It seems that black people are still born in an era where our freedom is premature, and I often think about my own roots and future.
I was born in Washington, D.C. to Ghanaian parents and raised in Prince George’s County, Maryland. I've spent more than 99 percent of my life in the United States of America.
Around six years ago, I made my first visit to Ghana, the West African nation formerly known as the 'Gold Coast' when it was a British colony. My main purpose for being in the country was to participate in a Harvard Law School course focused on Ghana’s national health insurance law. My maternal grandmother had also passed away recently so my mother stayed in the country for a little bit after the funeral, and two of my Ghanaian-born cousins who relocated to the States were in Ghana during that time as well. Because most of my family members still live in Ghana, I also saw many relatives who I had only known before via the phone or photos.
As I traveled to different parts of the country, I came across people who were looking to make a quick Ghana cedi (or maybe twenty), individuals who didn't have much to give except infinite integrity and seamless hybrids of Ghanaian and Western influences in fashion and music. I also witnessed church services, religious sayings on vehicles called “tro-tros,” and chairs with the Adinkra symbol for the Twi proverb “Gye Nyame,” which essentially means “Except God, I fear none.”
Even though the trip made me feel more complete overall, I almost felt like I had an out-of-black-body experience when I visited Cape Coast Castle. Many enslaved Africans were stored, beaten and raped at Cape Coast Castle before they were sent off to different new beginnings of death. That is how an infamous part of the building earned the name, “Door of No Return.”
When I visited the slave castle, I was joined by my mother, my two American-based cousins and a few relatives whom I had met for the first time. It was surreal touring a slave castle with my black queen, a.k.a. my mother, and other family members. Although I appreciated being able to see my family tree in the flesh, I still understood that the site served as the uprooting of only God knows how many black families throughout the African diaspora.
It was then, more than ever before, that it hit me what it means to be first-generation African-American. I might possess an American accent, have idolized Harriet Tubman rather than Yaa Asantewaa when I was younger, and rock skin that can magnetize a blue shield in the land of my birth, but in that moment I still could not comprehend what it would have felt like to even fathom that my ancestors were scattered across the Atlantic Ocean like the ashes of fallen black stars but would yet rise again.
Of course, even when I start to mentally grip the luxury of knowing where my ancestors are from, those thoughts can leave me or be taken away from me in an instant. For example, because I'm a member of the Akan ethnic group in Ghana, my parents gave me a name based on my gender and the weekday of my birth. However, as a black man in America, I also know that I can die on any given day because some people might label me as something that bears no real connection to me, my family or my entire race, for that matter.
Moreover, even when I think about passing on Ghanaian culture to my future children, the mere sight of a police car can make me wonder whether I will even live long enough to pass on anything to anyone. I guess that as long as I'm alive I won't necessarily wonder where I come from, but I will always wonder how much time I have left.
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If you’ve haven’t watched it already, the trailer for African Booty Scratcher is sure to make you laugh. African Booty Scratcher is about a family of Nigerian immigrants and their struggle to balance life in America. With more than 190,000 views on Youtube and millions across Facebook, the trailer has gained considerable traction since it’s May 5th release date.
I recently caught up with the show creator, Damilare Sonoiki, a Harvard ‘13 graduate and staff writer on the hit ABC sitcom Black-ish. Check out our interview below, where Damilare shares the inspiration behind African Booty Scratcher, how he landed the role as a staff writer for Black-ish, why it’s important for us to continue to tell our stories and his hope for the series’ future.
Rana Campbell: What inspired you to develop African Booty Scratcher and launch on YouTube?
Damilare Sonoiki: The way you get a writing job is usually you write something, somebody sees it, and they want to meet with you to write for their show. I needed a new sample. I thought a good pilot to write would be about growing up in an immigrant house because it’s something I knew very well. We were coming up on a hiatus for Black-ish. I would have a lot of free time and needed something to work on.
Before, you would have to go a gatekeeper...maybe your agent or a network...with your script and say “I have a script idea for a TV show.” They might say, “We’re not sure if this is something that people want to see.” Nowadays, the internet provides instant global distribution. It’s a lot cheaper to shoot now. You can shoot a prototype and put it online and use the response to show that there is a market and audience for what it is that you are trying to make.
If I’d written this script and sent it to my agent, they would have said that it was a good sample and that they would use it to get me a job somewhere. By putting this online and given the response, it’s like this isn’t just a good sample. It’s something that people want to see on television. I wanted to use the views and the Kickstarter to show that there is demand.
RC: Why the name African Booty Scratcher? What was the filming process like?
DS: I started writing the pilot and trailer around February. It took a little bit of time to write the pilot. Black-ish wrapped writing on March 4th. I gave myself a week after wrapping and said I would shoot it the following Saturday. I shot it that Saturday and started editing. I started sending early cuts to friends for feedback and they all said that it has potential to be really funny but the dad’s accent is really bad. When I had a table read in my apartment, his accent stood out to me then. I said there are a few other people who are NIgerian and they aren’t saying anything...maybe it’s just in my head. I blocked it out.
I have that joke about Will Smith [in the beginning] so to have someone whose accent was not authentic would have been tough. I really didn’t want to reshoot it but as we were doing more...it became clear. The accent was all I could hear. I reached out to [a different] and asked him if he could come in and do the audio. I had him go in and say all of the dad’s lines in a way that we could match it. I really didn’t want to reshoot. I’d have to pay more money. We shot it in a day, but it was a long and draining day. So, we did the dubbed version and we had an editor match it up. After a few times of watching that version, I didn’t [feel right]. You can tell. One of the editors said it looked like a Kung Fu movie and that I should just go with the original version.
