Bio: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Yolanda Sangweni, the founder of AfriPOP!, is on a quest to craft the sweetest love letter ever written for Africa. She currently works as senior editor at Essence.com. Her work has appeared in Arise Magazine, Time Out New York & TRACE, where she was a features editor.
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- The outbreak is currently concentrated in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria.
- As of August 8, 2014, “a cumulative total of 1779 suspect and confirmed cases of Ebola virus disease (EVD) and 961 deaths, as of August 6, 2014. Of the 1779 clinical cases, 1134 cases have been laboratory confirmed for Ebola virus infection.”
- Ebola is transmitted through direct contact with the blood or bodily fluids of an infected symptomatic person or through exposure to objects (such as needles) that have been contaminated with infected secretions.
- It is not a food-borne or water-borne disease.
- There are no cases of Americans contracting the virus.
- If a person doesn’t show symptoms, they are not contagious.
- Ebola presents itself like a bad case of the flu. Symptoms usually include headaches, fever and muscle pain.
The last time we spoke with the team behind the My Africa Is series, they had traveled to Lagos, Nigeria where they highlighted some amazing recycling initiatives. Nosarieme Garrick and Kathleen Bomani created the series with idea of wanting to show a different side of the African continent.
“We won’t be showing the minority of the African elite popping champagne in the clubs,” Nosa told us. “We will be showing the Africa we encounter, as we do profiles on young people who are living on the continent, and are trying to create something to benefit their communities. We’re not trying to put a “spin” on Africa. So I’m not sure we can put a label on the Africa we’ll be showing. We’ll be showing Africa with an emphasis on the different cities within Africa.”
For their latest installment in the series, My Africa Is. traveled to Dakar, Senegal to meet with some of the creative minds in that vibrant city where they met with the likes of The Sunu Street Project, the team behind Le Journal Rappe and a surfing initiative called The Malika Surf Camp. Tune in below, and make a point to support My Africa Is.
afriPOP! caught up with South African rapper Khuli Chana during his recent visit to New York City. The charming rapper, born Khulane Morule, had just won Best Male Southern Africa 2014 at the African Musik Awards in Texas. When we met up with him, Khuli was just excited to be back in New York as a student of hip-hop, open to learning whatever NYC had to offer. Here’s a day in his life – in pics by our sis Gugu Lethu Photography.
What brings you to New York?
We’re here to celebrate because I scooped Best Male Southern African Hip Hop award in Texas. I’m also just here because I’m itching, I’m hungry, and I’m thirsty for some inspiration. I’m just at that point in my career where I need to get onto the next phase. I have this feeling this is where I’m going to find it.
How do you plan to find it?
I’m just going to be more observant. I’m going to listen more. I’m basically just going back to where it started. I’m that kid again who’s going to shows. I’m a fan again. I’m going to be a groupie. I’m going to be going out asking for autographs. I’m a nobody again. That’s who intend to be for a while. I’m just trying to find that kid who had no studio time, just a pen and pad and a mirror. Yeah, rap to the mirror. That’s it. That’s all I have.
Do you have anyone that you think you’re going to see perform while you’re here?
I heard Lauryn Hill is performing tonight. I just want to see her go “Hey, there you are.” Schoolboy Q is also performing. I’m looking forward to that. Yeah. To be real with you, I’m not really here for the mainstream stuff. Honestly we get a lot of that back home.
Was it surprising to you that an American audience would know your music? [Khuli had just performed at the African Muzik Awards in Texas].
Very. My speech sucked. I put on a great performance. Maybe because my stuff was very different from the West [Africa]. Everybody was on that Afro beat vibe. I stood out and but I wasn’t expecting to win at all.
Speaking of Afro beats, here in America, I’m thinking England as well; Afro beat has slowly crept into the mainstream. Like you go a Caribbean party here and you hear D’Banj. Do you hope your music does the same thing?
Yeah. I had a very interesting conversation with Eddy Kenzo. He’s from Uganda. Listening to [inaudible 04:25] style beat. I think everyone’s on the Afrobeat tip right now. I represent the Motswako clan and that just means being out box, letting go of everything. I’m not limited really to a genre … It doesn’t restrict me to a particular sound. I’m keen to jump on that Afro beat but I obviously do it my way. It excites me to see how Whiz Kid does little shows out here in New York. They always packed. He does shows in London and they’re always packed. I’d love to really get on that level.
Do you think audiences are more open to it? Even on the continent, do you feel like your music is blowing up?
