When We Make Movies greenlit filmmaker Mars Roberge's filmStarsthrough theMake Your Feature Competitionlast November, little did we realize it would involve collaboration with hip hop royalty.Mars is nothing if not ambitious, so in casting the role of "Oprah" in his tale of homelessness, hope, and everything in between, he set the bar high. His vision was rapper, writer, actress, and activist Rashia Tashan Fisher – known to most asRah Digga. Bursting onto the hip hop scene at first through Twice Da Flavor and then under the umbrella of New Jersey collective Da Outsidaz (alongside heavyweights like Eminem), she was plucked by A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip and then Busta Rhymes, who positioned the unparalleled talent as the singular female MC of his own groundbreaking Flipmode Squad.
A decade into her tenure as one of rap's most distinguished and valued MC's (female or otherwise), she had collaborated on multiple hip hop anthems, penned lyrics for fellow artists (such as The Fugees' The Score "Cowboys"), established herself as a composer (including film scores), and debuted herself as a solo artist with her critically acclaimed album Dirty Harriet. She followed her solo album with the hard-hitting and lyrically impressive Classic, while simultaneously diving into acting, landing notable roles in the cult classic remake of sci-fi thriller Thir13en Ghosts(opposite Tony Shalhoub, Shannon Elizabeth, and Matthew Lillard) as well as in a re-imagined adaptation of Carmen (Carmen: A Hip Hopera starring Mekhi Pfifer and Beyonce in the titular role).
It's incredible to consider Newark-born Rah as anything other thana pioneering creative force, but it has been a nonlinear journey for the salutatorian of Maryland's esteemed Garrison Forest School. Deferring a full scholarship to M.I.T., she went on to study electrical engineering at the New Jersey Institute Of Technology before embarking on a career in music. A recipient of an MTV Video Music Award, four BET Awards, and three BET Hip Hop Awards, she has worked with the foremost hip hop producers in the business and continues to co-create and perform on classic underground and cutting-edge artist/DJ compilation projects such asThe Lyricist LoungeVol. 1 ("Be Ok"), Talib Kweli'sReflection Eternal / Train of Thought("Down for the Count"), DJ Whoo Kid & Lloyd Banks'Money in the Bank("Party Over Here"), and the anti-police brutalityHip Hop For Respect(in memory of Amadou Diallo– long before the rise of the BLM Movement).
On her ascent she made it a point to educate and elevate those around her, including other female artists such as Eve and Missy Elliot on the epic remix of"Party and Bullshit". Having returned to her hometown, Rah dedicates her time and energy to at-risk youth in the Newark school system and the Feed Me Foundation (she founded in 2009) which recruits youth in the community to prepare and deliver food to Newark’s homeless. She also helmed her own podcast "Rhymes and Reasons" (presently on hiatus) and currently co-hosts a weekly podcast with Lord Jamar, titled the “Yanadameen Godcast”.
WMM had the privilege [Editor's note: squeeeaalll] of sitting down with the humble, compassionate, and contemplative legend, as she candidly shared her views on everything from beats (past & present), to holding her own in a male-dominated industry, to seeing herself reflected in Issa Rae, to her not-so-secret hopes of garnering the attention of Oprah-needs-no-last-name W. to fulfill her ultimate dream of playing her namesake in the biopic one day. Read on, for Rah Digga's point of view...
WMM: How did you meet Mars?
RD: I met Mars when he was working in Patricia Fields, one of my favorite stores ever. I used to go in there and get lost. He kind of became my personal shopper. He was sweet and would help me navigate the store. I'm grateful that he remembered me when thinking about this particular character. He probably thought to himself "Hhmmm, Who do I know that's sassy and witty that would make a good Oprah? I wonder what Rah Digga is up to?" He first called me in October of last year when Thir13en Ghostswas coming on every day on AMC Frightfest so that probably jogged his memory. I'm sure he remembers me being a pleasant customer so...
WMM: How did he pitch the project Stars to you?
RD: He was telling me about a film festival he won at with his recent film. Then he said he had something he was initially planning to do contingent on a competition where he would be winning money. Well, he won that competition and reached back out.
