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Bebe Zahara Benet speaks about her upcoming EP 'Broken English'.

In Conversation With Cameroonian Drag Artist Bebe Zahara Benet: 'You Don't Stop Doing Your Work'

The U.S.-based Cameroonian artist speaks to us about her upcoming EP, Broken English, and how she's navigating the world of music amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Bebe Zahara Benet is three things: fierce. fabulous, and a force. For avid followers and fans of the reality show RuPaul's Drag Race, you may remember Bebe Zahara Benet as the winner of the inaugural season of the program back in 2009. Since then, she's gone on to star in TLC's Dragnificent and more recently, has been back in the recording studio working on her upcoming EP, Broken English.

Last week, she dropped "Banjo," the first single o the EP. It's a fun, energetic and uninhibited number that likens romantic pursuits to the sweet harmonies of the stringed instrument. Naturally, the accompanying music video is just as vibrant and light-hearted.

The Cameroonian drag artist moved to the United States when she was 19-years-old and has grown to see herself as belonging to two homes. She's put out a ton of music including including the EPs Face and Kisses & Feathers, as well as a number of singles including "Fun Tonite", "Get Fierce (Lose Yourself)" and "Starting a Fire." Currently based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, she says that it's been two years since she's put out original music and it's time to give her fans what they've been asking for.

We spoke with Bebe Zahara Benet on lockdown from her home in Minneapolis, and got to hear more of what went into creating her upcoming project, the challenges of being an alternative artist from a conservative African country and how she's navigating the world of music during the coronavirus outbreak.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Bebe Zahara Benet.Bebe Zahara Benet pictured above. Photo by Bird Lambro

You're set to drop your debut EP Broken English. In light of the coronavirus outbreak, how are you navigating that space as an artist who still needs to put out music?

Many of us artists have been negatively impacted by the coronavirus. And many of us make our living from performing live shows and from touring. It's definitely presented a challenge to our livelihoods. And I can say that personally, but I think a lot of artists would say the same thing. What I always say though is that we are not strangers to hardship or adversity. We are banded together and we have managed to still make meaningful connections with our fans while sharing our art with the world. The internet now is becoming our best friend. There's always a way that we work on staying connected with the fans, and the supporters, and just spreading the love and positivity, until things get back to the norm.

How would you describe your state's response to the outbreak as well as the broader response from a national government point of view?

Well, I don't know if enough is ever enough when you're dealing with a crisis because there's always a new development every day. There's always something new, so I don't know. But one thing I would say, especially with Minneapolis or Minnesota, the state in general, they are doing everything to take precautions, to follow the rules––we are quarantining ourselves. They're really putting things in place. We're actually on a lockdown as well too where you can only go to essentials which would be the grocery stores, and the pharmacy, or the doctor, and that's just open for a certain amount of time. So, all the precautions are still being taken and we are very aware as well too.

Back to the EP. When did your love affair with music begin?

Music has always been part of my DNA. Growing up as a child, music was always part of my life. I sang in choirs, I directed them when I started getting older, and later on, I started teaching music. I would say it's a thread that has continued throughout my life. It's in my veins. And to be very honest with you, I'm very hands-on with all the songs that I create. All the musicality, the songwriting process, the mixing, and my background is what makes me so passionate about it. I always tell people that I've always been a student of music. I remember growing up my dad played the guitar and my mom [sang], they were not always the best singers, but the West they love to sing. And sometimes it's not about hitting the notes, it's all about how the music moves you. It's what makes you want to sing and the joy that it brings.

BeBe Zahara Benet - Banjoyoutu.be

Do you feel that your individuality and the kind of music that you're making right now, especially coming from a conservative country like Cameroon, contributes to more diverse voices being heard?

