One of the shining stars in the urban clothing industry in Tanzania is Kina Clothing. Africanhiphop.com spoke to Mkuki Bgoya, one of the two owners, about the philosophy behind the brand, the cultural landscape of East Africa in 2009, the much heralded resurgence in international interest in the African continent and how this benefits young people in Africa, and the existence of a uniquely Tanzanian fashion identity.
The unchallenged popularity of hip hop culture in Tanzania would suggest that after a decade-plus of local creativity there should now be a lively local urban fashion industry, supported by today’s popular artists and media.
Indeed, there have been a few local initiatives, from hip hop artists releasing their own gear (remember Gangwe Gear, sported by Gangwe Mobb around 2001?) to businessmen attaching their name to locally produced jeans. But the transition from ‘localized’ international fashion to truly innovative signature products is a slow one, and successful local fashion brands have been few.
One of the shining stars in the urban clothing industry in Tanzania is Kina Clothing. Started by recently remigrated Tanzanian Mkuki Bgoya and his business partner Susan Mosi, within a few months Kina managed to create a buzz and a rising demand; they even got the attention of some copycats.
Africanhiphop.com spoke to Mkuki about the philosophy behind the brand, the cultural landscape of East Africa in 2009, the much heralded resurgence in international interest in the African continent and how this benefits young people in Africa, and the existence of a uniquely Tanzanian fashion identity.
Who’s behind Kina Clothing?
Two people are behind Kina Klothing, me and Susan Mosi. Susan is a co-owner and handles all merchandising in the US & Europe. She also helps with marketing the brand out there as well as handles all business and finance matters. I am mainly involved in the creative as well as operations here in Bongo.
Who’s the prime target group?
Kina is for anyone who is looking for clothing that is well thought out, excellent quality in fabric and graphics with something that they can identify with. People of many different backgrounds dig Kina, not only people of African descent. We have had orders from all over the world; it is really wonderful.
What makes Kina stand out?
Simply put: Kina is more original. We put a lot of work in coming up with the concepts that are then visualized graphically. This is something that is not seen in clothing that is influenced by Africa. It’s like good hip hop: the punch lines must hit you hard; it is not just about writing lines that rhyme, it is a constant struggle and hard work.
How did you get inspired to start designing clothes?
It was inspired by need actually; a need for clothing that was created with us in mind. At the time I was living in the US and it was very hard to find any tees that had graphics that spoke to me. The few tees I could find were very poorly done, bad quality from the graphics to the actual fabric. And very cliché imagery!
How did you relate to Tanzanian urban culture & hip hop when growing up?
I grew up in Dar es Salaam in the 80s and 90s, a time when young people in my country were just beginning to carve their little space in the cultural sphere. My parents come from different ethnic backgrounds so for me urban Dar es Salaam culture was what I identified with strongly and I considered myself part of the Dar tribe if you will. I used to go to a lot of concerts during the early years of TZ hip hop and had the privilege of seeing it take shape. It was very hard to find hip hop tapes back then, most artists weren’t recorded; and of course the radio didn’t play TZ hip hop.
What was your perception of the way people in TZ dressed in the 80s and 90s?
I wasn’t paying much attention to clothing back then, but from what I remember it was a sort of a mash up of styles. A lot of attention was on how people in the west dressed; the same trends in the US for example were being incorporated here, but naturally, they would be reinterpreted to what was “hip” in our culture. It wasn’t always intentional though; sometimes these interpretations were merely “happy accidents”
Is there any particular style of dressing, or use of colors from those times that inspired you in your design?
Not necessarily, at least not now, since I am doing mainly graphic tees. Although I think some of those trends are becoming popular again so it is very possible for our future releases.
In what way do you think Tanzanian urban style (dress, music, culture etc) has changed since the mid 90s?
I think urban style now is more expressive than it has ever been before which is a good thing. There are many designers who are coming up now and are doing a lot of interesting things so I think that is definitely a plus, at least in the clothing industry. However, at the same time the music feels a little stagnant, in the 90s everything was new, the radios, TV, hip hop (at least the homegrown stuff), all of this was new and everyone was trying new and different things because there was no formula for what was good and what wasn’t. Now it seems like 80 percent of the music I hear sounds the same, the content is the same, the music production is the same. It’s like we are stuck in this big limbo of sameness! Don’t get me wrong, there are people who are pushing forward but I feel like TZ hip hop is a victim of its own popularity. So that change is not good. I often wonder if it has to die first in order to be reborn much stronger and with a sense of purpose again. Sadly for our music, money appears to be the primary motivator right now; the line between art and commerce is very thin and tricky. The culture is changing to reflect that as well; there is a great sense of urgency to make “quick money” that I have never seen before, some people call that “waking up”. I am still struggling to understand it, and where it will ultimately take us.
Is there a uniquely Tanzanian or even Dar es Salaam concept of fashion?
This is an age-old question in Tanzania: what is the Tanzanian national dress for example? We are constantly bombarded with influences from all over the world and It seems to me we are still at a point where we are taking those influences, mainly western, and fuse them with local materials such as khanga, vitenge and beadwork. So it is still not necessarily a uniquely Tanzanian concept of fashion. However, when you look at popular expressions of fashion around the world it is increasingly apparent that we are moving into a kind of “global culture” and it is going to be interesting to see how we navigate through this while trying to create an aesthetic of our own.
Do you think it’s important to refer back to traditional (and neo-traditional, such as kanga) styles in modern African fashion?