WMM: What attracted you to this story and what resonates specifically around homelessness for you?
RD: I like the fact that there is such a dark humorous twist on a topic as serious as homelessness. I frequent both LA and NYC quite a bit and homelessness IS a problem. I think what we learned during this pandemic is that there are so many working and functioning people who are homeless? There is so much judgment - like "Oh, you messed up your life," but so much of it is about life circumstances that are out of control, or related to mental illness. It has a very negative connotation to it. I don't think people realize how many hard working people are just one paycheck away from it. I thought it would be an interesting topic to tackle.
I also like the fact that I get to hone in on my acting skills. Going to require emotion and range. I think I am most excited about that. This is something people don't typically get to see from me, in my music or the few films I have done. I think this will be a nice addition to my actor's reel.
WMM: How is the collaboration process on a film similar and different from working on music (whether you are creating a score, song-writing, or making music videos)?
RD: I think the biggest similarities are that they are both performance based. Both of them require getting into a character. Both mediums require you to take a part of yourself and apply it to the situation. Both of them require you to go as deep into yourself as you need to and they both are ways to communicate messages to people - whether it's visual or audio. They are both serving the same purpose. I think as far as distinct differences - music is a little more introspective and internal whereas acting is something other than yourself. But they are both similar as well. I think it is an interesting dichotomy. The thing that separates them both is what relates them too.
WMM: So many music videos have turned into short films. When you write music, do you visualize a narrative unfolding like a music video or do you have a more scientific process?
RD: My rhyme writing process is a template based on 16 bar verses. It typically depends on how the beat moves me. If I hear a beat that would be interesting to tell a story to then I close my eyes and feel the beat. Oftentimes I get influenced by what is going on in the world or what is going on in the moment. Sometimes it is politically motivated. Sometimes I feel a stream of consciousness based on something like the room temperature. But ... My default is always to kick ass first. Ask questions later. And then if I feel like I am being too aggressive I might scale it back, but I don't censor first.
WMM: Wow. Is that how you approach a scene as well?
RD: Well one of the things I learned from my acting coach is you have to ask yourself five questions - who, what, when, where, why. When it comes to interpreting your character, you have to see what is going on with the person. Who is this person? Who are you? Are you up? Are you down? Why? Why is she doing what she is doing? What are the mitigating factors motivating the character? When is the time period. Like, this character is older, which will drive my attitude and gives me an idea of who she is. Those are my first steps actually analyzing what is going on with the character. I gauge that from reading the whole script, and then read it again and go straight to my character's parts. What's going on before and after? What is my attitude at any particular juncture of the movie? I put in the work. I just get in that character's brain and go for it.
WMM: Which actors have inspired you and inspire you now? Filmmakers? Producers?
RD: I love Angelina Jolie. She is just always so badass to me. She's soft and also rough and tough. I loved her work in Tomb Raider. I love a lot of her work because there is always something a little demented in her characters. I am always drawn to that aspect. I love Leonardo DiCaprio. What can't he do? I'm a big fan of Cate Blanchett. I love actors who can do it all. Cate is one of those for me. Meryl Streep is one of those for me.
I am also a big fan of Issa Rae. She is actually one of my biggest inspirations right now. I followed her even before Insecure. I watched her Awkward Black GirI series. You know, I consider myself an awkward Black girl. I'm not a traditional beauty queen, sex kitten, who's got all the stuff. I am clumsy. She is someone I can relate to. I was always terrified of going on dates because I would always spill food on myself. I was always spilling something somewhere. I love that she introduced this series and this character to us. You know, I'm going to try and do the sexy walk away, but I'm gonna trip. I'm just one of those so I had to learn how to be confident with being a klutz. Almost like weaponizing it to be my power, to be one of my "ta-da" factors. She nails it. I love that she is a badass without even trying. She is not getting body augmented or walking around with a face full of makeup. She has her natural hair and is not all insta-dolled up to be a badass. I can be a badass being my normal, awkward self. I can't dance. Oh well. She is just herself. She just gave power to that - something that has been missing since Lauryn Hill disappeared. Where is the representation for natural beauty, for brown skin? She just does it for me.
