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Photo by Abdi Ibrahim.

Dress: Emily Eanae | Earrings: Stylist own | Shoes: Balenciaga.

Elsa Majimbo's Over Being a Comedian - and Wants You to Be, Too

Four years after becoming a viral social media sensation, many of her fans want to know where the “old Elsa” is. But Elsa Majimbo’s not bowing to anyone else’s expectations or pressure.


Elsa Majimbo is beaming.

Standing in the doorway of an old convent, she cuts a majestic figure – draped in a dramatic black, ankle-length coat, with a gravity defying Afro and gold jewelry shimmering in the blinding New York sunlight. On location to shoot the OkayAfrica digital cover, Majimbo is quietly enjoying a small break when suddenly cries of “Elsa!” fill the air.

A gaggle of school kids has seemingly appeared from nowhere, and they're now filling up the road outside the building. The pre-teens point and jostle each other as they try to get a better view of the 22-year-old Kenyan. “Elsa’s inside!” some shriek – and who can blame them for their excitement? After all, it’s not every day that a social media sensation shows up on your neighborhood doorstep. Majimbo looks on, unfazed by all the commotion, the bemused smile on her face suggests she has become accustomed to being at the center of a frenzy. As the youngsters grow louder, the scene playing out seems surreal – a 15-time chess champion catapulted to global fame and the attention of the likes of Beyoncé and Rihanna, thanks to her lo-fi videos shot during the pandemic lockdown – now driving a group of youngsters wild in a tucked away corner of Queens. Though in listening to Majimbo’s accounting for her meteoric rise, there is no place for randomness or luck in her life story. She believes it is all the work of God. “I’ve got Gen Alpha on my side,” she says, as she waves back at the raucous crowd, with a twinkle in her eye.

When the photoshoot resumes upstairs in a spartan room, gone is Majimbo’s playful demeanor and in its place is now a penetrating, steely gaze. She moves with ease and grace; cycling through different poses without any hint of uncertainty, while a cast of lighting techs, makeup artist and hair stylist all look on. That trademark Majimbo confidence is once again on full display.

An image of Elsa Majimbo wearing a pink dress, draped across a couch.

Dress: Quine Li | Shoes: Victoria Beckham.

Photo by Adbi Ibrahim.

By now, anyone who has ever heard of Elsa Majimbo is familiar with her comic viral videos. The cheekily brazen ruminations of the-then 18-year-old brought much needed levity to millions who felt trapped in their surroundings, courtesy of Covid. Majimbo’s charm and well-timed laughter cemented her place in the hearts of many as a naturally gifted comedian. But these days, being labeled a comedian no longer works for Majimbo – as she makes plain in conversation; she now wants to be known as a model. No more eating potato chips on the bed, no more sunglasses perched awkwardly on her face. The comedy has gone. “That’s a phase of my life that was there, but I’ve left it behind,” Majimbo later explains over lunch at her Williamsburg hotel. “That was just to get me off the ground. We’re off the ground now,” she adds.

Her life has certainly ascended to dizzying heights, since the pandemic ended. The fame and fortune she openly longed for in those videos have arrived, and she is now living in Los Angeles. Her social media feed is a catalog of micro-outfits, shopping sprees and glamorous events. There have also been features in Forbes Magazine, and covers for Teen Vogue and GQ South Africa. In 2022, she signed to IMG Models and WME, and since then has appeared in campaigns for Valentino and Coach. These days her online videos showcase her applying generous amounts of body oil and perfume, while recounting an anecdote about her new fabulous life. Though the change may be jarring to some, Majimbo never hid her aspirational desires, “I told everyone, ‘Love "broke Elsa" while you can, she’s not coming back.’”


An image of Elsa Majimbo sitting on a bed wearing a black coat.

Coat: ITA The Label | Shoes: Saint Laurent | Flower anklet: Stylist's own.

Photo by Abdi Ibrahim.

