In an exclusive interview with Pulse, Laolu Senbanjo speaks on the success of his sojourn to America and why Nigerians should be more invested in their history.
Having arrived in New York with nothing but a dream, he has scaled the dizzying heights of success having worked with brands like Nike, Bvlgari and being summoned to work on Beyonce's 'Lemonade' project.
You would be forgiven for thinking that Laolu may have let the success get to his head, after all, who could remain humble with the achievements he has racked up but as he pops out of his hotel lift, dressed in all black with his signature white face paintings and envelops me in a warm bear hug. Laolu feels like reuniting with an old friend.
As we begin the interview, the artist is chatty, unguarded and earnest. He talks as if he himself can't quite believe how far he has come. There's a childlike disbelief as he talks about working with Beyonce and strolling through New Orleans chatting with the CEO of Parkwood Entertainment, Steve Pamon with the familiarity of an old college buddy.
Laolu mentions with a small smile that if he had known who Steve was at the time, he may not have shared some of what he did but that's part of his appeal, he is so refreshingly candid, so unspoilt by the world in which he has found himself and so willing to share his story which will undoubtedly serve as an inspiration to many artists looking to make that leap.
Despite being embraced by New York, even imbibing the city into his art name, Laolu NYC, he is still very much rooted in his heritage, it's in his art, it flows through his veins. Wherever he goes he is the personification of 'omo naija'.
He states, ''When you are Nigerian, you really are an ambassador for the country without even realising it. My art has allowed me not only to express myself but also educate people and I never thought that I would be in that kind of space to do that. Art has been that tool that has brought me in front of a lot of people and allowed me to explain what it means to be Nigerian. I explain to them what the imagery I use signifies and I take them to Nigeria without them having to move an inch which is a unique thing.''
Laolu began his journey, not with a canvas, but with a law book as he majored as a human rights lawyer in Nigeria's capital. He states,''I went to law school in Bwari in Abuja and then I started working as a lawyer. First, I worked at Diamond Bank in customer service but I couldn't do it. The hours were so long and exhausting and everybody was so happy I was working in a bank except me. When I quit my job working at the human rights commissions, it was borne out of the fact that I couldn't combine being an artist and doing a 9-5, it was very challenging. I decided that the kind of art I wanted to do needed more of my time, more practice and more focus.''
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I am proud to say that I am a human rights lawyer with the Nigerian Human Rights Commission specializing in Women's/Children's Rights. Since childhood, I was chasing my father's dream of becoming a lawyer. When I said I wanted to be an Artist, my folks asked 'do you think you are Picasso?' I said 'Yes.' After I was called to the Bar; working as a lawyer I was often caught drawing at work, dividing my legal career and creating Art till the wee hours of the morning, often with no electricity. My clients had very challenging lives. I often worked with child brides trying to escape marriage for education. Nobody should have to choose marriage over education. I carried their burdens around with me in my daily life. Creating was a way to unload this burden onto canvas. This is my story. I am not telling African stories, I am telling my story. I happen to be Yoruba man and therefore I tell Yoruba stories. However, I grew up in a colonial situation where we don't own our narrative, nor our culture, we instead are ashamed and try and lock it away and appropriate the culture of the White man or the Brits. Funny how we revel in the religion but not the technology. We learn Greek Mythology and are taught that our own Yoruba Mythology is bad or is devil worship hence we need saving. Thanks to those movies that help to scare/condition our minds. Naija people know what I'm talking about i.e. (ayamatanga)lol However, I am here telling my narrative, and my goal as an artist is to re-create and re-interpret that narrative. My Yoruba Gods and Godesses should be known by all and I am not one dimensional. I create Art to be impactful and use my knowledge as a Lawyer to provide deeper dialogue, conversations and understanding of often complicated situations. My Art works and success is a BIG MIDDLE FINGER to all those who said I COULD NEVER! I have proven that hard work, practice and determination is enough to become Successful. Never give up on yourself.
As brave as Laolu's decision was, it was met with plenty of resistance from friends and family who believed that being an artist was not gainful employment and worried about Laolu's state of mind at the time. ''When I quit, everybody felt I was going through a hard time, they would call me like 'what are you doing now you're not working?'. They treated me like a leper because they felt like I had a problem because I left a paying job for something they thought didn't pay. That energy wasn't what I wanted around me. The family even held meetings about it and I decided that I couldn't stay with this type of energy around me.''
Finding himself at an impasse, Laolu was on the verge of making a life-changing decision. Had he had more support, he may never have decided to move to America but it was the lack of belief in him and his overwhelming self-belief that gave him the push he needed.