Ok. Gotta tip my hat to Denzel. I think Halle Berry is great but I didn't see myself in her. I love more of the older influences like Pam Grier. Oh, Viola Davis! Viola is the Black Meryl Streep. Tracie Ellis Ross is another fave.
On the executive side, I love Kenya Barris. I think what he did with Black-ish and the whole series of shows that came from it, is great. I think Black AF is great. There was a lot of nit-picking and surface argument around that show, but I think the critics and people didn't understand that they were making fun of themselves. It's fine. Everyone is welcome to like or not like something. I found that I completely related to it, even down to wondering if I "am the only one that feels this way about this?" [in reference to a line from the show when Kenya doesn't agree with the general consensus]. I feel like that about a lot of things I am supposed to feel or think. I mean, I'm not the biggest fan of a lot of the content that Tyler Perry does, but I feel like I am supposed to like his work and relate because I'm Black. I'm kind of an odd man out with his humor. I will be sitting in a room with a bunch of people who are rolling with laughter and I just don't get it. BUT I love what he is doing for the community by providing opportunities, entertainment and otherwise. He is a good man.
WMM: How about musicians? Who are your influences or inspirations there?
RD: I'm a bit more, you know, old-school. I try to listen with an unbiased ear to everything new and old that comes out but I'm still always going to go back to Jay Z, Nas, and you know, my guys. I think what I am enjoying now is the bridging of the gap. I really love what Kanye did with this last Donda project where he put so many different random artists together - older and younger. I would never expect to hear JayZ on a song with DaBaby but it's one of my favorite records on the album. I love when a veteran, or even someone like Khalid can execute that and make it sound good. I love what Nas is doing with Hit-Boy. I mean, it can go either way. Sometimes it can sound crazy and reachy. I just love when people can successfully merge the two worlds.
My staple as far as producers go - that would be my boy Nottz, based out of Virginia. He's my day-one producer who's always going to give me the rugged edge that I'm looking for, but sometimes I want to try different things. I like more old school producers but that's my comfort zone. I do like when a producer can take me out of my element too. I think AraabMuzik is great with that. He did a lot of that with Lox and some newer people like Hit-Boy. I am really loving Hit-Boy right now because he can give you the young sounding stuff that Big Sean would rap to but can also curtail something for someone like Nas. I think one of my favorites is Alchemist. That's my favorite to listen to - maybe not rap to. He's one of my all-time favorites because I am a big fan of the low-fi sound. I don't know if that would work with my style because I am aggressive, but it's my favorite to listen to.
WMM: How do you feel about Auto-Tune and other new technology for music?
RD:I don't have a problem with Auto-Tune, but I just wish that it could be properly categorized. Some of the award shows are trying to do that by calling it melodic rap, the way they do for rock. In rock and roll you have light rock, alternative, hair metal and so on. I wish they would officially give hip-hop proper distinctions and classifications like that because it would solve a lot of problems. I don't think it's fair that someone like Jean Grae or Rapsody have to compete with Lizzo in the hip-hop category. I think that's where the arguments start. People say "that ain't real hip-hop - this is real hip-hop..." If they properly compartmentalize all the different components of it, all of these arguments would go away.
WMM: How would you describe Oprah (your character)?
RD: I think aside from being sassy and witty there is a sadness I am going to have to convey to the audience. This is a woman who's been drinking and gambling her whole life. She's clearly used to the finer things in life because she's so materialistic and you'll see that as the film develops. She had to develop that from somewhere so she's drawing from her former life. Prior to being homeless there was a life. There is a sadness and a hopelessness there but I also feel she's a dreamer. She's not letting her circumstances deter her from the type of person she is capable of being. I think she is dealing with a range of things. There's some resentment towards family, but there's happiness as well. She's like everybody in the world - it's like I'm dealing with my circumstances but a dollar and a dream can turn it all around for me. She is a primary symbol of hope in the film mainly because all of her other counterparts are "shoulder shrugs" and accepting of their circumstances. She's like, "no, it's not" and she knows there is a better way and that this doesn't have to be their life.
WMM: How are you preparing for this role specifically?