Hours later, standing tall in an eye-popping royal blue gown, she completes another round of poses. When she is done, Majimbo takes a step back and claps her hands in glee. She studies the images on the photographer’s monitor, clearly liking what she sees. “I knew what I came to do, and I did it!” she gleams, before triumphantly strutting off to her next outfit change. In many ways, the location for her cover shoot – a former convent with crucifixes adorning every room and the occasional light fixture with the invocation, “Bless this house, O Lord we pray/Make it safe by night and day” – is a fitting milieu for Majimbo, the second youngest in a family of four. She makes no secret of her Christian faith and how many of the major life decisions she has made have all been predicated on her firm belief in the divine – like dropping out of school to pursue the fickle path of becoming a content creator. “I'm a testimony,” she says. “God brought me here.”

And she is going to need that faith for what lies ahead because what Majimbo is attempting to pull off in the world of modeling and high fashion is a far more difficult proposition. Countless other models have tried and failed to attain significant and lasting success in an industry renowned for its racism and misogyny. The uncertainties abound, and they include making and keeping high profile friends, as Majimbo’s very public falling out with supermodel Naomi Campbell clearly demonstrated. Although she is reticent to talk about this any further, she is outspoken about her experience navigating the world of celebrity and Black Hollywood at large. “I think for me one of the biggest shocks is white people have actually really been there for me,” she says. “White people have given me a lot of opportunities; they’ve really stuck their necks out for me. And I expected the opposite. Most of the pitfalls I’ve gotten in my career have been due to Black people, which is so disheartening. Because, I was like, ‘Oh, you know, Black Hollywood, Black Hollywood, it's all about each other.' But not everything is what it seems."

An image of Elsa Majimbo wearing a multicolored string dress with blue shoes, leaning to the side a little.

Dress: Lilach Porges | Shoes: Rochas.

Photo by Adbi Ibrahim.

There have been hurtful attacks from her fellow Kenyans. The online blows came quickly, as she garnered more and more public attention in those early days. The commentary about her took a nasty turn and she transitioned from being a charmingly irreverent dilettante to the subject of sustained misogynoir in her home country. The backlash would eventually prompt her to leave Nairobi and head to South Africa. “It was middle aged men and women coming to attack me – at the time I was 18,” she recalls. Four years on and the online criticism continues, but Majimbo is adamant that she is now totally unbothered by it all, “When I’m in Kenya everyone I meet in person: ‘Oh my God, I’m your biggest fan,’” she retorts sardonically.

In fact, she now appears to delight in taunting her critics with details of her shopping excursions and international shopping sprees, “Why would what User299780 say matter to me?” she responds to the question of whether any of the blows hit. “I don’t even look at my comments because I don’t have the time. I have parties to go to, lunches to go to, flights to catch…The comments you see online, that’s just what they are, comments.” That may be so, but she isn’t above oiling her arms and making a video to address them. Is it all part of some kind of plan to stay relevant? Remaining at the center of attention would ultimately benefit the growing bank account she is always talking about.

Despite all the flaunting and her near constant talk about having money, Majimbo says she doesn’t fear not having any. “Even when things are going to shit, I’ve never been financially insecure,” she says, crediting her parents for all the money she has amassed so far. They instilled in her a sense of financial literacy and urged her to get into the Kenyan property market. “I know no matter what happens, I'm not going broke. It's a fantastic feeling.”

An image of Elsa Majimbo in a red outfit, standing in a closet doorway.

Bodysuit: Quine Li | Shoes: Christian Dior.

Photo by Abdi Ibrahim.

In almost the same breath, her talk of earthly pursuits gives way to exhortations of religious faith. “Being spiritual has helped me stand up to people, especially those who have control and power,” she says, steadfastly. “I serve a living God, you’re not above Him.” But before long, her unflinching self-confidence returns, “No one from where I came from has been able to do what I have done, in the amount of time, [and] how I’ve done it. The only other Kenyan in Hollywood is Lupita [Nyong’o] – and even she had to do two decades of work to get where she is," she breezily proclaims. In reality, it’s only been a decade since the Oscar winner sprung into the spotlight, just shortly after graduating from Yale’s School of Drama. But who needs facts when there’s such outsized confidence at play?