I thought that I might as well reshoot the whole thing. A friend of mine who worked in music told me, “Do you know how many times we shot music videos that we never aired and scrapped it because it wasn’t good enough?” I said that I’d be on my Kanye West and make it perfect. There was no deadline, but it was like I was rushing toward a deadline. I could release it whenever. I reshot it on April 16th. The reshoot was actually good. Since I had already shot an edited version of it…it moved a lot quicker because we knew exactly what we wanted. We were able to move through it faster since we knew what we needed. We launched it on May 5th.
RC: You have a $30,000 fundraising goal on Kickstarter. What will you be using this money toward?
DS: I think I’ll use it for more promo and to shoot a mini eight-minute episode. We hit $10,000 after only a few days, so I think we’ll hit our goal.
RC: What are your ultimate goals for the show?
DS: The goal would be for African Booty Scratcher to get on a major broadcast network like CBS, ABC, NBC or FOX.
RC: What has the reaction been like so far?
DS: It’s been really interesting. People have really responded in a way that is more than I could imagine.
RC: What did you learn about what makes a quality show by being a writer for Black-ish?
DS: Kenya Barris, the creator of Black-ish, has this saying, “Never stop telling your story.” If you look at so many shows, it’s the creator’s story, the creator’s comedy, the creator’s pain...whatever the creator went through. Black-ish is very much Kenya’s story. A lot of semi-autobiographical stuff is what is succeeding. So some things I’ve learned are: Make sure everything that I use is something that I own. Treat it like it’s the show. For Black-ish, every piece of music we have to clear. I could have tried to use a WizKid song...but I wanted to make sure everything in African Booty Scratcher was original music.
There’s so many things I learned in the writer’s room. Someone had a quote where it’s like, “If you laugh a little bit throughout and you feel something at the end...that’s an episode of television.” You always have these heart-to-heart moments at the end where the characters grow and learn. In African Booty Scratcher, even though it’s a trailer… at that little moment at the end where the parents are like “An 89 every once in a while isn’t so bad…” [is an example of that.] You still want to undercut that moment with a joke. “I guess I can stop saying Harvard or nothing so much...I heard Stanford is a good school.” That was something I thought of the day of on the first shoot...you want to have a sense that the characters have grown.
RC: Why did you focus on the Nigerian immigrant experience in America? Why do we need these type of stories?
DC: It’s always refreshing to look at something and see [your] story on TV and know that you’re not the only one. It lets people know that this is something that other people can relate to and went through, too.
RC: Do you think comedy is a good way to tell our stories?
If you look at the episode on Black-ish about police brutality…. Why not? I think comedy allows you to sneak in messages in a way that is not heavy-handed.
To listen to more of Damilare’s journey as a writer and show creator, check out his interview on the Dreams In Drive podcast.
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If I wasn’t 100 percent at home with the label womanist, I wouldn’t apply it to my blackness. Labels… ugh. I only use them to define what already exists within me, not to gain faux accolades or activate unneeded power plays for prestige. I'll use them to perhaps find my kin folk, similar thinkers, my tribe. In any case, I'm not a slave to any label, and if you observe me decidedly using one, it's solely for explaining my personal narrative…nothing more, nothing less.
You see, I was missing something from mainstream feminism for so long, and I really wanted to ignore that emptiness…but it was gnawing at me. Mainstream feminism as it stands today is steeped in white-washed tall tales of inclusion of all women, whilst categorically ignoring every issue that white privilege is lucky to allude. Revisionist history puts white women as the originators and great fighters for all of us. White Feminism is anti-patriarchal, yet dead set on replicating the same type of hierarchy it uses in all women spaces that both oppresses and silences black women and other women of color.
But it is black women who have also set the example for many white suffragettes and modern day feminists long before these white suffragette movements thought about forming and pushing away everything in order for their rights to manifest. Black Women were, by instinct and forced obligation, showcasing the possibility of pushing through anything and creating greatness out of nothing to white women.
Many white women learned strength from watching black women be everything to everyone in the midst of harsh systematic racist oppression. An oppression that gave privilege to their whiteness, positioning them as benefactors and dependents; thereby protectors of the continuance of white supremacy at large.
White suffragists' desire for voting rights and equal treatment to white men led them to grossly use their status as white to debase and ignore black women desiring to stand in solidarity with them, black women who were working toward not only suffrage but also freedom from racism and sexism. Yes, black suffragists were treated with vicious racism and cast aside by middle-class white suffragettes; many of whom were ironically self-proclaimed abolitionists.
See, a good number of white people were against slavery, but they didn't want black people to be equal to them or black men to get to vote before white women; this caused their real feelings about black people to be laid bare…that’s the real tea! This same bigoted spirit is abounding amongst too many of their descendants, white feminists who are always spinning these blatant lies that say, “we’re all in this together.”
“The white men, reinforced by the educated white women, could ‘snow under’ the Negro vote in every State, and the white race would maintain its supremacy without corrupting or intimidating the Negroes. - Laura Clay (Founder of Kentucky’s First Suffragette Movement)
When white feminists call out the names of their racist suffragette ancestors with glee, names such as Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Laura Clay, demanding that my beautiful black sisters and I pour out their bottles of white tears as libation with them, I become enraged and don't want any parts of the charade. White women of the past and present, too many in fact, are continually and unapologetically denying the truths of black women and other women of color and the reality of our issues that have many intersections. Oppressive systematic racism creates hierarchy; not all women are equally oppressed, and white women have the most privilege of all. For white feminists, men are the big nemesis… for a Black Woman like me, white men and women are equally oppressive… Then add in my gender, my nonmainstream spirituality, my not so clear cut fluid or stationary sexual nature… It’s a lot!
