The Report: In Fashion (feat. Musa Sillah)
By TADHI COULTER
While modeling may be his current endeavor, we get a little deeper with man behind the face - his family's expectations of him, what life is like when the cameras aren't around, what changes he hopes to see in the fashion industry - and more.
TC: How did you get your start modeling, Musa?
Musa Sillah: I feel like modeling came later in my life. I first started modeling in 2018. I was born and raised in Gambia, Africa, so I’ve been here in the U.S. for about 6 years now. It [modeling] all started in New York. I didn’t know anything about it before that. I used to get stopped at train stations, at bus stops, “Oh, do you model?” and “Why aren’t you signed?” “What are you talking about?”, I would respond. People would stop me a lot. So, once I was working at this restaurant, and my former manager [modeling agent], Tray Sloane, he would come to the restaurant where I used to work, and every time he came there, he’d be like, “What’s your name?” He talked to me nicely. I’m, like, why is this guy trying to talk to me all of the time? I was confused at first. Then later, he told me he casts models, you know, he signs models. I’m like, “Oh, ok!” He asked me, “Are you trying to get into fashion?” “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I would reply. Like, I didn’t know anything about modeling at first. It just came randomly. I got scouted in 2017 but I signed with RED later. Before that, I used to go to RED a lot because there was this guy who used to work there, George. He stopped me once, too, and he wanted me to come to the agency, so he took pictures of me with the other models, you know. But at that time, I was not signed or anything like that. Like around late 2017, early 2018, I signed my contract with RED.
TC: How has your modeling experience been, including your work with RED?
Musa Sillah: It’s been amazing so far. Love it! You know, I love it, love it…enjoy it a lot. It’s been amazing, ‘cause at first before I signed with RED, I was trying to sign with a different agency. I’m in college right now. So, my parents want me to stay in school, so that I can model. But at first, I wanted to be a model full-time but my parents didn’t let me do that, you know. So RED kind of opened that door for me. Even though I go to school, they understand my schedule. That’s one of the things I really like about RED. They’re flexible.
TC: So, you’re also in school! Tell me a little bit about how you’re managing and balancing school and modeling, school…is there anything else?
Musa Sillah: This is my 3rd year [in school]. I go to New York City College, and I’m studying engineering, civil engineering. I’ve got 1 to 1.5 years to graduate. I also work at NYU Langone Hospital. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. I also work there on the weekends. So, I also model. Normally during fashion week, because fashion week is normally in January and September. During the fall and the spring, I normally take night classes because most of my shows are usually in the mornings or evenings. So, I scheduled most of my classes at night, and sometimes I used to take online classes, so I don’t fallback in other words because my parents really want me to go to school and still be a model.
Being a civil engineer has always been on my mind at a very young age. Modeling came later in my life, so that’s why I’ve kind of worked both…go through both equally, you know what I mean. First, I never really thought about being a model. But civil engineering, I’ve always thought of being that because my dad is a mechanical engineer. He used to be here in the U.S. but now he’s based out of Johannesburg, South Africa.
When I have my bachelor’s or master’s in civil engineering, my goal is to go back to my Gambia to work there, to work for my people. That’s one of my priorities. I feel like in my country there are less civil engineers, and in about 5-10 years from now, we’ll need more development; we’ll need more civil engineers there. Gambian born and being a civil engineer working for my country…it really means a lot to me, inside my own country, you know. Because the main reason I came to the U.S. in the first place was to study. I’m from a great family, and my family wants me to study. That’s my main priority. But later, modeling came along, so I kind of do both at the same time. Honestly, I love modeling and I have no regrets about it.
TC: You’ve alluded to some of the challenges of immigration policy and the way in which people could potentially find fault with a broad-brushed stroke, if you will, around policies that challenge welcoming people from other countries. Do you have any words for our readers or a perspective on immigration and what you’d like to see happen in your own life, for example?
Musa Sillah: I feel it’s all about mindset and the way you think, see things. You know what I’m saying? So, if you feel like immigrants are taking advantage of all things here in the U.S., I feel like that sounds so wrong…because we work, we build, we pay our taxes, and we’re not getting into problems. You know what I’m saying. We’re only here to get an education and to go back home and to our own people. I feel like for those people, they need more education because not all immigrants are like that [to take advantage of the system]. In fashion, even, my contribution has been to raise more awareness of POC, like myself. To let them know, I can do it, so you can do it, too! Just because you’re different…you look different, you shouldn’t let your head down, saying you can’t be something you wanna be. Just be yourself, in other words, and believe in yourself. That’s the thing.
TC: Believing in yourself! Love that! What has been one of the greatest sources of inspiration for you to believe in yourself, specifically in fashion. Who’s encouraged or inspired your believing in yourself when it comes to modeling and fashion?
Musa Sillah: That’s a hard one because there’s a lot of people who’ve done that. Like, one of them could be my former manager [Tray Sloane]. He was really one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. He encouraged me a lot, saying “You can do this. Focus on this!” “You could be whatever you want to be,” you know. Another person who’s inspired me is Adonis. I don’t know if you know him? He’s one of my biggest inspirations as well. I’ve never met him in person, though, but I found him on Instagram. The way he expresses himself, being a model and himself at the same time…I could see myself doing the same thing. He’s inspired me a lot. He has his own mother agency to sign models.
TC: Tell me, Musa, is there a particular gap in the fashion industry you’ve noticed and would like to fill?
Musa Sillah: I would say, equality, you know. Equality between Black…POC, and other models. There’s no equality. Like some shows, most runway shows, you see like out of 40 models you see like 3 Black models. I did one show, there was only 2 POC, me and a female model. That’s it. I wasn’t so bored. It was cool but I didn’t really enjoy it because I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me, in other words, different from the Pyer Moss show I did back in 2018, one of my favorite shows. I loved that show.
TC: Tell me a little bite about the brands like Pyer Moss and Oswald Boateng, and how they made you feel as a POC?
Musa Sillah: It was just amazing! I’ve worked with Pyer Moss now like 2 or 3 times; I believe. It was really, really amazing. Walking for people who look like me--black designers--is really special. I can’t describe something that’s more special than that. It was just amazing. I love it! The same goes for Oswald Boateng.
TC: Thinking about our COVID-19 pandemic, how have you been impacted by it?
Musa Sillah: It really hasn’t impacted me all that much because my family, my parents, my mom is really preventative, so she doesn’t really want us to go out that much. But it has affected and impacted a lot of people, people that I know, people around me. People who look like me. It’s affected a lot of people, which means it has affected me as well. [As far as fashion] I’ve done a few of them [shoots] but the surroundings were cool and everybody had masks on. And they had social distancing as well. But it has been slow though, not a lot of jobs that much but it hasn’t been really slow for me. I haven’t been working that much, but the few things that I’ve done were amazing. There was good social distancing and everything.
TC: Have you, a loved one, or friend experienced discrimination outside and inside the fashion industry? And, if so, tell me about that.
Musa Sillah: Well, I’ve had a few outside the fashion industry. One could be when I had my interview for my FAZ license because I have my fire safety director F-89 license. When I had my onsite exam, a guy from the fire department came to interview me, to ask me questions about the building, the fire command station and everything. So, there was this guy who was asking questions but he didn’t understand my accent. So, when I said something, he kind of had a misinterpretation of what I said. Basically, we were having miscommunication, in other words. And he told me, “Go learn English! You don’t know how to speak English!” And, I told him, ‘Sir, I do know how to speak English. You don’t know how to understand my accent. So that’s not the case.’ It showed me to be strong. People don’t have to like you, in other words. But just stay strong and be on your feet, you know. Don’t let that push you down.
I’m very intercultural. I have friends who are different from my color…Chinese friends, White friends, you know. A few of my friends from school are kind of different from me; they’ve treated me well, some of them. But outside that, I have experienced a lot of discrimination, in other words. There was this day, we [my friends and I] were playing soccer, too, back in high school. A guy called me, “Monkey.” “Go back to Africa,” he told me. We were playing soccer. I found that so offensive, so they had to kick me off the field because I was really mad, you know. I kind of pushed him and they gave me a red card and kicked all of us off the field.
In fashion, mostly what I’ve seen are issues of equality. I would say some designers they kind of devalue people of color; they don’t book them often like they do other models. Some of them, if you go to their Instagram page, you’ll see that out of 20 pictures you’ll see only one Black person, which doesn’t look nice in other words. [If I was a designer], I would hope to raise awareness, to let people know what’s really going on here, and to book everybody equally. If I’m going to give this person this, I’m going to make sure the other person has that. I’d make it 60-40, you know what I’m saying, so that everybody is being treated fairly. However, I feel that it is left up to designers, for them to do as they want because in places like Russia, for example, where few Black people live, it should be left up to the designers but I would try to be as inclusive as possible.
TC: How have you been impacted by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement?
Musa Sillah: I feel like it is really, really good. Because this has been happening for 400+ years, you know. People are now talking about it. Watching the video of George Floyd was sad, you know. Watching the officer’s knee in his neck until he lost his life was really sad. I feel like the movement is really, really good to let people know what’s going on in the real world. I think that television and media can inspire people to become change agents. What had been able to hide for years like some of the police brutality we see now [with mobile phones] is now coming to light. I would love to see a designer do a collaboration of, like, a BLM movement. I think that would be amazing, for the fashion industry to let people know what’s going on, too, to show that they stand against discrimination and the kind of violence we saw happening to Mr. Floyd. I feel how the backlash that Kerby-Jean Raymond received when he presented his SS16 collection at NYFW, the show and video on police brutality wasn’t well received initially by the media and some people there. But he and his team just went for it. They stood for what was right. They were not there for the money; they were there to support the culture. They were there to let people know, “Hey, this is what my people are facing right here in America.”