Yes, yes. I think there’s a lot of work I need to put in terms on the social networks and literally just going out there. I think the problem as South Africans, not to dis anyone, but we wait for somebody to book us. So, we let that go. Just go out there and just figure it out.
What’s it like being so well known at home and then coming here and you can just walk down the street.
Man, you don’t understand. I’m having the time of my life. I never thought it would get to a point where I’d be at the gas station, or the Click’s [a South African drugstore chain] and everywhere people are like, let me take a picture.
That must be a dream come true though. Not the fame part, but the success, I imagine.
Yeah. I mean that’s exactly how I felt the last time I had a performance — like this is what I always wanted. I’m living it now. Let’s not complain.
There are always conversations about hip-hop in South Africa. One thing that was prevalent a few years ago is that hip-hop didn’t quite get to where kwaito went. What is the conversation now?
The new cool. Hip Hop is the new kwaito. We are the main event. Back in the day this is how they used to do it. Hip-hop is getting … We’re now getting big deals. Not obviously international endorsement deal, but we’re doing well. My album just went gold. This will be the second album to go gold so we’re starting to get those numbers.
When you talk about motswako style of rapping, how would you explain it to someone in Brooklyn?
It’s a mixture. Guys just started taking pride in rapping in our own languages. It represents doing it in your own language. We all started out rapping in English. The challenge was not being able to relate to the average guy. People would say this thing is too American. We mix lingos, even the way I rap. In one line we’re English, a little bit of Zulu, a little Tswana. I hope that makes sense.
What’s your dream for African hip-hop?
Just to compete on the highest level. The world stage; the Jay Z level. I think we’re getting there.
Where does one even begin with Busiswa?
She’s the dynamic South African Xhosa poet and rapper bubbling on the scene. A respected talent in poetry circles, Busiswa Gqulu first came to the more mainstream spotlight when she featured on DJ Zinhle’s dance track “My Name Is” back in 2012. Sidebar: I once interviewed the rapper Eve and asked her what her favorite song was and she name this one. Since then, Busiswa released the electric, “Ngoku” and now she’s featured on UK pop producer/ singer Kindness’ remix of Swedish duo Robyn & Röyksopp‘s new collaboration, “Monument.”
We’re keeping our eyes on this exciting new talent who counts Thandiswa Mazwai and Busi Mhlongo as her inspirations.
Listen below to her feature on “Monument.”
The African Abroad is a column featuring the random musings of AfriPOP! editor Yolanda Sangweni.
So we’re in 2014—Everyone has Google. Everyone has a TV to watch the local (or international news). And yet, here we are, with the Ebola virus sending Americans into an apocalyptic frenzy because, according to “the Innanet,” Africans, or anyone traveling from Africa, is bringing Ebola into the “first world.” Just read Guardian Nigerian writer Lola Okolosie, who is pregnant, recount how her British midwives refused to see her upon her return to London from a trip back home. “My midwives refused to see me,” writes Okolosie. “They took this precaution as a result of two factors – my poorly toddler, who had a slight temperature, and heavy news coverage of the Ebola outbreak in west Africa.”
In America, the focus has been more about what would happen if Americans contract Ebola, rather than, wait, 900 people have died and some experts are calling the outbreak “apocalyptic” in West Africa. Nevermind that no Americans have died of Ebola.
Just two days ago as I scrolled down a photo of American actress Lala Anthony’s Instagram feed, I thought, aww, look at Lala in the motherland with her family enjoying a safari near Cape Town, the Lion Park near Johannesburg. Cayute! But one particular photo of Anthony petting a lion awakened the most “ignant” comments I’ve seen about Ebola so far.
“Hope you don’t get sick with all the viruses in Africa,” wrote commenter.
“Don’t bring back Ebola… @lala be extra careful…” wrote another.
“Y’all bout to bring Ebola to the US. Stay there don’t come back please.”
And it went on, and on.
Because, according to some Americans, the Ebola virus is in ALL of Africa – not West Africa, as CNN, BBC, and more, have so tediously reported. Judging from the comments on Twitter and news articles, it’s safe to assume that most people have not taken the time—nor are they willing—to research the facts about Ebola. And so they mask their ignorance and xenophobia in a wrapper of concern about a worldwide epidemic. When what they really want to say is they still think of Africa as a place of disease and dismay, they pretend to be concerned about a virus that, so far, has affected not one person in America.
The real epidemic is the ignorance we allow to permeate our social media feeds, our newscasts, our newspapers, our world. But maybe this commenter said it best, “People who call themselves ‘first world’ really post the dumbest shit.”
Some facts about Ebola:
H/T to Tim Falletti for this hilarious Ebola Apocalypse piece.
The African Abroad is a new column featuring the random musings of AfriPOP! editor Yolanda Sangweni.
It’s been three months since Boko Haram kidnapped over 300 girls from the Nigerian town of Chibok. Days after it happened, many of us took to our social media feeds to protest and raise awareness. We’ve tweeted about it, signed petitions about it—some of us have even attended protest rallies around the world. But now, three months later, we’ve gone silent. I’m guilty of it. We’re all a little guilty of it.
Where’s the outrage?
Surely we haven’t forgotten about the girls.
We’re living in a time where we can make our voices heard on a scale larger than previous generations of social activists could have ever imagined—did you see how quickly world leaders got behind the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag? And yet, where was the action, beyond the hashtag? It’s no wonder some of us are reluctant to believe that we’re really making a difference.
“Look at what happened with Trayvon Martin,” says an American colleague of mine. “We all did the right thing. We got our protest heard by the right people. But in the end, justice still wasn’t served.”
Backstory: I’m a daughter of the South African freedom struggle. I remember growing up and hearing of Americans boycotting businesses that traded with South Africa. I remember seeing fiery anti-apartheid protests around the world. People were charged up about human rights. These days we’re hearing of human rights violations on a massive scale – thanks to 24-hour media—and yet, we seem desensitized.
How will we react when the next big crisis happens? Will hashtag activism be what defines our generation? Now that I’ve signed every petition to #bringbackourgirls and protested in front of Nigeria House in New York (my city), what do I do?
What are you doing? Share your strategies.
Here’s a timelapse map showing how #BringBackOurGirls went viral between April 24 and May 6, 2014. Since then the hashtag has been co-opted to #bringbackourboys, #bringbackourdolphins, #bringbackourhumvee…the list goes on.
The African Abroad is a new column featuring the random musings of AfriPOP! editor Yolanda Sangweni.
I’ve always loved the gap in my teeth. It’s a like a coma, a pause, in my smile. My teeth are crooked—something I didn’t have much of a problem with until I came to America—the land of straight teeth—in 1987. I’ll never forget going to elementary school in Harlem and wondering why so many of my classmates had metal in their mouths—or why other kids made fun of said metal in their mouths.
When I was 14 my mother gently proposed I get braces. I was like, “Heck no, I’m already ridiculed for being an African (“booty scratcher”), and having “nappy” hair, so I’d rather avoid any more attention, please mama.” She didn’t press it.
Years later, I wished she had. Especially when I realized that I wanted a future in media. I remember an aunt of mine balking at the idea of my crooked teeth and gap gracing anyone’s television screen. “She wants to do what? Be on TV? With those teeth?” she said.
Though there was a period where I regretted not having American-straight teeth, it didn’t stick. My love of the gap in my teeth overshadowed everything. I thought it gave me character. Everyone in my family had gaps in their teeth. My favorite pop star when I was teen, Madonna, had a gap in her teeth. Eddie Murphy had a gap in his teeth. I know because I studied their smiles—call me the pop culture gap-tooth historian. Like, remember when Madonna straightened her teeth but kept her gap? Remember?!! I do.
Which brings me to my favorite Orange is the New Black star Uzo Aduba (Crazy Eyes), who recently shared how growing up, the gap in her teeth was a source of pain. “When I was little, I didn’t smile much. Don’t get me wrong. I was a happy kid, but I couldn’t stand the space, dead center, in between my teeth,” she writes in Cosmopolitan. “Yeah, I could whistle through it, but so what? That didn’t win me many points on the playground in Medfield, Massachusetts. To me, it was the greatest imperfection. Straight-up ugly.”
Aduba remembers begging her mother for braces, only to be told, “I will not close your gap and here’s why. You have an Anyaoku gap, my family’s gap.”
“In Nigeria, my mom explained, a gap is a sign of beauty and intelligence (Take that, Chiclets!). People want it. My mother desperately wished she had the gap but wasn’t born with one. She continued to lay on the guilt, explaining that my gap was “history in my mouth” — but that if I asked for braces again she would concede with a heavy heart.”
Years later a photographer would help Aduba realize the beauty in her smile. She writes:
“My smile makes regular appearances in photos, the Anyaoku gap on full display, much to my mother’s glee (you’re welcome, Mom).”
