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Meet Sade Oyinade: ‘Unsung’ Co-Executive Producer and Filmmaker Immersed in Cross-Cultural Narratives

Three years ago, I began building my digital tribe and the universe aligned me with a circle of dynamic women in television and film. Producer and director, Sade Oyinade was one of the first to graciously share her time and wisdom answering my sea of questions about the industry. I’m happy to introduce you to her world.

Her twelve-year journey began through entry-level production assistant jobs on reality shows eventually leading her on a path to documentary television.  Sade’s faith and persistence paid off. Today, she’s the Co-Executive Producer of TV One’s, Unsung. This is Sade’s ninth year on the six-time NAACP Image Award-winning docu-series.

Sade wrote and produced several individual episodes, traveling across the country to interview notable artists and individuals closest to them, while also overseeing editing for the final piece to air. In 2010, she ignited her passion for directing starting with her first short film, Who Do You Know?, a story exploring the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  Since then, she’s been busy writing and directing, Yemi’s Dilemma, her latest short making rounds on the festival circuit, in addition to a few web series.

Her journey as a visionary continues to unfold. Learn more about Sade’s growth as a creative and how she stays to true to her art.

Tyler: How did you get into filmmaking?

Growing up I’ve always had a strong interest in movies and television but I didn’t know I’d be pursuing it until the end of high school when I had to choose; go the route of science/medicine that my parents wanted me to follow or figure out how to get into this world of entertainment that has always been a draw to me. After spending a summer working at a lab at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), I realized I had to figure out what I really wanted to do. Once I did a little research on what a producer did, I decided that was my route and decided to study that in college. After college, I moved to L.A. to start to get experience. It was rocky at first but I started working as an intern at The Young & the Restless then doing audience work at CBS Television City and then got a job working as a PA on The Simple Life: Interns. That was really my first production job which led to many others and eventually Unsung. I just get working, trying to learn as much as possible and stand out with my hard work to get someone’s attention to get even more opportunities. I started making my own films eventually, just out of sheer desire to direct and not seeing any opportunities coming my way. Rather than wait around, I just created the opportunity myself by asking friends for scripts, finding one I liked and then making it happen from there.

Tyler: Do you have a filmmaking niche? 

As a viewer, I love everything especially comedy, action, and a good drama. Some fantasy too. But so far as a filmmaker, I feel like my niche has been dramatic films with some comedy (gotta have comic relief because I do not take life too seriously). I’ve made two dramas so far but I do plan to work on some comedies as well. My main goal is to make films that have some sort of larger meaning or message people can relate to even if it’s coming in the form of a joke.  Another goal is to employ women and people of color onscreen and behind the camera. For my film Yemi’s Dilemma, all the producers were black women. My target audience will probably be Africans and African Americans of all ages but I hope for it to be open because I want to create stories that will be universal and relatable to anyone. I want to create films that anyone can watch, connect with the characters and story, and come away seeing someone of a different race or cultural background in a different light, or see a reflection of themselves that enriches them in some way.

Unsung is an important body of work. Tell us about the muscle and talent that goes into bringing these iconic narratives to life.

Unsung is a great show that has afforded us the opportunity to basically create a library of black music spanning several decades.  The show involves a lot of research to get the factual information correct and just to know as much as possible about the subject of the show even before one interview has been done.  The interviews are in-depth, typically anywhere from two to five hours since you’re discussing in-depth this individual’s life and career. Depending on where others involved in the show are located, there can be a lot of travel. Some producers then write their episode and then we work with an editor to visualize the story.  The process on average takes about four to five months. We have some of the most creative editors I’ve ever worked with who have a lot of autonomy in crafting the show visually and wonderful associate producers who aid the producers and editors in the process. And we have our in-house screenings to make sure the cuts going to the network are the best they can be before they even leave our office. So there’s a lot of love put into each episode and we’re proud of all of them.

Tyler: Tell us about the inspiration behind your production company, Flower Ave. Films and the significance of the name.