"I needed a space where I could just be and that's when I moved to New York. I needed a space in which I could just get lost and I made up my mind that if it was just going to be art, I would do it for the rest of my life even if it wasn't paying me a penny and ever since I started doing art full time, I've never felt more alive. I couldn't let go of that feeling, I was just happy. Do you know what it means to be happy for no reason? You feel like you can get through anything and that's so important because life is still going to throw a lot of things at you but if you're happy doing what you're doing and you can make money from it, then you're blessed.''
Many dream about packing it all in and moving to pursue their dreams but the fairy tale is soon marred by the harsh realities of such a drastic decision. After that initial gust of energy, I wondered how Laolu felt and what his support system was like upon moving to the Big Apple.
"I used all the savings I had to move to New York and it was really hard. I looked for artists community groups and I found one called the Flatbush Network of Artists and they were so accommodating. That's the beautiful thing about New York, it's a place where everybody is from somewhere.
"Most of the people you meet have come there from somewhere whether it's Liberia or Ghana. So coming in as a Nigerian is nothing because you get to meet all the Nigerians too and you feel like you're far away from home but down the street, you will find a restaurant that serves Nigerian food like Indomie, yam or plantain. In New York, you can build your own Nigeria if you wanted. All these artists I connected with helped get me art exhibitions so my work was being seen, I started putting my art in different coffee shops which is how I initially got my art out there and sold it."
Laolu now found himself in the heart of the city and needing to make money from his craft in order to survive.
He was selling his artwork in coffee shops but he needed something to elevate his career, to distinguish himself from the rest of the aspiring artists Laolu admits,
''I adopted the term 'everything is my canvas' and that was born out of, for lack of a better term, hustle. I was broke and I refused to return to Nigeria, that's not how we [Nigerians] are wired. We don't take no for an answer, we make it work, we turn it inside out. I had no choice to keep going, whether I was being successful or not, I had to keep going because that gave me joy, people around me gave me joy because they were appreciating my work and loved what I did.
"Whether they paid big bucks or they didn't, I saw the genuine appreciation. Even when I painted shoes or jackets for $100 or $200, I saw the excitement in people and from there, the word about my work went out. The same thing with shoes, I would put a story, a number, a line or a date and that was the point I discovered that I could do this. That paid my bills, my rent, a lot of things I was doing back then.''
Laolu's hustle eventually paid off. Adopting 'everything is my canvas' truly allowed his art to travel. The unique design was instantly recognisable and the more he put out there, the more people wanted. It wasn't just the painting on an item however, it was the profundity of the meaning behind the etchings. The mystery of the Yoruba markings and the history attached to it formed a powerful vacuum which pulled those who sought to know more, further into the world of what Laolu has now named 'The Sacred Art of the Ori.'
But I wanted to know the moment at which Laolu knew things were really happening for him, his turning point if you will. He thinks briefly and smiles, pouring through his mental Rolodex of notable achievements before settling on this. He says, ''I would say when I worked with Nike. I was named 'Master of Air', and I was called to design limited edition t-shirts, sneakers, and posters. That was mind-blowing.
"Although I had worked with Beyonce, I was under a non-disclosure agreement to not talk about it for close to 8 months, and then Nike happened. Nike, I could talk about but I didn't know the magnitude of it until the day of the show, it was insane. I never knew I could sign autographs and get tired.
"I had people lining up for me including NBA basketball players from the Knicks. Up till now, I'm just so grateful for that opportunity, I was the only Nigerian, the only black person in the whole team of five artists and it was huge for me. For my brand, to be associated with Nike, it was amazing.''
As we talk, I'm keen to talk to Laolu about what can be considered to be a career-defining moment. His work with Beyonce came about so suddenly and was kept under wraps thanks to a non-disclosure agreement. So much so that when Lemonade was previewed on television, he received a ton of calls from concerned friends to tell him that his work may have been ripped off.
Laolu laughs at the memory. ''All of us who worked on it didn't know when the visuals were going to drop. So we kept calling each other like 'oh do you have any idea?' and I would call the directors and when Formation dropped I was like 'yes, that's it!' but it wasn't. That's when I realised the project was so much bigger, it was a whole album and even I was shocked. We waited for the day to come and then BAM.
"There was a preview on Wednesday and the album was dropping on Saturday. A clip of my art was in the preview and I started getting calls from people thinking that my work was being ripped off and I had to say 'calm down folks, it's me!' All my friends from all over drove to New York just to celebrate with me, it was crazy! CNN travelled all the way from Atlanta to interview me. They were with me for two days just following me around. There was an interview with Pulse too, it was just crazy.''
