"I realized when I started getting into the room, and getting a seat at the table, that I was often the only woman, and definitely the only woman of color. I think I'm still the only woman of color at that table."
- Photographs by Michelle Kinney
- Interview Edited by Michelle Kinney and Rob Rodems
- Makeup Artist Anna Scheumann
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.
A daughter of immigrants, a force in the music streaming industry, and fellow midwesterner, it was nothing short of a pleasure to sit down with our next Nasty Woman of New York, and my childhood friend, Chisaram Nkemere.
- Rob Rodems
Rob : What is your full name?
Chissy : Chisaram Nkemere. Chissy is my nickname.
Rob : Hometown?
Chissy : Pepper Pike, Ohio. It is a small suburb outside of Cleveland. Good, ole' suburbs.
Rob : What would you say your occupation is right now?
Chissy : I work in the music industry. I am a senior director of streaming marketing at a record label group. Basically, I handle streaming strategy for seven record labels.
Rob : Do you have a favorite type of music? Or is that kind of like asking you to pick a favorite child?
Chissy : It depends on my mood for the day. But I would say indie-pop, indie alternative, and country.
Rob : Favorite artists?
Chissy : That's like choosing a favorite child. In this moment, I would say Kings of Leon or...oh, this is so tough. Let's just say Kings of Leon today. I love them a lot.
Rob : Are you registered to vote?
Chissy : I'm registered to vote. For all intents and purposes I live in New York but I'm an Ohioan forever.
Rob : So what brought you from Pepper Pike to New York?
Chissy : I majored in economics in college and I knew that I was either going to go into finance or the music industry. When I graduated and did not get a job in the music industry, it was going to be finance. I worked for a year in Columbus at a brokerage firm, Morgan Stanley, and used that job to move to New York. But then I was miserable. I wasn't happy at all. And so a year and a half after moving to New York with Morgan Stanley, I made the switch to the music industry. Things are much better now, to say the least.
Rob : To move from a place like Morgan Stanley to the music industry, I can't help but assume those are super male-dominated areas of work. Do you feel like you can be your complete self at work?
Chissy : Speaking only about the music industry right now, I realized in the last year or two with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, I have been so lucky. I started out at a company called Razor and Tie, and now work for its parent company Concord Music. Even though it's a very white straight male-dominated field, I've had an incredible group of straight white males that have believed in me and helped me to become better in my work. They have really fostered me to reach my full potential. I wouldn't be where I am without the straight white guys that really helped me. Obviously, I've worked really hard and I'm not giving them the credit for my success, but I do realize I’m in a male-dominated field.
I realized when I started getting into the room, and getting a seat at the table, that I was often the only woman, and definitely the only woman of color. I think I'm still the only woman of color at that table. But I will say that my experience so far has been great and I couldn't be more grateful for it. Sometimes there are positive stories!
Rob : Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Chissy : A thousand million percent. Let's just say 100 percent because no one likes someone who over exaggerates.
Rob : Are there any news outlets that you follow every day?
Chissy : Yes. But I'm going to start with Twitter. Twitter is really helpful. There are limitations and frustrations with the platform, but when it comes to up to date news I like that I can get first or second person points of view. I'm a smart enough human being to know when I'm reading something that isn't true. I think my favorite news site is Mic.com. They do such incredible work. Their articles are extremely well written and not one-sided. They make really incredible videos content as well and I'm impressed with the way they’ve evolved over the last three years.
Rob : You have done some work with Bustle, right?
Chissy : Yes. Bustle is another one. I read a lot of Bustle. They reached out to me and I wrote a couple of articles for them. I was also featured in some videos about police violence after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed. And then I wrote a few things around the time of the Women's March and the effect of Donald Trump's words have on women specifically. Bustle has an incredible team and I loved working with them.
Rob : Do you have a hero in your life?
Chissy : I have a good number of heroes in my life. I know it's cliche to say, but my true heroes are my parents. Both of my parents are incredible people. I'm a little obsessed with them. I talk about them like a proud parent would talk about their children. My Mom is the most incredible person I've ever met and she is so smart. My parents have lived through some crazy things. They lived through the Nigerian Civil War. They didn't know each other before they came to this country as Nigerian immigrants. Sometimes my Mom will just step back and think about the life they have built for us and say, “I can't believe that I'm here and I can't believe that I actually got to this point from where I was 30 years ago." My Dad is one of the most level-headed people that you'll ever meet. He's so funny and so kind. And he just wants everyone to be nice to everyone. So, sorry for everybody else, but I have the best parents ever! My parents are my heroes and I am so lucky. I love them a lot.
