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How the Arts Saved My Life: Emmai Alaquiva Interview

Emmy award-winning filmmaker Emmai Alaquiva sits down for an interview conducted by acclaimed author Damon Young to discuss how art saved his life and has been a positive force for his family. Alaquiva and Young get into specifics about cinematic influences and how that affects how he approaches every shoot. Alaquiva also shares the background to his personal journey of how art helped him be greater than circumstance. Filmed at TEDxPittsburgh 2019 Greater Than.


Damon Young: All right, so Emmai.

Emmai Alaquiva: What's up?

Damon Young: How's art saved your life?

Emmai Alaquiva: Wow. It's a loaded question Damon, jeez.

Damon Young: I'm saying. They brought me up here.

Emmai Alaquiva: Yeah.

Damon Young: They asked me these questions.

Emmai Alaquiva: You know what? To dig straight in, love to my grandmother who was one of the first individuals to expose me to what the arts were. I don't come from a background of the arts, but one Christmas she purchased a Yamaha keyboard with these pre-programmed drum patterns on it. It was probably about this big. I think she got it from Sun TV and Appliances, which was the original Best Buy, right? And when I got this keyboard I said, "Oh, well you know, what do I do with it?" I played with it and that was some of the very first introduction into the arts. But of course you know, life happens. Shout out to my mother who is just an incredible inspiration to me. She had to raise two kids, and one of the hardest jobs in America is to raise a black man, and my mother did what she had to so, working two jobs. So the arts was always there, but when life happened, my sister was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS when she was relatively young, and it sort of took our family by storm, and I had to connect to a lot of the arts in order to help me get out of that situation, the mental weight of a situation like that.

Emmai Alaquiva: So I started to listen to hip-hop, and hip-hop began to speak to me in a way that nothing else did. The way Rakim spoke his lyrics, the way LL Cool J was aggressive, the eloquence of MC Lyte, or a Queen Latifah, and I started to download the little pieces and the nuggets that would stick with me and I began to put those pieces together for my life. So artistically hip-hop started there, and then growing up I had a bout with homelessness. I was homeless for about a year and a half in the streets of Pittsburgh and I slept under bridges, did the shelters, did the Jubilee Kitchen, the Rainbow Kitchen that was in Homestead. Would go in with my wipes that I got from Refko, before there was a CVS there was a Refko, I would get my wipes. Go to the YMCA that that was on a boulevard, the Allies, that's where I would take my showers, and sort of go along.

Emmai Alaquiva: I used to sell roses Downtown Pittsburgh with a guy named Mikey. Mikey was a Caucasian gentleman. He still actually sells roses today, and one day we were selling roses and he said, "Emmai, it's going to take a miracle for you to change your life. You'll be here for the rest of your days." And I said, "Mike, will it take a miracle or will it take believing?" And when I said that to him he just sat there and said, "Wow. Maybe you'll change." So that's when I began to dig back into the arts, after being homeless and I called my mother on the phone, and I said, "Mom, [Dukes 00:04:05], I want to come in, maybe sleep on your couch until I get things together." And then that's when I started to dive back into hip-hop in order to take me to the next level of life that I wanted to go, you know what I mean?

Damon Young: How did that transition happen? I mean, so you said you got back into hip-hop. So what was your reentry?

Emmai Alaquiva: Yeah, so my reentry, shout out to Justin Strong. Justin Strong had the Shadow Lounge in East Liberty, and he gave me a chance to sweep up outside, clean the bathrooms, watch the door, and my mother had a friend that worked at the post office in Wilkinsburg, and there was this small radio station called WURP that had their P.O. box there. So she called my mom and said, "Hey, listen, I know Emmai is into the arts. How about he interviews with John Hill from WURP?" And I interviewed with him and he said, "All right, I'll give you a job." This was after I was a mailman for about six months. So he gave me a job to get back into the arts. I ended up working at WURP, working at Shadow Lounge. I used to sleep at WURP. Slept at the Shadow Lounge a couple times, and it allowed me to get back into the arts.

Emmai Alaquiva: Some mail was delivered to the Shadow Lounge that was supposed to go upstairs. I took that mail upstairs, and I look through a mail slot and I seen a 300 square foot room, and I said, "If I am going to change my life, I need to get rid of my fear." And I need to not be a victim of whatever circumstances that were surrounding me at that time, and I put a bunch of equipment in that room and started Ya Momz House, and when I started Ya Momz House out of 300 square feet of space, I took 90 cents of every dollar, invested it back in. So I turned that 300 to 600, that 600 to 900. Hired my first employee in 2005, Cory Gale who is still with us today. Started Hip-Hop On L.O.C.K. which is an arts education program for young people, from kindergarten to twelfth grade, and recently started OpticVoices, which is an interactive photography exhibit that tackles social change.

Damon Young: So what year was it when you first started Ya Momz House?