Oppressive systematic racism creates hierarchy; not all women are equally oppressed, and white women have the most privilege of all. For white feminists, men are the big nemesis. For a black woman like me, white men and women are often equally oppressive. Then add in my gender, my nonmainstream spirituality, my not-so-clear-cut fluid or stationary sexual nature… it’s a lot!
There is a pressure in feminist circles to make black women water down and sometimes completely drown out our BLACKNESS in order to be a part of their mirage and to prove we believe that women's rights are important, and our denial of our truths, and the overuse of our ingenuity, acceptable sacrifice for the good of ALL women. We’re all equally oppressed, right? Wrong.
I used to think that I could just call myself a black feminist to carve out intentional and thoughtful space in these heavily European-centered mainstream feminist movements. It's a self-determination that many amazing black women have made whilst affecting so much change and legacy. It seems white feminists have a way of dwindling the greatness of those undeniable giants to fit their feats in a light that downcasts their blackness and to translate the truths and power of great black women feminists.
Black feminist theory is a part of me… My womanism overlaps with it in so many ways, though I see distinctions. I love and respect black feminism, but that title doesn’t seem to be a sure fit for me. Something is still missing. Yet and still, I need accuracy. If I have to explain myself in terminology, I want it to be as close to my inward reality as possible.
It was/is the unapologetic disregard of women of color in feminist spaces that first alerted my soul that my love couldn’t be steady within the illusionary walls of feminism. Those spaces were steeped in erasure of people like me, A black woman who has systematic racist oppression to be concerned about every moment of every day. This is a reality for me and my entire community: women, men, teens, children, feminine, masculine, non-identifying, combination energies, straight, fluid, LGBTQIA, no label, old, young, middle-aged, ageless; all of us dipped in this beautiful blacknes, our intersections included.
I become alive in the words of Alice Walker, who coined the term womanism and defined it extensively as being Womanish. In short, Alice Walker beautifully describes a woman-centered sphere of choice and rights, where black women reject patriarchy and center our issues within the framework of the entire black community. It’s a state of woman-centered living that is not steeped in European framework because we have our own. Our narrative, our needs and our desires have a safe haven and sacred tabernacle in womanism.
Womanism has a warmth and healing feel to it because it promotes healing of the entire African Diaspora and continent. Women’s issues, dismantling patriarchy, having women and our unparalleled power at the center of the entire community whilst balancing, and in many cases initiating, our rightful place as equal with men — all of this is central in womanism. More than just an internal heart position, but a community heartbeat that puts us all in position through the proper centering of she/her.
When I first became aware of Alice Walker's definition of womanism, I exhaled. I loved it deeply. Womanism was and still is more like me. It's a label that properly defines my intrinsic nature, beautifully complimenting my understanding of having originality running through my veins. It connected me to a source and our shared truths as nuanced African people(s) — our triumphs, and our woes.
As a freedom fighter, creative, and healer, a person who sees themselves not only as interconnected with other black women and our issues, but with our entire community as well. Womanist is me, I am a womanist. Womanism is a way of life, an inclination from spirit that understands that no one will take care of us and chart our way properly but us. It requires me to respond and dedicate myself to making sure more of that process happens in my lifetime. That’s womanish. That’s exactly what it is.
There have been several great Black Women who have added critical theory to what womanism is, such as the great Lenora Hudson-Weems (USA) or Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi (Nigeria), both adding imperative dimensions and levels of understanding, colors and dimensions. I am so grateful for these elder-warrioresses, I honor their breaths. However, I don't agree with all they have concluded on every aspect of their similar, yet distinct interpretations of womanism.
For example, Dr. Weems seems to feel that we, as womanists, must put our blackness before our womanhood. I disagree on this point because my people need me to be a whole black woman. My womanhood will heal my people and work to dismantle patriarchy in me and my community. My blackness cannot be separated from my feminine because both are part of my divinity; therefore, it is out of place to even suggest I honor one above the other. They are one with me.
What I love about Dr. Weems and Chikwenye Ogunyemi’s womanist theories, is the emphasis they put on the interconnected global African aspect and the cooperative economics and responsibility needed amongst us. I often say that white supremacy is interconnected globally, therefore, our unification as African People could better dismantle this oppressive system in lasting ways. womanism, or Africana womanism in their specific cases, really emphasizes casting off selfishness through seeing yourself as each other. To me, womanism is the bolder shade of black feminism. As Alice Walker said: “Womanism is to feminism, as purple is to lavender.”
So, how does womanism, which seems more exclusive than black feminism, help the pulse of the world? Don’t we want all people to have freedom and be equal? Well, I htink black people are the original drum cadence, and oppression has thrown our rhythm off. Everyone in the world relies on hearing our cadence to sync theirs to ours, because their cadence has our basic structure. The whole world mimics what we do, even though it isn’t always at the right intervals, speed or timbre. The more we can break free of the oppression placed upon us and that now is embedded in our DNA, the more the entire vibration of the planet will synch and become more steady. Have you ever heard the phrase “Take care of home first?” Well that is the heartbeat of the womanist… A womanist wants harmony and healing for their people, and realizes that aiding in that happening means good things for the entire planet.
Patriarchy, sexism and every other oppressive behavior that Black Women face from Black Men, must be dismantled in order for us to thrive together. Womanism, in my mind's eye, takes the stance of re-building our culture holistically, which includes the dismantling of patriarchy. It is not something we can wait to correct "when racism ends.” No, we must correct it now and every time it shows up until we can get closer to our original and untampered cadence. We must do all of this labor of love in the mindset of a community. I want to be the best woman I can be as I glow in this blackness: free, open, holy, profane, giving, strong, vulnerable; not just for me, but for my people as well.
