Courtesy of Jamil Khan.

INFLUENCED: Meet Jamil Khan—An Unflinching Advocate for Social Justice

This young South African influencer is pushing for people to tackle society's difficult conversations on social media.

OkayAfrica brings you the 2019 INFLUENCED Series. In the coming weeks, we'll be exploring the online communities being fostered by young South Africans who are doing more than just influencing. From make-up gurus and hair naturalistas to socially-conscious thought leaders, get ready to be influenced. Read the rest of the series here.

In May this year, a Black woman killing time before a job interview, was arrested by Cape Town police for no apparent reason. The video of the incident, posted to social media, caused a national uproar. For Jamil Khan, one of the more disturbing aspects of the case was that the arresting officers were Coloured. A Coloured South African himself, Khan took to Twitter to make his point.

"The fact that the Coloured community by and large is deeply anti-Black is clear for all to see." He tweeted in response to the video, "It is violent and potentially deadly. This allegiance to whiteness is the most mind blowing thing because it benefits us little to none."

His statement got thousands of likes and retweets. Khan went on to say how unsurprised he was as this kind of bigotry had been part and parcel of his own upbringing. He continued: "It is an exhausting reality but one that must be strongly condemned. This is one example of why it is important to understand white supremacy beyond White people."

While many Black people responded, citing their own experiences with Coloured people especially in Cape Town, Khan also received push-back from Coloured people who felt he was making sweeping generalizations—an argument Khan viewed as Coloured people trying to escape accountability for their actions.

Khan, a scholar currently doing a PhD in Critical Diversity Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, is not afraid to wade into public discussions of inequality and injustice. While his academic work is what informs the information he shares on his social media platforms, his edgy aesthetic flies in the face of the stereotypical definition of what it means to be an academic.

For Khan, advocacy extends far beyond what we've come to know as "fleeting Twitter outrage". He lives and breathes the work that is centered on balancing the scales of justice for those individuals whose humanity has been taken away. His experiences with attempting to change society's perceptions on a number of disenfranchised communities have mirrored what the late anti-Apartheid activist, Nelson Mandela, described as a difficult and long walk to freedom. "I have sacrificed a great deal," Khan says and adds that, "I can't blame people for not wanting to give up those privileges, especially those who have so few."

We sat down with him to talk about why he's so passionate about being an advocate for humanity and some of the challenges that come with assuming that responsibility.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Would you say you identify as being a social activist?

I think it's something that automatically gets attached to me. One would have to define what that means. I feel like activism often gets boxed into a very small space, and it's required to perform a particular kind of activity. So generally I don't refer to myself as one. I do believe that within a broad scope of what activism is and can be, I participate in activism. But I don't generally. I haven't accepted it as an identity. I just believe that I'm somebody doing the work that I believe is important, hoping that it will also benefit others. And if that is social activism, then I might be one.

But I tend not to internalize it, also because of the implications of that, and where it might lead. I generally shy away from internalizing identities or roles. So I feel like in some ways, activism tends to end up being a destination. And once you've arrived, you tend to stay.

What are some of the things you've been particularly passionate about in terms of advocating on social media?

Regarding my training, a lot of the work is intersectional and it's about understanding all axes of power. It's about understanding how systems of power co-construct one another and intersect and interlock. And so from that perspective, that broad scope of power and oppression is of great interest to me.

The way in which I work with it, though, is to identify the ways in which I benefit from particular systems and particularly being deliberate about inserting my alternative viewpoint.

For me, that also translates into South Africa talking about Colouredness and its complicity in many ways with White supremacy. But then at the same time, also bringing to light the nuances and the varied manifestations of what Colouredness is and what it can do, and that it's not only that. People have very complex identities in life, and they are entitled to that. But it's easier to focus on those things than it is to focus on the things that make you seem like the bad guy. So that, in terms of race, generally, that has been a focus of mine.

Do you think South Africa is having the conversation enough about Coloured people because very often, we talk strictly about Black and White people?

South Africa is so tricky because of how we sort of lock people into positions. There's this conversation about Coloured people being Black or not wanting to identify themselves as Black. And those are very real things, but I think people are having those conversations. What the content of those conversations is, you don't know whether it helps or harms.

"I hope that we would be doing more of is having conversations that trouble the limits of Blackness."

If we have this contestation of whether Coloured people are Black or not, then we should be having a bigger conversation around what sets the parameters for that. It's hard, we come to the conclusion that some people are and some people aren't. Has it got to do with a lived experience? Has it got to do with the consequences to identifying as such? Has it got to do with the inequality within the identification, and how all of us are not equally victimized by the system?

What do you think the role of social media has been for social activism?