It's been challenging, but it should not be challenging. I feel like my culture has a huge part to play with who I am as an artist, and I want people to be able to see it, and celebrate it, and love it, and be aware of it, be aware of where we come from, the richness of where we come from. But I think that when it comes to the culture itself, because it's so conservative, there are a lot of artists like us that are scared of even being who we are and being the kind of artists we want to be. But as an artist, you don't stop being what your gift is that God has given you to do. You don't stop living your purpose regardless of the challenges, because even being here in the US, it doesn't mean that I don't have my own challenges as the kind of artist that I am. You don't stop spreading, or creating beautiful art, beautiful work and raising the flag of wherever you are coming from.

You recently released your single "Banjo." What inspired that song and how did you connect it to the visuals that we see in the music video?

"Banjo" is the first single of my upcoming EP Broken English. I wanted to flip the standard-issue love song on it's head. "Banjo" is about someone who isn't impressed by cliche pickup lines, flashes of wealth or smooth talk. I wanted a song that was a feel-good song about knowing who you are, being confident and dismissing anyone who's not willing to approach you on your own terms. People always want to give you the sweet talk, and you're like, "No, no, no, no, no. Don't give me the sweet talk."

A banjo is a West African guitar. You create such beautiful music when you play the instrument. And that's why you juxtapose that as the people that come with the "sweet music" and then you're like, "You want to play me like a banjo?" When you look at the visuals, it's a fusion. It's very colorful and very bright. It feels as much as the lyrical content, it's about what we're saying, but it feels happy. It does something to you that just instills more confidence, and it definitely makes you want to move and dance.

"You don't stop living your purpose regardless of the challenges."

What went into the naming of the EP, Broken English, and how do you feel it stands out?

It's been two years since I released original music. What inspired me, it's like I wanted to create a body of work that represented the two homes that I have, which is my birth home, which is West Africa, as well as my chosen home, which is America. So, I wanted to create this fusion of where you felt like it was a melting pot. It involves Caribbean melodies and afrobeats rhythms with pop sensibilities.

Broken English is a body of work that represents all my experiences like that, but also things like, "Hey listen, we all come from different places, and we all speak differently and I will speak like this. I'm going to pronounce this like this and that is that." If people who don't know anything about BeBe Zahara Benet, when they listen to the work, they are just going to love it. My fans and supporters will discover new things about the work; something fresh.

In terms of the process of making this EP, what would you say was one of the highlights and equally, some of the challenges?

I set out to create a project that really spoke to my love of global music. I wanted to create something which was feel-good and authentic to me, while relating to my audience. I partnered with a Nigerian producer based in Minneapolis and we worked to create such an eclectic set of tracks. I worked with a few songwriters to help me capture the stories that I wanted to tell, and the creativity just took over. It took a few months to complete it, and to be very honest with you, I'm so thrilled about how it turned out.

In terms of the challenges, I think one of the biggest challenges was time. Time was the biggest challenge for me I would say because at the same time I was working on the EP project, I was also shooting a reality television show with the network TLC. So, I would have all these long days I would have to travel and shoot, and then have to come back and go right into the studio to record.

What are some of the artists you'd like to collaborate with in the future?

I would love to collaborate with people like Tiwa Savage and Yemi Alade. I would love to do work with Angelique Kidjo. When I was growing up, Yvonne Chaka Chaka inspired me. I grew up listening to her music. There are so many artists that are up-and-coming and that are established that I would just love to work with. Davido is a good one as well too. I would love to collaborate. Why not?

Culture
Image courtesy of the artist

Spotlight: NK Is The Future and Star of His Own Show

We spoke with the 18-year-old visual artist about creating art from his surroundings and empowering his generation.

In our 'Spotlight' series, we highlight the work of photographers, visual artists, multimedia artists, and more who are producing vibrant, original work.

