And on Sept. 6, Netta will appear on the silver screen in the film E.14, directed by Rafael Flores. It's set to debut during First Friday at United Roots on Telegraph Avenue.
She told me that her busy agenda is a byproduct of a recalibrated focus on what "art" means to her.
When you put something on your vision board, be careful. You might get what you’ve asked for.
See, earlier this year, Netta created a chart that had the words "better," "confidence" and "goal planning." She wrote notes about wanting to return to her roots as an artist, and even recommit to her pursuit of a career in acting.
“And then I get a call, asking if I want to audition for this movie. It’s about Oakland. And this young girl who is involved in sex trafficking,” said Netta, sitting across from me at the Mo’ Joe Café on Sacramento Street in her hometown of Berkeley.
The “call” wasn’t just a phone call, but more of “a calling,” for the spiritual folks in the room. Yet, faced with the opportunity she had envisioned, she started to second-guess herself.
“All of these negative thoughts popped in my head. But I told myself, ‘This is what you asked for. If you don’t get the role, at least go audition for it’,” said Netta.
She got the part of Liberty, a young woman who is a sex worker who becomes pregnant. The role inspired Netta to study the world of sex trafficking.
“I got into it. I drove up and down East 14th, looked at the girls and their body language,” Netta told me. “I even interviewed a few women who were in the life, and found a way to get out of it.”
Netta continued to reflect on her time spent on the stroll, saying, “It was a really wild experience, not even just the acting side of it, but learning about this thing going on in Oakland—and has been going on for some time!”
Netta’s right. The heavy saturation of pimp culture in this region goes back far beyond Too $hort’s 1987 saga Freaky Tales, and even before 1973, when the blaxploitation film The Mack was filmed here. There are tales of the sex trade in Northern California during the Gold Rush. One study reveals that during that time period, “[San Francisco] housed more brothels and bars than any other place in the larger United States.”
Recently, there have been efforts to curb sex trafficking of minors here in the Bay Area. In 2009, the FBI listed the Bay Area as one of the sex trafficking hubs of the nation. In 2014, the anti-trafficking group MISSSEY and Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley launched an anti-trafficking billboard campaign and internet database, HEAT Watch. In 2017, the documentary film Surviving International Boulevard showed what's going on in nonfiction form. And this week, Regina Evans’ live stage play about sex trafficking, 52 Letters, comes to a close.
And if you haven't heard about these works of art highlighting the culture or campaigns addressing the issue, you might be familiar with the high-profile case from 2016, when a young woman who went by Celeste Guap alleged that she was exploited by and had sex with dozens of officers, some while she was underage, resulting in charges of misconduct and prostitution against the officers.
“It’s a very serious and real thing,” said Netta. “Especially for really young girls.”
And no sooner than the cameras started rolling did Netta see just how real the subject matter is.
“The first day we started shooting, there was this young girl out there. I was dressed basically like her,” said Netta. “She was like, ‘Are you Netta Brielle? I love your music.’ And we talked for a minute.”
I interrupted Netta with a “Whoa,” but in spite of my outburst, she continued. “And I was like, I hear you God,” said Netta, looking up past her red beret, toward the ceiling. “It was wild to me. It was powerful. This is somebody who listens to my music, and now I’m portraying their life,” Netta said, now looking at me. “It was a lot, it was draining. I had to cry for like three days straight.”
Now the film is wrapped, and Netta is eager to get involved in more acting gigs. She told me that earlier this year she did a performance on the set of a piece Chinaka Hodge is producing for Apple TV. And she’s working with an agent for more openings.
Her whole mindset is about being committed to reaffirming her purpose. She put the R&B on the back-burner, because she felt like she was boxing herself in as a singer. But she's more than that.
She holds an undergraduate degree in theater from San Jose State. And she used to be a part of ACT’s Young Conservatory program in San Francisco.
Even before she found acting as a student at Berkeley High, she was an artist of another sort: she played the flute.
“I went to Willard Junior High, and I would carry around my flute.” Said Netta, almost laughing. “They’d be like, 'Here come Netta with that damn flute!'”
Despite getting teased, that was her introduction to the arts. The seed was planted when she first played the instrument while at Malcolm X Elementary. Netta's grandmother watered that seed when she bought Netta her own flute.
But even with her family's support, Netta was shy about her talents. “I became insecure about it. I’d tuck it in my backpack so people couldn’t see it, but it’d be poking out of the top," said Netta.
But recently, she's decided to pick it up. Netta told me that she was thinking, “What else can I do, that I’m using my brain? And not just be so boxed in to 'Netta, the R&B singer'… so I started thinking about what I used to do.”
Netta continued, “I started going back to the things that made me unique... It’s theater, it's the flute, it’s these things that I used to feel insecure about—cause I used to get teased!”
Although she's never played the flute live on stage, in January of this year, Netta posted an Instagram video of her playing T.I.’s “Motivation” on it. Fitting. After talking to her about her path, her ups and downs, and what she’s currently working on—that melody is all the more inspirational.
Before we parted ways, I asked her what her greatest accomplishment is thus far.