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Gabourey Sidibe Wraps Herself in African a Cappella Like a Blanket

Gabourey Sidibe has a thing for true crime podcasts. She also has a thing for witches. So when the script for “If I Go Missing the Witches Did It …

Gabourey Sidibe Wraps Herself in African a Cappella Like a Blanket

Gabourey Sidibe has a thing for true crime podcasts. She also has a thing for witches. So when the script for “If I Go Missing the Witches Did It” arrived, she didn’t have to read far before it grabbed her.

“I felt like I knew everything I needed to know just in the title, which is that there’s mystery, there’s high jinks and kidnapping, perhaps,” she said of the fiction podcast, her first, from Realm. “So I got through half of the script, and I said, ‘Yes, yes, thank you.’”

Sidibe is the voice behind Jenna Clayton, a Black writer summering in Westchester with her wealthy boyfriend and taking notes on a group of local influencers for her next book. But when Jenna vanishes, Elise Edgerton (Sarah Natochenny), a white podcast host outraged by the media’s lack of interest in the disappearance of yet another Black woman, decides to save her. The only clues: voice memos in which Jenna investigates the possibility that the influencers are using magic to ascend to their pedestals. Pia Wilson wrote this nine-part satirical thriller, filled with humorously pointed observations on race, class and the wellness industry.

“There are some people who are considered to be less dead,” Sidibe said when the discussion turned to Missing White Woman Syndrome. “And those people are usually people of color and a lot of times sex workers, which isn’t fair. No one is less dead. That person is an entire universe.”

Sidibe, who played the witch Queenie in “American Horror Story,” wrapped her role as Becky in “Empire” just as the pandemic was starting. She’s now preparing to direct her first feature film, “Pale Horse,” while lending her voice to “The Harper House” on Paramount+. In a video call from her home in Los Angeles, Sidibe discussed a few of her cultural essentials, including the headphones that get her through the day, the African a cappella that soothes her at night and how “Hamilton” changed her life.

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

1. Kehinde Wiley He’s an incredible artist. He does Black people, but he does them with these intricate, beautiful patterns behind them. They’re surrounded by patterns, and they’re so gorgeous. It sounds a little cheesy, but it helps me remember that I’m meant to stand out and that there is no fading into the background. There’s no fading into the background for Black people in general. We can’t do it. We won’t do it. We shouldn’t be forced to do it.

2. African a Cappella I was having some trouble sleeping and I built a nighttime bedtime routine, hoping that at some point my body will follow suit. My therapist suggested that I add African a cappella because I tend to wake up in the middle of the night with a song, any song, whatever song. And she’s like, “What if you had music that you can’t understand so that you can’t repeat it?” My fiancé [Brandon Frankel] built me this 40-minute playlist. And also he built me a YouTube playlist so that I can actually see them singing. I happen to be African, and so I’m not just calmed or soothed. It feels like I’m being wrapped in a blanket.

3. “Hamilton” “Hamilton” was the happiest I’d ever felt in a theater, because I don’t care about the founding fathers of this country. This country wasn’t built around me in the first place, you know? And so learning about the founding fathers through faces that look like mine, through faces that represent the people who raised me and the people I was raised around in my community, really changed my perspective on whether or not that sort of history is even important to me. I feel like “Hamilton” changed my life. In fact, my cat’s full name is Aaron Purr Sir.

4. “The Ten” by David Wain I really like anthologies. I love getting a lot of different stories in one place — it feels like a value. “The Ten” is this comedic take on the Ten Commandments, and it is just so refreshing and funny. I watch it at least once a year, and it makes me laugh every single time.

5. “I May Destroy You” I think “I May Destroy You” was the most important hour of television that I’ve seen in the last year or two. It gets really interesting to see what happens to an assault victim, because it doesn’t end the way it does on “Law & Order: SVU,” where they go to the cops and the cops will do something. It’s not always that cut and dried, and it can’t be in the case of Arabella. And what she does with that trauma is heartbreaking to watch. But I also know it’s factual and [Michaela Coel] actually did go through that. What she fought through in order to share that story with an audience, I can’t even fathom.

6. “Sometimes I Trip on How Happy We Could Be” by Nichole Perkins Nicole Perkins is a great writer. I’ve heard her voice on “This American Life” — I think she’s contributed stories — and this time there was an excerpt from her book. It was the most fascinating story about having been the other woman at some point, dating a man that was married. And the second the story ended, I immediately stopped listening to go find that book on Audible.

7. Water There’s no better feeling than being in water for me. I’ve seen really beautiful views of mountains and thought, “This would be prettier to see if I were in water right now.” I’ve eaten sandwiches that I’m convinced would taste better if I was eating them in a pool. I’m in my pool five days a week. I love that feeling of weightlessness. I’m always reminded that water is heavy. I love feeling small inside of an ocean because it makes everything else that I worry about really, really small. There’s just water ahead of me and behind me, and water is older than me. And it’ll be here long after I’m dead.

8. Headphones I get a little panicky if my headphone’s battery is dying, much more than I do if the phone’s dying. I use them so much because I’m always listening to a podcast or an audiobook or music. I’ve started going on milelong walks and I always have my headphones on, and I forget any pain that I might be feeling in my joints, because I’m paying more attention to whatever story I’m listening to than my body. I like Beats by Dre, because they’re quite big. So if someone wants to talk to me in the toilet paper aisle at the grocery store, I can pretend I don’t hear them.

9. My Cats I now have two cats. We adopted a second cat [Derrell Jermaine Dupree Sidibe-Frankel], who is 1 year old, and the older one, Aaron, is 4. And I mean, if these are not people — they communicate with me all the time. Aaron is very bossy with my fiancé. He likes to be picked up and held so that he can look out of a very specific window in the house. And so he yells at him. He’s like, “Pick me up now.” But when he comes over to me, because I’m Mom, he doesn’t yell. He taps me very gently and politely. That’s a person. He knows who to talk to about what he wants and how to talk to them.

10. Senegalese food My dad is Senegalese, and growing up, I loved when he made mafé. It’s a beef stew with a peanut butter base. There’s thiéboudienne, a fish with jollof rice. There’s yassa chicken. But I never thought to cook them myself until everything was shut down during the pandemic. I would look up recipes, and I would call my dad and I’d be like: “Does this look right? What do I do?” Whenever I finished a dish, I would taste it. It wasn’t perfect until it tasted like my childhood. At this point, yeah, my yassa is better than my dad’s.


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