(Photo by Ashley Ross. ID: Five mix gendered, varying shades of brown people in a horizontal line. They stand close to each other, holding the person in front around the midriff, leaning their head on the back of that person. Dressed in bold, bright colors of orange, fuchsia, gold, red, and yellow, they look straight at the camera.)
Is there any place on the planet more misunderstood, more misused, unknown, mistaken, proclaimed, mythologized and unresolved than the continent of Africa (the answer is ‘no,’ btw)? When you throw the blurry vision and the blurry romance of the African diaspora into the mix, who, despite our best intentions, despite how hard we try to resist, still hold onto a dream that one day, one day, we will all be back together again and everything’s gonna be alright, then you have a journey and a conversation that has no end in sight.
For the time it takes you to read this article, the extraordinary artists of Gbedu Town Radio will be our guide and our conscience as they leave the concrete of Oakland for the concrete of Nigeria, and wade through the thorny history of where Africa and America merge and separate, and then merge and separate again. I’m no genius, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s gonna be quite a ride…. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
To begin at the beginning…..
In what now looks like an age of reckless innocence, 2009 to be exact, as Obama wrestled with Wall Street and the three-headed monster of the Great Recession with a nobility that was quaint at best, deluded in truth, Nkeiruka Oruche, Tossie Long and Kola Shobo were conjuring up Bakanal de Afrique. Bakanal was a street based revelry of art and culture that celebrated the Afro-urban experience in all its raucous diversity. The reaction from their east Oakland community was immediate and explosive. Then came Afro-Urban Dance Experience, Gbedu Town Radio, and a whole host of classes and workshops. Suddenly there was a wild fire of programs and performances that somehow found the sweet spot between social justice, education, and pure artistic expression. With each event the word of mouth grew louder and louder. Sometimes it came with the hollering of Black American music from the 60s, Afrobeat, Soukous, Funk or Highlife. Sometimes with the waistlining hips of coupe decale, or dancehall, or ndombolo, or poppin’, or steppin,’ or boogaloo. Whatever it was and whenever it was, the hunger for it was clear; A fuse had been lit, a conversation started, and it was ‘let’s kick out the jams brothers and sisters’ all over the Bay Area!
Fast forward to 2022 and blow straight past all the program developments: the design and tech fellowships, Onye Ozi, Black Box, kids camps, the ‘Notable & Notorious Nigerian Women’ coloring book, writing workshops, ‘Mixtape of the Dead and Gone,’ and the creation of Afro Urban Society. Actually, let’s back up a couple of steps to Afro Urban Society for a minute. Says it all, doesn’t it: AFRO URBAN SOCIETY! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Nkeiruka, the founder and artistic director of Afro Urban Society, created the company to house the expanding programs and events and give them somewhere to go, someplace to be, a home. Says it all, doesn’t it: AFRO URBAN SOCIETY! This is why in 2022 with America struggling to believe that ‘This is America,’ the only thing that made sense to Nkeiruka when looking out at the horizon was to pack up their bags, gather their instruments, their promises, their hopes, their unanswered prayers, and unanswered dreams, and head 8,000 miles east to Nigeria. Says it all, doesn’t it. The only thing that made sense was a journey back to Nigeria to reconnect with the dance and Igbo(1) cultural traditions of their ancestors. As with all ideas of true and spiritual beauty, there were others thinking the same thing, and so it was that Afro Urban Society’s travel exchange for creatives to experience Africa’s dynamic cultures was born. As Nkeiruka said, ‘A time comes when you have to Pull Up, Show Out.’
To begin at the beginning again…
With little more than two weeks until they step aboard their flight to Lagos, I sat down with Gbedu Town Radio members Nkeiruka Oruche, Kanukai Chigamba, Ebonie Barnett, Roshonda Parker, Uzo Nwankpa, and Jameelah Lane for what is likely to be just the beginning of a very long conversation.
Michael: Okay…. So, you’re going to Nigeria to reconnect with the dance and Igbo traditions of your ancestors, and I get that, makes sense, but Why now?
Nkeiruka: Ohhhhh! Okaaay…. There are so many responses… I’ve reached a boiling point, both personally and in society, y’know. I’m daily thinking of the mortality of my parents. The loss of loved ones is not just about people, they also take with them the questions that you can never ask, the mysteries that you can never solve. Some of the ancestors are gone with them as well. I can’t wait another day! Right now, I don’t have anything to offer to my children. I’m too ill-equipped. I don’t have the muscle to embody ancestral ways.
Michael: And you told me this trip is only part of a larger project…..?
Nkeiruka: Yeah, Obi-gbawara’m. The literal translation is ‘I am broken hearted,’ though my alternative title is ‘What happens when you die.’ Obi- gbwara’m is a project about learning and teaching traditional Igbo practices around death and grieving. Y’see, that’s the thing, there are some things that can’t be told, y’know? No matter what we say or do, there are just some things that cannot be told. The artistic part of the trip—the dance, the music, is almost an excuse for the spiritual part, and the spiritual part is doing the critical work of learning and documenting the Igbo practices that folks here and folks there have discarded or taken for granted, and you can only do that on the ground.
Roshonda: I came to Afro Urban for the dance, but I always knew that it would be not just dance, that there’s more to it than that, that I’m gonna learn…..
Nkeiruka: If you’re going to be a vessel for the information, a carrier, or the representation of the work, you have to cut out the middle person at some point, the translator, and have your own experience with the source.
Uzo: Yeah, for me, this is the first time I’m going home with a different hat on. I’m going as an artist and I’ve been dreaming about this since I was, I dunno, since I came to this country—that someday I’ll be able to go back to Nigeria and study dance and my culture in a way that is seen as valuable.
Nkeiruka: Y’see, everyone who’s coming has their own responsibilities, their own context and that’s the beauty of the project, that there’s a diverse group of experiences, ages, and relationships connected to their African sensibility. We’re all going to be seeing the same thing, yet experiencing separate things and so you have to be there for yourself. Otherwise, by the time it comes to me, comes to you, it’s a placebo, right?
Michael: Ha! That’s funny. I hear you – So, Jameelah, Roshonda, you’re the only ones that have never been to Africa, right?
Michael: How does it feel to know that – and I’m going to put my word in here, that you’re finally going??
Roshonda: Mixed emotions, of excitement and uncertainty…. Like, um, like not scared, but, um, what’s another word for scared?
Roshonda: Yeah, that too…. I was going to go to Angola for dance, but the pandemic hit and my flight was canceled.
Jameelah: It’s just now feeling real…. when my passport came yesterday……
It makes me think about my parents, my siblings, the folks who have never traveled in my family….
Ebonie: This will be my first time going with folks I know. The first time was to Senegal for dance and I didn’t know anyone.
Jameelah: I’m excited to see the people… I feel like a strong calling, like there’s this missing piece to my story, a piece to a puzzle, just about our ancestors and slavery, so I’m feeling like, um—also the similarities, as a Black woman in America, just going over there and seeing how we all move together….
Michael: Is anyone frightened that they’re going to get there and find out that damn, I’m too American for Africa……
Roshonda The Africans here look at us differently, so I’m sure they’re going to look at us differently over there.
Michael: An African American friend of mine told me that the only place he’s seen as American is in Africa.
Ebonie: I agree.
Michael: Speak on that.
Ebonie: When I went to Africa the first time there were maybe five Americans, including myself, some Africans, and there was also some Black folks from around the diaspora. The Americans and the other folks from the diaspora got along, the Africans got along with people from other parts of the diaspora, but the Africans didn’t like the Americans. The Africans from the continent didn’t understand why I knew what they knew, which was interesting…. but the Africans from the continent did the stuff that we do here in America, does that make sense? Dancewise, they were doing poppin n lockin and shit, but they didn’t like that I could do African movement, yet their main style of dancing was poppin n lockin, but they had no understanding of the culture behind it.? I’m not going there with no kind of anything, I feel like I’ve done that before – last time I thought it was gonna be a ‘coming home moment,’ and niggas was like, ‘Errrr….? ‘ What the fuck! Hahahaha! So, it’s like, I dunno what to expect, hahahha…..
Nkeiruka: It’s gonna be interesting because going there with this group—I’m not going to be there with my family, y’know, where I’m just one of many and not really noticed. I’m gonna be vibing off what we have and be in that comfort zone—it’s a way, y’know what I mean? It’s a way that we have and I’m gonna be in that way….
Jameelah: Yeah, When you originally asked the question I said ‘no,’ ‘cus I was thinking about this idea of blending in, but listening to Ebonie and Nkei speak, I’m like, yeah, I coming out there like a California girl, but I’m not gonna be like some boujee bitch, y’know! Hahahaha…
Uzo: But you will be, hahahah!
