Image courtesy of Polly Irungu.

In Conversation with Polly Irungu: 'Black people move the internet culture but reap none of the benefits.'

In Conversation with Polly Irungu: 'Black people move the internet culture but reap none of the benefits.'

We speak to Polly Irungu, founder of Black Women Photographers, about how she wants to highlight the work of Black women during this pandemic and beyond.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has left the entire world reeling from the immediate health implications aside. The creative industries in particular, have been some of the hardest hit. From the inability to host live performances for musicians, to the impracticalities of shoots by videographers and photographers, artists have felt the impact of COVID-19 in their pockets.

While the reality seems pretty bleak, journalist, digital editor, and photographer Polly Irungu saw it as an opportunity to do something meaningful and subsequently launched her Black Women Photographers (BWP) collective. The Kenyan multi-hyphenate, born in Nairobi, is currently the Digital Content Editor at New York Public Radio and has a passion for both photography and Black women. Irungu is also one of the honorees of this year's OkayAfrica 100 Women.

At the beginning of June, Irungu launched BWP with the aim of highlighting the photography of Black women and non-binary Black people and connecting them to as many opportunities as possible. And if that weren't enough, she's helped 64 photographers financially with a kickstarter that she in part, self-funded. While BWP was born during a pandemic and amid widespread Black Lives Matter protests, Irungu says she wants it to grow beyond that saying, "I don't want people to think that this is a trend just because black people are in the headlines."

We caught up with Irungu to discuss BWP, balancing working on her brainchild while working full-time and what it means to truly support the work of Black women.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What moved you to establish BWP?

Honestly, it's everything that I wish I had when I was first starting out. And I say that even though I'm very early on in my career, because I don't think that should matter. I'm creating this resource for other photographers who are just like me. All the programming I've created thus far, is centered around what the community of photographers has expressed to me, but it's also things I wish I had. I wish I had portfolio reviews. I wish I had a chance to meet Nikon ambassadors and have them review my portfolio. Just being able to connect quickly with someone from London or someone from Lagos, Nigeria is something I really wish I had when I first started.

Image by Rachel Seidu based in Lagos, Nigeria.

What does spotlighting the work of Black women photographers look like and how does it actually happen?

There are so many different ways. For example, just the fact that I have a database—that right there is the easiest way for you to find a Black woman or non-binary photographer. Oftentimes the first step for spotlighting is being seen. Black women, as you know, have been ignored for too long in all types of fields, not just photography, every single day. And this was a way for me to at least help this community to feel less of that. For us, a lot of times we've been begging or replying under a million different threads requesting to "tag a photographer" or if you're already a photographer, to "drop your work".

Industry leaders and whatnot—that's the second step. That's what I'm doing behind the scenes; spreading this link far and wide. Being seen is one thing but the next step is obviously what comes from that. Exposure is only good for so long.

Another way is that I have a Twitter list of over 400 Black women photographers. That's another simple way of me helping these photographers be seen. But a lot of the work, honestly, happens offline.

"But a lot of the work, honestly, happens offline."

The BWP launch was kickstarted by a COVID-19 relief fund. How did that process work and how many Black woman photographers have been helped thus far from that?

With my COVID-19 relief, it was not like, "Are you going to get picked or not?" It was literally a first-come first-serve basis. I circulated a form and had the photographers fill it out. I believe I helped 59 officially, and then 64 when I used some of my own money to help others.

I started distributing the money on July 7th and have been able to distribute a few hundred to each person––really a small relief. For me, at least I know that whether it's a phone bill, a website domain or an Adobe subscription, it's something that can help. One person in particular told me they had applied to over six artist relief funds and just didn't hear back a word. With a fund, you're basically pouring your heart out begging for money and trying to make a case of why you should receive it and another person shouldn't.

This time next year, I want the BWP relief fund to be the BWP grant. That would be more sustaining. But, all in due time.

What would you say have been some of the challenges that have come with setting up BWP? What are also some of the challenges you foresee in terms of keeping it going in the long-term?