Michelle : It's not cliche at all, I love that you said your parents.
Chissy : If I had different parents I don't even know if I would be alive. I'm such a scaredy cat and such a specific personality. And my parents really, really, truly, deeply understand me in a way that makes me better every day. And I don't know how I could ever exist without them.
Michelle : Do you tell them that?
Chissy : Yes. All the time! Oh my god, they're like, "Can you calm down?" "Chill out!” I tell them a lot, but I don't think it's ever enough.
Rob : Can you expound a little bit about your parents’ story?
Chissy : Forgive me because my knowledge is very limited. A lot of what I know comes from what I wrote in my required seventh grade autobiography. I had to ask a lot of questions and that's when most of this stuff all came out. Nigeria only became an independent country in 1960 from Great Britain. So after, that there was a rebel group and they wanted to separate themselves from Nigeria and create another country called Biafra. And so a civil war broke out. Both of my parents have heard and seen things that you can't even imagine.
I remember one time after 7th grade, my sister and I were talking to our parents around the kitchen table and it came up. My Dad said, "I know the sound of a bomb and I've seen a head decapitated." I think there is a dissociation that happens with that kind of thing, where exists in another life. And my Mom is so fucking smart. She didn't have any teachers because there was a war going on and she taught herself Organic Chemistry as a high school student. I remember my college roommate taking OChem sophomore year of college and thinking my Mom taught herself. Both my Mom and Dad didn't know each other before they got here, but they've really seen it all. We still have family in Nigeria, thank God the war is over. I guess we have a typical immigrant story, just in a different way.
Rob : How did your parents find Cleveland, Ohio?
Chissy : Oh my god, I don't even know. My Mom went to Clemson. She came here in ’79 and went to Clemson University in South Carolina. My Dad came here in ’77 and went to Wisconsin. They met somehow! My Mom went to Case for medical school? Or research? So that's why they went to Cleveland, my Dad moved there for her.
Rob : What's your favorite part about being a woman?
Chissy : I can't narrow it down to one thing. My favorite part about being a woman is understanding adversity and allowing that to make me better. I'm not just a woman I'm a black woman, and I'm the daughter of immigrants. I think there's a certain strength and knowledge that comes with the understanding of not having and not receiving all the time. I understand certain things in a way that men can’t. And men can say the same thing, they understand things in a different way that I can't. And honestly just dealing with a menstrual cycle. It is incapacitating sometimes, and it all makes me stronger every day. It adds to who I am.
Rob : How has your mother shaped your approach to womanhood?
Chissy : That's a very big question. I think that a big part of my Mom's power and impact for my sister and me has really been seen in the last couple of years. My Mom didn't really raise us to be “feminists" or say "you have to be strong.” Not necessarily in those words, but instead, she led by example. She showed us what it was to be a strong woman without having to say it. She taught us by existing, her entire being was a lesson to us. But I don't think I really recognized it when I was growing up as much as I recognize it now. And I just think that being a woman and being a black woman, and being an African woman, my Mom has also learned so much from my Sister and me in the past few years because we are so outspoken.
When it came to sharing thoughts on Facebook, at first she told us not to be too loud. “You have a good education and you're healthy, just make sure not to be too loud because you never know what someone is going to read and they will come back to you.” But in the past few years, she’s said, "You're right. I don't have time for this!" She’s supportive of us being so outspoken and she tells us how important it is that we're so outspoken now. But it wasn't necessarily something that she taught us to do explicitly, but told us to always be ourselves. That was my Mom’s most incredible advice, I have a lot of lessons learned from her.
Rob : Was there a particular topic that was the breaking point for her, that she understood you and your sister for being so outspoken?
Chissy : Police violence and being a black person in this country. It's too much for now and also I don't feel educated enough to speak on this, but there is a divide between Africans and African Americans in this country. I think it’s everywhere, but there is a divide. And it's not like "we're all one and everything's great". So when police violence started being reported, and the news was louder and louder about it, I think that there was a separation from my parents at first. Never naively thinking "it won't happen to us” but a mentality to just stay quiet, keep our heads down, do our work, and everything will be fine. But then after it kept happening and kept happening and kept happening, my sister and I got tired and exhausted and started posting on social media more. My parents perked up because I don't think they realized how bad it really was, because the stuff that's happening has always been happening. It's just social media is making it more prevalent. People are getting bolder because of this administration, but I don't think that they realized it was as bad as it is, and that it can happen to any of us. So in the past few years of thinking that everything will be fine if we keep our heads down and just do our work, their minds have changed to being safe, keeping our eyes open, because it can happen to any of us. That was the breaking point.
