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Collage by Ta'Ron Joyner.

Pearl Boshomane Tsotetsi.

Aspiration is a Beautiful, Expensively-Packaged Scam

'Just because aspiration is given a Black face, that doesn't mean it's for us, cares about us or has our best interests at heart,' writes Pearl Boshomane Tsotetsi.

This essay is part of OkayAfrica's SA Reframed series, featuring personal writing from some of South Africa's best young writers edited by Verashni Pillay.

I was still a lifestyle journalist when I lost respect for my own beat. It wasn't one particular incident or moment that triggered it, but rather the result of various moments and experiences. One of them occurred very early into my tenure as editor of a lifestyle supplement. Our cover at the time featured a famous, celebrated black personality. The decision hadn't been mine - it couldn't have for I'd had my occasional "Maimane in the DA" moments: the Black leader with no real power.

Yet I was excited nonetheless because, yay, representation.

I showed the cover to a colleague who stopped short of rolling their eyes as they said: "Why do they always feature the same type of Black people?" Slightly taken aback, I asked what that meant. They elaborated: "You know, the Black person who probably lives in Sandton, drinks champagne and is one of their friends."


Now, of course, there's nothing wrong with being a Black person who lives in Sandton and loves champagne, but that shouldn't be the only type of Black person deemed worthy of lifestyle pages.

But the "they" who kept featuring these kinds of Black people was that portion of the newsroom that's always felt far removed, out of touch, elitist and, rather inaccurately, as vacuous: the lifestyle journalists.

While I will die on the hill that lifestyle features are among the most difficult to write, I did come to understand that lifestyle writing was – and still is – treated as an exclusive, "on Wednesdays we wear pink, you can't sit with us" club.

And it's that behind-the-scenes friend of a friend vibe that ends up being reflected in the reader's hands. The same way coders' biases result in algorithms that are problematic race- and gender-wise, the race and class biases of those running lifestyle newsrooms are mirrored in the final product.

And this brings me to the primary selling point and purpose of lifestyle writing: aspiration. Unlike the news or politics pages, lifestyle is meant to provide some respite from the realities of everyday life for the reader: no doom and gloom, just vibes. Okay, I'm being unfair. Lifestyle writing, when done right, is intelligent, delightful and, above all, enriching to its audience. Whether it presents new ways to cook aubergines or tells you where the next hot travel destination is, it strikes a delicate balance between telling you – the consumer – what to do and think, and being at your service. It's a teasing dance where the reader is given content that is both attainable and out of touch (an easy midweek recipe a few pages after a pair of shoes that cost a year's IEB school fees).

But the aspiration that's been sold isn't just problematic, it's exclusionary.

It's not only lifestyle media who are guilty of selling an exclusionary dream – music, fashion, advertising, television and film do it too. And, because of the people making the decisions, publications tend to feature the same tightly-knit circles and networks appearing in the pages of the fashion, food and arts sections across the country.

And while half the people featured are doing things that are quirky, innovative and/or interesting, the other half are simply friends of friends.

If they're not well-connected, they fit into preconceived notions of what we should aspire to be, where we should aspire to live and what we should aspire to eat and wear. This means, as my colleague had said, a single type of Black person deemed "acceptable", refined in the right places and sometimes "radical" enough to make editors feel like they are edgy or progressive. It is an image we didn't create ourselves but we're told to mould ourselves into; an image where pages sometimes fetishise rather than celebrate the different elements and experiences that form part of Blackness.

The lifestyle journalism industry in South Africa, in the way it's packaged and presented to us, is a microcosm of what's wrong with aspiration. It's not just about what's being sold, it's about who is selling it in the first place. Aspiration is a beautiful, expensively packaged scam.

For a long time Black faces on the pages of "nice life" publications were few and far between, but that's changing. However, the increase in representation isn't indicative of changing times or a new, societal kind of liberation. If anything, it's performative and is simply the same stale ideas of achievement and aspiration painted a few shades darker: all they did was give it an afro. It's the Fyre Festival of inclusivity.

Since the pandemic began and the Black Lives Matter movement has gained prominence in the South African discourse, publications have been changing their MOs: they are scrambling to embrace the same "wokeness" they spent years dismissing and talking down on. It's interesting to watch some previously luxury and unattainable products suddenly trying to sell relatability to their audience.

Is this, cough, a new dawn, or is it the journalistic equivalent of the wolf pretending to be Red Riding Hood's grandma? Until the faces making the editorial decisions mirror the ones littering the editorial pages, I'm going with the latter.

In her book of brilliant personal essays Trick Mirror, US journalist Jia Tolentino writes: "The psychological parasite of the ideal woman has evolved to survive in an ecosystem that pretends to resist her. If women start to resist an aesthetic… the aesthetic just changes to suit us; the power of the ideal image never actually wanes."

