• Travel Ace Kiratiana Freelon Shares Culture and the Black experience in Paris

     Kiratiana Freelon is author of Kiratiana’s Travel Guide to Black Paris: Get Lost and Get Found.

    Ytasha:  How did you come up with the idea to do a travel guide for Black Paris?

    Kiratiana:  I came up with the idea in spring 2002 when Harvard awarded me this travel scholarship. I wanted to come up with travel guides that would focus on the African diaspora to convince people who usually don’t travel, to travel. I wanted to make travel interesting. I didn’t want to travel all over the world and do nothing with it. That seemed so selfish. So in 2003, I wrote a first draft of it. It wasn’t until 2005 -06 when I lived in Paris again, that I wrote a draft I was satisfied with and geared up to actually publish it.

    Ytasha: Tell me about the book.

    Kiratiana:  It is a travel guide. It is a practical guide that helps you to not only discover typical, idyllic Paris, but it also helps you explore and discover locations and communities with people of African descent. With it being a travel guide, it provides itineraries. It lists places you can stay in Paris. It has a night life section with clubs. But the thing that makes it unique is that it includes an extension section that connects you to sites and the history of Paris; of blacks and African Americans in Paris.

    Ytasha: What’s the history of African Americans in Paris?

    Kiratiana: The African American presence in Paris is directly related to WWI and WWII. Thousands of African American soldiers had the opportunity to go to Paris during the war. The French didn’t treat them the way white Americans did. Imagine being an African American during the war in the 40s and a white Frenchman invites you into their home. They were amazed. [The African American] experience was so atypical. In addition to having travelling regiments, you also had this touring band with the military that [introduced] jazz music to France. The French people loved jazz music so much, that some blacks stayed in France to play. The only people who could play it at the time were African Americans. Combined with these black soldiers coming back from France [to America] saying they’re so nice, and you had more French people who wanted to hear jazz – it just led to a host of African American artists going to Paris and taking root there.

    Ytasha: What’s the influence of African American culture on France today?

    Kiratiana: You can almost say that black American culture exists in Paris through hip-hop and on television, but there is not a significant expat community there anymore. That community disappeared by the 70s. As that was happening, millions of African and Caribbean people were immigrating to Paris. So if you go to Paris right now, when you see black people in the streets, they will be of Caribbean and African descent.  You can tell who’s from Senegal, Mali, Cameroon etc.  So right now, they have very few large, significant communities. You have the Malian community, the Senegalese, etc., but this concept of looking at yourself as part of the black community is very foreign to France.

    Ytasha: What do you attribute this to?

    Kiratiana: In France, they want everyone to be French. In France, they feel like they have successfully integrated you if you are totally French and if you have no remnants of your other culture.  [Blacks in France] are just now starting to see themselves as part of this black community. The children of the Senegalese, the Malian – they grow up with a more complicated identity. They have the identity of their Senegalese parents, but they are raised in France.

    Ytasha: How are readers responding?

    Kiratiana: In general, people are amazed at the depth of information in the book. There is a very in-depth time line that goes through the presence of blacks in the late 19th century to now. Also, the book is 260 pages. I don’t think they thought they’d see such an in-depth book on a small topic.

    Ytasha: What are your Paris top picks?

    Kiratiana: If you were short on time and you wanted to explore black Paris – let’s say you have four days- you should do one of two things. Take an organized black Paris tour – those are listed in the book. Eat at a Senegalese restaurant or have Caribbean food. Chez Lucie, one of my favorite Caribbean restaurants, is right around the corner from the Eiffel Tower.  There’s a neighborhood called la Goutte  d’Or. When I first lived in Paris for a month, I went to a tourism place and said, ‘where can I find black people in Paris?’ [The tourism agent] pulled out this map and pointed to this neighborhood on a map, and said ‘if you want to find black people, go here’.  It’s also called Chateau Rouge. The first thing I see coming up the stairs was a KFC and a beauty supply shop. There are more things to offer than that, but it’s a really good place to see Paris’ diversity. 

