Arts + Culture

This Choreographer is Using African Dance to Save Lives

OkayAfrica chats with Kwame Shaka Opare, the first to receive BAM's Chuck Davis Emerging Choreographer Fellowship.

Across the nation, the streets can be a death trap for black youth whether your name is Kendrick or Kofi. This was nearly the case for Kwame Shaka Opare, who was raised in Washington, D.C. and New York. “Coming up in the early 90s, street culture was strong—I wanted Gucci sneakers, but my summer job didn’t pay enough, so I got involved in things I shouldn’t have been involved in,” Opare says.


Opare was introduced to Kankouran West African Dance Company at 14—it provided him with something to do, somewhere to go and changed his path forever. His talents were recognized early on and Opare learned the performance and technical aspects of dance by trying to emulate his teacher, Assane Konte.

Dance was also a creative outlet to collaborate and perform with young artists. However, tragedy struck when Mwandishi Johnson and Jahi Bem Sherard, who drummed and danced with Opare, were murdered within a year of each other. “They were my best friends and we were all artists," Opare says. "We even started a side dance company for one season. To this day, their deaths still strike a nerve with me.”

These experiences led Opare to use dance as a vehicle to provide people, especially marginalized youth in public schools, with opportunities to shine and have safe spaces to learn and grow. He holds a master of fine arts in dance from the University of Maryland and has toured with the Broadway show STOMP, where he attained the lead role. In 2003, he founded the DishiBem Traditional Contemporary Dance Group to bridge the gap between traditional West African and contemporary performance modes and has received numerous awards for his work which speaks to social issues around the world.

In 2016, Brooklyn Academy of Music named Opare the inaugural recipient of the Chuck Davis Emerging Choreographer Fellowship, which awards emerging choreographers an opportunity to travel to Africa and study with one or more experts in African dance. On April 8, Opare will debut a showing of multi-media work, .theScope .theWork .theProcess: GHANA.

We speak with Opare about his fellowship and upcoming work, creative process, and the power of dance.

Jacqueline Lara for OkayAfrica: How did it feel to receive the inaugural Chuck Davis Emerging Choreographer Fellowship?

Kwame Shaka Opare: I was overjoyed. It also felt like I was accepting it for Mwandishi and Jahi Bem. There’s been a circle of us forging ahead despite the marginalization of our craft as purveyors of West African dance and music. So, for this fellowship to even exist is an indication of our forefathers—one of them being DanceAfrica founder Baba Chuck Davis—who has been doing what we’ve been doing for 50 to 60 years! It was an honor to receive acknowledgment for my work and perpetual drive in this field despite a shortage of opportunities for this style of dance.

Why are there less opportunities in West African dance?

For any dancer or artist, it’s not easy. Until you hit a steady rise of success, the in-between times can be tough. West African dance wasn’t seen as an art form 15 to 20 years ago. It was just seen as jumping around and doing whatever. You won’t find many grant opportunities or higher education jobs teaching West African dance. With the “Obama Phenomenon,” we began to see more positive images of ourselves in the media, which translated to job requests using the word, “Global,” “World,” and “African Diasporic Dance” to specifically requesting an “Africanist.”

As part of the fellowship, you spent three months in Ghana conducting research, and creating new choreographic work based on your experiences. What was this like?

It was a dynamic, saturated, cultural experience inside and outside the studio. This was the first time I was there officially as a dancer with the National Dance Company of Ghana, and it was my longest stay. After a while, you stop being a visitor, you develop relationships, and become part of the daily social rituals. In my showing at BAM, there will be nuanced movements fashioned off experiences I’ve had and rituals, performances, and festivals I’ve seen in Ghana.

Can you describe one of the social rituals/experiences?

It’s fascinating to see how people and commerce move through open air markets, which are central to Ghanaian life. The markets are run by women, navigated by memory, and you can get everything from shoes and utensils to vegetables and music. It’s congested, but at the same time, people are constantly moving in a seemingly unobstructed manner. You’ll find a sidewalk which would usually have space for one person with four lanes of people moving through without stopping. And, there can be seven women selling tomatoes, but you only buy from a specific vendor.