I think traditionally activists have been those brave souls in society that dare to stand up and say something. They do that, however, fully aware of the dangers and the consequences of doing that. So hence, it wouldn't be something that's attractive to everybody, even if they feel they have something to say. And I feel like social media has bridged a gap, in a sense, whereby people can espouse activism in safer spaces. And when I talk about safer spaces, I mean physically safe.

Activists live in fear of danger for their lives. These things happen. Governments target activists. Civilians target activists. And everybody doesn't have that goal, to say, "I don't care. Whatever comes, I'll take it." So I think it has opened, has broadened the scope of activism and has allowed people to participate in different ways from different corners of society. And in some ways, maybe enhanced the survival of not only activists but activism.

What do you think some of the limitations are as it pertains to advocacy or activism on social media?

I do think because of the format of social media, a lot of miscommunication is enabled. Social media is also wrapped up in a much larger demographic space whereby things like "social activist Twitter" and "celebrity Twitter" coexist in the same space, and unfortunately, the conventions around how to engage those very different things, bleed into each other.

So the energy of being an antagonistic fan bleeds into that of being an activist, or how one relates to activists on social media so it gets messy. Communication and modes of communication are a limitation.

The other limitation, is how social media is legitimized or delegitimized by the establishment. We have our government structures on social media, and they use those very same platforms. However, when it matters, those voices don't seem to be important. There's also a very manipulative use of these platforms. In other ways it's also a space controlled by structures beyond our understanding.

How do you navigate a space where everybody has a platform and feels that they have a right to say whatever they want to say?

I think in my journey, I have come to a place where I am able to discern. I can tell the difference between somebody who is maybe just a bit mean but might have something to say, somebody who just doesn't agree with me, and then somebody who has a particular kind of anti-progress agenda. And so based on how I receive that, I make a decision.

The flat-out anti-progress stuff I don't engage, because that is not so much about engagement as it is wanting a response from me and also exposing me to their scorn. Because that's what it's about. It's about pulling me into a ring where I can then be eviscerated. And generally, the kinds of responses are a can't-win situation.

Courtesy of Jamil Khan.

Do you find that disheartening at times?

I used to when I still believed that those were just mean people until I got to the point where I realized that this is about more than that and it doesn't actually matter what I say. Because my ideology is positioned in a particular way, some people have decided that I need to be taken down because it's a direct threat to what they're trying to advocate.

"There are reasons why the humanity of people or the affirmation of the humanity of people who have historically been dispossessed of it, are more urgent than those who have always had it."

Other people I engage sometimes. I get to further explain something that I've said and the person then goes, "Okay cool, I see that. I get you." Other times, somebody doesn't agree with me and we get to a point where we end by saying, "I mean, that's how you see it. I don't believe in that but fine." Other times, people are not there with an agenda. They're just generally grumpy and mean. They just don't like the fact that it's me saying this. They don't like the fact that there are people who like what I say. It's just like high school meanness.

What meaningful engagements do you feel you've had on social media that have been true teaching moments for someone who was ignorant about something?

There's a lot, you know and I generally can't bring up one particular moment. What I do get often is people saying that these are things they've thought about but they didn't know how to say. So I often hear people say that I'm able to use language in a way that makes things so clear. I think we underestimate just how deeply people are thinking about complex issues and whether or not they have the language to enunciate it is a different story. I don't think we must ever underestimate just how deeply people are thinking about not only their own lives and the way in which they are implicated in systems that affect their lives, but also those around them. I think we tend to discredit and discount people's voices based on their command of language, which is a very unfair thing to do.

How would you, in an ideal world, want to see people engaging on social media in the spirit of advocacy?

You spoke earlier about an echo chamber. And I feel like often that term's been weaponized to legitimize the debate of bigotry and to invite in bigoted views. I'm sorry, but I would gladly live in an echo chamber if what I heard was only the affirmation of humanity particularly the people who have been dispossessed of it.

I would imagine that in social justice conversations, that we are not debating things for the sake of debating them and instituting balance and fairness for the sake of a standard that was never made applicable to us anyway. I want to see us invest our time strictly in conversations around justice that center and affirm humanity. And also to interrogate what that means as well.

So for me, an ideal social media setting would be one in which we center the human and really ask ourselves serious questions around how we engage.

Photo Credit: David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Woolmark International Pty Ltd

Mmuso Maxwell Designers on Winning the Karl Lagerfeld Award for Innovation

We met up with Mmuso Potsane and Maxwell Boko, the duo behind South African brand Mmuso Maxwell. We spoke about their upbringing, winning the Karl Lagerfeld Award for Innovation, and more.

After a two year internship with veteran South African designer David Tlale, Mmuso Maxwell was born. The brand, founded by the young duo Mmuso Potsane and Maxwell Boko, has since established a name for themselves in the African fashion industry. With successful works with A-list artists like Beyoncé — on her Black is King album — they continue to set the bar on what it means to be a successful emerging designer brand.

