We had the chance to speak with Tatyana Ali as her tour bus roamed the streets of Chicago. You’d never know that this spirited young lady has been a star for most of her short life.
Tatyana Ali began her career at the age of four acting in everything from commercials to Sesame Street. It wasn’t long before she found her way onto what many consider to be the biggest sitcom of all time, The Cosby Show.
“Working with Bill [Cosby] was incredible. That was the show. It was the only show that they filmed in New York, as far as I knew, at that time, and I was lucky to be a part of that,” says Tatyana. “I spent most of my time hanging out with Keisha Knight Pulliam who played Rudy on the show.”
Tatyana was always an extremely hard worker. She spent time in theater in New York honing her skills as a singer and dancer. She worked with such superstars as James Earl Jones and Billy Dee Williams. It wasn’t long before her career took a major turn, uprooting her family and moving them to Bel Air. Well, they moved to L.A., but it was The Fresh Prince of Bel Air that put young Tatyana’s career on the map.
“I was only eleven when we filmed the pilot. I didn’t really expect anything to come out of it. I mean, the idea of a rapper being a star on a sitcom just wasn’t heard of,” says Ali. “Combine that with the fact that we only had one week to get everything taken care of and to get to know one another, whereas most shows get two weeks. It looked like we would never have a chance.”
She never dreamed that the show would go on to last six seasons. “I was only eleven, it wasn’t like I had any bills to pay. I hoped that it would last, but I just assumed maybe it wouldn’t because so many shows just don’t.”
Her vocal talents never forgotten, only briefly taking a back seat to acting, Tatyana was asked to sing for one of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’s story lines. It was after that episode aired that Will Smith approached her. “Will came to me and said that if I ever need some help, he was there for me,” says Ali. Not long after, Will signed Tatyana to his production company, Will Smith Enterprises.
“Will told me to go to Philly, to Jazzy Jeff’s studio. Will said, ‘Take your time and try the singing thing out and see if you like it.’ Those recordings ultimately ended up being the demo that I shopped around to record labels. I decided to sign with MJJ because they were the best choice for me. They wanted me for me. They didn’t sign me for my persona,” says Ali.
Tatyana was involved with every aspect of recording Kiss The Sky. “I was very involved, but at the same time I was having fun because if you don’t have fun with what you are doing, then it’s not worth doing at all.”
With music came videos. “I remember when I was eighteen, going on nineteen, I was at the set for my video and it was really weird because I felt really responsible,” she says, laughing. “Because I’m used to being part of an ensemble, so the whole production doesn’t revolve around one character, but for my video shoot I arrived and the whole production was titled ‘Tatyana Ali’. It was really scary.” Tatyana also noted that filming television episodes and music videos are completely different. “Even though they are both film, videos are more like photography. It’s not as much about trying to tell a story as it is creating images.”
Just last fall, Tatyana was worrying more about exams than music. She began her studies at Harvard University majoring in African American Studies, but decided to take time off in order to tour with friends N’SYNC. “It took me two weeks to decide to do the tour instead of going right back to school. My parents didn’t want me to miss, but I discussed it with my friends, family, and Will. I realized that an album is short-lived and college is four years.”
How does she feel about college? “I found it challenging, but a lot like I expected. A lot of independent study. It was weird at first because I think everyone thought maybe that I thought I was some sort of diva. It took a couple weeks before anyone got the nerve to talk to me and word got around that I was normal. I used to get stopped for little interviews and starting meeting people. I even lived on campus to get the college experience. I had five roommates and I still keep in touch with them while I’m on the road,” says Ali.
On being a role model, she says, “I never set out to be one, but I guess parents like it because I am dedicated to school. With being on Disney, a lot of young people look up to me and I’m becoming more aware of it, especially because of all the responses I get through my website.” How involved is she with the site? “I’m very involved with www.tatayanaali.com . I know there is a section on the site called ‘Tatyana Talk’ and it is blank, but that is because I’m on the road and don’t have much access to the site. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get the messages that fans put on my site. Usually my sisters or friends call me and read the messages to me. It is a lot easier than reading hand written letters. People just don’t realize how hard it is, and how much it costs like for paper and postage, to answer back to all of them. With email it is so much easier and quicker.”
And the future? Music: “Well I am doing the Nickelodeon tour with Monica this summer and I will be going overseas. Also, I hope to make another album.” Acting: “I don’t really have any plans right now.” Y2K: “I plan on staying home with my family. I’m not going out anywhere. I’m not crazy, but some people are really freaked out about the whole thing and might do some crazy things. You won’t catch me in Times Square.”
+ interviewer[s]: charlie craine & sam conjerti
writer: charlie craine