BlackBook Interview: ‘The Chi’ Star Miriam A. Hyman on Rapping, Shakespeare & How Jada Pinkett Changed Her Life
When you can’t find Miriam A. Hyman on set, you might find her in the recording studio, rapping under the moniker Robyn Hood. But then, when you can’t find her there, she might just be ghostwriting for the likes of Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o.
After graduating from the Yale School of Drama, she made her way towards off-broadway to perform Richard III at The Public Theatre in New York before landing the lead role, D’Artagnan, in a performance of Three Musketeers at the Classical Theater of Harlem. Her time on the stage gained her respect and recognition and, unexpectedly, led to her entrance into the rap game. Around that time, Miriam adopted her stage name and began releasing mixtapes and EPs, garnering for herself a Best New Artist nomination at the Philadelphia Hip-Hop Awards.
Her second EP Truth Teller was released in February, and a third is scheduled for release on June 25. But she is also notably slated to debut that same week (June 21) as Dre, the proud newlywed of Nina (Tyla Abercrumbie) on the third season of the hit series The Chi—Showtime’s poignant drama about life and strife on the South Side of Chicago.
BlackBook caught up with Miriam to talk about her big summer.
Have you been listening to any good music in quarantine?
I’m listening to my own music—to that new EP Truth Teller [laughs]. But I always have either my TV or my phone on Pandora, so I’m always hearing what’s new.
Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
I’d have to say Hova, of course. Rapsody, Common, I love Jadakiss, I love Migos. I’m all over the place because I love gospel, I love hip-hop, I love jazz, and I love R&B. Those are few of my main influences.
What role do you think music plays for you right now, amidst everything that’s going on?
Music is huge for me; it’s very therapeutic. To just write and be with myself and my thoughts. I kinda built an in-house studio during this pandemic; there’ve been some positives to quarantining. A lot of DIY projects. So I’ve been able to record a lot on my own. It’s been really good as far as that’s concerned. I can write something, jot it down, pop right into the studio, record, and send it off to my engineers and producers. There’s still a conversation that’s able to happen even though I can’t get into the booth right now.
When did you begin rapping?
What brought it on?
A combination of things. I had finished graduate school around that time, and basically I went on to do one of my first plays at the Public Theatre in New York—I was working on Richard III. I do a lot of Shakespeare, and the way Shakespeare writes is quite poetic. Like I always say, “I went from the bard to the bars.” I had a lot of time on my hands then. I was just coming outta graduate school, so I was very well prepared. I was coming into rehearsals off book, ready to go. And when the director wasn’t working with me, I had to fill my time with something. So I just started playing with writing verses. What I’d do is download a lot of instrumental beats and I would rap over them—some of the people who I named initially, I loved their lyrics, but I also loved the beats. Characters like Swizz Beats, he always has a lot of really great tracks. That’s kinda how it started, basically.
Do you find that there’s a relationship between your music and your acting? Does one influence the other in any way?
Definitely. I think I bring a lot of character and a lot of versatility to my music. I think I’m able to pull from my acting background for that. It’s interesting that you say that because for this EP I’m working on now, I’ve been pulling even more from that line of work. I think it’s kind of in my blood. It’s in my DNA. One can’t work without the other. Even when I’m working on something that’s completely acting related, the way in which some playwrights write, there is a very rhythmic function that’s happening, and I think I’m able to find those rhythms easily because it’s just embedded in my soul. I’m able to just find the flow of what a writer is trying to say… Or at least I think I’m finding the flow! [laughs].
Can you elaborate a bit on that?
Sure. I’m playing with a couple of different skits throughout the EP, and that’s something I’ve never done before. Rarely is that something that I hear. Eminem used to do that with some of his music. It was kind of like he was acting within the song—not even like a skit leading up to it or coming after—it was really within the song. So it’s just that idea that you can bring a different kind of life to the character a musician has already created. We can just evolve with it a bit more.
So speaking of characters: Was there a reason for choosing the moniker “Robyn Hood,” and do you feel your taking on qualities of the character by choosing that name?
