Arts + Culture

How Nigerian Visual Artist Laolu Senbanjo Brought His Sacred Art Of The Ori To Beyoncé's 'Lemonade'

Nigerian visual artist Laolu Senbanjo tells how his Sacred Art of the Ori wound up in Beyoncé's 'Lemonade' video album

Laolu Senbanjo has been keeping the secret of all secrets since December 2015. Beyoncé is about to shock the world with her biggest project in years, and the Nigerian visual artist and musician had left his unmistakable, Yoruba-influenced markings all over it. All this less than five years since Senbanjo, 34, left his life as a human rights attorney in Lagos to become a full-time struggling artist. The decision led him to Brooklyn, where Senbanjo's taken his Afromysterics artwork from the canvas to virtually everywhere: from shoes to jackets and even the human body.


Beyoncé’s mysterious new project, as we found out last night, is Lemonade, an hourlong conceptual video that debuted on HBO and features music from the artist’s surprise-released sixth studio album, also called Lemonade.

Senbanjo’s contributions to the visual album stand out with their deeply stirring spiritual undertones. Conceptually and narratively, the grand appearance of his Sacred Art of the Ori marks a shift in Beyoncé’s emotions from “Anger” to “Apathy” (chapter 4 of the video) as dancers, adorned in Senbanjo’s signature Yoruba body paint, sway about in formation alongside Queen B herself. The screen turns black-and-white while Beyoncé recites the haunting words of Somali-British poet Warsan Shire and transitions into the fourth track on Lemonade, “Sorry.”

For Senbanjo, the past four months have been shrouded in secrecy. Now, finally, he’s able to break his silence on his career-changing collaboration with Beyoncé. He marked the occasion with a friends-and-family viewing party at Brooklyn’s beloved South African food spot, Madiba. Last night was also the first time Senbanjo was able to see the finished project. Until then, he had no idea what to expect from Lemonade.

We caught up with Senbanjo over the phone, exactly one month since his Nike collaboration, to hear the incredible story of how his Sacred Art of the Ori made its way to the biggest music video in the world.

Screengrab from Lemonade: Dancers adorned in Laolu Senbanjo's Sacred Art of the Ori

Alyssa Klein for Okayafrica: How did it all happen?

Laolu Senbanjo: I got a call from management about a video shoot. They gave me an idea it was going to be Beyoncé’s video shoot, but it was top secret, that kind of thing. So I couldn’t tell anybody. They told me like two weeks before. I was gonna go there in like two weeks. And all of a sudden they called back and said “Uh, two weeks is too long. We need you right now.” And I had to travel to New Orleans, where it was happening.

It was crazy because I couldn’t say no. If Queen B wants you… It was so unreal. I just left everything I was doing. I had projects I was working on. And I just left them halfway and told everyone that something came up and I had to leave. So everybody said “What’s a matter with you?” And I said “You’re going to understand later, but I can’t say anything right now.”

So I got on a plane and went to New Orleans. Didn’t know what to expect. I got the schedules, call sheets, the timings, who I’m working with, who I’m supposed to see. Everything was very detailed, the names, everything.

What was it like when you got to New Orleans?

The hotel was beautiful. Everything was nice. A lot of people were coming to the hotel. Hollywood celebrities and everything. It just dawned on me that yeah, this shoot is real.

I met the director, they took me to all these rooms with all the props and clothing. Gave me different texture of what they wanted, the color of the video. So I met with them. Told them what I could do. It was a bunch of geniuses running the thing. Everybody was just perfect at what they were doing. I didn’t have to say too much to anybody. It was more like they already knew what they were doing.

Everybody was top top gear in their art. The dancers just blew me away. They gave me a lot of ideas of what I wanted to do with the concept and the dance moves and how I would love the art to show.

On the set of Lemonade. Courtesy of Senbanjo.

What was it like meeting Beyoncé?