I want Laolu to take me right back to the beginning of his journey with Beyonce and the Lemonade project. Every career-defining moment is surely carved in one's mind and I was curious to know exactly what Laolu was doing and his initial reaction to getting the call to be a part of Lemonade.
''I think I was painting and initially, I thought it was a scam. I was just waiting for the catch but that didn't happen so I requested for a meeting They agreed but said I had to be briefed first and I had to sign a non-disclosure form before the meeting so I signed and I was told about the project. I booked my flights to New Orleans and I got to the airport and I saw somebody holding my name, at that point, I was like holy crap!
"All this was just from taking a chance on myself and I cried on the way to the hotel because everything just came rushing down on me. I started thinking to myself that sometimes, even you don't know what you're doing but it all comes together. I was just going and I finally stopped to realise what was happening and taking it all in.''
Laolu's eyes dance with excitement as he relives the memory. He is visibly moved and I'm touched that after all this time, he is still in awe of his journey and his progress. I'm gladdened that every once in a while, he has that precious time to reflect and soak in his merited success.
He continues, ''When I got to the hotel lobby, there were a lot of celebrities, people I know like Ibeyi and they all thought I was this big deal and in my mind, I was like 'Hell no!'. I became friends with everyone on set including Beyoncé's manager and assistant. I even met with the CEO of Parkwood and I had no idea he was the CEO. We walked around together, I was telling him my story and he took everything in. It was afterwards that he reached out to me and told me he was the CEO of Parkwood, Steve Pamon. He was super chill and spoke so highly of me to others.''
If this was the reception he got in the lobby, I was keen to know the reception he got from the woman herself. Laolu shifts forward in his seat and tells me, 'You've got to hear this', his excitement is palpable and contagious.
He starts, ''I was on set and she was already on set doing her thing. She was wearing this Ankara outfit and as I was walking away, she was suddenly walking behind me calling me, 'Laolu!'. I turn around and she said 'Hi, my name is Beyonce', and I was like, of course, 'Everybody knows who you are!'. She pulled me aside to talk and immediately, everybody started treating me so differently. There was this respect there just because Beyonce had known who I was and gave me the uttermost respect.''
He adds, ''She kept thanking me and telling me how much she appreciated me coming out. I mean, would Beyonce tell you to come and you would what? Tell her you're busy? No way! Everybody shows up for Beyonce. I told her I was so privileged to be there and it was so exciting for me. I brought some shoes for her that I had designed, I showed her and we were talking about the shoes.
"There's a way she talks, you know you have a different perception of what Beyonce would be like and you meet her and she's so different, she's so open. In regards to the Lemonade project, she told me that she wanted me to bring my artistry, she just wanted me to do me. I sat with the dancers and they were asking me if I was ready for this, that it would be crazy for me!
"They asked me to draw on pieces of paper for them because afterwards, they might not see me anymore which is crazy. I still see them at events. Just watching them dance, they are geniuses. Some of them had just heard the songs and danced to it like they had known them their whole life.''
What struck Laolu most about Beyonce, in spite of her being so occupied herself was her thoughtfulness and how attentively she listened as he spoke about his work. Having spoken to her about Yoruba mythology at length, Laolu was shocked to see all that they had discussed, down to the letter, accurately reported in her Lemonade coffee table book.
''I was telling Beyonce about Yoruba mythology, about Osun and the Sacred art of the Ori and it was just amazing to read the Lemonade coffee table book and see all the references of Osun and Yoruba.'' Laolu adds that the artwork he created for Lemonade was very much rooted in the idea of feminine power, everything that Beyonce herself embodies.''The essence of what I created with her was 'power', it was a culture pusher.''
On the flip side, having his work thrust in the mainstream shed some light on some issues surrounding how the lens through which we view and appreciate certain things. ''People tried to say she was appropriating Yoruba culture because when the video dropped, they recognised the Yoruba essence. I remember people who used to complain that my art was demonic and fetish but now, Beyonce has done it, it's suddenly so cool, why?
Why do we wait for some legitimisation from the West before we do anything? We should just appreciate what we have. I wish the government would put so much more into tourism when it comes to Yoruba mythology and art because I'm Yoruba, I'm biased. The slave trade was bad of course but one of the upsides of it, if you can say that, was Yoruba culture traveled, it went to Brazil, Cuba, America, it went everywhere. You have all these people wanting to trace their roots to where? West Africa? Nigeria specifically. That alone is a selling point but what are we doing with it?''