I understand that those who choose to label themselves as black feminists; this is very important to them, just as womanist is my accurate descriptor; thereby very important to me. I appreciate those who identify as black feminists because they are purposely setting up the stones of remembrance in mainstream feminist spaces.
White women learned strength from watching black women carry on, take care of them, work on their plantations and nurse their children. Black women are their womanist and feminist sheroes, whether they want to admit it or not. So sis, you who identify as black feminists, I support and love you! If you are propelling our people forward and toward freedom, then that is all that matters! We all have to work according to what has been placed in us, and we all have a job/calling to do on this side of life. Words and labels? Ugh. What matters most is the truth, heart, intention and how we act on all three. Define yourself as you will, but as for me…
I am a womanist.
ORIT is a Lover of G-D / Freedom Fighter/Author/ Poet/ Wordsmith/ Healer/ Performing Artist (Singer-Actress-Dancer) / Sarcasm Connoisseur/ Humor Enthusiast/ among many other things. She is uniquely of Pan-African (African-American and Ethiopian Jewish ) descent, and currently resides outside of Columbus, Ohio. ORIT has a passion for unfiltered truth, and helping people in real ways.
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On Thursday, May 5, I uploaded a three-minute teaser trailer for a TV show pilot called African Booty Scratcher to YouTube. I also launched a Kickstarter campaign with a target goal of $30,000. The response has been overwhelming. In three days, the YouTube video has about 90,000 views and more than 4,000 likes. The Kickstarter has over $10,000 in pledges. On one Facebook page, the video has 2.4 million views and 41,000 shares.
I created African Booty Scratcher because I needed to write an original pilot to have as a writing sample, and it’s always best to write what you know. I chose to shoot and upload a trailer for African Booty Scratcher because I saw the success of people like Issa Rae (Awkward Black Girl) and Justin Simien (Dear White People) who created their own content and uploaded it for the masses to consume.
One piece of advice my mentor and Black-ish creator Kenya Barris gives to writers is to never stop telling your story. African Booty Scratcher is mine. From my time on Black-ish, I learned that you can simultaneously tell culturally specific stories and appeal to universal themes. As I meet white parents who say their daughter is just like Zoey or their son reminds them of Junior, I realize it’s possible for a white couple to say their son is just like someone named Ayodeji or their daughter reminds them of someone named Olamide.
The title has sparked some discussion. In the vein of Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, I wanted to name the teaser something a bit provocative. I may or may not have been called an "African Booty Scratcher" in elementary school. And I may or may not know many other people who have been called that as well. The aim is to take something negative and poke fun at it in a positive way.
You can watch the trailer below and check out the Kickstarter here.
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Hip-hop is a diverse genre, but many fans hope to hear women’s perspectives more often in the music. This is one of the many reasons fans should give Sammus a listen. She’s a rapper who began as a producer and continues to show growth in her work. Her latest EP, titled Infusion, shows that her music offers a lot of personality and substance.
In the conversation below, she discusses her creative choices and the wide array of issues spoken about on the project, such as racial stereotypes, the use of therapy and the African diaspora. And check out the premiere of her video for "The Feels" after the interview.
Blavity: A lot of times, people describe artists with terms that the artists themselves may not use or identify with. Because of that, I want to start off by asking how you describe yourself musically?
Sammus: For sure. When it comes to what I make, I’d call it black girl nerd rap. That’s the best way for me to describe it.
B: Cool, that definitely makes sense given what I’ve heard from you before. I’ve been listening to the new EP leading up to now, and something that stands out to me the most is the insight you give into who you are and what you’ve experienced. How important is content to you as an artist compared to the other elements of your music?
S: To me, content is everything. The kind of artist I am, everything has to sound good sonically. But, I’m personally tired of music that sounds great but is demeaning or homophobic. It’s important to me that my music reflects my values, because words matter.
B: For sure, I think that focus comes across clearly in your work. Building off of that, I heard you mention therapy a few times on the first song of the EP, “1080p.” Could you speak about how using that service influences you as an artist?
S: Yes, “1080P” is definitely a standout song. It’s the first song I made for the project, the first one I made after the last EP. When it comes to therapy, it’s connected to my time in school. I’m originally from Ithaca, NY, and I came back to New York to go to Cornell University. I did a PhD program, and a PhD just has so many ups and downs.
For a while, I was caught under the weight of academia on top of a serious relationship of mine coming to an end. From 2013 to 2014, I just wasn’t doing anything right. Therapy helped me out because it allows freedom. It’s liberating to share your experience with someone else. Going through therapy has motivated me to reveal more insecurities in my music.
B: Thanks for sharing that. Another thing that you mention, this time on the song “Mighty Morphing,” is the misconception of what it means to be black and what it means to be white. Was this something you only dealt with earlier in your life or is it a hurdle you still face today?
S: Well, that was a problem I mainly faced as a kid in Ithaca. Growing up, I was told that I was acting white because of how I talked and what my interests were. I was able to move past it when I was in college. I realized that there are different ways to orient yourself in the world as a black person.
Coming out of that, I don’t like being put in a box as an artist, and that happens often to women. A lot of times people label me as a conscious rapper, but I want people to know there’s a lot to me. I like to read, twerk, do calculus and go out with my friends to drink.
B: For sure. Another aspect of your songs that stood out to me is your delivery – from the way you intonate on certain lyrics to the comedic sense of some lines. How intentional is the way you deliver your rhymes? Is it deliberate or does it just happen naturally?
