitrary process involved in creating the fabric, Lake ensures that no two patterns are ever the same. One look at the impeccable construction of her designs and one would never guess that this Boogie-down Bronx native is actually self-taught. Lake’s fusion of funky, African prints with vintage-inspired, feminine designs circa the 1950’s displays a clear understanding of creative irony. Of course, having a large celebrity following doesn’t hurt either. Erykah Badu, Rihanna, Solange, Fergie, Goapele, and Jack Davey–to name a few–have all been spotted rocking Lake’s signature pieces; and keep a look out for Alicia Keys’ music video ” Put It In A Love Song” featuring Beyonce, because we hear the two songstresses are decked out in Boxing Kitten gear from head to toe! Head HERE to cop some pieces for yourself and give B a run for her money.

Powerful women from all walks of life inspire me. Inspiration is everywhere and always evolving. It’s very important to grow and I am constantly learning new things, and being inspired by all kinds of women in my life. -Maya A. Lake

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of


Last year’s BLACK GIRLS ROCK! ‘Living Legend’ Award went to actress and icon Pam Grier. Better known for her roles as Foxy Brown and Jackie Brown, this Emmy and Golden Globe nominee reigned supreme as the queen of 1970s blaxploitation films. Offering an alternative to the hackneyed Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire characters, Grier introduced movie-goers to a new black woman who embodied independence, power, and, of course, revolution.

Like a true legend, Grier preluded the quintessential female heroine. Many of the characters that Grier portrayed were staunch upholders of justice who could hold their own both intellectually and physically with the boys, all the while exuding bold femininity and glamour. Moreover, her flawless afro implicitly advocated black pride to influential young black viewers, demonstrating an alternative to Euro-centric standards of beauty. Nevertheless, when casting for the same role that Grier established, Hollywood continues to overlook our talented black actresses, instead opting for Angelina Jolie, Zhang Ziyi, Mila Jovovich, or Uma Thurman. Hollywood refuses to wise up, so in the meantime, we here at BLACK GIRLS ROCK! will continue to provide you with your daily dose of black starlets.

SHE ROCKS! AWARDS EDITION: Nicole Paultre-Bell and Valerie Bell

Police ShootingNicole Paultre-Bell and Valerie Bell received last years Black Girls Rock! ‘Monument’ Award, which recognizes individuals who have endured crises and withstood tremendous emotional, physical, and/or psychological events.

Sean Bell, who was tragically gunned down by police, in a hail of 50 bullets on the night before his wedding, was Nicole Paultre-Bell’s fiance. In honor of Sean, her high school sweetheart, Nicole has dedicated her life to combating police brutality, bettering her community, and raising her and Sean’s two daughters to “not see bitterness, but see hope.” (

Valerie Bell is Sean’s mother, who has also dedicated countless hours to keeping her son’s memory alive, and to seeking justice for families faced with similar turmoil. She wrote a public letter to the family of Oscar Grant, a man who was gunned down by police in Oakland on New Year’s Day this year.

For their resilience, extraordinary optimism, and selflessness, we honored Nicole Paultre-Bell and Valerie Bell with the Monument award–and we pray that this senseless violence will end.


Rachel Lloyd, founder of the Girls Educational and Mentoring Service (G.E.M.S.), an organization that works to rescue sexually exploited children, was last year’s recipient of the Black Girls Rock! Community Service Award. She came to the United States in 1997 after years of sexual exploitation to help other women recover from the debilitating pain of being abused and exploited. But it was young girls, she noticed, who remained un-helped and unheard in the struggle to escape sexual exploitation. Thus, with thirty dollars and a borrowed computer, she created G.E.M.S.

Now, ten years later, G.E.M.S. is an internationally recognized organization helping to end the trafficking of young women aged 12-21. Through prevention and outreach, intervention, and youth development programming, they have succeeded in improving the lives of so many girls in New York State.

Some of you may be wondering why Rachel, a white woman, was selected for this award. The answer is that most of the girls G.E.M.S. aides in rehabilitation are Black. As they note on their website, “commercial sexual exploitation is intrinsically linked to racism,” among other systems of oppression.