    Musee du quai Branly -this is a museum of indigenous culture.  I love this museum because it basically shows art work – all the stuff the colonist took when they were colonizing – cultural markers from West Africa, North Africa and a lot from south East Asia. The places where they are stronger are where France was colonized. It’s a great museum, despite the way they came to collect these things. They always have great exhibitions. They have a great exhibit on the Dogon culture from Mali. They have great music and concerts. It’s also right around the corner from the Eiffel Tower.

    For more information go to http://www.kiratianatravels.com


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  • Ghanaian Emcee Blitz the Ambassador Talks Hip-hop and Cultural Paradigms

    Ghanaian-born rapper Blitz the Ambassador champions changing identity and bridges the universality of the African immigrant story in America. He’s touring promoting his latest release, Native Sun. Here he discusses hip-hop, the power of the voice and the shifts in culture.

    Ytasha: You were first introduced to hip-hop as a kid in Ghana before moving to New York. What was the appeal of the art form?

    Blitz: Back in Ghana, it was percussive so we got it immediately. It was very linguistic, which appealed to us. Most importantly, we saw young people like us who saw their voice. [Rappers] found a way not to be ignored. They were young, they looked like us, but what they had that we didn’t have was the confidence.  They were going to be listened to. They were going to be heard one way or another. We were growing up in a time where young people in Africa didn’t have a voice, similar to young black people in America not having a voice. We could relate. It made it very appealing.

    I was fortunate to move to the states, to lend my voice to hip-hop. I believed strongly in hip-hop culture. I could speak about our realities in a way that could not be ignored, through the rhythm, the beat, the rhymes or the culture. I look at this as a culture that came full circle, the influenced coming to the influencers. Now we’re influencing the people who influence us as reminders of where the culture began.

    Ytasha: Several of your songs are in African languages. Which languages do you speak and what’s the response to rapping in a language most are unfamiliar with?

    Blitz: I scatter a lot of my native language throughout my music. I speak four Ghanaian languages. A lot of people confuse our languages with dialects. A lot of Europeans and Americans, they say, ‘you speak African dialects’ and I say ‘no, I speak African languages.’

    Ytasha: There are over 3,000 languages spoken in Africa, not including dialects.

    Blitz: Exactly. They don’t think of African languages as full, complete entities with sub-languages and sub-dialects.  I also speak a couple of dialects in these. I speak Twi (Akan), Ga, and Sisala.

    The reason I choose to rhyme in these languages is because these languages are dying at an alarming rate and a lot of it is because of the Europeanization. People assume that if you speak better English or French you get further ahead in life. If you speak Twi or Ga you get nowhere in life. When I rap in an African language it perpetuates the fact that [African languages] are just as important as any other language in the world. We suffer from a huge deficiency in confidence. I do anything I can to perpetuate this confidence. Definitely hearing the Twi language being played all over the world, playing in front of 4000 people, speaking to them in Twi is a huge statement to some kid in Ghana.

    Ytasha:  Some people believe that hip-hop is the first global musical movement. Do you agree?

    Blitz: I’ve always believed that hip-hop culture is truly the first global movement in terms of music. If you go back to who’s credited as the godfather of this, DJ Kool Herc – he’s from the Caribbean, but he’s influenced by sound system culture from Kingston, Jamaica. He comes to the Bronx and brings a version of this sound system culture with dancers in the parks and deejays. The birthplace is the Bronx, but the influence of the culture starts way before the Bronx. If you travel back to before Africans were shipped to the Caribbean from the Americas, you know where that outdoor sound comes from? It comes from the celebrations of Africa.

    Ytasha: When we were on the WHPK radio together, we spoke about the transitions in culture, some of which I chronicled in my book Post Black or are referenced when people discuss Afropolitans.  But identity seems to be an issue that’s discussed worldwide. What do you attribute this identity issue that appears to be global today?

    Blitz: I think people are looking for answers that are more current, more updated than what they’ve been given all their lives. You go to school, you get a job, you retire with benefits. For most people in the world, that is a changing paradigm that works for a few people. But for others, they have to find another way and they have to find new ideas. While these new ideas are being discussed, people, whether they know it or not, people are coming up with a whole different paradigm on how the world works. The concept of what you pay for/what you don’t pay for, for example, is being rethought. The concept of what to learn – most people who go into art design or filmmaking are not people who went to film school or design school. They are people with an idea. They can go to a website and learn it immediately. Just that quest of new ideas and getting in touch with where the world is, is what people are seeking right now.

