Kelechi is an actor/director and personal trainer who specialises in twerk and pole dance fitness.
- ‘A Carefree Black Girl’s Gospel’: No Fly on the WALL in Conversation with Kelechi Okaforby NoFlyontheWALL Some people are magnificent. They constantly inspire, push their head above the parapet, and make it known that they are here, they are ready, able, willing, and demand to take up their rightful space in this world. Actor, fitness guru, studio owner, self-proclaimed Benz Punani Womanist, and magical Black girl Kelechi Okafor is one such person. When is ‘no’ a full sentence? Why should fear ‘take a seat’? How do we reject ourselves in times of darkness? And how can you use social media to your advantage when you’re a marginalised voice? We caught up with Kelechi ahead of her talk at our next Black Women’s mingle to discuss all this and more. NFotW: Tell us who you are and what you do. Kelechi: My name is Kelechi Okafor. I am an actor/director and personal trainer who specialises in twerk and pole dance fitness. NFotW: How did you come to bring together your enthusiasm for fitness, desire to encourage Black women especially to embrace and enjoy their bodies, and love of twerk to form the type of creative resistance work you do today? Kelechi: I would say that everything has been serendipitous. I have always loved fitness and discipline so when I had to decide on something to do since acting work wasn’t coming in, I knew it would have to be fitness related. I noticed that there weren’t many black women out and about when I would go running in the mornings and it encouraged me to develop a way to inspire more black women to be visible on their fitness journey. I came to teaching twerking by chance. I went to a studio to learn pole dance and was asked offhand if I could twerk. I showed what I considered twerk to be and the studio owner invited me to teach there. When I began teaching unnoticed aspects of the class structure that I felt were untrue to the origins of the dance and the originators so I sought to reclaim the dance form for people who look like I do. NFotW: What does taking up space mean to you? Why is it important for marginalised voices and bodies to take up physical space offline as well as online? Kelechi: Taking up space means being where others have told you, is out of bounds. The UK is very elitist at its core and Britain prides itself on “keeping order” which usually means keeping marginalised voices away from the mainstream yet profiting from their talent. Taking up space means wherever our talents our showcased, our faces should be too. For too long whiteness in the U.K. has been able to enjoy black things while simultaneously disliking black people. NFotW: Speaking of social media, it’s safe to say you’ve been able to use platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to galvanise your career as a fitness instructor, actress, public speaker, and body confidence ambassador – when did you realise your voice was resonating with others online and how did that make you feel? How did you translate your online influence to real world, offline influence, particularly among Black women? Kelechi: I realised very early on when I started using twitter that I could draw an audience to the things I had to say. At the time I wasn’t utilising it in the best way and once my followers started to grow, I panicked and deleted that account. After taking a while to start a serious journey of learning and growing, I used a second page I had to share my fitness journey and my intellectual journey. When I started to advertise my services as a personal trainer, the people who had followed my journey felt it only natural to get in contact for sessions. That has been my saving grace so far, social media. Being able to share who I am as I am and people seeing value in the fact that I refuse to edit any part of myself. I think people then feel they can trust me. They trust that the person they’ll meet off twitter/Instagram (should we ever meet) will be the same person who tweeted or made those Instagram videos. NFotW: Tell us about the type of resistance you’ve encountered in your work from Black men, White women, White men, non-black PoCs, and even Black women like yourself – do people still struggle to understand what you’re trying to do and do they still misunderstand your message of empowerment? Kelechi: A lot of black men on social media dislike me. A certain type of black man disliked the way in which I critique the lack of empathy shown towards black women in everyday life by black men. They often tweet at me “you’re so bitter, who hurt you?!” Usually after failing to read a nuanced thread of tweets about very real issues within our community. I often tell these black men to go salsa of a cliff, because their views and their fear of change won’t ever stop me from saying what I feel needs to be said. A lot of people in the general sense struggle to navigate how I could speak in an academic sense about numerous issues, yet in my very next statement, I could be referencing my pussy or donning tiny booty shorts and a crop top. To a lot of these people they have been brought up to believe that women can’t have it all. That women can’t be both powerful and soft. That women can’t be vulgar and sweet. White women struggle to grasp that something like to twerk could be empowering or that a black woman could have her own studio, because to them that’s too much power for a black woman to have. All these people don’t want black women to have nice things yet here we are having it all. NFotW: What is life like as a small business owner? Do you feel liberated? And what are they key challenges you have faced and continue to face? How have you overcome those/ how are you trying to overcome them? Kelechi: I feel incredibly liberated as a small business owner. For the first time ever I feel closer to freedom. I feel that I am able to live and navigate this world with even less fear than before and it’s such a joyous feeling, I want everyone to have it. Naturally I do face challenges. The landlord of my current space once told me to remember that I’m “no longer in the jungle” when we had a disagreement regarding other tenants. This kind of statement reminds me of the racist backlash Michelle Obama and Serena Williams face in that no matter how successful and competent you are in your field, some people will only want to see you as a savage or a monkey. NFotW: Who has been your greatest support network? How do they help you survive and thrive in such hostile times such as those we’re currently living in? Kelechi: My greatest support network has been my therapist. 