Interview: 'The African Cypher' Director Bryan Little

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In her keynote address at the Goethe-Institut’s Über (W) unden Art in Troubled Times conference, ‘On the Pain of Death’, South African writer-poet Antjie Krog offered the following insight: that perhaps the only thing that art can do is “to try to transform pain into a kind of beauty so that one, at times, can live with loss”. It’s an apt observation and perhaps one that applies somewhat to Bryan Little’s moving feature-length documentary, The African Cypher.

Part ethnographic, the film charts the journeys of several street-dance-crews in the townships of South Africa as they prepare for the Red Bull Beat Battle. What emerges from the different narrative strands is a complex and redemptive story of how urban youth locked up in the country’s ghettos are able to transcend the harshness of their circumstances through dance. We caught up with director Bryan Little to chat about the making of the film.

Tell us about the process of making the film, it must have been quite an experience; how long did it take?

The film took us a year to complete. It was an incredible process and one that enriched me a great deal, both personally and as a filmmaker. Our initial objective was to make short films introducing the different styles of dance for Red Bull SA as they were creating a dance event to be held annually. Very soon into the process we realized that there was a much bigger story to be told and so we started shooting with a feature documentary in mind. We shot all over the country, spending months in Soweto, Orange Farm, Mohlakeng and the Cape Flats. We really tried to integrate ourselves into the lives of the dancers and the communities from a place of respect.

We were very careful about how we approached the situation - as filmmakers we have the power of the camera and that is easily abused. People want to be on TV, want to be famous and it is easy to go in and exploit a culture with your camera and pull away with superficial footage. We wanted something deeper, we wanted to find out what fuels their passion and their fear, so we spent a lot of time at first just meeting people and hanging out in the communities, drinking with people, meeting their friends, their mom's and elders and family. I only wanted our camera to go in when it could be followed by our hearts. It sounds cheesy but I believe that you have to care about the people you are filming or nothing special will come of it no matter how beautiful the shots.

There’s a stigma almost, you could say, attached to urban youth that grow up in under-resourced areas. In the stories that are told there are the usual clichés of drugs and gangs and so forth but The African Cypher is more empathetic in its outlook. On the whole the film is very positive, was that your intention from the start?

My intention from the very beginning was to try and be true to the people in the film. The reason I felt there was a bigger story was because the people I was meeting where bigger than the dance-form they performed. The people I met often did have horrific and frightening ‘back-stories’ but these same people didn’t live that story, they lived with passion and courage through their art form. In the film I make a statement that; “The stories we want to hear as a western audience do exist here - The hopelessness, drugs, violence, poverty and broken homes; but to dwell on it would be a disservice to every aching muscle and screaming heart that dances.”

An hour ago I watched a talk, incidentally, on Okayafrica that spoke so strongly to these fledging and intuitive notions that have formed in me as a filmmaker through the process of living in Africa and making this film. In the talk Chimanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian author speaks of the the dangers of a single story. “The single story” she says, “creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

I once wrote on our studio wall – ‘People become our perceptions of them.’ I guess in a sense this is what I was intuitively and consciously avoiding in the film, I wanted people to see the people not the situation. To see the courage, passion and perseverance of talented individuals rather than the abject ‘single story’ that can so often form when making a film of this nature. When I met the heroes of this film they inspired and uplifted me regardless of their situation and I wanted that to be the experience the audience walk away with.

Obviously people will still make the connections that have become stereotypes or clichés as you say, as many stereotypes are founded in generalities of truth and these issues DO exist and permeate the films subtext but the most important thing is to try and separate the individual character from that preconceived truth and allow them to express their own.

On so many levels, South Africa is still a fractured country, what did you come away with during the making of the documentary? And related to that, what would you expect audiences to walk away with after watching the film?

What you say is true, in many ways we are sadly and rightly still a fractured country, people might shy away from admitting this as we have made huge leaps forward and it feels almost unpatriotic now to question, but I don’t believe that intentions in general are bad. Racism is a very complex biological and sociological phenomena and one that will not be solved overnight, if at all, but I believe that curiosity can only be a great starting point for any real growth.

I think that films like this and even on a personal level the friendships I have formed in the process of making it are the slow and true markers of change. I remember first telling my family that I would be working in Soweto for a few months and the reaction was in varying degrees shock and curiosity. Which is an interesting reaction, we as South Africans are frightened of each other, but we also very curious about each other. I am not saying this is true for all South Africans. As some, from either side, have fundamental convictions and aren’t really curious about anything and others are so ‘liberal’ that they have almost atrophied the ability to really engage honestly with their feelings. The real ‘integration’ happens on the periphery of any group, the curious fibers and fingers of relationships formed across cultural divides.

I hope that as an audience member if only for a moment you feel a real connection with one of the people in the film, then I will feel that the film has succeeded. Whether you are white and he/she is black, you are Zulu and he is Sotho, you are a Pantsula and he is a B-Boy - we all have one universal and inherent commonality and that is the turmoil and joy of being human.

Lastly, what are your hopes for the film? Where will it show after the Encounters Film Festival?

The reaction from the Encounters audience has been really overwhelming with sold out shows and this has really given us faith in the film and has been a wonderful experience. The film has also been selected for the Durban International Film Festival in July which is an amazing opportunity and we are also entering it into major international festivals. From there once its natural festival life has run we will be looking to get it to various broadcasters both locally and internationally. We are also passionate about and committed to having local screenings in the communities that helped make the film possible.

Watch The African Cypher trailer above and a few of Bryan LIttle's 2-minute films for the Red Bull Beat Battle below. Feature photo credit © Suicide Monkey.

