WORDS GRACEY MAE - PHOTOGRAPHY GBENGA OLANIYI
Afrobeats is taking the world by storm. This year alone, artists like Tems have collaborated with Beyonce, Drake and Future. The globalisation of Afrobeats rests on the shoulders of dancers who have spread the gospel far and wide.
At the front line of this renaissance is award-winning, Izzy Odigie. With world tours and viral routines under her belt, this Nigerian-American is on a mission to transform the world's perception of Africa through dance. The superstar choreographer has worked with iconic brands like Samsung, Spotify, Uber and Ugg but her impact doesn't end here. Izzy has also choreographed pieces for mega stars including Wizkid, Davido and Burna Boy. Join us as we take a peep into the world of Izzy Odigie; unpacking her journey so far and her plans for global domination.
Gracey Mae: Hi Izzy, welcome to F Word. How are you?
IO: Hi Gracey, I'm good. Thank you for having me.
GM: You are a superstar choreographer and creative director giving us African street style. When did you fall in love with dance?
IO: Dance has always been there for me from the beginning of time. I have been dancing since I can remember but I fell in love with Afro-dance in 2014; my sophomore year of college.
GM: Whilst you were getting your degree, you were in a dance collective. Take us back to that time!
IO: Wow, that was a long time ago! A typical week would consist of having rehearsals in empty classrooms, while lectures were happening next door. We would push chairs all the way to the back and create space like a dance floor. We would go on the projector, play music and start to create choreography. Meanwhile, our manager would be online looking for events that were happening, calling promoters, trying to see what concerts we can open up for, what graduation parties we can dance at, what cook out or women's conventions we can dance at… and a gig will come in! Tuesday to Thursday, we'll rehearse, work on formations, clean up choreography and by Friday, we would buy our bus tickets, which would be $25 per person, ride like five hours to Maryland, and perform at night for about five minutes. We could be waiting at that event for three to four hours, barefoot in our costumes, waiting for them to be like, “Oh, now it's time”. Do that. Kill it. Get sprayed some extra money, pick that up, and do it again the next day.
GM: The dedication has definitely paid off. You have worked with everyone from Davido, Rema, Fireboy DML to Yemi Alade, Mr Eazi, Stonebwoy. You’ve even done campaigns with Samsung, Reebok and Spotify, but one of your highest profile performances was you being cast as the official dance visualizer for Wizkid and Burna Boy’s ‘Ginger’. How did that come about?
IO: I've been close to the Wizkid camp for years! I've always tried to pitch to work with Wiz but things just never aligned. I remember at the top of 2018, I sent in my last deck to Jada (his manager) with different ideas. She was like, “Create a deck. Go as wild as you want to. Put whatever is in your mind down on paper”. I created like eight or nine different themes and costumes to go with it, as well as, stage design. I sent it and I didn't hear anything back from them. So I said, “Okay, you know what, I'm just gonna go create some of these ideas to the best of my ability” - obviously my finances at that time weren't really the best. I remember I did a piece to ‘On the Low’ by Burna Boy where I had on the cone bra, high waisted vintage panties and white gauze around my face. I put it out there and Jada reached out to my manager and was like, “Yo, that costume! We need that, there's a single coming out very soon and we need that look for the visuals”. So they sent me the song. I had it for a little over a month prior to the announced drop date for [the Made in Lagos] album. I infused it into a bigger project of mine called ‘Iziegbe – The Dance Film’. They gave me creative license so I revamped the costume and the look with the team that I built for that project. We just filmed it and sent it. They loved the first draft. Sent them the final piece and then Wiz was like, “We're going to release it officially as the dance visualizer”. It just kind of happened very, very smoothly.
GM: You call him Wiz? Wow. First name basis things! Love to see it. You've performed on the stages of Afronation, Afropunk, the Essence Festival and Tonight with Jimmy Fallon. How different is it preparing for a stage compared to a performance video?
IO: Well festivals take forever! First of all, Afronation took about a month of preparation. Separate to auditions - like just the training and getting everything together. It took three weeks of rehearsal with the dancers, plus an extra week of stage rehearsal. Before that, I had to reach out to the different [artist] camps, creating mood boards for the different camps to pitch to them what dance can look like in their set, and then having to handle costumes. I actually had to be a costume creator, a stylist, and a choreographer. Basically, I was the Creative Director for everything dance. It was beautiful because the dancers were professionally trained in so many different styles so it was easier. Comparing that to a virtual performance like the Wizkid video, it was more selective pressure. When ‘Ginger’ comes on, it’s two African giants coming together - collaborating on a song, and then you're going to be the first visual that comes out? That was a lot of pressure. Trying to figure out what style do I go with… You can listen to that song and some people might want to do hard shaku shaku moves but the way I'm interpreting it is very sexy, very minimalistic, very mysterious. Basically trying to struggle with yourself to figure out what it is you want to do, and then hoping that people will accept it. So I think that's the difference between the two.
