Rap Music To Photography: Across The Omo Valley With Tabi Bonney

Omo.

My whole life I had associated this word with Nigeria, since in the Yoruba language it means child. So Omolayo means a child gives joy, and more popularly, Davido’s nickname OBO – which stands for omo baba olowo – means rich man’s child.

But last week on May 30th, 2018, I had the privilege of being transported to the Omo valley in southern Ethiopia via the VIP reception of Tabi Bonney’s and Kelly Fogel’s art exhibit in Washington, DC, USA. Le Bon Voyage: Across The Omo Valley is a photo exhibition – which opened to the general public on June 2nd and closes on July 1st –documenting various indigenous ethnic groups in Ethiopia. Highlighting complex issues such as land & property rights, climate change, and water privatization, this exhibit aims to document the positive and negative effects that new technology, tourism, and the changing political-economy have on these traditional cultures. Hosted at Blind Whino, one gets a glimpse at five of the numerous ethnic groups who coexist peacefully in the Omo Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site: the Surma, Mursi, Karo, Hamer, and Dasanech.

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Kibish; ©Tabi Bonney
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Karo Children in Kortcho Village; ©Kelly Fogel
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Kibish; ©Tabi Bonney

 

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Kibish; ©Tabi Bonney

Tabi Bonney and I actually crossed paths earlier this year at the Black Love Experience in D.C. where he was one of the various artists who performed; he is a rapper, singer, video producer, and entrepreneur. Last week at the VIP reception, he graciously sat down with me, and we chatted about how his multi-cultural identity has fueled his successful music career, his role in promoting the #TravelAfrica movement, and his recent stint in photography.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

 

As the son of Itadi Bonney, a renown Togolese activist/afro-funk musician, you have made a name for yourself. Could you give a bit of background on your rise to prominence and how your parents influenced your musical career?

I was born in Lomé, Togo and started school there. My mother is from D.C., and my father is from there. I relocated to the U.S. when I was about 9 years. Growing up, I was around music all of my life, since my father was the biggest musician in Togo. But it wasn’t until I came to the U.S. that I started hearing hip-hop, and my ears went crazy. I didn’t know that I was going to rap, but I knew that I wanted to be a part of that music industry. And then years later I started rapping, because I loved that culture so much.

 

Speaking of hip-hop, your first single that I ever heard was ‘Pocket’. It seems that you always put D.C. and Lomé ‘in your pocket’ by constantly representing both Togo/West Africa and the U.S. How does your multicultural identity influence your music and other art forms?

My mother is American, and my father is African making me a true African American. Traveling back and forth every year to Africa, I could not help but infuse everything into my art. It’s who I am.

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Kibish; ©Tabi Bonney

Briefly going back to ‘Pocket’, in that song you mention your clothing line Bonney Runway. Could you speak a bit about how it started and where it is today?

I started it during the era when excessively baggy shirts were trending. I couldn’t find a single one that was my actual size in the store, and I was too skinny to wear a huge shirt, so I started making my own tee shirts. Then one thing led to another and Up Against The Wall and several boutiques in New York picked them up. While I do love fashion, I have realized that I prefer to wear it instead of producing it.

 

The #TravelAfrica movement has been gaining traction over the years, especially with the recent #WakandaForever craze following the release of Black Panther in addition to collaborations between Western and African musicians, such as Wizkid and Drake. You recorded the music video for Cool and Fly in Lome, Togo, your hometown nearly a decade ago. What was the significance of you filming in Lomé then and how is it relevant today?

Lomé for me is home, and I just wanted to show my home to the rest of the world. Togo is a small country, which many people don’t know about. So I decided to go home to shoot this video, so that other people could see it through my eyes. And people love that song and video even up until today. Funny thing is that it wasn’t even greatly produced; I just had my brother holding the camera.

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Speaking of Wakanda, you performed at an afro-futuristic event called the Black Love Experience earlier this year and even brought Amanda Seales from HBO’s Insecure with you. She told me that you had taken her to Togo. Why do you believe that it is so important to serve as an ambassador to Togo and to represent West Africa no matter where you are?

Luckily I have a lot of friends who are celebrities or influential people. For example, I took the Vice President of the Grammy’s and his wife to Togo with me last year. I just love showing people West Africa, and I have realized that a lot of people have never been to the continent. It is amazing to see their reaction when they look out the window for the first time, to see how overcome with emotion they are to be in the motherland. It brings me pleasure being able to serve as a bridge that brings people over to Africa.

 

We’re here at the VIP reception for Le Bon Voyage: Across the Omo Valley, your collaborative photography exhibit with Kelly Fogel showcasing indigenous tribes in Ethiopia. We’ve already discussed your career as a musician and fashion designer. What inspired you to delve into photography?

To be honest it just happened. I didn’t go to Ethiopia planning to shoot. As I mentioned earlier, I know influential people, and my friend Kelly Fogel invited me to Ethiopia to be her travel partner two weeks before her planned documentary photography trip. Upon reaching the Omo Valley, Kelly reassured me that she didn’t need my assistance with her photography project and even gave me the greenlight to document my own stories. And that’s what you see today. I shot everything with my iPhone, which a lot of people don’t know. I always say that it’s not what you have, but how you use it. It’s important to always make the most of your medium.

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Kibish; ©Tabi Bonney

Lastly, let’s go back to music now. You collaborated with your dad on ‘On Jupiter’ some years back. Do you have any future collaborations with African or American musicians in the pipeline?

Although my father passed away a couple years ago, I may take some of his older music and sample it. Fortunately, my father and I were able to collaborate on various songs which he released, that I didn’t release. That being said, ‘On Jupiter’ is a very special song to me. In terms of future projects, I do have a lot of collaborations coming up featuring American artists, and my project drops in June. I’m singing now; I’m not rapping anymore, because I feel like singing. We’ll see if people accept it or not.

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I for one, can say that I’m looking forward to what Tabi has in store for us! As someone who has observed his progression and growth as a multi-faceted artist from afar, it was truly an honor to have the opportunity to speak with him about his successful and dynamic career up close and personal. One of the biggest takeaways from my conversation with Tabi was the importance and effectiveness of using what one has and starting where one is. Throughout his career, Tabi Bonney made the most of every challenge and opportunity that was presented to him. He traveled to Ethiopia with only a two weeks’ notice and no camera, and he decided to make the most of his trip. Given who he is and his track record, the outcome wasn’t surprising! I don’t know about you, but I’m speaking into existence Le Bon Voyage Part II!!

In the meantime, make sure to check out the exhibition before it closes on July 1st (the gallery is open Wednesdays from 4pm – 8pm and Saturdays & Sundays from 12pm – 6pm). And always remember to keep using your skills and experience in whichever space you find yourself. ❤

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