While Tolentino is commenting on the media's portrayal of women and society's obsession with femininity, that concept can be adapted to fit the context of this conversation.

When Anna Wintour, Bon Appetit, The New York Times and co were publicly giving mea culpas, self-flagellating and falling on their swords for their sins when it came to diversity and inclusion (performance art at its finest), some South African lifestyle writers and editors tweeted about microaggressions and horror stories they still deal with from the most powerful people in spaces that pretend to be progressive.

Spaces like that cannot and should not be the sources of and authorities on aspiration; not when the people running them don't represent the audience they pretend to speak for.

In South Africa, there are now almost no publications left on the shelves that predominantly target black audiences and consist of black editorial teams. That means our sources of aspiration are even more depleted. Those left standing are more powerful – and therefore dangerous – than before. They're the public face for spaces that portray themselves as racially-inclusive. Meanwhile, the story behind the curtain is rather different: black faces with titles, but without the accompanying power.

Until structural change occurs and the people selling us lifestyle aspirations are in touch with the multiplicities and complexities of the country's majority, we have no business letting them tell us what we want. And just because aspiration is given a Black face, that doesn't mean it's for us, cares about us or has our best interests at heart.

Until further notice, it's assimilation sold as aspiration. Don't fall for it – it's a trick.


Pearl Boshomane Tsotetsi is a journalist, columnist and over-tweeter. She is the editor of Destiny Careers magazine.

Film
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Photo Credit: Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Image

5 Artists We Discovered at Frieze New York

From Ludovitch Nkoth to Cassi Nomandi, here are five amazing artists we took note of at the 2021 Frieze New York festival.

The best way to start Summer in New York City is with Frieze New York.

Celebrating it’s 10th anniversary in New York, with a legacy partner Deutsche Bank, the three day art extravaganza brings artists, collectors, and cultural purveyors from all over the world to Midtown Manhattan at the Shed to enjoy the various mediums of art on display.

We took some time to uncover the fair, noticing the artists with rich cultures and poignant narratives that drove a resonating message for the audience.

Here are five amazing artists we took note of at the 2021 Frieze New York festival.

1) Ludovic Nkoth

Young and talented, Ludovic Nkoth, 28, is a trailblazer with the eyes of an old soul. His work was carefully placed next to Cassi Nomandi, bringing forth rich textures and deep colors ranging from reds, blues, and yellows. Originally from Cameroon, Nkoth is inspired by his immigrant experience, using his wand to paint pictures of the black immigrants crossing overseas in the water pulling inspiration from family history, tradition, and the legacy of colonialism. Success is here for the young artist with most of his work sold out and exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, and London.

2) Luiz Roque

Paying tribute to marginalized cultures, Luiz Roque’s film, S, was an outlier at the fair. A film encapsulated in a dim lit room at the corner of the walkway, it created a mysterious darkness that resonated with a few viewers, though many were jaunted by the artist’s rawness of sexuality and queerness. The film kept us curious on what the voguing and vivid imagery meant to Roque. The artist’s 20 year tenure is an exploration of race, class, politics, ecology, modernism, and science fiction.

3) Cassi Nomandi

Originally from Mozambique, Cassi Nomandi, 34, is a woman with a sharp vision yet subtle hands. With her work, she creates a trance of raw emotion and pleasure. Nomandi studied Cinematography at the Academy of Art University San Francisco. She exhibited her first show in 2017 which put her on the map. In 2020, Cassi was commissioned by Vogue Italia to create the cover art for the magazine’s January 2020 Issue, fusing her love for fashion, photography, film, and cultural anthology.

4) Sydney Cain

San Francisco native Sydney Cain, 31, is a mythical being with over a decade of experience creating and expressing herself through art. We spoke with Sydney briefly to learn how it feels to show at a big fair such as Frieze. “It’s exciting to share work in the east coast being from the Bay Area. I want the work to resonate across the diaspora,” Cain said.

Cain drew on her bloodline and ancestry tapping into the things unseen leaning from lightness to darkness, erasing, subtracting, shifting dust away to define clarity for what she wants to convey in her art. Her energy, while drawing her pieces comes from her courageousness to dive into beings of mortality, expressing things that are stuck here in America, spirits that have our back. She is set to start at Yale studying her MFA this fall.

5) Barbara Wagner

Walking into the fair is the beautiful photo compilation by Wagner, hailing from Brazil. The installation catches your eye because of the humans in the shot, real and authentic, Wagner does a great job of bringing the essence of brazillian culture into the person cast. The installation, In Search of Fifth Element, was a show stopper and gave viewers a real glance at the real people of brazil.