The duo first started to make noise in 2017, when they won the South Africa’s Fashion Week’s Sunglass Hut New Talent Search. Two years later, they came second at the 30 Under 30: The New Stars Arise Fashion Show competition held in Lagos, Nigeria. The duo walked home with $50,000, helping them establish their presence on a global landscape.

Last month, Potsane and Boko won the biggest award of their career: beating out 200 designers throughout the world, they took home the The Karl Lagerfeld Award for Innovation, after presenting a Merino wool collection for their Autumn/Winter 2022 line.

After their big win, OkayAfrica was able to meet up with the duo and chat about their upbringing, winning the Lagerfeld Award, and more.

How would you describe your Mmuso Maxwell brand?

Maxwell Boko: I think that the perfect description of our brand is that it is inspired by African heritage, but, the most important part is that it is mixed with contemporary culture. It’s basically our point of view of our heritage. We’re modern young people who are living with technology and science, and are influenced by those things. So even if it’s still our African heritage, it’s still our own interpretation.

Mmuso Potsane: Our brand is a modern interpretation of who an African woman is. Our brand sees itself as a global brand, and we do not want to limit it to look like an ordinary African brand, but it is positioned to be like a global brand, while maintaining our African roots, interpretations and experiences.

How did the collaboration between the both of you start?

Potsane: We met during the internship from 2015-2017. At the end of the internship, we decided to bring our pieces together to make one collection because we had similar aesthetics. From there, we just decided to continue onwards as a brand.

That’s interesting. You know, the fashion industry can most times be more competition than collaboration. How are you navigating the times you might have contrasting ideas?

Boko: I think that the reason why we joined forces together is because we had similar tastes in general. What has worked for us over the five years is that we’re not dramatic about our approach to things. It’s not “this or nothing." We’re always open to each other's critiques. We also do not question our individual strengths at all.

Potsane: Yeah, we’ve sort of found a way to agree to disagree. We have somehow found a way to come together to have one vision and objection. So for us, if any of us feels strongly about something, we just give it a chance to see how it plays out. If it doesn’t, we find a way to navigate it.

Mmuso Maxwell designers with Saul Nash

Saul Nash, winner of the International Woolmark Prize, and Mmuso Potsane and Maxwell Boko of Mmuso Maxwell, winners of the Karl Lagerfeld Award for Innovation, celebrate with models wearing their designs.

Photo Credit: David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Woolmark International Pty Ltd

How about winning the Woolmark Karl Lagerfeld Innovation Award? How did that happen?

Boko: I mean, we applied, even though I said to Mmuso that Woolmark is something that’ll happen to us, maybe two, three years down the line, and that’s because it’s generally for established designers. I always figured that it’ll happen at a later date for us. So when they reached us to inform us that we were finalists, I thought, “that’s crazy.”

When I saw the other finalists, I thought that there was no chance to win; But as we progressed in the program, I saw why it was the right time for us. It helped us as a brand in terms of making our products. The eight months were very challenging, but the thing that I enjoyed the most was working with local artisans. I think that it’s even one of the reasons we won.

And just on the side, I think it’s very hard for us to see from inside how much of a big deal winning the award is. It’s always our loyal people who help us see and understand it.

How has winning this prize influenced your brand? I mean, how important do you think platforms like this are?

Potsane: I think it’s important because it allows you access to spaces in the industry that are very out of reach for a lot of African brands. It influences and helps us to think more/differently, and just on that level, play by the rules. You’re no longer thinking locally, but internationally. It’s made us more serious about our business and how to run it. People take your work more seriously, so that makes you take it more seriously too.

In terms of funding, it’s something that’s been a struggle. I mean, as a designer, you have to showcase your work and that requires a lot of money for stuff like shows, showrooms, and so on. With the help that we’re getting from the people like Birimian — some sort of investment group for African brands — it helps you ease the stress this induces.

And what are some of the challenges you’ve faced during this? Are there ways you’re now navigating it?

Boko: When we started our brand, there was no initial capital for us to start our brand. But we got a little support, and that made our next challenge be sustaining our coming collections; but recently, our major challenge has been fabric sourcing and production. There are no facilities to produce the quality we aspire to.

Potsane: To navigate these challenges, we really just go with it one step at a time, and also speak with those who can assist with things like this, such as Birimian. In terms of production, we have to come to a compromise to ensure getting the quality we want.

You're a sustainable brand. What are some of the practices you’re doing that makes it sustainable?

Potsane: We utilize local crafts and local artisans. It’s something we’ve always been passionate about since we started our brand. We use homegrown yarns for production, and working with artisans makes us follow the route of slow fashion.