What can viewers expect from .theScope .theWork .theProcess: GHANA?

The 30-minute showing of completed works and work-in-progress will be livestreamed and present video work, which moves into live dance performance. I documented everything and am creating a narrated docu-short discussing what resonated with me and gave me creative currency through dance and movement. As the inaugural recipient, I’m setting a standard for those to come, and don’t take this responsibility lightly!

Photo by Kwame Shaka Opare.

What advice/takeaways do you have for future fellows?

Research wherever you go in Africa as best as possible to maximize your time. I overstayed in Ghana because some logistics fell through, and there was more I needed to learn. Also, find what feeds your creativity and vision of what you want to create movement-wise by documenting everything through photos, video, journaling and voice text. After the honeymoon of being in a new country wears off, it’s important to look at life and your work with fresh eyes. As an artist, all experiences will sink in, but it’s how you access them later when you need to create new work that matters.

Can you tell me more about your creative process?

My process varies, but I like to open myself like a book with empty pages and allow different experiences to fill the pages. I use West African dance-based technique to evoke the story I’m trying to tell. I’m passionate about the disruption of the status quo within the education system, and pull visuals, music, and text to create pieces of work that speak to the communities I serve. I want my audiences to understand what I’m trying to say while keeping it abstract. And, like Tarantino or Scorsese, I want the score to bring you in to the rise and fall to create dynamic storytelling,

Final words?

Dance is engaging, thought-provoking and for everyone. If my work inspires audiences, that’s a beautiful thing. I want to pay it forward and share my love of dance with others because it saved my life.

Jacqueline Lara is president of Mpact PR, LLC. She specializes in helping entrepreneurs and artists share their stories and art with the media and new audiences. She also creates content at Color Wheel Media, and is a contributing arts and culture writer for 99U and i-D Magazine. Connect with her on Twitter: @MpactJacq.

Photos

This Is What Rotimi's 'Walk With Me' EP Listening Party Looked Like

The Nigerian singer held an intimate listening party on the eve of the release of his new EP, 'Walk With Me,' at Brooklyn's Okay Space.

Walk With Me, Rotimi's new and highly anticipated EP, dropped Friday—giving us a seven-track peek into who the singer and actor truly is sonically.

The night before, the Nigerian-American crooner gathered over 100 tastemakers and day-one supporters to Brooklyn's Okay Space—the shared gallery space between Okayplayer and OkayAfrica—for an intimate listening party celebrating the release, as well as his music video for "Love Riddim" which also dropped this week.

The night was simply a vibe—folks enjoyed libations and bites from The Suya Guy, with sounds by DJ Tunez. Rotimi opened the gathering up with a thoughtful prayer, with the music video reveal to follow. The singer then walked the audience through each track from Walk With Me, opening up about the creative process of how each track came to life.

Following, Rotimi engaged in an even more in-depth Q+A session with OkayAfrica's arts and culture editor, Antoinette Isama, where he touched on his experience touring with Wizkid back in 2011, his thoughts on the continued rise in popularity afrobeats is having in mainstream music, his hopes for the future and more. Tunez then ran the EP back when the party ensued, as the project is full of tracks that are worthy of being on repeat.

Listen to Walk With Me below, and be sure to take a look at photos from the listening party by Nerdscarf Photography.

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Film
CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 16: Director Ladj Ly and Almamy Kanoute attend the photocall for "Les Miserables" during the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival on May 16, 2019 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

How To Survive Cannes Film Festival As a Black Filmmaker

A film festival is intense by nature, but Cannes is a whirlwind.

Cannes Film Festival is one of the world's most prestigious gatherings bringing celebrities, filmmakers and actors claiming to celebrate the world's best film. Although the festival is way behind Sundance or the London Film Festival regarding diversity efforts, it remains the place to be if you're a filmmaker—especially a Black one.

I, myself, am a Black French filmmaker who was invited to Cannes as part of their scheme for young film lovers—3 Days in Cannes—open to anyone between the ages of 18 and 28. The scheme, which launched in 2018, requires young hopefuls to write a cover letter showing their passion for film. It ultimately gives young people the opportunity to discover the international selection of films showed at Cannes.

READ: Black Women Are the Future of French Cinema—When Will Cannes Catch Up?

Being in Cannes for the first time was a wonderful experience, but it can be tough to navigate as a Black filmmaker if you're not prepared for it. So, here are top tips.

1) Don't be a person of color—especially if you're Black (Just kidding. But still.)

Cannes is a beautiful, posh city in the south of France. It is part of the Provence Alpes Côte d'Azur, an administrative region where the far right party Rassemblement National (formally known as the National Front) hits record-breaking highs. Despite the fact that the festival is incredibly international, at times it can feel pretty racist, like a sunny, idyllic version of 1960s Alabama, where a party of more than one Black person gets routinely rejected from some clubs/bars/restaurants. On top of that, the staff and some of the security working at the festival can be incredibly aggressive and rude to you and in French. If you don't understand it, it's even more confusing.

To avoid it, try to stick to the official Cannes parties, or hang out in international hotels like the Miramar or the Radisson Blu Hotel—which are used to an international crowd. You can also stick to parties at the various country pavilions near the Film Market.

2) Stick to the African Pavilion

At the festival, most countries have their own pavilion. But because the festival believes Africa is a country, all 54 countries are gathered in one pavilion. This pavilion also includes the Caribbean, since Jamaica, as life would have it, is also an African country. In the African Pavilion, there was even talk on how to submit films if you're a filmmaker of Indian descent (despite the fact that India had its own pavilion).

You're not African? That's okay, no one cares. Pan-Africanism is still alive, I guess? Thankfully, out of the many pavilions, I did find the African Pavilion was the best one the most welcoming and whose schedule was the most open and clear. Because Cannes is such an exclusive festival, most of the parties and talks won't be communicated outside of those who are supposed to attend.

The African Pavilion, however, requires you to sign up to their newsletter. You then access their app where you can see the schedule, the talks to attend and the party they planned. The only downside is that they were understaffed, so some talks and events were cancelled last minute and with limited communication.

If you're a Black French filmmaker, speaking English is a must to get the most out of the pavilion. If you're an English-speaking filmmaker, try to make friends or meet people who speak French, as some of the talks/discussions might not have professional interpreters.

Also, go to the events organized by diversity in Cannes. Now, if you're a Black filmmaker who would rather not stay in the community for fear of being pigeonholed? Unless you're part of a talent scheme run by the festival...good luck getting others to support you.

3) Be ready to WAIT to see films and to party

On average, I waited 1 hour 40 minutes for each film I wanted to see in the official selection program. And I purposely chose not to see the famous ones like the Pedro Almodóvar or Quintin Tarantino's films. I also waited almost two hours to see a film from the Un certain regard selection and didn't get in—despite my pass. Now, Un certain regard has the most highly sought after films, even more so than the Competition, because they tend to select the best among indie international films. To get in for sure, you need a "Un certain regard" pass, so they need to invite you themselves. Even if you have a ticket at the counter, you might not get in unless you wait two hours (standing) or choose to attend the early screening or the late ones (and still, you should be ready to wait 1 hour for these).

You need a pass AND a ticket to see the films from the official selection and walk the red carpet up to the Grand Théatre Debussy. For the ACID, Director's fortnight, Semaine de la critique, and the Official selection's films not shown on the red carpet, you just need a pass—and to be ready to queue for at least 45 minutes.

I wouldn't recommend getting the Cannes cinephile pass as it has a low priority. I saw people waiting 2 hours to see a film and not getting in, while people with professional Black passes arriving 10 minutes before the screening walking past them. Because the Cannes festival is for professionals, they have, unfortunately, priority over members of the public.

Now, with the parties at Cannes, word on the street is that they are not as legendary as they used to be. Even if you get invited to one, you still need to wait an hour. It's not because they are over capacity, but rather they feel the need to pretend that they are. Unless you're a VVIP. And if you're one, why are you reading my article?

