She Works Hard for the Money

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Photos by Malcolm Johnson | FEATURED FASHIONS #JuaKali #DOPEciety

Jua Kali: Still being founded by artist, pattern enthusiast & patternmaster Mwende “FreeQuency” Katwiwa, Jua Kali is a shapeshifting collection of Kenyan made clothing, jewelry and accessories for people of all genders and gender expressions. It is also one of many entrepreneurial effort to ensure Africans on the continent financially benefit from the recent resurgence of “African & African inspired”, and an effort to train young women in New Orleans in entrepreneurship through gig based employment and mentorship.

Dopeciety: Founded by artist/designer Denisio Truitt in 2013 as a t-shirt and women’s apparel line, DOPEciety now includes items for both men and women, bags, art prints, and occasional collaborations with other artists/designers. We are also an event production and curation team, featuring emerging vocalists, musicians, and visual artists through our flagship show, COUCHES, held intermittently at different locations in New Orleans.  www.dopeciety.com

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Post Soundtrack: Donna Summer, She Works Hard for the Money

French Quarters:Growing up in Treme, the French Quarters were always apart of my backyard and as I got older always told, that area was for the tourist, and that I shouldn’t spend too much time down there. I did not understand why people were giving that particular area in the city so much restriction. I went to predominantly black school my whole life, so recognizing my blackness wasn’t an issue until I got to college. I attend a PWI and after a few weeks there, I had to take into account of my blackness in many situations. After my experiences in college, I realized why people told me, as a kid, not be hanging around in the quarters too often. As a creator, It’s hard to stay away from something that drives your creativity And the French Quarters are important to me for that reason. It is one of the few places that I can go to and get a creative energy from. The quarters are flowing with vivid colors, funky shapes, and rhythmic melodies all which influence me as a creator. Lately, I’ve been lacking motivation and creativity but with the push of this shoot and visiting the French Quarters with Mwende and Denisio, I got a lot of inspiration for the shoot and for future projects. Even though being a black male in public can be uncomfortable at times, I feel that as a creator, I can always go to the quarters and be comfortable. 

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-MWENDE KATWIWA- 

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Cowry shell waterfall necklace & bracelets from Jua Kali Soko

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Who’s going to see Black Panther? I make a cameo appearance as “That African Auntie” (jk jk, but I should’ve been considered the role if they had it lol)

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Me tryna be casual as I wear a body suit at 9 in the morning

Mwende: When Denisio & I first sat down and brainstormed what would eventually become “Noirlinians”, we had a few of things we wanted the blog to do and be for us. We were both writers (one more low key than the other) and both into fashion (one more low key than the other). Primarily, we wanted to bridge those worlds in a way that was anchored in exploring our own selves and heritage and identities without drowning in other people’s definitions of what a “writer” or “blogger” or “fashionista” was.

We wanted to demystify the idea of a fashion blog. In the past, I would sometimes find myself look at spreads in magazines or online and think how awesome they were, only to see the price and want to burn the magazine because I couldn’t dream of affording anything the models were wearing. We decided that instead of modeling clothing that was inaccessible financially to most people, for most of the shoots we would wear things that came from our closets and would share under each photo where we got them (every once in a while, we also do a #FeaturedFashions post like this one!).

After Noirlinians launched, one of the most consistent things people wanted to talk to me about outside of the writing was where I got my clothes. This was a complicated and confusing question for me to answer. For starters, about 47% of my stuff is from thrift stores (a habit I picked up when I was a teenager and didn’t have money to buy new clothes, especially once I left home and wasn’t guaranteed my one sweatshirt a year from Old Navy lol). Another 32% are things I’ve acquired from friends, siblings or wealthy students at Tulane who would throw a bunch of their stuff away at the end of the semester and my friends and I would go collect them and either sell them or keep the ones we like (side note: my friends and I used to make BANK doing this. Once my friend found an iphone…I’d say like 25% of things we found had not been opened or still had the price tag on them or were clearly usable but the person who discarded it had gotten a shiny new upgrade). Also, since we put in each post where the clothing and jewelry comes from, I knew there was a deeper ask that these folks were burying beneath polite conversation. After some time, some who were closer to me began asking if they could send orders for things to be made when I went back home to Kenya, which I did, but it was a lot of work on my end and ate up a good amount of time when I went home home (more on that later…).

