Written by Teresa Donnellan
Photographed by Natasha
Contributing reporting from Isabel Yu
Marjuan Canady and Nabeeh Bilal, both alums of Duke Ellington School of the Arts in DC, spent their twenties working to build up their artistic and entrepreneurial skill sets. Now, they’re pouring those talents into Callaloo Kids. Callaloo Kids is a multimedia children’s brand--including books, animated videos, live performances, and more--that encourages literacy and advocates cultural understanding and social awareness education for children between the ages of three and seven. According to its website, the brand’s mission “aims to empower all children to take pride in themselves and expand their horizons.” Marjuan and Nabeeh each brought a strong portfolio to this project. They’d both had success individually, and they are confident in the originality of the perspective brought forth by Callaloo Kids. On working with Nabeeh, Marjuan called Callaloo Kids, “a good marriage between our skill sets.” Marjuan oversees the vision and narrative of the project, while Nabeeh handles things from the visual and branding side.
“We’re more than prepared to see this as a journey, in that we were willing to do things that we already knew how to do but also welcome the challenges,” Nabeeh said, “because that’s what you do all the time when you create.”
The brand originated as a play, “Callaloo: A Jazz Folktale,” which Marjuan wrote in 2012. The play explored Marjuan’s Trinidadian heritage through the culture’s folktales. Natalie Carter directed “Callaloo,” and the play featured music by Trinidadian trumpet player Etienne Charles. It played in Washington, DC at The Ellington Theatre and in New York City at the IATI Theatre. In 2013, the play was used as a workshop play at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts Director’s Lab.
Nabeeh, a visual artist, first saw Marjuan’s play in 2013 and was inspired to become a part of it. He and Marjuan began collaborating, deciding to pivot the project towards children’s content. Marjuan was a teacher for 15 years, which helped her know how to create content that would connect with kids. They created the first book in the Callaloo Kids series, Callaloo: A Jazz Folktale, which came out in 2014.
Since the beginning of Callaloo Kids, the duo has performed with character puppets at various locations across the country and sold thousands of books worldwide. They’ve also created a web-series for the brand, How to with Callaloo.
Trinidad, Puerto Rico, and Beyond
There are now three Callaloo Kids books. The first focuses on Trinidadian folklore, the second on Puerto Rican, and the third on Gullah. The books are published in both English and Spanish.
Marjuan is intrigued by highlighting oral traditions and demonstrating that black oral storytelling traditions are passed down through food and other facets of a given culture. She said she’s always looking for a way to bring history to her work.
When asked about the potential of Callaloo Kids, Marjuan’s face lit up. “It gets kids excited about reading and learning--and not just black and brown kids.” She said she wants to show children how “to understand folklore and how to make friends with people who are not necessarily of your same heritage.” She added that she wants to positively influence “how we learn to respect and understand each other and acknowledge each other’s differences and celebrate them.”
Nabeeh and Marjuan have worked with education specialists to develop curriculum around the Callaloo Kids books. Parents and teachers can use these supplemental materials to get involved in their children’s education and to help instill a love of reading in their children from an early age.
Marjuan and Nabeeh are confident in their creative ability, but now they’re working to find the right partners to help them scale up the project. “Hopefully when we’re long gone, kids will be able to read our books and see our shows, and it can really live beyond the two of us and what we’ve created,” Marjuan said.
Advice for Young Creatives
Marjuan and Nabeeh have plenty of advice for creative twenty-somethings. Nabeeh’s first piece of advice: Buy a comfortable bed. He added, “Once you can not think anymore, go to sleep.”
“Come from a genuine place,” Nabeeh said. “Be interested in [your work], and if your goal is to approach this as a business, think about the things that you create and how they’re going to tie into your overall business structure.”
Finally, Nabeeh advised, “Have a good team around you. Think about who can help you accomplish your mission, because…you can’t do it alone.”
“We’re more than prepared to see this as a journey, in that we were willing to do things that we already knew how to do but also welcome the challenges, because that’s what you do all the time when you create.” -Nabeeh Bilal
Marjuan agreed, adding, “Invest a lot of time in the foundation of the work, whether it’s the story or the characters…that needs to be very firm.” Finally, the duo emphasized the importance of working on a craft, which often entails sacrificing your time and your social life. "As a creative, you have to be ready when opportunity presents itself", they both said. You have to have the project that you’ve put sweat equity into ready when you meet the right partner or investor. That way you have something to point to that lends you the credibility you need. “When you’re serious about your work, people see that,” Marjuan said. “People want to work with people who are passionate and committed, serious and consistent, no matter what field you’re in.” Keep up with Callaloo Kids on Instagram and twitter @callalookidsofficial or at callalookids.com.