GM: That's obviously an incredible achievement but you have a few on your CV! You’ve won Best African Dancer at the AFRIMMA awards, plus, you were listed as 25 under 25 Females Making Their Mark in Africa by Cosmo. What would you say has been the single highlight of your career?
IO: I would say when I went to Japan on tour. I have led annual Dance Tours - this is actually my fifth year doing it. For my third year, I did a class tour in Japan for my viral choreography to ‘Killin Dem’ by Burna Boy and Zlatan. I'd never been but a Japanese woman attended my class in New York two years prior and she told me to come to Japan. I was confused because who knows me in Japan? Literally two years later, I found her again, asked her if it was possible, and I went to teach five classes in three different cities. I did club appearances, I judged Afro battles and the classes were lit. Especially the last Tokyo class. Over 40 people came out and these were Japanese people willing to learn about Afro dance.
GM: Afrobeats is literally carried on the shoulders of dancers like yourself so kudos to you. Japan was 2019, talk to me about Izzy in the pandemic. You were in Nigeria during this time right?
IO: When the pandemic hit, I was starting my fourth tour - the lockdown hit me in Maryland, in the United States. I had to basically cancel everything and stay home. The beginning of the pandemic was very fun because everybody was online. There were challenges that people wanted to do! People were very active. People were going Live [on social media] all the time. It was just very interesting because everyone was at home. Then time started to pass and now you're eight months in, or you're a year in, and you really don't know what direction this is going to take, or how long it's going to take, it started to take a toll on me mentally. Even in the household it was like, “Go back to school because right now you're not working” to which I’d reply, “No, it's not that I'm not working, it’s that I don't want to take on gigs that are counterproductive to what it is I want to do, just because I'm in a pandemic”. Basically, there was a lot of back and forth between family members who didn't quite understand what I was trying to do, as well as the back and forth with myself, because we didn’t know when this pandemic was going to end. So what I decided was best for me, was to leave the environment and come to Nigeria! Nigeria seemed a little bit more vibrant than the States. People were still going clubbing and events were still happening; people were just moving. Initially I was coming to Nigeria for about two months, but after two months, I was like, “I need to stay here a little longer”. I ended up spending like a year plus and I've done so many things. From working with Glo to Coca Cola, to starting a dance show on YouTube where I teach celebrities how to dance. So that’s how my coming to Nigeria happened.
GM: The iconic Don Jazzy was your first guest on your YouTube dance series. He’s not known for dancing so how did you make that happen?
IO: I don't know why a lot of people were surprised. They were like, “Wait, how did you get Don Jazzy?” or “How do you know Don Jazzy?” I was like, I will choose not to be insulted by this but okay [laughs] The Don had actually been in communication with me since Killin Dem dropped. It was so random but he messaged me and was like, “Can I ask you a question - what does success for a dancer look like because you seem like you have it together?” And I was like, “No but let me try and explain”. So I sent him three paragraphs of what dancers are going through and what success will actually look like. At that time, he was actually planning on doing something for dance; plans that I guess he will release later on, but then the pandemic happened. So when I came to Nigeria, it was a perfect opportunity. We actually live in the same estate. I was thinking, once I have a Don Jazzy episode, it will be easier to sell it to some other celebrities so I messaged him to present this idea that I had in my head! Literally, within two days, I went over, I explained the concept and then he was like, “Yeah, I'm down. Let's do it”. We shot it within a week and it just started like that.
GM: And are you bringing the series back? Seems like it's on pause at the moment.
IO: It's self-funded and it's expensive! Each year I have to prioritize things so this year, my priority is touring four continents in one year. To do that and also do an eight episode series for season two will be a bit of a financial strain. So right now, I'm currently pitching to a company to see if they can take over the financing of it so I can come back bigger, stronger, rebranded, and larger than what it was last season.
GM: Since we’re here, let's talk about the PAP dance tour and why it's important for you to bring dance to four continents.