Majimbo wants to be a force in the world of modeling and entertainment, which perhaps explains what some might describe as an unlikely friendship between herself and Steve Harvey, whom she refers to as her mentor. She is clearly in awe of how Harvey has successfully translated his comedy prowess into a media empire. “The way he takes ownership of his content, that's how I want to have ownership of my content,” she reflects. That goal extends to projects in front of and behind the camera, with Majimbo sharing that modeling aside, she is also exploring opportunities in production and acting, following the release of the self titled documentary short, Elsa, back in 2023. This time around she is clearly going after more, “[I don’t want] 'Oh, look at Elsa’s show,' but in reality it's not Elsa’s show, Elsa’s getting paid least on the show,” she astutely explains. “I just don't want to be in a position like that. If I say we're doing this, I'm gonna own some of it.”

There is a keen sense of cognizance that her sustained trajectory of wins is not guaranteed – perhaps Majimbo may stop short of any runway work or fail to achieve the success she envisioned in working in film and TV. But she says that as long as she remains in control, however, she will be at peace with the outcome. “If it's meant for me it will find me – if it’s not, no problem. Maybe I'll end up a lawyer,” she muses, briefly wincing at the thought. “Oh, God forbid,” she says, before once again letting out that infectious laugh.

Additional reporting by Shamira Ibrahim.

Credits:
Abdi Ibrahim - Photographer @abshoots
Tiffany Bloomfield - Executive Producer/Artist Rep @insidetheglow
Karely Pérez-Cruz - Producer @peluaproductions
Fallou Seck - 1st Photo Assistant @myowndad
Wendell Cole - 2nd Photo Assistant @wendellcole
Haren Mehta - Digital Tech @harenmehta
Tyler Okuns - Wardrobe Stylist @tyleeresosa
Rose Grace - Makeup Artist @rosegracemua
Rachel Polycarpe - Hair Artist @rachelpolycarpe

Photo from Dye Lab website.

15 Ethical and Sustainable African Fashion Brands You Need to Know

These brands are preserving traditional craftsmanship and supporting local artisans, while using eco-friendly materials and transforming the fashion world’s impact on the environment.

The fashion retail industry significantly impacts the environment, from materials sourcing to production and disposal. This is especially true for fast fashion, which contributes to pollution, waste, and resource depletion. Choosing sustainable materials, supporting ethical brands, and prioritizing quality over quantity can help preserve our environment and promote sustainability.

Sustainable fashion isn’t just about saving the planet; it’s also about fostering community and promoting humanity. In recent decades, numerous African brands have embraced ethical and sustainable practices, emphasizing handmade craftsmanship, minimal waste, and locally sourced materials. From Cairo to Cape Town, and Nairobi to Abidjan, below are 15 African fashion brands leading the way in ethical and sustainable fashion.

Autumn Adeigbo

Autumn Adeigbo is a Nigerian designer renowned for her vibrant and fashion-forward creations. Her mission revolves around empowering women of all cultures while ensuring fair wages for global artisans. Embracing sustainability, she produces garments on demand, reducing waste, and promoting environmental cleanliness and safety.

lemlem

Ethiopian supermodel Liya Kebede established the resortwear and swimwear brand, lemlem, seventeen years ago, driven by her discovery of traditional weavers losing jobs in her country due to diminishing demand. lemlem is an artisan-driven, Africa-made brand that celebrates women and nature, characterized by vibrant colors and stripes. Kebede describes it as offering “casual and chic pieces easy to wear on all occasions.”

