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Talking Identity Politics & Race with the Creators of Ori Inu: In Search of Self

Talking Identity Politics & Race with the Creators of Ori Inu: In Search of Self

By Rainey Cruz

It is presidential election time in the United States, a time when any and every issue psychologically divides the American masses. This season in particular, no subject seems to be more prevalent, and equally as sensitive, as the elephant in the room named Race. Some of it is due to the unprecedented circumstances of Barack Obama’s presidency—the nation’s first black commander in chief. Some of it is also due to a very deep, often downplayed, national history of genocide, colonialism, and racial injustice. All of it, in turn, has reached a trending critical mass—the likes of which we’ve never seen in our newly Internet-driven lives.

Not only is the present-day conversation about race in America at center stage right now, it’s also all over social media and the Internet—a double-edged sword of sorts in regards to perspective versus reality. Though the past eight years have continued to pen bleak chapters in the racial narrative, the reality is that white supremacy, systematic oppression, racial profiling, mass incarceration, and the killing of unarmed black civilians are not a new phenomena in the United States. However, if the timelines, feeds, and general social media uproar tell it, the unrest has been carried into a much noisier arena of debate, where even the most well-intended ideas and opinions can drown in a sea of digital cynicism—or worse yet: become hashtags without action.

When I spoke to sister and brother duo, Chelsea and Emann Odufu, about their new film, Ori Inu: In Search Of Self (a film very much about a history of racial and religious persecution), I learned that, just like with the current political climate, the hashtag-ization of culture can also be a very polarizing place for art and activism. Refreshingly, amidst all of the digital debate surrounding everything from #OscarsSoWhite and #BlackLivesMatter, to #BlackGirlMagic and Beyonce’s controversial Superbowl #Formation this year, I was happily surprised to hear Chelsea and Emann refer to the message behind their work as spiritual fluidity. Yes, fluidity—not polarity. Not black. Not white. Not this or that, but rather, how the culmination of particular histories can connect any one of us to the spiritual roots of all of us. Past, present, and Afrofuturist ideals regarding art, music, and activism also took shape as the directing and producing siblings described their upbringing and journeys toward racial and spiritual identity. Theirs is a refreshing approach to black empowerment—a humbling beacon of inclusivity and community-building during a time of much division and individualism.

Emann and Chelsea Odufu. Photo by Kalada Halliday.

RAINEY CRUZ: Where were you raised?
CHELSEA ODUFU: We both grew up in Newark, New Jersey. We’ve lived here all of our lives.

What was it like growing up there?
C: Growing up in Newark definitely has a stigma and stereotype. We never lived that dominant and negative view. We always looked outward and into the city to define who we are. There was always this tension between African-Americans and Africans that I saw or felt. I would get made fun of a lot for my last name and being African. It always put my blackness in a weird position.

“It’s this idea of being part of everything and simultaneously being outside of everything.”

Tell me about your family and ethnicity.
C: Our parents are from Guyana and Nigeria. Our mother raised us as a single parent, so we were predominantly raised in a Guyanese household. We identified with being Caribbean. It was something that I really embraced.

How do you identify with your ethnicities?
C: I do feel that we are Caribbean and we are Nigerian, but we’re also American. We are very much that narrative of an immigrant family, but we’re second generation Americans. It then becomes a question of black identity here and navigating the Diasporic experience. It’s a question of whether we assimilate to Western ideals or not. It’s something that we always deal with.

EMANN ODUFU: You feel like an outsider. You don’t feel 100% American, but because we’re half Guyanese and half Nigerian, we also don’t feel like we’re 100% African. It’s this idea of being part of everything and simultaneously being outside of everything.

What kind of cultural and creative influence did your mom and family play in your lives?
E: Our mom really exposed us to a lot of art. She would play all this Jazz, like Grover Washington and Down To The Bone. It was constantly present. When I was in high school, we were also able to visit the Prado Museum in Spain. I think that really helped gives us our world view. We were from Newark, but we weren’t really thinking about Newark. Chelsea was traveling too and living in Italy when she was 15. We were very much raised as an international family. We were always thinking about things bigger than our surroundings. That played a huge role in us becoming artists and thinking about larger issues and platforms.

Tell me about your relationship as brother and sister and how that relates working together.
C: I think my brother and I have a pretty close relationship. When we were younger, we used to play music together. This was around when I was 12. We would perform at different places and events like street festivals. We never formally discussed making art and developing a family company per se, but it has really worked out that way. I believe in him and we’re pushing each other because we really want to make this happen and touch people. It’s a super dope dynamic.

E: I agree completely. Definitely.

How did the idea for Ori Inu: In Search of Self come about?
C: This started off as my senior thesis film project for undergraduate film at NYU. My scope wasn’t to only make a student film and try to submit it to festivals. We understood that this is an experience that we need to talk about because this is something that we’re actually going through. Spirituality even lies in the Black Lives Matter narrative. Black spirituality matters. We wanted to create a dialogue among people from here, to Brazil, to Africa, and all places.