So, here’s to the gaps in our teeth! I’ve been told some African cultures find gaps sexually appealing, or a sign of wisdom. Sign me up for either one.
How do you deal with the gap in your teeth? Have you learned to love it? Did you dare get braces as a child?
Yolanda is the founding editor of AfriPOP! Follow her on Twitter: @yolizama
This week South African singer Simphiwe Dana is spearheading the Africa Re-imagination Creative Hub at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia as part of the organization’s “Agenda 2063” edict to envision what Africa will be in 50 years. This week, Dana has invited artists and creatives from all over the continent and diaspora to answer the question, “What will African culture and heritage be in 50 years?‘
Artists and creatives attending the Africa Re-imagination Creative Hub include Yassin Bey (formally known as Mos Def), Mamadou Diabate (Mali), Kudzanai Chiurai (Zimbabwe), and Mark Kaigwa (Kenya).
She spoke with AfriPOP! about the gathering and her vision for the outcome.
How did you come up with the idea of a Africa Re-imagination Creative Hub?
I was in Addis to participate in a roundtable discussion about languages and African development, which is part of my activism. I’m very passionate about language and African development. While I was there, I requested to see the Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, chairperson of the African Union because I had read her vision for the continent in which she put in a letter form as if she were writing a letter to Kwame Nkrumah just telling him how far things have come, how great the continent has become, how Kinshasa is the fashion capital of the world—all of those amazing things that she envisioned. I read and thought it was really beautiful but I found that the arts were lacking in the movement as a standalone contributor to Africa’s development. So when I went and saw her I put this to her: Why don’t you have an arts and culture charter for your agenda? And then she said, it’s a great idea, how about I task you to do it? I was shocked. So basically I’ve had 2 months to organize this event and invite artists, Pan-African artists of the continent and the diaspora, including the islands; Madagascar, Cape Verde, to come and basically write the Arts and Culture Charter of the AU countries.
You’ve got here artists from, like you said, Cape Verde and Madagascar, are these people that you have personally known or worked with?
No, about 40 percent of them that I know personally from across the continent and the diaspora. Then the rest I asked the other 40 percent to recommend. I didn’t work alone. Far from I it. I worked really closely to the AU especially Vukani Lumumba Mnthisho— he’s been a pillar, really amazing.
What is your vision for this? Besides as doing that, what is your extended vision?
I’ve put my vision in a letter that I wrote to all the invitees. I see artists as the ones at the center of any development because they tie things together. I feel like on the continent there isn’t wide opportunity for arts because we have shunned the arts. If you think of any despots right? What have they done when they wanted to conquer people? The first thing that they did was destroy their books, destroy their music, destroy any of their art forms because they know that this is one big step, feel like they are part of the human race. Human identity, they feel like they take basically won the race.
What do you feel are some of the challenges that face African artists?
Exposure. Not only to the world but to the people that the art is for. With colonialism there has come a lot of ‘othering’ where your own people don’t want to hear you. They’ve negated who they are. It’s a self-hate thing. What comes from somewhere else is much cooler than what is home grown. What really shows them like a mirror to them, they don’t want to see. So that is the main challenge for vast artists on the continent. Especially those who try to keep to the roots of who they are. In my country for instance, you only get about 20 percent to 30 percent of local music on radio and TV. It’s insane.
To even have to fight over something like that, you shouldn’t have to be fighting. I struggle so hard to get my music playlisted. I don’t even have my music playlisted in America. But here Beyonce is everywhere, Rihanna is everywhere, Drake. I remember one radio DJ was asked, ‘Why don’t you cover more the artists from here?’ And she said, Why should we give them airtime when they didn’t pay for it?’ It’s insane.
What will help change the misconceptions we have of each other?
For me, if you want to develop the continent, we have to fight these negations we have of each other if we are to be one people. There are so many countries in the continent and so much of how we look at each other is based on misconceptions and just us not knowing each other well enough. We have to get to a point where we’re like, that is something silly about the Ethiopians, that’s rubbish about the Nigerians. Artists are able to familiarize us with ourselves. That is why I thought it was so important that if we ever are to develop the continent, we have this as the starting point. We have to create a railway that goes with the width and the breadth of the continent and at every stop exporting culture and importing culture.
Click here to find out more about the Africa Re-imagination Creative Hub.
A new web series about five young, dynamic women living in Accra, Ghana is getting tons of buzz and being hailed as the African version of “Girlfriends,” and “Sex and the City.”
