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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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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.

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The 4 Songs You Need to Hear This Week

Featuring Mavin Records, L.A.X, Moonchild Sanelly, Nissi, Major League and more.

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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Image courtesy of the artist

Spotlight: Timi Nathus Is Making Digital Art Mainstream

The Nigerian artist NAZQUIAT is on a mission to make his futuristic collection of NFTs the norm in his home country.

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 Nigerian multidisciplinary digital artist, Timi Nathus aka NAZQUIAT. Nathus's shares his #Afrotroves NFT collection with us, and explains it as "Each NFT was made from sacred artifacts that were previously stolen and haven't set foot in Africa hundreds of years". Nathus and a cohort of digital artists are reclaiming the images and stories that were stolen, and instead using them to empower and inform his own communities. By breaking the mold of traditional art and storytelling, Nathus's decision to establish this collection as a series of NFTS is shifting the power struggle and encourages the celebrations of the old and new.

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