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September 20, 2023

Dance is political. And if we do not know our roots, we cannot move forward because we lose the essence

The voice of Nadege Okou, interviewed by Sara Manisera, FADA COLLECTIVE

Blackn[è]ss fest is the first festival in Italy which presents a re-elaborated version of the African lineage universe. Events and roundtables are organized both to think about the concept of being black, following a path of decolonization of the language, and to discuss topics such as mental health issues linked to racial profiling, discrimination, racism, and also music, cinema, media and representation of black people . 

Voice Over Foundation chose to accompany the festival in this path and it decided to tell stories about it through the protagonists’ voices during the whole year. 

Interview with Nadege Okou, dancer, artist and teacher of African dances.

Q: What is your name, can you tell us who you are and what you do? 

A: My name is Nadege Okou, I was born and raised on the outskirts of Milan and I have African origins, specifically from the Ivory Coast. I teach dance nationally and internationally and as a second job I work as a model.

Q: When and how did your career in dance begin? 

A: I started dancing when I was little, then when I was 17, I found my school and there I realised I wanted to pursue this career, not so much as a dancer but as a teacher because I wanted to teach my culture. I trained between Italy and Paris. Then, at some point, I came back to Italy to teach African dances.

Q: How much Politics is there in the work you do, in art, in dance? 

A: Let's start with the fact that any style of dance in the black culture was born out of self-release, to express something that could be consent or dissent, or to express a situation of goliardia or simply celebration. If we were to talk about hip-hop, we know very well that it was born in a very complex historical period for the African-American community. What I teach was simply born out of a need for community. The afrobeat created by Fela Cuti was also born out of a political motivation, which was to show police corruption and violence. And this is something I explain to my students, just as I explain that many Afro community dance styles are born out of a need for community, to have fun together, so there is both a political side and a goliardic side. And then there is another aspect that I explain to my students, which is cultural appropriation. If you dance something or wear something, you have to know why you are doing it, you have to know the motivations, the deep political roots behind that dance or that garment. Not all teachers do this, in fact, especially those who are not Afro-descendants. I often tell the kids: you must not ape us. I don't think it's right to wear a garment like the du-rag, without even knowing that it was used by enslaved African-American people to protect their hair, which was otherwise cut off. I'm not saying this to be a pain in the ass but for a political reason. Because dance is political and serves to share, transmit and teach. 

Q: In your opinion, what is the situation of black movements in Italy? Where are they at? What is your analysis of the situation today?  

A: If we talk about the artistic and dance world, there is definitely a split within the "community" because not everyone can see and recognise this aspect of cultural appropriation. In general, it has to be said that everyone has different stories and that we are the first generation of black people who grew up in Italy. Some of us have a strong connection with our culture of origin, others do not because our parents tried to make them as European as possible. This for example is my case. There are people who never had this connection with their culture of origin and others who grew up with two or more cultures... but if you start to become an artist, you have to inform yourself! Roots are important. If we don't know where we started, if we don't know our roots, we can't move forward because we lose the essence. But if you don't know your roots, ask! I keep repeating that here in Italy we are not in the eighth or ninth generation like in France or Great Britain, but we are under construction. Now there are the first movements emerging but it will take a long time because we are young. Our parents worked and said "go to school", they paid the bills and the money left over they sent to Africa and what they are waiting for is a pension to go home. Many of us, however, want to stay here, so we are really under construction. We will be the next old people who will tell the third generation "we worked our asses off socially, socio-economically, politically to improve living conditions for you too". 

Q: Speaking of the festival in general, what do you think of Blackn[è]ss fest and why is a space like this important in Italy?

A: It's a very important space because it helps bring the community together. When I was growing up all these things didn't exist and I felt very lonely whereas today a 15 or 16 year old Afro-descendant girl has the opportunity to get closer to this community and feel that she can be part of it. 

Q: Future projects and struggles? 

A: I am continuing my South American tour. After Mexico, I will have events in Chile and Colombia. I am going to teach “MAPOUKA”, an ancestral style of dance from my Ivorian community. I am very happy because the South American community embraces black culture with enormous respect. And I must admit that I have been called to represent Italy so this makes me feel proud and nervous at the same time. 

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