Theatre Corner


Kia Leiani & Matthew Elam

Sit down with two remarkable artists paving their own way in the entertainment industry with no shortage of skill and talent. Kia Leiani joins us from Texas as a rapper fresh off her newest single, “Balloons.” Kia and Michael discuss some of the technical aspects of rap and its similarities to theatre performance. Matthew Elam dives into the process of getting bitten by the acting bug.

AIRED: January 06, 2022 | 0:26:46

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announcer: And by Central San Diego Black Chamber of

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Thank you.

Michael Taylor: Hi, welcome to "Theatre Corner."

I'm your host, Michael Taylor.

As a lifelong theater enthusiast and a board member for one of

the top theaters in the country, I've seen firsthand the positive

effects that diversity and inclusion can have

on the stage and the theater seats.

This interview series was created to share my passion for

theater and promote diverse voices

throughout the national theater scene.

We sit down with some of the top professionals in the

entertainment industry to discuss training,

careers, advice for young actors, and how

to make theater matter to more people.


Michael: Today I had the opportunity to talk

hip-hop and its storytelling value with

a very talented artist, Kia Leiani.

She tells us how she crafts her flows, what inspires her lyrics,

and why it's good to have haters.

So silence your cell phones, folks.

You're entering "Theatre Corner."

♪ Like a balloon, take me high, high up, high, ♪

♪ high up, high up, high, high up. ♪

♪ I need a sky view with no limitations. ♪

♪ Don't play with my energy. That's my declaration. ♪

♪ I'm out here chasin' these M's instead of reparation. ♪

♪ Became a mother of two. Ain't had no preparation. ♪♪♪

Michael: Welcome to "Theatre Corner," sister.

Kia Leiani: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Michael: It is so fantastic to have you here, and you are

the very first hip-hop artist to be here

in our seats, so this is very exciting.

This is a kind of interview I've been really looking forward to,

to sort of--we're gonna get a chance to dive into hip-hop and,

kind of, the technical aspects of it

and how it relates to theater.

Kia: For sure, mm-hmm.

Michael: First, I wanna congratulate you on your new

release, the new single called "Balloons."

Tell me about that.

Kia: Yes, it's my life experiences all in a nutshell.

You know what I mean?

It's not everything that has happened in my life, but I kind

of tried to summarize it down into, you know, a memoir of what

people can listen and kind of get to know me by, you know?

Michael: I thought it was rather touching though, you know?

You know, especially, you know, bein' a single parent, you know,

just really introducing yourself to your listeners.

Where did the idea when you even come up

with that particular song?

Kia: I do everything.

I can do any genre, any type of music, whatever, but with that,

I really feel more close to, and I like doing

because I'm giving you me, you know what I mean?

A lot of artists don't do that.

They just wanna give you poppy hits or whatever, but, with me,

those are my favorite type of songs because it's showing you

who I really am or giving you an idea of who I really am and

getting to know me through the music.

Instead of me sittin' and, you know, talkin' to you, you can

actually hear it through the music, and I'm giving you my

life experiences, and I'm giving you who I am.

Michael: And the music video itself, where was that shot?

Kia: I shot that in Detroit, Michigan.

Michael: What was behind the decision in that location or--

Kia: I shot it in front of Motown as well, and it was

just--you know, Motown, when you get there, of course, you

know, when we're talkin' about Motown, you know, we know who's

come out of that camp with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, and

the list goes on but--and, you know, that gives you inspiration

already, but when you're standing in front of it,

it's like the energy that you get just standin' in front

of that place is amazing, you know?

So I kind of wanted to bring that into it being the type of

song that it was and the feeling that I had when I was recording

it, when I wrote it and, you know, shooting the video

and kind of giving you that inspiration

that I got when I was writin' it.

Michael: That's really cool part of your music video is that

there's a lot of extra thought to it.

There's substance to these-- your approach to music videos.

You have another music video where you kind

of--there's--it's in front of a historic structure,

and there's kind of a slave theme.

Tell me about that song and that video.

Kia: With that one, when you hear the lyrics to the song, you

wouldn't think that the video would be what it is,

and that's what I try to do.

