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From the streets to Hip Hop royalty
It’s mid-morning on Easter Sunday. Janelle Abraham is at home in New Jersey making porridge for her daughter. It’s their little tradition for Sunday mornings. During the week they are so busy with work and school there’s little time to sit down together, so they set aside weekends for family time, hanging out and porridge. Her daughter Shanelle is 18. Abraham is 32. Needless to say, she had her daughter at a very young age and, while the early years were difficult for mum and daughter, they now have a comfortable life in the States and enjoy the close friendship that comes when parent and child are close in age. Abraham is a music video director and producer. She counts Wyclef Jean and Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs amongst the list of friends and colleagues she has made in the past few years since her career took off big time.
But her lifestyle now is a million miles away from her humble upbringing in Trinidad and her turbulent journey to where she is today. Her voyage to America at the age of 14 was made under less than ideal circumstances. When she landed at JFK she was already five months pregnant. She had managed to conceal the pregnancy from her mother with whom she lived with five siblings in a house on Boissiere Lane, Belmont. “I hid it really well,” she says, “pulling in my stomach.” She pretended she was just putting on weight and wore tight clothing to hide the bump.
But, she says, “when I got on that plane I let it all go.” And when she walked into the arrivals lounge, her relatives in the Big Apple saw that the young girl they remembered had now grown into a young woman and instantly realised she was expecting.
“It started a whole uproar because they thought my mum had known about it and dropped me on them deliberately. She stayed with her older sister in Brooklyn, but the atmosphere was fraught with frequent arguments exploding. “Everything just went left,” as Abraham puts it. She went home to Trinidad to give birth to her daughter but returned to Brooklyn, leaving her daughter with her mother who had by then moved to St James. She wasn’t fully reunited with her daughter until she was seven years old. The situation in the States was “uneasy, out of control.” Unlike the “happy poor” upbringing in Belmont, she didn’t feel welcome amongst her family members who had already migrated to the States. The family was divided and communication was minimal.
She describes the moment when everything switched from being merely bad into a nightmarish situation. “One holiday time, I went to a friend’s house to eat. My sister called there and my friend told her I was eating. My sister was angry and said that she had cooked for me. My friend told my sister “she doesn’t like the way you cook chicken,” and said some other things. When I got home all my clothes were in bin bags and my sister was throwing them out in the snow.”
In the winter of one of America’s biggest ever snow storms, Abraham found herself homeless, sleeping on subway trains at night, freezing and with just a backpack full of the essentials she managed to pack into it. To make matters worse, the next day she realised she had forgotten to pack her passport. Rushing back to the spot where her possessions had been left by the garbage bins she saw to her horror the garbage men had already come and disposed of them. She was on the streets with no form of identification. She met a girl, also called Janelle, who took pity on her and invited her to come and take hot showers and relax in the warmth at her apartment once the girl’s mother left to go to work in the mornings. She would have to leave before the mum got home and head back to the No 2 subway train line with the other, much older, vagrants. Despite it being very cold she says she was never scared. She would comfort herself writing imaginary scripts and scenarios for a TV series about a family life she longed for. She had other people watching out for her, with good and bad consequences. Staff at a Jamaican restaurant called Sanders saw her crying in the street one day and told her she could always come and have something to eat there.
Another well meaning friend tried to help but landed her in hot water when she went to stay temporarily at her house in Buffalo. “I saw she was doing great. Had lots of nice things and I was impressed. What I didn’t know was she was dating a drug dealer. On the third day staying there cops raided the flat. They didn’t find anything but they took everybody in for questioning and that’s when the police found out I had no passport and no ID.” She was given a deportation notification order and a court hearing date she was meant to attend. She never went back. Instead she slipped into the limbo that many immigrants in New York slip into when they have no money, job, green card and no legal right to remain in the country. Eventually she managed to get enrolled into a high school and finished her studies. And one day, when she arrived early for class and was hanging around in the street outside she got the lucky break she needed.
A man spotted her and asked if she was a model, “because I’m tall,” she says, playing down her looks. “Growing up I never felt beautiful. My father (the calypsonian Brigo) is not known in Trinidad for being a handsome man. But this man told me there was a casting call and that I should go along. I went to it. It was for a music video and I got the job.”
She got regular work starring in videos as an extra for artists like Busta Rhymes, Jah Rule and Big Pun, as well as playing cameos in the feature films Brown Sugar and Marci X starring Damon Wayans and Lisa Kudrow. Her favourite job was being in the video of a duet by George Michael and Whitney Houston called If I Told You. This work experience was time she didn’t waste. The nights sleeping in the subway had taught her to make the most of any opportunity. She used the time on set to learn the skills she needed so that one day she’d know how to direct her own videos. Whenever the director called a break, she would look at what was happening behind the camera, making friends with gaffers and producers and asking questions about what the different pieces of equipment were. One evening at a party, she got into a conversation with a man who kept telling her how much he wanted to make a video and that she should star in it.
By then her face was well known in hip hop videos but she had higher ambitions. She told him she wanted to shoot the video for him and though, at first, he didn’t take her seriously, she promised to write a great proposal for the film. She was persuasive and determined and finally he relented, giving her a US$3,000 budget to make a film for independent rap artist Ricky Thug.
She made a few more videos for independent artists before the opportunity came along to make a documentary for the hip hop duo Mobb Deep. It proved to be the launchpad for even greater heights. Now six years in the game, she has directed videos for rappers Capone and Noriega, Raekwon from the Wu-Tang Clan, Jim Jones, Wyclef Jean, Maino and Papoose, Nigerian star Flavour N’awannia (whose Nwa Baby is currently getting heavy airplay in T&T), reggae artist Demarco and, her most recent project—which she wrapped up at the weekend—a video for Jamaican star Tarrus Riley’s forthcoming single Cry No More. Abraham owns a film company called Janshaker Inc and has big plans for the years ahead.
She’s preparing to make an online film series called Hip Hop Today, which she describes as a way of looking at how violence can be taken out of hip hop culture. “The kids are so serious today about this culture of violence where they can be standing outside Foot Locker and be literally ready to kill someone over a pair of sneakers if they jump in front of them in the line,” says Abraham. “So I’m getting rappers to come forward and talk about it, challenge it. We have to face up to it. If it’s the music that is damaging then we have to go to the heart of the music and make a change.” Abraham now has her cherished green card and is married to an American. When she got it, her friend Wyclef Jean threw a party for her at Puff Daddy’s studio. In September, she travels to Ghana for a tour of the country and shoot a documentary about people’s lives there. As for moving back to the land of her birth, she’s not sure. But, she says, she would love to work with her compatriots, the homegrown recording artists of T&T, many of whom record in New York. “I would love to work with Machel and Bunji Garlin and Benjai. I love their energy and there’s so much we could do in terms of collaboration,” she says. Right now as things stand, the obstacles life threw in her way have been hurdled and the future is looking bright for the girl from Belmont who triumphed against the odds.