Almost 9,000 miles away from Seattle lies the Young Generation Centre located in Kisumu, Kenya. This part orphanage, part music and arts center for youth is acting as a catalyst for conversation between videographers, photographers, musicians and humanitarians in the two cities, demonstrating the immense power of human connection through the arts.
On February 21, nonprofit arts organization One Vibe Africa — which was founded by Simon Okelo, who grew up at the Young Generation Center himself and later moved to Seattle — is joining forces with the EMP Museum for an event called “Black Collaboration.”
This event, which will round out the EMP’s Black History Month celebrations, will include a panel discussion by seven prominent members of Seattle’s African American arts community. This discussion aims to spark conversations between African and African American community members in the Northwest on how to better collaborate with each other through creative means.
“Black Collaboration” will also see the debut of two music videos by Kisumu’s Omena Band and artist Naomi Wamboe, a first generation Kenyan songwriter. Both videos were produced during an October trip to Kisumu by One Vibe team members through an effort called “Africa from the Skies.”
Additionally, One Vibe will introduce its organization’s first CD that includes music by students from the Centre in collaboration with One Vibe ambassadors in both Kenya and Seattle.
Okelo founded One Vibe Africa in 2007 with the goal of teaching Kenyan children how to develop professional skills in visual arts and film. This organization has thus far served far over 200 youths from the Young Generation Centre, which is still run by Okelo’s mother.
Over a two week period in mid-October, Okelo, along with a Seattle film crew, flew to Kisumu to film the installation of a recording studio in the music and arts center through a project called Africa from the Skies. With local filmmakers from Corvus Eye Productions and Tackett Films, the team documented their expedition all the way from SeaTac Airport through the end of their trip in Kenya. The team worked with a One Vibe partner, Krushal Entertainment — a film and music recording company based out of Kenya’s Kibera slum, the largest slum in Africa — to mentor children in film, film music videos for local musical groups, and showcase the beauty of Africa through use of aerial drones.
Several Africa From the Skies “episodes” that document the October trip are available on YouTube, along with a video of the building of the recording studio.
“We wanted to depict Africa in a different way that most people don’t know,” Okelo said. “[People] can understand the beauty of Africa, and then they can understand the beauty of Africans themselves.”
Okelo was initially inspired to establish arts and music classes for youths because of struggles within his own family. He says he watching his older brother get involved with drugs and gangs in Kisumu lead him to wonder if there were more constructive ways to engage young Kenyans from poor areas.
By 2010, Okelo moved to Seattle where he met the directors of Tackett Films and Corvus Eye Productions, all of whom were eager to bring film mentorship and documentation to Kisumu.
Built in 2012, and officially started in 2013, the music and arts program began with visual art, traditional African music, activities in poetry, dance, and theater.
“The program was to show kids in the community that they are valuable people who have a lot of potential, and to help them take back their stories so they can tell it the way they see it, not as told by other people,” Okelo said.
Through Africa From the Skies, students learned how to use film equipment such as cameras and editing software. By creating their own content Okelo explained, students are given a starting point for their creative potential to grow, while preserving their culture through use of traditional African music.
“I don’t feel like it’s a normal nonprofit; it’s taking innovative ideas and ways that empower kids, but also [empowers] instructors and everyone involved,” said Alder Sherwood, co-director of Corvus Eye Productions. “[Okelo] wants to help everyone advance their careers, and wants kids to have content they create and be able to monetize it.”
The plan is for the Seattle team to return to Kisumu in October 2015, along with new additions photographer Meg Stacker and Seattle hip hop group BlackStax. They’ll also bring more film and photography equipment to expand weekly classes already running at the Centre.
In these classes, students are mentored in techniques in film production and assisted in production of their own content, which will expand to include photography and creative writing, thanks to the new Seattle mentors. Students are encouraged to create mini-documentaries, help shoot music videos for local artists, and other personal projects so students can leave the program ready to be hired for jobs in the arts and film industries.
The footage from the October Africa from the Skies trip is being compiled into a short documentary style film aimed for release in March.
“It [was] an epic trip,” said Jeremiah Kaynor, co-director of Corvus Eye Productions. “It was mind boggling to see how one person has literally started changing the future of Kenyan kids in the slums because of the passion and drive that he has and by following his own dream.”
While the main Africa from the Skies team is here in Seattle, Simeoni Krushal, founder of Krushal Entertainment, has been traveling from Nairobi to Kisumu regularly to film the students at the Centre and further mentor them.
He explains that for youth coming from rough environments that lack sufficient resources to get involved in the arts, non-formal and free programs like those offered by One Vibe are important. Growing up in Kenya, he learned his skills in film in a similar capacity.
“I believe what youths from slums in this country and continent need the most is mentorship and culture preservation,” Krushal said.
Hannington Steven Okoth, project manager for the Centre, expressed similar sentiments about the beneficial nature of the program.
“[One Vibe] has created a turning point in the lives of many youths… that had lost hope and direction in life,” Okoth said. “It has made them realize that there is true meaning of life.”
The EMP’s “Black Collaboration” event is this Saturday, Feb 21st from 6-9pm. Admission is Free.
This article has been update since publication to clarify information about Simon Okelo’s background.