There wasn’t a singular reason or event that happened, that made me want to start Jua Kali. I just know that one-day, it hit me that I could be one of many bridges across the two communities I call home back home in Kenya and in New Orleans/the diaspora. That I could use clothing and adornment not just as a form of personal exploration and expression, but one that opened up different pathways for people to be in conversation about and feel closer to (their) African roots. I knew folks back home in Kenya who could use the funds from part time jobs to make ends meet and I knew Black folks in the US who wanted to buy their African & African inspired things from Africa intentionally, yet didn’t have a way to do so affordably.

There is an undeniable popularity of “African” and “African inspired” (A&AI) fashion in many places around the world right now. With this, three things have really bothered me about the way in which this popularity has allowed capitalism to intersect with cultural exchange. The first is how expensive A&AI items are outside of Africa, and this is not just a recent phenomenon. Throughout my life, I have seen A&AI clothing sold at ridiculously high prices in the United States, even when they are knock offs or of poor quality (and I’m not talking about or including Black designers and seamstresses who take fabrics and do some amazing things with them; I pay for that…when I can afford it…like Aya Designs for instance. Janese has made some dynamic fucking outfits for me like this one I wore during my TEDtalk)! I’m talking specifically about mass produced, often made in India and China or Europe knock offs of A&AI clothing. This annoyance started to come up more and more for other people too the more we engaged in discussion around A&AI clothing and accessories. Black folks I was in conversation with wanted to directly support people back home by getting stuff made from Africans on the continent for Africans across the diaspora.

This leads me to my second point, as this global interest in A&AI fashion and apparel has risen, the dollars have followed, but sometimes, these dollars have not followed back to the pockets of people back home on the African continent. The ones making the most from this trend are not the originators and carriers of our cultural traditions through clothing and jewelry, they are companies and corporations like this or this that take from indigenous people and claim they “created” these styles in the same way that Columbus “discovered” America (leading folks to begin organizing collectively around this). It is not right or just that A&AI fashion is finally hitting the mainstream global stage, only for the originators to be left out or one of two are tokenized, but the community of creative behind this work not given their real coins.

The last thing is a strange language around these styles and patterns being discovered or innovated recently. My whole life I have seen Africans on the continent and Black folks outside of it intentionally clothing themselves in these garments, though back then, I hear it was more of a political choice and cultural choice, not a fashion oriented one (Clothing is political, especially when your culture has been demonized and made to be viewed as primitive). But that’s what capitalism will do to any good thing…with mainstream attention also comes appropriation.

Last year was a year of why not for me. I went through years (and recommend that you do too) of having my fundamental question with whether or not I would engage with things be why?. Why should I do it? Why should I do it with this person/group? Why was I someone who wanted to or had to be involved? Why did I think it would make an impact and to who? But last year, I decided to try a year of why not where if I couldn’t find a good reason not to do something, I would do it.

I didn’t have a reason not to do this, so I hit up my Auntie Wacu. She now lives in the USA, but growing up in Kenya, she was what we may call a hustler in the states. When I was young and thought of her, I always pictured the full-mouthed laugh that defines our lineage and remembered her on my grandparent’s shamba or as a shop person who are otherwise known in Kenya as jua kali. Because it had once been her line of work, I told her my initial ideas and she set me up with some connections and walked me through other integral parts of the process.

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The name of the shop I started/am starting is called “Jua Kali” in order to pay homage to my aunt and to the people in the market who make and/or sell goods like this back home for a living. ‘Jua’ translates to ‘sun’ and ‘kali’ loosely to ‘harsh’, and is generally what you call someone who works in the “informal sector” of entrepreneurs in Kenya (I put informal in quotes because when so many people make their livelihood from it, how is it not formal? Also…who gets to decide what’s formal? Capitalism is at it again y’all…). Many of them work outside (get it, under the hot sun??), but a ‘jua kali’ can pretty much refer to anyone who sells jewelry or clothing at the Maasai market, to folks on the side of the road selling clothing or shoes or food, to really to anyone who is selling goods in the alleged informal sector or does what is considered hard labor.