    Through social media we’re a lot more connected than we used to [be]. The speed with which information is spreading is unprecedented; there was never a time where a song came out in America and within hours, people in Africa could download it. I remember living in Africa and if a film or song came out in America we had to wait months for someone to get lucky to get it. That spread of information and concepts has really quickened and hastened what people feel their life should be.

    This Occupy Movement that started in the Arab Spring showed the power of social media and organizing around that. You have massive dictators overthrown based on Twitter and FB accounts. Obviously, Twitter didn’t start the revolution, but it was a major tool to help people organize around it. Looking at what happened here around Occupy Wall Street, that was a direct result of that. Now it’s moving to sub-Saharan Africa with Nigerians occupying Nigeria right now. This shows how much this information has spread that idea of entitlement. The fact that now people can see what life is in a more open and detailed way forces people to think.

    People are looking at Twitter accounts and see ‘wow, your electricity lasts every day’. It doesn’t have to last three days a week. People didn’t know in America that the roads were paved or that traffic lights worked. And to see it in real time changes everything. To see people in your age group living just like you on a much higher standard, you start to ask yourself, ‘why don’t I have these things?’ When these questions are asked, that’s when change happens. They try to limit people’s access from across the world. If you know there’s a better way to live, you’re not going to accept a substandard way of living. That’s really where it matters the most, in terms of how it affects the diaspora. We’re affecting ourselves much more in real time.

    For more information on Blitz the Ambassador, go to www.blitz.mvmt.com.




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  • Seasoned Baller Theo Hill Coaches Leadership in Youth through Sports


    Theo Hill is Founder and Executive Director of the M.A.D.E  Foundation, a Chicago-based basketball and leadership program for children. A former basketball player who has played in leagues around the world, he’s passionate about developing character through sports with youth. M.A.D.E celebrated its 10th anniversary in January.

    Ytasha: Why did you create the M.A.D.E Foundation?

    Theo: I have a passion and a need to help kids through basketball and sports. I also wanted to give back to the community. There’s a need for positive role models in the community. I had a place to play when I grew up, I had mentors, I was in the Boys & Girls Club.  You don’t see that as much.

    Ytasha: Tell me about the M.A.D.E program?

    Theo: The program teaches leadership and development through sports.  In sports you learn so many skills and attributes that you need for everyday life and to work in the workforce. You learn discipline, strong work ethic, how to deal with adversity and more.

    We teach the basic fundamentals of basketball, leadership development, as well as health and nutrition.

    Ytasha: Do you have any partnerships?

    Theo: We partnered with the University of Illinois’ “Extension and Outreach” program.  We partner with several Chicago Public Schools, Abraham Lincoln Center, the Gary Comer Center and the Chicago Youth Center.

    Ytasha: How did you decide to launch M.A.D.E?

    Theo: It was a dream that I had. I woke up one day with a vision to give back [to] the youth. I had the entire business plan in the dream.  M.A.D.E – making a difference everywhere. It was a calling, Kind of scary.

    It took five months to get the program in schools.  We get corporate sponsorship, grants from private donors, as well as being contracted out by CPS. New Balance, Comcast, Kenneth Cole have sponsored us.  We’ve won grants from the Springboard Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust.

    Ytasha: How are the children transformed by the program?

    Theo: Their behavior is different. Many had anger management issues. Their physical conditioning is better. We also noticed that their attention improved.

    Ytasha: How many schools are you currently working with?

    Theo: We’re working with 8 schools and social service agencies. We have 200 kids and 10 staff members.

    Typically, during the school year a program runs from 16 [to] 24 weeks. Our programs are year round. We work with 8-14 schools in a year. In the summer time, it’s twice as much.

    Ytasha: Is this a rewarding experience?

    Theo: I love being able to help kids and to see the growth from the kids for the duration of the program, through high school and college. I might have a kid who has been in my program since the 4rth grade. Many share that they remember the things I taught them.

    Ytasha: What do they remember?