Anyway, despite not being as glamorous as they used to be, they remain so exclusive that if your name is not on the list, you might need to sell your first born to attend.

Thankfully, you can avoid it by being smart. When I arrived in Cannes, I was dead set on going to parties to network. Since almost all of them are invite only, I went to the parties at the pavilions, like the UK one, the American one (which costs 20 euros because Americans are always about their money) and the African Pavilion—that were kind enough to facilitate networking by introducing me to fellow filmmakers. God knows how talking to strangers and building new relationships can be difficult, and they made it easier.

4) Make friends with distributors or people working for the Mayor's office

The whole point of the festival is to sell films. Tickets are sparse for most people, so some badge holders wear their Sunday Best and stand outside the grand theater, holding signs asking for tickets. It makes sense that distributors are incredibly powerful, since they have the power to buy and sell films internationally. They are given way too many tickets that should be given to people waiting for hours outside.

So, if you make friends with distributors, they will always have a handful of spare tickets, even for the big ones that everyone wants to see. They also have tickets for the big parties as well. Press badge holders also have priority since they are responsible for a film good or bad media coverage. So they have a handful of tickets too.

People working for the Mayor's office also have tickets because they work closely together since the festival brings so much revenue to the city. Make friends with them, as well as film students and you'll get tickets. Don't know where to find them? Social media is your friend.

There is also another way to get tickets to films: the staff. For example, I couldn't get tickets to see Mati Diop's Atlantiques. I walked to the ticket counter and saw a Black woman with a great hairstyle. My instinct KNEW I had to tag along. I asked her if she needed help. She was looking for the same tickets. We asked someone at the ticket office if they could help. They said they had nothing. But one of the staff members saw us and said she could try to help us. She came back with two tickets and that's how I got to see the film. I got lucky and was cunning. So be nice with the staff, they can help.

5) Be ready for anything

A film festival is intense by nature, but Cannes is a whirlwind. Since you're spending so much time waiting and walking from venues to venues, you won't have time to eat unless you bring food you've made before hand. You're not allowed to eat inside the theaters and if you walk the red carpet, you food is thrown out beforehand. You can try buying food and drinks in the morning and finish it by the time you walk the red carpet. I'd advise buying it at a supermarket like the pricey Monoprix. Or the nearby McDonald's. It's cheap, warm, almost always open and a great way to socialize! Young filmmakers, as well as those from Britain and the States will come to McDonald's to eat since it's one of the places they know best. Why not strike up a convo there?

Also, don't forget your power bank. Your phone will get out of battery for sure, especially if you post content on social media.

Finally, despite its reputation, the festival is incredibly badly organized. You will be told that your badge is not allowed to watch films at other selections, or you would be given the wrong directions and will be lost in the croisette on your way to see an obscure film.

Chill, be ready to walk and use Google Maps. And enjoy!

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Julie Adenuga: "There Are Young Artists In Nigeria Who Are Changing the World"

In an exclusive interview, the Beats 1 radio presenter opens up about her Nigerian heritage, documenting Homecoming in Lagos, and London being an important hub for afro-fusion sounds.

Julie Adenuga sits at the intersection of two continents.

As an affable tastemaker who transforms banal interviews into engaging conversations with some of the most famous artists in the world, Julie is leading the global dialogue on new music from her daily radio show, which broadcasts to over 100 countries.

The North London native of Nigerian descent hails from a musical family, her brothers are artists Skepta and JME, and has risen from the underground as a self-taught presenter on former pirate radio station Rinse FM to being one of three lead DJ's with her Beats 1 show on Apple Music.

A champion of homegrown talent in the UK and across the African diaspora, Julie is a purveyor of the afro-fusion genre, as is evident in her recent Homecoming documentary, which captured the fresh innovators from the Lagos music scene, and her DON't @ ME club nights, which has featured Ghetts, Lady Leshurr and The Compozers as residents.

Chosen as one of OkayAfrica's 100 Women celebrating extraordinary women from Africa and the diaspora, we speak with the presenter and broadcaster on owning her Nigerian identity, the responsibility of spreading afrobeats and why London is a key location for the genre.

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