Yes, I think it is important as a foundation to build on and not an end in its own! The khanga for example is gaining a lot of attention right now and designers are using it in different ways. As long as it is a source of inspiration that’s ok. However, I don’t think any African designer is obliged to borrow from traditional African styles necessarily. Our generation is exposed to many more styles and cultures than at any time before, we don’t live in a vacuum; naturally all those influences will have some effect on our work as creative people. So it is great if some of our work refers back to traditional styles and also great if it is also influenced by other styles from beyond our borders.
If you look at our first collection you will see that we were influenced by Tanzania but not necessarily something you can just go “aha! I see a khanga or zigzag African pattern in there! It must be from Africa”. Again as long as you bring something new or bring your own experiences to something old that’s all that matters really.
Do you agree that in the past five years or so there’s been a resurgence in African cultural pride?
I think cultural pride has always been there, I see this as more of a cultural awareness and a need to express that outward. As more of us see or hear of other Africans doing interesting things and pushing boundaries of what we have always associated with being in Africa, this awareness will continue to grow. For a long time we only heard stories of failure and got used to things not working the way we want them to. This affected our self-confidence and the ability to look within.
Does the average youth in Africa benefit in any way from the renewed international interest in and African urban culture? Or is this mostly a discussion and an interest happening in ‘the west’?
I am yet to see the benefits of the renewed interest in Africa, if it is even renewed. I don’t think the media is covering Africa in any renewed way for example so the images haven’t even begun to reflect the diversity and complexities of our people. I think this discussion is happening mostly in the west, because of what can be called the Obama factor. His coming to power – the most powerful man on earth – as a black man is the first time in history that black people in general can say confidently, “we can”, just like anyone else. I don’t know how much of that is an interest in Africa though! Maybe it is too early to see if there will be any benefits. Are African youth understood more now than before? I am not convinced. For me it is more important that the interest is within Africa.
Does the west play an important role in what youth in urban Africa wear today? Are there other forces at work – think of the internet, pan African media, Congolese musicians’ dress, Bollywood, Nollywood…
The west still exerts great influence but not as it used to because of the forces you have mentioned. Simply put, there is more competition for attention of the African youth today than in those days when the only influences were coming from Europe and America.
TV and film are big players in this paradigm shift; there is a lot of homegrown content in those channels than ever before. Young people have to choose between Nollywood, Bollywood & Hollywood. Themes in Nollywood films resonate with them more than what comes out of Bombay or California.
Right now much of your designs are printed on western style t-shirts. Do you also plan on designing fabrics or tailor made pieces?
Yeah, we plan to add different products as we move forward. We are a clothing company, not just a t-shirt brand, so there will be a lot of interesting things; a lot of experimenting with new mediums as well and a lot of crazy stuff in the pipeline.
Do you sponsor or support local musicians/actors/media people with your shirts?
Yes, we sponsor and collaborate with a lot of local talent and we have had several big stars rock our tees. If we dig what they do it is only natural.
Are your efforts appreciated and supported by people in Tanzania?
Yes, the response has been really great, quite amazing. People ‘get’ what we are trying to do and have been out there helping to spread the word about Kina. People have taken ownership of Kina from the get-go and made it their brand, so the brand has been spreading like wildfire. I get many responses from people saying how proud they are of Kina; they love our slogan “Vitu vyetu. Kivyetu.” Kina is theirs so naturally they support it.
But generally speaking Tanzanians are supporting homegrown brands more than ever before, I think this is testament to the foundation that TZ hip hop laid down. It has made it OK to support local creativity.
You use some symbols that may be hard to claim copyright of, yet you’re the first to come out with them, such as the ‘mwenge’ (torch) symbol. How do you deal with piracy and the copycat culture?
We claim copyright to the concepts. I am a communication designer by profession, and what I do is communicate ideas and tell stories visually. Since we don’t use words but only pictures, we have to play within the sphere of knowledge of the things that people will recognize. We have to use what we call a “visual language” so people will understand what it is you are trying to say. For example the torch you just mentioned, no big deal, right! But when you marry three visual clichés, a torch, a mic and fist, you start to see a story taking shape. I won’t be there to explain the work; it has to speak for itself. We call that tee ‘Mulika’ which is Kiswahili for ‘illuminate’. So you see nobody can copyright a microphone, a torch or a fist. The concept comes in the realizing of those patterns and how those images can be brought together to say something new. That final product is Kina Klothing copyright! The same goes for the rest of our collection.
Piracy and copycat culture are big problems in Africa partly because of that ‘quick money’ mentality. Some people are not prepared to put in the sweat, countless all-nighters and tears that come with the creative process. It is hard work and you have got to have passion for it. To counter that, we have good copyright lawyers to crack down on biters and all our work is copyrighted.
If you are the idea person you will always be one step ahead, soon enough people will know who leads and who follows.
Is Kina a side project for you or do you have big aspirations of expansion internationally?
Right now it is one of the projects we are involved in. We also run a design agency, Spearhead Branding, I am also involved in book publishing through a family company, Mkuki na Nyota. What you are going to see is a lot of cross-pollination in all these areas.
Like I said a lot of crazy stuff and experimentation. One thing we are not interested in is taking over the fashion industry or anything like that! We just want to do great work, push new ideas and collaborate with interesting people; and keep it fun.
What are your plans in terms of distribution in TZ?
We already have some things going and our tees are available in Dar through Tanzania Publishing House Bookshop on 47 Samora Avenue. We are planning to expand that and cover more regions as well. We just want to do it right and link with the right people who can stay true to our brand.