LUPITA NYONG’O: An African Melanin Queen

LUPITA NYONG’O: An African Melanin Queen

Lupita Nyong’o was born Lupita Amondi Nyong’o on 1 March 1983 in Mexico City, to Kenyan parents, Dorothy Ogada Buyu and Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, a college professor. The family had left Kenya in 1980 for a period because of political repression and unrest during which Peter’s brother, Charles Nyong’o, disappeared after he was thrown off a ferry in 1980.

She identifies as “Kenyan-Mexican” as she holds dual Kenyan and Mexican citizenship. She is of Luo descent on both sides of her family, and is the second of six children. It is a tradition of the Luo people to name a child after the events of the day, so her parents gave her a Spanish name, Lupita, which is a diminutive of Guadalupe. 

Her father is a former Minister for Medical Services in the Kenyan government. At the time of her birth, he was a visiting lecturer in political science at El Colegio de México in Mexico City.


The family returned to their native Kenya when Lupita Nyong’o was less than one year old, after her father was appointed as a professor at the University of Nairobi. She grew up primarily in Nairobi, in an artistic family, and describes her upbringing as “middle class, suburban” Family get-togethers often included performances by the children, and trips to see plays. She attended Rusinga International School in Kenya and acted in school plays.

At age 14, Nyong’o made her professional acting debut as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet in a production by the Nairobi-based repertory company Phoenix Players. While a member of the Phoenix Players, Nyong’o also performed in the plays On The Razzle and There Goes The Bride.

When she was 16, her parents sent her to Mexico for seven months to learn Spanish. In that time, Nyong’o lived in Taxco, Guerrero, and took classes at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México‘s Learning Centre for Foreigners. Nyong’o later attended St. Mary’s School in Nairobi, where she received an IB Diploma in 2001. She then eventually went to the United States for college, graduating from Hampshire College with a degree in film and theatre studies.

In 2013, her father was elected to represent Kisumu County in the Kenyan Senate and by 2017, he became Governor. Lupita Nyong’o’s mother is the managing director of the Africa Cancer Foundation and her own communications company. 

Other family members include Tavia Nyong’o, a scholar and professor at New York University; Omondi Nyong’o, a pediatric ophthalmologist in Palo Alto, California, US; Kwame Nyong’o, one of Kenya’s leading animators and leading technology expert; and Isis Nyong’o, a media and technology leader who was named one of Africa’s most powerful young women by Forbes magazine.


Lupita Nyong’o started her career working as part of the production crew for several films, including Fernando Meirelles‘s The Constant Gardener released 2005, Mira Nair‘s The Namesake released 2006, and Salvatore Stabile‘s Where God Left His Shoes released in 2007. She cites Ralph Fiennes, the British star of The Constant Gardener, as someone who inspired her to pursue a professional acting career.

In 2008, Lupita Nyong’o starred in the short film East River, directed by Marc Grey and shot in Brooklyn. She returned to Kenya that same year and appeared in the Kenyan television series Shuga, an MTV Base Africa/UNICEF drama about HIV/AIDS prevention. 

In 2009, she wrote, directed, and produced the documentary In My Genes, about the discriminatory treatment of Kenya’s albino population. It played at several film festivals and won first prize at the 2008 Five College Film Festival. Nyong’o also directed the music video “The Little Things You Do” by Wahu, featuring Bobi Wine, which was nominated for the Best Video Award at the MTV Africa Music Awards 2009.

Lupita Nyong’o enrolled in a master’s degree program in acting at the Yale School of Drama. There, she appeared in many stage productions, including Gertrude Stein‘s Doctor Faustus Lights the LightsChekhov‘s Uncle Vanya, and William Shakespeare‘s The Taming of the Shrew and The Winter’s Tale. While at Yale, she won the Herschel Williams Prize in the 2011–12 academic year for “acting students with outstanding ability”.

Upon her graduation from Yale, Lupita Nyong’o landed her big break when she was cast for the historical drama 12 Years a Slave, released 2013. The film, which met with wide critical acclaim, is based on the life of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free-born African-American man of upstate New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Washington, DC, in 1841.

In the movie, Lupita Nyong’o played the role of Patsey, a slave working alongside Northup at a Louisiana cotton plantation.

Lupita Nyong’o was nominated for several awards for 12 Years a Slave, including a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress, a BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, and two Screen Actors Guild Awards, including Best Supporting Actress, which she won.

She was also awarded the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, becoming the sixth black actress to win the award. She is the first African actress to win the award, the first Kenyan actress to win an Oscar, and the first Mexican to win the award. She was the 15th actress to win an Oscar for a feature film debut performance.

Following a supporting role in the action-thriller Non-Stop (released 2014), Lupita Nyong’o co-starred in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (released 2015) as space pirate Maz Kanata. She also went on to play the role of former Dora Milaje member and spy, Nakia, in the 2018 Marvel Superhero movie, Black Panther.

Lupita Nyong’o remains a source of inspiration to black women in Africa and around the world, showing that it is very possible for a woman of color to be everything she wants to be in a world where women generally do not always get much of a platform, particularly not women of color. She is a firm believer in feminism and as a result of her experience with sexual harassment, is selective of whom she works with in the industry.

By Oluwamayowa Akinyemi

Oluwamayowa Akinyemi

Oluwamayowa Akinyemi is a digital and web content developer with experience in web content development and management as well as research and writing. He is an avid reader of random subject matters and a sucker for movies and video games. He is also passionate about youth empowerment and is a global affairs analyst and enthusiast.

Scroll to Top