Image courtesy of Flurina Rothenberger

This Photo Book Captures the Subtle Magic of Everyday Life In Cities Across the Continent

Flurina Rothenberger speaks with us about changing perceptions about life on the continent with her acclaimed photo book "I Love to Dress Like I am Coming From Somewhere and I Have a Place to Go."

There are photo books that just look good on the bookshelf—maybe you flipped through their pages a few times and then left them lying around to impress people coming over. Don't worry, we all have them.

But there are also photo books that look good and get even better the more you learn about their context and message. Flurina Rothenberger's I Love to Dress Like I am Coming From Somewhere and I Have a Place to Go is one of those.

The book—issued by the Swiss independent art publisher Edition Patrick Frey—was named the most beautiful Swiss book in the year it came out. Its pictures show a mix of nature, landscapes, man-made structures, chaos and people. It captures street corners, dreamy sunsets, clay vessels carelessly standing around, kids looking confidently into the camera or romping on the beach, people posing, people sleeping, people on their phones. Just everyday life.

The articles on the book were positive and the press was in agreement: finally someone had helped clear up prejudices about Africa. But Flurina, born in Switzerland, but raised in Zuénoula, Côte d'Ivoire, is not interested in showing "the other" Africa just to prove people wrong. She cares about communicating the complexity of everyday life in Africa. The fact that outdated clichés floating around in the media happen to go down the drain as a result, is all the better.

We spoke to Flurina about her stellar book, her work as a photographer and stereotypes.

Image courtesy of Flurina Rothenberger

Your book was created from a huge ten-year image archive from various African countries. Why Africa?

My childhood has shaped me a lot and I realize that the older you get—I am 41 now—the more important these things from the past get. So many matters and memories lead me back to the Ivory Coast. I am currently relocating there, because the different African countries are all one big inspiration for photography. In everyday life there seems to be some kind of choreography, a kind of magic hand involved. For example, there is a green bucket standing somewhere on a street corner and next to it a woman waiting for her taxi and dressed just in the same color.

Is this your method of taking pictures? Are you looking for this magic of coincidence?

I always work very spontaneously when taking pictures, and in fact it feels like I see something I have to take a picture of every two minutes when I am in African countries. But I always get in touch with people, that's important to me. There is this moment between me and the subject—a person or situation—that triggers the impulse in me.

That sounds like a very personal approach. In the book, the photos are a mix of commissioned work by third parties and your own projects. Does that always go together?

Absolutely. The few pictures that are in the book coming from commissions are all stories that I have suggested and therefore I also see them as my own projects for the biggest part. For a long time, the topics I proposed met zero interest. This is changing at the moment.

Image courtesy of Flurina Rothenberger

Why do you think that's it?

Not only because the image of African countries in Western media needed and needs to change, but also the public reception. It sounds harsh, but people have to be trained to see things differently than just in their usual structures. There has to be a new way of looking at things and allowing facts to speak for themselves, in which the viewer becomes aware that he is re-perceiving aesthetics and thus developing himself.

Usual structures sound very much like clichés. Stereotypes, prejudices, misconceptions, these are terms that often come up in the context of your work.

I rather believe that most of my projects are set in African countries and therefore—it sounds extreme, but I think it's true—are always coupled with stereotypes. For me, cliché and stereotype are very stale expressions that have this negative connotation, as they always seem one-sided. But on the other hand, they also help us to orient in the world. I travel a lot and realized that everybody does it—all culture and societies have stereotypes.

What is then the problem with stereotypes?

I find it difficult that many are based too much on "either/or" thinking. Basically, one stereotype is always replaced by another. Also in relation to Africa: If I had to sum it up, the most annoying thing about the stereotypes about the continent is that it's always black or white. There is a lot of arrogance and ignorance when talking about Africa. It was no problem for people to reconcile stereotypes in every place in Africa I've been to. Life is just lived and many things work problem-free side by side.

Where does the "either/or thinking" come from in your opinion?

There is a big overload, with everything concerning the continent. Many—especially European—countries have a difficult relationship with their past, with the oppression of African countries, that they are still working on. When I look at how the African image in the media or the perception of my work has changed in the last 15 years, it is enormous, but the picture is still incredibly limited.

Image courtesy of Flurina Rothenberger

Is I Love to Dress Like I Coming from Somewhere and I Have a Place to Go a step in the right direction?

It's difficult to do it right as a photographer, because the danger of losing the connection to yourself and the contact with the object is always there. Sometimes it's scary to see photographers there, having their deadlocked plan of what things are supposed to look like which keeps them from perceiving what's actually happening.