2016 was an amazing year for me in terms of the opportunities that came my way but in my personal life, it was probably one of the toughest years I’ve ever had. Having a therapist, a wonderful black woman, Cheryl Clarke, listen to me and laugh with me, made it easier for me to be as strong as I appear to others. NFotW: What does being a Carefree Black Girl look like in 2017 – is it ever possible to be without care when you’re a Black woman? Kelechi: Being a carefree black girl in 2017 means “no is a full sentence” in this big big 2017, we can no longer waste time explaining to people why we don’t want to do certain things or have things done to us. It means saying no and not explaining ourselves. You don’t have to explain to Becky in Accounts Payable why she can’t touch your hair. No is no. Being a black woman means that we can’t live without care because in the socio-economic sense, our joy makes others angry and when they’re angry they aim to mess with our money. So sometimes being a carefree black girl should be treated like a secret treasure, keeping it safe from those who will only try to steal it. NFotW: Tell us your thoughts on the value of collaboration and networking – how do we go about building relationships that are not one-way streets but of value to all involved, especially in the world of business and in our personal lives also? Kelechi: Collaboration is the lifeblood of any successful venture. We all need each other in ways that we might not even imagine. Collaboration means strength and support in all our endeavours, which leads to growth. No Fly on the WALL and TRiBE have been instrumental in my growth as a brand and it is wonderful that time and time again we find ways to work together which benefits those who follow our work. NFotW: Can we be confident and fearful at the same time? How do we overcome our fears and do the things we want to do – like start our own studios or create our own publishing houses, for example – anyway? Kelechi: Fear is not your friend. Fear only ever tells you what you can’t do and never the things you can do. Confidence and fear do not mix because confidence is when you trust and love yourself, whereas fear is a lack of trust in your innate divinity and power. Fear tells us that there is such a thing as failing, when in fact there is only learning. Something not working the first time doesn’t mean it won’t ever work. So delaying the realisation of a dream of yours due to the fear of failing, is a waste of time. Feel the fear and then tell it to take a seat and watch you werk. NFotW: We’re honoured to be hosting you on Thursday 2nd March at Dark Sugars along with our friends at TRiBE – what are the key things you’ll be discussing in your keynote speech and what do you hope our guests will take from the evening? Kelechi: I am honoured to be hosted by yourselves and cannot wait to talk with the guests! My main theme for my keynote speech is how only true rejection happens when we reject ourselves. Even if the rest of the world rejects us, we should always have a home in our individual selves. A place of endless warmth and love. I would like to explore the ideas of how we reject ourselves and therefore reject other women. I feel that the way to build a stronger sisterhood is by finding all the corners where our rejected selves have cowered to, and loving them out of the darkness. NFotW: And finally, the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, taking place on March 8th, is ‘Be Bold for Change’ – what does boldness look like as a woman, especially a black woman and what advice or words of wisdom do you have for any women struggling with finding their bravery? What words of advice do you have for women on the other side of the spectrum, also – those who are always told to make themselves smaller and be quiet wallflowers? Kelechi: For women who are still on their journey of finding their bravery, I advise them to say one thing out loud daily, in an empty room. Without being obnoxiously philosophical, in the bible it says that “in the beginning, there was the word and the word was with God…” I’m no theologian but I’ve always taken this to be a key example of the sanctity of our voice. Nobody else has to hear you just yet but you need to hear yourself. Say out loud to an empty room all the things that matter to you. You will feel a little odd at first but eventually you will trust your own voice. When you trust your voice, one of your most valuable tools towards bravery is realised. For those of us who are told in various forms to be smaller, it gets tiring having to justify our birthright to being. Just being. We weren’t born to be smaller. We came here to make a change and to be a change. Our largeness matters for us and for others who haven’t inhabited their fullness yet. The only people who complain about how loud and present we are, are those who know that they’re small in comparison to us. It is not our duty to shrink so others can feel bigger.
