Chances are you've heard Cree Summer's voice before. Maybe you've heard her as Susie Carmichael on Rugrats or as Freddie Brooks on A Different World. Or maybe as Elmyra Duff on Tiny Toon Adventures or the Green M&M in those commercials. That's just a handful of the more than 200 gigs she's landed in her 30-year career as one of the few successful black women voice actors in animation.
Summer grew up on an Indian reserve called Red Pheasant with her mother, father, and brother in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. They didn't own a television. She started doing voice-overs when she was eleven. She sings, too, and released a solo rock and roll album, Street Faërie, in 1999. And she regularly sports a top hat, two braids, and a renegade attitude. She collects comic books—like Elfquest, about elves who live in the forest and ride wolves—that she binds in leathers. She smokes pot. She calls her two daughters Hero and Brave "The Savages" and her closest friends and people she admires "freaks." Cree Summer is the epitome of black girl cool.
She describes her own distinctively raspy voice best: "My voice sounds like I dragged my vocal chords down a dirt road and then doused it in Jack Daniels and mentholated Cools."
When I first hear Summer's voice over the phone, she's trying to charge her new electric car, which she calls Miss Thang. While her voice is easily recognizable ("I just recently had to call my insurance company because this asshole rear-ended my car and the brother on the line, he’s like, you know you’ve got a really great voice, you remind me of Cree Summer"), it's her electric energy and drive to be different that so many black girls like Zoë Kravitz, The Hunger Games' Amandla Stenberg and Willow Smith both gravitate to and strive to embody.
I chatted with Summer on the phone about her Instagram obsession, the importance of having a girl gang, and what it means for black girls to truly be carefree.
What’s your relationship with television now?
I like TV. Just the other day I was watching The Get Down, I’m an avid comic book collector and it was shot like a comic book to me. It’s like pitch perfect, that show. Moments like that, when I watch something that just moves me like an incredible documentary or an incredible movie or series, are you kidding? TV can be exceptional and have an amazing impact. I was getting chills and inspired watching it. It’s that feeling of when a seed is planted and when an idea is born, and the electricity of that—it’s so inspiring it just made me want to turn off the idiot box and go make something.
It’s been 25 years since the world was introduced to Susie Carmichael on Rugrats. How did you land that role?
I’ve been doing cartoons since I was a little girl so I am very, very lucky that oftentimes I do just get offered roles. Knock on wood, chile. That was one of the characters that was beautifully placed in my lap. I don’t even think I was aware at the time how kick-ass Susie was. But in retrospect, I really appreciate her profoundly. She was wonderful, right? She wouldn’t take no shit from that bitch Angelica, she was kind to the babies, and she also was really strong in character. Susie was the kind of chick that you’d really want to be. Susie came at a time when I don’t think we were seeing a lot of little black girls in animation or a lot of little black girls on TV, period. I think she moved a lot of people and made us feel good about ourselves. She was articulate, she was kind, she was talented, she was smart.
And she had hair on her head that actually resembled that of a black girl.
Wasn’t that so thoughtful? Klasky-Csupo [the animation company behind Rugrats] was a real class act.
How has the animation world changed for women of color since that role?
Not very much, unfortunately. Things have pretty much stayed the same. I think I’m qualified to comment on that 'cause I do all the black characters. There’s not a lot of them. The good news is now we’re seeing some black female superheroines, but you can still probably count them on one hand. That’s a drag. The numbers haven’t changed. But I think that also has to do with this weird idea that little black girls don’t watch cartoons, and we sure the fuck do.
You've played a vast number of characters, but you also have a very distinct voice. How do you prepare for each role?
The good news is you always get to see a picture of them. I look at the picture and that picture usually gives me a little bit of indication of what they sound like. They also tell me what age they are, where they come from and things like that. I just look at the character, look at the lines, and read it until it feels like it’s authentic or like I completed a real character with dimension. I will tell you something funny because my voice sounds like I dragged my vocal chords down a dirt road and then doused it in Jack Daniels and mentholated Cools. Sometimes when I go to play a princess, I’ll get about three lines in and they’ll say, "Stop. Do you mind reading for the villain?" That’s what was the magic of doing Princess Kida for Disney [in Atlantis: The Lost Empire]. At that time, we hadn’t really seen a princess with balls like Kita had. Now, princesses have become so much more liberated, thank god.
