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Photo courtesy of Karabo Poppy.

In Conversation with Karabo Poppy, the First South African Artist to Collaborate with Nike

The talented illustrator and street artist produced three unique designs for Nike's iconic Air Force 1 Low sneaker collection.

Karabo Poppy is an award-winning South African illustrator, graphic designer and street artist. The majority of her work has been inspired by signature geometric patterns and vibrant African aesthetics.

Recently, she became the first ever South African artist to collaborate with Nike on their iconic Air Force 1 Low sneaker collection. Nike By You, which offers sneakerheads the opportunity to get some dope custom-made sneakers, teamed up with Karabo Poppy to design three unique sneakers whose aesthetic is distinctly African. Design-wise, the sneakers go where Nike itself has never gone and it's exactly what gives them a striking quality—they're hard to miss.

In a matter of days, the sneaker collection had completely sold out globally, yet another feat for a South African artist. And so naturally, we caught up with Karabo Poppy to talk about the success of her sneaker collaboration, what it feels like making history within sneaker culture and some of the biggest lessons she's learnt in the process.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


You're the first South African to collaborate with Nike on their iconic Air Force 1 Low sneaker. How does that "first" feel?

Wow. I think it's been a little bit of a while because it's been a project we've been working on since January. But even to this day, it still doesn't feel real at all.

I feel really honored to be able to work with the brand that's been a part of my visual and inspirational aesthetic. Since I was a teenager, I always wanted Air Force 1s and have been wearing them from the time that I was about 14 or 15. It's an honor to be able to tell my story on something that's been a part of my aesthetic and culture for so many years.

Would you term this a "surprise collaboration", or were you always making moves in the background to secure the opportunity to work with Nike?

It's a little bit of both. I do believe in working extremely hard and taking calculated risks while staying true to my individuality, the thing that would open up doors. I didn't think this would happen though. I'd always wanted my illustration and street art in graphic design to open doors, but I never thought it would open this kind of a door.

Nike | All For 1: Karabo Poppy - Johannesburgwww.youtube.com

Was there any added pressure to deliver as an artist who was now being seen to effectively represent all of South African creativity?

Yeah, there was extreme pressure. I think, with this specific project, it was also two-fold because you had pressure from sneaker culture as a whole and then specifically, the sneaker culture in Johannesburg while also trying to make a shoe that is appealing globally. The pressure to be relevant and appealing to a very, very large market was the first one.

The second pressure was being able to tell an authentic story because that's where my inspiration comes from.

"I wanted to represent Africans, especially South Africans, extremely well to a global audience."

And then lastly, there was the pressure of working on a canvas I've never worked on before. I've never designed a shoe. Putting all of that together on a new canvas, making it relevant globally and then also representing it authentically came with extreme pressure.

Going in, did you already know what each sneaker would look like, or was it a process that unfolded itself as you went along?

As soon as I started, I knew that I had wanted to do something that Nike hadn't done before—carrying on the concept of something new and something innovative. You'll notice with every sneaker, there's an element that Nike hasn't done before. So all three sneakers have embroidery. On one, it is a raised embroidery. On the other, embroidery mixed with 3D printing. On the third, are patches of embroidery that actually cover the Nike swoosh.

I knew that I had wanted to do something that Nike hadn't done before, but I didn't necessarily know how I wanted to have that exist on the shoe. I first designed the shoe digitally, and then worked with the team to see how we could bring in a new way of applying the illustration to the shoe.

Was there anything that specifically inspired the design for each sneaker?

All three sneakers kind of have their own theme. When I was conceptualizing how I'd be designing the sneakers, I was thinking about tagging the current contemporary African aesthetic that we have. Africa is extremely broad, but I feel like there are common threads that we can find throughout the continent, and the first one being the very spiritual relationship with hair. But also, throughout the years, we've seen hair also being tied to politics. So, the first concept was paying homage to that common thread of an African's relationship with hair.

The concept for the second shoe was kind of talking about how all past roads lead to building something this new. So how history has allowed the creatives of today to be able to push boundaries and even break boundaries. Living in Africa and having parents that were very restricted to what they could do for a living, I needed to pay homage to all the work from previous generations that allowed me to be able to do what I want to do and do it well.

Then, the third shoe is about me speaking towards all African creative potential, both living on the continent and part of the African diaspora as well. It's about saying there's an unbridled potential that we still have yet to discover.