Rob : I can't fathom what would go through either your Mom or your Dad's head when they take a look around and realize, "Hey, our children aren't exempt".
Chissy : We have the conversations, but it was always tinged with a joke. My Dad got pulled over all the time in our neighborhood because he drives a nice car and they would assume it wasn't his and he didn't live there. So many times police would pull him over and just ask for a license and verify his address and ask for his registration to make sure it's actually his car. And my Dad would be like, "Ha-ha it's so funny!" And I guess it was a little funny when I was twelve but it's not funny anymore now that I realize what's actually happening. So we didn't really have the talks that a lot of black Americans have with their kids. My Mom is almost too aware of what goes on now, so she's super worried about both of us. Especially me because I don’t live near home.
Rob : When you were discussing the difference between African-Americans and Africans and the dynamics between the two groups... I couldn't help but think back to when I was watching Black Panther.
Chissy : Yes! I was going to bring that up.
Rob : Killmonger shows up and it's really hard to argue against what he has to say, and vice versa.
Chissy : Yes! So Black Panther is a fucking work of art. It is so, so well done. I'm so proud of that movie for so many different reasons. But just the way that they portrayed African and African-American relations. Killmonger's argument is that you can help all of these people. It is so it's difficult to argue with what he's saying and especially with the upbringing that he had. It is so relatable to what is happening in our country and the position that so many black men and women are put in every day. But Killmonger also was a narcissist who wanted world domination not just to help other people, he actually didn't care about helping other people. He just wanted world domination for the sake of destroying those who destroyed him which….
Rob : Right. That's a really dark hole to go down.
Chissy : Dark. It's really it's a line to toe. It's a very, very real and very complicated issue. It's very complicated on both sides of history to go through and to compare and to say that one is more right, and the other is the flawed way of even thinking about it.
Rob : When I read about Stephon Clark, and Philando Castile, and Ferguson, and Baltimore, something struck me in my adult life was when I was thinking about these places: I realized our hometown is…. a little fucked up as well. Clevelander to Clevelander, do you think Cleveland might be a little bit of a powder keg?
Chissy : I'm not sure. Flawed place? Absolutely. Cleveland has a lot of issues. Tamir Rice. The police department there is currently under investigation by the federal government because of the lack of care they've taken about a lot of cases, and their excessive use of force. I don't want to say "powder keg" because I don't necessarily think that any of these cities are ever going to get to a point where they're going to explode and have to start from the beginning. But there are a lot of issues with Cleveland that need to be addressed.
Michelle : How long have you lived here in New York?
Chissy : Almost six years I've lived here. I moved here in August of 2012. I love New York. I'm a New Yorker. Even just like my personality is New York.
Michelle : It's so funny you say that because having just met you, I'd never guess you are from the midwest. I'm born and raised in the northeast, and there's a quickness about you that made me think you could be a lifelong New Yorker. It's awesome.
Chissy : I needed New York to show me who I really am and I definitely feel like I'm a New Yorker in my personality, but I am still Cleveland and I am Ohio till the day I die. Midwest is best. Give me Ohio State!
Rob : What other issues get you to the voting booth?
Chissy : Education education education education. You want to talk about heroes? My teachers. Not just because they do incredible work, but because they do it in the face of adversity. Administrations don't help them. Local governments don't help, the state doesn't help, the federal government doesn't help them. No one helps them! There are teachers out there buying pencils for their students! My sister used to do Teach for America. She said she had to buy lunch for her kids because they were hungry because they couldn't eat.
It all starts with education. All of it. So there is no discussion about politics or economics or finance or housing if you're not talking about what we're doing for our two year olds who are getting prepared for preschool. Not to mention so much of what were taught in schools is incomplete. The wars that have been fought and the truth about slavery. When it comes to education, I'm a completist. It's all still so whitewashed. And it's just incomplete, and the teachers know that. People need to be taught how to be facilitators. I love where I was raised and the schools I attended, but I think back about some things that happened there that I'm like still unpacking as an adult that were not ok. For example, we watched Roots in my fifth grade classroom. Not only were the kids looking at me, one of only two black kids, but then the teacher asked me inappropriate questions about how I felt about it or I can respond about it. She should have known better! Like, why are you doing this? And it's it's really fucked up. Fifth grade!
Michelle : Your fifth grade teacher "othered" you!
