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What inspired you to pursue a creative career? I’ve always had a strong connection to my senses and thus a heightened sensitivity to feelings, so when I thought of careers (and even noncreative ones), I would often think of them through soundtracks, fashion and style—fantastical narratives, and so forth—but never actually the function of the job! So, for example, I would envision myself as a diplomat at extravagant parties or as a barrister wearing exceptional suits. And then I accidentally—although perhaps fatedly—started my career in public relations.

You recently struck out as your own as a freelance creative director. How has that been? It’s been a journey of returning. Returning to the self and nurturing the inner child. I’m taking the organizational and administrative skills I learned in the business world and now use them to give me a foundation from which I can play creatively. My work is founded on play and experimentation. When I reframe my perspective optimistically, despite—or perhaps because of—all the challenges, I find that life is an infinite playground. Being a creative director is fundamentally a playful career.

Your practice often combines creative direction, fashion, photography and poetry. How did you settle on this multidisciplinary approach? I wouldn’t say I’ve “settled on” an approach—I’m still playing. My career is a medium through which I live out my purpose centered around Black healing and collaboration globally. I’m also very conceptual in my approach, so depending on what I want to say, how I feel it needs to be expressed or sometimes just the mood I’m in determines the medium. And central to my practice is collaboration, which lets me explore a broader range of media where I may not have technical abilities. Ask me in a few years and I’ll have a more “settled” answer!

What experiences in West Africa inspired you to create Babouche!, your shoe made in collaboration with Lagos-based fashion brand kkerelé? It’s a magical story. I was headed to a contemporary art museum in Dakar, Senegal, following the map. Searching up and down for some time, I called the museum’s number on its website, and a man directed me to its location. Turns out the museum was shut down, and the number I’d called was that of M. Falilou, a leather craftsman. He would occasionally get calls from people in similar situations to me and use them as a business opportunity.

Senegal is one of the most special places in the world, and I love how iconic the babouche slipper is in Dakar. I was planning to make just a couple of pairs with M. Falilou for friends and family, but spotting the scrap leather on the floor, we delved into discussions of sustainability, waste and equity in the West African leather industry.

I asked Falilou if we could experiment with collages and color blocking to create some prototypes. Now, I had been wearing a lot of kkerelé’s products at the time, and I was—and still am—a huge fan of how Tina A., kkerelé’s founder, designs. At that moment, the idea struck. We began to conceptualize and play for a few months. Then, when I returned to Nigeria, we brought it to life.

When I reframe my perspective optimistically, despite—or perhaps because of—all the challenges, I find that life is an infinite playground. Being a creative director is fundamentally a playful career.”

For 2020’s Black History Month in the United Kingdom, you partnered with Uber to celebrate its Black community with Black, British + Proud, a photo series displayed on billboards around London. What was that experience like, and did anything surprise you about it? It was great in many ways. I was able to work with an all-Black production team too, which was so important to the process. For Black people, getting your foot in the door to the creative industry is all the harder; across the board, our industry doesn’t compensate appropriately. So, this project was a great win. It was a tight turnaround time from concept development to execution to the campaign going live, but we were all so energized about the project that it moved quickly and smoothly, thanks to the professionalism of the team and a great client. We had always intended the campaign to go on billboards, so it felt amazing when we got the sign-off.

How was your experience collaborating with Gravity Road, Maxime Odumodu and Mikill Pane on a month-long, crossdisciplinary takeover of @FootLockerEU on Instagram? The collaboration was mainly with Gravity Road, Foot Locker’s social media agency. But it was awesome to get Max and Mikill involved, who are good friends of mine. I was grateful for the opportunity to use this huge platform to bring awareness to Black culture’s enormous impact on the sneaker industry. If we get to do it again, I’ll have to push the emphasis of the conversation to equity!

What was it like working as a cultural consultant for Bumble’s #MyLoveIsBlackLove campaign? I find Bumble, as an organization, to be committed to bringing mindfulness and intentionality not just into its brand but also its workplace. This commitment rubbed off so well on the collaboration as we created space for a White-dominated team to be vulnerable about their blind spots—and I also held the team accountable for doing their homework! It gave me further license to push the brand more, be culturally sensitive and useful to the community, and be brave and bold. With Metallic Inc involved, too, it was a powerful collaboration.

How do you think creative agencies can more effectively develop working relationships with cultural strategists? Do you see these roles becoming more prevalent as creatives strive for more authentic campaigns? I think it requires a sincere level of self-reflection as an agency and for agencies to have honest relationships with their client rosters to develop these relationships. It’s OK not to have all the answers and solutions; we can’t know everything. However, it’s not OK to put out tone-deaf, culturally insensitive and performative campaigns, especially when the target audiences are marginalized groups of people. Diversifying the industry is super urgent, of course, but ultimately, identifying the areas where agencies and brands want to grow their cultural awareness is a critical first step. Vulnerability is the key.

What is one of the most exciting works you’ve seen recently? The Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art in Tamale, Ghana (SCCA Tamale), by author and artist Ibrahim Mahama, is possibly the most mind-blowing artist practice I’ve experienced firsthand. His whole practice is centered around archiving to the level that he has acquired hectares upon hectares of land on which multiple exhibition and performance spaces are built. About seven abandoned airplanes, a library, British colonial archives and refound objects dating more than 100 years ago all live there, among so much more. My description isn’t nearly doing it justice, but it is completely disrupting modes of engaging with art, which is all the more powerful to see within West African contexts.

What trends in advertising and design are you most interested in and why? I approach the subject of trends with ambivalence because I’m very adamant about ignoring and rejecting things driven by trying to make us think we need to spend and consume more. However, occasionally, a few trends emerge that want to help us live better lives. So, witnessing the recent surge in mindfulness- and consciousness-led behaviors sits very well with me.

Do you have any advice for people entering the profession? Set boundaries and protect your energy. Many of us in this space have heightened empathy, and to create, we tend to dig into and pour out of ourselves. A lot of emotional labor goes into our profession, so while it’s important to produce our best, we also need to set boundaries with our bosses, clients, commissioners and colleagues, collaborators and suppliers, and most of all, ourselves. ca

Tobi Onabolu is a filmmaker, creative director, spoken word artist and cultural strategist focused on cultural advocacy concerning Africa and its diaspora. His Ikigai (Japanese for “raison d’être”) is “to support the empowerment of Black people globally, connecting the dots through intercontinental cultural collaboration. Phase one is through healing.” Onabolu creates works that center the Black (human) experience in the process of healing. He depicts the process of wellness, self-love and self-care, which serve as healing tools for his audiences. Exploring the human body as both subject and object, Onabolu focuses on movement and internal and external energy flows, capturing the tangible manifestation of healing. His work has seen him collaborate with the likes of Uber, Bumble, Foot Locker, ART X Lagos and Soho House, which has been featured across exhibitions, newspapers and billboards, and publications such as Dazed, gal-dem, AFROPUNK, GQ, POSTSCRIPT and shado


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