Ever wonder how child actors become stars? There’s a mother in the mix.
Umi Says, the podcast, features mothers of celebrities—a sorority of sorts—only they know what they’ve been through—with stories never told. On the podcast, the women candidly share their experiences of excellence, survival and pure love supporting their child’s becoming.
Hosted by Sheron Smith Bey, known to all as Umi (which means “mother” in Arabic), the podcast reveals an intuitive adventure in faith and drive. Guests have included Teresa Caldwell (Bow Wow’s mother), Rena Patton (Big Boi of Oukast’s mother), Venita McCollum (Lil Yachty’s mother) and Talita Long (Nia Long’s mother), to name a few.
Umi summarizes the podcast as, “The world has met the fruit, now it’s time to meet the root.” Here, Umi talks to EBONY from her home in Barcelona about the podcast, the challenges of the entertainment business, and the song that honors her and her own root, her mother.
EBONY: How did the podcast come about?
UMI: Erika Conner, the producer and I have been friends for over 25 years now—bonding and building. One day she got a phone call, and it came to her seize the moment with the idea of UMI SAYS. It was really organic how it evolved. Now, I send invitations to other moms of children in the arts & entertainment culture and we just vibe.
What were your challenges as a mother in the business?
Sharing your children with the world takes a lot because the world can be very cruel at times. When this is a pure intention and you see this child really tapping into their gift, it makes you want to protect them even more. I learned a lot through trial and error and my son, Yasiin (Mos Def), taught me a lot because he studied the arts and entertainment from very young.
What’s the support system among Black mothers of entertainers?
I used to reach out to other mothers like Bethann Hardison, Kadeem Hardison’s son (Dwayne Wayne from Different World). And I remember reading an article in a magazine about Holly Robinson Peete’s mother—Dolores Robinson, a former Hollywood manager and agent, about being behind the scenes in her career. I reached out to these women on my own. You need someone to speak with when you want to do the right thing by your child. When you have a child in the business of entertainment, they deal directly with the child and that can be very disarming for the parent. You have no where to turn and you have this young brilliant mind that’s doing so many things. I was always looking for a village to bond with to go through the sensitive times and be able to speak freely with off the record. And not worry about things getting twisted or misconstrued.
How did you know that this was the right path for you and your child?
Tapping into your child’s instinct and listening to your intuition. Especially me, being a young mother, I had Yasiin when I was 16 and by 18 I had two children. Society can be hard on a young mother.
Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def started acting an early age, as his mother, how did you navigate the entertainment world?
My own mother played an amazing role in my life. She never stopped raising me and my kids. For that, I’m grateful. My mother, Mary Smith Bey, lived a healthy long life to age 93. She supported me when Yasiin had to travel for work or perform. His first acting gig was in Canada at age 13; an ABC movie called God Bless the Child. I was making preparations to take my newborn and Yasiin to Canada and a couple of days before we were leaving my mother said “You’re not taking this baby anywhere”. She also said, “You go handle your business” and that was her mantra to me. I hear that in my head so much, even now. Her support was pivotal. I thrive on her unconditional love right now.
Which mother surprised you the most with her story on UMI SAYS?
You know who surprised me the most? Teresa Caldwell, Bow Wow’s mom. To hear all that she went through and to see the outcome. It’s a testament to your will. We watched him grow up and watching that you would have never thought such an amazing woman was behind the scenes. Such untold stories and sacrifices are behind certain success.
On the podcast, Talita Long mentioned, she was there for her daughter Nia Long as her mother, she had a manager. Do you think it’s a good idea for mothers to be managers?
It depends. That’s a per case situation. It’s difficult to put all of that in someone else’s hands. I think it’s good to be present. Even if you don’t know the terminology, contracts, scheduling—you’ll learn that being present. If you’re absent from being present, a lot of gaps will surface which can cause some heavy downfalls. So be present. My mother used to say ‘They have to fear somebody’.
Not only do your children call you Umi, but the world does. You are the muse of the song Umi Says on Mos Def’s album, Black on Both Sides. How did you feel when you first heard the song?
It took me back to a time when he came back from an audition. I think he was kind of bummed out cause he didn’t get the role or he didn’t do his best. You know, sometimes rejection can be a good thing. You get a lot rejections before acceptance no matter how good people say you are. He was looking a bit down and I said, ‘Just keep shining your light. Keep shining your light on the world.’ He was young, like 15. Years later when he got the deal with Rawkus Records, I heard the song. I was like wow. He and I used to have conversations about how powerful words are. And back then one the cliché was ‘Sticks and stone may break my bones, but words will never harm you’. He said, I don’t like that, cause that’s not true. It brought that back to my mind that words are powerful and we have to be careful how we use them. I’m grateful that I was able to say something so poignant, that it stuck with him. The beautiful part about that too, Weldon Irvine who wrote Young, Gifted and Black played the Hammond organ on the recording; it is the wind behind the wings of the song.
A quote I love of yours from the podcast is “In the essence of my innocence, the best happens”. How does that quote relate to you personally?
I wrote that as a teenager. You don’t know how your life is going to turn out. Society has this stigma on young mothers. I had a lot of insecurities I tried to cover up. As life unfolds and things get brighter, you start to have a different perspective of yourself. So that quote reminds me to stay pure at heart, avoid contriving to do anything because you have no control over the outcome. Be true to yourself. People say I’m not perfect, but we are. We’re cosmic. We’re from the stars so we come from perfection.
What three women would be your dream mothers to interview on the podcast?
Katherine Jackson: I had the opportunity to sit in her presence and it was one of the most angelic moments I’ve had. I felt in her presence the epiphany of peace. It was strong; a grounded, kind, gentle strong.
Afeni Shakur: I was good friends with Tupac’s mom. She’s amazing. That was someone I could call on when I was sad or down and just get real talk. I love her.
My mother’s mother, Lilla White: I never got to meet her. She was from Raleigh, North Carolina. My mom was born on a Native American reservation. My grandmother’s story is interesting.
Umi Says lives on the Say It Loud network, and is produced by E.T.C. Productions, Mean Ole Lion and Sunseeker Media. Tune in on Apple podcast, Amazon music, Google podcast, iheartradio and Spotify.