Starring actresses Nana Mensah, Esosa Edosomwan, Marie Humbert, MaameYaa Boafo, and Maame Adjei, “An African City” follows the friends as they navigate returning back home from living abroad, friendship, and relationships. Amarteifio spoke with AfriPOP! about how the show came about, comparisons to Sex and the City, and working on a second season.
What spurred this idea for you?
I was sitting in Ghana watching re-runs of ‘Sex and the City’ and I just began to wonder, ‘What is the Ghanaian version – or the African version – of this show? I enjoyed the openness, the vulnerability of the characters on SATC…and started to wonder about these vulnerabilities in the context of being a Ghanaian returnee back on the continent. Also, I have been in international development for many years and I figured that if I did embark on such a project, this could be a moment to change the narrative of the African woman. The African woman does not always have to be the face of an anti-poverty campaign; rather, she can be the face of everything beautiful, trendy and modern.
It speaks to so many of our experiences as expats, was this partly biographical?
Yes. I wanted to tell the story of returnees; their struggles and what it is like to readjust to life on a continent quite different from the continent in which they were raised and have become accustomed to. I also liked the complexity of self-identity. That said, I share a lot in common with the five girls on the show; they are all a little part of me and other returnees I know or have met.
Why make it a web series and not shop it on a major network in Ghana or anywhere in Africa?
I was inspired by Issa Rae of ‘Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl.’ I like that she got to do it her way. I like that she had absolute creative freedom. I like that she could engage the online audiences directly. I liked the “social” element of the show, people responding right there on the YouTube platform and carrying the conversation onto Facebook and Twitter. That’s what is so great for creatives today – we have the tools we need to move forward on projects without the need to depend on top TV executives.
It’s being called the “Sex and the City” for African women. Is this how you’d like to see it?
My filmmaker friends have warned me against this, but I don’t mind. I was first inspired by SATC, by the openness of the ladies to talk so openly about love and life in a way that I had never seen before. So, I’m honored by the comparison. And, I think we need women on this continent to talk more openly – most honestly – about their journey. At the same time, while An African City might have been inspired by SATC, the web series will still find its own voice, its own unique identity.
Why, in your opinion, do we need a “Sex and the City” for African women?
I think SATC did something for the confidence of the American woman; I want AAC to do that for the African woman.
How do you respond to the critique that the show is portraying a very middle-class, and privileged, view of Africa?
Why not? The portrayal of Africa in mainstream media is typically one of poverty, is there not room for another portrayal? Why does the African woman always have to be synonymous with poverty, AIDS and maternal health? Why can’t the African woman be synonymous with affluence, independence and glamour?
I especially loved the part about not romanticizing Africa. Is this something you find a lot of expats doing?
We do romanticize the continent! But, we can also be overly-critical. I think it’s about balance. And, I think it’s about being part of the solution.
Where would you like to see the show going?
It would be great to see the show one day on television, and even one day on the big screen. But, for now, I enjoy the fact that no matter where you are in the world you can tune in by going to our YouTube channel. I have received emails from African women sitting anywhere from Johannesburg to Los Angeles, from Toronto to Nairobi. I want African women around the globe to always have access to this show; that’s important to me.
What kind of feedback have you gotten?
There have been mixed responses, but overall it’s been positive. I have received emails from many women saying thank you… they are not use to seeing themselves on screen. And, it’s true. Most of the time when there is a role for an African woman, that role is not played by an African woman. Think: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency or the Winnie Mandela movie. Of course, people have certainly been commenting on the fashion. That was also important to me, to showcase fashions from up-and-coming fashion designers from Ghana. Music too. There are also many women thanking me for casting women with natural hair. That was important to me too. I was tired of only seeing black female actors on television, with natural hair, only when the movie was a period piece on slavery. No. You can rock your natural hair and be glamorous and beautiful; that’s the message we need out there among black women. Look at the market for fake hair on the African continent alone…it must mean that the wrong message is out there. I’m not saying anything against fake hair, but I am saying that natural hair should be valued more than it is…especially on our continent.
Over 50K views on YouTube. How are you celebrating?
Yes, over 50K views on episode 1 alone. I’m happy. It means people are interested in this story – another narrative on the African woman.
What’s next for you?
Hopefully a season 2. But, we’ll see how season 1 pans out.
Celebrated choreographer Gregory Maqoma recounts South African history through his latest work, Exit/ Exist, a collaborative work with and his dance troupe, Vuyani Dance Theatre.
