Like most artists-in-the-making, dancer Qudus Onikeku was a self-described weird child. A natural observer who sought solitude, this 12th of 13 siblings routinely spent hours sitting in trees while searching for something ineffable. When he was 5 years old, an answer started to take shape when he saw a classmate do a flip in the schoolyard. Onikeku describes the awakening as a “re-membering” of knowledge gained in a previous life that would guide his choices in this lifetime.

Eight years of gymnastics followed and a second flash of insight charted his course as a professional dancer. Finding the courage to tell his parents about his heart’s desire was no easy feat — they expected their children to become doctors, lawyers, engineers or, at the very least, bankers. But Onikeku stood his ground.

Since then, he has performed in Europe and Africa and was one of only three artists invited to be part of Nigeria’s first appearance at the 2017 Venice Biennale. His work draws from the Yoruba traditional culture combined with the philosophies of hip-hop, capoeira and contemporary dance, to weave a certain understanding of the human condition.

Onikeku performing “AFRICAMAN ORIGINAL” at The Institut de Bénin (Photo by Logor Olumuyiwa)

Onikeku will give a solo performance, AFRICAMAN ORIGINAL, at Gallerie 88 Design House in Buckhead Village on Friday as part of the city’s Elevate: Open Spaces festival. Onikeku talked to ArtsATL about his childhood in Nigeria; how he was inspired by the music of his hometown hero Fela Kuti, the AfroBeat pioneer and activist; and how he is transported by dance.

ArtsATL: Can you give us a preview of what to expect with AFRICAMAN ORIGINAL at Gallerie 88?

Qudus Onikeku: AFRICAMAN ORIGINAL is not fixed. I have a few ideas here and there, but the show doesn’t come together until I meet the audience and we create something together. So, I’ll come, we’ll have a lot of conversation with the audience, then we’ll perform, then we come back to conversation, then we perform, then we come back to conversation and, eventually, we bring them on stage to come and dance.

ArtsATL: Movement offers dancers and audiences a pathway to transcend space and time. What happens inside you when you are dancing?

Onikeku: I think I go into supra-reality. I am alone inside the music, where the only thing that matters is the dance. I gain total control by losing control. I get to glimpse a space where time collapses. I’m trying to capture and compose this journey even as the act of re-membering is passing at the speed of light.

I sincerely hope that through my dancing, I can turn this precariousness into an expression of inquiry, gratitude, escape and abandon — and negotiate the border between what we control and that which transcends us all.

ArtsATL: You are from the Surulere district of Lagos. How did growing up there shape you as an artist?

Onikeku: When urban planners decided to expand the footprint of central Lagos — one of the most densely populated places in the world — they created a new district within the city called Surulere.

The city was created primarily for working-class people and was the first place entirely conceived, designed and constructed by Nigerians in the post-colonial era. We were not in the slum side of town or the elitist side of town. We were in the middle.

This liminal space between knowing what it meant to be “street” and being protected from poverty entirely created a space for creativity and innovation to flourish. A lot of Nigerian music and Nollywood were generated in this space.

ArtsATL: You studied acrobatics for eight years before “discovering” dance through the music of Fela Kuti. How is this possible when you were born and raised in what is arguably the cultural cradle of some of the most innovative music and dance worldwide?

Onikeku: My mom had a ton of records by socially conscious musicians, but our household was conservative and Fela’s music was considered the epitome of rebellion.

In 1992-93, students were one of the greatest forces of protest against government dictatorship and my big brother was mixed up with the radicals as a member of his university’s student union. And they were all listening to Fela’s music.

I was 13 at the time and knew something was vibrating, but there were no explanations about why I was seeing dead bodies in the road . . . or why lockdowns kept kids in school up to five hours after classes ended.

So, when my brother brought home Fela’s albums, his lyrics were the key, finally putting words to what I was experiencing. Right away I knew, Yes! This one is different.

ArtsATL: How did Fela’s truth-telling change you?

Onikeku: My father, who had two wives, used to say the only inheritance he could leave his children was a solid education. More important than putting clothes on our backs was his determination to put us in the best schools possible. But I had no interest in the life my father dreamed of for me.

My first act of rebellion was when I said I wanted to be a dancer. I learned to navigate that space with diplomacy while being true to my heart’s desire. This negotiation within the family taught me to be fearless, unconcerned with other people’s opinions about me and steadfast in sticking to my mission in the wider world.

ArtsATL: Tell me about the challenges you faced once you decided you wanted to pursue dance professionally. 

Onikeku: I didn’t know anybody who was a professional dancer. There was no dance school. There was nothing I could use as an argument to justify my desire to be a dancer [to my parents]. Something else was propelling me and I knew it. This was my introduction of self-expression.

ArtsATL: Time permitting, what do you want to see/do/hear/experience while in Atlanta?

Onikeku: There’s a huge Nigerian community in Atlanta. In fact, earlier this year the Headies Award ceremony [Nigeria’s equivalent of the Grammy Awards] was held outside of Nigeria for the first time, and it took place in Atlanta. It was huge!

I want to see where AfroBeat and hip-hop coexist here. I’m not interested in entertainers in the belly of the beast . . . whose music has been codified, commodified and put in a box. But Atlanta-based hip-hop artists who are still connected to community and creating a possibility for evolution and growth in the culture are really interesting to me.


Gail O’Neill is an ArtsATL editor-at-large. She hosts and coproduces Collective Knowledge  a conversational series that’s broadcast on THEA Network, and frequently moderates author talks for the Atlanta History Center.

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