Tongoro

Tongoro is a Senegalese brand that works with local tailors and sources their materials on the continent. Launched in 2016 by Sarah Diouf, it has since gained international prominence with notable figures including Burna Boy, Alicia Keys, and Beyonce.

Dye Lab

Dye Lab, a small craft brand, specializes in dyeing techniques to churn products that blend practicality with artisanal charm. Embracing slow fashion principles, it minimizes waste and operates solely on a pre-order basis. Founded in 2021 by fashion consultant Rukky Ladoja, Dye Lab showcases tie-dye colors and designs inspired by the Yoruba people of Nigeria.

Kente Gentleman

Ivorian brand Kente Gentleman designs their clothes hand-in-hand with local artisans, then produces with a fashion philosophy that is as stylish as it is ethical.

MAXHOSA AFRICA

MAXHOSA AFRICA, an acclaimed knitwear brand, was founded by award-winning South African designer and creative artist Laduma Ngxokolo. Inspired by Xhosa culture, the brand aims to celebrate the beauty, color, and diversity of the Xhosa people. Since its establishment in 2010, MAXHOSA has emerged as a prominent figure in African luxury and lifestyle.

Mimi Plage

Founded by Ghanaian American designer Mimi Plange, the eponymous brand prioritizes creativity, craftsmanship, and textile recycling. Established in 2010, the brand has collaborated with notable figures such as Manolo Blahnik and LeBron James, among others.

Ahluwalia

Priya Ahluwalia, the London-born Indian Nigerian designer behind the upcycled menswear brand, Ahluwalia Studio, went from a stint at Beyoncé's IVY Parkto pursuing a masters in menswear from the University of Westminster. While there, she was challenged to alleviate fashion's problem with waste. Trips to both Lagos, Nigeria and Panipat, India, where she was met with piles of surplus clothes, further ignited a flame in her to attempt to combat the issue. Her Spring/Summer 2019 graduate collection, made in collaboration with the Indian women's union SEWA Delhi, was her answer. The trench coats, oversized denim jackets, and vintage football jerseys were all produced using second hand clothing. She would go on to show at London Fashion Week, be featured in Vogue, win an H&M Design Award, and collaborate with Adidas Originals. Today, she continues to study the application of ethical methodologies to fashion.

Reform Studio

Hazem and HendRiad, the co-founders of Cairo based design studio, Reform Studio, have built a business around the invention of Plastex, a material made from discarded plastic bags. The studio's fashions and furniture are helping to alleviate Egypt's problem with waste and employing women of impoverished backgrounds.

Lukhanyo Mdingi

Lukhanyo Mdingi, based in Cape Town, embraces humanity and sustainability in its garment production. Working closely with artisans from Cape Town and Burkina Faso, their design philosophy revolves around these collaborations, believing that meaningful design starts with human connections.

Hamaji Studio

Founded on the principle of preserving ancient textile traditions and nomadic handcrafts, Kenya-based Hamaji Studio boasts of making all its fabrics by hand, using natural fibers on its textiles, as well as using natural ingredients on its dyes, all while empowering artisans in the region. The brand, whose name means “nomad” in local Swahili, was founded by Louise Sommerlatte in 2017 and draws its inspiration from the everyday charm, natural beauty, and vibrant culture of East Africa.

Studio 189

Ghanaian designer Abrima Erwiah co-founded eco-friendly label Studio 189 with actress Rosario Dawson. Together they work with local artisans in Accra to produce garments. The artisans use plant based dye, hand-batik and kente weaving. The brand partners with the United Nations ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative, NYU School of Business and has worked with LVMH and Net a Porter.

Allëdjo

Founded in 2018 by Beninese designer Kassim Lassissi, Allëdjo is a menswear clothing line designed and produced by artisans in Dakar, Senegal. The brand is the merger of the designer's love of travel and exquisite apparel. The print-heavy color palette and free flowing materials used celebrate the renaissance man on the move.

