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Ajani Russell
via @ajvni

Get to know Ajani Russell – skater, artist, and rising star of HBO’s Betty

From favourite slang words to the last lie she told – and her secret love of bad TV shows

Check out the full 2020 Dazed 100 list, and vote for Ajani Russell’s idea – which is up for a grant from the £50,000 Dazed and Converse Ideas Fund – here.

You already know artist, actor, activist, skateboarder, and model Ajani Russell from last month’s Dazed 100 list. This month, she made her network debut on HBO’s new series Betty, where she plays a character loosely based off of her role in Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen film. But no matter what she does, the multi-hyphenate’s myriad of projects are rooted in community and representation, both onscreen and off. 

While Ajani has been quarantining on the West Coast in Los Angeles, forced isolation has not stopped her from continuing to create. “I’ve been making zines to keep my creativity flowing, but I’m working on a larger book,” she says. 

Her publishing company, Pinky Ring Publishing, which she started with her friends as a way to “make a lot of things that traditional publishing houses wouldn’t take on,” continues to support their community online. While they’ve had to curtail a physical presence for now, they continue to publish work digitally. 

Wanting to dive a bit deeper into her psyche, Ajani takes our quick-fire Dazed 100 pop quiz, where she talks about the importance of taking care of the Earth, her first-ever science experiment, and why we need more female role models in skateboarding. 

What did you want to be when you grew up?

Ajani Russell: A scientist. In first grade, I used to grow plants and jello underneath the radiator and stuff like that.

What clique were you in in high school?

Ajani Russell: I hung out with the skater crew, the artists. At LaGuardia, there weren’t really typical cliques.

Who gave you your first break?

Ajani Russell: My art teachers in middle school helped me understand that I could become an artist as a career, not just as a hobby. My teacher outside of school, Meridith McNeal, ran this program in Brooklyn that I started going to when I was eight or nine years old. In high school, my friend Sophie asked me to model for her. She introduced me to Petra Collins and we shot for her first solo exhibition, as art. That’s how I got started modelling. 

Why do you do what you do?

Ajani Russell: Skateboarding helped me bond and create deep connections with people that I would have never had the chance to. The Skate Kitchen showed me how much we can inspire other people and make room for women who are not represented in male-dominated spaces. We’re role models for younger girls. When I started skating, I didn’t have any black women skateboarder role models. Representation is really important for me to make space where there wasn’t before.

What issues are you most passionate about?

Ajani Russell: A lack of empathy in the world. Compassion, understanding and communication between each other. A lot of things have gone awry because we don’t address our emotions and connect with other people. 

Who do you think is making real change in the world?

Ajani Russell: Shaun King and Bernie Sanders. He’s somebody that really cares about everything. It feels so generous. These people are tiring themselves out for causes and people that they don’t know. 

If you were in charge for a day, what law would you invent?

Ajani Russell: I’d set a limit on the amount of pollution you’re able to create within manufacturing. And we’d have to reform the prison systems.

What does community mean to you?

Ajani Russell: Community can be a space or a mentality that you associate with a group of people that makes you feel safe and welcome. 

How does your community inspire your creativity?

Ajani Russell: They give me confidence to believe in my ideas, the things that I’m doing, the cause and the reasons I’m doing it. 

Explain your Dazed 100 grant idea in one sentence?

Ajani Russell: To fund a project with the philanthropic foundation that raised me and to help them get more materials to students that want to take classes. 

Why should people support your idea?

Ajani Russell: As a child, the arts saved me. I want to help other people connect with other people and find their communities. 

“As a child, the arts saved me. I want to help other people connect with other people and find their communities” – Ajani Russell

When do you feel most creative?

Ajani Russell: I feel most creative at the peaks of my emotions, when I’m feeling super intensely or strongly about something, or even when I’m neutral and there’s absolutely nothing going on. 

How do you get over an artistic block?

