NCVRD: How Kemka Ajoku, Ariane Kayla & Afnan Yassin Created Blaqbonez’s ‘Young Preacher’

“My favourite thing about [Blaqbonez] is he is so open-minded."

In October, Blaqbonez’s highly anticipated sophomore album ‘Young Preacher’ arrived off the back of the impressive lead single “Back in Uni” and its music video that shook the internet. The album cover featured a calm-faced Blaqbonez flanked by two women, their body language eliciting subservience to the aura of the Nigerian artist. The team members behind the album cover—Kemka Ajoku (photographer), Ariane Kayla (creative director) and Afnan Yassin (stylist)—had four days to put the shoot together in London before Blaqbonez’s trip back to Lagos. They describe the whole process as intense yet rewarding.

“My favourite thing about him [Blaqbonez] is he is so open-minded. But like, I mean this in the most extreme way,” Ariane Kayla remembers. “He gave us a space to create. And for me, that was the best thing like he just let you do whatever you wanted. And he trusted the vision to the tee. He didn’t question anything we were trying to do. We could have been like, ‘Could you jump off this cliff?’ And he’d be like, ‘Sure,’ and he wouldn’t say why. He was just down with whatever. That was my favourite part.”

Kemka Ajoku is a fashion, portraiture and fine art photographer. Born and raised in London to Nigerian parents, Ajoku’s journey with photography began as a child when he got a camera, “a really cheap one” for Christmas. He took pictures of his family members during special occasions, capturing the moments they shared. In secondary school, he had an iPod Touch, which he used to take pictures of his friends and his surroundings: the way a tree looks, the way the road is quite busy, etc. At parties, he would introduce himself and people would recognize him with his works on Instagram. “Back then it was only black and white pictures I would post, I know why but I just found that quite interesting,” Ajoku recalls.

A behind-the-scenes photo of the shoot. Image Credit: Instagram/@bruta1ism

In 2015, Ajoku moved to Nigeria for his undergraduate degree. “I was sceptical about it at first but later decided it’d be a new challenge to take on, with most Nigerians travelling abroad for higher education, and not the other way around,” he told i-D. He spent five years studying mechanical engineering at Covenant University. Two years into his studies, he became friends with a friend of his roommate who he showed his collections of photos. The friend liked Ajoku’s photos and encouraged him to pursue photography professionally. From then, Ajoku would spend his days downloading tutorial videos about photography on YouTube and watching them when he retired back to his hostel room at the end of the day. “And then [in] 2018 I was like, you know what my solution is no more trees, no more nature pictures. I’m gonna actually start learning to shoot with people and understand how to work with people,” Ajoku says.

Ajoku’s disposition while studying mechanical engineering at the university was feelings of boredom and being stuck in limbo. Since he had stumbled on his love for photography as a child, he hadn’t considered it a career path then; he had some interest in engineering and believed it a good entry point with the hope that he might find something he loved about it. He soon discovered that he didn’t find joy in the course, like most of his classmates. “I just knew that, ‘Omo, I’m in trouble because I’m not enjoying this. I don’t think I can do this for the rest of my life,’” he says. “Like between then and the end of second year, I was very much in limbo. Like I just disconnected from the degree. I didn’t really have any hobbies apart from playing football and stuff, so I was just very much bored and lost in that space.”

Most of Ajoku’s works—like My Brother’s Keeper, Finding Common Ground and We’re All Workers—document Black lives in Nigeria and the UK, interrogating family, community and the hustle to eke out a living. For Ajoku, being a Nigerian that was born and raised in London and returned to Nigeria for his university degree has enabled him to tap from the influences around him and given him a deeper understanding of his person. He says he will continue to highlight Black people how he wants them to be seen—in a positive light.

Like Ajoku, longtime friends Ariane Kayla and Afnan Yassin (also known as Pima) live in London. They both fell in love with their respective passions—creative directing and fashion styling—out of sheer coincidence While out with friends, Yassin, originally from Somalia, would choose everyone’s clothing styles and Kayla, who is currently a law student, would oversee everything. “I’m not really someone who’s into brands, I just really love clothes,” Yassin says. “[During the pandemic], I was just missing having places to go and wear outfits. So I actually just started making collages on Instagram. And people were messaging me asking if I was a stylist and I’d be like, ‘No, sorry.’ And they’d be like, ‘That’s like a crime, these outfits have to be like realized.’” Those comments encouraged Yassin to apply for art school, rather than law school, which she had intended to attend.

