Zai Sylla: Queen of Black Leads Films And Books

Zai Sylla is your go-to person for Black leads film and book recommendations (oh, and she’s an actress too!). 

We caught up with Zai to hear more about her journey and her upcoming initiative: Conversation Circles. Highlight’s from Zai’s interview include a full circle moment involving her late dad, and being invited to the TikTok Black Trailblazers Program. 

Fun fact, Zai was born and raised in Belgium, and now lives in London. Ready to find out more? Let’s go!

What motivated or inspired you to share recommendations for Black lead films and books?

I was educated and raised in a predominantly white environment so most of the people that I knew growing up were white. There were five Black kids at my school. The reference for me was mainly white people. I was raised in an environment where I didn’t really know how to spot racism. I wasn’t even really familiar with it because my mom preferred to pretend like racism didn’t exist rather than educate me on it. 

Fast forward to June 2020, it was the peak of the BLM movement, lockdowns and the pandemic. I had a bit of a crisis because I was looking at African-American people going through police brutality and I was just like “that’s not my Black experience” and I was so confused about what was happening. In a way I was trying to stand my ground and find my place and my identity as a Black woman because it’s something that I never did. It was my first time wanting to step into my identity as a Black woman and really assert myself. I also wanted to contribute to the fight against racism in the way I knew best. I started recommending anti-racist films and then black leads films. Now I’m doing both anti-racism and Black leads books and films - because I want people to remember that Back people exist outside of racism. Ever since starting to create content it completely changed my view and experience as a Black person. I recognise all the micro-aggressions I’ve had so much easier now. I learnt along the way about how important representation is and how empowering it feels to see yourself. 

I get chills from seeing Black women on the big screen, from seeing all women of colour on the big screen. I’m like, these are my sisters! I’m happy to see us represented. I see a South Asian woman in Bridgerton, I’m like “that’s my sister, that’s me too!” So it’s such a wonderful feeling to be represented, to feel seen, to feel understood, to feel worthy and this is the standard minimum. 

What do you want to achieve through your platform and recommendations?

The goal with my platform is to guide people towards films and books that can teach them about anti-racism and normalise having Black people on the big screen and in books.

Long-term, I want to be the go-to platform for people to learn about Black stories. And I want to be able to promote and increase visibility of these Black  stories. I’m really eager to help people learn antiracism through films and books, and to help the Black community to have their stories elevated and supported in the way that they deserve. 

For Conversation Circles - I want us to go everywhere around the world! I’m dreaming big. I’ve always dreamed big and set big goals for myself - and I’ll set small goals along the way to get there. I’ve always been told to tone it down and be more realistic. But I think it’s important to remember to never tone it down. No matter what your objective or your goal is, build your plan and have a clear strategy and you’ll get there.

What challenges have you faced in building your platform?

The biggest challenge has been when I find myself comparing myself to other creators and their growth. I really want to get to 1 million followers! [editor's note: we have no doubt that Zai will get to 1 million followers!] I’m really hungry for my work, my recommendations, to reach more people. But comparison is the thief of joy. I have to remind myself that my journey is no-one else’s journey, I will get to where I need to be. I just need to trust the process and keep doing my thing.

Another challenge has been managing the expectations of the  Black community. With the content that I create I've seen that it attracts more and more Black audiences which I'm really happy about because people deserve to know the films and books with people that look like them. At one point I recommended a bunch of romantic films that were directed by Amma Asante - I love her. But a lot of her films include interracial couples. Some feedback from the Black community was that these films didn’t represent Black love. I  see where the community is coming from in wanting to see more Black love. I don’t think it’s a reason to bash the films and the work of the director and the cast and crew. I am recommending more Black love now because I’ve come out of the other side of this internalised racist part of me that thought white people were the reference. So  my content got more and more authentic by overcoming it. 

What have been the highlights along the way?

2021 was a tough year for me, especially because in April 2020 my father died. While that’s obviously not a highlight, his passing sparked one of the biggest projects that I’m involved in - Conversation Circles. In fact, everything that my father taught me is the foundation of what I do now. 

My dad was white and growing up he was the one who taught and encouraged me to really embrace my black features. He was the one who showed me all of the Black leads films that I first recommended on Tik Tok. He’d always push me and my siblings to think about what I have learned from watching a film. He taught me to not be afraid of having critical conversations, to have a critical mindset and a taste of effort - so to always go above and beyond.

I recently became part of the Tik Tok Black Trailblazers program, which has also been a huge highlight. They gave us the opportunity to pitch a passion project - one that can get funded. And that’s how Conversation Circles came to be, and it’s been one of my main highlights.

One of my other favourite highlights from this year has been being invited to a few Netflix exclusive screenings. Netflix funded some documentaries and seeing so many different stories at the screenings was an incredible experience. It’s been such a pleasure for me to partner with Netflix - I recommend so many of their shows because for me, they are the epitome of being a champion of diversity as a streaming platform.

Can you share a bit more about Conversation Circles?

I realised that with the books and films I’m recommending, we need to sit down together and discuss them, like I used to do with my dad. 

For Conversation Circles we’ll have a film screening, for example, and afterwards we have a safe space for any individual to express their thoughts on the film and how it relates to their anti-racism journey. Whether they’re there as a Black person, or a person of colour in general, or an ally. We have a lot of great initiatives here in London, but we’ve never really had a dedicated safe space to have those important and hard conversations. With books, I’d like to have the author there to do a Q and A, and have a group conversation all together.

Conversations Circles will be launching during Black History Month in the UK in October so subscribe to the newsletter for updates!

I’m also creating a membership for everyone to find black films and books easily, monthly online black book club and black film club, how to identify positive representation of black people and so much more. This is launching very soon and you’ll be able to get advance tickets for Conversation Circles.

What’s your advice for BIPOC women who are wanting to blaze their own trail?

I would say that one of the most important things is authenticity. Stay true to yourself and to what you really want to do. 

Do not be afraid to make space for what you need to do and do not be afraid to take risks. Do not be afraid to jump and show the world who you truly are because, even if some people do not accept you for it, you will find your community.

To keep up with Zai’s recommendations, follow her on Tik Tok, Instagram and subscribe to her website.

January 19, 2023
Shilpa Bhim