As a photographer, you have to be aware at all times that you are holding an instrument of power in your hands. You cement a perspective on a thing with each photo. You have to be able to look and listen while still being aware that it is only your personal perspective. You can transport content, but you can never become the mouthpiece of someone else's life and speak for one person through the photo.

How do you get an adequate picture of African countries in media, books and pictures?

Just be normal. People live as normal as anywhere else in the world and you should go from that. In my time in different countries in Africa, I have seen so many cool works and stories by local artists, photographers and writers which just have to be shown. The generation of creative mid-twenties focus on what they feel like without drawing a new or a different picture of Africa. This generation must be listened to in all the debates that are going on. Their relaxed, self-confident way of dealing with these issues and using references across borders and cultures has the real potential to reconcile.

The idea of the supporting this generation has now evolved into an association – Klaym. We collaborate with the photographers, writers and designers of cities that are always in a workshop where we create the print magazine "Nice" together, which is a portfolio and a showcase for the artists. So after the book contained only pictures from me, the magazine is now showing different perspectives by young artist. For me, it is a privilege to be able to work among these young people right now. There is so much going on in Africa and it's so cool to be a part of that. We'll certainly hear more in the future, because the stories and their huge base of storytelling are far too exciting to be ignored.

Image courtesy of Flurina Rothenberger

Image courtesy of Flurina Rothenberger

Image courtesy of Flurina Rothenberger


Flurina Rothenberger's I Love to Dress Like I am Coming From Somewhere and I Have a Place to Go is available for purchase here.

Arts + Culture
"La valse des mailles" by Noella Elloh

Photos: 'Weaving Generations' Confronts Environmental Destruction in Côte d'Ivoire

The photo series, by artist Noella Elloh, advocates for collective responsibility around the "environmental question" across the continent by highlighting the threat it poses to a village of fishermen in Abidjan.

Noella Elloh is an Ivorian photographer and contemporary visual artist whose work contemplates identity, culture, environment and the role each play's in the stories of people across the continent.

Her latest work "Weaving Generations" centers on members of the fishing village of Blokosso, located in the center of Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire's largest city. According to the artist, its themes include familial ties, urbanization, and the hazardous effects of environmental degradation, an issue that directly impacts the fishermen's livelihoods. "Today, instead of fishes, the fishermen's nets thrown in the water come back up with waste," says Elloh. "The Ebrie fishermen find themselves with the mesh of their nets torn down by scrap metal. Domestic, chemical, and Industrial wastes are also found in their nets. The depth of the lagoon decreases due to sedimentation. Rising waters are gradually making pieces of the land disappear."

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Celebrated Coupé-Décalé Pioneer DJ Arafat Has Died from a Motorcycle Accident

The continent and the world has lost a true force who put the sounds of Côte d'Ivoire on the map.

DJ Arafat—a beacon of Côte d'Ivoire's coupé-décalé sound—tragically succumbed to his injuries from a motorcycle accident Monday morning, BBC Afrique reports.

Ivorian Public Radio-Television (RTI) says Maurice Bandaman, Ivorian Minister of Culture, confirmed his death, saying DJ Arafat, born Ange Didier Houon, collided into a car driven by a journalist from Radio Côte d'Ivoire Sunday night. He was not wearing a helmet.

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Twice As Tall World Tour. Flyer provided by Atlantic Records.

Burna Boy Announces 'Twice As Tall' World Tour Dates

The Nigerian star will be playing shows across North America and Europe this summer.

Burna Boy is hitting the road again.

Following the celebrated release of African Giant—which came with nominations at both the Grammys & BRIT Awards and a trophy for Best International Act at the BET Awards—the Nigerian star will be embarking on a long run of shows that will take him across North America and Europe.

The Twice As Tall World Tour will kick off in May in Atlanta, and will see Burna Boy playing concerts across the US, Canada, Norway, France, Portugal, UK, Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and more locations.

You can check out the full tour dates for Twice As Tall World Tour below and revisit Burna Boy's performance for Okay Acoustics.

Tickets are available now.

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Angelique Kidjo performs onstage during the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony at Microsoft Theater on January 26, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

'Take Africa Out of It and There's No Music for Y’all,' Angelique Kidjo on Success, ‘World Music’ & Championing New African Talent

OkayAfrica caught up with the legendary Beninese singer following her recent Grammy win and her feature on the collaborative electronic track 'Milambi.'

Last month, Angelique Kidjo won her fourth Grammy in the 'Best World Music' category. But it wasn't quite like every other year she had been nominated for the award. This time she shared the nomination with fellow African act Burna Boy, the first artist of the continent's current afropop scene to earn a nomination. While there's no question that Kidjo, who won for her 2019 album Celia, was beyond deserving (this was by no means a Kendrick-Macklemore scenario), Kidjo made the conscious decision to dedicate her award to Burna and urged viewers to pay attention to the wealth of new talent coming from the continent. "The new generation of artists coming from Africa are going to take you by storm and the time has come," said the artist.