In Exit/Exist, the Soweto-born dancer recounts the history of one of his ancestors, a Xhosa chief named Chief Maqoma, who resisted British oppression and was eventually banished from his ancestral land and imprisoned twice in Robben Island, where he died. Maqoma spoke with AfriPOP! about the innovative piece, his collaboration with singer Simphiwe Dana on the piece, and the African dancers we all should know right now.
AfriPOP!: What made you want to investigate/ celebrate your ancestor Chief Maqoma?
Gregory Maqoma: So much of our history is not told, I felt the story of Chief Maqoma was fulfilling part of that missing history about where we come from as a country and highlighting the struggles of those who were there before us, paving a way for our democracy, we can’t just forget that.
Is he someone you’ve always known about?
My grandmother told me stories about him as I was growing up – so I knew some aspects of his life purely through oral history. At school I learned about the people who oppressed him and took over his land and cattle but not about him.
What about his life and legacy are you drawn to?
His fight over the liberation of black people. That true liberation was ownership of land and cattle which was the currency of the time.
What made you choose Simphiwe Dana as a composer and collaborator?
Simphiwe’s work brings so much depth in the work because she is true to who she is and always regarded her culture as an important element of writing and uses it as an inspiration and a craft for her identity.
Who or what are your greatest influences as a dancer?
Many people, elders in the village as they are custodians of our stories through story telling and dances. I am also deeply drawn to artist of my generation as everyone of us speak from a specific space and time.
What is the catalyst for the name “Exit/Exist”?
My existence as a citizen of the world is informed by those who exit this world and leave us with body of work and stories to draw our inspiration from.
Tell us about the group, Complete and why you wanted to collaborate with them?
Complete is an accapela group from Vosloorus east of Johannesburg, their harmonies bring birth to new spirits while awakening what lies in our memory, the path of our ancestors. Their generosity and love for music is apparent in the work.
Which African dancers must we absolutely know about right now?
Akram Khan, Vincent Mantsoe, Boyzie Cekwana, Faustin Linyekula and Nelisiwe Xaba – must know of them and I might also add a new generation: Luyanda Sidiya and Dada Masilo
Gregory Maqoma’s Exit/Exist runs Nov. 1 and Nov. 2 at 7:30 p.m. at Kumble Theater at LIU Brooklyn. Tickets are $25; $20 for students and seniors and can be purchased by visiting 651ARTS or the Kumble Theater, or by calling 718.488.1624.
U.S. First lady Michelle Obama
officially launched her Instagram account today. And we’d be lying if we didn’t express our utter joy that she’s documenting her
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trip to Africa. First stop: Dakar, Senegal where the first lady and her daughters Sasha, 11, and Malia, 14 met young women at an all-girls school in the city (picture above). “My first instagram! So inspired and so impressed by these extraordinary young women,” wrote Mrs. O. on her first photo.The Obama family is currently on a week-long tour of Africa with stops in South Africa and Tanzania next. You can follow the hashtag #FLOTUSinAfrica to see more of Mrs. O’s photo diary.
Nigerian-American Blogger Antonia Opiah, The Woman Behind ‘You Can Touch My Hair,’ on the Reaction to the ExhibitJune 14th, 2013
New York City’s Union Square was the site of the hotly-debated (on the Internets at least) You Can Touch My Hair exhibit this past weekend. Organized by Nigerian-American Antonia Opiah, the founder of Un’Ruly, the point was to start conversations around the fascination with black women’s hair; to lietrally invite strangers to touch real black women’s hair. Three models with different hair textures stood with signs reading “You Can Touch My Hair.”
Reaction to the exhibition was stealth, to say the least. On one hand were women who welcomed such an exhibit and the opportunity to openly talk about people’s curiosity with black women’s hair. On the other were women who balked at the idea of putting blaxk women on display. Was the exhibition recreating what Sarah Bartmaan had to experience?
We reached out to Antonia to find out more about her intentions with the exhibit, how she feels about the negative the backlash, and whether the politics of hair were ever a major issue in her own NIgerian upbringing.
AfriPOP!: What’s your takeaway from the exhibit?
Antonia Opiah: I was really pleased with it to be honest. I think what I expected to happen, happened. The event was called “You Can Touch My Hair” but that was an entry point to a discussion that I wanted to have and I figured that there’s no way that that kind of interaction can happen without there being some kind of conversation. My hope was that, yes we’ll let these people touch our models’ hair and our models will engage them. They’re also gonna have the opportunity to learn why people are curious about our hair or find it to be a novelty. That’s what I was looking to figure out.
