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IN CONVERSATION WITH OKANG’A OTIENO

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Okang’a Otieno : “East African culture hasn’t been properly documented, we have so much going on that people have not seen!”

Published  Wednesday, July   27  2022  | Okang'a Otieno   by   the-System *

I am interested in shifting the needle on the language we use to talk about creativity in Africa the way we look at it and what it means in relationship to everything else. What if we were to tell different stories about our culture? What if we set the scene in another way? …. The evolution and importance of the creative needs to be consolidated by the media throughout their process, in line with trajectory of our society.

This week we interviewed Okanga Otieno, who is part of the creative collective Urban Pitchaz, he is a stylist a film maker and is also working on his own brand in product design, the man couldn’t be more renaissance. Mr. Okanga started styling in 2018, since then, he has had a successful run even working with world class brands the likes of Johnie Walker. He definitely is not your typical stylist. I wanted to ask him what inspired him to make this move into styling? I also asked him about being a creative in Nairobi, his philosophy, we also talk about the challenges the creative scene in Nairobi is facing and the importance of culture and the relationship between media and creatives.

You are such an incredibly inspiring individual I see your work and as part of a collective as such an integral exercise in re-framing how we think about African creativity in our contemporary times and I really want to hear your opinion on that. I would love to start by asking why you were drawn to fashion and how you started out styling?

Why fashion? Well i don’t know, but i think its my mum. I was raised by a very stylish mother. Over the time i realized i had an outstanding taste in clothes. I began styling in 2018 and at the time i didn’t even know it was ‘styling’, I was in college, K.U . So i used to carry extra fits for the hommies for this little photo shoots we used to organize by ourselves, over time i came across the term styling on Instagram then i started crediting myself as a stylist. This was before Urban Pitchaz. That’s how it began.

One can really see your cultural upbringing in your work as well, even in your alias (R A B A L A K W A S I) you also mention your mother as an early influence and I think it oozes with joyfulness in cultural richness. What impact does where you originate from have on your vision or process?

Yes, yes. I’m a small town boy. Born and bred in the Lake-side region. I’m really a product of my environment, this gives me an edge as a creative because I understand my roots which is very important in telling your people’s stories. Because that is what I do, I tell my people’s stories.

For example, RABALAKWASI is my brand that I named after a fish eagle native to Rusinga Island where i come from. And i’ll be featuring my mom in my first collection whenever that will be. •hopefully soon.

You curate and create very familiar yet sophisticated settings with your work so when you talk about telling your peoples stories it couldn’t be more apparent , also the way you put clothes together looks ordinary yet very captivating , what’s the philosophy behind that?

That comes from my mum. My taste is really my mum’s i just give it a modern touch.

Could you talk a bit about your Brand RABALAKWASI it seams to have an interesting connotation, what is it or will it be about?

RABALAKWASI is my baby in the making. The vision is to tell African stories through clothes and objects. Since most brands have decided to be western-inclined.

Interesting, i mean we can’t wait to see that unfold. Now, you are part of Urban Pitchaz collective, one of the most progressive creatives movement both aesthetically and commercially, i.e having worked with brands like Johnie Walker, what do you think is the main reasons why you guys have come this far and what can the next group emulate from you guys?

Thank you.

The main reason U.P have come this far is because of our richness in culture plus our outstanding fashion sense. We made the simple things ( things people see everyday and relate to) look sooooo cool. We are telling our stories as they are but in high fashion. So we have basically bridged the gap between fashion+ culture+ visuals. We have pushed them all to the highest standards. We started telling our own stories and not the western. Which the next gen creatives should continue to do. But most importantly “Lets tell our own stories!!” I mean that’s what we know best but now package it for global standards. In terms of quality!!. Done buy a DREAM TEAM!! From the model casting to styling to photography to location scouting!!!. Also constant research! Consume a lot of art!! It will show in your work!!

How did Urban Pitchaz come together? where did you guys find each other and how did you synthesize your individual perspectives into what it is today and was it difficult a task or did it just happen organically ?

Me, jordan & edwin all went to K.U that’s where the 3 of us met. We were studying different courses the 3 of us but became friends because we were the freshest dudes around!! So we did this random shoots with Edwin ( photoman) from time to time that got a lot of positive feedback and later on decided to work with Ali who had also worked with photoman on their own and we loved it. However Ali was at Riara university at the time.

We all did this one project “ Uhuru park” that people loved so much and since then we never looked back. It has just been more research. So that we show growth in every project with depth in culture and fashion.

Now we merchandising. We got Tees and tracker hats out. Working on more designs.

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Sounds organic to me, very interesting how something as progressive can come out of common interests, sounds like a love story, now as a group you guys exhibit a work ethic that which is only akin to a sports team how do you guys separate group work from individual projects? Do you guys have some sort of MOU are you signed to each other or do you operate autonomously?