Boko: We’ve always had an affinity for natural fibers since we started. As an African creative, you’re inherently sustainable because we’re not prone to waste. It’s not something we can afford. When we buy fabrics, we buy exactly what we need, and all the things we’ve done so far have been in pre-orders. We do not produce with hopes that someone will buy what we’ve made. All pieces go to our clients.

Are there creatives that inspire the work that you do?

Potsane: The people that inspire our brand, we already currently work with. So people like Tatenda Chidora, a photographer. We also love Tony Gum. She’s an amazing artist. Same as Chloe Andrea and Daniel Obasi. We totally love these people, and are highly inspired by them.

News Brief
Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for MRC)

Watch Burna Boy Close Out the Billboard Music Awards

The Nigerian star played a medley of "Last Last" and "Kilometre."

The 2022 Billboard Music Awards returned last night, Sunday May 15, broadcasting live from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.

In the big slot of the night, closing out the award ceremonies, was none-other-than the African Giant himself Burna Boy.

The Nigerian superstar, who's coming off a headline-grabbing sold out show at Madison Square Garden, jumped onstage to perform a medley of his brand new single "Last Last" (which just dropped last Friday) and the high-energy "Kilometre" backed by a full band and a drum line.

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Photo courtesy of the artist

Spotlight: Mozambican Lizette Chirrime On Stumbling Into Artistry

Chirrime's latest exhibition, Rituals for Soul Search embodies the artist's desire to bring audience members closer to nature, the Universe, and their souls.

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

In our latest piece, we spotlight Mozambican textile artist, Lizette Chirrime. The self-taught multidisciplinary artist channels her trauma and longing to be whole through her artwork. "These abstract forms evoke the human body and my identity-responsive practice where I refashion my self-image and transcend a painful upbringing that left me shattered and broken. I literally ‘re-stitched’ myself together. These liberated ‘souls’ are depicted ‘dancing’ on the canvas, bringing to mind, well-dressed African women celebrating", Chirrime says in her own words. The artist uses her creations to communicate the beauty in simplicity, and the divinity of being African.

We spoke with the Chirrime about accidentally finding her medium of choice, using color to express emotions, and focusing your energy on being awesome.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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

When I started, I had no idea that I was an artist. I loved to create beautiful environments wherever I went, and when people noticed, they began giving me that title. I was using techniques that deviated from what was common at the time, particularly working with recycled materials, which I think situated me as a creative within my communities.

What are the central themes in your work?

Womanhood, Mother Earth, love, awesomeness, and spirituality.

How did you decide on using textiles to express your art?

It all started when I began working with hessian fabric, mainly, deciding to change the way it was treated in many houses. I gave it more life and a better look, and when the healing was done, I moved on to colorful fabrics in search of joy and life.

In the early 2000s, I began working with scrap materials, having been compelled to create a doll from textiles one evening. I fell in love with the medium and haven’t stopped creating since, though the way in which I utilize textiles continues to evolve.

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

I use the colors I do — shades of red, blue, and green — because they remind me of beauty. They’re the vehicles I use to both express my feelings and describe certain narratives behind my expression. Symbolically, I look to nature for inspiration and translate the environment around me into symbols within my pieces. Looking to nature helps to find one’s place within the universe, and I want to help people see the value in slowness and simplicity. I hope that my work helps people appreciate how miraculous our planet is and inspires them to heal the earth from destruction.

How has the pandemic affected you creatively?

I relocated to Mozambique during the pandemic, after living in South Africa for many years, and have felt an incredible shift in my capacity to be present. Being removed from a city and with a slower pace of life, I’ve been able to reconnect with myself and have a direct conversation with my spirit and soul, which directly feeds into my work and the current ideas which I’m exploring.

Luckily, I didn’t feel very affected by the pandemic because I’ve had a few sponsors and continued to sell my artwork through that time. Though I didn’t sell as much as I did prior, I still managed to pay my bills, eat and create — I’m thankful to have met my needs as an artist.

Image courtesy of the artist

African Single Mother, 2021

Film poster courtesy of EGM NY Management

You Can Now Watch the Documentary 'Bigger Than Africa' on Netflix

Award-winning Nigerian Director Toyin Ibrahim Adekeye's first feature film is out this Friday, the 13th exclusively on the global streaming platform.

Netflix's investment in original African stories has seen a hoard of brilliant minds and their creations gain access to global audiences. The latest creative to share their narrative on the global streaming platform is award-winning Nigerian director Toyin Ibrahim Adekeye and his first feature film 'Bigger Than Africa'. The film, produced by Los Angeles-based Motherland Productions is available on the streaming platform this Friday, May 13th.

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