Tell me about your spiritual upbringing and how making this film has propelled your journey?
C: My brother has really influenced my spirituality and we grew up in a very spiritually non-traditional household. A lot of my family is Jehovah’s Witness, I went to Catholic school, I had friends who practiced African spirituality, and I used to go to Hindu temples. I feel like my knowledge of spirituality is very fluid in general.

E: I think that because of my Christian upbringing, a lot of spirituality outside of that was stigmatized. Even stuff like ancestor worship was looked down upon. I grew up countering the brainwashing of Christianity. I really had to ask the question, “If my ancestors were not practicing Christians, were they bad people?”

True Christianity is about love, understanding, and acceptance. That’s what we’re trying to do with this film. For me specifically, I’m trying to ask why can’t Christianity be more open to other types of religions and beliefs? Isn’t showing love to your fellow human beings, being like Jesus? It pushed me. Even when I was writing the script, things would feel weird. I wouldn’t know what it really was, but I knew it was about being open to other people and open to the world.

Can you explain the idea of spiritual fluidity and how it relates to the history that is explained in the film?
E: One thing that has always fascinated me is how similar all religions are. We were told that African spirituality and Christianity were so different, but you can find ways to connect them. For example, the synchronicity of saints and deities are everywhere from Haiti to Mexico. They would equate a lot of the Christian saints with the African orishas. These things were going on at the same time. People would be into their Christianity and still into their African spirituality as well.

How is this concept of fluidity tied to Afrofuturism?
E: In connection to Afrofuturism, I think that it is this idea of bringing together all of these different concepts of spirituality into a new and neo form. I think that’s what our film is really about. We’re celebrating the existence of non-Western ideologies, the idea that something can be different but also the same at its core.

What have been some of the reactions to the film’s trailer and your engagement with audiences?
C: I went to talk at Trinity College and there was this 75 year-old white woman who told me she questions whether her own religious tradition of church was really valid for her. The conflict between religion and spirituality is also a concept that people don’t often talk about. It crosses racial barriers.

People might think that this is only a black film or that this can only touch a very specific set of people who have a connection to African history. Yes, this film may be targeting that experience as a healing process for people of the Diaspora, but the power of people trying to find themselves is a universal thing.

How important was is it for you to accurately portray the Candomblé religion in this film without romanticizing it?
C: Because we knew that we were essentially outsiders making a film about a spirituality that resonated with us, it was super important for us to make sure our film created an accurate depiction. We were extremely aware of the stigmas placed on traditional African religions and wanted to ensure that our film showed an alternate perspective.

“…The power of people trying to find themselves is a universal thing.”

How did you gather information and research?
C: We did a lot of online and book research, but as we got deeper into the creation process, we began to have a lot of unplanned personal encounters with practitioners of similar religions. We ran into an Ifa priest in Brooklyn, Spiritual Baptist priestess in Trinidad, and Santeria practitioners in Miami. Each of our encounters and discussions helped to shape the narrative.

What kinds of spiritual encounters did you come across during travel for the film?
C: When we were in Trinidad location scouting, a woman in all yellow approached us at the mouth of a river and asked us what we were doing there. It was obvious that she had just completed a river cleansing. We told her about how we were searching for a beach location for our shoot. She told us that we need to go shoot at the specific place where the “sisters” meet, where the ocean and the river meet. The place that we came upon was exactly what we needed.

Film still from Ori Inu.

What was the significance of Fela Kuti, filming at The Shrine in Harlem, and featuring some modern-day African music acts in Ori Inu?
C: Harlem has a huge African community, but I just didn’t know that it had this venue that was so African-themed, with all the albums on the walls. It was so beautiful to be in that space, a place that embraces African ancestry, spirituality, and music. I think it’s a very Afrofuturistic place. I thought it would be a perfect location to shoot in. Abdul, the owner, was very cool and they really supported us. We got Les Nubians and Oshun to perform there, which was awesome. It completely embodied what we imagined for the scene.

E: Fela [Kuti] was so dope because of his story and how he created a whole musical genre. He was a huge inspiration for me and someone that got me really thinking about African spirituality and its connection to music. That’s also why we made music such a big part of the film. We wanted to show that connection that we take in on a daily basis. I really think that you can classify even certain trap music as being able to touch the soul. I consider a lot of music and pop culture as part of African spirituality.

Was hip-hop an influence or connection to spirituality as well?
E: Hip-hop is definitely what started me on my spiritual journey. When you’re coming up you’re learning about the Five Percenters and Wu-Tang. I look at hip hop as a religion in itself. That’s why you have artists like Kanye West calling themselves “Yeezus” now and artists like Erykah Badu and her album “New Amerykah” where she’s talking about hip-hop being bigger than the government and religion.

Les Nubians performing live in Ori Inu. Click here or above for pre-sale tickets to the NYC premiere on Saturday, June 25.

How has working on Ori Inu affected your outlook on spirituality in others?
C: We realized how many other people actually practice African spirituality. People would come to castings and tell us that they spoke to their spiritual leaders and how, even if they didn’t get the role, they wanted to send many blessings. I would’ve never imagined. So I realized how connected I am and how many other people are and don’t talk about it.