There was a time where I was on set, I wasn’t painting that day, and I was just walking around with some of the new people I’d just met. Beyoncé was right over the corner, and I was walking out and she called out to me. In my mind I was like “No, she doesn’t know my face.” Then she called again. And I looked back and I was like “Oh shit, she’s calling me.” I tried so hard not to be starstruck. She came to me and she said hi, and she said she wanted to thank me for coming, she knows it was short notice, and she’s really grateful I could make it. In my mind I was like “Really? You’re thanking me? I should be thanking you for this incredible opportunity to work with you.” She told me a lot about my art, which is kind of crazy that she checked out everything I’ve been doing. She watched a lot of my videos, including one of the ones posted by Okayafrica that was picked up by BBC. Remember that time-lapse? She mentioned the jackets I posted on Instagram. My shoes. It was incredible. We just sat there, telling me she loves my work. She thinks my talent is just unbelievable. That just, I don’t know... Coming from her, telling me that, it was just unreal.

Senbanjo designed custom shoes for Beyoncé. Courtesy of Senbanjo.

He also designed custom shoes for Blue Ivy. Courtesy of Senbanjo.

What was B like on set?

To even watch Beyoncé up close, and see her work ethic, how much energy she puts in her work is just incredible. She’s always the first to get up, to say “Okay let’s go, let’s do this now.” And she’s the last to leave the place. She’s always repeating it. You can feel her energy. You can’t just do less around her. Her energy is so contagious. Everybody is on their A-game. Because she’s on her A-game, like all the time. It’s just incredible how she manages to do it. She’s a workaholic times two. She’s there. Ready to go.

Can you walk us through your work on Lemonade?

It was interpreting the moves, painting, a lot of painting. Body art. Performing my Sacred Art of the Ori. I got to meet one-on-one with the dancers, and people in the commune. And also Beyoncé to talk about the concept.

It was a lot of people [to paint] though. In fact at some point I lost track, and because of the set time, I had to do it [the painting] in a short period. It was just crazy. It was like all the skills I’ve acquired in my life, when you’re put to the test, and you’re like “Okay, do what you know how to do.” I just had to find that zone. And just be myself basically. When I was on set, working on the video, my life was flashing before me––the moments I wanted to give up, and how I quit my job. At some point I felt like crying. It was just unreal. Here you are. You’re working on Beyoncé’s video. It was just like... I couldn’t have thought about that like a year before. So it was just an unreal experience. You just feel like, “Okay, this is a really nice dream. So it’s time to wake up.” And you never woke up. It happened. It really happened.

And you met Ibeyi too?

We just hit it off. We felt like we had known each other for a decade. They’re beautiful people. Their soul is beautiful. Their interest and their knowledge about [Yoruba] culture is just fascinating. It’s very refreshing. Someone is doing it. It’s not just me with my art.

Laolu Senbanjo and Ibeyi on the set of Lemonade. Courtesy of Senbanjo.

What did you think of the video?

It was so emotional. It was powerful, mind-blowing. Being someone of her power, status, speaking up for women, speaking up for Black Lives Matter, empowerment. To be part of that… she has an amazing vision. Which is what I do with my painting. It’s a form of liberation. People say funny things about me painting on women. It’s about empowerment. It’s not about nudity, it’s not about objectifying. It’s about equality. It’s about speaking up for people who are not being talked about in the workplace. It’s also about relationships.

Everything is just so powerful right now. This is something that’s going to speak to people for the next five years, ten years. It’s a masterpiece. I’m just so honored to be part of it. It’s huge. It’s huge.

What do you want people to take away from seeing your art in Lemonade?

Art can be used to translate ideas. The Sacred Art of the Ori is basically about connection between the artist and the music. What I basically did was to connect with the different people that were painted in the video, and connect with them on the art. And also on a spiritual level. The connection is what I want people to take away.

And also that as artists there’s often that part of you that’s not sure what you’re doing. The thing is, with my journey so far, I’ve been able to learn that you just have to trust yourself. And also be very very confident in your art, and what makes your art special. Just live your own truth. Just be yourself. And then the doors will open eventually. It’s just a matter of time.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Featured

This Afro-Feminist Marching Band Is Challenging Negative Stereotypes of Black Women In Paris

30 Nuances de Noires is fighting the erasure of black women in public spaces one march at a time.

If you stroll through the streets of Paris and its suburbs and stumble across a parade of black women wearing shiny outfits, singing and dancing, consider yourself lucky: you've just come across the Afro-feminist marching band '30 Nuances de Noires' (30 Shades of Black).