I don't wanna be the typical young hip-hop artist.

You know what I mean?

I kind of wanna step out the box.

I've always been a elephant in a room, you know?

So I always want to give you more.

I want your mind to know, when you hear, "Kia Leiani dropped a

video," it's like, "Let me go look," kind of like Missy

Elliott and Busta Rhymes, you know what I mean?

When you hear that, it's kind of like you know you're about to

see a movie, or it's gonna be something different.

It's not gonna be the usual, and that's what I

kind of try to bring to my visuals.

Michael: It also leads me to think about--I mean,

you know, I'm not a real rapper.

Maybe I'm an aspiring hip-hop artist, but that's as far as it

go, but I always--I was always curious of what

comes first, like, the lyrics come first?

Or do you have the beat, and you make the lyrics on the beat?

I don't know.

Kia: Oh, with me, I kind of worked both ways.

So if I hear a beat that speaks to me, because I make music off

feeling, so if I hear a beat, and it's, like, givin' me the

inspiration that I need, and it's makin' me, you know, think

and come up with some amazing, you know, lyrics, perfect.

Now, sometimes I might just be literally sitting in the car,

walkin' down the street, in the store, and a line'll just come

in my head, and I'm like, "Whoa," you know, and I can keep

goin' in my head, walkin' or whatever I was doin' or put it

in my notes and go from there, and I can make a whole hook, you

know what I mean, off of that and then find a beat.

So I kind of do it both ways.

Michael: Wow, all right, there's a little insight.

Kia: Yeah.

Michael: And so how does hip-hop artists like

yourself, you know, you had two beautiful kids

You know, that's a lot to balance, you know?

So what's your approach besides the organic grind

that you, just, you possess?

You know, what's the approach?

You got real life goin' on, and you're goin' after,

you know, a career like this.

Kia: Mm-hmm, I've been doin' this for a long time

since I was eight, you know?

So I was doin' music before I had kids, so, with me, it's just

the fact of now I'm doin' it for them as well as they get excited

when they see me doin' this, so it just

makes it even more fun, you know?

Michael: Well, I think I heard--was it Damon Dash talks

about he doesn't hustle for his first name?

both: He hustles for his last name.

Michael: Yeah, yeah, that's pretty--yeah, that's, kind of,

you know, inspirational, kind of interesting.

So the other reason I'm really excited

to have you here is to kind of--let's explore the

theatrical aspects of hip-hop performance.

You know, we see music videos, you know, a lot of gesturing,

different attitudes being displayed

and wealth being displayed.

How much of that is real? How much is it not real?

But can you talk about the theatrics of rap performance?

Kia: I think it's all combined into one.

When it comes to like we were just talkin' about with the

visuals and how we're kind of bringin' life to what we're

saying, and when I think about when

you asked me that Slick Rick's--

Michael: Oh, yeah. Kia: You know what I mean?

That video really answers that question for you.

Everything he said, he brought to life in that video

from line to line to line to line to line.

It was like he was acting out everything.

So I feel like, in a way, that is the, you know, combination of

comin' together with theater and hip-hop as well as even when

you're performing on stage, you're bringin' on stage, you're

bringin' the stage performance.

You have the displays, you have--you know,

it's just really makin' a visual, makin' people see

your art, and it's the same thing.

Michael: And even bein' able to see it

just with the lyrics alone.

I mean, how much of the storytelling

goes into some of this work?

Kia: I think that's huge, and people that actually take that

and put it into their craft, I feel like they have longevity in

the industry because of their ability to do that.

You feel what I'm sayin'?

It's just, kind of, storytellin' is, as well as

makin' people bring their own life experiences into music,

instead of just makin' this, you know, bop music that you can bob

your head to, and it has no meaning.

It has no substance.

I feel like that storytellin' really takes you

to the next level if you can do that.

Michael: I also understand you do a little ghostwriting--

Kia: I do.

Michael: --as well to help some people out.

Michael: You know, and so what's your

approach to the ghostwriting?

'Cause I'm imagining just like when you're a featured artist on

other song, the beat is already there, there's already an

existing song, and you're just kind of putting yourself

into an already existing piece of work.