Marrakshi Life

Marrakshi Life is a gender-neutral Moroccan fashion label. With their signature colors that are as soft as they are vibrant on jumpsuits, scarves and caftans, Marrakshi Life prioritizes handweaving by an in-house team of artisans, and boasts a zero-waste production style.

Lafalaise Dion

Cowry shells are one of the most recognizable symbols in African culture—utilized as a form of currency as early as the 14th century, and even as a religious and cultural symbol. In the 17th century, cowry shells were used as a means of embellishing hats and headdresses dawned by titleholders in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Kuba Kingdom. In western Côte d'Ivoire, the Dan ethnic group also dons these shells for rituals. Today, creative Lafalaise Dion has repurposed them for fashion. Her headpieces made with sustainably farmed shells are both powerful and mystical.

Film + TV
Photo courtesy of Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Lisson Gallery, Lia Rumma, and Barakat Contemporary

At the 60th Venice Biennale, Wael Shawky Invites Us to Reflect on Past Fictions and Myths

Representing Egypt, the artist Wael Shawky will exhibit two musical films, blending historical fact and fiction to invite urgent conversations about our present at the 60th Venice Biennale.

I call Wael Shawky in Venice, where he is in the last preparations for his showcase at the 60th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, but he might as well be picking up the phone in his hometown Alexandria. As he walks around the exhibition space, trying to find a quiet place and better reception, he greets several people, asks them how they are doing, tells them he’s doing well.

He finds a suitable place, gets comfortable, says “Alhamdulillah. All is going well. Things are working,” and begins telling me about the Urabi revolution.

“It begins with a small story in Alexandria,” he says and clarifies that we cannot know if the event actually took place or not. In 1882, there was a Maltese man who hired an Egyptian makari, “like Uber today,” who took people from place to place on a donkey. Upon their arrival, the two men fought over the fee and the Maltese killed the Egyptian, triggering a street battle between British, French, Greek, and Maltese foreigners and Egyptian locals. Almost 300 people were killed.

Screengrab of Egyptian artist Wael Shawky\u2019s musical film Drama 1882.

Wael Shawky Drama, 1882, 2024

Credit: Wael Shawky. Courtesy of Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Lisson Gallery, Lia Rumma, and Barakat Contemporary.

“This fight started the whole issue,” says Shawky. “Because one month later, Britain decided to occupy Egypt, saying that they have to protect their subjects.”

At the time, Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire and ruled by the Khedive Tewfik, but the empire was weak and the country, suffering from corruption and financial ruin. Ahmed Urabi, a colonel in the Egyptian army, led a revolt against the monarch and, by extension, the foreign powers. In a historic moment, the Battle of Tell El Kebir, European forces defeated Urabi’s fighters and Britain began its seven decades-long colonization. Today, Urabi is widely remembered as a national hero.

Shawky wanted to create a stage for this history, so he turned it into a musical theater play, directed, choreographed, and composed by him. The play has eight scenes, each telling part of the story, including Urabi’s battles, the fight happening in Alexandria, and a colonial conference in Istanbul where six countries fought over the rights to enter Egypt. For the Egyptian Pavilion, he rendered the story into the film Drama 1882.

Screengrab of Egyptian artist Wael Shawky\u2019s musical film Drama 1882.

Wael Shawky Drama, 1882, 2024.

Credit: Wael Shawky. Courtesy of Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Lisson Gallery, Lia Rumma, and Barakat Contemporary.

In his research-based multimedia practice, which spans film, music, performance, painting and sculpture, Shawky explores notions of national, religious and artistic identity. His work narrates stories that interlace fact, fiction and fable, and which are inspired by historiographical and literary references.

“Instead of trying to comment on what’s happening today in the economy or in politics, I prefer to go back to 1000 years ago and try to make a translation for written history, to think of it as human creation,” he says.

When he was invited to represent Egypt in Venice, he initially wanted to show a project he had made in Pompeii, reflecting on the creation of the universe at the intersection of Greek and Egyptian mythology. “But then, after a lot of discussion, I thought that it’d be more appropriate to analyze our contemporary political situation in Egypt and the region by going back to 1882.”

