African American Studies


Olivia Senghor, born in 1978 in Senegal, Dakar, is a musician and makeup artist living in the Bronx. She is of the Serer ethic group, and her primary languages are French and Wolof. She was raised as a Catholic, and is the granddaughter of the first president of Senegal, Leopold Sedhar Senghor. At the age of 8, her family moved to Paris, where she lived in a neighborhood primarily inhabited by Jews and Asians. Both of her parents were very well educated—her father had a law degree, and her mother held an MBA. Consequently, they expected Olivia and her siblings to take education seriously and to become professionals in their own right. Olivia first discovered her talent for art when she was in public school in France. She began entering competitions and winning prizes for her work. At the same time, she became involved in music. She was surrounded by music from a young age—her parents favored an eclectic mix of West Indian, Portuguese, soul, and jazz, and her older siblings were interested in American and European hip-hop and R&B. Olivia began singing with some other girls her age, and eventually they formed a group called Baby Norton. The group was signed to BMG Arista (the same label that had signed Whitney Houston and TLC), and their debut album met with moderate success. The group was dropped soon after, however, in the wake of much more popular female groups such as Destiny’s Child and the Spice Girls. Despite this short-lived success, Olivia remained deeply involved in hip-hop culture. She would attend hip-hop parties and get-togethers throughout Paris, where she would make contact with other devotees and scene members.

After a while, Olivia grew tired of living at home. After graduating high school, instead of going to college, she moved to England, as she was too apprehensive to move to the US. She was intimidated both by the US’s distance and the international association with gangland violent crime that surrounds US hip-hop culture. In London she worked some jobs on the side while attending a beautician’s school and perfecting her English. She had first become interested in makeup art during her time in Baby Norton, and she discovered that she was something of a natural with cosmetic tools. She thus decided that she wanted to pursue cosmetics as a career. She soon grew tired of London life, and she moved to Miami, both to find new opportunities and to see if she could jump start her singing career. In Miami she immediately found work as a cosmetician for a number of performing artists, including Jacki-O, a Dirty South rapper of considerable notoriety. However, the culture she was living in was alienating, cutthroat, and dangerous. Most people she lived and worked with abided by a “law of the street” in which every person selfishly sought their own interests above everyone else’s. Her coworkers and clients were frequently suspicious, avaricious, and prone to violence, and Olivia did not feel safe or welcome in her occupation. In addition, even though she was black, African-Americans resented her and treated her as if she did not belong in Miami, since she was of foreign descent. People preyed upon Olivia because she was trusting and did not carry herself like a thug. In fact, once she decided that she’d had enough of being mistreated, one of her clients robbed her of everything she owned and threatened her life. She thus moved to New York, where she works as a makeup artist today. She has plans to own her own salon some day, and at the time of interview, was executive producing a documentary about African immigrants in New York.

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