So then maybe your approach is a bit different,

or is that still the same?

Kia: Well, it's still giving you me.

You still wanna give yourself even on a feature, if

it's ghostwriting, whatever, it's still coming from you.

So I feel like, when I'm doing features, if you're asking me

for a feature, you like what I do, you like my sound, you like

something about what I do, so I kind of make it to where I'm

still giving you a little piece of my sauce

on whatever you asked me to do.

You know what I mean?

Michael: Right, I'm a regular follower of yours,

particularly on Instagram.

And anybody else out there that follows

you on Instagram knows you.

You come up with these skits that are--I don't know where

these things come from but just, just hilarious.

I mean, you know, sometimes we're havin' a bad day, and here

come pops up one of your skits, and,

you know, and it just kind of picks me up.

Where does all this start at? Where does that come from?

Kia: I mean, I'm a goofball.

I'm quiet, I'm chilled, but when that time comes,

I can be a character, you know?

So the jokes are there. It's not a character.

It's not a gimmick. This is me.

So I could be sitting there and, like, "Hey, get the camera"

and just start going, you know?

It's not scripted. It's not anything.

So it's, just, it's a part of me, it's another side of me.

Yes, the music has always been, you know, what I've been doin'

since I was eight, but we're acting and movin' in that lane.

I have some opportunities comin' up in the acting, and I just

feel like, with that, it's a natural transition because

I've--I mean, I've been actin' a fool all my life.

Michael: And this reminds me--I mean, we kind of had a

similar conversation yesterday about this, but why do you

think, you know, hip-hop artists, it seems like such a

easy transition from doin' the music

into, like, an acting career, why do you think that is?

Kia: I think the transition is easy because with--like I was

saying earlier, with the visuals and the stage displays and the

shows, it's like you're performing.

You're performin' all across the board.

You're performing when you're acting.

You're performing when you're on stage.

Even when you're in the studio and you're putting whatever on

wax, you're puttin' it together, you're performing as well, so I

feel like it's the same all the way across the board,

but it's easier to transition if you really

just have to take the craft serious.

You know what I mean?

When you're doin' music, you've studied, you've mastered

that writing, the recording process,

the visual process, the whatever comes with that part.

Now, when you do acting, if you've never done

it before, you have to master that too.

It's just about mastering your craft.

Michael: Let's say, you're sitting in front of a young,

aspiring hip-hop artist, you know, just wantin' to get

started or tryin' to get their things together.

What pieces of advice would you give those artists?

Kia: I would tell them to never give up,

believe in whatever they believe in.

Don't let anybody change your mind about what you believe in,

and just continue to go hard and believe in yourself.

That's the most important thing.

It doesn't--you're gonna have so many naysayers, and people say

that you can't do it, or "That goal is too far-fetched," or

whatever the case is, believe in yourself, and you can

do whatever you put your mind to.

Michael: It seems like it's more encouraging

if you do have haters.

Kia: Oh, of course.

Michael: 'Cause then, if you don't

have haters, there's no one talking.

Kia: What're you doin' it for?

Michael: Or you're not even on the horizon.

You're not even seen if you don't have those kind of--

Kia: Of course, I mean, of course, you want them,

but you want people to love you too.

But those haters are gonna encourage you anyways.

You know what I mean?

But you have to have tough skin in this industry.

You cannot come in here and everything

can't hurt your feelings, you know what I mean?

You really have to come in here and know who you are.

You have to know exactly who you are.


Michael: This young man comes from a family of actors who

gathered around the television set to watch his aunt play

Regina on "The Steve Harvey Show."

Matthew Elam shares with us details of his role as a

not-so-bad guy and how he uses acting

as a tool to be more vulnerable.

Here's NAACP nominee Matthew Elam.

Michael: Welcome to "Theatre Corner," brother.

Matthew Elam: Thank you for havin' me.

I'm glad to be here, man.

Michael: Having done stage, which I'm assuming that's--

well, that's obviously your foundation.

Matthew: Mm-hmm. Michael: What's the difference?

What do you feel the biggest difference doing stage and then

doing television, just, you know,

being in front of the camera?

Matthew: The difference is the audience

may be ten feet away from me.

