In the last few years, Afrobeats has increased in popularity in the United States and internationally. Walk into any club in Houston, Miami, Atlanta or New York, and you might hear the harmonious, upbeat and energetic melodies of Afrobeats music.
Afrobeats is the blending of traditional African music with the modern sounds of hip-hop, dancehall and R&B music.
DJs, producers, club promotors and the African diaspora are just a few on a long list of those who deserve credit for pushing the genre forward, but another group who deserves their flowers are Afrobeats dancers.
Kemi OG is a Houston Afrobeats dancer, choreographer, fitness instructor and creative director. She is the Afrodance instructor at the Institute of Contemporary Dance and the founder of Afrobeats with Kemi OG, a program that teaches technique and fusion choreography, and OG Creatives, a studio using art to explore Black narratives.
Since 2012, she has trained and taught Afrodance, and produced several shows and multimedia performance pieces. Kemi’s abstract and culturally-infused dance pieces often reflect the experiences of people of color.
She has performed for artists such as Tiwa Savage, Yemi Alade, Afro B, Mr. Eazi and others.
The Defender spoke to Kemi OG about the Afrobeats scene in Houston and what aspiring dancers can do to turn it into a viable career.
DEFENDER: Was dance always your dream career, or was it something you transitioned into?
Kemi OG: I’ve always been a dancer. It started in primary school in Nigeria. I loved cultural dance. It was my favorite elective. In 2005, I moved to the United States and struggled to assimilate into the culture. I felt homesick, so I turned to anything that could possibly tie me back home, and that was food and dance. In 2011, I was in high school, and my career trajectory was civil engineering. And literally from the age of 5, my father told me that I was going to be an engineer.
But it wasn’t until college in the midst of, after realizing how much talent I had, that this is something I really enjoy doing. It’s healing for me. I like that I’m creating work that people can connect to. It was always a hobby, but it wasn’t until maybe two or three years ago that I told myself that this is my purpose…something I want to see grow with me until the end.
DEFENDER: As a young Nigerian professional, was there pressure to be successful in a more “traditional” career choice?
Kemi OG: I finished two degrees in engineering and worked in the industry for two years before I decided to fully focus on dance. I loved college. I enjoyed everything that I was doing, but once that support system was removed, I sat down and looked at what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life. There was one year I did engineering with very limited dance, and I just couldn’t get through it.
As for my family, they are still recovering with my decision. When I first broke the news to them, all hell did kind of break loose. I was struggling with a lot of things. I was a good kid and the oldest child. It wasn’t overnight, but I think my parents saw the level of dedication that I had to the craft. They saw where I was analyzing how I was teaching, how I build curriculums and how I market myself. Then they saw how I was as an engineer without dance, and they didn’t like that version of me.
DEFENDER: Dancers have had an impact on the Afrobeats genre. Do they get enough credit for their efforts?
Kemi OG: When I am driving on the street, I’m still in shock when I hear Afrobeats being played out of a car. I think of dance as music in visual form. I think the tragedy is when people see dance, they see how amazing it is, they see the entertainment, they see the final product, but they never see the time, resources, the money dedicated to training to create on that level. We have to listen to the song, visualize and come up with a plan.
Dancers often times are asked to produce quality and not paid what they’re worth. [Putting] your foot down at times can often give you a reputation as being difficult, which could impact future opportunities. Dancers have totally impacted genre. You can see it on Instagram, TikTok, Facebook; these dances you see on these social media platforms are styles of dance that take years of mastering.
DEFENDER: How is the Afrobeats community in Houston?
Kemi OG: I’ve been in Houston for years and didn’t know it existed. I actively Googled Afrodance and found one person, and it was that one person who connected me to everything going on in this space. Being exposed to the community of artists is the first step. The community is actually pretty small. Networking is key; that’s how I’ve been able to perform with popular Afrobeats artists. So when you are taking a class and you’re killing it, obviously the instructor will remember you. In general, it’s a great community to be a part of. There is healthy competition, of course, but it helps in order to be a better dancer.
DEFENDER: What advice do you have for young people who want to make Afrobeats dance a viable career?
Kemi OG: Beware of packaging. When it comes to the image of success, we don’t necessarily understand what it took to get there. That can create a dangerous expectation.
Learn about other opportunities outside of dance. There are creative directors or choreographers. There are people who started in dance and have gone into costuming or fashion. It’s more than just posting on Instagram, teaching classes and dancing with artists. You have to ensure that you can live off of dance.
Be disciplined with your passion. Passion got me through to this point, but it also made me naïve to basic business common sense that led me to be exploited on some dance projects.
Learn to say no to opportunities if the amount of costs and resources isn’t enough to produce the quality the project needs.
Be a consistent learner. Around 2019, I got connected to a dancer who is one of my mentors now who taught me that my thinking around Afrodance was wrong. [Pulling different styles of dance together and calling it Afro], but [the mentor] explained to me that Afro actually has different dance styles, different countries and histories. I had to relearn what the Afrodance was, how to teach it in a way where you aren’t sacrificing the culture in order for you to make a living for yourself.
DEFENDER: What programs do you teach in the area?
Kemi OG: The first is Afrobeats with Kemi OG. I teach at the Institute of Contemporary Dance in downtown. We are working on a creative project and will return next year. It will focus on exposing people to Afrodance for beginners. The beautiful thing about my classes is that it’s not just about choreography but we do a lot of technique work. People receive breakdowns of the dances they’ve learned by email, the dance style, and culture it comes from. I’m also working on a tutorial program for people who are not able to make it in person.
For community organizing, I do an event called Afrodance in Houston, which will start next year. This is an event where Afro artists, students, teachers, and anyone in the community gets together to come and talk about what they’re going through and what resources they need do this work. What’s going well in the community? What’s not? How do we fix it?
As a creative director, I’m working on a venture called OG Creatives. That is more for my beginner and intermediate dancers that want to focus more on performance. It will hone in on using Afrodance styles along with a mixture of experimental mixtures of other artist forms to explore African immigrant stories. That will come out in 2022.
Follow Kemi OG’s work: