On one of the rare occasions when London’s peak temperatures rival that of Lagos, I spoke with Jomi Marcus-Bello, founder of the WafflesNCream (WFLSNCRM) skate collective. He was relaxed as usual, eating roasted sweet corn and talking Kofo – his shop manager. After teasing me about my running away from Lagos (and regretting it), we dived into a Zoom conversation about everything WFLSNCRM related.
The collective recently released a new “drop” and I’m particularly drawn to the Seme Jumpsuit, a piece that references the borders between Lagos and neighbouring Benin Republic. This is characteristic of the type of homage WFLSNCRM pays to its home city in most, if not all of its designs. Throughout our conversation, Jomi emphasizes that the brand is really just a reflection of Lagos street culture in clothing form. It is as much about Lagos slang, inside jokes with friends, the weather and the culture of the city as it is about skating.
Alright, let’s start with the new skate edit that you dropped, YASIS. It was filmed in Ghana. How important is it that WFLSNCRM is an “African Brand”?
I think it just happened. Just like any other sport, it finds its way to different parts of the world, because sport and lifestyle are contagious. Anything that has to do with the wellbeing of people always has a ripple effect. If it wasn’t me, it’d have been someone else doing this.
I hear that, but given it is you, do you have any pressure to make the brand “African”? Let me phrase it another way. How much of this is Jomi the person vs promoting a certain culture or region?
It has nothing to do with me; it’s about the community. It’s about all the inside jokes that go on within the group and also the culture of Lagos. Growing up I was heavily influenced by Western culture. I never saw representation of young African people, except the caricatures of Aids or poverty. So, it’s very important for me to represent Lagos; our history, culture, music, arts, sports, teenage life and all that.
When did you decide that you yourself needed to pay more attention to your own culture?
Being yourself is the reason why people fuck with you; not because of you trying to imitate someone else. I had enough of trying to be something I wasn’t, and I just started looking inwards. I started picking up the language and immersing myself in being Yoruba and living in Lagos. From there I kind of started unlearning a lot of the habits I grew up with.
What sort of age were you?
I think I was about 16 or 17.
Had you started skating by then?
Yeah, I had actually just started the brand. But skateboarding is a predominantly white sport, so I was thinking “How do I take this thing and make it my own?” In terms of clothing, I started thinking; “if there was no Instagram or external influence, what will we be wearing?” For example, it may make sense to wear denim in Botswana, but not in West Africa, because it’s so hot. So, I know I will never work with Denim. For the identity, I looked to Lagos; the inside jokes, the slang …I wanted to infuse that into the brand.
How did the skating actually start?
By accident to be honest. I originally wanted to be a vet. That was my life goal, but at around 16 I went to a university expo and they said I should forget it [laughs].
Damn, what was their reason?
I didn’t know. Being a vet was like being a doctor. I just thought, if you love animals, watch NatGeoWild and that type of thing you’re qualified [laughs], so I wasn’t picking the right subjects or anything. After that disappointment, I was like I don’t know what I’ll do with my life. My older brother used to draw a lot and play these Skate Edits in the background while he was working so I started watching them. During a rainy season, my mum bought me a skateboard from Argos. Then I went to school in Leeds and there was a skatepark nearby and the rest is history.
At what point did you decide that you were going to try to make skating into a clothing brand?
I wanted to bring the feeling I was getting from skateboarding and the community to my friends. I never liked football and as a young boy in Lagos. This is like a crime [laughs]…
Yeah, it ostracises you socially …
Exactly, so I thought there are probably other people like me, and I just wanted to bring that feeling of community to them.
So, the ethos is more like a skate community than a clothing brand?
Every culture needs an identity and what better way to identify yourself than clothing. It has to be comfortable; it has to be durable and also it adds to your whole persona.
I remember the first WFLSNCRM thing I saw was the “CRACK IS WACK” jacket. I didn’t even know it was WFLSNCRM. I just thought this jacket is hard and then later a friend put me on to the brand. How did this all start?