In our latest piece, we spotlight Ghanaian digital artist NK. The self-proclaimed Afrocentric visual artist's love for drawing and sketching at a young age pushed him to explore the many ways in which modern technology supports and advances creativity. Simply playing around with a popular photo editing app propelled the young artist into a world of self discovery, empowerment, and a keen understanding about how big the Universe we call home actually is. As the digital creative puts it, "I think my interest in space and what could exist outside the world we live in also had an impact on my desire to incorporate futuristic technology with cultural art." Armed with a keen interest in all things Afrofuturist, NK's futuristic eye has gained the teen artist recognition from some of his industry faves, too.

We spoke with the 18-year-old visual artist about creating art from his surroundings and empowering his generation.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.


Describe your background as an artist and the journey you have taken to get to where it is today.

I grew up with an interest in art and drawing. I loved to draw and sketch, usually with both pen and pencils, whatever was interesting around me. I would make compositions of items within my surroundings and paste them on the walls of my parent’s rooms. My interest in the digital world peaked around the ages of 14 and 15 -- I've always been intrigued by astronauts and futuristic technology. I started digital art in 2017 when I created 2D pieces on the PicsArt app on a phone at home. Eventually, I gained access to the Adobe Photoshop software.

Artists like David Alabo, Beeple, Basquiat, and Juan Carlos Ribas inspired me and also made me think of what I could achieve if I tried. I spent a lot of time watching tutorial videos and related content online to be able to develop my skill. Initially, I created my pieces by combining a number of stock images and online resources to create an entirely new fictional scene. Around early 2020 I had a creative block and was desperate to find new sources of inspiration. Over time I came to the realization that my inspiration surrounded me and that I shouldn’t have to force creativity. I did more research on Afrocentric art and stepped out of my comfort zone to create my first Afrocentric pieces, “Gateway to Paradise” and “Modernization”. These pieces attracted a lot of attention and also the smArt magazine which granted me my first interview and magazine feature opening the door to new relationships in the creative industry, various opportunities, and collaborations.

What are the central themes in your work?

My work is mainly centered around the expression of development in the Black experience and empowering African Culture. I try to factor in Afrofuturism and Afrocentrism in making my pieces whether it’s how my models are dressed, their accessories, or represented by items that surround them. My pieces are intended to put forward the message of creating brighter futures and realities where Africans thrive. This helps give my pieces in themselves an identity.

How did you decide on using a digital medium for your art?

Even though I do draw and sketch, I also feel very comfortable using digital software which to me offers endless possibilities. I believe that using digital media as an African artist helps bridge the gap between technology and cultural art, directly falling in line with my field of interest, Afrofuturism.

How has the pandemic affected you creatively?

The start of the pandemic in 2020 was devastating. A lot happened during that period. It was during the lockdown that I made the decision to transition into creating Afrocentric art. We were made to take a break from school, which freed up a lot of my time. I had the time to research, watch tutorials and practice more. It might have been one of the most defining years for me as an artist. It also granted me a larger audience as everyone was made to work from home. I actually learned a lot and worked hard during that period and this led to my work improving massively.

Can you describe your artistic relationship with ‘Afro-futurism’?

Afrofuturism is a theme I can really relate to as a young African. It's our responsibility to contribute to our development as a people. I think my interest in space and what could exist outside the world we live in also had an impact on my desire to incorporate futuristic technology with cultural art. I like to think of what we can achieve, the seemingly impossible things, and then I pour out those thoughts and ideas into my art and that is why I immediately fell in love with Afrofuturism. We are the future, the stars of our own show.

Can you talk about your use of colors and accessories in your art?

The most dominant figure in my pieces is usually the black figure/model which usually stands out as the main subject. Regarding the backgrounds, I usually try to make a scene with colors to create a particular mood or in some of my pieces to complement the clothes of the model, usually African prints. They range from solid backgrounds to gradients and various sky textures. I use different cultural accessories both for beautification and also to provide that Afrocentric feel and message. I love to use various beads, bracelets, and traditional cloths with interesting textures to convey these messages of who we are as Africans and where we come from.


