Amel Larrieux Speaks Ahead Of The Cape Town International Jazz Festival

Amel Larrieux speaks ahead of her headlining performance at the 2015 Cape Town International Jazz Festival.

Grammy nominated singer-songwriter Amel Larrieux will head to South Africa later this month to headline the 16th edition of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. The former Groove Theory vocalist, whose 5th solo album 'Ice Cream Everyday' was one of Okayplayer's Top Releases of 2013, will be joined by the likes of Hugh Masekela and Oliver Mtukudzi, Beatenberg, Thundercat, The Brothers Moves On, Cannibal Ox, and her 20-year-old daughter Sky, who's also part of her band. Okayafrica contributor Nkuli Mlangeni caught up with Larrieux ahead of this year's jazz festival.

Nkuli Mlangeni for Okayafrica: Are you excited about performing at the Cape Town Jazz Fest?

Amel Larrieux: My last two years in high school I went to an alternative school where you could do internships in companies that were interesting to you. And my two choices were the Zomba Music Publishing that was connected to Jive Records, and the Africa fund. That was the coalition that was trying to abolish apartheid in the early 90's. I not only had to work there but I had to also write an essay about it. I was learning about the ANC and all these people involved and wrote about it. And because of this experience I’ve always felt a connection to South Africa and always wanted to go so bad. Although my mom has always been involved in African studies from the horn to West Africa, for me finding South Africa on my own term as a teenager made me feel this affinity.

OKA: Your husband is originally from Haiti. Does he still have family there? Can you speak Creole?

Larrieux: My husband left Haiti when he was 6-years-old. His father brought them to the US and he doesn't have much of a connection to Haiti the country anymore, and most of his family lives in America. He grew up in a Haitian community in Long Island in New York and Florida and he's very much an American-Haitian. He can speak Creole and I can only say a few words in the language. Unfortunately I didn't dedicate myself and take time to studying other languages but I would love to do that in the future when I have more time. One day I would like to go to Haiti for our kids to see and experience that part of their culture.

OKA: Tell us about your style. What influences your look?

Larrieux: Around the time when we shot the "Get Up" video I was designing my own wardrobe and the influence was a combination of my obsession with Tuareg hair braiding, which I was really into. My hair was very long at the time and I would look at pictures of Tuareg women and the incredible beading. But I was also super interested in Afghan tapestry and textiles as well as the hill tribes in Thailand and Burma and there was a line you could connect between the Eastern tribes and the African tribes like the Ndebele women in South Africa with the neck pieces, and that’s why the "Get Up" video looks that way. I was designing the clothes and I would draw things and my stylist helped me source all the stuff, and we put it all together. I love design and personal style and I really enjoy looking at street style photos.

OKA: You recently launched two kid's audio books under your label, Blisslife Records. Can you tell us more about this?

Larrieux: We are publishing children's stories under Blisslife Publishing with my husband, and one of my daughter's childhood friends' parents are involved in publishing and the father has a sister who writes children's books. And they kind of partnered up with us and we published two of her books and the mother of the child is also an illustrator and children's story writer and so one of them is her story. I'm narrating them for the audio books. And they are available on Amazon and iTunes.

I'm getting ready to record two more books. Laru [Larrieux's husband] and I have doubled in writing our own children stories and we even have a treatment for a kiddies children show so will see where that goes. I love to do voices and I've done voice-over work before for cartoons and stuff. I would like to do funny voices and characters but do not want to be like an actress. So this is fun for me.

OKA: What does sisterhood mean to you?

Larrieux: Because of what I know of how black women have been treated since the beginning of all this debauchery, whether it was on the continent or in America, I have this protectiveness of the black female body. So it’s not like a puritanical thing for me where I'm like "oh I don't show certain things," or like slashing women who do that. I say it on one of my songs, we are either thought to hide our curves or other girls are thought to expose them but cannot own them. Like it’s always an extreme, there is never a balance and it’s never our decision. I feel beyond being a mother, having that experience as a girl growing up with this knowledge of what happens to our bodies as black women, and it's the same for black men, the same exploitation that makes me protective of the minds of our youth makes me protective of us as females and of our brothers.

OKA: Tell us about your latest album Ice Cream Everyday. How is it doing over a year since its release?

Larrieux: My projects never really resonate with me until much later on, and when I say resonate I mean like I don’t become aware of what they are doing in the world or how they are affecting people really, until like later when I'm not actively working on it in that sense. And I feel very much like I'm still working on this album, like making sure that people know that it’s out, touring in support of it.

I'm grateful for the things I hear but I hear it and it goes through one ear because I'm still like it's just work, work, work. And when you are independent it's really important to make the distinction between the experience as the artist and the experience as the business owner, because you can forget that it's an experience that can be more than work.

But it is also work and I think that's probably what keeps me grounded in a way. People often say to me "you're so grounded, you seem so normal." And I mean it's true I would never think that anyone would be excited to meet me, or like I don't think I'm going to go somewhere and someone is going to ask for my autograph. I don't wear make-up most of the time so if someone is like "can I have a picture," I'm never ready because I really do think of it in a way as work.

Amel Larrieux performs live at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival March 27-28.

Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njere, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njere. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko formed a creative and activist hub, called PAWA 254, with Mwangi, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njere represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njere's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njere, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has three cinematographers, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njere and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.

Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating. They're putting us on the same level as porn.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'

"SOFTIE" Movie Poster

Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko

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