Photo: Ally Almore

The Uncompromising Style of CJ Run

We talk to the Nigerian-British-Midwestern rapper and songwriter on their music, their style and what it means to be queer, Nigerian and proud.

CJ Run's music spans genres and diasporas with quick witted lyrics full of charm and swagger. On songs like "The Ascent" and "Tangerine" tales of queer love meet stories about the lives of third culture kids, like CJ.

Born to West African parents in Munich, Germany, the 20-year-old rapper, singer-songwriter spent their formative years in Northampton, England before moving to North Carolina for high school. It was at the very end of high school that CJ, who uses they/them pronouns, came in to their queerness, learning more about their sexuality first and gender not long after.

On The Ascent, CJ laments about those who play dumb to their pronouns. "They, them, this that knick knack paddywack / How many times can I break it down?" the rapper clarifies. Moments prior on the same track, CJ brags to potential suitors "I am that guy, I am that girl, run your world."

At the moment, CJ has something of a cult following as a young rapper in Champaign, Illinois, the college town CJ now calls home. The cult, of course, is spreading. CJ, who once attended the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, recently left school to focus on music, splitting time between Champaign and big city Chicago.

A hopeful musician. Queer. Nigerian. Above all, CJ is proud. Proud to be queer, proud to be Nigerian, and unwilling to compromise on either. That same pride also comes across in CJ's personal style. Fresh, genderless—yet yearning for tradition. In the photos and Q&A below, we teamed up in Chicago with photographer Ally Almore to capture CJ's uncompromising pride.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Photos: Ally Almore

How do you describe your sound?

It's a mixture of everything that I grew up listening to. It's R&B, it's hip-hop, it's pop and it's also Afro-influenced. I grew up listening to a lot of high-life and Afrobeat and Afro-juju music. In a lot of my latest releases and music, I've been trying to incorporate things from Nigerian languages, like Igbo and Yoruba. Sometimes I try to break it down in a song and do a line in Yoruba and the rest of it in English. My music has a very diasporic sound. It's everything that I enjoy.

How would you describe your style?

During the summer I definitely look like a dad on vacation. I like my floral button ups and I tuck them in. I love bold colors. I dress pretty sporty sometimes. I love sneakers, Adidas being my favorite. I've also been doing the two necklaces thing a lot more lately. My style is ever-changing as I get older and switch up my gender expression but as of right now we're going with this sporty slash preppy hybrid.

Photo: Ally Almore

Could you tell us a bit more about how you came to understand your queerness?

If I look back on my childhood, I can definitely say "yeah, you were very gay." Or like "yeah, you definitely had questions about your gender." But because I didn't have a lot of access to information regarding being queer, I just thought that it was me making stuff up in my head, me daydreaming too much. So I just ignored it.

For me, it was coming to terms with my sexuality first, and then gender. I realized I was bisexual—I realized that I was attracted to men and women. When I was around 17 at the end of my senior year of high school I went to a Christian music festival, of all places, and I met somebody there that I really connected with. I knew that it was more than platonic. It was the first very blatant queer crush for me that I was just like yeah, no, I can't pretend it's not a thing any more. I feel too much. I definitely like girls. But I knew I wasn't completely disinterested in boys. As time went on, I learned more about the difference between sexual attraction and romantic attraction, and that helped me define my bisexuality.

Six months after realizing I was bi, I started to experiment with my clothing and my hair a bit more than I used to. I was 17, so my mom was letting me pick my clothes and I was going to thrift stores. I really liked wearing big button ups and men's shirts because they made me feel cool. I liked the androgynous look. I got my mom to braid the sides of my head, instead of shaving them.

One day, I was looking in the mirror and thought to myself "you're not really a girl, are you?" I looked very androgynous and I looked a little more masculine than I'd ever done before, and I was just like "I really like this look." I was like "I don't feel like a girl." So I looked it up, basically. I looked up the fact that you can not identify with the gender you were assigned but you can be like a-gender, or bi-gender or gender fluid. That was very affirming for me.