Featured
Photo Credit: Netflix

The Stars of 'Blood Sisters' Talk About Becoming Netflix's Biggest Hit

We sat down with Ini Dima-Okojie and Nancy Isime, the actors who brought life to Sarah and Kemi, to talk about shooting Blood Sisters, acting in Nollywood, what's next, and more.

Earlier this month, Netflix's "first original series" from Nigeria was released. The limited series, Blood Sisters directed by Biyi Bandele and Kenneth Gyang, follows two friends, Sarah (Ini Dima-Okojie) and Kemi (Nancy Isime), as they go on the run after the death of Sarah's fiance, Kola (Deyemi Okanlawon).

The show explores familial dysfunction, murder, the meaning of sisterhood, and how valuable friendships can be, with its central premise around domestic violence, a theme known to many.

Since its release, the four-part crime thriller has received praises, with Variety calling its first episode "explosive" and "hard-pressed to walk away." After its first week of release, the limited series sat at number nine on the list of most-watched TV shows globally, with over 11,070,000 hours of viewing, making it a first for Nigeria. This comes after Netflix’s first Nollywood film of the year —Chief Daddy — faced harsh criticisms from viewers and critics alike.

The success of Blood Sisters shows that cinematography isn’t the only selling point of Nollywood. And for Nollywood content to thrive on Netflix, there should be an investment in all areas, from the storytelling down to the marketing.

For Ini Dima-Okojie starring alongside some of Nollywood's big names — like Kate Henshaw, Ramsey Nouah, and Uche Jombo — was surreal because these are the people she watched growing up. "But when it came to filming, it didn't matter if you've been in the industry for just four years or 30 years," Dima-Okojie said. "All that mattered was everyone was ready to work."

Like Dima-Okojie, Nancy Isime also loved acting alongside them, even though it wasn't her first time working with some of them. "I was there for work and understood that it was bigger than just being Nancy Isime. It was me at work."

We sat down with Ini Dima-Okojie and Nancy Isime, the actors who brought life to Sarah and Kemi, to talk about what it was like behind the scenes, acting in Nollywood, what's next for them, and more.

Blood Sisters | Trailer | Netflix

What's one thing you learned while shooting this series?

Ini Dima-Okojie: One thing I learned for sure is that Nigeria is ready to tell its authentic stories to a global audience. We're not just prepared; we're capable of standing behind any industry. I could feel that from being on set, with the professionalism I encountered. I also learned that it is good to be kind, deliberate, and mindful of what people are going through because what we do has an impact.

Nancy Isime: For me, I learned it's possible to have good production in Nigeria. I've been blessed to be in a couple, and this was one of them. And it's a highlight so far. I also learned about the characters.

Nancy Isime,

Photo Credit: Nancy Isime,

What was it like playing your roles, and how did you get it?

Dima-Okojie: When I got the audition file for Sarah, I went on my knees and told God, "I want this." You can tell from the size alone, and I think that has happened to me only three times in my career because it doesn't often happen as an actor. A week or two after I sent in my audition tape, I got an email telling me to send another tape, but this time, it was for a different character, Timeyin. Altogether, I auditioned for Kemi, Sarah, and Timeyin.

I was so excited playing Sarah. I felt so lucky because, at the end of the day, an actor is only as good as the opportunities they are given. So playing Sarah had me go deep into the character, asking questions and putting myself into her shoes.

Isime: It was wonderful playing my role. I had gotten an email asking to read for Sarah, not for Kemi. So I made my tape and sent it in. Then, I was called in for a private audition and read through with everybody. However, I was called back and was told that Netflix wanted me to play Kemi, and I was like, "What is a Kemi?" Because I never read for her. So I was reluctant to accept because I didn't know who the character was and if she'd have the opportunity to show her acting range. But I took it, and when I read the script, I was like, "Yes, Kemi. Yes, baby, let's do this."

What was your favorite scene to film?

Dima-Okojie: My favorite scene? That's hard. I had so many unforgettable moments. However, I think one monumental period I'd like to pick on is probably when Sarah stood up to her abuser Kola and told him, "No!" because that was very big. She barely speaks up and is so used to being bullied, whether for good or bad, even in her beautiful friendship with Kemi, where she's always being told what to do. But in that scene, she had found the strength and was finally able to speak up, even though she knew what his reaction was going to be.

She spoke up for herself at that moment, and I think it was a huge moment for Sarah. It was a huge moment for people who may have experienced [domestic violence] because if there's one thing I realized from research, it didn't matter where people who are susceptible to abuse are from. Whether they were black or white, old or young, it was a triumph for Sarah and everyone going through any form of abuse.