Photo courtesy of Karabo Poppy.


Photo courtesy of Karabo Poppy.


Photo courtesy of Karabo Poppy.

Which would you say is your favorite out of the three sneakers?

My friend, no! I have no idea. I really love them all the same. They're all so extremely different. It's very tough choosing just one.

How do you think the international community has received your sneaker designs?

From the feedback that I've been receiving over social media and from what the Nike team has told me, it's really great seeing how globally receptive the designs work. We sold out in four days which really shows how committed people were to the design. The sneakers sold out the fastest in South Africa, of course.

"In South Africa, they sold out in an hour."

And then, we had Japan sell the most overall. Spain had also sold out in three hours. We've got Europe. We've got Asia. We've got Africa. And I think those are really broad and extremely different markets. But, we've seen it do well in very different markets as well. So, I think it's been received well and that's really exciting. It makes me really happy.

What would you say was the biggest challenge and lesson of this collaboration?

I think the biggest challenge came from putting pressure on myself to be able to represent the African aesthetic and doing so on a new canvas. It was a very exciting challenge. I did have a very broad and great understanding of sneaker culture and sneakers, and a great understanding of illustration as well. So, it was very natural to marry the two. But, working on something new is always challenging.

I learned a few tricks of the trade when it comes to sneaker design. I actually got to know what goes into the back end of the hundreds of sneakers that I own. It was really interesting seeing how sneakers start off as a flat surface and how they get pulled from a flat design. Also learning about the intricacies that go into sneaker design and broadly, industrial design—something that I would want to pursue as well in the future.

The second lesson that I learned was about stepping out of your comfort zone and being experimental with your designs. I think that will always be met with great excitement, and people are really open to seeing others doing something new.

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Every week, we highlight the top releases through our best music of the week column. Here's our round-up of the best tracks and music videos that came across our desks.

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Photo Credit: N'ihu Media

'Proud and Unafraid' Details the Trials & Tribulations of Being Queer in Nigeria

We spoke with N’ihu Media founder Bayo Lambo about his documentary ‘Proud and Unafraid' and the power of using storytelling to uplift communities.

Despite the growing online visibility of Nigeria’s LGBTQ community, the reality of their lives is still dire. Shackled by the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA) which criminalizes queer relationships in the country, and an overtly homophobic populace, queer people are forced to live a parallel life in the country far away from the reach of traditional news sources and media organizations.

The lack of documentation in Nigerian media about the LGBTQ community leaves a sizable hole in our national archives, meaning that the lives and activities of successive generations of queer people might be lost to the sands of time. However, thanks to the decentralizing effect of the Internet, new mediums are springing up that allow queer people tell stories of their lives and intricacies of dealing with being a member of the LGBTQ community in Nigeria.

Last year, N’ihu Media, a media agency based in Lagos, released a documentary touching on the lives of four queer Nigerians titled Proud and Unfraid. In the opening sequence of the documentary, culture writer Vincent Desmond, talks about the ways that being gay makes his perspective on life different. “Being gay is something that affects almost anything and everything you do,” he says. “The way you meet people, the way you react to people, the way you compose yourself in public. It’s because you’re always aware that someone who one minute is nice to you could just suddenly flip the moment they are aware that this person might be saying.”

Across 27 minutes, the subjects of the documentary explore coming out, the impact of being queer on their inter-personal relationship, and the cost and burdens of identifying as openly queer in a homophobic country like Nigeria, giving a fantastic insight into how they navigate their lives and the harsh realities of being queer in Nigeria.

Over a Zoom call one busy midday week in mid-June, Bayo Lambo, the founder of N’ihu Media lays out his reasons for green-lighting the documentary, what the process liked like, and his dream for a more empathetic Nigeria.

How did you get the idea to do a documentary of queer experiences in Nigeria?

I’m the owner of N’ihu Media and what we do is that we cover everything Africa. It’s a Pan-African thing and we basically explore the lives of people on the continent and it’s impossible to cover life on the continent without covering the disenfranchised. We try to give an objective view of everything and the community is obviously a disenfranchised one.

The idea for the documentary was brought to me by Hannah Ajala. She’s a BBC reporter that we do stuff together and bounce ideas off each other. She knows the kind of stories I like and so she sends me story ideas from time to time but when she sent that one I said, “Yes, let’s do that, let’s see what we can find.”