When I was younger, I always was envious of boys. I always wanted to be like boys, but not quite. I didn't know how to define it. And I knew I wasn't a trans man. But I didn't know any other way to be. When I was 17, that summer finding all those terms affirmed what my five-year-old self knew but didn't have the words for.

Photos: Ally Almore

What does it mean to defy certain traditional gender roles?

Colonialism brought very rigid gender roles to a number of African countries. I know that in Igbo culture and in a lot of cultures in Africa, as the girl-child, I'm supposed to live at home until I get married. But my brother is allowed to move out once he finished college or turns 18. The girl-child is traditionally supposed to stay home and wait until a man comes and takes you from your parents' house. But since I am neither a girl nor am I waiting for a man necessarily to be married to, I don't fit into that narrative. That's just the simplest way to put it.

I also don't wear traditional womenswear. Finding Nigerian men's clothing that fits me is something that I have to figure out. I found a place that makes unisex Nigerian garb, which is really awesome. I think it's something that we need to start doing more. Even with cis-women, they don't want to always wear the women's clothing.

I think that us as Nigerian people we need to do a lot of unlearning of what colonialism and white supremacy has put on us as a country and as a culture. In Igbo folklore, there are tales and stories of the Ezenwanyi. Ezenwanyi literally means "a woman with the power of a king." It's a two-spirit gender identity and I believe one of my great-grandmothers was actually one.

Photos: Ally Almore

What advice would you offer to young Africans who are struggling to understand their queer identity?

I would say that I understand and I want all of you to know that you're not anything that hasn't already been. You're not doing anything that hasn't been done before. Being queer is just as African or just as Nigerian as jollof rice or the language that you speak. Don't feel like you can't be both at the same time. Don't let anybody tell you that there's no room for you, because there is. Having to come out and face your family is very scary, and can be very dangerous. But only you can define who you are.

Do you feel a sense of pride in being both African and queer?

Even though I'm a minority, and I face a lot of scrutiny because of it, I'm very proud of being queer. I'm very proud of queer culture, especially black queer culture. I don't have a problem being proud of being African and being queer at the same time. When I did first come out, it was hard. My family wasn't as accepting in the beginning. It felt like they were making me choose and making me feel like my queerness didn't have any room in being African. It took me awhile to be able to be comfortable to proudly say that "I am queer and I am Nigerian." Right now, nobody can tell me anything. Nobody can tell me that I am less of one thing because of another. I am very confident and very steadfast in both identities.

Photo: Ally Almore

Is there anything that's been on your mind that you wanted to talk about?

When I talk about myself I'm like "yeah, I'm defying gender in Nigerian and African communities," but the thing is I'm not defying anything. We invented gender fluidity and neutrality. It's been a part of our history for centuries, but it's been erased because of colonialism and white supremacy. It's something I hope that as a people we can come to unlearn and realize that we've been doing this all along. Queerness is not a white concept. It's something that we've been doing from the beginning of time. My existence does not have to be such a revolutionary act.

What's your favorite Nigerian dish?

My favorite Nigerian dish is egusi soup. If it's not egusi soup it's pepper soup. And it's always either with beef or goat meat. We do egusi soup with bitter leaf, not spinach. Spinach is gross. Don't put spinach in your egusi soup.

Do you hope to perform in Nigeria?

Performing in Nigeria would be a dream. It's mainly a matter of safety as there are no laws protecting LGBTQs. If I can do a show there and not have to worry about me and queer audience members being harassed, then for sure.

Who are Nigerian artists you'd want to collaborate with?

I'd love to collaborate with Maleek Berry, Wizkid and Yemi Alade plus other artists of Nigerian descent like Little Simz, MNEK and Olukara. I've been a fan of their work for a while now.

Keep up with CJ Run on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud.

Alyssa Klein is a writer based in New York City. She's formerly Senior Editor at OkayAfrica and the Social Media Director of the Women's March.

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 www.youtube.com

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