Looking back on 2020- a year that has had many years within it, it’s natural to feel some despondence. With all the uncertainty that comes in a once in a lifetime pandemic, goals and new year resolutions have had to be shelved or realigned. If there’s any consolation, it’s that it has been a collective struggle. On the other hand, it has also served as an opportunity to take active decisions and execute long-mooted steps. For Nigerian dancer, Iziegbe “Izzy” Odigie it was the push she needed to create her newly released dance film, Iziegbe upon realizing that she would be unable to take a trip to Japan to build on some of the strides she made last year. Ahead of its release, we touched base on her journey towards becoming one of the most recognizable faces of African dance, the future of the intersection of Afrobeats and dance, the inspiration behind her dance film, and her tips for rising creatives.
Odigie was born in Brooklyn, NY but moved to Benin City where she attended boarding school between the ages of three and eleven. She returned to the US where she continued her education culminating in her graduation from St. John’s University in Queens, NY with a degree in Psychology. Odigie expectedly, believes her time in Benin was most instrumental to who she has become “I feel like my self-image, morals, and values were built when I was in boarding school. So if someone asks me where are you from? I say Nigeria even though I was born in New York and have lived here most of my life.” Her thoughts resonate vividly with conversations I have had recently with many Africans in the diaspora in light of the wave of social movements erupting across the continent. While many of us see the US as our current home, the issues going on in Nigeria, Uganda and Ethiopia weigh much heavier on us.
On where the Odigie the world has come to know came from, she tells a story about having an interview when she was transferring schools in Benin and breaking into a performance where she began singing and dancing before the school’s principal. She ended up gaining admission into the school and in no time, became the kid who’d always dance when it was time for socials. Dance though is simply Izzy’s first foray. She says “I believe that dance is just like opening the world up for me so it’s like through dance someone might see me and be like, she might be a nice host or she might be a nice actress or she might be a nice background vocalist.” Today, we are more familiar with multidisciplinary creatives who start off as comedians, dancers, or musicians but soon find themselves pursuing other passions. Odigie could be the next of them and if there’s something you should know about this woman, it’s that if she wants something, she gets it. When she moved to continue her education in Maryland, she began to realize she wanted to be around showbiz. At the time, her dream was to be an actress and it led her to make the decision to apply to colleges in New York. The goal was to build a base in one of the world’s biggest entertainment hotspots where her dreams could potentially be fulfilled even if she had no direct idea of how. The bottom line though is she stuck at it and today, her determination is being manifested in a different way, with her dance film Iziegbe.
Hard work is one ingredient of her success but another layer stems from her understanding of the importance of branding in building her platform. While in college and looking for the next means to level up, Odigie and the dance collective she was part of at the time decided they were going to start breaking out of their college bubble and seeking shows in the New York area that put them in front of honest and critical crowds as opposed to, friends. At the time, they secured a running contract with a venue in Maryland where they’d perform. Making the trip from NY to Maryland cost about $50 per round trip and each dancer would get paid about $100. However, Odigie says they moved like they were getting paid $300 to $500 a night. What did that involve? Well, it was things like having a photographer and videographer present at any event they performed at, paying for outfits that gave the impression they were far ahead of their current standing, and ultimately, presenting themselves as a serious group. This is her biggest message to rising acts – that you can transform a social tool into a business, with the right focus on branding or as Nigerians say, packaging. It’s a message I echo, one that I think helped an act like Tems for example build a very solid and bankable brand despite limited product while she continued to find herself and finetune the version of herself she wanted to present to the world as an artist.
Collaboration comes next. Odigie talks about finding herself pitching ideas to other artists a lot of the time and in the industry she works in collaboration is essential. The understanding of the platforms that dancers have is a reason we often see musicians gravitate towards dancers when they work new singles. For Iziegbe, collaboration was front and center. Odigie mentions a long list of names including Nikki Billie Jean and Troy Massa who worked as co-producers, Love 4 Rico who took charge of photography, and Sooflight who served as the cinematographer. The important role they play in the creation of Iziegbe is one of the first things Odigie mentions when we get to the topic of the dance film. As our conversation continues, I begin to see why. Despite the important role that dancers hold in the spread of Afrobeat music, they are merely a footnote in the story of its success.
In 2019, Odigie traveled to Tokyo and held a number of performances that do not show up on the radar when the conversation around the export of Nigerian culture comes up. We think of Wizkid, Burna, and Davido selling out shows across Europe and America but don’t often extend the same love to other Nigerian creatives doing similar things in much more obscure markets. Why was Odigie going to Tokyo and delivering show after show not celebrated when it’s a market even the biggest musicians are yet to conquer? It’s because a hierarchy has emerged that belittles players like dancers and producers who don’t hold as much sway as they should despite being such an important part of the ecosystem. This is the backdrop Odigie operates against and is why she’s so vocal about giving due credit to every creative involved in Iziegbe’s production. That and well, the fact that Iziegbe is primarily about giving thanks and handing people their flowers. The film features 5 visuals: Daffodil, Rose, Violet, Iris, and Tulip– an attempt by Odigie to give thanks to everyone who has played a role in her growth. Daffodil is dedicated to all the men in her life for empowering her to become the confident and powerful black woman she is today. Iris speaks to the impact that eyes have had on her growth with supporters she’s never met serving as flag bearers and ultimately helping her become more successful. In the same vein, she references how important her eyes have been in affording her an opportunity to learn from many others and draw inspiration on her journey. The third visual, violet touches on the importance of the emotion of anger and channeling anger rightfully towards change. It’s particularly timely considering how infuriating issues on the ground in Nigeria have made many of us over the past few months and she envisions it as honoring Nigerians who have lost their lives to police brutality.
Tulip touches on femininity and vulnerability. Odigie mentions that she is often told she does not lean into her feminine energy enough and I interpret it as a subtle middle finger to the whole idea of what being a woman should be. The final visual, Roses is a tribute to Love “Picture Kodak” Divine Ike, a dancer whose unfortunate death by electrocution while on a music video set earlier this year rocked the Nigerian entertainment industry. Odigie like many others was moved by Kodak’s passing and she goes on to educate me on the symbolism of the dance icon that Ike was. “85% of the music videos in Nigeria, Kodak was in there and she only gets this amount of love after she dies.”Kodak’s passing is deeply personal as the duo worked closely over the past year, including living together for a three week period in the buildup to Afronation last year. Odigie goes on further to talk about how Nigerian dancers in Nigeria often do not get their appreciation from industry outsiders until they go off to America for a couple of months and THEN Nigerians begin to pay attention.
Afrobeats as a genre, cannot be as successful as it is today without dance. It’s a style of music that thrives on dance and inspires people to dance and Odigie is excited about the fact that Nigerian dancers are building their brands to separate themselves from the artists the genre is built around. By building credible brands, dancers can command bookings across the world teaching Afrobeats classes and Odigie is excited at the power they are beginning to wield. The next step in the journey towards domination is continuing to wield more influence and it reflecting on the bottom line. “60 years from now I don’t want people to say she was one good dancer back in the day but she’s broke now. I don’t want things like that. This is the career path that I’ve chosen to pursue a hundred percent so I should be able to live off it.” If you know Izzy, you know that will not be her story. She’s deeply committed to the craft, respected and forward-thinking and she will make a lot of money from this, but her eyes are on much more than just herself. They’re on creating a dance space where dancers all around the world get their opportunity and take it.
Images courtesy of the Yenhouse for Iziegbe.
Additional words: Oluwamayowa Idowu