S: That’s a good question, I’m not asked that a lot. As an artist, my voice is still emerging. This project is the first one where my studio hasn’t been my bedroom. My mixer is a guy named Sosa, who works a lot with Homeboy Sandman. We originally connected at SXSW and, once we began recording, we had a long conversation about delivery.
He said that he loved my energy when I performed live, but it didn’t translate to my projects. Since then, I’ve tried to capture my emotions in a raw way. From playfulness to intensity, my delivery’s intentional.
B: That definitely makes sense. Now, I know video games and other forms of animation have been part of your music in the past. Could you explain how this influence adds to your music?
S: Well, I think that interest of mine is a niche that’s becoming cool. Right now, a lot of nerdy personalities are becoming big. One big example is Kid Fury and the success he’s had. I was a ‘90s kid and Nintendo became so big that those games became a large frame of reference for me. I spent so many days playing games with my brothers. And video games were the first place where I appreciated music.
B: That’s really cool. Going back to the EP, one of the standout songs is “Backstabbers,” where you speak about the diaspora and lineage. Could you explain what motivated you to make that song?
S: Yes, those topics were chosen intentionally because I wanted to deviate from my last project and show I can rap about more than just video games. I’m a first generation African-American. My mom’s from the Ivory Coast and my dad’s from the Congo. Growing up, I didn’t feel deeply tied to the culture of the Ivory Coast or the Congo. I chose to talk about my insecurity in fitting in on the song.
I have anxiety talking about issues within my race on my songs because a large amount of my fans are white. I’m weary of how people challenge injustices that happen to us with things like “black on black violence,” which is a trash argument. Yet, I don’t want to overlook the bad ways I’ve seen black people interact. In the past, I was asked things like “did you play with lions as a kid.” We all have shared histories and individual histories and ultimately we’re all trying to heal. I’m anxious to see how it’s interpreted.
B: For sure, it’s a topic that can be spoken about for an hour, even used for a lecture. It’s hard to cover it in one song, so I’m glad I got to ask you about it. To wrap up, what do you hope to achieve with your music moving forward?
S: I have personal benchmarks to reach. One is to be 100% self-sustainable as an artist. I also want to do more workshops and speaking engagements. Ultimately, I want to show that black womanhood is a growing experience. I hope to be an influence on little black girls by sharing my authentic experience. And something I’d love to be part of is a cartoon with a diverse cast of rap women that are bounty hunters.
Make sure to listen to Sammus’ Infusion EP and check out the premiere of her new video below!
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One of my favorite poets is the brilliant Warsan Shire. Everything she emotes is intensely feminine and unapologetically African. For me these two things are not mutually exclusive. I am as Ghanaian as I am woman. As African as I am female.
I once poached this quote from Warsan’s twitter feed “We are what we’ve been looking for.” I’m not sure if it’s her own or she was edifying someone else's work, but what a complete statement of contentment, revelation, accessibility and inherent beauty it is. It’s a quote that can seal the doubt and open doors in many areas of one’s life. Currently, it’s the quote the sums up my deep belief that the continent of Africa should be the ultimate travel destination in the world.
Three years ago I made a very impulsive decision to move back to Ghana. I had no idea what I would do career wise or what life would be like after living away from 'home' for so long, but my soul was pulling me back to the land of my birth in a way that I couldn't resist. Three years later, I finally understand what it means to be at peace. Being on the continent has brought me a calmness and a confidence that only comes from connecting to your roots and exploring true beauty.
“We are what we’ve been looking for!” 54 distinct countries. 30 million square kilometers of unadulterated beauty. Hundreds of cultures, thousands of languages and a plethora of landscapes to choose from.
“We are what we’ve been looking for!” Currently, Africans on the continent travel more frequently to Europe and North America than they do within the continent. There are varying reasons for this phenomenon and one of them is undoubtedly the high cost of travel between countries that are so close in proximity. A flight to Dakar from Accra should take you three hours. However, depending on the airline you take, it could take you a minimum of 10 hours and cost you about $600. Add on $200 and take away 4 hours and you’re in London, England. I get it. With London, you know what you’re getting.
For me, the issue is that the masses are simply not aware of the sheer magnificence of a city like Dakar. They don’t know about its booming and vibrant art scene. They haven't heard of Medina, a true representation of a bustling African city: Packed with people, food and goods on every corner. They’re completely unaware that a short ferry ride will get you on the shores of Île de Gorée (Gorée Island), packed with a dark history yet brimming with beauty, hope and possibilities.
“We are what we’ve been looking for!” The grandeur of Africa is undeniable. The beauty is untapped and doors are open for exploration. I encourage any and everyone to visit the continent at one point in their lives. There are 54 unique options for you to choose from, and companies such as Tastemakers Africa (founded by a woman, might I add) are making travel to Africa less 'daunting.' More than that, I encourage Africans and people of African descent to spread the word about the dynamism of their land. To do that, you must travel it, breathe it in and love it.
Africa- We are what we’ve been looking for.
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Ever watched the hilarious 1988 film starring Eddie Murphy as an African Prince who leaves his kingdom and planned arranged marriage behind to find true love in Queens, NY? If you haven't, I’d recommend watching after reading this. The movie Coming To America does a great job of exaggerating the lifestyle of two African immigrants (Akeem and Semmi), and their experiences in this new land. It’s certainly quite entertaining and might have you in tears of laughter at the often exaggerated cultural differences and experiences of the royal foreigners.