- Magpie: Movers & ChangersKelechi Okafor is twerking her way to political and social empowerment Words: Farzana Rahman Publication: Magpie Kelechi Okafor, a Nigerian-born dance innovator, has taken the West African roots of the dance form, known as ‘twerk’, and armed it with social meaning that transgresses the pejorative way in which many people think of it. Many of us became aware of twerking when Miley Cyrus infamously appropriated the dance style at the 2013 MTV VMAs. I sat down with Kelechi, the day before the EU referendum was held, on a wide-ranging discussion which looked at her aspirations for twerk as an ‘act of resistance’ against’ the policing of women of colour in the fitness industry and beyond, and on being a social innovator. Kelechi has an eponymous social media following; she’s one of those bright sparks who immediately capitalise on the importance of branding the heck out of everything you are good at and presenting it as an commodified offering to society. She also has amazing hair. On social media: she goes by ‘Kelechnekoff,’ a nod to her palpable energy, ‘a mouth like a gun,’ and unapologetic embrace of her Nigerian heritage and black womanism. She’s an actor, a fitness instructor, a pole dance instructor, and for the past two years: a twerk teacher. Her twerking classes offered at a leading London-based dance studio have taken on a life of their own. When she started (as a cover teacher), there was a small interest in the class; since Kelechi took on the class demand has outstripped places and her classes are booked out two weeks in advance; such is her popularity as a teacher and crucially: an educator of West African dance. Kelechi sees her role as a teacher of ‘twerk’ to educate with love, and encourages those attending her class to recognise and connect with the historical, cultural and social importance of the dances and routines. For Kelechi: twerk is not just an infamous command to shake your ass from DJ Jubilee and the 1990s New Orleans bounce scene; the movements and techniques have a deep-rooted history from West Africa, and by the way, very little to do with Miley Cyrus. When asked about the appropriation versus appreciation debate regarding twerk and other cultural motifs which fall in and out of fashion with young white women (eg. festival season bindis), Kelechi commented that she was initially taken aback by the thousands of videos she uncovered during her research, of white women attempting to imitate Miley Cyrus and labelling their efforts as ‘twerking’. She said she instinctively knew that the responsible thing to do was to ensure that her students connected with the techniques of twerking from a place of cultural and historical relevance. She wants to ensure that her students know that dance forms associated with black communities are mature acts of resistance and defiance against subjugation and slavery: and as such should be respected. Her classes are full of women from different backgrounds, ages, and dance experiences, it is clearly an inclusive place, which she has worked hard to promote. She notes that there is an emerging language of love which she actively encourages in her classes, and one that is being adopted by her students. While dance classes can be intimidating for the uninitiated – there tends to be a degree of ‘mean girlishness’ in finding a comfortable space in the class, and knowing where you are in the pecking order – Kelechi says rather than correcting students from a position where they might feel shamed and inhibited, she uses positive critiques without value judgements. She notes how proud she is of her students who do not engage in any churlish value judgements of their fellow students; instead the students have bonded through and at the classes. When asked why and what her students thought of her class, Kelechi notes that many probably did come with the assumption that they would be shown the US twerk style which was at the fore of the commercial hip hop scene a few years ago. However, by stripping the commercial movements out of the routines which she teaches (and the association with the misogyny and slut-shaming of some commercial hip hop lyrics, she picks the soundtrack for each class very carefully), Kelechi allows her students to connect with the raw movements of the routines. In the videos which are uploaded after each class, each student is pouring with sweat, and there is a visceral sense of emotional connection and collective empowerment. Kelechi is rightfully dismissive of some of the backlash she’s received from commentators (read trolls) who take exception with some of the routines as being ‘slutty’ and ‘promoting promiscuity.’ The backlash has come from both men and women, and Kelechi along with many of her students feel that it’s generally indicative of societal misogyny and fear of empowered women. The class, Kelechi feels, is a safe space for women to connect with music and dance in a way that celebrates their womanhood. In such a space, there’s no space for slut-shaming or body shaming, by owning your sexuality and sensuality through dance, Kelechi feels this accentuates one’s identity as a woman. Her plans for derivatives for her class centre womanism at their core: she has plans for a twerk workshop in heels and has set up a crowdfunder for a ‘twerk empowerment’ class which would provide a safe space for women of colour to connect through dance, the shared pain of their historical identities. Her future plans are full of ambition and growth; she is set to appear in a television series later in the summer, and she will expand her twerk classes and offer workshops both at home and abroad. She’s an exponent of using dance as cathartic release – you can enter her class with all the baggage in the world, and after learning a challenging routine, which confronts students both physically and emotionally, you will feel empowered and ready to deal with the baggage. Kelechi is one of the many social innovators who are effecting change in small and large ways, and I salute the work she is doing.
Projects credited in
- This Black History Month 2021, meet 100 Black trailblazers redefining the industryIn celebration of Black History Month, we’re thrilled to share our annual list of Black rising stars – as nominated by The Dots community – who are making history, transforming the industry today and inspiring the generation of tomorrow. We still have a long way to go to diversify the creative, tech and digital industries – which is why it’s important for us to celebrate and be inspired by the incredible Black leaders that surround us. The list we’ve put together is one that shines with brilli75
- Samsung #Gearup Go Beyond FitnessCreated for Samsung Europe, this campaign showed that anyone, anywhere with any experience or ability can go beyond fitness #withGalaxy wearables watches. Tapping into the insight that we can encourage each other as we work out, this spot features pairs who spur each other on and a bespoke soundtrack composed using breath and rhythms from each athlete and sport.
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