About that ‘Owambe’ collection…
So, Jackie Aina’s Forvr Mood released The Owambe Collection to mark her 35th birthday. The collection is a set of four luxury scented candles, called ‘Spice of life’, ‘Soft life’, ‘No Wahala’ (Nigerian Pidgin for ‘no problem’ and lastly Soro Sóké, Yoruba for ‘speak up’ or ‘speak louder’. One of these candle names is dissimilar to the remaining four, and also doesn’t fit the ‘Owambe’ theme, being that owambe is a Yoruba word that denotes ‘Celebration’.
A lot of Nigerians are rightfully upset with the naming of the candle Soro Sóké – while its definition is as stated previously, the phrase has very painful context to Nigerians, and Jackie’s own record on that context is questionable. Much like ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’, ‘Say her name’ and ‘I can’t breathe’ in recent American social justice movements, Soro Sóké became the rallying cry of the End SARS movement in Nigeria after the Lekki Massacre, where under instruction of the Nigerian government, the military murdered countless peaceful protesters and then took extreme lengths to cover up the massacre by hiding the bodies of the civilian youths they killed.
Following this, the governor of Lagos state (Mr Sanwo Olu at the time) came out to make a statement to Nigerians who were rightfully demanding answers and rightfully angry. Olu came out with… mush mouth sh*t quite frankly and was notably speaking quietly – to the point where a woman in the crowd the governor was addressing, shouted at him ‘Soro Sóké, werey!’ which loosely translates to ‘Speak up, madman!’. It was a dare. It was to say, ‘if you have the audacity to come out here and lie to us about what happened at Lekki toll gate and your involvement, then do it with your chest!’
That’s the context around Soro Sóké, and how it became the rallying cry of the End SARS movement in Nigeria.
At the time all this had gone down plenty of Nigerian bloggers and Nigerian spaces online were on it. There was outrage and pain across the Nigerian diaspora. People were posting to raise awareness because if there’s one thing about the NG (Nigerian Government), it’s that they care more about their reputation in the eyes of their colonial overlords than they do for Nigerians living in Nigeria. The NG barely made a move on the abduction of the Chibok girls until British and American government officials started to tweet about it and make statements. So, raising awareness for this issue served an important purpose.
People noticed that Jackie Aina had been silent on the matter at the time and requested that she use her very large platform to shed light on the issue. And her response was essentially that even though what was going on was sad, that she didn’t want to be the attack dog that everyone turned to in situations like these. While this was a valid concern, it was also a selfish one given the gravity of the circumstances. It wasn’t as if Nigerians had randomly chosen Jackie. Jackie being half Nigerian has herself been able to leverage her black, Nigerian identity throughout her career to become a prominent figure in her industry by garnering support from other minority communities through advocacy for representation. She’s presented herself this way. So being that she’s used her platform to discuss or shed light on other social issues in the past and has made a point of reminding people of her Nigerian heritage, it’s not odd that people found her silence on this issue to be unexpected.
For balance, I will say it’s possible that despite her show of pride in her Nigerian heritage, she may not actually be so in tune with that heritage, history and people. In most homes, the culture of the household is mostly influenced by the mother who is also usually the primary care giver in the formative years of the children. It’s quite common to see people be closer to their mum’s side of the family than their dad’s. She has shared in the past that her sister goes by a western (and incorrect) pronunciation of her Yoruba name ‘Folaké’, choosing ‘Foh-look-ay’ because according to Jackie, that’s just what she ‘prefers’. This is atypical among people who are in tune with their culture and heritage, because as we know, names carry meanings.
But even if she’s not that connected to her Yoruba heritage on her dad’s side, going from distancing herself from the End SARS movement at a time when her platform could have helped raise awareness, to then co-opting the slogan of the same movement to sell merchandise – it’s hard not to admit that the record on Jackie surrounding this looks bad.
Jackies initial response to Nigerians raising valid concerns online about the naming of the candle didn’t help her case either. She responded by going on a blocking spree.
Now anyone who is involved (either as a participant or an observer) with Nigerian spaces online – particularly twitter – would have known was going to happen next. If there is one thing about Nigerians, they can disgrace people sha. And after underestimating 9ja Twirrah Jackie and Forvr Mood put out a statement, that even now a lot of Nigerians aren’t having, and I personally am of two minds:
I am aware that there are plenty of people who really didn’t like Jackie prior to this, have been waiting on an opportunity to have grounds to attack her and see this as their opportunity. However, I also believe that none of that takes away from what happened, what Jackie and her own team orchestrated and brought on themselves. With how everything played out, it gives this impression that while the outrage and backlash that followed was unintended, the original co-opting of ‘Soro Sóké’ was. I find it difficult to believe that nobody in the entire team involved was aware of the Nigerian context of the phrase. For a product to go from conceptualization all the way to market release, there will have been all kinds of sign offs and background checks required – from trademarks on names to copyrights on designs – as nappyheaddedjojoba on YouTube put it ‘a quick google search would have shut that sh*t down immediately’.
Because in context, the name of the candle implies that the scent is reminiscent of extra judicial killings, government corruption and inequality. But removing the context of the phrase Soro Sóké, leaves us with a candle called ‘Speak up’ which is a little bit nonsensical, given that it is neither fitting for a luxury scented candle, nor does it fit within the ‘Owambe’ theme of celebration. It gives the impression that the name was chosen purely for its ‘foreign’ and ‘exotic’ sounding pronunciation, considering the target market for this collection is American and not Nigerian, she was aware that her target market would perceive it as exotic, having no knowledge of the definition of the phrase nor its context.
I feel this is reminiscent of Tomi Adeyemi’s ‘Children of Blood and Bone’ novel in the sense that the creators’ Nigerian/Yoruba heritage has been taken and repackaged in a way that appeals to a non-Nigerian consumer base, without care for the actual people, places, and culture they are drawing inspiration from. They are often allowed to get away with this because when your consumer base is not Nigerian, they expect that what you’re selling them is an authentic representation of the culture and often feel its not their place to call you out when it isn’t.
In both CBB and the Owambe collection, when you strip away the ‘exotic’ factor used to market the merchandise, you are left with a rather unimaginative YA fiction novel with the regular characters and tropes, and a collection of expensive candles that don’t burn hotter, brighter or in more flame colors than other candles on the market.
I say this to say that there are many ways to go about creating products that pay homage to your cultural heritage but pandering to everyone else’s perceived ‘otherness’ or exoticness’ of your ethnic heritage or even worse ‘exotifying’ elements of your heritage to market a product for your financial gain will always be a moral faux pas – especially when you are exotifying or commodifying elements that people who share that heritage are already sensitive about.