Half of the time when I do stories, I do them because I want to know. When I was first thinking about doing this channel, I said something out by mistake and everyone turned and looked at me. I said I’d like to follow people to their homes and everyone turned around and was like, “What’s this guy saying?” But what I meant is that I want to see what everybody is going through. You see me today but you only see a part of me. By the time I shut down this laptop or whatever you don’t know what I’m going through, good or bad. So that’s the main reason we took on this story, for telling those hidden stories. We’re like a baby Vice.

When did you start your production company?

Officially, it was 2020. The first time I put a video out was during the pandemic, that was the first time I put out a production but I had started on the sports side of things. I was covering sports in anticipation of doing stories like this one. I’d done the Shitsuke Flag Football in Nigeria which is a fantastic thing. I played in the league so we put cameras there to get clips of the action.

The lack of documentation in Nigerian media about the LGBTQ community leaves a sizable hole in our national archives.

Photo Credit: N'ihu Media

Speaking specifically about Proud and Unafraid, how important was it to for you to bring representation of the Nigerian queer experience to the fore?

I feel like one thing you have to remember is that everyone is someone’s son, daughter, brother, wife, husband, or child and we need empathy. We need to see other people’s side. I can never understand what you’re going through unless you tell me. I can never understand your choices until I understand why or what set it off. So it is very important that we put ourselves out there and put these kinds of stories out. It’s very good to shed a light on other people’s realities. It’s not easy to see somebody walking down, saying she’s going on a date and when she gets there, there’s a bunch of people waiting just to beat her up. We just need to have more empathy and understand what people are going through.

Can you take me through the selection process for the people you interviewed?

Hannah has been following one of our interviewees and she tried to reach out to them as well as keep me in the loop. Interviewing somebody is one thing and interviewing someone that can convey their pain and their joy is a different thing. The most difficult part of it is getting people to speak out in public and, to me, a lot of these guys are brave and they’re not hiding their lifestyles or they don’t hide themselves. I don’t even call it a lifestyle, they’re not hiding themselves and hey have prominent pages on social media where they discuss their lives openly hence the topic, Proud and Unafraid. With all the setbacks and backlash they face, they’re still brave enough to come out and tell us their stories you know. Hannah found these people, we discussed and decided how best to showcase their stories. Usually, when Hannah says something, as long as we agree, we just go through with it and beat it up as we go.

Proud and Unafraid was produced by N’ihu Media.

Photo Credit: N'ihu Media

A segment of the documentary touches on the lives of the interviewees before being openly queer, what significance does that part of the conversation hold?

If you look at life in general, you can actually pinpoint every stage of your life. You can base your life on before and after something. During primary school, after primary school, during secondary school, after secondary school. You have to understand that these are people that are going through so much, hiding it was easy in one way but difficult in another way, coming out is easy in one way but difficult in another way. Those are the things I wanted to know: how was it when you’re hiding yourself? What was the pain when you’re walking around? One of the reasons I’m very happy to do this is because I have a friend that I grew up with — we went to school together — he moved down to England, and he’s finally come out.

One of the things he was saying was that how he would have to go somewhere where people were gay bashing or whatever and he would have to laugh at that. He would also go home and his parents would say things or preach to him. Basically, your friends and family are doing things as strangers and you just have to keep quiet, so you can imagine the pain to laugh at yourself or to insult yourself. Then when you come out, there is a different pain those same people castigate you also at the end. So, before and after always brings its own good and bad perspectives. With those perspectives, you want the audience to question themselves and ask if this person would have chosen this life willingly if it was so bad and difficult. I can’t fathom it when people say being queer is a choice. If it was a choice, nobody would be willing to sacrifice jail time or their life on the continent. When you put out a show like this you just want people to be able to see the whole picture and put themselves in people’s place.

Desmond Vincent writer

“Being gay is something that affects almost anything and everything you do,” culture writer Desmond Vincent said.

Photo Credit: N'ihu Media

One of the points raised by Desmond Vincent was that re-educating Nigerians is part of the way forward. Do you consider Proud and Unafraid a part of the re-education process or is it just a picture of what’s happening?

The thing is people go around life with this feeling that if it’s not me, then it’s OK and we can say this for so many things: the plight of Black people, of Africans, and anywhere you can find a disenfranchised community. We need everybody to start speaking up for someone or something. We need to be able to see human beings first. If consenting adults are walking around, we need to be able to see that they are human beings we are talking about. So, to me, I think that’s the most important thing the documentary is trying to say, that they’re your neighbor.