Honestly, it's time. It really is time and balancing it all and realizing I can't help everyone if I don't take care of myself first. I'm trying to find that perfect balance and everybody struggles with that. When I set out to do this, I didn't know how long it would take to enter one person's name onto the site. I didn't know how long combing through the spreadsheet and verifying that they are indeed a Black person, a Black woman or non-binary person, would take.

There's a lot of administrative costs that I didn't foresee. I am using my own money to make sure the site is running and the storage for having a newsletter. I'm like, "Oh, a newsletter is such a great idea." But I'm also like, "Oh wait a second, I need to upgrade my storage to hold all the people who signed up for the newsletter."

I recently filed for a trademark and oh boy, that was very expensive. And that's another barrier that we don't talk about enough [as Black people]. We don't see any of the profits because we legally don't own anything. Black people move the internet culture but they reap none of the benefits.

"Black people move the internet culture but they reap none of the benefits."

Image by Oluwatifayokunmi Akindele based in Lagos, Nigeria.

What does success for BWP look like?

In terms of success, personally speaking, I'm never satisfied. Black folks, we'll never feel like we've made it because that's just how hungry and ambitious we are. But I guess if you want to talk about numbers, that's been successful. One, I pitched and successfully collaborated a collaboration with VSCO. I think at least 10 of us altogether, myself included, were spotlighted as a part of their "Black Joy Matters" campaign.

Like I said, we're hungry––all of us. We all want more and I don't think we'll stop until we get it. I'm kind of glad that the community is smaller right now, so that way it's easier for me to track and get to know these folks on a personal level and reach out to them.

Another tangible measure of success is that I just organized my first set of portfolio reviews with Nikon ambassadors. Let me tell you, that was hard. A few of these photographers had never had their portfolio reviewed before and that is so critical for growth. These ambassadors with decades of experience in this industry can really help, and that can really be a part of great mentoring, as an "unofficial" mentor I suppose. The mentoring program will happen later on.

Are there any other collaborations that you want to do with similarly aligned organizations or individuals to get the message of BWP out there?

Yes, and I really hope that they're reading this! We want to, we are ready, we are more than ready. I either reach out to the brand or hopefully soon, I want these brands to start reaching out to me, start reaching out to this community too. It would help grow and help continue the momentum because I don't want this movement to slow down any time soon. I don't want people to think that this is a trend just because black people are in the headlines.

"I don't want people to think that this is a trend just because black people are in the headlines."

That's not the case. For me personally, these are all the things I've been screaming into the void years before. I've been tweeting about this stuff for years now. There's nothing new that I've been doing. It's just that now people are actually listening and that goes back to what you said about being seen. Now these photographers are actually being seen. They've been creating the work, they've been taking photos, they've been doing their work. They've been sharing it online all this time, all before they knew me. I'm just helping to amplify it.

Photo By Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Global Citizen

Accra Came Out in Full Force for Global Citizen 2022

More than 20,000 fans appeared at the free show at the Black Star Square in Accra, which was headlined by American R&B artists Usher and SZA.

The 10th edition of the Global Citizen Festival took center stage this past weekend, making its debut in Ghana in honor of the country's 65th anniversary of independence. (There was also the annual New York City show happening in Central Park.)

More than 20,000 fans appeared at the free show at the Black Star Square in Accra, which was headlined by American R&B artists Usher and SZA. The festival featured the announcement of the African Prosperity Fund, an initiative lead by Ghana and South Africa that plans on launching anti-poverty programs across the continent.

But most in attendance were mostly concerned with one thing: having a good time.

There were many highlights throughout the evening. On social media — and in attendance — reggae and dancehall king Stonebwoy was crowned with having the best entrance of the festival. The global hitmaker was seen backstage riding a white horse clad in Ghana flags as he made his way to the stage.

Elsewhere, Sarkodie’s illuminati transition got the crowd ready and fired up for his performance. The award winning Ghanaian sensation got the crowd singing along as he performed songs like "Adonai," "Lucky," "Can’t let you Go," and more.


Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Global Citizen

Danai Gurira, one of the stars in the Black Panther series, introduced Tems who was performing in Africa for the first time this year. She performed Wakanda Forever highlight "No Woman, No Cry." Additionally, she gave an energetic performance of "Crazy Tings" — from her 2021 album If Orange Was a Place — and "Damages," a personal song from her 2020 album For Broken Ears. Throughout the set, Tems commanded the stage and illustrated why she is one of the breakout global artists of 2022.

Ghana’s female afrobeats sensation Gyakie delighted fans with her grand entrance featuring a military band . Gyakie, feeling patriotic and enthusiastic, would later say in a tweet that she had to "represent the motherland in full.

Later, in an interview backstage, Gyakie would talk about her mission statement as an artist.

“I am female and one of the few emerging young female artists," Gyakie said. "I want to extend a hand of support to the young women who are looking forward to breaking grounds in the industry.”


Photo by Nipah Dennis /AFP via Getty Images

Other highlights include SZA, who said that Africa is the most "beautiful" place she’s ever been, and Stormzy who pulled Kwesi Arthur and Yaw Tog on stage to perform the "Sore" remix.

It wasn't all positive, however. Ghanaian president Nana Akufo-Addo was heckled as he spoke about climate change and the effects of the Russian and Ukrainian war on Ghana's economy. The reaction he received showed that the youth of Ghana are ready for change.


@Usher Raymond proved he’s globally the King of R&B during his set at Global Citizen Ghana! What petition do we have to sign for a new album?! #KingofRNB #GlobalCitizenGhana #FestivalSeason2022

But Usher, who performed alongside Tiwa Savage, Oxlade, Pheelz, and Dwp Academy, closed the show on a high note. He took the crowd to another level of excitement, performing a wide selection of songs from his catalogue.

It was an electrifying close to a festival those in attendance won't forget for some time.

(Photo: Grammys)

The Grammys Are Considering An Afrobeats Category

The Recording Academy's CEO recently mentioned talk of adding an Afrobeats category to its line-up of awards.

In a recent trip to Ghana, Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. told Ghanaian journalists that the Recording Academy was in talks with the key players in the Afrobeats music scene to explore the possibility of adding Afrobeats to the award's genre list. During the conversation, he mentioned that the Academy was working with "leaders of the Afrobeats community" to promote inclusivity at the Grammys.

“We just had a meeting literarily about six to seven days ago, with leaders of the Afrobeats community… We had listening session where we heard from Afrobeats creators, we talked about the different subgenres what are the needs, what are the desires, and my goal is to represent all genres of music including Afrobeats at the Grammys," said Mason.

Although Mason said that the process was ongoing, the right strategy would have to be taken to ensure that things go off without a hitch.

"I don’t decide categories. The categories are decided by proposals by members. Members can say ‘Harvey, I want an Afrobeat category,’ they write a proposal for the category they talked about. So that process is started now. We did a listening session last week for the step towards that path,” said Mason.

Afrobeats has become a global phenomenon, and has taken a spot on the world stage as one of the leading genres in music. Artists like Burna Boy, Davido, Wizkid and a bevy of others have pushed the sound of Africa past the shores of Africa, and have gotten the respect, attention and admiration of music lovers worldwide.

If Afrobeats becomes a category at the Grammys, it will further push the sounds of West Africa to the fore front and will also give subgenres like Amapiano, which is quickly becoming a rave in the Africa music scene extra visibility.When Mason's comments hit the internet, there was a mix of reactions. Although some music consumers viewed the news as a good development for the African continent, others had a more cynical point of view about it. In the past, the Recording Academy has been on the receiving end of backlash about its lack of diversity and conformity with global African music, and some of those concerns have resurfaced.

See some reactions below

Photo: Cyrille Choupas

Alice Diop On Using Film to Center Marginalized Stories

The French director, whose latest film Saint Omer has been selected by France as its submission for the Best International Picture race, is known for her nuanced portraits of humanity.

“When I hear myself through Nicholas, I find me [sic] too radical!” French filmmaker Alice Diop jokes during our conversation, after hearing some of her words and thoughts filtered through her translator Nicholas Elliott.

Diop was responding passionately to a question about the tensions in France between holding onto assimilation policies and embracing a more modern ethos of inclusion and diversity. She is tying her argument to the radical leaning of French republicanism, which is very, very different from the conservative spirit embraced by the Republican party in the United States, where she is expected to appear in October to present her latest film, Saint Omer at the New York Film Festival.

Saint Omer marks Diop’s transition to fiction after seventeen years working as a documentary filmmaker. The film, which won the Grand Jury prize and best debut feature prizes recently at the Venice Film Festival where it debuted, is a wrenching legal drama that follows a young novelist Rama (Kayije Kagame) covering the trial of an immigrant mother accused of infanticide.

Before her triumph at Venice, Diop was in New York to promote the MUBI release of her latest documentary, We (Nous), which premiered at the 2021 Berlinale, where it won the Encounters Grand Prize. The film chronicles a disparate group of people, including an immigrant mechanic and a writer from the Parisian suburbs, and places their lives in connection to the RER B commuter train cutting through the city from the north to south. Diop makes We (Nous) a personal declaration of belonging, weaving footage from her family archive and trailing her sister, a home nurse, at work as she provides care for her patients.

Diop, who is a first-generation daughter of immigrants from Senegal had a wide-ranging chat with OkayAfrica about her films, belonging to French society, and her reasons for prioritizing the stories of the marginalized.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In We (Nous), you are telling these seemingly unrelated stories without obvious connections. What is the common thread linking these stories or people together?

The link is a very personal vision that I have of French society. It is a vision that is at once a dreamed vision but also something already there and not many people see. It is about what can unite people who appear to be so different in a single territory or country. And in a sense, the thread is one that I am weaving myself. It doesn’t exist as such but something very subjective.

In terms of constructing the film, what was the starting point for you?

It started from the book, The Passengers of the Roissy Express published in France about 30 years ago. It is a nonfiction book in which the writer, François Maspero takes the RER B train and follows it to the last stop. This is the train that has the peculiarity of crossing all of the Paris banlieues (low-income suburbs) from north to south. Now these are very different areas that have a great diversity of populations that really express the complexity of French society. I read this book, and it gave me the framework for using the name of the train to describe these very different territories.

A still from the film, We (Nous) of train tracks.

We (Nous) chronicles a disparate group of people, including an immigrant mechanic and a writer from the Parisian suburbs, and places their lives in connection to the RER B commuter train cutting through the city from the north to south.

Photo: Mubi

At what point does your family come in and how do you weave them into the narrative?

This film is a composition of the singularities of the many different people who live and work in France, and my family is part of that history. That is why I wanted to use our family archive in the film because it is a symbolic way of inscribing these traces of my family, and people like them, who are not shown in the constitution of French society. The archive, for me, completes a missing part of French history. I have so little in terms of archives of my family. I have only less than 17 minutes of images of my mother and everything that I have is in this film. That is something very painful; the lives that my parents had were not necessarily appreciated. These were lives that were not epic or did not have the right narratives. At least that was the feeling that I had because the people that I saw on television, in films and novels were not like me. They did not have my history or background, so I grew up with that absence. And I think that is why I became a filmmaker, to repair the violence of having this unrepresented life.

In a sense, this film, and your entire career has been about adjusting this narrative?

Absolutely. This question touches me because this is at the very heart of my filmmaking. I have done this work ever since the desire came upon me to do it, as a way to not succumb to the anger. My new (fiction) film, Saint Omer is focused on Black women, and is inspired by my mother, and it made me realize how much I needed to do this. I want to add up their bodies in film and in history.