I watched this movie for the first time in Nigeria as a kid. It was a favorite as it gave my friends and me insight as to how Americans perceived us (Africans). It never dawned on me the impact this film would have on me until years after my move from Nigeria to Southern California. Moving wasn’t the intended plan, it was supposed to be a trip that lasted a few months, but instead turned into 14+ years of residence. However, reflecting on the years has brought some insight into my life.
As you’d imagine, the past 14 years have been filled with some crazy stories, like how I ended up at a club full of Mexican cartels, and the same weekend a skinhead initiation, all thanks to my oblivion. Or the several conversations with people who assumed I had never worn clothes before stepping foot in America and grew up in huts with lions…yet somehow my English was superior, I knew how to use a computer better than most, and type just as fast; I’ll share those periodically.
There have been some cultural differences, very much similar to the infamous “Good morning my neighbors!” scene in Coming to America. And funny enough, my barbershop is where I learned the most about black culture in America. (Thanks DJ & Junie) Growing up as the son of an internationally respected Doctor, my life in Nigeria never lacked anything I ever wanted. Houses, cars, maids, personal drivers and the best schools were all a part of my reality. Our neighbors and circle of friends were diplomats, ministers, governors, ambassadors, even the Presidential villa.
With that said, my life in America has been a far cry from the “royal” lifestyle I was accustomed to. After moving to the States, our family of seven lived in a two bedroom condo. Despite living in a great school district, I quickly realized my education was subpar in comparison to the schooling I received back home in Jos, Nigeria. These experiences were shared with my sisters whom, every month since our move, would win various awards such as “Student of the Month” or “Reader of the Week”…it was almost a joke. Honor roll certificates were scattered throughout the house. So much for the poverty-stricken, uneducated African kids they had used kindergarten-level entry exams on before admitting into their schools.
Watching Coming to America now, I certainly find many scenes that parallel my reality as an African immigrant. There are several interchangeable moments and metaphors within the movie which I have experienced and understand all too well.
It dawned on me after living amongst other people of my color, the parallels in my life and that of Akeem's aren't merely material, but more mental. I’ve come to realize that an absence of the mental slavery black America has experienced is really the defining factor. Despite buying American fashion and getting rid of my "princely robes," I just never seemed to fit in. By chopping off my royal ponytail (adapting), and living as a black American, I’ve had several scenes comparable to Akeem fighting the robber (White and corporate America). And by doing so, my understanding of what America is has changed.
Being constantly aware of my 'otherness,' and living humbly below a lifestyle I was used to has truly helped me discover more of who I am. But most importantly, it led me straight to the thing which I so desperately was in search of (no, not a wife), but my purpose! My purpose in this country was never to work hard enough to eventually own my own McDowell's. My dreams were always bigger, and my responsibilities far greater than any corporate job in America could offer me; contributing to the future of my country, Nigeria and that of black America as well.
No, I’m not the heir to the throne of a country. However, I am heir to the responsibilities of a father perceived as king to many, and grandson to two great examples; one a local Mai (King) from the Sayfawa Dynasty, and the other late High Commissioner to Nigeria. I don't expect to take on such titles at the moment, but my obligation to serve the people of my country has always been a weight on my shoulder that I’ve instinctively known through watching my Father and growing up around the country's leaders.
Much like Semmi, there are many “Princes & Princesses” of Zamunda out there. So if you, like myself, can relate to Akeem, searching so deeply for something; your purpose is here. The material things and careers most people value don't phase you (been there, done that), here are five symptoms to help in your journey.
You often feel a bigger sense of purpose beyond what you’re currently doing. You know there's a lot more than meets the eye and you're right, so keep on searching and following that internal voice.
You're a fish out of water. It's clear you don't fit in, not just physically or culturally but mentally. You have to come to terms with it and accept that you are intellectually different. Embrace it and cherish it, because you are unique in many ways.
You are misunderstood. You're considered weird, maybe not in a "stay away" kind of way, but intriguingly weird. Don't close yourself off — people want to understand something they've never been around. It can get annoying being misinterpreted and answering the same questions, but take it as an opportunity to educate.
Like Akeem throws all of his money into the offering plate at church, you see what you want and go all in! This isn't a bad thing, however, don't put all your money into the offering basket. You'll figure out what it is you really want, it just takes some trial and error.
You're very confident. Similar to the scene where Akeem jumps in front of the taxi commanding it to stop, we’re often perceived as cocky. You exude an unapologetic confidence, and it's the same trait that's allowed you to try new things passionately and find success in the things you set your mind to. You're taking the path less traveled, yet more rewarding.
It can be hard finding your purpose in life, similar to Akeem's search for a wife, but we're so driven to find it and that itch won't stop until it's discovered. We’re educated, intellectual, and have visions so grandiose or futuristic that make us appear strange…different, but they can’t quite figure us out.
If you have a similar story and this is the sign you’ve been looking for; you’re not alone! The rose petals have fallen, King Jaffe has arrived and it’s time to be your true self. You can’t run away from your destiny; you weren’t meant to live in Queens forever.
I’m Shalom Bako, Raised in Nigeria, Living in Los Angeles. I’m an LA Galaxy Alumni, Founder @dreamsnambition, passionate about Business, Marketing, and Afri-Tech. If you enjoyed this article, please share! And feel free to contact me to speak at your event or podcast. Thank you for reading! E: firstname.lastname@example.org Insta: @shalomiethehomie Twitter: @shalomiedahomie SC: @shalomiedahomie
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In recent years, divisions within America have widened due to the frequency of high profile cases of shooting deaths involving white cops and unarmed black suspects. It seems like every couple of weeks, our hearts, minds and social media platforms are captured by a new hashtag. But although the very heated issue of police brutality grips America’s focus, another country in the Americas suffers this problem to an even greater degree.