Her vocal support for African talent isn't new though. As Kidjo notes, she gave a similarly memorable speech when she won four years ago for her album Sings, and she sounds fierce and impassioned as she speaks about it over the phone. After all, Kidjo has always been notably forward-looking in life and in music—experimentation doesn't scare her. Her latest work is on a futuristic, electronic project from Swiss DJ and producer Pablo Nouvelle and she expresses excitement about the novel methods in which African artists are creating and amplifying their music.

We caught up with Kidjo following her latest Grammy win and the release of her joint single with Nouvelle, "Milambi," to discuss her support of the new crop of talent emerging from the continent, fame, the controversy around the 'Best World Music' category, and remaining true to her identity in a Western-oriented music industry.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Grammys were a big moment. Why did you decide to dedicate your award to Burna Boy and acknowledge the new generation of up-and-coming African artists?

I'm always in contact with my continent. I go back on a regular basis, and that's where my source of inspiration is from. Throughout the years going back and forth, I've been seeing the entrepreneurship of the young generation coming up. When I started music—there was none of that. You just went to the studio, and you found people to help you do your music. Now you can be a self-producer. I have nephews and nieces, and I'll just say "Ok, what's new? Let me listen to the new stuff." And I just realized that the rest of the world has no clue about what's happening in Africa.

Four years ago, when I received my Grammy for the album Sings, I said "Brace yourself, because Africa is coming. You have to open your heart, your mind and ears to listen to what is going on and what is coming from the new generation of my contient"— I said that four years ago, and the time has come because [with artists like] Burna Boy, Wizkid, Davido, Yemi Alade and many more from Nigeria, and Sho Madjozi from South Africa—you have so much happening culturally in Africa. I have the feeling that sometimes people just completely turn their head away from Africa and I just wonder how one could possibly turn their head away from where they come from, because Africa is the cradle of humanity. Culture comes from there—there's no music on this planet that doesn't have Africa in it.

Is this why you've chosen to work with a lot of younger artists from the continent like Yemi Alade most recently?

I'm so proud of this new generation of musicians that are using the technology to tell a positive story about Africa. It's no longer about our suffering. Everybody suffers. So, why should people be focusing only on our suffering and not seeing just the human beings that we are, and how joyful we are? Then suddenly, you realize that joy becomes political because if your society, your people are perceived as joyful, then a leader cannot complain anymore that something is wrong. Beyond all that, [I do it] to pay tribute to the entrepreneurship of the young generation. They aren't waiting on help from anybody. If you are famous in your country and on your continent, there's nothing that can stop you. You have billions of people that will love you, so why should the rest of the world look aside when you're passing by? They should pay attention.

That's why I use my platform to bring the attention of the media to this new generation coming. They don't want to be caught by surprise because I've been telling them to pay attention. If something happens, and they don't pay attention, at least I've done my work.

I do think it's really amazing how new artists have been able to gain traction and put their music out despite their not being a lot of support by African leaders for creative industries. Do you think that African governments, and the folks with money should invest more entertainment?

I think they should because we create jobs. People make money, and it's not only the artists. There's also the people helping them make videos, or cut tracks—music creates jobs.

I think we have to educate our leaders and our business people in Africa. Who can carry their brand better than us? Who are the best ambassadors of our cultures, our countries and our continent? It's us artists across different forms of art, from painters, to storytellers, to people in theatre and movies. Every form of art is about telling the story of ordinary people and the people that have come before us. How do you know about your own history, if not for the elderly people that tell you the story of who you are?

In order for us to tell our story, we need to have a voice. We need to say it through different mediums. Music is one of them. We shouldn't let anyone else tell our stories anymore. That time in history has passed. We have new narratives, we have proof of how entrepreneurial we are. Africans can make money in Africa and anywhere else. The world is open to us—the world is ours. No one can stop us.

So many African artists look to you as an inspiration and a model for longevity in the music industry. I'm wondering which artists served that role for you when you were first coming up.

There are many, many of them. I would say it started with traditional musicians because I was a very curious child. I come from that background of traditional musicians telling me stories through songs. [Growing up] my brothers were playing music, my father brought the instruments for them, and freed a room in a crowded house for them to rehearse. I heard every genre of music in the '60, '70s and '80s through them, but my role models start with traditional musicians, both male and female. [But at a certain point] I noticed that every album that would be brought home had just men on the covers. I was like, "Okay, so women don't sing? They can't do albums too?" Then you had Western women start coming in and I was like, "Okay, at least some women are making it through [in the industry]."

