An Interview with African Fashion Designer G. Kofi Annan On "Bling Is Dead"
Back in December, we told you about a new campaign started by two prominent African artists; Chosan, the Sierra Leonean-born hip-hop artist whose voice is heard on Kanye Westâ€™s â€œDiamonds from Sierra Leoneâ€ video, and G. Kofi Annan of award-nominated Annansi Clothing Co.
Kofi and Chosan run the Demand Details! initiative which ‘encourages a global community to demand details from the diamond industry.’ and seeks to educate a society unaware of the consequences of the trade. It’s a worthy effort and their ‘Bling Is Dead’ motto is a catchy example of the results they seek.
I recently had the opportunity to interview G. Kofi AnnanÂ regarding this campaign. He is a prominent African fashion designer and his company, Annansi Clothing, has received numerous awards (as well as rewritten the book on contemporary African-style). He compliments his fashion site with a blog that “reports on the styles and trends which are ushering in a contemporary definition of Africa.” It’s well worth repeated visits and I encourage you to check it out.
Ecorazzi: Tell us a little about yourself and your involvement in the Demand Details! campaign. How did the campaign come about?
Annan: I’m the designer behind a clothing line called Annansi Clothing Co. I started the company about 2 and a half years ago because I was frustrated about how people in general view Africa and Africans. With my designs I try to inject some African flavor into the streetwear market. A major part of my designs and company efforts has to do with education. Being a part of the hip-hop generation and being an African – I was born in Ghana – I found it hard to understand how hip-hop culture and American culture in general could continue to flaunt their diamonds and not understand that they are enabling the exploitation of the same African people who mine those diamonds. Living in the US, I saw the success of the diamond industry and how people bought into the “Diamonds are Forever” motto wholeheartedly. A lot of Americans are obsessed with blinging and, for a while, were not aware how the diamonds they wear were helping fund wars and conflict in Africa. I felt I had to do something to encourage people to be more aware of where their money was going. I started the Demand Details! initiative through my clothing line to do just that. I launched Demand Details! in the fall of 2005 with the help of filmmaker Kareem Edouard who had created a short film called Bling: Consequences and Repercussions. It’s now a year later and I just partnered with an upcoming rapper from Leone named Chosan on the Bling is Dead campaign which is based on the same efforts. Over the past year and a half I’ve been really happy to see how supportive people are and how many people I come across are willing to change their way of thinking and spending. I hope my efforts will continue to make an impact and cause more people to rethink how and where they spend their money.
Ecorazzi: In the wake of increased media attention and the movie, “The Blood Diamond”, how do you feel the diamond industry has reacted? Have they done a good job spinning their position or can they seriously be applauded for their efforts?
Annan: It’s all politics and Africans are caught in the middle. The movie, Blood Diamond, is important because it gave the conflict diamond issue a media boost. I think the producers and actors did a good job of providing a platform to tell the story of what is still going on in the African diamond mining industry. For decades, companies like DeBeers have enjoyed the luxury of conducting illegal activities in Africa without any scrutiny. But the movie forced them to the light. As far as I’m concerned all the “progress” that’s being made in the diamond industry is only a reaction to that. It all comes down to money. If the diamond industry didn’t stand to lose millions of dollars they wouldn’t be ramping up their clean-up efforts. And so far all their efforts have been focused on their image. It’s to the point where they are willing to blame everyone else, from African governments to individual retailers, so they don’t have to take responsibility. Throughout the whole controversy they’ve never come out and admitted how they continue to manipulate and exploit the African diamond mining industry. Everything they’ve done to rectify the situation has been something they’ve been forced to do, including starting the Kimberley Process. If they were serious about change they’ll allow more independent parties into the Kimberley Process process. But it’s about control. Don’t get me wrong, I think the Kimberley Process is a step up, but I’m not giving out any medals anytime soon.
Ecorazzi: How about Russell Simmons? Is this a guy that can ultimately do some good but is stuck between running a business around diamonds and attempting to do the right thing at the same time?
Annan: Let me start by saying that Russell Simmons is someone I’ve always looked up to and still do. I think he’s caught between a rock and a hard place though. Maybe at the beginning he thought he could do something to help the situation, but I think it’s clear now that he might have been set-up for failure. Politics is a hard road to navigate and the company you keep can always steer you in the wrong direction. I think Mr. Simmons, saw an opportunity to promote himself and his business and use his resources to be a part of the change that’s needed. Unfortunately he didn’t do his homework well enough. He underestimated the importance and gravity of the issue beyond the release of the Blood Diamond movie. I think this just goes to show how people still underestimate Africa and how it’s issues extend beyond it’s borders.
Ecorazzi: Your take on African style has really made people pay attention to the colors, themes, and symbols you incorporate into your designs. What’s your overall mission for the styles you’ve come up with?
Annan: When I first started my clothing line I came up with a motto, “Afrique C’est Chic” (Africa is Cool). This is the philosophy I still subscribe to. The themes and designs I create are focused on putting Africa and it’s people in a different light internationally. I want to show that there’s more to African style than kente cloths and cowery shells. If you take a look at major African cities – Accra, Lagos, Cape Town – you’ll see that the style there is very funky and contemporary. That’s not to say that it’s totally westernized. The style on the continent is still uniquely African. With my designs I try to use that African influence to give streetwear a new dynamic. The same way Asian culture, African American culture, and Caribbean culture has become a part of American streetwear, I want to show that African culture has something too that it can contribute. The reason people have a hard time understanding that is because everyone still sees Africans the same way the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy” depicted us as. That’s why a major part of my design is about education. As an African growing up in the US, I’ve always been torn between the strictly western clothes and traditional African clothes. I think there should be a median that people of all cultures can appreciate. I’m trying to create that median.
Ecorazzi: What African American music artists are, in your opinion, doing a beautiful job of helping the world while working in the industry?
Annan: I think people like Kanye West, Jay-Z, Talib Kweli, and Michael Franti are doing a good job of finding creative ways to lend their hand to progressive efforts. There are also African artists like Akon and K’naan who are the leaders in making sure many efforts are put in the right perspective. They’ve been able to use their talents to begin defining that new African cultural image for the masses. There are also many artists, especially in the NY area, that are working hard to reach the regular person. I’ve been fortunate to work with artists like Chosan, Wanlov, Meta, The Ambassadoz, and Sheba on various projects, and I can truly say Akon and K’naan will not have to carry the torch alone for much longer. You can check out my myspace page – www.myspace.com/annansiclothing – to get to know some of these artists and what they’re doing.