    Theo: They remember a lot of the phrases we have them repeat. ‘I’m a leader and not a follower.’ ‘If you say it you can do it.’ ‘Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do anything.’ ‘Strive to do anything that you want to do.’ We also tell them to have confidence. Many don’t have confidence.

    Ytasha: Who are your staff?

    Theo: Some of the staff are teachers, some are college students. I have a couple guys on staff who work with other social service agencies who played overseas. Teachers, college students, former athletes.

    Ytasha: You’ve had some high profile, celebrity fundraisers as well.

    Theo: We had a 3 on 3 by the Lake Community and Family Event. We had games for the kids, venders came out. We had a Celebrity Paintball Event in Hawaii twice. We had another [event] in the Bahamas with Tichina Arnold, Regina King, Ray Lewis, Kris Humphries, Nicholas Gonzalez and Brian Cook.

    Ytasha: Many people want to start nonprofits for kids, but it’s not as easy as it seems.

    Theo: First of all you have to have a passion for it. If you don’t have a passion for working with kids, it will never work. You are not going to get rich from social services.  I’m not in it for the money. You also have to identify what need you want to address. Ours was to teach children that you are a leader, not a follower, so that they don’t look to gangs, etc. Basketball was our hook. 

    Ytasha: Why did you choose to focus on leadership?

    Theo: A lot of kids are followers.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to follow behind someone. Your peers, students, classmates respect you a lot more when you’re a leader.

    Not too long ago, there was a kid walking pass, who called my name. I didn’t recognize him at first but he had participated in the M.A.D.E program. He was just about to graduate from high school at the time, he showed me his grades. He had an academic scholarship. He said he remembered some of the things we taught. He was a bad kid when I knew him. Now he’s a basketball coach and a teacher at a high school.

    I follow a lot of the kids. That’s part of our measurable outcomes. We deal with kids up to junior high.  We tell them if they have any problems to talk to us. We’ve helped kids get into college. One of our board members connected us with Ada S. McKinley. A good 60-70% of our kids go on to play sports in high school.

    Ytasha: What’s next?

    Theo: I want to expand it. We want to expand it at the minimum throughout the Midwest, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan. 

    For more information on Theo Hill and the M.A.D.E Foundation go to www.madeforchicago.org.

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  • Sister Duo Blends Sci-Fi, Comedy and Puppetry with New HR Web Series


    Kyra and Kozi Kyles are sisters with a serious sci-fi leaning. The twosome launched the Human Resources series, a sci-fi puppet show that explores workforce dynamics.  The webisode series launched in November, 2011.

    Ytasha: How did you come up with the idea of a sci-fi comedic puppet show on human resources?

    Kozi: The idea came from one of my own personal work experiences. I started working for a company that started going through a layoff situation. The only thing I could compare it to was sci-fi.

    Ytasha: That’s a really funny perspective. But why did you use puppets?

    Kyra: Initially we tried to write it as a feature film. We realized we would need a Steven Spielberg budget to create what we were writing. So we said ‘there’s got to be a way to make this’. We thought about doing it as animation. Then we said ‘let’s do it with puppets’.

    Kozi: Kyra and I are not puppeteers. We had to reach out to the community in Chicago. We had some ideas. We had some references. We worked with some students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. David Candelaria, [who] worked on [the movie] Coraline; he gave us great tips on working on the project. He loved the project.

    Ytasha: How did you create your characters?

    Kozi: We wanted characters you can relate to but we also wanted some fantasy. We also wanted to look at some things that aren’t so pleasant to talk about. This is a sci-fi comedy but we wanted to talk about the economy and talk about other issues.

    Ytasha: How many episodes did you shoot?

    Kyra: We shot 11 episodes; we’re rolling them out week by week.

    Kyra: Essentially this is a workplace comedy with sci-fi elements. Most people work at a job and mysterious and strange things happen. People get fired for weird reasons. They disappear into strange offices. It’s a twisted way of looking at the horrible things happening in the work place. People told me they like the two genres (sci-fi and comedy) working together. They don’t want the ‘whoa is me’ take. It’s a way to make a comedy that is effective.

    For more information go to www.hrtheseries.com.

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