I read a few article about the exhibit online. Some people rooted the issue in the history of the black and white relationship in America and white ownership. That’s a valid area to ground this in but I tend to play devil’s advocate because I get asked the question and a lot of the people that I answer to seem to be coming from a genuine place of curiosity. I don’t want to disregard that. If curiosity is in fact the case, why are you curious? Is it something that you’re not exposed to? We’re out here touting America as this place of freedom but are we really as intermingled as we think we are? And what are the consequences of us not being intermingled? To me, “can I touch your hair?” is an implication of that lack of interaction that’s not happening across different cultures.
Let’s go back to what made you want to do a public exhibit on this issue.
Two reasons: the first being that I’ve been asked that question a lot in my life and I know the weight that it holds. I know that I’ve felt offended by it so I wanted to see if we can draw a parallel between a literal display and the question. A lot of people saw that parallel. So everyone that got angry about it, they saw that parallel, but the people I wanted to illustrate that parallel to were the people that were “curious.” The second reason was I know in my life any time that I’ve grated my teeth and engaged in a conversation with someone about my hair, I know that I’ve always come out of it feeling really good about myself because I enjoy talking about my hair. My hair is something that I’m proud of and something that I think is beautiful . I suspected that by having this platform to have that kind of interaction, those types of positive conversations could come out of it.
Were you surprised by the people who showed up to say, “You cannot touch my hair”?
I was surprised at the overall negative backlash. I didn’t see it coming because maybe I’m naïve. To me, I saw this as a kumbaya moment and I knew my intent. But everyone else didn’t know my intent, which was that this was less about touching, and more about having a conversation. People who were on the outside looking in just saw the signs. They just saw the images on Instagram and they saw the hashtag and reacted to that. The images they saw drew too much of a parallel between a certain part of our black history that’s pretty disturbing. I don’t blame them for their reaction; I just didn’t anticipate. I did anticipate a certain level of discomfort but I thought that would come from the people who actually were at the exhibit. The same things that people are saying now, about how the exhibit puts you on display and that you shouldn’t have to explain anything about who you are—these are all things I’ve said to myself. Over the past two years I was inadvertently made the black hair ambassador at work because I change my hair so often. And I didn’t necessarily feel like explaining why my hair is a fro this week when I had a different style last week. It’s intense to walk into a room where everyone’s gawking at you and saying things about your hair. And so, the sentiment that was expressed, is a sentiment that I’ve expressed so I’m not surprised to hear it.
Where does this become a race issue? It feels like the conversation is framed in such a way that it’s only white people that ever ask to touch black women’s hair?
The challenge of You Can Touch My Hair was for those people who have put other people on the spotlight with their curiosity. What actually ended up happening, which probably ends up happening in real life, is that more black women were the ones doing the touching and asking the questions. I think what that indicates is that is kind of what I feel which is that black hair is special. I think Michaela Angela Davis said it best when she said, “Black hair is magic.” We can do all kinds of things with it. The reason my site and thousands of other sites exist is because there are so many discussions to be had around black hair. There’s so much to learn about black hair, which is why so many people, even black women, have a lot of questions about it. That’s something that we have to acknowledge across the board.
Why only have black models out there? To broaden it couldn’t there have been women of other races? We wear weaves made from Indian hair. Obviously we’re intrigued by that hair.
Because I know the black experience and what I was trying to do was recreate an encounter that I have every day; that I know other women have every day. Everyone was mad that this exhibit, but it goes on every time that question is asked. I know what the question means to black women. And I know that for us, hair is not just hair. It has a lot of implications and history even though it’s a superficial element of our being.
Tell me about growing up in a Nigerian household and the issue of hair.
It wasn’t talked about but it was something that was always done. My mom used to plait my hair into really intricate styles. I wasn’t even aware that that was something not normal until I came to America. I think I was like 9 years old and someone was like, ‘Oh, let me look at your hair. Let me see the patters.’ Doing our hair was a part of our culture—we didn’t really think about it. We moved around a lot and I think my awareness of my hair was dependent on where I was. I remember we were in boarding school in Switzerland and my hair was in plaits. They get old after a while so I took them out and I think somehow my hair was combed up and one of the girls in the dorm came out and looked at my hair and started laughing. She pulled me out for everyone to see. We were literally put on display, but I think I was too young for that to really have an effect on me. I remember feeling different, that’s for sure.
Have you always loved your hair?
