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The Black Women Who Made Big Strides in France in 2018

Yes, this was a bad year for many reasons, but we can still celebrate the black women who rose to prominence

Back in 2015, a group of Black women activists appeared in the French media: les afrofems. They were and still are, fighting against police brutality, for better inclusion in the media and to destroy harmful sexual stereotypes surrounding black women among other worthy goals. Since then, more influential Black women have gained a bigger representation in the media. And, even better, some of the afrofems activists, like Laura Nsafou and Amandine Gay, have made films and written books to bring more diversity to the entertainment industry.


2018 has, in many ways, been a year where black women made strides in France, at least in terms of culture. From winning Nobel prizes, to having best selling books and being on top of the charts, Black French women have showed that, no matter how much France wants to keep them under the radar, they're making moves. And, no matter the tragedies and terrible events that have shaped the year, it is something worth celebrating.

France's New Queen of Pop Music

We begin with Aya Nakamura, France's new queen of pop music. Her song Djadja was a summer hit. Everyone from Rihanna, to the French football team who successfully won their second world cup, sang it. Her sophomore album "Nakamura" has been certified gold in France and is still on top of the charts. She is the first French singer to have a number one album in the Netherlands since Edith Piaf in 1961. The last time a black woman was as visible in pop music was in 2004, with Lynsha's single "Hommes...Femmes".

Nakamura has received a huge backlash, mostly due to misogynoir—misogyny directed towards black women where race and gender both play roles. From a French presenter butchering her African first name despite the fact that he can easily pronounce words like "Aliagas", to online trolls calling her ugly and manly when a picture of her wearing no makeup surfaced, to people complaining that she is bringing down the quality of the entire French pop music industry, Nakamura responds to her critics gracefully. Her music is not groundbreaking but her album is full of catchy songs with lyrics using French slang she masters so well that she came up with her own words like "en catchana" (aka doggy style sex). And most importantly, many black girls and women can finally see someone like them in the media getting the success she deserves.

The Nobel Prize Winner

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Another Black French woman has broken records this year: the Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé who won the Alternative Nobel Prize, a prize meant to replace the Nobel Prize in Literature, after the scandal that the Swedish Academy of Literature faced last year. Condé wrote her first novel at only 11 years old and has been prolific ever since. A former professor of French literature at Columbia University, she has published more than 20 books since the 1970s, exploring the complex relationships within the African diaspora. "Segu", her most famous novel, is about the impact of the slave trade and Abrahamic religion on the Bambara empire in Mali in the 19th century. Condé's work is radical and she remains committed to writing feminist texts exploring the link between gender, race and class, as well as exploring the impact of colonialism. Condé is a pillar of Caribbean literature and it's taken long enough for her work has been acknowledged by the Nobel prize committee.

The Children's Books Writers

From Comme un Million de Papillon Noir

And finally, 2018 has been the year where France's children's literature industry has finally understood how important, for the public, writers and publishers, being inclusive and diverse was. From Laura Nsafou's Comme un Million de Papillon Noir, a best selling book about a young black girl learning to love her natural hair which sold more than 6000 copies, to Neiba Je-sais-tout: Un Portable dans le Cartable, the second book of Madina Guissé published this year after a successful crowdfunding campaign, there are more and more children's and young adult books with non white protagonists. In France, there are still no stats about how diversity is doing, but in America, in 2017, only 7 percent of writers of children's literature were either Black, Latino or Native American.

There's still much to accomplish in France for the Black community to have better representation in the media, politics and all walks of life, but important strides have been accomplished this year, and it make me hopeful for what 2019 and the following years have in store.

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Responses have 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.

I was born and raised in Dakar, Senegal before moving to Paris at the age of 8. As long as I remember, I have always been attracted to images, whether it be drawings, sculptures, photos, videos, basically anything visual. My mother was a painter and an interior architect. Some of my most vivid memories from my childhood and adolescence are those times when she used to come back home with a new piece of art she had drawn. I'm also a huge fan of manga, I used to draw a lot in my teens and all these inspirations ended up rubbing off on my digital work. I progressed to photography and video after initially starting out in graphic design at the Internet and Multimedia Institute. I fell in love with my first camera through urban exploration 4 years ago and from then I never left it.

What are central themes in your work and how have you told the story this time around?

As an artist, it is now more than ever, a critical time to engage and start speaking out on subjects that matter to me. Black women have always been an inspiration to me. Growing up in Dakar, where most of the social decisions within the family were made by the mothers and grandmothers, I always had the utmost respect and admiration for their role even though it is not as recognized and highlighted on a bigger scale. Image and representation plays a big part in the way we perceive ourselves and our place in society because we compare ourselves, whether it be consciously or unconsciously, to the people we see. Photography is a portal, and I am fully aware of its powerful influence on perception.

I never really had a central theme on which to base my visuals and that's something I tend to want to change. For a long time, I have explored myself through photography. I liked what I was doing and I didn't really wonder why this or that visual spoke to me, I let myself be carried away by what I saw and what my instincts dictated. Visualizing my creation beforehand now helps me get more satisfied with the final result. It is only in my last few series that I have been trying to bring more of a social dimension to my work. Whether it's diverting current events and making them a subject of discussion, or doing a more introspective work in relation to my own perception of the microcosm that surrounds me.

Can you talk about your use of colours, hairstyles and jewellery in this project?

I had the chance to work with the talented Oldie Mbani, Shenna Rochas and Aurore Jorgensen on the make up, hairstyling and accessories respectively. It is in consultation with them that I created the overall aesthetics of the project. The whole concept of Afrogile revolves around hairstyles and the use of objects as accessories on them, that's why the rest of the tones had to be neutral enough, close to the body colours. We were looking for an elegant aesthetics and it is quite naturally that we chose for each model, clothes which corresponded most to their identity, to the aura which they exude.

Aurore Jorgensen did me the honor of lending me the handmade jewels of her brand Soleils d'Afrique for the occasion. 'Cauris' are one of the most famous symbols of Africa. They represent power, prosperity and fit perfectly with the positive and enthusiastic note I wanted to bring to the project.

How has the pandemic affected you creatively?

The pandemic as well as the multiple confinements were a wake-up call for me. For a long time, I have taken in the things of daily life, the will to want to gain an audience, develop a certain clientele as a self-entrepreneur, improve my visibility etc... Paradoxically, it is this planetary event that is supposed to be anxiety-provoking and the source of many economic problems that took me out of this survival mentality. I was brought back to myself, forced to refocus and redefine my goals, my passions, my life choices. That's when I decided to see things differently, to change my priorities and focus more on my well-being instead of betting my future on decisions with arbitrary consequences. It is precisely at that moment that I shifted my thought process, both in terms of my vision of the profession I practice but also in terms of the time and energy I would devote to myself, which inevitably led to new inspirations and a rebirth of my passion for photography.


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