“On Behalf of Non-Speakers”: Makayla’s Voice Premieres at Slamdance 2024
Khari Cain, also known as Grammy Award–winning music producer Needlz, has worked with world-famous artists such as Cardi B, Drake and Bruno Mars. For his upcoming short film premiering at the 2024 Slamdance Film Festival, however, Khari produced a much more personal work with a brand-new collaborator: his teenage daughter Makayla Cain, whose rare form of autism rendered her essentially nonverbal until recently when she learned to communicate for the first time using a letter board.
Documentary short Makayla’s Voice: A Letter to the World (dir. Julio Palacio) is part of the fourth edition of the Slamdance Unstoppable program, a showcase of films made by filmmakers with both visible and non-visible disabilities. Khari himself is a cancer survivor, and he says the experience of battling the disease gave him a mentality of “if I want to do something, I’m going to try my hardest to do it.”
“Makayla has always wanted to speak on behalf of non-speakers, as she would say.”
That sense of determination evidently rubbed off on Makayla, whose ambition, creativity and humor continually surprises her family. “Six months prior to shooting, we had no idea what she was retaining or her level of intellect,” Khari says. “It was like discovering a new person. A very articulate, funny person.”
The film centers around Makayla finding her voice and sharing it with the world—metaphorically and also literally. Communication partner Roxy Sewell prompts Makayla to answer questions, and voiceover artist Portia Cue reads Makayla’s words aloud as she composes a letter to her mom, a letter to her dad and a letter to the world.
“We thought it was very important throughout this whole process for Makayla to have input,” Khari says. “We wanted to make sure that [the voice] represented her, that it was a young, Black person. Roxy and Makayla went through quite a few different voices, and she picked Portia.”
Bit by bit, new revelations about Makayla come to the surface: Her favorite place to travel is Mexico, her favorite artist is Vincent Van Gogh, she wants to learn Russian and she hopes to become an author when she grows up. Her natural poetic sensibilities are enriched with animated brush strokes swirling through the screen as she describes a synesthetic relationship with sound and color. “All my senses are heightened, and I can feel emotions through them as if they are music,” Makayla says.
“It was like discovering a new person. A very articulate, funny person.”
It’s no surprise that all three of Khari’s children have grown up surrounded by music. “Right now there’s a full-fledged studio in our house, and if I’m in the car I’m always listening to records that I just worked on,” he says. Makayla wears headphones for a large part of the film, and Khari says she’s constantly blasting loud songs. “She really loves Pitbull. Sometimes she’ll wake up at like three in the morning and it’s like, ‘Turn Down for What!’” Khari is credited as Needlz for composing some of the film’s music, but he mentions that he kept his musical involvement to a minimum because, he says, “I didn’t really want to make this film about me.”
Makayla recently celebrated her 16th birthday. Since the film first began production two years ago, she has already accomplished many of her goals. She is a published author, and the children’s book she co-wrote with her grandmother, When Makayla Smiles, is available to buy on Amazon. She is also an advocate for other kids like her with autism; her foundation Makayla Moving Autism provides therapeutic and educational resources to families affected by autism in the Cains’ hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. She still hasn’t learned Russian, Khari says, but she is already making a difference in her community. He says, “Makayla has always wanted to speak on behalf of non-speakers, as she would say.”
Keep up with Khari’s work on Instagram at @prodbyneedlz and donate to support communities of color on the autism spectrum at makaylamovingautism.com. Get tickets to watch the film premiere at Slamdance Unstoppable from January 22–24 at slamdance.com.