A few years ago, I had the opportunity to distil my entire life’s work and life philosophy into one graphic and one phrase. Having spent my career working in large companies, running my own businesses, and dedicating time to philanthropic, social, and community work, I became Master of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists in 2010. It was through this that I earned the right to apply to the College of Arms for my own official coat of arms. As part of the design process, you get to choose a motto that encapsulates your philosophy.
I gave a speech about entrepreneurship in Cape Town earlier in 2015 where I said that there has never been a better time to build a successful business. However, I’ve always believed that whilst creating wealth through enterprise is good, it’s what you do with the wealth that you create that really matters. My argument is simple: there is nothing wrong with doing well for yourself and making money, but this needs to be balanced by doing good and using that wealth to help others. Therefore, my wife and I chose as our motto for the coat of arms: ‘Do well. Do good’.
The story of success that we dream of in Africa goes something like this: you escape from the village where you grew up, make it to the big town, and from there leave the country to go to London, or Paris, or New York. You work extra hard, overcome a multitude of challenges and attitudes, and finally make it big over there. Only once you’ve made it over there can you truly call yourself an African success story. My question is how can you call that success when you’ve had to leave your home, leave your family, leave your culture and traditions, and change yourself to fit into someone else’s system just in order for you to ‘make it’?
That is not success.
Success is to stay where you are from and build something that people from London, Paris, or New York will travel half way across the world to be a part of. Success is where you can proudly invite people into your country, into your culture, and into your way of life, and they are happy to come and fit into the new world that you expose them to.
That is my vision of the African dream...
Something that causes humans unnecessary discomfort and misery is our failure to accept that change is a constituent part of being. If we learn to embrace change, it could save us the agony of trying to cling on to status quos that were never intended to last forever. Conversely, if things aren’t going so well, it can be comforting to know that our current predicament also won’t last forever.
I’ve undergone changes during my lifetime, the most obvious being that in 2012 I left the UK to settle in the US (more on that later). I’ve also changed career. Several times, I might add! I started off in television post-production and stayed there for about ten years. I later shifted to production, which meant I was working closer to the actors, but still behind the scenes. With hindsight I can see that I chose to work behind the camera simply because I was too scared to step into the limelight myself, so I thought I’d get as close as I could to what I really wanted without taking any risks. But after a decade of denial, something inside me began to stir – that buzz for performing that I’d had when I was a kid; that same something that I had learned to supress over the years...
I feel like an alien when I go home, and it’s heart-breaking. Before my grandmother passed away, communicating with her was near impossible. There was a basic level of understanding between us, through use of emphatic gesturing and my parents and cousins acting as intermediaries. But those tender moments, those truly powerful moments that you can only get when you spend quality time one-on-one with somebody, I missed out on with my grandmother. Why? She couldn’t speak English. And I couldn’t speak her language, Twi...
Not so long ago I would have stressed the importance of African artistes incorporating the English language into their music if they wanted it to break into international markets. I soon realised the flaw in my logic when I looked at my own taste in music and realised that, as an English and Swahili-speaking Kenyan, I still love kwaito music from South Africa, which is normally sung in Tsotsitaal or Zulu – this despite me having absolutely no idea what was being said! The lack of comprehension doesn’t stop me from listening to kwaito. (Although not strictly kwaito), how many of you have heard ‘Khona’ by Mafikizolo? Now, hand on heart, how many of you (non-Zulu speakers) actually understand what it’s about?
Exactly. And it almost doesn’t matter…
Those with fair skin go further. That’s the troublingly powerful message that my industry transmits. The entertainment industry disproportionately projects and elevates light-skinned women in magazines, films, music and commercials. If there’s a fair girl in it then it’s most likely she’ll be the lead – affluent, attractive, desired, rich and successful. I am not against light-skinned ladies being centre-stage or in the spotlight. I have personally used fair-skinned dancers and backing singers in my videos and live performances, not because of the shade of their skin, but because they had the right talent for the project. In an ideal world, opportunity should always come down to how good you are at what you do, not how light your skin is. Yet this ‘fair girls go far’ belief is so deeply engrained in Africa’s entertainment industries that a generation of impressionable young people are being driven to seek brighter futures by lightening their skin.
The African continent is blessed with ample natural resources, more so than anywhere else on earth. It is because of this that there remains a sharper focus on investing in the extractive industries. An understandable play. However, this focus often comes at the expense of Africa’s creative business potential. Even within cultural norms, young Africans are encouraged to follow careers in engineering, medicine, and accounting (the drill is now obvious), leaving the more creative and artistically-inclined professions deprioritised.
I’ve dedicated much of my life to advocating for the promotion, protection and renaissance of African artistry — its creativity, music, fashion, style, and every other element behind what truly is the genesis of African expression and image-based representation. What we wear isn’t just about looking good; what we wear is a silent (but very tumultuous) statement about one’s self, one’s heritage and one's way of life. In fact, fashion is one of the most poignant cultural storytellers of all time, innately descriptive of our nature, nurture, and state of being. Fashion is a grand ambassador that unaidedly speaks the most epic of universal languages, capable of influencing and positioning societies worldwide.
So, if fashion is a language, with a high-powered voice, whose tune is it singing in Africa?
If you’ve been plugged in to discussions pertaining to Africa in recent years, you’ve probably heard rhetoric aplenty along the lines of 'Africa is rising', 'Africa is the future', 'This is the new Africa' and other statements of a comparably rosy hue. Similarly, if you’re a lover of all things tech, you’ve probably heard – if you’re not one of the many tweeting it – that this is the digital era, technology is the now and the future (and other statements of a comparably rosy hue). Now pause for a second, if you will, and imagine the barrels of crude optimism pumping through the veins of someone who identifies as both a young African and a technophile. Given all this combined hype, such a person would be half forgiven for donning their dictator’s robes and embarking on a mission to conquer the planet (Google Maps app to hand - how else would we make it 100m down the road?), firm in the belief that the world really is theirs for the taking.