Film, for me, is not a space for entertainment, it is a space for revenge and self-care. Saint Omer is not about the banlieues at all. I believe that people from the banlieues have every right to make films that are not about the banlieues. It is about maternity, and I have every right to talk about maternity because it is a question that is relevant to Black women, as much as it is to white women. I am speaking from my own body, and I think the closer I am to myself, the more likely I am to touch other people.

In the film, you talk about not paying into the family fund that ensures you are buried back home in Senegal. Was coming to this realization difficult?

Exile is not just measured in economic gain; it is also a loss that I cannot even qualify. This relationship to the land where you will be buried, I find it a beautiful thing to choose where you are going to die. But the most concrete way of saying where you belong is to say where you are going to be buried. And for me to say it publicly the way I did was for me to cut myself off. I have a 13-year-old mixed race son who was born and lives in France. I speak French, I don’t speak Wolof. I go to Senegal twice a year at most. I am a Frenchwoman.

Now, I am a very particular kind of Frenchwoman; I am a Black woman with colonial history so the most concrete way for me to be French is to say I am going to be buried where my son lives, or where he is most probably going to live. And that’s not a choice between France and Senegal that I am making, it is a way of saying that I am in harmony with where I am. But it does separate me forever from the place where my parents came from. It is hard to think about, even in this conversation with you. It is the entire complexity that is raised here: of the path of immigrants, of the trajectories of coming and of going, of where you are. It is something that is so complex and intense that merely signifying it is already an achievement. It is also a very universal question.

A still from the film We (Nous) of the filmmaker sitting at a table with an interviewee.

Alice Diop and Pierre Bergounioux in a pivotal moment from We (Nous).

Photo: Mubi

And when you put yourself in the frame by the end of the film, are you completing this tapestry that you are sewing?

In a sense. My appearing with my Black woman’s body in the frame, next to this writer Pierre Bergounioux, in his office is a way for me to get revenge for my father for the 40 difficult years he spent working in France. There is a point in the film when I ask my father if spending these years in France has been positive or negative, and he says it’s been a positive gain overall. But I have the intuition that for his daughter to be able to go to university and do things that as a working man, and my mother as a cleaning woman, never had the opportunity to do, and then to show myself in the frame next to this white writer in the film that I am making -- that I have invited the writer to -- I think that shows something about French society and what it can allow. And that repairs, to some degree, the pain that my parents experienced by coming here to offer me a life that they could not have.

Translation by Nicholas Elliott.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

The Inimitable Flair of BNXN

We talk to the Afro-fusion star about his year of ascendance, legendary co-signs, and headline shows around the world.

“There is this pressure that comes with it. It's on a level of ‘How are you going to do better?’, ‘How are you going to beat these songs? 'Can you back up the same energy the following year?

BNXN (pronounced Benson) calmly highlights the weighty pressures of his phenomenal 2021 run of hits that have cemented his spot as one of the hottest artists in Africa.

The last time I spoke with BNXN he was known as Buju. We sat in a recording studio within Burna Boy’s exquisite home, with the conversation centered around a seven-month stoppage in music releases. Weeks after, Buju released "Outside," the first single under his imprint, To Your Ears Entertainment—parting ways with Burna Boy’s Spaceship Records.

The release of "Outside" commenced a streak of relentless hits for BNXN which included guest verses on songs such as Savage’s "Confident," Ladipoe’s "Feeling," Blaq Diamond’s "Italy" and Wizkid’s "Mood." BNXN’s 2021 crescendoed with performances during Wizkid’s sold-out three-day residency at London’s iconic O2, a Grammy nomination for his work in Made In Lagos, his seven-track debut EP, Sorry I’m Late, and headline shows in London and Lagos.

“Coming into 2022, the speculation was about what the run was going to be like this year. Who else are you trying to do it with? 'Finesse' happened and it was wild.” BNXN earmarks the impact of the Pheelz-owned record, released in March. “Finesse” became an earworm after individual videos of Pheelz and BNXN vibing to the record went viral on Tiktok. The BNXN-assisted song charted in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, France, and America, and was featured on Barack Obama’s coveted summer playlist.

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