Well, we are a collective of creatives which means four of us have vast of skills individually! As a collective we have to be on the same page on a project then guys bring in their various skills and execute it. Okay? For example one might have a random idea then we build it together and shoot!!
But also we understand we are creatives and cannot be boxed so we get to express ourselves in our individual work.

Good merchandise btw, how or where can people get the merch?

For now just place yours orders in the DMs as we work on our website.

You have been featured in a campaign project by Johnnie Walker among other big names in the broader African creative scene, what does that mean to you?

Means a lot. Gave us a huge platform to tell our people’s stories!! And also to network with great creatives across the continent. But most importantly our stories being told by US! which hasn’t been the case for a long time!!

Talking about creatives across the continent i want to hear your thoughts about the scene here , What do you feel about the creative industry in Nairobi right now?

The Kenyan creative scene is on fire!! I think we are on the move, we have grown extremely within the past years. Creatives are more original( telling our own stories) than ever. East Africa is the next big thing.

How about fashion what do you feel about local fashion?

Our local fashion is interesting! And its growing as well! Okay,I feel like most brands are still lacking the originality and the sustainability aspect which is EVERYTHING!!! Also a lot of brands look the same, i mean merch wise!

Its growing in the sense that people are buying more MADE IN KENYA now than ever! and just the mentality generally! East Africa hasn’t been documented, meaning we have so much culture that people hasn’t seen! It needs to be portrayed in the local fashion! And not just the Maasai culture, its bigger than that!

But right now we are on the move, all my friends in fashion have this mentality so things have to get better in the near future! We’ll be alright!

I hate to play devils advocate on this but since i am the media i second your opinion that “you feel like most brands are still lacking the originality” VERY TRUE, now is this a matter of lack of exposure to information or do you think its sheer ignorance and how does the market affect this?

I think in some cases its sheer ignorance because people care about making money more than creating art which makes them make western-inclined outfits because of following trends!! In other cases its the old folks with money not working with young creatives. And therefore lacking the vision. And generally the market is not woke They wan’t to look like the western world so much than they own people.

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Talking about the market .. What kind of relationship does the creative industry have with media, who is missing what , is there some kind of disconnect and this is in regards to calling to attention the need for coverage of the creatives locally i.e such as this interview , do you think the media overlooks creatives or do you think the creatives overlooks the power of the media in terms of reach and how much it can develop the market and audience for creativity?

The fact that Alte’ exists tells u that there’s some kind of disconnect! Yet they are the most original in terms of creativity yet still side lined as alternative artists. The media generally promotes mediocre content making it look normal. Which has made the market settle for less and now switching their perspective becoming difficult.

There shouldn’t be such a thing as alternative artists. The media created that But i have to give it to guys like you who have the vision to indulge creatives like us.

Not so many media cover the impactful creatives. You have to be recognized out there for them to recognize you.

I for one think the current local media is missing out on what is really happening in culture to second your point on mediocrity, do you think social media is enough for a creative to push through or is mainstream media still an important factor for creatives?

Social media is not enough the mainstream have a wider audience. They need to cultivated the culture of promoting dope original content. That way the kids are inspired to the right direction.

That’s our ONLY mission as the-System * there is a need to bridge the gap between the market and the creative and bring culture really to the front just like politics and obviously we need creatives to rally behind this kinds of initiatives because we can’t do it alone.

Thank you for appreciating creatives like us, u keep us going!!

I feel like the ecosystem is not complete but once the media is in sync with the creatives there is a huge space to occupy with amazing things in the minds of people, that being said what is inspiring you at the moment as far as the industry is concerned?

The moment we all in sync then we’ll attract investors because we’ll look like we know what we are doing. Something solid worth investing in.

Well i’m inspired by this little spaces created like pop ups where dope creatives link and network. It creates opportunity for us to link with our community in persons. Which is different from Instagram comments because of the energy Its beautiful.

If you could work with any artist or brand dead or alive who would it be and why?

Thebe Magugu, JW Anderson, Gucci, Aime’ Leon Dore , Sevaria, Wanda LePhoto, bode, Rejina Pyo among many others. Its a long list.

Is there any work of art or era or idea or creative that you find yourself going back to when you’re feeling uninspired and need to get motivated?

Yes, the 90s! But mostly i’m motivated by nature! My environment, what i see! I’m a realist!

What projects do you have in store for us in the near future or what long term plans do you have besides RABALAKWASI ?

Lots of projects. I already worked on 2 films that i directed and styled collaborating with very talented cinematographers! Just doing post production now and i’m try to invest in native sounds and have them sampled nicely for the films to come to life!

I’m currently working on merchandise for both U. P and RABALAKWASI. Long term plans for RABALAKWASI is to make clothes, jewelry and objects rich in our culture!

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