FELA KUTI, the musician most commonly acknowledged as the father of 70’s Afrobeat, lived in a Lagos compound that he named Kalakuta Republic, (along with his 27 wives, referred to as the Kalakuta Queens). Fela himself declared Kalakuta an independent republic, separate from the Nigerian State, a space where he could realize and enact his vision of what a postcolonial Africa might look like.
The music came to be as the nation was in the process of reimagining itself, reconsidering the way the newly independent society would be structured for the first time after British rule. The sound blended bass riffs, borrowed from Western disco, funk and soul, with the rhythmic drum beat of traditional West African music, into something that was simultaneously both effortlessly modern, and grounded in tradition. For Fela, Afrobeat was a means of communicating a new understanding of the world, and a new possibility for his nation, an art form which took as its dual aspiration both aesthetic innovation and larger social commentary. Indeed, the creative work we produce must always contend with what came before; the art, the culture, the people and place that root innovation in history.
But we must also look to the future and, in turn, understand the past as more than simple fact, but as a narrative that one can engage with subjectively. Luxury too must offer a perspective, communicate an idea greater than the sum of its products. It must present a comprehensive set of beliefs, engaging with history and authoritatively projecting itself into the future, and most often it speaks of Paris and Milan, Saville Row and Sprezzatura.
BUT with Fela’s inspiration, and in the spirit of his music, we present the KHIRY Spring ’17 collection and the editorial Kalakuta Show as an alternative to a Western focus. As Fela’s Republic before stood as a space for the open and free reinterpretation of established codes, an opportunity to reexamine history and draw new conclusions, we hope that KHIRY will also present an opportunity for reconsideration. KHIRY is an exercise in reinterpreting diasporic history, and perhaps most importantly, we hope that it will serve as an opportunity to envision a new future. Our intention is to challenge the idea of luxury, to expand it, to subvert it, to reimagine what it can mean, what it can look like, and what it can say. KHIRY posits a new perspective, a new vision and set of codes, not separate, but distinct, drawing on an as yet unexplored legacy, the depth of which cannot be overstated.
And now, as we present these images, the first glimpse into a vision that has been swirling around in my head for so long, we recognize the soft power entailed in luxury; the dark allure of it, the ability to manipulate desire, to impose a perspective onto the world, and to use one’s platform as a means to communicate a truth. Perhaps, as with Afrobeat before, there is a small revolution in that
R: Why did you feel it was important to create a jewelry line based around the African diaspora?
J: I founded KHIRY because I wanted to inject a new perspective into fashion and luxury. I think we've accepted, without question, that what makes something truly luxurious is some sort of ineffable quality, and only the most storied European houses can possess that extra special thing. But as I started to study more seriously, and to understand more about the world's history and especially the history of the diaspora, I understood that there was a depth and a richness, a uniqueness of aesthetic and philosophy, that's at the core of everything we think of as luxurious. But no one was putting out work that championed that perspective, and that history, and so I thought it should be me.
R: Uniqueness of aesthetic and philosophy at the core. Can you elaborate on what you found that to be and the ways you display such sentiments in your jewelry?
J: KHIRY, essentially, aims to define the luxurious black aesthetic and the principles that underlie the practice of cultural production. It’s about identifying the key factors that direct the understanding of a “black” image or how a work of art immediately evokes the history of black people on the continent and in the diaspora. KHIRY is my way of exploring that aesthetic philosophy.
It is the product of my reflection on these many different cultural symbols and an attempt to understand the similarities and differences between them, and how they might work together to produce something new.
R: The bullet points of what can dictate something as being both black and luxurious, aside from standard set by hierarchical Europe. `
J: Exactly! Much of fashion history is concentrated on the Western perspective. Don’t get me wrong, that history is important, but for KHIRY I wanted to take a different path. Like, what would it look like if we discussed postcolonial Nigeria in the context of luxury, and reinterpreted that image and all these other things that have cultural symbolism and relevance across the diaspora and around the world? If we looked at those as sources of inspiration, what would that kind of luxury look like?
R: Wow. So as the for the jewelry itself, what are the base materials used in your most recent collection?
J: The collection is made entirely of sterling silver, coated in either gold or silver rhodium. From there, we include embellishments of semi-precious stones (rose quartz and tiger eye) on some styles, and other styles are knotted with leather cord.
R: And is there anything especially complicated about designing jewelry for women, as a man?
J: I think jewelry can be such an intimate thing, and it's very personal for a lot of people. So as I seek to create pieces, I temper my own instincts with feedback from the women who inspired me to launch KHIRY in the first place. They have a much more immediate understanding of what they turn to jewelry for in their lives, and so hearing their thoughts is a learning process that I take seriously, and I enjoy it also.
R: So back to the brand’s mission, there are also other people of color pushing up against those same boundaries and asking those questions. Publications like Nii Journal and designers like Grace Wales Bonner make it their mission to unearth the cultures of African and black identity. Don’t you find it encouraging that, as a person of color making products for other people of color, there are so many outlets to showcase your work?
J: Yeah, I think I’m very fortunate to be creating in this age, because I really don’t know how much traction I’d be able to build for myself at a different time. You can really build your own following on social media and cater to the audience you hope to reach. Its a really democratic ear in fashion and technology really has helped open things up. I’ve reached out to editors on Instagram for example.
Photography by Maria Karas
As consumers become more diverse and the market becomes a little more saturated, consumer desire becomes more selective. All of these things combined make creating, producing, and selling goods independently a more realistic endeavor. KHIRY’s E-commerce launch in November will (hopefully) be a testament to that.