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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.

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6 Things We Learned About African Migration to Europe in 2019 From a New UN Report

UNDP representatives presented their "Scaling Fences: Voices of Irregular African Migrants to Europe" report last night at Okay Space. Here's what we found out.

Yesterday, Okay Space hosted a discussion between UN luminaries Ahunna Eziakonwa, Mohamed Yahya and OkayAfrica CEO, Abiola Oke about the new UNDP report, Scaling Fences: Voices of Irregular African Migrants to Europe. The report examines young Africans who are leaving their homes to make the dangerous journey to Europe for economic opportunities—not solely for asylum or to escape persecution. The evening was both enlightening and sobering, and the main findings may be a little different than what you might expect.

Immigration to Europe from Africa is roughly 90 percent lower than what it was in 2015.

In 2015, slightly over 1 million Africans left for Europe. In 2018, it was just over 100,000. However, the percentage of those who drown on the journey has increased. In 2015, it was 1.6 percent of that million, while it grew to 2 percent in 2018. Meaning just over 2,000 people died enroute in 2018 alone. It is a disturbing factor that, four years on, more people are dying proportionately than when the large migrations began.

Even though most of Africa is rural, most of the youth leaving the continent for economic reasons are from the urban areas.


85 percent of those who the report identified came from urban cities or towns, though only 45 percent of Africans overall live in those urban areas. This means that most of them are coming from regions with "relatively low levels of deprivation." Analysts believe the rapid urbanization of many African cities could be a contributing factor. Benin City, Nigeria, for instance, has urbanized 122 percent in only ten years. These cities cannot actually support the people—and their ambitions and talents—who live there. It plateaus and does not allow for further upward mobility.

Only 2 percent of those who left say knowing the dangers would have deterred them.

This means 98 percent would do it again, despite the knowledge of fatalities and difficulties in crossing. The appeal of elsewhere is greater than death. This realization is crucial for all nations to better comprehend the true elements belying migration, particularly for those that this report is concerned with. Of the 1,970 migrants from 39 African countries interviewed for the report, almost all of them are willing to face death for economic opportunities abroad than stay home. As most of the migrants had relatively comfortable lives at home, they are not migrating to flee death or persecution as with asylum seekers. This prompts great questions and led the report to look at the issue from four angles: home life in Africa, motivations for leaving, life in Europe, motivations for returning.

58 percent of those who left were employed or in school in their home country.

Not only that, in almost every demographic and country, those who left had a considerably higher amount of education than their peers. From Malu, those leaving had an average of five years of education, compared to one year with peers in their age group and two years for the national average. In Cameroon, those leaving had an average 12 years, their peers had seven and the national average of six. Even when broken down by gender, both men and women who leave have about nine years of education while the national average is five and three, respectively.

Though the average African family size is five, most of those who leave have an average family size of 10.

When asked, migrants said their main motivation to leave is to send money home. This information is important as it may impact the motivations for needing to leave. The report reasons that an increase in population may also be playing a role in the motivations to leave. It was also reported that those who go abroad and find work send an average 90 percent of their earnings to their families. Essentially, they are leaving existing jobs to live on 10 percent of their new wage, highlighting that working below minimum wage in Europe is more prosperous.

Though 70 percent of those in Europe said they wanted to stay permanently, those who were working were more likely to want to return to their home country.

Conversely, the majority of those who did want to stay in Europe were not earning anything, 64 percent of them, and 67 percent did not have a legal right to work. Over half of those who did want to return home had a legal right to work. Analysts reason that those who did want to stay would likely change their mind once they had an income. This correlation speaks to a significant relationship between work and migration permanence. It also underlines the claim that migration for this group is focused solely on economic results as opposed to social factors.


***

What was most striking about the event, however, was the strong feeling communicated in the space about exchanges between Africans regarding what needs to be done. The discussion did not only surround the facts and figures alone, but also the humanity behind understanding why people migrate. At one point, when addressing the crowd of various influential people on the continent and in the diaspora, Eziakonwa said "What are we missing here? What are we doing by leaving young Africans out of the development discussion? Our programs are clearly failing our African youth."

Later, Yahya responded to a question by stating there was certainly a cultural barrier in which Africans do not often address, listen to or respect the youth. "I can say by looking at you that no one in this room would be given a true say," he said. "This is clearly part of the issue." When asked what can be done by others, the response was to work to change the narrative, to focus on prosperity rather than charity and to provide better access and platforms for African youth to share their stories so that the idea of who migrants are shifts. And so we, as Africans, can better know ourselves.

Check out some photos from last night below with photos from Polly Irungu. Follow and share in the changing of that narrative via #ScalingFencesUNDP and #MyJourney.

Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu

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Anjel Boris, Question Mark, 2019, Acrylic and posca on canvas, 133 by 7cm. Image courtesy of Out Of Africa and @artxlagos

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