IO: PAP stands for Pan African Passport. First of all, there are Nigerians everywhere. Even when I went to Japan, I remember I was walking in the streets of Tokyo, and someone just randomly shouted my name. From my years of traveling and talking to people, it's just very beautiful to see people that are not Nigerian, or not even African, are connecting with the sound. It makes me feel less crazy for deciding to pick a career that had no certainty. For me, if I have the means to travel, and I have the passport that allows me to travel freely, it is my responsibility to go to as many places as possible to spread the gospel. While doing this, I'm learning about the difficulties it takes someone with an African passport, specifically a Nigerian passport, to travel even within the continent of Africa. I'm learning about what I like to call ‘social politics’, as well as, the advantages I get by just having an American passport versus using my Nigerian passport. Apart from dance, the tour is teaching me a lot of different things that I can experience firsthand. Maybe one day, I might be a politician but for now, I'm just meeting people and spreading the gospel. I remember in Germany, at the end of the class, there was this girl who came up to me, she's like, “Oh my god, let's take a selfie.” Now when she tags me on Instagram, she's like, “Oh, the eggplant lady”. And I was shocked. Backstory! When I was in college in 2017, my first viral choreography was a routine I did to ‘Eggplant’ by A-Star. I'm telling you! People were doing this thing around the world. From Israel to Cameroon, to America. The fact that I hadn't come to her area, and almost five six years after that, she still came to support me… just off the routine I did in 2017… Things like that just make you feel like you're actually doing this. People are actually supporting and what you're doing is sticking. Connecting to lovers of dance, lovers of music, black cultures around the world and just people who are open to exchange with me. That's what the PAP tour is about.
GM: I love that and I'm so happy that you're able to you know, acknowledge our privilege with having a passport by spreading the love of Africa culture. Given that you talk about being a pan Africanist, tell us about your jewellery line, Third World Trybe, and do you think it's still appropriate to use that term in reference to the African continent?
IO: Third World Trybe is like a parent company that's created by my two brothers and I. We were raised in Benin City, Edo state. Even when we made the transition to America, you would go to school, and they would teach you, these are the third world countries - Nigeria will fall under that. Growing up in boarding school, the term was always something that my brothers used. We would throw up three fingers and say “Yo, Third World!” It was like, “Okay, we are from the third world but we're fly, or we’re swaggy, or we're successful”. It is just a term that we took the power of. My eldest is a professional basketball player in France, the immediate senior is an accountant in DC and I'm a professional choreographer traveling the world, and we're from the third world. To me, us saying third world doesn't seem backwards. This is what we've been labeled. Third world means developing country and as a country that's not fully developed, this isn't technically false. We're going to show that even from a third world country, we're still popping.
For the jewellery, that started during my year here in Nigeria. I always wear jewellery like chains and earrings. I have like this black toothpick going through my ear. A lot of people would always ask about my accessories so I made a poll on my story as a joke, and I was like, “Hey, if I started a jewellery line, would you guys buy it?” And over 1000 people said “yes”. Literally within a week I found a manufacturer and ordered some pieces, created a collection that I would actually wear, and I started selling it. I made sure I made it affordable because one thing I realized is that a lot of supporters in Nigeria weren't able to buy merchandise from previous projects. Paying for the shipping from America, as well as the cost of it, a lot of Nigerians couldn't afford that. So it's an affordable way where people can support me and also look fly at the same time. It's picking up and right now we're having talks about moving it into a store, because if I'm travelling, I can't handle the business and also do the tour at the same time. So yeah, it's been a blessing so far.
GM: You're showing us that young black women can do it all. You've touched on facing challenges including family support and funding. What would you say to date has been the biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
IO: I'll say it’s still something that's going on now: the underpaying of dancers. No matter what level you get to, it always seems like a wall that slaps you in your face. I've had some very disrespectful offers come past my table just because the person feels like they have the upper hand, based on where they are in the industry. It's just like finding the balance between letting me use the platform that this person can provide me, versus having self-respect for my craft. Sometimes you're gonna have to say a lot of no's, in the hopes that one day you will get an opportunity that makes sense for you to say yes. I would also say that it’s still a struggle because you can want to create with someone but if they don't see the monetary value attached to that, sometimes it can be a bit frustrating.
GM: Before we wrap up, what's the one thing that you'd like to leave our readers with?
IO: Be yourself. Even if being yourself right now may not be working to the level that you need it to. I promise this is a cycle, there's going to be a point where the sun will shine on you. Just continue being yourself. Keep creating and putting stuff out there so when the sun actually hits you, you're ready, you're at your prime, you don't have to fake anything, you just naturally be yourself. Continue being yourself, continue creating, and it will all make sense in the end.
GM: With that said, every F Word interview ends the same way. What is your favourite F word?
IO: My favourite F word is freedom.