Jameelah: No, yeah, right!? Hahaha! I started thinking about that too, hhahaha… Like, when I went out to Haiti they had a different way of doing things, like washing clothes! It took me all day to wash my clothes and they were like, ‘do you want me to do it for you?’ and Imma, ‘No! I got it,’ hahaha…..!
Michael: Hahahaha, I like that tone…
Uzo: This is so interesting ‘cos I struggle with the identity issues too. I speak one of the languages, but even with that – I’m not fluent, I do my best, but there’s all these dialects and it takes but two seconds before they go, ‘Oooooh, she’s not from around here – Imposter!’ Hahaha! So, then I have to prove that I am, prove that I’m not, depending on the spaces I’m in… Some spaces I wanna flex, y’know, because it gets shit done, but then other places you don’t want them to know you’re American so the code switching is real! It brings up a lot of insecurities for me—‘Where am I from, for REAL!’
Michael: Kanu, it must be different for you as I assume you go back and forth pretty regularly….
Kanukai: Um, Um, Um, I’m looking forward to, um, I’m trying not to have too many expectations and I’m trying not to have the confidence of ‘I’m African….’
Michael: I love the way you put that – ‘Trying not to have the confidence of I’m African…’?
Kanukai: I know we’re gonna have moments where we shouldn’t have said something, but I’m really excited to be in Nigeria with all Black women, I’m not gonna lie –
Kanukai: That’s the biggest thing for me, just being grounded in knowing that I have all these amazing women with me that are gonna help me stay in myself so I can show up in a very respectful way… Some of the places we’re gonna go are very sacred, so how can we show up—not every Nigerian, not every Igbo person is allowed to be in those places, y’know. So, how do I show up without the ‘I’m African, I’m Zimbabwean, we’re cousins and I should be allowed to go in here because we’re doing research,’ y’know? That’s where I’m at.
Michael: Talk ‘bout complicated, but it has to be, right! I mean, I’ve never been and so I only have an idea of Africa, but there’s a truth that must hit you the minute you step off that plane, I imagine. There’s no way this trip can just be about dance or even about Igbo traditions, is all I’m trying to say… Going to Africa can’t just be about any one thing….
Kanukai: Yeah, but some things are just cultural, y’know? I don’t know if this happens in Nigeria, but elderly women [in Zimbabwe), they can literally, just randomly, come up and touch your boobs, if they like you…
Kanukai: It’s nothing sexual, but ….This has happened to me in Zimbabwe and Togo, and they were just checking to see if I’m okay…. y’know, babies….
(Everybody REALLY laughing!)
Nkeiruka: Hahahaha! The one thing I would say is that in Nigeria the respectability around women is really high, so I definitely have some anxiety around like—what’s the presentation about how we dress, what our hair is gonna look like ‘cos I know that—this group, they will look at them and be like, ‘Oh, these are prostitutes,’ I just know it. The role of women in Nigeria is to present yourself in all these proscribed manners so you don’t get disrespected —class also plays into that, depending on where you are…. Here, like, you can be of any kinda class, you can look any kinda way, but obviously it’s worse and worse the darker you are. I mean, rich white men, obviously, can be whatever, but over there if you’re not presenting yourself as a “Madam,” people in the street feel they can treat you any kind of way.
Michael: Uzo, you wanna throw in a quick thought on this…?
Uzo: Well, it’s not gonna be quick, hahaha! But, like, if you wanna—in Nigeria it’s about classism, the more approximate you are to the colonizer the more social class you have —?
Uzo: So, the way you speak, the way you supposedly dress, even if that’s not the way you are, it’s the respectability politics that gets you in the room, right…? It’s unfortunate, but if we had one white person on this trip it would change the whole game in a certain way. It would get you into doors that—and you’re like, Why! It’s because there’s a white person or a Chinese person in the group. So, we do have a privilege with our Americaness and so it’s like a double edged sword, AND, what side of the coin are we playing with?! So, as a woman, you add sexism to the classism… It doesn’t matter that I have Dr. Uzo Nwankpa in front of my name. If you don’t have MRS in front, you ain’t shit!
Uzo: Yeah, marriage-ism! Hahahaha! I’m hella fuckin free when I’m outside Nigeria, but when I’m in Nigeria, that shit takes a hold of me.
Michael: Before we met today, I asked you to think about what attitudes or ways of thinking from America that you wanted to take with you, and which ones you wanted to leave behind…?