In Drama 1882, he was interested in analyzing the moment right before British colonization. “Because of the written analysis today, everybody thinks that the fight was already planned. But we don’t know and we’ll never know,” he says. “This is the history I like to talk about, where we don’t know what the myth is. This is the gap in which I create the artwork.”

Screengrab of Egyptian artist Wael Shawky\u2019s musical film Drama 1882.

Wael Shawky Drama, 1882, 2024.

Credit: Wael Shawky. Courtesy of Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Lisson Gallery, Lia Rumma, and Barakat Contemporary.

Shawky’s presentation at the Egyptian Pavilion offers an important interpretation of this year’s La Biennale theme: Foreigners Everywhere. “This theme carries a lot of debate. I like the simplicity of it, it’s very interesting,” he says. “From the point of view of someone living in Egypt now, if someone from Europe is saying ‘foreigners everywhere,’ does it mean the same to me? Absolutely not.”

He expands: “In this film, foreigners are occupiers, not immigrants. During 1882, Britain was really everywhere. It was almost normal that all these first-world countries occupied other countries. Today, even though there are a lot of foreigners in Europe, they are not occupiers. We know that in the end, the authority is not in the hands of the migrants.”

In the Egyptian Pavilion, Drama 1882 is accompanied by vitrines, sculpture, paintings, drawings and a mirror relief made in Murano. The conversations Shawky hopes to spark are around questioning how we frame reality based on our telling of events.

“In the end, I don't believe in this history. I believe that translating this history into a different format allows us to analyze it,” he explains. “I don’t think it would be possible to present Urabi, the leader of the army, as a hero today, if we were not controlled by the army.”

He gives the example of Egypt’s main newspaper Al-Ahram labeling Urabi a terrorist after he was arrested. “History is written by the winners. In 1882, nobody condemned the British for what they did, or what the French did to Algeria. And it’s not about saying this is good or bad, it’s just about analyzing how someone like Urabi was a terrorist one day, and then was a hero.”

Screengrab of Egyptian artist Wael Shawky\u2019s musical film Drama 1882.

Wael Shawky Drama, 1882, 2024.

Credit: Wael Shawky. Courtesy of Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Lisson Gallery, Lia Rumma, and Barakat Contemporary.

The Egyptian Pavilion will open to the public on April 20, 2024. Opening concurrently with the Biennale, Shawky's 2023 musical film I Am Hymns of the New Temples will be the subject of a solo exhibition at Museo di Palazzo Grimani.

In this film, he takes a different approach to a similar idea: trying to get to the core of what justice means to societies, and how our understanding of it changes or is influenced by our worship of power.

Hearing Shawky recount this revolutionary history and his observations of its afterlives, I get the sense that he is truly an artist of the people, a creative mind that offers itself as a mirror to how we live and think. He is proud to be representing his country at this time of upheaval, and humbly says: “It’s extremely important for me and I just hope that I can say something meaningful in the end.”

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There is Nothing African about Homophobia

Lasting decolonization can only be achieved by acknowledging that homophobia is a European colonial import.

In Egypt’s Western Desert, close to the border with Libya, lies Siwa Oasis, a paradise of hot springs, ancient sights, and homoerotic history. Until it became a base for the British military in WWII, it was common for some Siwan men to marry other Siwan men or boys. They met outside the city walls, where they were required to work the fields and protect the community from hostile attacks until reaching the age of 40.

Siwans’ open embrace of same-sex practices was by no means an anomaly. In 1964, archaeologists opened the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, two men who lived and died sometime around the year 2380 BCE. They were found holding hands, in an eternal kiss, and are believed to be the oldest evidence of queer lives in existence.

At the same time that King Henry VIII of England signed the Buggery Act in 1533, criminalizing sex between two males, “men in women’s apparel” were living amongst the Imbangala people of Angola, sleeping with other men.