Artwork by NK

"Cultural Adornment"

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Nigerian-American Jackie Aina Catches Flames For Insensitive New Candle

The s-candle burns bright on Twitter as the Youtuber's 'Sòrò Sókè' candle sparks fury over the political meaning behind the name.

We didn't think this week we would see drama from a candle release. But here we are.

Nigerian-American Youtuber Jackie Aina has angered the Nigerian online community after the latest release from her lifestyle candle brand Forvr Mood. The candle, titled"Sòrò Sókè" which translates to "Speak Up", has the Nigerian community up in arms as the saying was originally used during the inhumane #ENDSARS saga that saw the Nigerian government willfully gun down peaceful protesters.

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Photo Credit: Victor Lopez

'Ile Owo' Director Dare Olaitan on Exploring the Human Condition Through Film

Director Dare Olaitan talks about his filmmaking process and his attempt to re-educate the audience on the impact of unchecked capitalism.

Dare Olaitan was 26 when his first feature film, Ojukokoro: Greed,, was released in the cinemas. The crime thriller, which was released in 2016, received positive reviews and was nominated for the Africa Movie Academy Award for Best Nigerian Film in 2018. Knock Out Blessing, his second film, also got an AMAA nomination the following year. Dwindle, his third, — which is coming to Netflix later this month — was co-directed with Kayode Kasum last year.

In his latest film, Ile Owo, Olaitan aims to capture the horrific by exploring social hierarchies, poverty, class politics, and religion in the Nigerian society. The psychological trailer stars Immaculata Oko, Tina Mba, Akin Lewis, Bisola Aiyeola, Efe Iwara and a host of others.

In this interview with OkayAfrica, Olaitan talks about his filmmaking process and his attempt to re-educate the audience on the impact of unchecked capitalism.

Ile-Owo screenshot two women

Photo Credit: Victor Lopez

Ile-Owo is your fourth film, but the first horror. What drew you to this genre and why did you decide horror was the most fitting form to tell the story?

I think horror movies are a great way to deal with social issues by motifs and metaphors to illustrate things that I am concerned about at the moment. I am also interested in the global interest in the horror genre and its ability to travel. I would say Ile Owo isn’t a true horror film. It’s closer to a psychological thriller.

Of course, horror is not new in Nigerian films, and quite a number of millennials, including you, who grew up in the country can attest to watching them. Was there something you wanted to do differently?

I feel like horror exploded in the Nigerian film industry as a reaction to the dictatorship of [Sani] Abacha in the early '90s. This made our films metaphors for the social problems with evangelical and pentecostal churches and movements growing in that time. Ile Owo is a retread of those thoughts and feelings. Just updated for 2022.

It's interesting you mentioned religious movements. Ile Owo confronts social hierarchies, hardship, and the ways religion serves as succor for many. How much can relate to that?

I think it’s impossible to grow up in a third world country and not witness the impact economics has on many people. Religion creates some sense of structure and safety in a chaotic environment. The worse the economic situation of a region the higher the religious fervor.

Can you talk a bit about your technique, particularly on evoking fear on the big screen?

I knew my limitations and the limitations of the crew, so I tried to evoke fear in the mind of the viewer. By creating situations where the audience’s imagination completes the scare thus making it all the more personal.

And did you achieve that? Do you think the audience had enough material to work with?

I think to an extent. There is always room to grow. I learned lessons, I can say that much.

What lessons?

What Nigerians like to watch and how to structure things better. In terms of production, I’ve never done anything of this magnitude. I learned more about VFX.

You've spoken in the past about your interest in making seven films based on the seven deadly sins, which will be titled after each sin. You've made Ojukokoro (Greed). Where does Ile Owo come in? And why is exploring these themes important to you?

The seven deadly sins are an important thematic element for me. They represent some commonality in the human experience. Things people in every culture can relate to and have experienced in their daily lives. Ile Owo is not part of the seven. Igberaga (Pride) is the next one on the slate.