The name came from the street that I grew up on until age 8, Flower Avenue, in Takoma Park, Maryland.  I have a lot of fond memories of that street as a kid and it was the foundation for me in life so it felt like the right name to start my foundation as a filmmaker.

Tyler: Please share an overview of your short film, “Yemi’s Dilemma” and the significance of the story. yemi's dilemma

Yemi’s Dilemma is the story of three sisters, a wedding and a family torn apart.  Yemi, Lola, and Tayo are first-generation Nigerian-Americans in a tight-knit family.  Although they’ve raised their children in America, their parents have a strong desire to maintain the traditions of their home country.  Yemi, the eldest, is expected to marry a Nigerian man, but she’s keeping a huge secret from her parents that will forever change the dynamic within the family for better and for worse.

One of the main goals of the film is to show a slice of American life that people don’t always see or think about — first-generation Americans and the different ways they navigate through life with one foot in American and another in a different country.  We tend to see these types of stories as comedies and not necessarily dealing with the harsher realities that can come from being bound to two cultures and this film aims to show that through a family dealing with an intercultural wedding. Another goal is to show first-generation African Americans onscreen dealing with issues that many people of any culture, race or religion can relate to.

The film hasn’t won any awards yet; it just started on the festival circuit at the end of 2017.  It has screened at the Culver City Film Festival and has upcoming screenings at the Worldwide Women’s Film Festival on February 10th in Phoenix, AZ and the prestigious Pan African Film Festival, February 11th and February 16th.  

Visit www.yemisdilemma.com for more details on the film and screenings.

Tyler: How do you find balance working full-time and finding time to create?

It’s really difficult.  There are times I’m better at it than others. It can be challenging when I’m traveling for Unsung to find time to work on my personal creative projects but I try to find a way to give myself a break if I can’t find the time. What I mainly try to do is finish my work for my job first and as soon as possible, prioritize what actually needs to be done, and then set aside time at night and on weekends for my creative endeavors.  It can be challenging but if you dedicate the time, there’s always a way.  But getting enough sleep is important for me too because I can’t function well or be very creative when I am constantly tired.  Some people can do without sleep, that doesn’t work for me.  I also find regular exercise helps me have more energy to do more and helps my creative juices flow.

Tyler: To date, what is your biggest accomplishment be it personal or professional?

I’d say I have one for each.  Professionally, it would be making Yemi’s Dilemma. It was a film that was on my heart for many years but because of the nature of the story, I wasn’t sure just how or if I should put it out there. And I had many shows going on for Unsung at the time I was working on it, but I pressed on, found a good team, and got it together. There were many challenges along the way so I’m just so proud to have finished it and have a second short film under my belt.

Personally, a big accomplishment was making time last year to take a real vacation.  I was working on so many projects but really needed to take some time out to recharge and finally forced myself to do it. I went to Belize solo and had a wonderful time. I can’t wait to do it again. Taking time out for you is truly necessary to living well.

Tyler: Tell us about your tribe. Who are the women around you that hold you accountable and keep you motivated?

I have a lot of wonderful friends who I either work with or are just there to help keep me motivated or provide support when things get tough, which happens in this business at times.  There are two in particular who’ve been great supporters while also being part of my creative team at one point or another.

Nneka Samuel who is a wonderful writer, who also happens to be from the same part of Maryland where I’m from.  Funny thing is, we went to the same high school, one year apart, and never met until we were in L.A.  She’s written a script for me and we’ve collaborated on other projects.  Most of all, she has been a fantastic friend for more years than I can remember now.

Deshawn Plair is a bright and skilled producer who I’m lucky to have as my producing partner. We met on Unsung.  We have such a great vibe working together that it definitely feels God-ordained.  I was supposed to meet and work with this woman. She’s one of the producers who made Yemi’s Dilemma possible and we’re collaborating together on upcoming projects.  She’s also been another great part of my support system here in L.A.  There are several others who I’ve met through various projects and it led to more work and creative ideas.