As Kamau Muiga writes, “Like other peoples anywhere in the world, pre-colonial African communities generally placed paramount importance on heterosexual marriage as the basis of family life. But African social lives were also characterized by a diversity of sexual expression that found outlets outside the institution of heterosexual marriage.”

Similarly, Africa has a rich past of gender fluidity which is deeply embedded within various ethnic groups across the continent, for example in Ethiopia, some of Sudan’s Nuba, or within the Dagaaba of Ghana, Burkina Faso, and the Ivory Coast. Some groups assign gender after puberty, some view it as a form of energy, rather than marking it based on genitalia.

Same-sex and gender-nonconforming practices became illegalized and shamed during colonial occupation. Sexual norms and normalities were misconstrued by colonialists, ethnographers and missionaries whose observational abilities were biased. First, they wrote about same-sex practices in derogatory ways, then they erased them completely. Somewhere along the way, the myth was born that queerness, in its many expressions across time and space, is un-African.

Muiga explains the process of eradicating sexual and gender diversity: colonizers created tribalization, meaning they forced various peoples into one tribe similar to how they later grouped different peoples into often arbitrary countries. They reorganized alleged African customs and claimed them to be the ultimate norms which they turned into laws that happened to be in line with European binaries and sexual conservatism.

For these laws to be written, which predominantly happened in British colonies, homophobic terms were oftentimes introduced through English vocabulary, because many African languages did not have homophobic terms as part of their lexicon. Decades after formal decolonization, these laws remain intact as part of Europe’s violent colonial legacy.

Queerness is criminalized in 31 of Africa’s 54 countries, based on the by now well-established, but false claim that homophobia is an integral part of so-called African culture (alternatively, Islamic or Christian culture). Meanwhile, the West (specifically the U.K.), creator of this narrative and the resulting laws, continues to frame Africans as backward and barbaric — in the past for their histories of same-sex practices, like in Siwa, and now for their draconic anti-LGBTQ+ laws.

The point of recounting these histories, then, is not to force our ancestors into a queer identity, or to create a mythical image of a perfect Africa before colonialism — Siwan men were allowed to marry four wives, but only one boy who they had strong obligations toward. The sexism and age gap being far from a situation most would aspire to decolonize towards.

Rather, it is to prove that existences outside contemporary norms, in which only cis-men and cis-women are allowed to love each other and in which only two cis-genders are granted humanity, can be found across African societies, past and present. And that it was the colonizer who codified hate against these practices and people, not the colonized.

While Siwan men were splashing around in the oasis ponds of the Western Desert, women in Lesotho, on the other side of the continent, were turning their adolescent girlfriends into life-long lovers who co-existed alongside their conventional heterosexual marriages. A century later, Africans in Egypt, Tunisia or Nigeria still live their queer lives, but they often must do so in the shadows through gay subcultures.

Homophobia, not homosexuality, is the Western import. It rests upon the myth that Africa is a timeless place, inhabited by traditional people who hold onto their customs at the cost of so-called progress.

The fact that African countries were colonized by (sometimes several) colonizers, drawn and redrawn onto maps, housing as many as 100 languages and parallel realities at the same time, should prove that the opposite is true: African lives and customs have been in constant change as much, if not more, than in other places in the world. There is no such thing as an un-African identity or love.

Arts + Culture
Photos courtesy of Victor Ige.

Nigeria’s Classical Music Scene Finds a Younger Audience

Connoisseurs and insiders in the Nigerian classical music scene say the rise of young audiences will help sustain and possibly grow the already small, close-knit community.

Before Quadri Abdulmalik attended his first opera at The Musical Society of Nigeria - MUSON Centre, in June, it wasn’t something he thought happened in Nigeria. The show he attended alongside a group of friends as young as him was a rendition of Dido and Aeneas — the gripping story of obedience, sacrifice and love composed by English baroque composer Henry Purcell.