According to the Anuário Brasilerio de Segurança Publica (Brazil’s annual public safety report), an average of six people were killed by police per day from 2009 to 2013. To put that statistic in further context, Brazilian police have killed more civilians in 5 years than U.S police have in the last 30, and about 80 percent of these victims are young, poor and Afro-Brazilian citizens of the country’s favelas.
If this rate continued into 2016, Brazilian police would have killed 390 people so far, compared to the U.S. law enforcement’s 183 currently counted by The Guardian. Some organizations suggest that the statistics could even be higher, because not all states in Brazil report their police-involved murders.
Much like in the U.S., Brazil’s police are rarely indicted for these shooting deaths. Amnesty International reviewed 220 investigations of police killings opened in 2011 in the city of Rio de Janeiro and found that in 2015, only one case led to a police officer being charged. Many cases are listed as “resistance followed by death,” similar to the “I was scared for my life” defense by officers here in the states. But from 2010 to 2015, an astounding 16 percent of all homicides in international tourism hot-spot Rio de Janeiro were committed by on-duty police officers.
The Brazilian military has been accused of violating citizens’ rights to peaceful assembly. There are reports of police firing tear gas, stun grenades and killing protesters. One example is in 2014, when residents of the Pavao-Pavaozinho favela protested the death of Douglas Rafael da Silva Pareira, a 25-year-old popular dancer who was killed by police who 'mistook' him for a drug trafficker. When protesters took to the street over Pareira’s death, another man was killed and others were injured. This happened just two months before the Olympics, and international watchdog organization Human Rights Watch has reported several other extra-judicial killings.
But Brazilians have still galvanized in several protests against police brutality and different social issues such as the public transportation fare increase, the lavish spending for Carnival instead of Brazil’s infrastructure, teacher strikes and more. Groups such as “Reaja Ou Será Morto” (React or Die), Brazil’s older version of #BlackLivesMatter, formed around 2005 to fight against what it calls “the genocide of black poor."
The Zika virus outbreak has pushed this human rights crisis to the periphery of international news coverage. This might be due to a combination of factors: The charitable response for Zika research, mainstream audiences are more concerned with how the virus affects their tourism, police violence is more isolated and in the favelas away from the cities, the Brazilian government might be diminishing the rights of their free press, etc.
Much like America, this gorgeous, tropical, culturally-diverse nation is a tale of two countries. This crisis is alarming for the citizens of Brazil, but it also furthers the framing of state violence against countries’ black and/or minority populations in an international context.
It begs the question: Where do black lives matter?
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Joshua Adams is an arts & culture journalist with a M.A. in Journalism from USC. He currently works as a freshman English teacher on Chicago’s south side, and as a journalism teaching artist for Young Chicago Authors, a non-profit focusing on youth empowerment through performance art. His writings often explain current and historical cultural phenomenon through personal narratives. Writing and music are his biggest passions, connecting the dots is his life goal. Chicago is where his heart beat at. Twitter & IG:...
At a time when way too many folks are confused with Rihanna's dialect in 'Work,' it might be time to get a head start on teaching the next generation across the diaspora about Caribbean culture.
And that's where Callaloo comes in. It's a fun, educational and exciting series created by D.C.-based entrepreneurs Marjuan Canady and Nabeeh Bilal that promotes cultural literacy and social education for children through books, animation, live performance, digital content, games and arts education tools.
Following the many adventures of main characters Winston and his best friend Marisol, kids will be taken on a fun ride through various islands in the Caribbean, learning about the rich culture through food, folktales, traditional dialect and more.
“I want to use Callaloo as a tool for cultural literacy to not only educate in traditional methods — reading, vocabulary, math, geography — but to teach values. Such as tolerance, cultural difference and appreciation, kindness, diversity and acceptance,” Canady said in an interview with Madame Noire. “I think these are values that are missing in the world, and we have to start instilling these values in children from an early age.”
Callaloo is available now online, in bookstores and libraries. You can also follow them on Twitter and Instagram.
If you can't get enough of Callaloo and you'll be in the D.C. area on April 3rd, creators Marjuan and Nabeeh will be at Barnes and Noble on the Howard University campus from 1-3 pm. For more info, see below.
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Blavity's Creative Society had the honor of speaking with Selam Bekele. Selam is a multi-media artist and experimental filmmaker from Addis Abeba, Ethiopia. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in both visual communications and film production from the University of California, Davis. Selam was awarded a creative grant by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to create a collection of work that deals with belonging and migration for the East African Diaspora. Under this process, Selam began creating what she now calls her TZTA Collection, which features interactive pieces, sound-art and her first short film, Prince of Nowhere. Her fluid use of sound, video and performance has allowed Selam to create community and cultural impact as a filmmaker, DJ and curator.
Blavity: Much of your work centers around place, belonging and diaspora. Being part of a diaspora evokes feelings of belonging everywhere and nowhere, have you found solace in this? Is there a way to find belonging that isn’t attached to a particular place?
Selam Bekele: I find solace in my own motion. Movement is home, and that's why so much of my work is interactive and constantly changing with the user. I tweak my film every time I screen it. I allow the changing lights and unique spaces to reform the colors and shadows of my installations. I find solace in change and I want users that experience my work to feel that motion too. It's about transcending definition and borders. It's about embracing the nowhere, the Abyss and the potential energy in empty space.
B: You are a master of many trades, DJ, filmmaker, curator and more. It is refreshing to see that you aren't limiting yourself to one mode of expression. What words of advice do you have for black creatives who want to carry out similar careers?