To the best of my knowledge and efforts, we buy almost all of our things from African manufacturers and sellers (there is always some room for error when shopping for fabrics especially since they are imported at times, even if we buy them from the women in the shops in Nairobi. But then, I still try to make sure they were made on the continent which the women in the shop assist me with. They’ve taught me a lot about fabric and prints just by being in conversation trying to figure out what I want). At the same time, I am careful about cultural consumption under capitalism. There are certain garments in my own closet that have particular meanings to a group I come from that I would never put in the market. The things we sell intentionally have no specific spiritual or cultural significance, or if it does, the groups we purchase from have themselves began capitalizing on their cultures, so we buy from members of that group to support.

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Fur coat from this thrift store in Los Angeles. I almost didn’t but it because I was like…why would I need one in New Orleans??? But my friend Anna stepped in and was like ‘you’re buying it because its a Banana Republic jacket for $25’ so I said OK and am so glad I did because it has gotten really cold recently. Body suit is also from some random thrift store I can’t remember. I got it for Mardi Gras one year for a Zulu outfit and then regretted it immediately because of how hard it is to pee in a body suit. Off traditional Kiondo style bag from Jua Kali Soko

I wish I could say it was all fun and kitenges, but to be honest, it’s not. It’s stressful in a myriad of ways, mostly stemming from the fact that I hate (the culture of) business. I hate having transactional or capitalist based relationships with people. But, while I know Black capitalism won’t save us as a long term model for liberation, I do know in the short term how many Black folks are financially distressed around the world and how money alleviates it in the short term. I’m also becoming more and more aware of how much knowledge is spread through intentional and ethical cultural exchange especially when people cannot travel to new places and wanting to play my part in making those connections.

I pay well for the things I have made or bought. In almost all of the purchases, the person I am working with dictates the price to me, and I do not negotiate, unless I feel like I’m being taken advantage of (because of my American accent and they think I’m rich, because I’m young, because they think I don’t know any better etc etc etc). My cousins and others have often told me I’m being ‘ripped off’ paying the prices I end up paying, but I know how much the market rates are for goods in Nairobi, and I choose to pay higher prices often because I can afford to and still sell the goods back in the US at an affordable rate (a dollar difference in clothing in the US does not mean much to most people, but 100 shillings difference in Kenya can mean a lot to someone, especially when you make a bulk order). This means there are some things I will just never stock because they are pricey and I do not want to negotiate a low price in order to be able to sell it, or they are bulky / fragile and difficult to ship (side note: I hate capitalism because it assigns value to things in such arbitrary ways. I’ve seen the same item go for a $200 difference just because of the market it is in -_-).

The larger vision of this project that makes me willing to work through these stressors is beyond my interest in spreading wealth to my people back home in Kenya while simultaneously spreading swag to my people here in New Orleans (and beyond). The part of this I am most I am excited about is that having pop ups stateside require me to have workers stateside as well, not just my cousins in Kenya. In New Orleans, I almost exclusively employ the young women I work with in Young Women With A Vision, the leadership development & social justice education program I run for Black girl in New Orleans through Women With A Vision. I intentionally choose to work in Jua Kali with the youth I work with in other capacities in order to share with them entrepreneurial skills, to integrate them into the larger arts community in New Orleans and to financially support them as they transition into adulthood. The work is inconsistent since it’s mostly pop up shops right now, but hopefully as we expand, I will be able to support some of the young women I work with more consistently with employment. I’ve also begun savings some of the sales from Jua Kali specifically to help fund some poetry and art initiatives in Nairobi that I am helping organize or support after so much feedback from artists back home about lack of (financial) support and space from the state and at times, the public. I’ll probably also use some of this money to help fund the Noirlinians Art & Activism Exchange program between artists in New Orleans & Nairobi…(more on that later).

People keep asking me about an online shop, but I am hesitant to start one right now because of my nomadic ways (I’m on tour right now with my poetry book Becoming//Black so am not really in New Orleans this season, but even before this, I was in and out. Like Exposition (RIP) says, I’m nobody’s nomad, I go where I please).

