Zhalarina Sanders has been rapping since she was six.
“I’m a hip-hop artist. I’ve always been a hip-hop artist, but I’ve also been this hip-hop artist who grew up watching Disney,” she said in an interview this week. “Fell in love with Raven Symone and everything that she did, and I was like, I want to do that too.”
Now 28, the University of Wisconsin First Wave alum has won a Chicago Emmy for her three-part music video series, “The Light,” produced with PBS Wisconsin, with her sights set on launching a career in television and music.
Sanders grew up in Tampa Bay, Florida and made her way into the First Wave program at 18, earning both bachelor and master’s degrees at UW. A program of the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives, First Wave offers full four-year scholarships to hip-hop artists.
During her time at UW, she created and starred in a one-woman hip-hop theater piece called Rose Gold, in which she played seven characters.
“It’s a story that I created and the characters are loosely based on different women in my life. They’re all Black women and they’re all family members, so they’re all connected. Rose Gold was hip hop theater, where I was doing monologues and I was acting, but it was also infused with rap and dance and all of these other things,” she said. “Creating what became Rose Gold as a piece of hip-hop theater was really just me being like, ‘Well, I don’t yet have the capacity or awareness or skillset to recruit a cast, create something for a full cast, and rehearse with them and produce it and get it up on stage. But I know that I can keep somebody entertained for 70 minutes just by myself.’ … With hip-hop theater, it is theater, but there’s hip-hop. So there’s going to be rapping. I’m going to be dancing. I’m probably going to freestyle, make a beat on a table or something. Just infusing as many elements of hip-hop into the story as possible. And that’s important to me as a black person. That’s important to me as a hip-hop artist.”
Sanders mounted that show at the same time that PBS Wisconsin was producing Hip Hop U, a documentary about the First Wave program. The show — and, more importantly, Sanders herself, caught the attention of PBS Wisconsin’s producers.
“Her talent jumped off the screen,” PBS Wisconsin producer Trevor Keller said. “I think the whole team at PBS Wisconsin enjoyed working with her because she’s just so full of energy and she is so creative and so full of ideas.”
They enjoyed working with her so much, in fact, that PBS Wisconsin director John Miskoski approached Sanders at the premier of the documentary, expressing interest in working on something together.
What followed, in the fall of 2018, were brainstorming sessions, ideas, attempts at creating something for PBS Wisconsin’s new digital-first programming committee, Digital Voltage. At one point, there was talk of creating a full-fledged series, based on Sanders’ autobiography — all with the one-woman hip-hop vibe that everyone loved from Rose Gold. The team even shot a pilot that got a green light from management, but the production was a bit more than PBS Wisconsin could do.
“We did a lot of brainstorming and there were lots of ideas thrown around in this brainstorming session,” Keller said. “And we did a pilot and we kind of did some testing to see how things worked and what we could do … because we’d never really done a project like this. There was a lot of learning on our end.”
Ultimately the production became a series of music videos based on one chapter in Sanders’ youth. The three videos span a year in high school when Sanders had her first romantic relationship with a girl, grappled with adolescence and queer identity, and had her heart broken, all while her mother also went through the process of coming to terms with her daughter’s identity.
Sanders wrote and performed the music, and performed most of the parts in the videos. She reconnected with Jake Penner, who’d directed Rose Gold, to direct, and PBS Wisconsin staff did much of the production design and videography.
The shooting took about two and a half weeks in September 2019, almost a year after those initial conversations, and the videos were released online in May 2020.
Sanders had finished her master’s and moved to Atlanta by then to pursue performance full-time.
“I had heard through email that it was getting a very warm reception” after it was released, Sanders said. “In terms of my community and stuff, everybody loved it and were crying, especially people who knew the story prior to it coming out, because family members are thoroughly aware of what happened. So they were all very tearful and happy. So it was a very great reception in terms of what I could see.”
Sanders said she was a little nervous about her mom’s reaction, since the project depicts her mom’s angry reaction to finding romantic texts from a girl on her phone as well as her ultimate acceptance.
Sanders said it’s important to recognize that she might come off as immature or self-centered in the performance — but that was intentional.
“Those (songs) are written in the voice of a 14- or 15-year-old,” she said. “If I were to tell that story now, I’d tell it differently. Not in the sense that the facts change, but I think the tone that I chose for the (PBS Wisconsin) version of it as a 14 year old, I chose to have a little bit of an immature perspective, or slightly self-centered. I tried to bring in empathy for my mom as much as possible, in terms of understanding where she was coming from, into that story. But even how I wrote it was still a little immature.”
Any worry about her mom’s reaction was misplaced, it turned out.
“She loved it. She loves it and has shared it with literally everybody,” Sanders said. “Everybody has received a text from my mom with the link.”
A couple months after the release, Sanders got an email from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences letting her know the series was being considered for a Chicago Emmy — the top award from the Chicago chapter, which covers nearly 50 television stations in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana.
Then, in September, she learned that she’d officially been nominated in the Outstanding Achievement for Arts/Entertainment Programming category, alongside productions from Milwaukee and Chicago.
“So then I freaked out. My family freaked out. It was a wonderful moment of freaking out,” she said. “And I was like, ‘Well, cool. I’m Emmy-nominated now. I guess that’s always going to be my life or a part of my story. That’s really cool.’”
And that was enough, she said.
“Still didn’t think that I would get the Emmy. I mean, I’m a fairly confident human, or at least I try to be, but it all felt so soon,” she said. “I feel like I just got here. It’s a very small project in a very niche part of the world. This didn’t feel like the thing that would get an Emmy, if that makes sense. And then the awards show happened and I won my category.”
With that kind of recognition in her pocket, she’s as confident as ever that a big break is coming. Remember that whole series based on her life story? She’s getting ready to shop that around, with hopes of selling the idea to Netflix, HBO or ABC.
“We had planned to do that already, but now with the Emmy, it just makes the pitch even stronger, the proposal even stronger,” she said.
She said she’s got plenty of material to work with, too.
In terms of the full story, there’s so much more. There’s so much more,” she said. My father, alone, is at least a season. He’s a season worth of episodes. And so this was as much of a teaser as something could be for the full show.”
PBS Wisconsin producer Keller thinks selling a show to a big network is well within Sanders’ capability.
“Zhalarina has tremendous potential,” he said, something he knew when working on the Hip Hop U documentary. “I would routinely say when we were editing that, I would tell people, ‘We’re going to look back in 10 or 15 years and be like, we had Zhalarina in this documentary before she really hit it big.’”
Sanders said she doesn’t have any meetings with network execs lined up yet, but will get to work on that when she finishes the last track of her album, Again. She’s been releasing singles as Zhalarina, which are available on Apple Music and Spotify and most other streaming platforms. She’s just got one more single to put to bed before the album drops.
“The purpose of the album, or the mission of the album, is my own personal artist mission, which is that suffering is not something we have a choice about, whether or not we want to engage in this life,” she said. “And so because it is inevitable, a lot of us when we suffer, we do so quietly or alone, and I want to be the enemy of that. So my album, I pray, represents being the enemy of suffering quietly and alone. It’s like, if we’re going to do it, let’s do it in community and let’s talk about it. Even if it’s uncomfortable or embarrassing or just painful to put some light on it, because that’s what it needs. That’s what we need in order to get through it.”