Zeba Blay, Writer


"I was born in Ghana but grew up in Jersey City. It felt really safe and familiar—Jersey City was incredibly diverse, and people spoke Spanish and Punjabi and Twi, which is my language. But I was still very aware of being an immigrant. Going back to Ghana when I was 11 or 12 was kind of jarring. Even though I grew up in a Black neighborhood, walking into a country where everyone is Black was mind-blowing to me. I quickly realized that everyone looked like me, but as soon as I opened my mouth it was clear I was American. That was the first time I ever properly met my grandma. I remember I burst into tears the first time I saw her—I was so homesick, and she looks exactly like my mother. Like, exactly. My grandma couldn’t speak English, and I couldn’t really speak Twi, but she started crying too.

My father was a journalist, my mom was a journalist, my great-great grandfather was a journalist, my sister was a journalist—everyone is a writer. I always figured I’d write, but I wasn’t sure what about. When I was around 14 I discovered a love of movies. This was the age of torrenting, so I illegally downloaded all these world-expanding films and realized that I wanted to write about the ways in which culture and art can make you feel seen. I started writing professionally when I was like 17, and then I went to The New School and took a lot of film and journalism classes. A couple of my professors suggested I apply for the Indiewire Critics Academy, which took five baby critics from all over the world and sent them to the Locarno Film Festival. I didn’t think I was going to get it, but I wrote my little spiel, and got in. I developed a relationship with Indiewire and with Shadow and Act, which is a part of Indiewire that focuses on Black film. Around that time I also started a podcast with my friend Fariha Róisín called Two Brown Girls. It was one of the earlier podcasts that focused on pop culture from the point of view of women of color. Eventually, I got hired at HuffPost, where I was for the last five years.

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Recently I’ve been focusing on my book, Carefree Black Girls, which is in reference to the hashtag #carefreeblackgirl. I was the first person to tweet that hashtag in like 2013, and it’s become a digital space where Black girls can express joy. Ultimately, the book is me trying to figure out what it actually means to be free in an unfree society, and whether representation can aid in that sense of freedom. Representation is a tricky thing. So many of the conversations around it have been about Hollywood, and people needing to see themselves on screen. But I don’t know if people need to see themselves on screen. I think that people just need to see more. And sometimes people want representation to do things that it can’t do—for example, putting Breonna Taylor on the cover of Vanity Fair was beautiful, but doesn’t change the very real precariousness of being a Black woman in the world. I’m in two minds about it. That being said, at the end of the day, images inform how people perceive Black women and how Black women perceive themselves. There’s a reason why, growing up, I was so starved for something. I was trying to understand who I was, and nothing being made could help me.

I think a lot about desirability and how it really influences the ways that we navigate and get to show up in the world. Visible Black women in culture who do not conform to certain beauty standards are policed in crazier and crazier ways. Recently, there was all this drama because Lizzo wore a really beautiful see-through mesh dress to Cardi B’s birthday party. There was so much debate about the appropriateness of the dress, which I found so fascinating. Many people brought up the fact that Rihanna, a thin woman, wore a very similar dress several years ago and did not receive the same backlash. I think a lot about things like that—about how beauty can be both irrelevant and everything. It’s often the way that people, especially Black women, gain access to safety, resources, shelter… When I was growing up, my mom would tell me I should never leave the house without wearing earrings, or having my hair combed. As a Black woman, you have to be so much more put together in order to survive. I’m interested in how that shows up in the culture that we consume, so in that sense, beauty and my writing are very much intertwined.

At the end of the day, images form how people perceive Black women and how Black women perceive themselves.

Every morning, I light a candle in the bathroom or burn some incense, turn off the lights, play some frequency music, and take a long, hot shower. That sets the tone for my day. It’s really meditative. The candle I’ve recently been burning is this one my friend Cassi Namoda collaborated with Catbird on, called Radiant Being Worthy of Love. It’s so good. In the shower, I usually just use Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap. My favorite scent is no scent. In Ghana, we use these exfoliating washcloths that are really hygienic. You can get them there for a dollar, but people in America sell them for $20. I also like to use this Solu sea salt scrub on my body. Then, when I get out, I either use this really thick, rich moisturizer called Skin Food, which has organic cold pressed virgin coconut oil, cacao butter, beeswax, and organic vanilla bean. I think I like to use it just so I can smell myself—it smells really yummy. Or I use shea butter. In Ghana, we use a lot of shea butter, and I’ve found it to be the most moisturizing thing.

Natural deodorants are so hit or miss. I usually just use Dove, because that’s what I’ve been using all my life, but recently I’ve been trying this spread-on natural one that’s actually really good. For fragrances, Mondo Mondo’s Hysteria is a really spicy, almost aggressive scent, which I like. I also have Kilian’s Love, Don’t Be Shy, because... you know. The Rihanna fragrance. But that stuff is so expensive that I only use it on special occasions.

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I’ve always had—well, I don’t want to use the word ‘bad’ because there’s no such thing as bad skin. But my skin has always been very temperamental. I’ve always been like, ‘Girl, what are you doing?’ And my skin would be like, ‘Girl, what are you doing?’ [Laughs] I’m still very much figuring it out. I wash my face every morning with Glossier’s Cleanser Concentrate. I use Glossier’s Super Glow every day, Super Pure every few days, and Invisible Shield—I’m a Glossier bitch, I don’t know what to tell you. My favorite sunscreen is really my Black Girl Sunscreen though. I love that it doesn’t leave a cast.

