Kugali’s Danson Njoka on ‘Iwaju’, ‘Murenga’ and storytelling where it matters | classiqdjfaze.com

Kugali recently made headlines for its partnership with Disney on an Afro-futuristic animated series titled Iwaju. Set in Lagos, the series, according to Disney, will launch on its streaming platform in 2023.

The Kugali x Disney deal remains a dream for many African creators even in 2022. I had to know Kugali’s secret super powers. But we’ll get back to that. My ClassiQ interview with the pan-African company’s new CEO was, at its core, about putting African art on the center stage.

Congratulations on your latest appointment as CEO, can we talk about what life generally is like for you now and the future of Kugali?

My name is Danson Njoka, I am Chief Executive Officer here at Kugali, I currently also have a few additional hats. I’m also the Chief Operating Officer and I have been heading the finance divisions and the studio functioning at Kugali which is responsible for the licensing and adaptation of our work.

In my appointment, I see myself first and foremost as a chief storyteller here at Kugali. The most important role I have is to talk about why we do what we do, why it matters, and why it needs to be done. I get to talk about that and by doing so I draw others to us who feel and share our passion and conviction. I also rally to, of course, those people that we would need in order to achieve this because what we are undertaking is not a small feat.

It is the change and nurturing and development of an entire visual art industry on the African continent with the purpose of reshaping the narrative that exists of us today, owning our own and forging and charting a new phase in the future for us. So I feel a great responsibility about it but I also feel a great excitement about it.

I have been with Kugali since 2019, (there is a chunk of time we all lost in the pandemic). But I came across Kugali at a point my life when I had a broader ray of experiences and I had especially been working with early stage businesses that were really trying to solve and tackle big issues or trying to grapple with significant issues in our society today, across health, across education, within the art as well.

Recently, Kugali announced Murenga as the first African LGBTQ sci-fi comic, as an African I’m guessing this is just as monumental as it is for me. What does backing an LGBTQ story mean for you and the future of Kugali?

That’s a good question, what does backing an LGBTQ African story mean for me? I think what I will expand is even beyond that, is what does backing an African story mean for me and for Kugali and for many partners that we are now going to be working with. I think to answer that question I will like to take a step back and talk about why telling the stories that we tell or why telling any story matters and why it’s important.

Kugali was created at the time and for a reason that there simply weren’t stories that showed African cultures and practices. Out there in the world what was being consumed were not reflective of any of the richness of breath and life and diversity that we have.

When people still talk about Africa as a country, if you ask them how many countries we have in the continent, how many people there are, how varied their cultures are, the diversity that exist in them, it’s narrowed into a singular narrative or perspective and that is only erasing of all the people and all the stories and all the narratives and breath that they have and the impact they get to have.

If we are to have and reclaim a world that has us in it – has us as African people in it, has us the different people we are, that has us as Kenyans, Ugandas, Zimbabweans, that has us as men and women, has us as people that speak thousands of languages, varied in shape, in colour and size, in the clothes that we wear, and in our cultural practices. Because when they are not told, what happens is that we fail to imagine or have a life that is exploring and rich that we can create for ourselves because we only imagine what we’ve been told is possible, what we have seen.

So coming from that point then, telling that story is both very important but very part of our work here at Kugali, because there is a breath of people on the continent including LGBTQ, queer plus people and each of those stories deserve to be told, we need to see that those people exist, and they need to see their representation, and we need to see an expression of who they are and it is okay for them to exist. Not only that, there is an entitlement and the right to have the richness of the life that we want to have that we contribute in a society and that like many other stories of our cultures were very likely entirely lost in the race through colonialism and through Christianity.

On your goal to reaching 10k pledges, have you experienced any sort of kickbacks?

I think like any project there will absolutely be people that don’t see your way. There will be people who may not necessarily agree or perhaps think that the story should be told in a particular way but on the whole. What we have received is an overwhelming support and excitement about the stories we are going to tell. Even among those people who themselves don’t identify as queer for example, or who don’t even like sci-fi for example, we have people who are still supporting.

Murenga is the first African queer story in graphics that will be published and that is really a big deal. Why has none be done before? There is probably an artist whose story is yet untold. There are queer people on the continent, at least that we are aware of. Maybe they haven’t feel safe, they haven’t felt supported, they haven’t found the backing to know that they could. And some of those doubts and fears also existed within us when we first approached this project but we know that anything and everything we are doing today is breaking new grounds and so in that regards we are fearless. I feel that is my greatest responsibility as a chief storyteller here to make sure that we talk about why telling these stories matter. And when we talk about that what we see is support and recognition either from people in the continent or major players like Disney and others who understand why we are doing what we are doing.

African stories are finally taking center stage. What does it mean for you especially as an African?

I think there is a mixed feeling about this. Mixed feelings because it is exciting to be able to see a show that will be centered in Lagos. There is an excitement that we get to see in the same way we are all probably excited when Black Panther came out even though it’s a fictional story. I feel a sense of identity with the collective idea to be out there and especially the knowledge that I have somehow contributed to make this happen.

There is also…..it’s a frustration, maybe a bit of or an anger that our stories have not been there. It shouldn’t be so momentous that an African animated series is going to be on one of the biggest platforms. Africa represents a very big part of the world population, so there is an anger and frustration. Why this is so momentous?

At Kugali, as much as we have an exciting collaboration [with Disney] it’s really an exciting show. For us, it is just the beginning, we have a number of other exciting shows that we are working on which is also very exciting and inspiring and motivating in the sense that this needs to happen more and I am especially excited to see the people that will follow up this desire especially in our industry to actually do something about it. And so whenever we are discussing this, it’s with a great sense of conviction that we do what we do.

Kugali has a partnership with Snapchat. Let’s talk about what that partnership entails?

Kugali is one of the first official lens creator especially from the continent, it’s a very exciting space for us. Here at Kugali, what we want to be able to do is that we want to be able to enable not just who wants to tell stories, but to empower and enable other people to go and tell stories. Our partnership with Snapchat is very exciting especially being one of the very few if not their only official lens creators from the African continent.

We were approached by Snapchat to work with them on a project to create filters – some lenses to be used by people to celebrate the Black History Month in the US. Over 50 million users worldwide have interacted with what we created. It is an exciting new space that we can create beautiful artistic images and then very quickly be able to make it accessible to people to interact and get to play with.

Founded by Hamid Ibrahim, Ziki Nelson and Tolu Olowofoyeku, Kugali Media is a pan-African company focused on stories inspired by the African culture.

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