Artist Zhalarina Sanders Explores Love, Identity With ‘The Light’


By Maureen McCollum | May 21, 2020

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  • Artist Zhalarina Sanders performs as herself and her mother in the new PBS Wisconsin digital project "The Light." (Courtesy of PBS Wisconsin)

Artist Zhalarina Sanders performs as herself and her mother in the new PBS Wisconsin digital project "The Light." (Courtesy of PBS Wisconsin)

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Zhalarina Sanders is an artist who does it all. Her craft is steeped in theater and music — so lyricist, music composer, instrumentalist, playwright, actor and graphic and visual artist.

And now, Zhalarina’s helped create a trio of autobiographical music videos through a PBS Wisconsin digital project called “The Light.” The songs and videos explore love, identity and a difficult moment between Zhalarina and her mother, Diji.

Each song exists in the whole set. It’s three different songs and I am playing myself and my mom throughout the entire set,” Zhalarina said. “Life has great moments and it has not so great moments. To talk about and work through and make a show of the ‘not so great moments’ —it’s been a challenge. But, it’s been so fulfilling and edifying to be able to take very personal moments and create the world that existed around them 10 years ago in a set. That blew my mind.”

Artist Zhalarina Sanders performs as herself and her mother in the new PBS Wisconsin digital series "The Light." (Courtesy of PBS Wisconsin)

Zhalarina Sanders talks about her musical inspirations on the set of “The Light.” (Maureen McCollum/WPR)

An Artistic Foundation And Education

Zhalarina grew up in Tampa, Florida and was raised in a creative family.

“I come from two artists who never really explored being an artist,” Zhalarina said. “They sort of had me young, so they just got jobs and raised me. But my mom is a writer and my dad — he’s really great with visual art.”

When Zhalarina was around six years-old, she had her first in-person encounter with someone who rapped.

My uncle, my mother’s brother, is an MC,” she said. “I heard him rap one day and he showed us his mixtape. I asked him to show me how to put together a bar and then a verse because I had been watching Da Brat and TLC a lot and I wanted to do what they did.”

Zhalarina wrote her first rap when she was eleven years-old. “Who I’d Be” touched on everything.

“It was about 9/11. Ashanti. It had range,” Zhalarina said laughing. “It talked about my siblings. It was bad. It’s not a good rap. But it’s mine.”

And she still remembers the song by heart.

“I was very proud of it. My entire family knows it by heart. Randomly, they will say it to me every couple of years to remind me of how far I’ve come,” Zhalarina said with a smile.

In high school, Zhalarina’s craft shifted. A creative writing teacher encouraged her to enter a slam poetry competition.

“I was like, ‘No, I’m a rapper. That’s corny,’” she said. “But I ended up entering and then I won.”

This led to other poetry competitions, including Brave New Voices. That’s where she learned about the University of Wisconsin- Madison’s First Wave program. The scholarship program and learning community integrates hip-hop and arts with traditional studies.

When she joined a First Wave cohort, Zhalarina was able to create special bonds with other UW artists. Some of them were featured in the PBS Wisconsin documentary “Hip-Hop U.” Along the way, Zhalarina received her bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s degree in counseling psychology. She also co-founded the non-profit organization, The JVN Project, which helps to empower communities through hip-hop in memory of another First Wave scholar, the late John Vietnam Nguyễn.

Inspiration All Around

Being surrounded by other artists helps push Zhalarina creatively.

“Especially seeing and being around artists who love to play,” she said. “Some of my best work has come through me just sort of playing around and enjoying the creative process without the pressure of making something good.”

Zhalarina said she has to be on the move when she’s writing, producing music or generating ideas.

“I’ll go for walks, go for a run or pace around,” she said. “I make a lot of beats on my walls, my tables or my desks to practice lyrics on. But yeah, moving around is probably the core component of me being able to create.”

Other things inspire not only her music, but her day-to-day life.

 “The gospel every day. It’s like a whole world of inspiration,” she said.

Plus, Zhalarina said her studies in psychology have absolutely played into her music creation.

“For example, I have a song [“YouGood”] where one friend is talking to another friend and telling her, ‘Hey, I know that you’re probably depressed, but we don’t have to use that word. However, I’m here for you and let’s talk.’”

That knowledge has helped Zhalarina look inside herself, too.

“I have music about my own struggles,” Zhalarina added. “Just me sort of dealing with anxiety or dealing with my ego or whatever the case may be. People often suffer in silence and alone. I want my art to be the enemy of that.”

Zhalarina said she’s constantly trying to produce work that encourages and uplifts people.

“I was born knowing that I’m an artist. I create and that’s what I want to do forever and ever, Amen.”

From Madison To Atlanta

Zhalarina has made the move from Madison, Wisconsin to Atlanta, Georgia. There, she’s working on a number of projects.

She’s wrapping up a new 14 song album, “Again!” In the lead up, she’s been releasing one song a month.

Zhalarina is also working on her second one-person show, “All for One.” It’s a follow-up to “Rose Gold,” a show where Zhalarina plays six characters and which she describes as “a tale of searching, redemption, and the stuff black girls get swallowed up in.”

Zhalarina’s music can be found on Spotify, plus Instagram and Twitter.

Her project “The Light” can be found through PBS Wisconsin.

Maureen McCollum

Maureen McCollum is the host and producer for Wisconsin Life on Wisconsin Public Radio. She loves live music, the bluffs along the Mississippi River, and eating too much cheese.
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