As ESSENCE Hollywood House made its’ anticipated return to Los Angeles, ‘A Black Lady Sketch Show’ star Amber Riley; ‘Bel-Air’ star Coco Jones; and ‘Harlem’ star Shoniqua Shandai joined ‘Black Love’ creator Codie Oliver for a refreshingly honest discussion celebrating the nuanced storytelling that is highlighting a diverse range of Black women’s experiences on today’s film & television landscape.

Photo by Earl Gibson III

In addition to speaking on the highlights of getting to bring their beloved characters to life in their current projects, the panel also opened up about lessons learned through their experiences in the entertainment industry overall so far. For Coco, who is both an actress and a singer, one of those lessons was learning to recognize that the voice she’s earned is not only valid, but also one that should be able to be firm, outspoken and even contrary without being labeled as “difficult.”

“What I was told was, you be the nicest one to work with, the easiest to work with, no contradicting opinions, you’re just happy to be there, period,” she said. “And so, I was always so smiley—and I’m from the south so, I was always like, “Yes, ma’am,” “No ma’am,”—and just giving it ALL. But then, I was recently on the set for my visual with people that are on my team making my vision come to life, and if I didn’t like something, I was like, ‘That’s not giving.’ And I wasn’t afraid to say that I didn’t like something because, I’ve earned a voice. And I’m not being a diva, or I’m not being a “difficult Black woman” if I don’t like something. I’ve worked my ass off. This is the song I wrote, this is what I want to wear, this how I want to look. So, if I don’t like something, it doesn’t mean I’m never going to work again. It just means that [the finished product] is going to be authentic to me. “

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As a multi-hyphenate creative who shines whenever she graces our screens (or our airwaves), Amber described it as “exhausting” but “rewarding” to be in the position to constantly show the world that Black women can be excellent no matter the genre.

“I started saying that I had big girl energy and it never really meant size, it meant: I’m going to make space for myself where you won’t make space for me. And, you’re either going to get out of my way, or you’re going to get ran over,” she said. “So, when I do go out for roles where I know that they’re not looking for a plus-size Black woman, or a Black woman in general, or a darker-skinned woman, it’s exhausting because you know you’re going to get a ‘no.’ But, it’ also rewarding because when you finally get that ‘yes,’ you get to show people what you can do and how hard you’ve worked.”

For Shoniqua, the most exciting part about portraying her character Angie on ‘Harlem,’ is inherently personal.

“I think about that little Black girl, little Shoniqua from Richmond, VA who cried because she didn’t feel beautiful enough. Who cried because she wanted this thing so desperately, but didn’t see people who really looked like us on screen. So, the most exciting part for me is, that girl aint gotta cry no more. She’s represented in me, she’s represented in Coco, she’s represented in Amber. So, my selfish thing is that it builds my self-esteem every time I see myself on screen.”

Watch the video above to hear the conversation in full. For more of everything you missed at ESSENCE Hollywood House, click HERE.

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