“It was a really good experience,” the 24-year-old Software Engineer tells OkayAfrica. “It’s a new thing for me and I can remember the first few minutes they started playing. I have never felt something so magical before. It almost felt like stepping into a new world.”

MUSON Centre sits in a large, caramel-hued building in the suburban area of Marina, on Lagos Island. On any given day, the various compartments in the building hum with activity. Since its founding in 1983 by a group of friends, the organization has hosted a diverse range of events, from brand activations and weddings to book readings and a robust lineup of classical music events, including operas. These intimate events are often attended by older Nigerians, defined by dress codes and strict adherence to decorum — many of the cultural sentiments young Nigerians typically veer away from.

Although classical music and its many offshoots have a small, close-knit community in Nigeria, the MUSON Centre has been unyielding in its commitment to promoting and fostering classical music and musicals. While the genre might be largely appealing to older Nigerians, it is now finding its way towards younger audiences.

For 29-year-old international development professional Yinka Seth, classical music has always been a part of his life. “I grew up learning the classics — Bach, Mozart, Webber and the like. Singing them at school concerts so when I got out of school I began attending shows regularly,” he says.

After making a video about his experience attending an opera, Seth received an overwhelming response from young people like himself who were only just discovering the existence of the scene or were already classical music lovers who didn’t know other young people were also interested, but Seth tells OkayAfrica that young people have been attending operas at MUSON for a while now.

“In the last two years, I’ve seen a lot more young people coming especially since MUSON became online,” he says.

An alternative creative space

With a creative scene dominated by Afrobeats and other high-energy artistic disciplines, classical music offers a grounded, immersive alternative. While musicals and plays already have a healthy market — with shows at Terra Kulture (a theater house) regularly selling out, classical music hasn’t yet broken through on the same scale. “I think it’s the aspirational value of it,” Seth says. “The fact that Nigerians can step outside what is mainstream to create a body of work that is in some ways foreign to us and do it so excellently.”

While the growth of young audiences is happening, industry insiders say it is somewhat slow. “The classical music space in Lagos has been seeing a rise in young audiences, compared with the past, it's getting better, but it's not yet where it ought to be,” Victor Ige, a classical musician who has also studied at MUSON, tells OkayAfrica.

A photo of Victor Ige in the middle of a performance.

Classical musician Victor Ige says the industry has been seeing a rise in young audiences in recent times.

Photo courtesy of Victor Ige.

Ige, however, points out that this is mostly due to a lack of publicity. “There are a lot of people who don't know this kind of music exists in this country. They only see it in movies, no one-on-one experience, apart from their churches. and also collaboration will help.”

Seth also agrees. “I think there’s not a lot of publicity and appreciation generally. And there’s not a lot of infrastructure for managing these things. For instance, tickets to MUSON shows only recently started doing online ticketing. Apart from MUSON or a few independent productions, there’s not much infrastructure to promote these people to do their work which doesn’t really help the craft.”

A possible new market

Since attending his first opera, Abdulmalik says he is planning on returning. He is taking this newfound interest even further, “I plan on registering at the school to learn how to play the violin, I already bought one but I am hoping to finish school first before registering,” he says.

Abdulmalik also sees the possibility of more young Nigerians developing an interest in the Nigerian opera scene in due time. “One thing I like about my generation is the diversity in the taste,” he says. “You can find them anywhere as long as they know about it. So definitely, I see it. I mean the turnout that day was amazing.”

Ige however sees the future of classical music in Nigeria through conflicting lenses. For one, he thinks the scene will continue thriving with the slowly rising interest from young people and the dedication of parents who encourage their children to study music. He, however, expresses worry over the scene’s present state as a lot of the trained musicians are leaving the country, because, as he says, the genre is not appreciated in Nigeria.

“There are not many platforms for classical music, the future might be brighter if a lot of musicians were not leaving the country,” Ige concludes.

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