It’s really important to build on the people you have in your life who share a similar mission and vision and are truly ready and willing to put that into action.  It’s also important to have people who understand the ups and downs of the industry and can be supportive and encouraging every step of the way.

sade oyinade yemi's dilemma

Being a first generation Nigerian-American filmmaker, how does this shape the stories that you tell?

Being a first-generation Nigerian, I see the world a little different than most of my American friends. I see the similarities, differences, and contradictions that exist between both cultures. I’ve lived a reality that may be different than the typical American experience we see or hear of most of the time, and I want to share more of that reality through my work. There are a wealth of African and first-generation American stories that can be told and that’s something I definitely want to do more.  I want to find ways of weaving both cultures together through interesting characters and new stories.  This country is full of immigrant families from all over the world and that’s one of the things that makes America so great. I want to tell these stories so we can have a more rich view of the amazing people that make up this nation.  I also want to shine a light on the nations different people in this country come from to dispel narrow-minded, stereotypical viewpoints that don’t truly reflect the people of these beautiful nations.

Tyler: What challenges have you encountered as an indie filmmaker? And, what advice can you give to new creators?

My main challenge is time and resources.  It is challenging when you are working independently to always be looking for money.  You’re sometimes limited in what you can do based on funds or a project may take longer while you raise funds, sometimes multiple times. You still want the best quality product in the end and that requires skilled people to get it done, which means money is needed there as well. But there are a lot of ways to raise money, to inspire people with your work ethic and vision for a project to see if they’d be willing to work for less than normal and to negotiate things for free.  It’s all about learning how to talk to people, having a strong creative vision and a desire to never quit.

Another challenge is time, especially if you work full-time. You have to figure out what works best for you in order to reach your goals.  For me, it is often working in the evenings or weekends. Sometimes that meant a dedicated day like Sundays for my own work and that meant turning down offers to hang out with friends in order to get things done. What I do right now doesn’t fit within 9-5 hours so I have to be dedicated in order to get what I want. And with Unsung, I always want the finished show to be the best experience possible, for the artists who entrusted us with their story and for the fans watching. So that takes putting in the time, doing the research, spending maybe long hours getting everything done but it’s worth it.  I’m known as a hard-working person, I don’t know how to be any other way. So my advice is work hard, dedicate time to your creative projects, and build relationships.  Also be open to setting aside time to helping others whether it’s through helping on a production or just with advice.  We have to hold each other up to truly advance.  

Tyler: We’re in a fast-paced society. Social media can sometimes make you feel like you’re behind or not doing enough. What keeps you focused and optimistic that you’re on the right path as a creative?

Good friends help a lot, especially if I start to get caught up in what someone else is doing.  I remember being frustrated that it was taking a while to finish Yemi’s Dilemma as I saw some others I knew finishing similar projects in a shorter period of time.  This is when it really helps to have supportive people around you.  Also, sometimes you just need to unplug.  I take breaks from social media because sometimes it’s what I need to stay more productive.  But in the end, what truly helps most is my faith in God. I know that God has a plan for my life. It doesn’t have anything to do with what this person over here got, or that person has and it won’t change or disappear just because someone has what I want first. I trust in God first and foremost so I don’t worry about someone else’s path. That keeps me focused and optimistic on what I need to do and where I am.  Everyone’s journey is going to be different and we shouldn’t measure ourselves based on what anyone else is doing. I focus on being happy for everyone else and concentrate on what I need to do knowing that God will get me there.

Tyler: Do you have any upcoming projects that you want to share with our readers?

I’m currently working an on-screen adaptation of the novel, “Better Than I Know Myself” by best-selling authors Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant.  I’m a big fan of the authors and love all their work and this book is one of my favorites so I’m looking forward to producing a feature film based on this book. I’ve also produced two of the Unsung episodes airing in the upcoming season, beginning February 18th.  I produced shows on hip-hop group Brand Nubian (airs April 15) and singer Deborah Cox (March 18).  

unsung naacp image award

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