Laolu is visibly frustrated at this point, perhaps remembering the lack of support he received at the start of his journey and not wanting others to have to tow that same line in order for their work to be legitimised. I wonder what he thinks our government can do to not only promote our rich culture and history but also pay it forward to the new generation.
Laolu believes education through art, culture and history will restore the national pride that we so desperately need. He's quick to share his ideas, ''I would suggest we build a museum. We need to take back all the heads of the British Museum, make the government return all our artifacts. We don't have any real museum for kids to visit and feed off of and when you go to all these museums all over the world, you know who's there? Kids and young adults. They're there to feed their minds. Where are all these things from? Africa! What are we feeding our own kids? Indomie!
"It's sad! Education is so key and I just feel like if people aren't reminded of their past and how their own forefathers were geniuses then we cannot move forward. We don't even know our own history! We are a people with so much, if only we understood the power of what we have, we can stand with anybody, anywhere in the world. People say to me, 'Oh you're so lucky to have worked with Bulgari. No! They are so lucky to have worked with me. When I talked about Yoruba mythology with everybody on the Bulgari team, they were like 'wow! this story is real?!' I was like yeah, I'm just waiting on Hollywood to pick it up. But when they do, Nigerians will start shouting that they are stealing our stories. Why won't they steal it?! What are we doing with it?!''
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Laolu is a vocal activist and supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. I'm curious to know what it is like having that knowledge and power of being a true African and going to a place like America where being black is something else and you're treated so differently. I wonder how Laolu successfully reconciles those two identities. ''I've never seen myself as inferior to anyone, no matter their race or creed and I don't consider anyone inferior, that's how I was brought up. Being African, nobody tells you about how to be black in America because I never saw myself as black until I went to America.
"I didn't understand the intricacies of being black in America because in America you're either black or white or this or that and once you cross the water to go there, nobody cares. They consider me black but I always correct them and say I'm Nigerian.But I realised, in regards the situation with the Police, a bullet doesn't ask you where you're from, they profile you all the same. So I discovered quite quickly that once you are this colour, it becomes your fight, almost immediately.
"This is where my background as a human rights lawyer comes into play because I believe in the fundamental right of any human, being able to be what they want to be. Aspire to whatever level you want to aspire to. No human should have that power over you to be able to undermine your capabilities as whatever you want to be.
"I was in the US around the time of Trayvon Martin and I saw the outcome and I was just blown away. People told me to be careful especially when the police stop me and I quickly realised how different things were.
Would he ever consider doing a collaboration with any Nigerian fashion designers?
Definitely, I would love to. I worked with Mai Atafo and he did some designs with my art and he actually won an award for it. I would definitely love to collaborate with more designers, I'm just waiting for them to ask me.''
Finally, I wanted to give Laolu an opportunity to speak into the lives of young men and women who were just like him once upon a time. Their judgement clouded by familial and parental expectation. Currently travelling along a path that is simply not theirs to take. Perhaps they had already begun and were already disillusioned with the creative world which though richly rewarding, can be peppered with disappointment and rejection. Laolu, having been in the same situation, just five years ago had this to add,
''I would say, as an artist, make sure you listen to yourself more. We don't emphasise that enough. Listen to your own gut and own self. As an artist, I discovered that only you know yourself best and for a lot of artists that I know, we don't just do this just to make money, it's our way of existence, our way of living.
"A lot of artists slide into depression because they do things they don't like, they are working jobs that they don't enjoy. They may be making money, but they are not truly happy. Wouldn't you rather say to yourself, 10 years down the line that 'I'm happy I took that leap and I didn't succeed but at least I tried or, I never tried.' There's always a regret in never trying and that is what I didn't want to happen to me. Nobody's story is the same but just keep doing it, listen to yourself, trust yourself and most importantly, trust the process.''
As the interview draws to a close, Laolu apologises for having to leave so soon. He has a full press day ahead of him and regrets that we didn't get to watch him finish his face painting for the day. Saying goodbye to him, it feels more like a see you later.
One would be mistaken for thinking that he has been carried away by the charms of his second home but everything about Laolu is Nigerian, the very essence of who is has been crafted around his heritage and hearing his thought for how we as a country can influence a new generation of creatives through Arts and Culture, I am hopeful that if these are the types of people we have representing us in the diaspora, the future for Nigeria and Nigerians all over the world is so much more colourful than we could have ever imagined and though we may find ourselves far from home, home is never far from us.