The band was created by dancer and choreographer Sandra Rose Fanchine. Tired of the erasure of black women in the public space and of the negative stereotypes associated with them, Fanchine has brought women (and a few men) together in this project. Professional and amateur singers, dancers and musicians, they have all accepted to embark on this journey and use their talents to launch this much-needed conversation in France.

Sandra Rose FanchinePhoto by SEKA photography

The band's musical coordinator, Célia Wa, is a flautist, singer and composer. When Fanchine invited her to take part in the project, she was very enthusiastic to have the opportunity to play alongside other black female musicians and take part in something that portrays black women in a positive light and in a flamboyant way. She was also keen to play alongside other black female musicians and coordinate them, outside, in the public space, where music is accessible to everyone. But it wasn't easy going. "It's hard to find women who play wind instruments" she explains. "But especially black women. So, we decided to incorporate a few black men musicians—men who understand the meaning of the project and support us. They don't try to dominate the space, they wear dresses and headwraps, they really blend into the group."

Célia WaPhoto by SEKA photography

Wa hopes the project will encourage many young girls to become professional musicians by showing them that being a fulfilled woman, having a music career and a family life, is possible.

Awori is the singer of the band Kamiawori, and a singer and dancer in the parade. She accepted Fanchine's invitation to join the band because she realized a brass band made of women—especially black women—was something unique that she wanted to be part of. "Throughout history, women had been forbidden to play wind instruments because blowing into those instruments was assimilated to a sexual act", says Kamiawori. "As a result, nowadays, the majority of people playing these instruments are men, so the fact that Sandra was looking for black women only was really appealing to me".

Earlier this year the band had the chance to travel to French Guiana to do a performance with black Guyanese women. This is the kind of future she wants for the project. "I want us to go to places in France where there aren't many black people, as well as to the former French colonies and the French overseas territories," she says. She hopes the project will start conversations everywhere, and empower black women to talk about their issues in their own words and organize their own emancipation.

AworiPhoto by SEKA photography

***

Read on for our conversation with Sandra Rose Fanchine. This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Can you tell us about yourself and your background?

I'm 51 years old, I was born in Martinique and grew up in Côte d'Ivoire. I'm a hip-hop dancer and choreographer. I first came to France 22 years ago to study graphic design but along the way, I found hip hop and started dancing out of passion. With my background in graphic design, I knew I was going to be a choreographer eventually, I was convinced I could use hip hop beyond its performance aspect, bringing my visual artist's knowledge to it and using it to promote a narrative. So, when the age of maturity came, I became a choreographer. My first work considered the social construction of femininity, and I then created a piece which dealt with the memory of the black body. 30 Nuances de Noires is my third choreographic work.

Where did the idea of "30 Nuances de Noires" come from?

It came from my professional frustration as a black woman. When I was looking for a job after my studies, my graphic design work was very culturally influenced by my life in Martinique and Côte d'Ivoire. I was proud to show the aesthetics and the colors, to me it was beautiful but it wasn't seen as such, it was seen as something unworthy and my work was always devalued.

I also had to face that devaluation in my personal life. I wanted to partner up with a black man, but I could see that black men didn't value me, didn't give me space and in general chose to have solid relationships with white women. I am light-skinned so I used to pass black men's colorist filters, but this privilege stopped as soon as commitment was mentioned. I looked around me and saw a pattern in the way black men treated black women, in the way people in general treated black women, how we were looked down upon. I wanted to create something about that topic.

Photo by SEKA Photography

Why did you choose that name?

I chose that name to criticize the movie 50 shades of Grey, which from a feminist point of view is a sexist and misogynist movie, that glamorizes violence against women. Moreover, black women, in the global conception related to sexuality and sentiments, are continually eroticized in a very specific way: animalization, exotification and fetishization. I chose to reclaim these stigmas, just as Audre Lorde writes about in the chapter of her book Sister Outsider named "the use of eroticism, and the use of anger: the response of women to racism."

How did the people around you react to this project?