We would visit schools like Yale, and after our talks people would tell us how they were interested in spirituality, and if we could tell them about our journey. We’re not spiritual gurus but we can tell you about how this is our experience. It’s just interesting how this film has given other people who don’t know us, a comfortable space to talk about it.

“Images are a way to communicate what you cannot say.”

You both consider yourselves to be art activists. Can you define this and its relation to Ori Inu?
E: Art activism is what we’ve been doing at the schools in our tours and reaching the youth. Fostering conversation among them, the future, and making them look at the world in a different way. It’s important because this is what’s going to spark the conversations that are not happening and need to be happening. As an artist it’s important to make sure you are reaching the people and getting the right messages across.

Images are a way to communicate what you cannot say. There are a lot of people who may not relate to a speech or book, but see art that reaches them in a different way. It’s kind of like what Chris Rock did at the Oscars. He was telling these jokes and talking about a lot of poignant issues. I feel like art is a strong tool to discuss the “unspeakable” things in our society that are still taboo.

C: For us, it’s about making sure that our stuff is really grounded and giving a voice to people that don’t necessarily have voices. We make sure to include discussion. We’ve been having workshops about identity, diversity, and representation as part of our tour across different schools like Yale, Barnard, Wesleyan, and Vassar. We’re making sure that there’s a second step towards promoting further conversation about reflection and critical thinking regarding what this all means.

Film still from Ori Inu.

How do you feel about the “trendiness” of blackness or black history in popular culture?
C: A lot of concepts about “blackness” or catch phrases like “black girl magic” are being commodified by white popular culture. Which, for me, makes these things lose their real value or purpose for black people. Lyric, one of the film’s actors, is from Newark too, and she’s growing up in the era of “black girl magic” and not being broken. It’s also important to embrace that and the actual healing elements that are happening.

It’s important to see stories or narratives about slavery and history, but do we as a people now become desensitized from the struggle because it’s so popular? That’s scary to me. We have shows like “Underground” now and we’ve seen so many slavery narratives that now we question whether it’s just entertainment or if people are going to give it more thought after that.

What has been the most difficult part of creating Ori Inu?
C: For the most part, we have just been a really small team trying to do something really large. I think that was/is the hardest thing. We want to do so much with this film but it’s really just me, my brother, and my mom that are consistently devoted. We’ve really had to hustle and this whole project has been a huge learning curve for us. Of course, we had a crew every time we went to shoot, and I don’t want to discredit our Associate Producer, Ashley Webster, and the entire team, which was amazing!

What was it like to cast award-winning talent like Tonya Pickens and other important roles for the film? How did they all relate to the project?
C: Tonya was one of the first people, in terms of big name talent, to support us. There was a kid in my NYU class that had casted a big name and it inspired me to do the same. Tonya was very moved by the script and thought that we had a lot of potential. It’s the same thing that happened with Les Nubians. They thought it was great and wanted to meet out in Brooklyn. From the very start, we had people telling us that what we had was very strong and it was why they wanted to be a part of it.

Tre’von and Helen both went to NYU with me, so this was also a graduating and final project for them. I feel like they were both also having their own individual spiritual journeys too. Helen would talk about being Ethiopian and American and growing up in Philly—her own experience with that. Tre’von grew up in a very religious household and also had his own interesting relationship with Christianity.

I think that everybody agreed that the film brought together a wonderful cast. Folasade Adeoso, the model, was also part of the film, in addition to Trae Harris, who’s in Newlyweeds.

How fluid was the cast and staff itself?
C: If you see photos of everybody behind the scenes, we’re all Afrocentric. The film crew was a very diverse crew, and that was very interesting and multicultural in itself. And how these spiritual representations were not only in African culture, but other cultures also connected with them or had questions about them. It brought it all together in a very cool way.

What does this film mean to all of you?
C: This film was a physical manifestation of our journeys. There may have been things that had already occurred to us spiritually, but physically what grounded the experiences was making the film.

What has making Ori Inu and learning more about your African roots taught you about your own search for self?
E: Growing up, I always thought that Africa and the Caribbean were worlds apart. But when making this film, we discovered how interconnected everything was. Traditions like Carnival in the Caribbean have African origins. Even when we went to Trinidad, we realized that the same religion of Candomblé and the belief in deities like Yemaya was also connected to the religion of Yoruban tribes in Nigeria. It was a lesson on how African culture as a whole translated itself in other places.

What’s in store for the future of Ori Inu and your art activism?
C: Being from Newark, New Jersey, it’s important for us to give back. We want to go on a high school tour. We’re planning to do workshops with schools based on their needs. What are students facing? Where is the tension? Art Activism is about unity and enabling conversations about our experiences in being hurt by people that do or don’t look like us.

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RSVP to Ori Inu: In Search of Self’s NYC premiere on Facebook. Early bird tickets now on sale: ORIINUFILMNYC.eventbrite.com or click the flyer below.

Follow @oriinufilm, Chelsea @chelsthedirector_, and Emann @positiveperson732.

All photos by Kalada Halliday @bklynbikesupply.

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