Ajani Russell: You just gotta force yourself to do it. I like to visit old projects when I’m having an artistic block, things that I dropped or stopped working on or didn’t finish or lost interest in. 

Name three things that inspire you?

Ajani Russell: Those little squishy toys. Books. Light. I like to look at different reflections as if they’re a conversation and realise that all the spirits of the Earth are still walking among us and that we’re never truly alone.

What’s the best concert you’ve ever seen?

Ajani Russell: The first concert I ever went to was a Smokey Robinson concert when I was seven with my grandpa. And Frank Ocean. Oh, and Burna Boy! 

If you could own one piece of art, what would it be?

Ajani Russell: The painting of Narcissus that Salvador Dalí did, currently in the Tate. 

What’s the last thing you made?

Ajani Russell: Yesterday I painted some frogs. Before that I was making plush giant tentacle pillows. They’re like eight feet long. 

What’s a lesson that you learned the hard way?

Ajani Russell: You have to let people live their own lives. You’re a supporting character in the lives of everybody around you except your own. You gotta be the main character in your own life.

Which fictional character do you most identify with?

Ajani Russell: Killua, this character from Hunter x Hunter anime. He was raised as a child assassin and his family is really twisted. He was just like, well, I’m going to choose love over this toxic family that I had. 

What’s your secret talent?

Ajani Russell: I’m really good at doing things with my feet. I painted a portrait with my feet of my roommate’s dog.

What’s overrated?

Ajani Russell: TikTok dances, because you can’t see the quality of the movement. 

What’s underrated?

Ajani Russell: I think calmness and serenity is underrated. Quiet is underrated.

What keeps you motivated?

Ajani Russell: My friends. My family. My grandparents. My grandmother is from the South and has a really cute Southern accent. The way she talks makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

What are you embarrassed to admit?

Ajani Russell: I watch a lot of really bad television shows...Love and Hip Hop, Love Island and Gossip Girl

What did you dream last night?

Ajani Russell: That I was able to teleport. I was in an enemy battle station and they used acid to pollute the earth and my friend got hit with an arrow and I had to teleport him out. I’ve been watching a lot of She-Ra and it’s seeping into my dreams. 

What piece of clothing means the most to you?

Ajani Russell: A vintage Tommy Hilfiger plaid flannel I stole from my sister’s boyfriend eight years ago. He still asks me about it. I think that sentimentality bonds us together. 

“You’re a supporting character in the lives of everybody around you except your own. You gotta be the main character in your own life” – Ajani Russell

What’s the last lie that you told?

Ajani Russell: I gave my cat a bath yesterday and I told her it was going to be fine, but it was not fine. She had a fit. 

What advice would you give your past self?

Ajani Russell: I would tell her that she just has to ride it out and it’ll get better. Calm down, stop putting so much pressure on yourself. 

What’s your favourite slang phrase?

Ajani Russell: ‘You good?’ You can use it to mean so many different things. Like, are you alright? Or like, nah, you’re fine. Or you good?, like what’s the matter? 

What will the world look like in 2050?

Ajani Russell: Hopefully we’ll have healthcare in America. School would be free. Institutionalised, privatised institutions will cease to exist. Maybe cars will fly by then. Hopefully there won’t be any more fracking. If the earth isn’t here, then we’re not here. 

What’s a misconception people often have about you?

Ajani Russell: I used to get all the time that people think I’m a bitch. They think I’m really rude and judgmental because of my facial expression. 

What book changed your life?

Ajani Russell: Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Hankes. It’s a really peaceful book. It’s like a movie with only two songs in it. It makes me feel very present.

What song hits you the hardest?

Ajani Russell: “Heaven” by Ailee. She’s a Korean artist. I haven’t watched the video in like 10 years, it made me cry. 

Which living person do you most admire and why? 

Ajani Russell: Kandis Williams and Meridith (McNeal), my art teachers. They’re always so positive and enthusiastic about being supportive towards everyone and their endeavours. Everybody is capable of that kindness.