At this point in my life, I feel like Chance the Rapper read my journal when he wrote, I got a lot off days, but it ain’t often that I’m off the clock, but I am happy to be here knowing I am building. That I am intentionally putting together something I know will and has already benefited people I care for and bring them into larger conversations about conscious consumption under capitalism and cultural exchange.

I am someone who has always done if I could, so this is me stepping back into that part of myself in a space that makes me uncomfortable (business). But, as I’ve learned, discomfort usually leads to growth, and I invite you to grow alongside me as I bring water this project with my efforts.

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-DENISIO TRUITT- 

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Artist. Creator. Threat. hoodie available on dopeciety.com. The vintage leather skirt will also be for sale in our showroom in March!

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Caught smiling, and apparently taking my pulse through my hoodie 😐

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Earrings by Jua Kali and Boots from Forever 21.

Denisio: In three months Dopeciety, the company I founded and now co-own along with my partner and spouse, will turn five. On certain days it feels longer, as though I’ve been doing this for two or three lifetimes. On other days it feels like I just left Maryland, my old house, and old worn-in life. Most days, I’m too fucking busy to even think about it! But for the past week following this shoot, where Mwende and I wore items from our respective businesses, its been heavy on my mind. So I’d like to tell the story of how I came to be an entrepreneur and why it was necessary for me to pursue a creative field. I am not being heavy handed when I say that choosing to become a small business owner saved my life.

I launched Dopeciety on May 8th, 2013, but the story really starts a year before that. May 21, 2012. I only know the date because I am an unashamed email hoarder, and found these messages I sent to a friend on g-chat that day. I knew my OCD would come in handy someday!

When I try to recall that day in my mind it’s like a low fog, densely visible, heavy and thick with meaning but impossible to hold onto. I do remember I was nearing my seventh year in George Washington University’s Fundraising department. The rest are fragments strung on a thread of imagination. Sometimes, behind closed lids and stillness, I can recall the stale air of the office and soft hum of the fluorescent bulbs overhead. On that day the hum must have sounded more like a shrill cry, its vibrations making my teeth hurt. The once familiar smell of mildew and carpeting too ancient to properly clean suddenly felt offensive and hostile. I imagine myself staring blankly at my computer screen, an excel sheet with hundreds of names returning my vacant gaze. As if on auto-pilot I closed the screen and opened outlook. I started a new email to my boss, whom I was friends with, and in five minutes hit send. I informed him that I would like to resign and to let me know what the next steps were. The humming in my head instantly softened.  He responded with a “good for you!” and sent me a template for an official letter and a form.  I filled them out, printed and signed them and handed them over.  As I returned to my desk, A message blinked on my menu bar from a friend:

(A not-so-brief aside about the number five)

It took five minutes to change my path. Five. That number has been somewhat of a constant on my journey to becoming an entrepreneur. A small invisible talisman I wear around my neck at all times.   I launched my company Dopeciety five years ago in the fifth month of 2013. The original store had only five items: four women’s t-shirts and one headwrap scarf. Five months after I launched the store, I ended my marriage. Five months after I met my current partner I decided to move to New Orleans.

My life path number according to numerology is, you’ve guessed it, a 5. From what I’ve read, it is the number of constant change, independence, and freedom. I found this snippet about the number 5 especially interesting:

“The 5 generally does not find a suitable career until she has tried a number of different jobs, many of them lasting barely long enough to warrant a full paycheck, especially if there is any kind of routine involved; boredom sets in almost immediately and the 5 simply cannot put up with anything predictable or repetitive. But again, the 5 will surprise her friends and family once she does find her niche, usually after age 30, as her focus, energy and quick mind help her scramble up the ladder faster and with less apparent effort than anyone else.” (source)

“The Life Path 5 loves to have variety in life. Anything new is exciting. Whether it is traveling to a place you’ve never been, or meeting new people, you are always looking for that next experience and adventure.

The war cry of the Life Path 5 is “Freedom!(source)

The most uncomplicated answer, the one that tumbles from my mouth with ease when asked what made me take that leap into the unknown on that ordinary afternoon in May is ‘Freedom’. Up until then, I had gotten quite good at masquerading. Long before I dreamt of putting masks on canvases and t-shirts I wore my own masks to brave a world I found oppressive and frightening. I performed rituals I hoped would make me more “acceptable” to my husband, family, and friends. I  sacrificed and offered up myself until little was left. I hid the remains behind phrases like “I’m fine” “No I’m okay” “I have a good job” “I love my husband”.  They became incantations I foolishly thought if spoken aloud would become true. And if I made it true, the world would suddenly stop feeling like this burden I had to carry on my back.  It never occurred to me that if I found this world so overbearing  I could simply put it down and create my own world. Something smaller, lighter. Not until that day.