That's probably the closest they'll be in stage.

And camera, if the camera was a person,

I'd be able to smell their breath.

Michael: Oh, okay.

Matthew: Like, the camera is in your face.

Like, the camera can be--not every shot, but the camera is in

your face, so it's like, me bein' on camera, I'm havin' to

micromanage, in a sense because, you know,

your big expressive moments might be overdone.

Michael: Oh, yeah, I get you.

Matthew: Lookin' back on camera, yeah, so I think it's a

lot more precise, a lot more specific and, oftentimes,

smaller 'cause you're not having to make your energy travel.

You're not having to communicate to the person in the

back row like they're right there.

So, yeah, it's very, more--feels a lot more like a technical

medium in that way for a person like me.

Michael: How is the theater informed what you do in front of

the camera, or has it, or it hasn't?

Matthew: Oh, 100, it definitely informs.

There are things you can get away with on a stage that you

cannot get away with on camera.

Michael: It seems like someone who's not an actor, like

myself, seems like it would be the other way around.

Matthew: Like, for the stage, right, the person in the back

row might now be able to see you, like, if I'm lookin' at

you, might not be able to see your attention go here and then

come back, but if a camera is, like, lookin' at you,

the smallest moments, like, if you lose

concentration for a split second, that means something now

and not sayin' it doesn't mean anything on stage,

but it's--you have to be so much more precise,

so that camera becomes a stage in itself.

Michael: There's this one particular

character you played, Lemuel, is that how to pronounce it?

Matthew: Close, yeah, Lemuel.

Michael: Yeah, yeah, in "Fargo," this series "Fargo,"

where you played--Chris Rock, the character Chris

Rock played, you played his son.

Matthew: Really crazy blessin'.

Michael: My goodness, but that was some powerful stuff.

What was that experience like?

'Cause, I mean, Chris Rock is Chris Rock, and he's doin'

something somewhat different than what he typically does.

What was that experience like?

Matthew: It was a huge endeavor for me,

not even the project in total 'cause, of course,

that, it was such a large world.

That experience for me being able to look at someone like

Chris Rock and be like, "Wow," first off,

just realizin' I'm in the same room.

Workin' on the same project, you know, is an important thing too,

but bein' able to see how he works, bein' able to see people

like Glynn Turman, you know, Ben Whishaw, Jason Schwartzman,

Jessie Buckley, like, all these really great artists that are

great in their craft, and me being fans of these people

outside of what we do and talking to them and bein' like,

just pickin' their brains about stuff and them saying, "Yeah,

you know, I'm here, and I, just, I show up, we do the work.

I show up, and I don't necessarily feel 100%

confident with every choice that I make on set.

You know, I have things that I'm uncomfortable with that I don't

really understand," and so it was a really humanizing thing

for me to be able to kind of take--not sayin' I put them on a

pedestal 'cause I think we're all equal, but I appreciate

their talent and craft, what they bring to the craft and

being able to hold that thing in my hands and look at it

a little closer and be like, "Aah, okay."

I think that was like a huge--of course, workin' on a project,

great, crazy blessing, but just bein' able

to work with those type of talents.

Michael: Did they actually shoot that in Missouri?

Matthew: No, they shot it in Chicago.

Michael: In Chicago. Matthew: Yeah.

Michael: You spent a lot of time in Chicago.

You doin' project after project.

Then what is--how does that come about?

Matthew: Yeah, dude, I mean, 'cause I've been

out there for, like, seven years now.

Seven years 'cause I went to school at DePaul, the theater

school, and that was the start of my Chicago career as it is,

but, yeah, man, Chicago, one thing that's great about Chicago

is you tend to see the same artists around.

You know, we're very a tight-knit theater, TV, and film

community, and I've auditioned multiple, multiple, multiple

times for that casting agency, and they've seen me do work in

plays, so they know me not just when I come in,

but they also see me in my stage element.

Michael: Nice.

Matthew: Which is a huge, huge advantage, you know what I mean?

'Cause I'm not sayin' it doesn't happen in L.A., but L.A., you

know, bein' more TV and film, you don't often get to see, you

know, like, your castin' people come out and see you do a play.