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Stop What You're Doing Right Now and Watch Falz's New Video 'This Is Nigeria'

The Nigerian rapper tackles his country's social ills in his very own answer to Childish Gambino's "This Is America."

Nigerian rapper, Falz has been known to use his sharp brand of humor to address social ills in his country. Today he's taken it a step further with the release of a new song and video entitled "This is Nigeria" and the outcome is an audacious, decidedly necessary critique of Nigerian society inspired by Childish Gambino's viral video "This is America."

Falz opens the song with a voice over of his father the lawyer and human rights activist, Femi Falana, discussing the consequences of rampant corruption and exploitation, before adding his own cutting criticism: "This is Nigeria, look how I'm living now, look how I'm living now. Everybody be criminal," he rhymes as chaos ensues all around him.

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Photo courtesy of Nike

The Secret Behind Nike's New Naija Football Kits are Nigerians Themselves

The story behind the bold new uniforms the Super Eagles will be wearing at this year's World Cup.

Partner content from Nike

The new Nigeria football kits are not even out yet, but they're already causing pandemonium with Nigerian press reporting that there have been already 3 million worldwide orders. And it's easy to see why—the designs are daring with a bold nod to Nigerian culture that is very in vogue right now. In addition, UK Grime MCs with Nigerian roots, Skepta and Tinie Tempah have already been photographed in the new jerseys causing a surge of social media chatter about the new look.

But while rock star endorsements and an edgy new design will certainly bring attention, there's no doubt that the real bulk of the demand is due to what is ramping up to be a significant moment in the history of Nigerian football—the 2018 World Cup.

If you don't already know, Nigeria is entering this year's World Cup in Russia with some of the most exciting young players we've seen in years. With youthful talent like Wilfred Ndidi, Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho—all 21—and veteran Olympic captain Jon Obi Mikel ready to take the field in Moscow all eyes are on Nigeria to advance out of Group D and challenge the world for a chance at the cup.

The plan here is to outdo the teams previous international achievement, the 1996 Olympic Gold Medal in men's football which is commemorated on the home kit with a badge recolored in the colors of the '96 gold medal-winning "Dream Team."

The home kit also pays subtle homage to Nigeria's '94 shirt— the first Nigerian team to qualify for the tournament—with its eagle wing-inspired black-and-white sleeve and green torso. But if the allusion to the pasty is subtle, the new supercharged patterns are anything but.

The look of the kit feels particularly in touch with what's going on in youth fashion both in Nigeria and the world and that's no accident. Much of the collection comes in bold print, both floral and Ankara-inspired chevrons, ideas that we've seen entering street wear collections and on the runway in recent years. That's because African and Nigerian style has become a big deal internationally of late. And not just in style, the country's huge cultural industries from Nollywood to Afrobeats have announced themselves on the world stage. This cultural ascendance is reflected in the design.

Courtesy of Nike

"With Nigeria, we wanted to tap into the attitude of the nation," notes Dan Farron, Nike Football Design Director. "We built this kit and collection based on the players' full identities." Along with other members of the Nike Football design group, Farron dug into learning more about Nigeria's players, "We started to see trends in attitude and energy connecting the athletes to music, fashion and more. They are part of a resoundingly cool culture."

In fact OkayAfrica has covered the team's love for music before—even dedicating an edition of the African in Your Earbuds mixtape to John Obi Mikel, Alex Iwobi & Kelechi Iheanacho's favorite songs to get hyped up before a game. When we asked the charismatic trio, they gave us list that included many of the huge Nigerian artists that we love, like Tekno, Wizkid, Yemi Alade and Nigerian-American rapper Wale and also, perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, Celine Dion.

Nigerian culture has gone global partly through its infectious energy but also because of its vibrant diaspora populations that bring it with them wherever they land. Lagos-born Alex Iwobi whose goal in the 73rd minute to qualified Nigeria for this summer's tournament spent most of his life in London but still reps Naija to the fullest.

"I grew up in England, but Nigeria is my homeland," he says. "When I scored that goal, the players were dancing, the fans were playing trumpets and bringing drums…there was just so much passion and energy. It is always an honor to wear the white and green. To compete this summer is not just our dream, it is also the dream of our fans. Together, we all represent Naija."

This similar energy can be felt in Nigerian communities from Brooklyn to Peckham and even in China. Naija culture is truly global and no doubt the fans will embody the Naija spirit wherever they will be watching the games this summer.

If you're wondering, Nike isn't simply hopping on the Nigeria bandwagon. The apparel company has been sponsoring the Nigerian football since 2015, supplying kits to all nine of the Nigeria Football Federation teams at every level, including the men's and women's senior teams, men's and women's under-20 teams, men's and women's under-17 teams, men's and women's Olympic teams, and the men's beach football team.

So while the kit is available for purchase worldwide June 1, just know that you'll be competing with millions to get your own official shirts for the World Cup. If you are in New York, find the kit for sale exclusively at Nike's 21 Mercer store.

And please join OkayAfrica and Nike on June 2nd for Naija Worldwide as we celebrate Team Nigeria's journey to Russia in style.


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Adekunle Gold's much-anticipated sophomore album, About 30, has arrived.

The 14-track album boasts features from Seun Kuti, Flavor and British-Nigerian soul singer Jacob Banks, who appears on a remix to the popular lead single "Ire." The album sees the artist flexing immense versatility and range as he delivers emotional ballads, folk-Inspired cuts sung in Yoruba, and a few highlife-tinged summer jams.

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