As further proof of the wonderful work this organization is doing, yesterday, Rachel Lloyd received the prestigious Ashoka Fellowship, which honors “social entrepreneurs” for “their innovative solutions to some of society’s most pressing social problems.” ( Black Girls Rock! honors Ms. Lloyd for her dedication to women’s and girls’ causes, and for her faith that she can make a difference in the lives of others.


Move over T-Pain. There’s a new rappa ternt sanga in the neighborhood, and guess what? No Auto-Tune required for this diva. Estelle–the winner of last years “Who Got Next” Award–may be internationally known for her 2008 smash hit “American Boy,” but there’s much more to her than one single. To start, this musical jack-of-all-trades also produces and writes many of her own songs. Plus, even though Estelle’s discography is only composed of two albums, 2004’s The 18th Day and 2008’s Shine, Estelle has quickly collected a number of prominent awards, including a Grammy and a MOBO. When asked who her all-time favorite vocalists are, Estelle never fails to mention Missy Elliot & Mary J. Blige:

“I like female artists who show that women don’t have to strip off or compromise themselves to be recognised as musicians. I can match men head to toe.” [1]

So, how did a young woman from across the pond manage to dominate not only the UK, her mother country, but the Untied States as well? According to Estelle, she owes most of her success to her continuous hustle and drive. Fed up with what she considered a “glass celling” in the UK music scene, Estelle moved to the daunting city of New York, all on her own initiative. This gutsy move ultimately resulted in a chance meeting with Kanye West and, well, we all know how well that turned out (hint: “American Boy”.) We here at BLACK GIRLS ROCK! INC. love Estelle for her unique style, solid vocals, and uncompromising attitude. Oh, and did we mention that fierce hairstyle and lovely accent?? Bloody Brilliant!!

“You don’t have to compromise yourself as an artist. You just have to make the standard believable and relatable.” -Estelle [2]

Check out some of Estelle’s fab’ videos below:

Estelle “Wait A Minute (Just A Touch)”

Estelle feat. Cee-lo “Pretty Please”


The BLACK GIRLS ROCK! Awards Show is swiftly approaching. For that reason, we have decided to dedicate our SHE ROCKS! post to last year’s twelve honorees. Each day this week, we will feature some of last year’s 2008 honorees on our blog, so keep checking in for updates and more. For more information on the awards show, head HERE.

air-jordan-2009-april-holmes-09We’re kicking off SHE ROCKS! AWARDS EDITION with the 2008 ‘Becoming Legendary’ Award recipient, April Holmes. Instead of being thwarted by the amputation of her lower left leg in 2001, Holmes sprinted above and beyond the obstacle that threatened to hold her back. By 2006, Holmes became the world’s fastest amputee, breaking her own world record’s in the 100, 200 and 400 meter Paralympic races. Guess who else co-signs Holmes? None other than fellow sports legend, Michael Jordan, who selected Holmes to be the first female Jordan sponsored athlete in 2009.When she’s not racking up medals, Holmes is running her non-profit organization, April Holmes Foundation, INC., which “assist[s] physically and learning disabled individuals to reach their goals by encouraging them to rise above any obstacles that will give them an opportunity to develop to their full potential.” [1] For more information on April Holmes, head HERE.

She Rocks! Daphne S. Valerius

Daphne S. Valerius is the writer, director, and producer of the documentary The Souls of Black Girls, a film which interrogates whether Black women in America have a self image disorder.

I saw the film at the center of the Black woman’s intellectual universe, a.k.a., Spelman College (I’m a grad and very, very biased) last fall, with the members of my Images of Women in the Media class. The funny thing was that the film wasn’t revelatory for us, as veterans of Black female discourse. Being at Spelman for four years, you learn all about The Hottentot Venus, Shirley Chisolm, Alice Walker and womanism, etc. But what we did realize, is that for a young Black girl, 14 or 15, seeing the film might shed light on some new issues. Many young girls do not know that thinness, or straight hair, or light skin, while considered norms to some, do not have to be so.

Please let all the young women of color in your life know about this film.

~Kyla Marshell, Intern


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