I thought about a lot of different names when I started playing around with writing, as I’m sure a lot of artists do. Like you come up with maybe five or ten names before you decide on one. I just liked the versatility in terms of what “Robyn Hood” can actually stand for and mean. I think of myself as being a pretty well-rounded and grounded individual. And the name encompassed all of the ideas I wanted to relate in my music. So I changed the “i” to a “y,” being a female, but also to have a different swag on it. I didn’t want people to think, “Oh, Robin Hood. She’s trying to be a new example of the old-school Robin Hood.” But it is that idea of robbing for the hood, you know. Being very present for my community, and doing as much as I can to take what I’ve learned and give back and affect them in a very positive way. I also just thought there’s a lot of fun in the name, and that it’s something a lot of people could relate to. I didn’t want to call myself any old thing. So it was like, what can I come up with that’s going to be really representative of who I am as a person? Not just a musician, but a musician as well as an actor.
After graduating from the Yale School of Drama, you started performing off-Broadway. What’s the transition from theatre to television like? Do you find it hard to keep up the energy take after take after take?
No, I mean I had done a little bit of TV before I went into graduate school. I did an episode of The Wire. I did an episode of Law and Order. Another show called Conviction. It wasn’t completely new, but it was approaching it on another level because of all the training I had, which really helped me to up the ante. I think because of the theatre, I’m so accustomed to redoing. They call it “rehearsal” because you have to re-hear, redo, and repeat. I’m so accustomed to taking it from the top and running through it again that for TV and film, I don’t feel like you get as many takes as you do in the rehearsal room.
When did you begin acting? Was there a decisive moment that told you that this is what you wanted to do?
Oh my gosh, it was a very decisive moment. I started acting when I was a teenager, but when I was about ten years old, my mom took me to go see a film. I begged her—begged her—to see A Low Down Dirty Shame with Jada Pinkett, and I fell in love with her character and energy. How she made me feel as an audience participant. Prior to me seeing that film, I wanted to be a brain surgeon. But when I came out, I said these exact words to my mom: “I want to do that for the rest of my life.” I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t even know what that meant. It just felt right for me to say it. It’s just a testament to my faith, because I am doing the exact thing that I spoke about and wanted to do. I don’t really think my mom realized what I was willing to go through in order to attain my dream. But I’m glad she took me to see that film! It changed my life.
So for your newest project, you play Dre on The Chi. How’d you go about preparing for this role?
The Chi is a dope project number one. They’ve had two very successful seasons; a lot of really cool characters and storylines. I feel like my character was somebody who was kinda in the neighborhood in the first two seasons, but not somebody who was talked about or mentioned. And coming into Season Three, it’s like audiences get introduced to her, but some of the world in Chicago was already familiar with her. She’s a really dope character, really down to earth. I’m hoping everybody really loves her as much as I did—and do. I had an awesome time playing her; she’s gonna give you something that some of the other characters just don’t give. She just has a totally different energy that she’s coming with. Totally different background, and that has put her in the position to be who she is now. I’m excited for the world to be able to be introduced to Dre, and this season of The Chi, for sure.
Can you describe that energy she’s coming with?
Yeah, she’s really bold. She’s extremely responsible. Very loving. Very supportive. Dre don’t play; she’s a boss. She’s very firm in her decisions. She’s really rooted in who she is, and she doesn’t apologize for that. I love that about her. She’s really unapologetic about who she is, who she loves, and what she’s bringing to the table.
She’s a bit of a guiding figure in the show. Someone who aspires to affect positive change in people.
Definitely, for sure.
And it seems as though you attempt to do something similar with your music. You put songs out there that are not about the stereotypical themes of drugs, misogyny, and violence. Do you feel like you have these parallels with your character?
Most definitely. I always try to pull from what I know and what my experiences have been thus far, and use that as fuel, whether I’m working on a show or a song. I pull from either to help support me. Just musically, I want to give people a little something that they’ve been missing. Lotta people who hear my music say, “Oh that’s so refreshing, you don’t sound like anybody else.” Or, “I can understand what it is that you’re saying.” I always attribute that to how I was raised, and having this quality training. I’ve really been able to take all of my education and put it into both of my focuses. They play off each other, for sure. I don’t know if I’d be so successful at one without having the other.