SB: Thank you. I have to honor myself and my creativity and make sure I am living my full potential rather than being confined by the categories of others. I have a degree in film and originally pursued filmmaking full-time. Then I started DJing and curating shows because I realized I really love cultivating spaces for people to challenge assumptions and feel inspired by new concepts. Now I do a lot of different kinds of work and I love the diversity in my day-to-day life. It's truly a matter of staying true to yourself and having patience.
B: In your work, you rarely shy away from topics surrounding social change, race and/or gender. How do you channel your frustrations with oppression into your work? In turn, how is your work motivated and influenced by injustice?
SB: A lot of my work is conceptual and can be translated in many forms. But being who I am, living in the body I live in, coming from where I come from — it’s impossible for the space that I occupy to not be political. I was born in Addis Abeba during a very violent time of war and corruption, and that set a very distinct tone in how I view the world today. Producing much of my early work in Oakland has also been very influential. Oakland demands substance and a political stance for revolution. You’re in the home of the Black Panthers, of Sun Ra’s Space is the Place, of Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton. You have to have a message, even if its abstract. So everywhere I go, and with everything that I do, I’m representing the places and people I’ve met along the way.
B: Describe your creative process. How do you go from idea to execution?
SB: It's kind of like music. A word or a feeling invokes a particular sound and I try to continue from there through various mediums until something bare and honest is communicated. I question what kind of assumptions and fears I am entering with and I continue to listen to that rhythm in spite of the ugliness it is sharing with me. It's truly a matter of listening and not being so transfixed on the end-result, but allowing myself to be a student in my own process.
B: Saul Williams once said "Art can play a major role. I look at art as an alternative source of energy, the same way we might look at wind or solar or lithium batteries." What are your thoughts on black art and its ability catalyze change?
SB: The humility that is required in the creative process is nothing short of alchemy. Through the years, I've learned that the bravery that comes from being vulnerable produces the most revolutionary source of energy. The fearlessness in sharing your imagination creates waves of inspiration that cross borders and oceans and remind people of their own humanity. From the blues to hip-hop to Afrofuturism, the black experience has always been about survival and creating culture in hostile environments. There’s a magic in that kind of vulnerability that can’t be ignored.
B: In your interview with KQED you said, "Afrofuturism is the attempt to un-define." How does Afrofuturism fuel your ability to break through time and space with your work?
SB: Afrofuturism has encouraged me to use technology and digital art to explore ancient themes, oral traditions and ancestral memories that run deep in my Ethiopian heritage. One of which is my beloved Tzta. There is no direct translation for the amharic word tizita, but the closest thing would be "a state of longing.” Tizita could mean longing for the past, longing for the future, or being filled with memories of something that has never really happened. This type of mood is central to Ethiopian art and culture and is stemmed from the migration and separation of loved ones. To be in a state of Tizita is essentially to transcend place and linear time, and to be motivated by the formless and nameless essence that keeps us moving.
If you're in SF, Sweden or Germany, check out a couple of her upcoming shows:
Prince of Nowhere international premier at CinemAfrica Festival in Stockholm, Sweden.
Octavia's Attic Exhibition, San Francisco, CA
Light and Shadow Installation, Berlin, Germany
Sound Installation in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia
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I didn’t grow up in a home that chanted black power every day, but I did grow up in a home that, for the most part, illuminated affirmative love for the black identity. I grew up in a household filled with dark chocolate and caramel black women. Everyone worked hard, was comfortable in their skin, and taught me to be the same. However, as I look back on my grade school years, I find that the affirmation I received at home wasn’t enough for me to love my dark, black skin. In Spite of the love that resonated in my home, I sit here wondering why it took so long to love myself as a black woman.
The obvious answer is that regardless of my beautiful black home, I lived in white America. In addition, the shit storm of blurry labels and directions as a first generation American from an African household didn’t help. I come from a Rwandan family who literally moved to the U.S. the year I was born. Therefore, my experience as a black person is quite different from theirs growing up. For my family, coming to America was a success. Now, don’t get the wrong idea. They weren’t starving and didn’t live in huts before they moved to the U.S. Instead, it was the liberty in America, which gave them an independence that was irresistible to them. In turn, they felt like they were black people who made it! I, on the other hand, had a different experience. As my family’s success in the U.S. rang in my head telling me to be grateful, I felt paralyzed by my blackness.
Since my family grew up surrounded by black people of all types of success and personalities, they were taught that the things which impeded you was war, lack of liberty, poverty, and simply living in a developing country. What I learned growing up in the U.S. was that being black impeded me in every aspect of life. Going to a heavily white populated school made me feel like the “other.” People would touch my hair like some strange alien. Boys never liked me. So I learned that my beauty was non-existent. People told me I spoke like a white person and I only saw the intelligent advertised as white. So I learned that I was supposed to be dumb.
At that time, I needed reaffirmation from people outside my home. I also needed people at home to understand my struggle with self-love as a black woman in a white world. But I couldn’t get either of those things. Eventually, through a windstorm of self-discovery, I fell in love with myself. And regardless of my experience, I'm lucky to look at my blackness in many cultural lenses, which shapes who I am today. Often times, people only see black and don’t realize the many identities black has. The diaspora is an ever-expanding beauty of blackness all around the world. I want my African brothers and sisters across the diaspora to try to understand that sometimes your parents won’t get it, not because they are wrong or don’t care but because they had a different life before they emigrated to a Western country. Also, I urge parents who have children in a country/culture different from theirs to try to understand that the emotions of horrendous downfalls you’ve felt don’t always correlate with your child’s traumatic experiences. Despite the differences, each of those struggles were/are valid.
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