I officially left my job on June 30th that year. I had started a vintage business with a good friend of mine prior to quitting that was getting some traction. I had also begun to create stage costumes for artists. I did freelance photography work for income, not enough to pay my half of the bills as my ex liked to remind me, but enough to minimize the number of frustrated outbursts I had to endure from him.  Things were ok, but I still felt lacking. I was doing a lot of creating for others under the guidance of their visions but not my own. I needed to create for me.

I revisited an old idea I had of designing graphic tees with my artwork on them. Previously I had experimented with using inkjet transfers to create my own personal tees such as this one I wore to an event and posted about on my old blog:

The post that started it all. I made that shirt the same day of this art show I went to. I received so many compliments on it, it got the gears turning.

I took that initial design and refined it into four new ones. I tried to create a personality for each design, I wanted there to be something many black women could relate to. Creating the graphics for the tees was therapeutic, it felt like unsheathing my own masks and reclaiming them for art. The designs I settled on were all extremely vibrant and the color variations impossible to create with traditional screen-printing so I researched alternate printing techniques and came across a (then) fairly new process called DTG or direct to garment printing which used large computers to digitally print the images onto shirts. It was much more expensive than screen printing but the sample I received in the mail was so beautiful, I knew that this was it.

I made the first order for the shirts, tanks, and yards of custom made fabric by making a withdrawal on my retirement money, something I WOULD NOT recommend but a gamble I found necessary at the time. There was no asking my ex-spouse or my family. Both of them were pretty fed up with my artist antics by this time.  But something told me to believe this was the thing I was meant to do. So I kept that voice in the front of my mind and (lovingly) hit the mute on the naysayers.

Two of the first four designs!!!! Unrelated side note, I miss that wig.

Five years later, I’m still packaging up shirts and now, prints of my artwork. A lot has changed. I met my spouse and best friend and together we decided to join forces and make Dopeciety something we could both create under. We now curate music events. And last November we signed the lease on our new showroom and workspace, opening sometime in March.

It would be remiss of me if I didn’t emphasize in this post that the entrepreneurial life is hard, and it only gets harder the more we grow. Did I prove everyone wrong? Am I now a raging success? Meh… kind of but also, NO. Five years later there is still an elaborate dance we have to do on the first of the month, taking money from this account and adding it to that account, to pay our bills and rents. We’ve both gotten used to living with less, minimalism is not so much a trend in our house as it is a necessity. Eating out is a special treat (or at least its supposed to be). Going out to a party is about as common as this orange-blue-super-moon thingy that just happened. Our work hours went from 9-5 to “How is it 2am already? I need to get up in 4 hours!”.  Dates with friends get put on hold and rescheduled, some understand, others don’t. And then there is THE FEAR. Every entrepreneur know it and knows it well because it never goes away. The panic of what if people just suddenly stop buying things?What if we fall into the abyss of fail businesses? What are we going to do then?

Even with all of the slips and surges, the exhaustion, the uncertainty I feel compelled to create and to do for myself. And so I get up out of bed every morning and chip away at the endless to-do list in my mind. I do what I can. I rest when I can’t. I bounce ideas off of my partner and vice versa and we dream together. It is a smaller world than the one I had half a decade ago but it is the world I gladly hold in my arms. I want other black women creatives to know that you too can create your own planets if the one you have now is too heavy. Let’s build our universe together.

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Noirlinians is a love story by two wandering Daughters of the African diaspora 

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The Author

Noirlinians is an AfroFashion blog exploring the complex relationship between culture, clothing & identity in the diaspora. Featuring Liberian artist and designer Denisio Truitt of DOPEciety and poet and organizer Mwende “FreeQuency” Katwiwa, the idea for the blog emerged after a fast friendship developed between the two based on their African heritage and artistic interests.

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