Then Miriam Makeba came and Aretha Franklin came. The day Aretha Franklin came, the singer of my brother's band—who had such a fucking ego, you couldn't even put it anywhere—said "there's no song I can't sing." [But] Aretha came and he couldn't sing. I'm like, "What? A woman is whooping your butt. I like that."

So, there have been strong men and women as musicians that have informed the music that I make today. The only way I could absorb it and make my own music, and become a role model to others today is because I am proud of my culture. I know where I come from, I'm not trying to copy anybody because everybody copied what we have. There wouldn't be any music in America without the input of enslaved people that came from Africa. The blues came from slaves. It doesn't matter how hard the slave owner wanted to dehumanize us—they even took the drum away from us. But we had many ways of celebrating culture. We had many ways of celebrating our humanity—singing was one of them. We sing our pain to lift it up. We sing our joy to share it with people. That's what African music is. The essence of what music is comes from that place. We've seen it all, we've been through hell, yet here we are prevailing still.

"I have to be able to sing my songs till I die."

You've always championed African culture and identity, whether it's through singing in Yoruba, or representing Benin through various endeavors. Did you at any point, ever face pressure from the industry to tone down your "Africanness" to appeal to certain audiences?

They have a saying in my country, that "the advisor is not the payer." [It's about] what you do with the advice people give you. I'm always listening, I'm always ready to sit and hear constructive criticism. But if you want to critique for the sake of criticizing me—I've heard some journalists say that I'm not African enough in France because my music sounds too Western. I said, "What is the music of the West then? Tell me." Take Africa out of it and there's no music for y'all.

For me, I respect everybody, particularly the differences because there lies the genius. We all don't think the same.

People said, "Why don't you show your titties?" I'm like, "Well, I don't feel like showing my titties because my titties ain't singing. My voice is not in my breasts." You've got to be somebody, and I am African. I come from a rich culture. Why should I change to look like what? What do you want me to look like? I've never ever allowed anyone to say to me, "You can't do this." I have fought some producers that try to change my music. I say, "If that's the case, you take the microphone, you sing, it's not mine, I'm out of here." You have to stand for something. If you are afraid of not making it, then you become a fool to somebody.

People will say what they want to say. If I want to dress differently, I do sometimes. When I received the NAACP award, I wore a suit. A well-tailored suit, and I kill it too in a suit. It's not what you wear, it's who you are.

I always say, if anyone wants to work with me, I'm open. The bridge I'm trying to build, everybody's welcome on it in the respect of each other's differences. My strength might be your weakness, and then I supply. My weakness might be your strength. It goes both ways. I don't have the answer to everything, but one thing I know is that if we stop bitching at each other and blaming people for all the things that aren't good in our life will be better off because when we start doing that, what do we do? We create fear, and fear is dangerous.

I wanted to ask you about the controversy surrounding the Best World Music category at the Grammys. Many believe that it doesn't truly encompass the diversity of music coming from the continent. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Don't underestimate the recording academy. They have been thinking about it way before this. It's a conversation that we're going to be engaging in. Africa is not a country, it's a continent. The Latin Grammy exists. We should have the African Grammys too, because it's a continent, because it's vast, it's huge. So, it's a conversation we started having because the academy is also realizing this, and they are, at least, having that conversation. Right now, if you look at the "French Grammys" coming up, there's not one person of African descent [represented]. Not one. They just completely ban what is called "world music" out of it and we're in the 21st century. So, I think criticizing is one thing, finding solutions is another.

Let's work with the recording academy and find out how we can help to come up with something that works for everybody. That's all I'm about. I'm always about solutions. The thing is that we also need to recognize that we cannot be discriminating when it comes to culture. If we don't speak to each other, and we're always blaming and pointing fingers, there's no conversation possible anymore. We should have an open discussion about this and be creative about it. That's all I say.

Speaking on shifting genres, you recently worked with Pablo Nouvelle on his new project Eliso, I saw it described as your "maiden venture into electronic music." What was that experience like for you?

I started with electronic music. If you ask David Byrne, he would tell you that my first album, Logozo was completely electric, but African electric. So for me, working on this album brings me back to the beginning and, I'm not done doing that. I'm going to do it more.

So, we can expect a lot more of this electronic sound that you've already been working on?

I'm not saying anything.

We can't have a hint?

No, nothing, because I always follow my inspiration. If my inspiration changes a little bit, I have to change [my direction].

You just go with whatever feels right?

I have to be able to sing my songs till I die. All my songs, if I can't sing them, with just my voice and a guitar, it means it's not good. When writing a song, less is more because if you add too much stuff, then you kill the song. You're overstating it. Do the minimal. If it feels good to you, and you can sing it in your sleep, wake up dancing to it, and you can feel it in every beat in your body, it's right.

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