Yes, certainly. I’ve been natural for a few years now and with this natural hair renaissance I want to know my hair more. I grew up with certain misconceptions about my hair and I suspect that other women did too. I grew up with my hair being relaxed all the time so now this natural hair is something new to me—I have to research it, I even watch Youtube videos. I feel like I’m starting a new relationship with it which is weird because it’s something that grows out of my head and it shouldn’t be new, but it is because of the larger history of black people in America and what we’ve been told about what’s good and what’s bad.
So what next?
I’m happy with the discussion that happened. I would have liked to see more non-blacks participate because what ended up happening is that it got so reactionary especially to the imagery and the notion of it as a petting zoo. People who were there got to understand why this is such a hot
topic, but I would have liked for more non-blacks to participate.
As in the people coming to touch the hair?
Yeah. Just even to listen. You can see that in videos that are coming out of the event—there was just more talking than there was touching. One of the protestors said this conversation has nothing to do with them. That’s one of the statements I disagree with. The fact that I am being asked this question and that the question does put people on display is a result of people not knowing the weight of that question.
Will there be more “You Can Touch My Hair” exhibits?
We’ve gotten a lot of requests surprisingly, despite all the backlash, with people asking us to bring it to their town. I think what will happen next will be an online discussion. Even though the people that were against the event were the most vocal, there are people who don’t mind people touching their hair or having that conversation. I’d like to put those people in a forum together and further talk about this discussion. We’re also going to be putting together a film conveying what we learned, what we explored, and the conversations that we had at the event—the good and the bad.
Label: Design of a Diaspora
Locale: Toronto, by way of Ghana
“Fashion has always been something that intrigued me because it was able to transcend borders and negate discrimination,” says Toronto-based designer Miss Yeboah. “I wanted to create a clothing line that highlighted the unique prints of West Africa because the world was missing out on something amazing!”
Oh yeah? We wanted to find out more about Miss Yeboah’s new clothing line:
How did the concept for Design of a Diaspora come about?
It was tedious for the first few months trying to come up with a name, image and goal for the brand, but one day the name literally just came to me. The word Diaspora encompasses every displaced African individual outside of Africa, and what I believe makes us distinct are our fabrics, our “design’ if you will; that’s the one thing that connects and allows the world to see one’s history whether you live in north America, Asia, Africa, South America, Europe etc. Design of a Diaspora, as a coined name just made sense from that point on! We are who we are, and this is what makes us who we are.
but I also believe it has been the past and is the present. So many unforgettable, notable, beautiful influences have derived from African History/Fashion that it’s hard to overlook its nuanced influence over western culture and style. I believe African fashion will further ascend into the fashion buy viagra canada world and many power house names will develop to rival some of the top giants we see in magazines today. Design of a Diaspora is not simply a clothing line;
it’s a cultural experience. So for other designers to be able to put their stamp on the map makes me cheerful, because that’s one more person introducing the world to something great.
Who are some of your favorite African designers?
My one space of motivation and inspiration came from Project Runway’s season 5 contestant Korto Momolu. Although her African print influences were subtle and sporadic, I was more so motivated by her passion, drive and ability to get as far as she did, as she was bringing something brand new to the atmosphere. From her experience I drew the ability to refocus myself and go for what I’d been longing to do.
The informative, and hilarious, new web series African Time has
recently caught our attention. Created by the Waave + Dada collective, the series aims to highlight the experiences of Africans in America by examining issues like what
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Episode 2: Discipline
Episode 3: Parenting
Let us know what you thought of African Time
As usual we’re wrapping our week in a soundtrack of the best tunes from the diaspora. Check out the 5 tunes we can’t get enough of this week from Zimbabwe via Norway,
Kenya and the UK.
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Monoswezi (Zimbabwe via Norway) “Hon
Kayode Kuti (Nigeria) “Na Me Sabi”
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Bibi Tanga & The Selenites (France/Central African Republic) “En slip, Chaussettes”
Adina Thembi (Ghana) “Let Me Go”
What’s on your playlist this week?
We’re wrapping our week in a soundtrack of the best tunes from the diaspora. Check out the 5 tunes we can’t get enough of this week, from Kenya to Martinique and London:
Laura Mvula “Like the Morning Dew” (London)
Freshly Ground “Chain Gang” (South
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Sara Mitaru feat. Bez “Keep Me (from You) (Kenya/Nigeria)
Bongeziwe Mabandla “Phupha Lam” (South Africa)
Esy Kennenga “Mwen Oblige” (Martinique)
What’s on your playlist this