Ile-Owo screenshot man in car

Photo Credit: Victor Lopez

What exactly did you want to say in Ile Owo?

Ile Owo is really a film about the subjection of Nigerian women in the traditional marriage structures, how they are exploited by the expectations of culture and lose their lives and youth to support men who use them for personal gain. That was the nugget that informed the writing and creation of the story. I just had to obfuscate through metaphors and motifs.

Past conversations on social media have shown that some key players in Nollywood don't take criticism very well. How do you navigate unpleasant remarks about your work?

I can only speak for myself but I know I have no problem with well-intentioned criticism. I make art so it’s nice to get the thoughts of the people it was created for. I think the problem comes in with poorly-intentioned criticism. I have gotten reviews that called me stupid or foolish. I don’t think reviews like that help anyone and make it harder for creatives to express themselves.

How does your background in Economics and Business Management influence your work as a filmmaker?

It experiences the way I view life as it was the first viewpoint I used to parse reality. It’s evident in all my work as my subject matter almost always covers inequality and the rising gap between the rich and the poor. I think capitalism has become unchecked and I am doing my little part to re-educate the audience.

I recall a character hallucinating in Ojukokoro. There's a similar element in Ile Owo, portrayed by the protagonist's father. You seem keen on exploring the intersection of mental illness and the supernatural.

What is mental illness and what is supernatural? Are they not two shirts cut from the same fabric? I am not sure to be honest. I just like to mess with themes that are interesting to me. I think there is a thing among indigenous creatures where people who have mental illnesses are seen to be closer to the supernatural. Perhaps this is an extension of that.

Director Dare Olaitan

Photo Credit: Victor Lopez

As the writer and director, you must have had the most influence on the outcome of this film. What other factors impacted the production? If you could change anything in the process, from ideation to premiere, what would that be?

Nigeria. Making films in Nigeria is very hard. Filmmaking is akin to war. We must conquer the reality and bend it to our will in order to for 90-120 minutes, capture the audience in disbelief and play them to our wishes. Nigeria makes this hard as life here is already war. Budgetary concerns, technical inability to accomplish some of our goals are things that will always impact production. I wish I had more time and money.

What are the three things filmmakers just starting out should bear in mind?

Your message. Your reasons for doing it. Your tone. These things will guide you and stop you from missteps. I wish I had that knowledge when I started.

It's fascinating how you're able to move across different genres: crime, comedy, and psychological thriller. You're a big fan of Quentin Tarantino, and that's evident in your work. Who are some of the filmmakers that have had the most influence on your work and why?

Robert Rodriguez. Martin Scorsese. [Francis Ford] Coppola. These are the people whose films I look up too. We might have the same content in terms of premise but I like to see what they do to navigate problems because as a director all you are doing is really solving problems and translating ideas into images. I watched a lot of their film commentaries when I started out, so their voices sort of guide me.


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Listen to Fireboy DML's New Album 'Playboy'

Featuring "Bandana," "Peru," "Playboy" and many more hits.

Nigeria's highly-buzzingFireboy DMLcomes out with his new album, Playboy, via YBNL Nation/Empire.

The 14-song record follows the afrobeats trailblazer's hot streak from his sophomore album, Apollo, which debuted at #14 on Billboard World Albums. Fireboy has seen constant success lately with his massive single "Peru" making rounds across the world, recebing a RIAA-certified Gold plaque and, even, getting an Ed Sheeran remix.

"Peru" also hit #1 on the official Afrobeats chart in the UK and topped charts in at least 22 countries including Nigeria, Tanzania, Liberia, Jamaica, France, Kenya, Ireland, and others.

The original and Ed Sheeran remix of "Peru" both feature on Playboy, as well as standout singles like "Bandana" featuring Asake and "Playboy." The album also includes features from Rema (on "Compromise"), Shenseea (on "Diana") and more.

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