You also made a huge impact in your on-screen role as free-spirited and outspoken Freddie Brooks on A Different World. I read that at the time you didn't love your hair. How did that change?
When I first started A Different World, I had brown curly hair just like Jaleesa [Dawnn Lewis] and Debbie Allen [the producer/directer] wanted it to be different, so she dyed it red. I was so traumatized by it. I had never put any product or anything in it to change my hair, and then the texture changed and all of a sudden I had this bright red hair. I felt like a clown. But don’t forget, too, I was a teenager, when things like that really get under your skin. I probably wouldn’t be fazed by shit like that now. But at the time, I was a little pissed about it. But then here’s the good news: Eventually, it didn’t matter. The character was so distinct they weren’t worried about telling me apart from anybody. They just let it grow out and the color grew out and I just started wearing my hair the way it was.
Which was what all the Freddie fans loved anyway.
I probably started loving my hair more because of the outpouring I got from fans. Fans were just going crazy for this character and for my hair. There was a lot of oh, your hair is so beautiful, and I don’t think I had ever been praised for my hair to such an extent. Somebody tells you you’re cute enough times, you start to go…ooh, I’m cute.
Since then, there’s been such a huge curly girl, natural hair movement.
I see Freddie everywhere, and it’s so cute. I see her when I walk to the grocery story. I see Freddie at the gas station. I don’t even think they know where it came from. It just makes me smile. I think it’s very important for us to love who we are and to appreciate what we’ve been given. Things are changing so fast, everyone is making so many dramatic alterations to themselves, and so at this time it’s really important to appreciate just what you’ve got.
Amandla Stenberg, Willow Smith, and Zoe Kravitz have all named you as a person they look up to.
Zoe Kravitz is my goddaughter so she’s kind of biased, she’s under contract. And I don’t know why these beautiful young ladies are so generous and kind to me, I’m very very grateful. They make me proud. I’m proud to just be associated with them because these are some kick-ass chicks, man. These are some pirates.
They've all been put under this umbrella, including you, of carefree black girls. How do you feel about that term?
I don’t know a single black girl who’s carefree because it ain’t easy being a girl of color, period. God, I wish we were carefree. A lot of political things would have to dramatically change in this planet for a woman of color to be carefree. But I think what they mean by that is more of an aware black girl, a conscious black girl. The more conscious you are, maybe the less cares you have and maybe the more cares you have as well—it kind of goes hand in hand. Self-awareness and more self-love and also the ability to care for other black women. It has something to do with being politically aware of where you stand on this planet and I think it has to do with not accepting the definition that’s been given to you by designing yourself. I’ve always been a loud mouth that way. I’ve always been proud to be different, I’ve always stood out like a sore thumb and I always have not given a damn.
Your Instagram is great. It's full of throwback photos and hilarious moments with your kids.
I’m obsessed with Instagram, in my mind I’m curating a magazine. I just sit there like, what’s the layout for my magazine today? I just get such a kick out of it. Twitter I don’t understand. I’ve made friends with people [on Instagram]. It’s just an amazing way to network and to connect with people who are of the same aesthetic or same tribe. Another great thing about Instagram is that here are so many incredible little sites that are female empowering. If you’re alone in your town and you can’t find any cool chicks, this is a way that you can.
You use the hashtag #godblessthefreaks. In your world the word "freak" is positive, instead of something you don't want to be called.
No one wants to be that bizarre thing. But I just believe that the squares better watch out because we are multiplying and multiplying and getting more and more empowered and soon the squares will cease to exist because evolution is coming. There was a time when we were all so desperate to fit in and so desperate to look like each other. Those days are leaving and dwindling fast, and now the young generation, they're saying fuck you. It’s just science. No one has the same damn fingerprint, no one has the same eyes, no one has the same tongue. We are born different and there’s nothing you can do to change it. The sooner you embrace it, the sooner you are gonna have a good time in life.
