Thursday, October 13, 2011

Swag Chronicles: Episode 1: Theophilus London

I had the privilege of drawing loads of inspiration at this year's STR.CRD - Africa's only sneaker and street culture festival. Everything about the festival showed me a glimpse of the potential and power of our glocal urban culture. Seeing the local scene come out in force was a beautiful thing to witness.

However, the highlight, for me, was being exposed to the 'swag' that is Theophilus London.

Before The Show
Prior to this, I had heard the hype around him, seen some of his fashion collaborations and listened to a bit of his music, but I wasn't a fan. I was interested but I wasn't sold. But after wylin' out to his charismatic performance and getting to share a few words with him, I am officially converted and will be following his moves with keen interest in the years ahead.

Swag Chronicles
I have drawn out a few lessons on creativity and life-in-general from this experience and as a result I'm starting a series of interviews entitled "Swag Chronicles" to document these kind of conversations, and share it with whoever is interested. 

Just a few notes before I begin: (i) Swag is a loaded word, so for clarity's sake, I define it as being 'a combination of natural charisma blended with distinctive style and presence.' (ii) These lessons are no dogma, every person makes sense of the universe in their own way, these are mine, for now. (iii) This is nothing new, but it is interesting for me to interpret it within a context I can relate to. (iv) As always, this blog is mostly a conversation I'm having with myself, but hopefully you can find something in it for you.

Without wasting any more words, please enjoy The First Episode:

Short and sweet, but powerful.

Lesson #1: Youth is 'ital
I have the utmost respect for my elders; they have weathered the storms and acquired wisdom along the way. However, I draw most of my inspiration from the youth I am surrounded by and exposed to - their worldviews are fresh and untainted by the scars of experience.

Theophilus London isn't quite a youngster, he is 24, born: February 1987 - he is only one month younger than me. But relative to the community that he works within, he is a young blood, and you can see it and feel it.

In the eyes of a baby, I see more wisdom than I could ever hope to have. There is something about life that, through experiencing it, it taints our perception of what is possible. The ignorance and innocence of youth is the source of the beauty of youth; it allows the mind to stretch and conceive ideas that wouldn't penetrate the thick walls of lived experience.

The wisdom that comes with age is the anti-thesis of the wisdom of youth. Where the old say its impossible is where the youth will create the future. Lived experience, with the failures and scars that accompany it, creates mental blocks that limit our ability to think creatively.

No doubt, there is great value in experience, but it can also be an impediment to creativity. Experience is the collection of patterns one observes in life and these help to prevent us making the same mistakes over-and-over, but unfortunately they also keep us locked into familiar patterns, and familiarity is the death of creativity.

In order to be truly creative, in the rawest sense of the word, we should unlearn what we think we know, in order to cultivate the wisdom of youth, where the possibilities are endless, the fear of failure escapes us, and we break out of the familiar to create an original and moving piece of work. Raw creativity should stretch our imagination beyond the expected and be a light for our spirit, proving that creation (in the most non-religious way possible) continues each and every day, through us.

Lesson #2: Guard Your Aura
Quite a few people I spoke to afterwards complained that Theophilus was distant and didn't connect with many people. I think that despite his fame (as niche as it may be) - he seems slightly shy but I actually think he is simply protective of his creative spirit. When you've been given an overdose of swag washed down with a glass of cool, I imagine you have to be highly aware of how you nurture and maintain it.

I get the sense that he is meant to perform; it is almost as if he comes into being on stage, but when off the stage, he is a youth like us, navigating the social jungle.

There are energies all around us, and human auras probably have the biggest impact on our own aura. In the pursuit of creativity, the sourcing and harnessing of energy is central and in this regard nothing is more important than the people you surround yourself with. They push and pull you in different directions, so you better know which way you're heading and choose to associate yourself with those who are channeling their energy in the same direction.

Of course, humility and accessibility are noble characteristics, but at the same time, they are very often the enemies of higher forms of creativity. Most of the artistic greats in history have been very private people for a reason. This is not to say this is a good thing, but, in life, tradeoffs are inevitable. The true greats are able to shield their aura in spite of everything around them, but most of us mere mortals are forced to choose or at least find a balance that allows our aura to flourish.

Lesson #3: Be A Leader
This can be misconstrued as an arrogant position to take but I believe that if your life's endeavour is creative, then it requires of you to take on a role of leadership. Creativity is expression of self and the involves the production of a piece of communication that can be perceived by one or more of the senses.

Whether the creator admits it or not, every piece of creation is a message that allows the creator to speak. Therefore, every act of creativity is meant to affect the audience. Even if an artist paints solely for his or her own consumption, there is still a conversation happening - the art speaks to the artist and vice versa.

