“Angolans are the vainest people in the world.”
This is how the documentary Bangalogia from Angolan artist and director Coréon Dú starts. While it might seem like a harsh place to begin a film, the rest of the documentary does a rather convincing job of explaining why Angolan vanity is, in fact, something to celebrate.
“Banga,” the Angolan term for swag or style, is examined in detail. From the lowest rungs of Angolan society to the country’s cosmopolitan jet-set—Banga we’re told is something vital to the Angolan people’s cultural future.
And if the film has a particularly nationalistic bent to it, well, Dú is also known as José Eduardo Paulino dos Santos, son to longtime Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos. A renaissance man in the Angolan arts, Dú is a recording artist, soap opera creator and one of the people behind I Love Kuduro, a film that documented the Angolan dance music lifestyle. We spoke to Dú about Banga, Kuduro and what it means to be an artist living in the shadow of an autocratic father.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Aaron Leaf for OkayAfrica: What is Banga?
Coréon Dú: Banga is a synonym for style, for personality and for attitude. You’ve got to combine those three elements into one word. What really drove me to make the documentary is that the concept of Banga in Angolan culture is not really about how you dress but about how you express yourself. But the visual expression is the more obvious one.
Because, see an African almost anywhere in the world, and you’ll notice that there’s some sort of fashion statement happening. Even if we’re not trying. The way you dress is an expression of Banga. But the way you talk is an expression of Banga. As is, the way you cook. Basically, whatever is strongest in your personality will come out in that role.
Your mark on the world?
Yes, exactly. While the documentary is primarily about fashion, what really fascinated me was that in the past five or six years there’s been a big interest in the African aesthetic. Not just in fashion, but overall. There’s a lot of African visual artists who are now getting more opportunities. African filmmakers. African musicians. African models in fashion. African fashion designers. People used to come research things about Africa and get inspired by it. Now people want to see what the African point of view is directly.
It’s no longer an anthropological look. It’s Africans themselves.
Exactly. People now no longer want to see what their culture’s interpretation of African culture is. They want to see what someone from a specific part of Africa has to say about whatever they have to say. I think that’s really interesting.
How did you get started?
After I concluded I Love Kuduro, which was about three years ago. I was fixated on looking at what’s happening in Angolan style. I got involved with model scouting in the process.
Yes, in Angola. And then in South Africa. All of a sudden, I saw that it was a big splash. Especially with the few girls that I started—namely the Victoria’s Secret model Maria Borges.
Cool. We know her.
One of the first girls I scouted was her and Roberta Narciso, a girl that at the time did very well because she did a lot of shows where she was the only black girl. A lot of fashion media started picking up on, “Okay, so there’s only one black person in the show.” Which was news itself because of the diversity conversation. But then she happened to be from a country that most people never heard of. Then Maria came along, and made a big splash.
I saw a lot of people that I knew from all other countries, again, getting architecture awards, visual arts awards. Our music started becoming more popular. I was like, “It’s time for me to buckle down and focus and start to research this a bit more cohesively.” That’s how the process for Bangaologia started. It took me a while to actually get going, but especially last year was a time where I was filming, interviewing, and trying to get in touch with people. Getting the whole process going.
Is Banga analogous to the Les Sapeur movement in Congo?
That’s a question that I get very commonly. The things that I like to say is the Les Sapeurs have Banga. It is related in the fact that La Sap is an expression of Banga. Because Banga is what French people call the “je ne sais quoi” behind everything. But then, there’s various forms of it being expressed. Sapeurs are more like an urban tribe with a very specific visual and behavioral code. There’s many others. Which is why, in the documentary, there is a college professor—a music researcher—that says, “Even someone in a remote village, in a loin cloth, has Banga.” It’s more of how you carry whatever it is that you’re trying to carry out.
What language does Banga come from?
One of the Bantu languages in the region. There are some commonalities between Angola and the Congo, since at one point it was all one kingdom. I’m part Bakongo, because my mom’s family is from the North of Angola. There are some tribes that are the same, but now, since one side has Portuguese influence, the other side has Belgian, and the other one are French, some cultural differences started happening. But a lot of things are very similar.
What are some of the other expressions of Banga we should be looking out for? Are there other movements, subcultures, that have these labels?
Banga is the reason why a lot of people now are starting to tune into African cultural movements. They’re becoming mainstream. The place where you see it the most is in fashion and music. Right now a lot of African influence is coming into pop music. Especially American pop music. It’s been in European pop music for a while. But in American pop music it’s becoming quite relevant. And in fashion, a lot of the household names are now African.
A lot of the Angolan artists we interview in OkayAfrica are quite political. How does politics relate to your work if at all?
I like to steer clear from politics because it can be a distraction. I just try to focus on things that I find interesting. I try to develop my work very organically. I already am driven by inspiration, as opposed to trying to make a specific statement. But sometimes my work does make a statement. Especially some of my choices to include members of the LGBT community in my work which is very taboo in Angolan culture. That, I think, has been the biggest statement in some of my work. In I Love Kuduro, it was undeniable for me to do that because I was following Titica’s career, for example. It’s very funny that the first time that I worked with her, most people did not know she was a trans-woman. She actually had to reveal that. Once she revealed that to the world, it became controversial. She was a really awesome performer. No one had an issue.
Was she popular in Angola before?
Yes, before everyone knew she was trans. I worked with her before and after the process. After she revealed that she was a trans-woman, a lot of people stopped working with her. I was like, “I see no reason why you should do that.” She was still selling out shows. That was one of the things that we showed in I Love Kuduro. Although there was that very conservative and occasionally religiously or politically fueled rejection, at the time, people didn’t necessarily agree, but they loved her work. That stood out. And those are the kinds of things I love to show. Which is why I say that sometimes if you get political, it can be distracting from actually showing an interesting moment that’s happening. That’s why we would just love to focus on that.
Your family is political.
So when you do stuff that goes against the grain, like LGBT rights, does that influence…
I’ve been censored from national television. And that made international news.
You get censored?
Oh yes. It’s no secret. It’s been covered by many international media because it was quite a recent case and obvious case. I did two telenovelas, like soap operas that were probably the most challenging, controversial, and wonderful pieces of work that I’ve done. The second one got pulled off the air temporarily because, again, people were really into it but it did touch on some LGBT topics. It actually got taken off the air, but then viewers started complaining that they wanted to see what happened. They put it back on the air.
Are things changing in Angola?
In my opinion, people were more progressive maybe 10 years ago than they are now. That has to do more with where the world is currently, as a whole. As opposed to just specifically one place. Our country is mainly people under the age of 25. A lot of the adults are very much under 40. People are connected to technology. They know what’s happening. They’re very wired. I think that’s something people don’t really realize, especially when they’re talking about African countries.
A lot of behaviors and attitudes that are very common, because we are in a global world, are very common to our global village as opposed to one place versus the other. And some things are generational. That’s why now, ironically, a lot of people are more conservative. I do portray a lot of that in my work. For example, I was raised by very strong women. By that I mean, when I was born, there was a civil war going on and women were at work. They were a very big pillar of the Angolan household, overall. Whereas now, I have young men, who are younger than me— I’m 32 but there’s guys who are 25 who like to say that their wives should not be at work. Because they are the man they need to be the provider.
I think it’s interesting to talk about these subjects and create a conversation about them. I can say that I steer clear from politics, but there’s a lot of people who like to take advantage of some of my work and try to push it in a political direction. That’s why the soap opera that I made got censored. It’s not because there’s not other LGBT subject in Angolan popular theater, in film, and even on TV. It’s because people want to take my work in that direction. That’s just not where I’m at, and I’m not really interested in being political at all.
Angolan artists like Ikonoklasta, who we’ve interviewed before deal a lot with politics and freedom of speech in their work. Do you see your censorship as part of that same issue?
We’re a very young society. I think that sometimes, I can chalk that up to a question of maturity. There are certain things that people take personally that you should look at objectively. Occasionally there is work that rubs certain people the wrong way and because of that there are consequences. I’ve had that experience. I’m pretty sure the artists you’ve mentioned as well. At the same time, I just keep working. I know there’s an audience for my work. At the end of the day, I know it does get trickier when you have a political intention or drive in your work. That’s not really me.
Do you spend most of your time in Angola? Or overseas at this point?
I grew up in the Virginia-D.C. area. I went to college in New Orleans. After that I moved to Angola. I’ve been in Angola the past 10 years, almost 11 years.
Do you worry about being overshadowed your family? Their politics?
Unfortunately, the big problem is that a lot of people are not objective enough to look at my work. They always want to find some hidden meaning. Or some conspiracy theory behind what I’m doing. And it is tough. I’ve spoken about this before. The simple fact that even in Angola, where I’m sort of working, I always get heavily attacked by people in politics because I’m doing something that has nothing to do with them. When I started my music career, interestingly enough, and still to this day there’s a lot of media that will not play my work. I’m not even talking about private. I’m talking about public media that will not play my work. I just have to be okay with that and keep going and try to find someone to listen.
What are the issues people have with your work?
Well, no it’s not issues. I like to call it what it is. Prejudice and bias do exist no matter where you are. When people think you come from a place of privilege, there is also prejudice in that way. It’s not only against people who probably would not be in that position. The other part of that still applies. I think it goes both ways. From a humanistic point of view, we already have to be very careful and keep ourselves in check.
Although we complain about biases about ourselves. I grew up abroad, so I did have to deal with other kinds of bias because of my ethnicity. Because of my nationality. I like to be very mindful of that. Everyday, pretty much since I was born, there’s another kind of bias, as well, that I have encountered. I’ve even had bias from teachers at school, both there and when I came to the U.S. because of that fact. It sort of negatively affected me in that way. It also presents a challenge that I have to overcome as a human being.
You’re also clearly a person with Banga yourself.
Right. We all have Banga, but then it’s our choice whether we choose to express it or not.
Okay, so it’s like a switch.
Exactly. It’s a matter of confidence. For me to get to this particular point in the way that I express myself, whether it’s in the way I dress everyday or in my work, I had to build up my confidence a lot. I did not grow up as a very confident kid. I was usually the shy kid in the corner. At this point, I’m at the point where I’m confident enough to express a lot of these things creatively and also in my everyday appearance. Which is why I say that Banga is there, but it’s our choice on whether we’re going to tap into it, and how we’re going to tap into it. There’s many different ways. For example, I have an uncle who’s a chef. His Banga is the fact that he makes the best pastries and the best lasagna ever. So he’s very confident about that.
So, yes. That’s just an example. I have friends who are visual artists that a lot of the way they express themselves is very directly connected to visual communication. Across the board, it’s something that is like the essence. Banga is the essence of style but then how you express your personal style is your choice in how you choose to do it.
Aaron Leaf is OkayAfrica’s Managing Editor. Follow him on Twitter.