Do you think you would want to explore the realities of the LGBTQ community in other countries on the continent, do you think that might happen down the line?

It would be a blessing to. It will be fantastic, it’s something we would like to do, the only reason we haven’t been able to do it is that finding the right people to get these stories is not always easy. You have to remember that finding people to speak out is hard because this is Africa. There are certain laws that don’t cater to the community and that is the difficult part. But once we find people that are Proud and Unafraid, we will be there to hear their stories.

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Photo Credit: Damilare Kuku

Damilare Kuku on How Real Life Inspired Her Hit Novel ‘Nearly All The Men in Lagos Are Mad’

OkayAfrica spoke to author Damilare Kuku about her salient breakout novel ‘Nearly All The Men in Lagos Are Mad.’

Damilare Kuku is new to Nigeria’s literary scene. But her short story collection, Nearly All The Men in Lagos Are Mad, came with a buzz. Released in October 2021, the book is a collection of twelve salient tales of young Nigerians in Lagos. Capturing the complexion of the city, it grapples with themes like love, sex, deceit, infidelity, companionship, and heartbreak.

The characters in Nearly All The Men in Lagos Are Mad are women. However, they are not just any kind of women. They are people with whom Kuku shares certain connections with.

Some of these women are friends, close acquaintances, and relatives. "One of the aims of my work as a creative artist is bringing human beings closer, especially women," Kuku told OkayAfrica. "Because women need to know that whatever they are going through, they are not alone. There are other people with the same thing happening to them."

Kuku, who loved reading books as a child, grew up between Lagos and Ile-Ife. Before her debut novel became a hit, Damilare played roles in movies. She’s made appearances in Africa Magic's television series Unbroken and Nollywood blockbusters like The Set-Up (2019), Chief Daddy (2018), and Love is War (2019). As her writing career enjoys attention and success, she landed her most important Nollywood role yet — in the Biodun Stephen-directed drama The Wildflower, released in May.

OkayAfrica caught up with Kuku on Zoom to talk about this anthology work, its inspiration, and her most important role in Nollywood yet.

Damilare Kuku book

How did you come up with the title?

The title of the novel came to me after a prayer session. I'm an unapologetic child of God, which means I rely heavily on God. I was actually in between projects and remembered I was in my one-room apartment in Yaba, Lagos — a very cute little place. I liked it, and I was so proud of the space.

Whenever I am not working, I pray. Somehow, somewhere, I was praying, inspiration came and was like, "how about you write a novel titled Nearly All The Men in Lagos Are Mad?" It wasn't even the inspiration for the stories; it was only the title. So immediately, I sent the title to a very well-known Nollywood actor's assistant. I never got a response, which discouraged me a bit, but I thought maybe it wasn't the right time, so I let it go. This was in 2019. A year later, I submitted a book to my publisher. This was the publisher who later published Nearly All The Men in Lagos Are Mad, and they were like we see potential, and we'd love you to come in for a meeting. So I went in for a meeting and they wanted to sign me on the spot.

Your book deals with themes like deceit, companionship, infidelity, social class, friendship, and heartbreak. Was there any of these themes you wanted readers to pay more attention to?

All stories in the novel are as personal as they can be. I don't have a story in the book, but each story was carefully written, which is interesting because I had all of these things written out, hoping anybody reading the book would get the message. When the message was clear, it was pretty comforting. Every particular story was of clear intention. The same thing with any of my work has always been clear. I'm always delighted when people see my message's clarity. Each story is a love letter to some woman I know.

In the story “Beard Gang” from Nearly All The Men in Lagos Are Mad, you explored how Gay men use marriage to straight women to conceal and hide their sexual orientation. Do you think Nearly All The Men in Lagos helped in any way to pinpoint how this is problematic?

Firstly LGBTQ+ community is very precious, and I'm cautious with what I say. I believe my work mirrors what is going on in the society. Take from it what you will. I tell most people I'm not here to educate you, and I'm more of a timekeeper. That's what I am as a writer. I'm saying this is what is happening. As Damilare, I believe people should be who they want to be. People should learn to accept people for who they are. That's my phenomenon; that is my theory about life. When a person shows you who they are, accept them, but on the other hand, I'm not doing that in this book. I'm simply saying that this is where our society is. Read it and then take from it what you will.