RD: For this one specifically, I'm definitely going to spend a few days just roaming around NYC and safely - healthwise - sit down with someone and have a conversation about being homeless for 20 years. I mean, I've done work with plenty of women in shelters. I had a foundation where I would round up kids and make sandwiches to deliver them to the homeless people around Penn Station. Or I would take all my old clothes and instead of taking them to the clothes drops, I would take them to shelters. I'd encourage my celebrity friends to do the same. If they had old Chanel bags or "red bottoms" they didn't want, there was always a woman in need who could really use the boost of confidence. I was really proactive with doing things like that, all my career. With this particular role these women are actuallyhomelesshomeless. I'm not sure I have had the experience with anyone in that capacity. Most of the women in shelters I knew were there because of a fire, or abuse or something like that. It was a temporary situation. But 20 years is specific and NYC is specific.
Oh, and Google! In terms of the look for the film, I love thrifting anyway so that'll be fine. The biggest thing is that folks are about to see me out here in rags with no makeup on. I would never put myself out there to the public like that but I gotta do it for this character.
Also, one of my biggest motivations for this film is that I know before this lifetime is over there will be an Oprah Winfrey biopic. I'm hoping that Oprah sees this and says " I gotta have her play me!" I have actually been told that I look like a young Oprah, so maybe this can be a character I can play one day. I have to step to the plate and do the best job ever for Mars, but I also want to make sure that this gets in front of Oprah and she is blown away by my performance.
WMM: Is there an origin story for your character's name?
RD: Yes, it comes from her rags to riches story. It's not her birth name but they share the same personal struggles.
WMM: You're one of very few women in a sea of men (musically). Did you feel that you had to compete for that one token spot? Did you have to work harder to earn respect?
RD: I think I had a lot of preconceived notions coming into the game that it would be like that about the competition but once I was active in it I learned we kind of all had the same stories. The media definitely pit me against the sexualized women, like the Kim, the Foxy, the women whose content was based on that. But when I actually met these women, we developed a sisterhood and friendships. We actually had more commonalities than differences. We were just women trying to survive amongst a group of men, and the industry did not make it easy.
When I first came out and was doing my press runs for my album and stuff, every single journalist would ask me "How do you feel about so and so female..." and I would come with my response - "well, I rely on and come with my talents and not my body" so that became the catalysts for our differences. But really, I always felt competition from everything that I knew and loved about hip hop. It was a competitive genre and sport. Once upon a time MCs were trying to be the best MCs, didn't matter if it's male or female. I approached every song or studio session with wanting to have the best verse on the song and just wanting to be the best MC. That stayed in the back of my mind, no matter what the song was about.
Also, I think the type of artist I was, with my tone and my aggression, played a big part in the men respecting me. And I carried myself a certain way. I was there for one purpose and one purpose only. To destroy them all. I wasn't there to parade around in a cute outfit. You know, there was no fun or flirty energy. It was like, [Rah mimics a man's voice] "Yo, I gotta make sure my shit is on point or this girl is gonna pollywog me!" There's a respect that comes with that. "She's hard." I think it protected me. And also, I was in a longterm relationship with one of my fellow Outsidaz members [Young Zee, who shares a daughter with Rah, Sativa Zee] and being that he was respected, people knew their boundaries. It's only now, almost being near 50 years old, that I'll have artists say "I had the biggest crush on you back in the day!"
WMM: Do you think the [entertainment] industry has changed for women (and women of color in particular)?
RD: I definitely see more opportunities afforded to us right now. We are like the trend right now. We are now being seen as leads. We are actually being seen as desirable. I have never seen so many interracial leading roles where there is a Black female lead. We are just more of what we never saw before. It took the Junrnee Smollets and Violas and Regina Kings to break those boundaries for us. We are being taken seriously now. We're not tokens in the movie anymore.
I think the upside of Gen Z is that they will normalize people of color. I feel like they're going to make sure that everything from being able to wear particular swimming caps in the Olympics to wearing big hair and dreadlocks, is accepted and normalized. I think Gen Z is doing their part to make sure we don't just stay a trend, but become normalized.
WMM: Do you have any ambitions to be on the other side of the camera?