Chissy : Exactly. And I'm already othered. And then you're going to ask me to speak on behalf of every black person that has ever existed. Not to mention, my ancestors were not slaves! My ancestors just got here. What do you mean, “How do you feel about it?” You should be able to have an actual discussion with your class about it without othering a child to speak on behalf of an entire race of people — in fifth grade.
Rob : What the last book you read?
Rob : Favorite podcasts?
Chissy : I have to go by genre. My favorite politics podcasts. Disclaimer: political podcasts need to be less straight white and male and almost all of them are, but I still love them. 538, Pod Save America, Pod Save the People, Pod Save the World. Lovett or Leave It. My Favorite Murder podcasts — murder murder. Which is really funny because it’s basically a pop culture podcast that happens to discuss murders. Very conversational and so funny. And then the not-so-funny murder podcast, which is a caution warning all around, Sword and Scale. Very detailed and explicit. They’ll play a full seven minutes of a 911 phone call. Things I never want to hear again. So — warning before you listen.
Rob : So you’re reading Hillary's book. What drew you to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election?
Chissy : We are a Hillary Clinton family. When my sister was in third grade she said that she wanted to be the first black woman African president and really it started with my her making us a political family. I was Hillary in 2008 too. I fought with my friends about it and I became an Obama supporter after he got nominated — but I was always Hillary. And I love her. I think she's the epitome of a strong woman. To the people that call her the establishment and crooked, I understand that you might not love her politics and she's absolutely not a perfect person — she’s definitely fallible. She's made mistakes. But she is a woman who has worked her entire life to fight for education for young children, and for parents, and especially for mothers. She's a woman who has fought for herself to get into the room, and stay in the room, and to break down the walls of what you guys call “the establishment.” Your heroes don't have to be perfect and I'm not sitting here saying she's never made a mistake because she's made plenty. But I think that we’re lucky to have her.
Michelle : Sometimes I don’t think we deserve her.
Chissy : Don't make me cry because I will cry through all of this makeup that Anna has so beautifully put on my face. She's so great. I love her.
Rob : How do you lift up other women?
Chissy : I think my greatest contribution right now is figuring out who I am and what I'm doing with my life... and it's taken me a while. Over the past few years, I haven't found that one thing where I can say, "Here's how I help other women." But I talk a lot and I'm outspoken and I'm outspoken on social media. I look for opportunities to expand on the voice that I have and actually help others. I donate, I talk, I write, I march. I speak. I suggest, I help, and I think I'm still getting there. I think that being my true self that you asked me earlier in the interview, I didn't quite answer your question. But, do I feel like I can be my true self at work? I'm a really weird person. I think that one of my strengths is not allowing structure to keep me from being who I am even if it's looking at the head of my company and being a little weird, or doing something weird because then you get me a little more. I don't know, there's always that "don't cry at work" trope but I cry all the time. I cry at my boss's office. I can't tell you many tears I have shed in every office that ever worked in. And I think that's strength.
Rob : GetWoke. Tell us about it.
Chissy : An acquaintance reached out to me after having read my Bustle article, which I’d written in the wake of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. He was living in Tuscany at the time and called me because he didn’t know how to react to what was happening, and it wasn’t an easy call for him to make. He had questions and he felt so far away and he felt helpless. We ended up having a two hour phone conversation, and then Get Woke was born. The project went through a couple of iterations but it started out as a community platform for people to learn and to express themselves, specifically on black experiences. We started it as a newsletter that allowed people to express themselves through storytelling and creativity. We realized how difficult and time consuming it was to pull stories and curate. We’re all so busy and life gets in the way. So we kept the newsletter for a while, really focused on social media, and then it evolved into a podcast last year where my friend Sophie and me just spoke about current events. Starting Get Woke was extremely important for my self-growth during some of my formative years in New York. There are days when I just didn't want to get out of bed, and really had to find the strength to pull myself up and not get dragged down by the news. So we did this project, it really motivated me, and it was incredible. I hope that it's not completely dead, but we just needed a little break.
Michelle : I feel the same way about Nasty Women! It's hard to keep it all afloat, and run a business, and tend to your relationships, and donate to the causes you care about, and show up to rallies. Sometimes you just need a breather so you can regroup. You can't do everything all the time at the same time.
Chissy : There is a meme that really resonates and I have spoken about now three times in the last 24 hours. That cartoon dog furiously typing at the computer, with fire and flames all around him, yelling "everything is fine!!" I use that every single day!
Michelle : I'm totally going to implement that meme into this interview.
Chissy : You have to. It's me, every day.