The fact that every piece of creativity affects the audience would mean that the more evolved creative person would take this into consideration and attempt to communicate clearly their intended message. This is not to turn creativity into a scientific process, it is just to say that creativity is made for an audience and it is the creator's responsibility to be aware of this power.

Every creative person can benefit from being a leader, of him or herself, and of the audience who receives their work. There is a responsibility attached to being creative and that is to respect the time, attention and spirit of the audience who has taken the time to give meaning to your piece.

A leader leads himself first and then others, and this is surely a principle that all creative people, who wish to see their vision manifest, should keep in mind, if not in heart. Moreover, we live in weird times and the world needs leaders to voice the complexity of life in a digestible way - and I believe creative people are best fit to do this.

Let me emphasize that I am not arguing that creative people need to be responsible leaders in the moralistic sense (although this wouldn't be a bad thing); but rather that creative people should take complete ownership of the story they wish to share, and believe in it with the conviction of a leader. This will result in "amazing creativity" - communication that penetrates and resonates with the audience - of one or of many.

Lesson #4: Creativity Can Never Stop
The most impressive thing I heard him say in this interview is: "I wrote a lot of songs in my hotel room." Maybe this is more of a personal thing, but I find it very difficult to produce work while experiencing new things. I like to sit and reflect before creating. It is safer and helps me maintain a sense of self.

However, after hearing him say those words, I began questioning this. Perhaps the rawest forms of creativity are created within the moments when the self is most fluid. This would make sense to me, because as your internal energy is most raw, the energy you put out will be equally as raw, meaning that it should carry more power.

In any case, creativity is a craft and it becomes better through practice, so there is no doubt in my mind that it is an important habit: to constantly create - whether the result is good or bad, it's bound to elevate your craft and help you find raw nuggets of emotion that are worth dedicating more time and attention to. If not, then all you'll end up with is more of the same - the stuff you're comfortable with, and the stuff most likely to move your audience the least.

Creativity is all about moving people's spirits and this is unlikely to happen while your spirit is static.

Lesson #5: Have Courage
This is something not to be taken lightly. We often place creative people, particularly those who've attained some kind of fame, on a pedestal. We see their outward portrayal of confidence and assume they have no insecurities.

But I'm more sure than ever that this is so wrong. In fact, I think the more famous they become, the more courage it takes each time, because there is always more at stake. In the beginning, the only people you can let down are your friends and family, but as you progress and speak louder and build a following, your responsibility becomes bigger.

Theophilus is an embodiment of courage - what he has done in the world of hip-hop could not be done without courage - which rapper makes a remix of a Whitney Houston track? But it works and it shows the beauty of hip-hop culture as a culture that holds knowledge and true representation of self as the highest prize.

It is courage that will keep the creativity going, not confidence. Confidence might allow you to continue creating, but courage will keep you growing. Courage allows you to be honest and to create what you feel, rather than what you think people expect you to create.

Lesson #6: Get Behind Your Brand
In this day-and-digital-age, we are all brands. As a creative individual, you take this to another level because you are actively trying to extend your brand into the production of pieces that you want other people to consume.

I don't believe any creative person that says they're creating for them-self but at the same time promotes their work. It's a cop out. If you're putting something out there, clearly you're aware that someone may consume it and clearly something inside you wants to be heard. There is nothing wrong with that, in fact it is a beautiful thing, and you should pour as much of yourself into as you can.

Brand-building relates very closely to life, especially in the case of a person-brand. It begins with having a very clear idea of who-you-are, which is a brand identity or knowledge of self; the role you want to play in people's lives, which is a brand proposition or a sense of purpose; and finally, how you are going to have this effect on the world, which is brand activity or life itself.

Take your brand seriously, get behind yourself, know who you're talking to and why what you have to say matters to them and then say it, loud and clear.

"Get behind your own shit and make it happen. That's the only way it's going to happen."

The pinnacle of what I learnt is expressed in Theophilus' brand LVRS, an acronym for "Lovers", and he describes it as a "creative agency, for all things creative. Anytime you get a creative idea, and you need to process it, you process it through the LVRS."

Genius. It is amazing how much you can learn about people through the brands they design. I wish I'd come up with this idea, but it's all good, I'm now a LVR in spirit:

Those who Love, create. Those who Hate, stagnate.

As he said, it's also a couture fashion label, I cannot wait to get my hands on one of his pieces.

Timez Are Weird These Days
I haven't even listened to the new album yet, I'm so behind. I am going to BUY IT and I look forward drawing even more inspiration from it.

Theophilus is a youth like us, turning his visions into reality and being true to himself.

What more could you want from life?

Theophilus' Links: