Actress, activist and children’s author Lupita Nyong’o tells TV Kids about her involvement with Super Sema, which went into its second season on YouTube this summer.
Broadway star. Oscar-winning film actress. Activist. Children’s book author. Lupita Nyong’o has demonstrated her prolific versatility since her breakthrough role in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. A passionate advocate for driving diversity and inclusion in the content landscape, Nyong’o is the executive producer of Super Sema, a YouTube original series about a heroic 10-year-old girl, Sema, who, together with her twin brother, protects her African village. Nyong’o also voices a character in the show—which CAKE picked up the international distribution rights on—and is a shareholder in the female-led studio Kukua, which produces the series.
TV KIDS: How did your involvement with Kukua and Super Sema come about?
NYONG’O: Growing up in Kenya, I watched foreign cartoons with no characters that looked like me. The COO of Kukua, Vanessa Ford, approached my team with the project and the first season in hand. I watched the entire season in one sitting, and it brought me to tears. I was elated to think that a new generation could grow up with an African girl as one of their heroes and for people with dark skin to recognize themselves in a world of imagination, science and creativity. I was inspired that someone else was interested in promoting the same perspective and values that I was, especially a team led by women from all over the world.
TV KIDS: Tell us about some of the show’s key themes.
NYONG’O: The show cultivates African children’s cultural identity and breeds empathy for different people, cultures and places. It’s also about kid empowerment: boosting children’s confidence and belief that they can change the world, especially for girls. And finally, it promotes STEAM and DIY by inspiring kids with technology, science and innovation and getting them excited about “technovating” and “doing-it-yourself” at home.
TV KIDS: How do you think the children’s content business is faring in terms of making sure that every child gets to see themselves represented on-screen?
NYONG’O: The world of children’s media is slightly more diverse than before, but we still have a lot of progress to make to ensure it’s representative of the audience that’s watching it. Kids need to see characters who share their skin tones, languages, religions, disabilities and conditions, and even hair textures in the cartoons they watch to show them that they matter, that they belong and that their stories are worth telling. It means that all children have someone to look up to and recognize that they too can be leaders, innovators, heroes, scientists or anything they dream of. You can’t tell new stories without changing the storytellers, so as content creators, we have a duty to diversify the personnel behind the scenes and bring on board diverse writers and talent who bring their unique experiences to make shows more authentic.
TV KIDS: How important is it that Super Sema airs on YouTube versus a walled garden like Netflix?
NYONG’O: YouTube makes Super Sema instantly accessible worldwide and allows us to build a strong community. It has been particularly fascinating to understand our audience and the families falling in love with the show.
TV KIDS: What are some things you’ve learned about voice acting from your time with Mama Dunia?
NYONG’O: Mama Dunia, which translates to Mother Earth, embodies love, empathy and nurturing. I loved bringing that to life by exploring the power of my voice through singing.
TV KIDS: What are your goals for Kukua as it looks to bring more diverse voices and unique stories to the global animation business?
NYONG’O: I’m looking forward to the power of our voices and storytelling transcending into a 21st-century edutainment universe through toys, books and especially immersive digital experiences. I’m inspired by the idea that one day there will be a virtual Sema lab where kids can enter the metaverse and do experiments alongside their favorite characters. Normalizing science, technology and math is also a goal of mine. These are three subjects that I was never good at in school, and they were not always considered cool and fun. Super Sema helps to popularize these fields that are growing more and more vital in today’s world and prepares Gen Alpha for the world they will inevitably inherit and hopefully change for the better.