Ebonie: One thing I don’t want to take with me is that defense mechanism that Black Americans can have because we’ve been treated like shit. I feel like we automatically enter a space with this guard up, or like, in the beginning we’re trying to figure out who’s trying to play us, right! I mean, I’m gonna be on my toes, but I don’t wanna go in with that mindset.
Jameelah: Yeah, I wanna go with a mentality of service.
Nkeiruka: There are other realities, other wisdoms, and it’s so American to think that our way is the only way to function. I wanna leave that behind.
Roshonda: I wanna go and humble myself while I’m out there…
Michael: Man, I wasn’t expecting us to spend so much time outside the dance practice and Igbo traditions of the trip, but I’m Soooo glad we did! The trip itself is about 2 months long, right, so what’s the day to day gonna look like??
Nkeiruka: We’re starting off in Lagos where we’re gonna meet the group that we’re collaborating with, doing the exchange with, Ifeanyi Akabueze and his Okachamma Dance Troupe. But pretty quickly we’re traveling south east to four rural states where Igbo people and culture are—it would be like, landing in California and traveling to Mississippi, Atlanta. The daily activities are still finding themselves, but they’ll include dance and music workshops with Igbo artists, visiting cultural and historical sites, cooking lessons, eating traditional foods, witnessing ceremonies and traditional rites –
Nkeiruka: – and meeting with indigenous Igbo culture bearers, like crafts people, farmers, birthworkers, y’know….. We’ll start in Lagos and end there, and at the end we want to put on our own event, show our work and talk about this project…
Michael: Amazing! Amazing! You’re making me wanna go so I can document the whole thing, hahahaha! Okay, give me three dreams you have for yourself or the trip……
Kanukai: I want to be able to complete the classes, not give up. Um, I want to capture pictures—I wanna be able to tell the story through photography, and I want to build connections with people that are beyond this short period of time that we’re there.
Ebonie: Imma go find my husband and git RICH!! Hahahahaha! Naaaah!!!! To go to Africa is a dream, to go as an artist was always a dream, so it feels like I’m already doing that. Um, like Kanukai said, being with Black women, not only Black women, but Black women doing the work—I wanna be like, free! It’s pretty simple. I don’t feel like that here. I just want to focus on Ebonie for damn near two months without all the madness, and see what I’m capable of doing, whatever it is…..
Roshonda: Eat a lot and know how to cook food. Learn some Igbo and the third thing….? I have to think about that one…..
Uzo: This is already the dream… This, um, traveling home could have gone any which way, but it’s showing up in this way and for that I’m so full of gratitude. I hope it’s a colorful, dynamic, full of life experience. I wanna soak it in, drink it in…. Be with it all and feel alive! I have visions of working with small groups of young people moving together, vibing together—music, dance, and play, which is what we do here anyway, but to be doing it in our ancestral land is like, WOOOOOH! I’m excited to make connections with healers that use music and dance.
Jameelah: One of the things I want to focus on is not to hold back. Sometimes I have exciting things come to me, but I find it hard to express that excitement. I dunno, I don’t want to hold back. Also, I really want to do a music project in 2023 and so I would love to connect with some creative folks that can help me do some stuff, and the third one is something around food.
Nkeiruka: That there’s a bond with this group where nothing disrupts the process of our connection. Attached to that, we open up a pathway for other people to have this connection. I want people to see the value of what we’re doing, that they can stand in the power and the pride of this culture, this practice, these works, to say—dancers and musicians are seen as second class out there…. I hope this codifies me to stay the course, to not give up –
Roshonda: I’ve got the third one! I wanna learn how we teach these traditions to our children… yeah, that’s what I’m hoping….
Is the past ever truly behind us? Rarely. Alongside us? Usually. Ahead of us? Unconsciously. Above us? Quite possibly.?
Nigeria, like much of Africa, is barely 60 years into its “independence.” It’s way too early to tell what it will become, but one thing’s for sure, there’s much to look forward to as long as we remember to remember, which, sadly, inevitably, is not as easy as it sounds. Says it all, doesn’t it…..
1 The Igbo People are an ethnic group in Nigeria. They are primarily found in Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu, and Imo States. Traditional Igbo religion includes belief in a creator god (Chukwu or Chineke), an earth goddess (Ala), and numerous other deities and spirits as well as a belief in ancestors who protect their living descendants.