Because it would be foolhardy of me to say this is wrong or right. I'm not here to teach anybody, I'm just here to mirror the society and say how it is. I've had many reporters ask me what my view on queer people is. I don't have an opinion, and that's not because I'm trying to play it safe, but this is what society is.

Damilare Kuku green shirt

"I'm very intentional with my work, and I feel like, as a woman, I can only share stories about what it feels like to be a woman," Damilare Kuku said.

Photo Credit: Damilare Kuku

Let’s talk about the theme of sex. Why was it so essential to the stories being told in your novel?

For me, it was the characters telling their stories, and I can remember older people who had read the book who called me and said, "Is this what is happening now?" and I said yes. I told them it was different from their time when women were very conservative about their sexual life and sexuality. Nowadays, if a woman consents to sex, she's doing it of her own free will. So is that necessarily a good or a bad thing? Then again, it is not my place because if I pass judgment as a writer, I'm not doing my job telling the story. It is left to the readers to make with it what they will. I remember I did an interview a while ago and the interviewer and critic called NALMILAM not too far from pornography, and I laughed. Similarly, the book is dedicated to my mom Oluremi Abake. She started reading the book, but she also says the sex talk is a bit too much for her. But I feel like it's a normal phenomenon; young people living in Lagos are having sex, so why sugar coat it?

Was there any story in Nearly All The Men in Lagos Are Mad that was tedious or mentally draining to write?

The only thing that was quite tedious was emotions. So when my friends — the inspirations behind the stories — went through what they went through, I related as a listener. To write about their experiences, you have to become them. So I found myself being them. Sometimes I would even cry. In the story "Ode-plus complex," the main character (Jide) was a family member's experience. I became the character to understand what they went through, which helped me as an actor. It was very therapeutic.

Let's talk about your latest role in The Wildflower. Share with me what it was like to play the role

As I said, I'm very intentional with my work, and I feel like, as a woman, I can only share stories about what it feels like to be a woman, either through what friends have been through or what I know someone else has gone through. I can tell what other women go through because I am one myself, so when I got the role in The Wildflower, after several auditions, I was very excited. I wanted to tell the story of women and what they go through, abuse in the workplace and many girls go through that. They are being marginalized. Women go through a lot, and most times, some people who do these things to us don't think they've abused the woman.

In The Wildflower, my character was abused by her boss, and there was a scene after the abuse where he said to her, "If only you've been a little bit more cooperative..." and I believe most men think like this. They think, "I didn't rape you — we had sex." But no, it's rape. I told you "no." You didn't listen and went ahead to do what you wanted. When someone says "no," no should mean no. I have often heard some ridiculous views like, "when an African woman says no, she means maybe."

We are here in a society where men don't respect boundaries. They don't respect personal space, and they think it's okay to touch a girl because she's wearing a short skirt. I read a review about The Wildflower from a popular site, and the reviewer said, "absolutely not recommended because abuse has been talked about," and I actually wish I could talk to the person and say, "just because abuse has been talked about many times, doesn't mean it shouldn't be explored."






Interview

Tim Lyre Wants You to Worry Less

The talented afro-fusionist keeps the flag flying high for Nigerian alternative music with his debut album, Worry <.

Tim Lyre is part and parcel of Nigeria’s alternative music scene.

Nigeria’s alte renaissance began circa 2016, unearthing a fresh crop of music and artists which saw the previously underground movement bubble and burst into nationwide attention. The movement birthed fresh stars and sounds who introduced a new perspective of music to the pop-centric country. The likes of Odunsi “The Engine”, Nonso Amadi, Lady Donli, Prettyboy D-O, Fasina, Santi, Tomi Thomas, and many more all championed the alte movement. Singer Tim Lyre is a core member of that cohort.

For years, Tim has been active as a singer-songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist, also making contributions to the projects of his peers as a producer and as a guest artist. His debut album, Worry Less (stylized as Worry <) arrived this year to show that alternative music in Nigeria is very much alive and well.

Tim Lyre started working on Worry < in 2019. According to him it took about 2-3 years to record, mix, and master the entire project. “The name of the album is Worry Less, so I wanted the album to feel exactly how it sounds,” he tells OkayAfrica. “We had to make sure all the features were right, the transitions and everything was right. I really wanted to take my time to make sure the project was as good as it possibly could be and to represent what the project is about,” offering his explanation as to why the album took so much time to create.

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