RD:Oh, absolutely! There is something that I've dreamt about doing for a long time and I just recently discovered that 50 cent is in the process of doing it now. I was always interested in seeing an ancient Egyptian series similar to what we see with Rome, orTudors, or Spartans. I always thought, "why can't we get a drama with some African kings and queens," and 50 Cent is actually doing it. I'm a big fan. I watch all of that type of content,The Borgias, all of them, and it's my favorite type of thing to watch. We haven't had an African equivalent and I wish I could make it but I don't have the resources I would need to make it look like what it needs to look like. I would want it to look rich and beautiful and cultural. I mean, the closest we ever got to that is Beyonce'sBlack Is King. I love, love, love that, but I would want to see something more narrative oriented, so, yeah, I'm excited for what 50 Cent does.
I would actually also like to see anotherCarmen. I've been penning a couple of pages here and there. I would love to see one for this generation. Funny enough, I had a chance run in with Quavo from The Migos and he wasn't familiar with me as a musician but as the rapper fromCarmen: A Hip Hopera. So it got me thinking it might be cute to do a Carmen equivalent of The Three Amigos or something. It doesn't even have to be hip hop related but it would be in rhyme form. So that's been living in my head rent free right now.
I mean, now that I know about you guys [We Make Movies], I will definitely be hitting you up!
WMM: What are three things your fans don't know about you that would surprise them? RD:1) I cry at movies. I sit in the theatre and boo hoo. I am a boo hoo'er.
2) I'm a gamer. I'm addicted to video games. I only have two commercial albums because I am non-stop playing video games. My favorites are the Resident Evils. Zombie stuff.
3) I'm a hardcore Doomsday prepper. I have a whole zombie apocalypse survival kit. I have everything in there from outdoor stoves, water purifiers, fire starters, an ax that doubles as a screwdriver, things to make instant ziplines...
WMM: What would you like your fans to know about you?
RD:I think I want my fans to understand that everything I say and do in life is motivated in the betterment of my people. Black people. I just want us to know - I just want the world to be a better place in general. Specifically when it comes to Black people and music and artists, I just want us to recognize that this thing of ours is being used against us in ways we are oblivious to. We need to recognize the power in our words and our art. I wish more of us would be responsible with it.
I feel like we're making progress and regressing at the same time.
We'll get upset that day and then go back to our normal lives. I don't think the younger generation really understands the struggle. I am disturbed by certain comments I hear from the rappers who have achieved a certain amount of success. The attitude is, "I don't remember and I don't relate." I am thechild of the civil rights movement. I wasn't there but I remember hearing the stories of my elders. I got first hand and second hand knowledge of everything. This generation is so privileged that they just don't know.
It's unfortunate that "he who will not be mentioned" brought us back to that and now people are starting to get it. However, however, at the same token, they don't get it. There are a lot of things that I hear that remind me of that. You can't think that a couple of unemployment dollars or a conversation is going to be sufficient to get people where they need to be. There's this OTHER THING that we have been dealing with for generations and I wish the youth was a little more aware of that. I don't know that we will get there. Once upon a time there was a unilateral struggle, but now there are so many experiences. There are black people who can't relate to others' struggles. I want that to stop immediately. There is so much divisiveness within the Black community and that needs to stop.
I don't have an answer but I want it to change.
[Watch episode 3, 4, and 5 of the Stars video diaries from pre-production below and then check out filmmaker Mars Roberge.]
Sapna Gandhi is an actor, singer-songwriter, and content creator. In addition to TV credits such as BOSCH, SHAMELESS and SCANDAL, she has appeared in numerous shorts, features, and series, including festival darlings IN ABSENTIA (Raindance) and THUMPER (Tribeca). Gandhi has produced several series and films under the umbrella of her production company Elegant Grotesque (most recently SCRAP, starring Anthony Rapp and Vivian Kerr, and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds’ STRANDED ON THE EARTH, directed by Mike Bruce). She is also 1/2 of the musical duo, VATAVARAN, was born in England, raised all over the states, studied English and Women’s Studies, and trained at the American Conservatory Theatre in SF.