You call your daughters Hero and Brave "The Savages." You seem to be raising them in this way that allows them to be fearless and kick-ass.
Listen, if you had dinner with them you’d say, these girls are savages. Or just went to the grocery store, you’d say, oh dear god they are savages. They are so blazingly individual and they teach me so much everyday. My job now is to maintain their fearlessness. When Hero falls down or Brave blurts something out and everybody stares, we crack up. I don’t want them to get to that point where they are embarrassed or scared of everything. That’s the danger of growing up, you just get so fucking afraid of everything. And what you’re usually most afraid of is the judgment of a bunch of people you wouldn’t even hang out with on purpose. Who gives a shit? I’d rather be afraid of oh my god, I’m in shark-infested waters. Now there is a legitimate fear. Or Trump is going to run this country. There’s a legitimate fear.
My best friend Little Wing and I, when we were like 15 and a half, our favorite thing to do was to smoke a joint and put on our Sony Walkmans and no one could hear the music but us, and we danced all the way down that street from the top of Young Street to the Eaton Center and that was probably about 16 blocks. No one could hear what we were dancing to but us, and we would get down. Sure, we got stared at and it wasn’t because we wanted to be stared at. It’s 'cause we wanted to feel free in our bodies, in our town, in our space. And we did. Sometimes people would point and laugh, but truth be told by the third time we did it I don’t even think we noticed anyone was around unless they were in our way and we were trying to do a move.
There's an Instagram photo you posted of Hero and Brave in superhero costumes with the hashtags #ImWithHer and #supportyourlocalgirlgang. How has Hillary Clinton running for president impacted you?
I’ve got tits and a womb, I’m over the moon, I’m elated. Listen, Shirley Chisholm was the first, and wouldn’t that have been nice? But it was impossible in that racist, sexist time. And make no mistake, this is a miracle, because this planet is very racist and very misogynistic still. There is so much that hasn’t changed. We just want basic human rights for women, so the fact that we have a woman running for president, I jump for joy. We all have to do everything we can to get her elected.
What should every woman’s girl gang consist of?
Girls that make you feel good about yourself, that’s the most important thing. Listen, I hit the jackpot, I really did. I can’t complain about a lot of things because I have such a deep piracy and sisterhood and girl gang that is just so powerful. To have girlfriends in your life, they reflect back to you how strong you are, how funny you are, how fine you are, how powerful you are. That’s one of the awful things that has happened in this world is there is a conspiracy against women and so much propaganda that we don’t know how to be friends.
That’s bullshit. If anybody knows how to be friends, it’s black women. We have been enslaved and had to care for each other and each other’s babies and pick each other up in so many powerful ways. We know to take care of each other, we know how to be friends. Don’t buy the lies. That’s why I say Support Your Local Girl Gang because when I fall down and my world is in shambles, the ones that take care of me and pick me up and put me back together are my sisters, my friends. I can’t stress enough the importance of having women friends. It will change your life.
Right now, we're having this huge moment where black women are not only on television but starring in, writing, and directing the shows. There is still a lot of work to be done, but it feels like a resurgence of color on television because there was this weird period where we didn't see ourselves on screen.
A weird period, you mean always? I love a "'weird period." That’s a very diplomatic way to say that we’ve never been on television for the past 50 years. I’m excited. This is evolution, you can’t stop this. For so long, people have been copying black culture, but still we weren’t seeing reflections of ourselves. Our time has come. We’re just too beautiful of people to hold down. When you shine this bright you can’t keep us in the dark. My prayer is that this keeps expanding, and I mean expanding past just black people. I grew up with indigenous people and native people, and I hope all indigenous people get their chance to be seen. All minorities are beautiful and special and need to have the light shown on them. We want to see everybody, because there’s not just white people on this Earth. It’s time that we all get to be seen, 'cause we all make up this beautiful planet. That’s what’s going to have to happen.
Tahirah Hairston is a style writer from Detroit who likes Susan Miller, Rihanna's friend's Instagram accounts, ramen and ugly-but cute shoes.