At first, I wanted to do a piece about sexuality, love and the neocolonial aspects of interracial unions but I faced a backlash from people in the cultural institutions and people in the hip hop industry. Whenever I talked about my project I was completely shut down and called a racist.

After all that rejection and denigration, I went back to university and studied gender studies for two years, and around the same time I became an Afro-feminist activist. In the meantime, the project evolved. I used to work at festivals where there were many brass brands and I already wanted to create a marching band with hip hop dancers so I just mixed the two ideas: highlighting black women's issues and creating a marching band.

After equipping myself with the relevant intellectual tools, surrounding myself with other black women and realizing we were all going through the same things, I was capable of demonstrating the systemic nature of what I was talking about and the barriers fell. I was finally in the right place at the right time. I found the artists very easily, the first musicians I met brought other musicians, the first dancers brought other dancers, it all happened very organically.

Photo by SEKA Photography

What type of women were you looking for?

I was looking for women who were strong enough to embody and address those issues unapologetically. They had to be capable of dancing on the streets with an attitude that says "I am standing up straight, I am black, I am glowing, I am shining and you will look at me and ask yourself how you really see me because I am not all those stereotypes you believe I am." Naturally, it first attracted feminists, women who were already aware of those issues. The women who later joined us and weren't aware of those issues are now more conscious and politicized.

What are the musical and aesthetic inspirations behind the project?

I really wanted visuals inspired by the aesthetics of the 70s and 80s because the dances present in the parade—locking and waacking—emerged at that time. For the musical aspect, I looked for songs that talked about black women and their issues: sorority, colorism, equality and resilience.

Photo by SEKA Photography

How do you see the project evolving in the future?

I want to do a world tour, I want us to dance with Beyoncé and Solange, I want to take this message of empowerment everywhere there are black women who need to exist, shine, go outside and assert their presence in the public space. Because of harassment, sexism and prejudice, it's still pretty complicated for women to simply exist. I consider myself lucky because I can see that the band does what I wanted it to do: it really empowers black women and seeing that happening gives me a lot of strength to take it further.

popular
Seyi Shay. Image provided by the artist.

Seyi Shay's 'Electric Package' EP Is All About Love & Positive Vibes

We talk to Seyi Shay about her new EP, an intimate mix of different afrobeats blends topped off by Gqom.

Talented Nigerian singer and songwriter Seyi Shay recently dropped her brand new music project, the Electric Package EP Vol. 1.

It's her first project in three years, since the release of her debut album, Seyi or Shay, in 2015. The EP, an intimate mix of different blends of afrobeats, contains six tracks, topped off at the end by the Gqom brand of South African house music.

The project features artists from different corners of Africa, including rising singer King Promise from Ghana, Afropop songstress Vanessa Mdee from Tanzania, and rapper and producer Anatii from South Africa, giving it a pan-African outlook.

However, she didn't forget her fellow Nigerian acts, as seasoned highlife singer Flavour, young Afropop superstar Kiss Daniel, and fresh act Slimcase are also on the bill.

Several DJs were also involved in the project, hosting different songs in mixtape fashion; DJ Spinall, DJ Consequence, DJ Neptune, and DJ Cuppy from Nigeria, Vision DJ from Ghana, and DJ Tira from South Africa. The songs were produced by Killertunes, DJ Coublon, Krizz Beat, Lush Beat, Anatii, and Chopstix.

We caught up with the singer to discuss Electric Package. Read our conversation below.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Photo courtesy of Nike.

OkayAfrica & Nike Present: Naija Worldwide

We're linking up with Nike to celebrate Nike's fire Nigeria kits and to send Team Nigeria off to the 2018 World Cup with style.

Partner content from Nike

We've teamed up with Nike to bring the Naija spirit to the world with "Naija Worldwide," an epic bash to celebrate Nike's triumphant Nigeria kits as we send Team Nigeria off to the 2018 World Cup with style!

Join us on Saturday, June 2, from 3:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at The Well in Brooklyn as we mark the occasion with music by DJ Tunez, DJ Moma and DJ Moniki. The vibe also includes art by Laolu Senbanjo, Nigerian cuisine, and a surprise performance by one of Afrobeats' finest.

Keep reading... Show less

get okayafrica in your inbox

news.

popular.