Interview with Aina Fadina of "I of Africa"

Founder and Host Aina Fadina interviews sound and visual artist Emeka Ogboh during his exhibition at The Africa Center in New York City. Emeka talks about using the iconic Danfo bus, and the sights and sounds of Lagos as his source of inspiration.

Browsing the internet one day, I came across a CNN article "8 Must-See African Shows", and right at the top was Aina's "I of Africa" web series. I immediately watched all of the episodes and clicked through to learn more about the amazing woman who produces, hosts, finances, and disseminates the show. Aina Fadina is a Nigerian-born model who has worked resolutely to see her passion project come alive. Her zeal for story-telling and celebration of diversity and creativity are exciting to witness, and her upcoming season three should not be missed.      

Can you summarize for our readers what I of Africa is all about and why it's so important to you? How and when did you start the show?

As an African, woman, and black person in society, I realized that I wanted to start telling stories through my own lenses. I wanted to share stories of people that looked like me. I wanted the world to change the conversation about Africa, and what Africans are doing globally.  I realized we needed a unified global voice. I have such a strong network of creatives, entrepreneurs, and business leaders; I wanted to celebrate these people, and that's what the series does.  I came to the realization that if you want change to happen, you have to be part of the change you are looking for, so it was time for me to stop complaining and just do it.

I started I of Africa in 2012 because I had so many phenomenal friends in NYC doing compelling things, and no one was telling their stories. These individuals were doing groundbreaking things in NYC, Lagos, London, Paris, Accra, Kenya, and South Africa. Growing up in Nigeria as a Yoruba girl, storytelling is a huge part of my culture and childhood.

Can you tell us more about your Yoruba culture and how it's influenced your work?

Yoruba storytelling is about imparting knowledge on the hows of life without the written word. Moreso than written material, words instead passed from individuals, from generation to generation, but could not merely play the role of conveying meaning per se. Words had to take on a life of their own and be complete in a tight relation to the actual living universe either via the animal world or social differentials. Certain animals are assumed to personify certain characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses. In a totemic universe where animals represent the spirits of ancestors, there is a closeness between human actions and animals' 'way of being'. Animals personifying strength, courage, smartness, a killing instinct etc., are put in extreme circumstances where their characters need to come into play, and you have the clearest picture of the intended message. Lions, elephants, tortoises, and spiders are examples of memory triggers that influence lives of children years after. Behind these memories of stories are the voices of the grandparents and parents, as well as the village night fire storytellers. These stories confirm and validate, in the pre-logic world of children, the universe that surrounds them.

Later in life it can keep them grounded in their past sense of security even where other culture's systems of knowledge dissemination may tend to drag them into individualized positioning in fast industrializing society. These stories, because they had lessons and morals with faces, sinews of animal muscles, and other relations, take us back to a belonging that goes beyond time and space. You begin to create pictures and photographs in your consciousness as stories are being told.

What was the transition like into the work of interviewing, curating, and producing a web series - all seemingly very different tasks from your career in the modeling world?

Being a model, I was familiar with working in front of the camera and figured it would be a smooth transition.  I knew that being a host and model are similar, but also very different.  As an in-house model to fashion labels, you see the creative process it takes for a 4-5 collection a year to get produced. You understand the need for creative aspects and business aspects to work hand in hand. You see how operations and strategy works in a creative and luxury business. You also realize the importance of marketing, PR, and developing a digital media strategy. I took the time to do a lot of research and educate myself on what was going on in the media and content distribution space. I knew I couldn’t do it all, so I hired DPs, filmmakers, and editors as well. 

Prior to I of Africa, I worked as an artistic director, so I had experience producing shoots; it was about utilizing and transferring my skills.  Also, I realized that rather than wait for the big media houses to save the day, I had to take control of the distribution of my content, hence why I chose to use YouTube as a platform. Based on this decision, I am now moving backwards. I have very exciting news to announce very soon.

How do you select, reach, and connect with the interviewees of your series?

I have been lucky enough to have a great network. I have used emails, cold-calling, face-to-face meetings, and social media. Also, my friends have been fantastic in recommending their friends and artistic communities. Let’s just say thank God for technology, the Internet, and kind and resourceful friends. So far, twitter has been fantastic.

I  know you were born in Nigeria, whereabouts? When did you move to NYC? Do you still have family in Nigeria? What are your three favorite things about where you are from?

I was born in Lagos, Nigeria. I moved to NYC in 1995 with my family, and then we moved to Philadelphia shortly after. I moved back to NYC after college to pursue modeling. My family is split between East Coast, West Coast, and Europe. I try to visit once or twice a year.  Some of my favorite things about Lagos include the vibe, energy of the people, the entrepreneurial spirit, and culture (especially music and food).  

In Lagos it’s all about the sights, vibes, and sounds. You feel every beat and pulse, and in the morning you feel and hear the silence. Also, you can hear the Muslims saying their prayers during sunrise, and the bells of churches ringing around the same time as well.  Growing up in Lagos, you learn to live with people who are similar to you, but also very different from you. You are brought up in an inclusive environment. These are things that bring a huge smile to my face.

What does the future of  I of Africa look like? When can we expect to see season 3 of the web series?

The future of  I of Africa is to continue to build it as a global brand and solidify more partnerships and collaborations.  Season 3 will be more dynamic, and it will be more of a lifestyle show/visual magazine.

Have there been any obstacles you’ve had to overcome in your creative journey with I of Africa or in your professional modeling career, and if so, how have you done so?

I of Africa is a one-woman show. I make all the calls. When things don’t go as planned, I have to answer to myself. When things go well, I have to think about how the episode can be even better. I am the founder, executive producer, host, producer, stylist, and make up/hairstylist.  I am responsible for hiring people, research, social media, and making sure videos are uploaded.  Let’s just say I wear different hats of Model, Consultant, Host, Executive Producer, all at the same time. Sometimes, I have castings and jobs at the last minute when I have interviews or meetings scheduled for the series. As a model, it is not advisable to turn down jobs, so I constantly have to work around and maneuver my schedule. Managing my schedule and location is a job in and of itself. It can be quite tasking as people are so busy, but I have been blessed to have people who understand the nature of the business.

Who are some female role models you look up to or that inspire you?

My grandmother, mother, sisters, aunts, and a number of my friends constantly inspire me. I live for these women. Outside of this nucleus, I will have to give respect to Oprah Winfery, Michelle Obama, Barbara Walters, Viola Davis, Hillary Clinton, Madeline Albright, Maya Angelou, Ava Marie DuVernay, and my mentor, Stacie Hendersen. Also, my dad. I know he isn't a female, but I can't touch on inspiration without celebrating him. My parents raised 5 amazing women and an amazing man!

What kind of support system did you have when getting your project started, and what kind of support system do you rely on to maintain the show?

You can’t do it alone! Surround yourself with believers, doers, and people who will forgive you when it is needed. Get a mentor! It is important to hire the best you can afford - people who have better technical skills than you. I rely on my amazing family and friends for support as well.  Also, it is important to take care of your physical being and your emotional being. As human beings, we focus on physical health more than emotional well being, and what I have learned is that you have to give both the same attention. Being an entrepreneur can be very lonely, find people you can trust to confide in. Also, find a network of entrepreneurs, who are also living your reality. I have also found having a coach can be helpful. 

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

I consider myself a woman that can do anything she puts her mind to. My parents raised me to believe that a woman can achieve anything a man can do.  It has never been about a label. Women should be afforded the same rights as men. We should be judged by our merit, hard work, and achievements. I believe in equal rights for all!