Isime: I loved every single scene of playing Kemi because, as you noticed, there's no scene she's in that is a usual scene. In fact, no scene in Blood Sisters could have been done away with if you noticed because every scene is putting you on edge the entire time. Coming to set every day, I was like, "we're h-a-p-p-y," because yes, I was happy.

Ini Dima-Okojie wearing white sneakers

Photo Credit: Ini Dima-Okojie

What was the most challenging scene?

Dima-Okojie: For the challenging scene, I'll like to break it into physical and emotional parts. It was very physically challenging for Sarah. From when they decided to go on the run, physically, we were in Makoko, running all over the community, jumping from canoe to canoe. We also went to Epe, where we were barefooted. It was grueling as an actor and a character because this wasn't a fit character. Emotionally, I had to understand everything that Sarah was going through. I had to chip away from who I am as Ini to connect with what she was going through, which can be draining. But thank God I was surrounded by amazing people and directors who eased the process and were there to pick me up anytime I was down.

The series is a global hit on Netflix; how does that make you feel?

Dima-Okojie: Honestly, it's surreal. It makes me emotional half the time because, as a performer, all you want is for people to watch your work and for it to resonate. Being an actor, people see the glitz and the glam, but it's a lot of work. You chip away part of yourself to give a character life, but it's worth it.

Isime: Floating. Floating in a bubble, floating in gratitude. It feels so good. Imagine having 11 million hours of watch time in five days? It's no easy feat. I don't think any African show has been able to do that. So for that to come from Nigeria, and for me to be lead? I don't think I'll ever come down from this high that I'm on.

You are both a part of a new generation of Nollywood actors doing amazing if I say so myself. What is that like?

Dima-Okojie: Generally, I think being an actor in the world today is incredible. Nollywood has gone through much because we were in a time where we didn't have financing and institutionally there's no backing. So being able to be in a world today where everything is global, and I can do something here in Lagos, while people from Japan, Belgium, and Qatar, are sending texts telling me they watched me and loved it, I don't think there's a better time to act than now. It's a fantastic time to be a Nigerian actor.

Isime: It feels good to be recognized for something I'm passionate about and love. I feel blessed because Nollywood is bigger than I am. It goes beyond ego and wanting to be the best because we're all part of something way bigger than us. And I'm so happy to be able to contribute to this industry, leave my prints in the sand of time, and say that yes, there was a time I was not just a Nollywood actor, but every single person can confirm. I mean, it's one thing to say you're an actor, and people start asking, "which film you act?" "this one too na actress?" but you can't say that when it comes to me. And it also feels good to be recognized by the AMVCA, which is a huge organization.

Netflix

Photo Credit: Netflix

Now, let's go behind the scenes: did anything funny, sad, or surprising happen while filming?

Dima-Okojie: There were so many exciting moments, not necessarily sad moments. We filmed for over two months at the height of COVID-19, so you can imagine all the craziness that must have happened.

I remember while filming the dinner scene after we had our COVID-19 test, they told us a cast member had the virus, causing us to reschedule. Another moment was when Ramsey Nouah brought a crocodile for us to eat while filming in Epe, and it was delicious. I honestly had lots of happy moments.

Isime: I feel like all these emotions happen naturally because I was happy every day I was on set. But something interesting that happened was the fact that Ini and I got so into the characters that we took it just beyond acting. We felt every emotion that the characters went through. We had one crying scene together, and I promise you that they cleared the room for us because we had to cry to get it out for a while. Because in reality, when something happens to you and you cry, you don't just cry for a bit. You have to let it out, and that was us. We were Kemi and Sarah and needed time to grieve. To let it out. It was an interesting event, and I had so many times I was tired, mentally and physically.

What's next for you? Any upcoming projects?

Dima-Okojie: There are so many exciting things in the works. First of all, I am getting married. Immediately after that, in June, I am going right back to set for the second season of Smart Money Woman. There are a couple more projects in the work that I'm not allowed to speak about yet, but there are exciting times ahead.

Isime: I love that question, and I also don't love that question because I don't know what's next. I'm just living my purpose, taking one day at a time, and grateful for every part of my journey. If you had told me five years ago that I'd be here, I would say it's a lie because I was probably sure that I knew where I was going. So what's next for me is a beautiful life, more projects, and more fantastic performances.

My show, The Nancy Isime Show, is also doing very well and happens to be one of the most-watched talk shows in the country, so I'm hoping that expands better. I'm also hoping to bring about a few more creations to life.

Music
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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.

If you like these music lists, you can also check out our Best Songs of the Month columns following Nigerian, Ghanaian, East African and South African music.

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