I don’t really wash at night. I know you’re supposed to, but I’m just so tired. Instead, I’ll use a witch hazel toner and then put on Glow Recipe’s Watermelon + AHA Glow Sleeping Mask. That has been really good for me. I recently realized that if I want my breakouts to stop, I cannot eat dairy. I’m trying to cut it out, but I love it so much, so the middle ground is just trying to be more intentional about it. If I’m going to eat the cheese, I have to acknowledge it and not get confused when I break out later. And I have to use the PCA Skin Advanced Treatment Acne Gel. My friend Rinny suggested it, and this stuff has been amazing for me. I put it on overnight, and the next day my breakouts are so much better. The other thing I’m learning is that I just need to leave my skin alone. I’m so bad about picking, and I know that’s why I have hyperpigmentation on my cheeks and my forehead, and some keloid scars on my chin. It’s helped me feel like I don’t need to wear makeup to the grocery store.

My skin has always been very temperamental. I’ve always been like, ‘Girl, what are you doing?’ And my skin would be like, ‘Girl, what are you doing?’

When my skin is doing the most, I like to use a Skederm Snail Jelly Face Mask. I wear it for 30 minutes, and it’s very soothing and calming. I also use bentonite clay sometimes, too, mixed with apple cider vinegar. My sister told me to do that. A thing I started doing recently is going to Brooklyn Face and Eye to get facials. I didn’t know facials could be or should be integrated into your skincare process. That has been another game changer for me—now, someone else is seeing my skin up close, and that person understands how to get it to calm down. Plus like, extractions!? There’s a proper way to pop a pimple? I didn’t know that! I was just digging in there! Coin is tight at the moment, but my goal is to get a facial once a month.

I have an Instagram where I collect images from around the internet—Diana Ross, Grace Jones, Nina Simone. Black beauty in general is really inspiring to me, especially deep, dark, melanated skin, and the way that it reflects the light. That really moves and activates me.

I usually use Glossier’s Stretch Concealer in G2 under my eyes and around my face instead of foundation. Then, I’ll set that with either Elf Translucent Powder or this Black Radiance Soft Focus pressed powder in Creamy Bronze that I’ve had for a long time. I use Glossier Boy Brow, and then I’ll do eyeliner. You know how the girls are doing squiggles [on their eyes]? I want to get in on that, but I’m too shy. I wish I was better at makeup. What I do know how to do is put on lipstick. When I was younger, my mom would say, ‘Don’t wear red lipstick because it looks garish on dark skin.’ But as soon as she said that, it made me want to go out and buy all the red lipsticks. I actually think that bright lipsticks and really bold, dark lipsticks look really cool with dark skin tones. And especially because I don’t know what to do with everything else, makeup-wise, lipstick has always been a way to feel like I’ve put a look together. There’s a brand called Tanaïs that makes great lipsticks—Dianthus is a really beautiful true red. I like this Maybelline Super Stay Matte Ink Lip Color in Protector, a really dark red, almost chocolate-y color. And I really like MAC’s Matte Lipstick in Baby’s All Right [Ed note: discontinued, but Viva Glam II is similar], which is a brown-y pink color. I like to put a MAC lipgloss in Explicit over it, so it kind of looks like my lips, but with pizzazz.

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I don’t really like going to nail shops. Honestly, I get a lot of anxiety being around people, and I had to figure out how to do my nails without interacting with humans. [Laughs] I’ve gotten into wearing press-on nails from the beauty store because they make my life easier. If I’m going out, I’ll pop on some falsies and call it a day. I recently had some that had magenta-blue-orange tips, which was really fun because they matched the cover of my book. I took a whole bunch of pictures with those.

I shaved my head last year because I was going through it. When you’re dealing with depression and shit, and you also have to deal with taking care of your hair, it just feels like too much. Especially with my hair type, which takes a whole day just to wash. Shaving it was the only option. Like my skin, my hair has always been kind of a mystery to me. I get mad when it breaks or when I can’t deal with it.

When my hair was super short, I kind of didn’t do anything to it. Now it’s in braids, so I use the Shea Moisture Wig and Weave Scalp Soother, which has tea tree oil and helps when my scalp gets dry. I use Dr. Bronner’s as shampoo—I don’t know if you’re supposed to do that, but I do. And then I use these two weird products, Nutrine Garlic Conditioner and goat milk hair rinse, which has a picture of a goat on the bottle. I was at the drugstore, waiting an hour to pick up my meds, when I saw them. I don’t know. I just love shit like that. I’m open to anything that feels insane. But actually, the garlic conditioner has been a game changer for me. My curls pop like crazy when I use it! Luckily, it’s unscented.

I just love shit like [garlic conditioner]. I’m open to anything that feels insane.

I got braids to promote growth and get ready for my book launch. I hadn’t had my hair braided in about four years because the last time I tried, it went horribly. I spent the whole night prior washing my hair, conditioning it, detangling it, and psyching myself up to go to the salon. The next day I get there, and the lady puts me in this chair, hands me a comb, and tells me to brush my hair out. I had just spent 10 hours brushing my hair out! She was like, ‘Your hair is too nappy. I can’t work with this.’ It was so triggering, and so fucked up. I got up and left, and never wanted to get my hair braided again. This time I went to Hairstyles by K in Bed Stuy, and I literally had a panic attack before my appointment. But they did an amazing job. I felt very comfortable and not weird at all. It was fine. It was totally fine.

I’ve done acupuncture a few times. I really liked it, but again, because I’m so socially awkward and anxious, I was like, ‘I can’t do this.’ A mutual of mine put me onto this acupressure mat, which is a good option for now. It’s so fucking amazing. I need to stretch more, so I’ll stretch a little bit on the mat. I lay on it, I roll around, pull up my legs… Sometimes I just lay down on it and breathe. I also like to stand on it for a few minutes, which produces a tingly feeling on the soles of my feet and all the way up. It’s the most amazing feeling in the world. I’m going to do it right now, after we’re done talking.”

—as told to ITG

Zeba Blay photographed in New York by Alexandra Genova on October 13, 2021