I started with t-shirts and homies. Every time I was doing something, I wanted my friends to experience it. Whether it was travel, culture, books. I’m all about exposure and education. I wanted them to go to Ghana for the first time, witness African skating for the first time. That’s the beauty of what we do. It’s about cross pollination. The videographer for YASIS is from Botswana. For the homies, it was the first time they had seen a black person from Southern Africa in the flesh. A lot of people say they are African brands but only work with people in Lagos or Nigeria. I think if you are an African brand, you have to work with people across the continent. That is the number one thing for me, and I love traveling and sharing new experiences with people.
Would you say WFLSNCRM is only one avenue you channel this passion through?How do other things like vibestomorrow or the Home Movie Film Club that Be [Jomi’s wife] and Omowunmi [Be’s cousin] run, come into play?
It’s the same thing, ‘cos they are all based on community. Like-minded people coming together for a common mission or just to experience and feel something together as a unit. I believe that our community is not really into mainstream stuff and even if they were, they are probably not waiting for the next Avengers or anything. Most of them are quite independent in their tastes and its nice when they can come together and exchange ideas.
It’s interesting that you run the brand more like a family than a business. How do you balance the two of them?
It is tricky because for most people it goes from friend to colleague to boss. But I can’t work with everyone and some homies will remain homies. It is also important for people to have their personal goals and you have to make sure that those are clear. What they want for themselves and what they want for the group. We are all here because there is something we add to the brand, which is cool, but everyone must have something they personally want to gain from the experience; which is what makes it work.
What are your own personal goals?
I want to travel around Africa more. I want to work with artisans around the continent and create stuff. I want to meet skateboarders from around Africa and bring them to Nigeria. Just more cross pollination. Africa is so huge and we are all doing our thing, but it’d be nice to meet up and share once in a while. I love the world, but Africa is so big, and I want to experience as much of it as I can in my lifetime.
Do you consider yourself a designer?
I’m not a designer because I wasn’t trained as one. I don’t think what I’m doing is special. It’s Lagos; whether it’s Lagos in me or Lagos in the community. We are like commentators in a game, but people think we are like footballers. If you remove the commentators, it’s just men kicking balls and that is not fun. We are commentators on Lagos street culture and the city is doing most of the work.
You’ve been planning to build a skatepark in Lagos for some time. How far along is it?
Covid-19 messed us up. It’s in the works. We haven’t gotten the land yet, but we were very close. Ideally, it’ll be free and have 24 hours access. It’s not a money-making venture at all. We’ve just stalled, and the change of Lagos state government didn’t help either, ‘cos a lot of conversations we had are now redundant.
In terms of the WFLSNCRM brand, how much do you pay attention to what’s happening in the skate world globally?
We all have the same heroes, watch the same videos and share the same networks, but our story is unique. Success to some people may be a shoe deal with a big brand, or one of our skaters making it to LA. If it happens, inshallah, but it’s not a part of the plan. For me success means that people from all over Africa see what we are doing and want the products. We want to do skate tours around Africa and meet African skaters from around the continent. We want to create our own excitement for ourselves, by ourselves and within ourselves.
Obviously, I know you, so I know there are some ideological reasons behind these choices, and they are rooted in your Pan-Africanism. Skateboarding aside, what do you think “we” should be doing?
You know in these times, Americans are protesting, British people are protesting the system and I’ve been thinking… “What is an African’s place in this situation?” Our black experience is not the same. They don’t know what it feels like to be a majority black functioning society and then at the same time have the ‘oppressors’ be black people. They don’t know what it feels like to live in a society where black people own huge corporations and even employ white people. So, it’s hard. We have our own challenges, but it’s different here. Obviously, I have empathy ‘cos I’m black, but I’m not sure about our role in this struggle.
But like you said, we have all these issues within Africa. In Nigeria specifically, do you think you have a role in building our country and infrastructure? How do we do that?
We need to be more organised, more aware of our position in the world and we need to build systems from top to bottom, independently. We also need to focus on community. Africans are the core. Like [Nana Akufo-Addo] the Ghanaian president said; no black man will be respected until Africa is ‘fixed’. So, we have to start from there. If Africa is strong and we have control over ourselves, we will be able to demand for changes in the world.
I think that’s a great place to end it. Thanks bro!
All images courtesy of WAFFLESNCREAM