Emmai Alaquiva: I started in 2001, October of 2001 I started Ya Momz House.

Damon Young: Okay. And I didn't know you then, but I knew of you, and it's just a testament to how you just don't know what people are going through.

Emmai Alaquiva: Exactly.

Damon Young: And I see you doing ... Everyone, if you're in Pittsburgh you see Emmai. You see him at parties, you see him doing videos, you see him taking pictures, you see him wearing shoes everywhere, bow ties everywhere, and again, I had no idea of the background and of the struggle, and I think that there is this assumption that when you see people who are successful, that they've always been that, and that obviously isn't the case, and that segues into I guess the next topic which is your wife.

Emmai Alaquiva: Yeah.

Damon Young: You've been very candid about the mental health issues, mental health struggles that she's had, and how art has had a transformative impact on her, on her recovery.

Emmai Alaquiva: Yeah.

Damon Young: Can you be I guess, can you expand with that and be a little bit more I guess specific in terms of how-

Emmai Alaquiva: Sure.

Damon Young: How art actually did that for her?

Emmai Alaquiva: Absolutely. I'm going to be transparent that about a year and a half ago, a year or so ago, adversity struck my family and it was pretty public, only because the type of work I do and things of that nature, and my wife struggled with a bout of depression that moved into the area of anxiety, that ultimately moved into the area of being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It was tough for our family, it was tough for me as a husband because here is a beautiful human being that I married, that I don't want to say had mental issues or mental illness, we don't like to call it mental illnesS, it was just a different path of mental health.

Emmai Alaquiva: So when she went through a manic episode, a lot of people didn't understand what she was going through and everybody was quick to judge her, and quick to dismiss her, and my wife is amazing, extremely intelligent. Some of the institutions she has under a bait are Winchester Thurston, graduate of University of Chicago, Harvard. These are institutions that are under her belt, and when people started to judge her, it put her into a certain box, where it was difficult for her to communicate, it was difficult for her to socialize, and me being a husband that wanted to be dedicated to my wife, a lot of people are like, "Oh, well aren't you going to leave her? Oh well isn't that it? What are you doing? Why are you still with her?" When you get married, you're dedicated, you know? It says when in sickness and in health. It doesn't say, "Oh, when you're over the situation, then you can leave." No. So I had to dig into myself to find out, let up go back to the arts. Instead of psychotherapy or talk therapy which is often a parallel to someone diagnosed with bipolar disorder. How do we go into the arts, right? Because it was very tough for my wife. A failed attempt at suicide, and it was really hard on me just as much as it was on her and orbiting the family.

Emmai Alaquiva: So one thing I know about my wife is that she loves to write. She's one of the most incredible writers that I know. So in talking and trying to orbit around this new diagnosis that she had, we talked about okay, how about you write poetry? How about we use that as a therapy, as artistic therapy? Some of us in here, we may paint, we may journal, we may rap on the side, come up with some raps, you know what I mean? And things of that nature. So she dug into poetry, and poetry helped my wife get back to her, and it was amazing how it's not all always about the medication, it's not always about the diet, but it's also about the mental diet, and poetry really helped to get her to the next level as well.

Damon Young: So it was a form of catharsis for her?

Emmai Alaquiva: Yeah, absolutely.

Damon Young: And also I guess, it doesn't replace whichever therapy was necessary, but was a supplement to it.

Emmai Alaquiva: Yeah.

Damon Young: Okay.

Emmai Alaquiva: And we don't look at it as mental illness, we look at it as mental wellness, right? That's what we have to get back to in order to stop the stigma that's related to mental health. It's not a situation that we have to sweep under the floor. If one of our family members doesn't really speak well, or if one of our family members doesn't show up to dinner like they used to. These are things that we need to learn how to build. If there's no blueprint, go within to help build the blueprint so the rest of the family surrounds that person. So we've been able to surround Patrice in that situation to become a better situation.

Damon Young: Yeah, that's for real.

Emmai Alaquiva: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Damon Young: Wow. Okay. So shifting gears a little bit, we're both '90s babies. You're a little bit older than I am.

Emmai Alaquiva: Yeah. Proud to be in my 40s.

Damon Young: Couple years older than I am, but we both grew up in the '90s, watching Yo! MTV Raps.

Emmai Alaquiva: Yo! MTV Raps was the ill.

Damon Young: Watching Rap City, the, I mean, you could just go on, and on, and on. The Box, I mean all. And at that point, growing up in that era, the rap video was an essential part of culture where it was almost the fifth element of hip-hop. And throughout this ubiquity grew iconic directors like Hype Williams, Paul Hunter, and I see your work and I see a lot of influences from that era.

Emmai Alaquiva: Period.

Damon Young: In the work that you do, in the videography that you do, in the photography that you do. So is there an intentionality there? And also, with the work that you do regarding social justice and the social impact work, how does that intentionality I guess bleed into that in terms of not just what you want to do artistically, but what you want to do, I don't know, just socially. And culturally, and just creating and almost capturing and curating movements?

Emmai Alaquiva: Sure. One thing growing up, '90s was very inspirational for me as an artists in growing up. The way that images were put in front of me spoke to my heart, and one of my favorite producers of all time is a producer by the name of Pete Rock. Pete Rock in the early '90s would sample a ton of records, but what was great about Pete Rock is even though the sampled a ton of records and had all these samples, he always found harmony in the images. So metaphorically I take that same stance of a hip-hop producer and put it into how I do videos. I don't like to do videos where I just press a button and then just keep it moving. There is a specific intentionality in lining up, in curating the images that you see on the screen.

Damon Young: How so?

Emmai Alaquiva: And how so is that the way I pick out certain shots. If you have a chance to look at some of my work, it's all about movements and angles. It's not always filming you so that you're just saturated to the left or saturated to the right. It's all about angles and the way that I see you as a subject to be able to put that together because that's also an element of my life. In order for us to be more understanding human beings is the angles that we see others and the movements that we make around others, right? And I apply that to the images that I use in my hip-hop videos and just videos in general. In photography, if you ever look at my photography, I'm very intentional on what lenses I use, and based on the subject matter that surrounds it.

Emmai Alaquiva: One of pieces in OpticVoices is of a two year old, his name is Dakari, and I purposely use the lens that blurred everything around him out so that the focus is just that young man, and then sometimes how I apply that to life, art to my life is that sometimes there is so much blurriness that is happening around us, but what we have to do more of is focusing on what's in front of us.

Damon Young: Is there a term for that sort of imaging or that sort of?

Emmai Alaquiva: Yeah, so in photography there is a term called bokeh, right? And regardless if you know about photography or not, we have a lot of bokeh in our life. A lot of times we have to blur things that are happening around us in order to focus on who we are, and sometimes having everything in focus could be overwhelming. So as a photographer, sometimes I'll use a lens that has you in focus but it'll also have TEDx Pittsburgh in focus, but sometimes I'll need to use a lens in life where it's just you, and you know that ties around to my wife. I had to focus on my wife while, and I had to blur everything else around me in order for us to get through what we needed to get through.

Damon Young: Okay. And so just listening to your story and the homelessness, the you you know ... Basically the Drake song, started at the bottom. You started sweeping in front of the Shadow Lounge. And then end up having an office above the Shadow Lounge. And so you had this adversity, you have whatever personal struggles, and this has culminated to you being who you are today. Winning an Emmy.

Emmai Alaquiva: Why you bringing up old stuff?

Damon Young: I'm just saying.

Emmai Alaquiva: Why you bringing up old stuff?

Damon Young: I'm just saying. I mean, I looked at your Wikipedia page, it's on there. And so how has this adversity, this struggle, this experience helped you to develop the negatives in your life?

Emmai Alaquiva: Beautiful. Great question. Developing the negatives, right? Sometimes in life when you develop those negatives, speaking in the photography terms, we all have to go into a dark room. We have to sit in a dark room and accept who we are. We have to sometimes be still in that dark room because when the time is right, when you pull that image out that dark room, you could find the most beautiful image you ever saw on your life. That is a metaphor to my life, and we all have lenses on us. We have that 85 millimeter lens, which is my favorite lens, that allows you to focus. Speaking now just about what I spoke about earlier, is in photography there's called an f-stop, and the f-stop, the more focused the image closer to the lens is, and the higher the f-stop, the more images you can put in.

Emmai Alaquiva: There are individuals that I focused on, you know Scott Lammie, Candi Castleberry-Singleton, Chris Moore, Janis Burley Wilson, other individuals, my mom, Dukes, who is here with us today, my daughter Makayla who is seven years old who recognizes the power of art. These are individual lighthouses that regardless of my swim, regardless of the storms, as long as those lights continue to spin around me, I'll be able to gravitate towards that light, and that's what's called the aperture, and in photography the aperture is how wide the circle in the lens gets, because the tighter the aperture, the less light.

Emmai Alaquiva: So as individuals we need to open our aperture, open our aperture to understanding, open the aperture of love. It's not about awards all the time, and Emmy this, it's not about the awards but it's about the rewards. We have to start to understand that we are all photographers and we are all artists, and my last point is throughout my life in the arts, I never allow someone to create my definition. There's hardly any words in the English language that where you can only use one word to define it. You need multiple words to define almost every words in the dictionary. Who are the words, who are the verbs, who are the nouns, who are the adjectives that help you to create your definition? And I inspire every last one of you, whether you're here or whether you are watching on the stream, or this YouTube video right now. Create your definition, and that's what I'll spend the rest of my life doing, is creating my definition as a father, as a husband, and as an artist.

Damon Young: Thank you.

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