Matthew: You know what I mean? Michael: Right, right.

Matthew: So that definitely helped me, definitely helped.

Michael: When did you get bitten by this acting bug,

I guess we can describe it as?

Matthew: Ooh, I cannot stress this enough.

It's still one of my favorite TV shows,

"The Steve Harvey Show," right?

My aunt, on there, played Regina Grier, and every night that she

was on the show, we would watch it as a family, and I would

watch her, and it just, like, I just caught--it just looked so

fun, and I think, at that time, it was less about the acting.

It was more about, like, what I was

experiencing was bringing me joy.

Michael: I see, I see.

Matthew: I remember there was this time where there's

this--it's a--every episode was so funny, but this particular

episode was my aunt is runnin' in slow motion, tryin' to

stop--I can't--someone from getting pied in the face.

It was like a cream pie.

Michael: I think I remember that one.

Matthew: Yeah, you remember it?

And it hits her face, and I was a child.

I thought that actually happened to her,

so I remember, just, like, crying.

Like, I was, like, bawling, and they had to tell me,

"No, it's not real, Matthew."

But it was just like the feelin' of, you know, like,

that joyous feelin', and then later--'cause even now, I'm not

an introvert person, but I can be a very, I guess, a very

private person in certain events, and acting, especially

when I was younger, being, like, more introverted, it really

brought me out of my shell, and my aunt also

had the performing arts conservatory.

Michael: Amazing Grace Conservatory."

Matthew: Yeah, yeah, and that is what it is.

It was an amazing grace to thousands and thousands of kids

'cause it was really a program--it was a little

nontraditional because it took, you know, kids from the city and

taught them about the arts--singing, acting, and

dancing, and that was where I first got my true appreciation

for the craft as it relates to community as opposed to "I wanna

be in the shinin' lights, and I want the 'this, that,'" it was

bein' able to take, like, a kid like me, who's kind of

introverted, and through the arts, open me up, get me out of

my shell, introduce me to a community that loved the same

thing I love, and, you know, the reason why I love it.

Michael: Even if one is shy, you're wearing the skin of your

character, you know, so you're not really being yourself.

Do you feel that that's kind of an outlet of some sort?

Matthew: Absolutely, absolutely.

Michael: Maybe even therapeutic in some ways?

Matthew: Definitely therapeutic.

It's always funny talkin' about, like, stuff that's, like, really

close to me because a lot of that energy, like, the me being

nervous is not me bein', like, "closed in," but there's this

energy that's, like, really big, and I have trouble

sometimes dealing with that in public.

So it's easier for me to, [exhales], settle into it, but

wearing characters, I can take that energy and transfer it in a

way that is--I'm in service to something, you know?

And hopefully, even outside of just the whole acting

aspect is being able to cultivate sympathy for a life

experience because of one thing I do enjoy about acting

and really asking those questions like

"What makes somebody tick?"

or "How do I act when I'm in a room with this person?"

What our dynamic is, is because the more work I do, the more I'm

able to realize that we have so much more in common

than we do differences, you know, and--

Michael: Human situations are human situations.

Matthew: Yeah, yeah, like, and it's tragic sometimes

because I'm like, if you sat down with the person that you

despise and if you just had a real honest conversation about

the things they fear, things that make 'em uncomfortable, the

things they love, you know, trivial things, their favorite

dessert, you're like, "Dang, it's really hard to hate

a person that you know," you know?

It's really hard to hate a person

'cause fear thrives off of ignorance.

It thrives off of not makin' those connections, but when you

do, it's like, "Dang, you're more like me than not."

And that's what I love about acting.

It's like I can--you know, you could play somebody who's

committed a heinous crime, like a murderer, and recognize that

it's a circumstance, it's somethin' that happened.

He's no more capable of doing that than I am, you know, and

that sympathy is a really important thing for me.

Michael: So today you witnessed "Theatre Corner's"

first interview with a hip-hop artist and was able

to hear how art can be a family affair.

Community is what we need to thrive,

and with creative minds in unity, it's always achieved.

Thank you for watching "Theatre Corner,"

and we'll see you next time.

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