A behind-the-scenes photo of the shoot. Image Credit: Instagram/@bruta1ism

“Creative directing is one of the things that I always knew how to do, but I didn’t know what I was doing. It wasn’t until I had a conversation with Pima this year and she really made me understand what it was and what it entailed that I realised it is actually what I’ve been doing all along,” Kayla says. “Because I’ve always been the person to connect people with people and then come up with concepts for things. But I didn’t actually know that that’s what I was doing. I just thought, ‘Well, you’re creative,’ but I didn’t know where I fit in. And so discovering that was a huge blessing.”

When the opportunity to put together a photo shoot for the album cover for Blaqbonez’s ‘Young Preacher’ came along, and Blaqbonez stated he wanted a clean cover with not too many edits, Kemka Ajoku was the name that popped up in Kayla’s mind. For the entirety of the photo shoot, Ajoku, Kayla and Yassin hadn’t listened to the album. The trio had a shared idea of how they wanted to approach the album cover, though: a way that didn’t lean into blasphemy or that would cause a backlash. Ajoku, who shot the cover for LADIPOE’S EP ‘Providence’ last year, sought inspiration from the Speaker’s Corner, a long-held practice in the UK where a man would stand on an elevated platform in a park and address a crowd on topics ranging from politics to the economy.

A behind-the-scenes photo of the shoot. Image Credit: Instagram/@bruta1ism

“The idea originally was to have Blaqbonez stand on some sort of platform where he’s talking to people who are at his Speaker’s Corner to give [the project] the idea of the young preacher,” Ajoku says. “Once we had that idea, we fed around it. So we were now like, ‘Okay, we have two models. We can use them as his congregation, but how do we play around that where Blaqbonez is an artist whose works talk about women and love and sex? How can we do it so that he’s still shown as a young preacher, but not in [a] way that is disrespectful to the idea of preachers?’

“So what we tried to do was have him [in] an educational role, teaching people around him. He has a book in his hand, which is supposed to be some sort of guide or way of him preaching to the two girls—Are they his girlfriends? Are they his congregation? Are they his followers? Who are they? So it’s a bit of an eeriness about that. And once we had a location in mind, I wanted it to be indoors simply because I didn’t want to work with the unpredictability of UK weather and at the same time [I wanted it] to feel intimate [and] cosy. So, anybody who’s listening to his music and looking at the cover, I want them to have that feeling.”

For wardrobe choice, Yassin settled for cream and “innocent” colours. She styled him with a bishop’s shirt, plain trousers and accessories from Vivienne Westwood, an English designer whose works collect inspiration from Christianity. “‘Young Preacher’ felt like he was still learning, still youthful,” says Yassin of her choices. “Like he still had a lot of demons to fight before he [reaches] his full potential.” Kayla adds that Yassin’s styling for the project was brilliant.

“Once the images were worked on, I had a meeting with him and his team. They gave me feedback; they liked [them but] wanted a few tweaks with colour grade and everything,” says Ajoku. “And then when that was done, I didn’t hear from them for a couple of weeks. And I remember Kayla and I were stressing because we didn’t hear anything from them, so we didn’t know whether they scrapped the idea or whether they decided to do something else in Lagos. At the same time, this was when his ‘Back in Uni’ video dropped and he was busy pushing that. Then I remember one Saturday morning, he just drops the album cover on his Instagram.”

A behind-the-scenes photo of the shoot. Image Credit: Instagram/@bruta1ism

Kayla admits she was nervous before Blaqbonez revealed the album cover. “I didn’t think people were gonna like it, and when it did come out and I saw how it was so well received, I think I even burst into tears,” she says. “Everything felt so worth it in the end. I think I even sent her [Yassin] a message immediately. I was like, ‘Thank you for everything.’ All of that felt really, really good and it made me very optimistic for the future.”

For Ajoku, Kayla and Yassin, the future looks promising. Kayla, a huge music lover, sees herself staying on the music side of creative directing: producing shows, working with artists on photo shoots and helping their rollout, etc. Yassin, who has worked on two music videos for Nigerian act Cruel Santino, hopes to work on editorial shoots with “all types of artists including music artists.” Both state that they would also want to continue working with each other.

“I really want to tap into the fashion space a lot more. I feel like fashion photography is a completely different skill,” Ajoku says. “[It’s] a different sub-genre to photography that you have to learn. You also have to respect the rules of photography in that space because a lot of the work is very commercially driven, so it’s finding ways to sell the clothes while also staying true to your artistic practice. So one thing I’m looking at doing more is working with a lot of clothing lines and fashion brands both here [the UK] and in Nigeria to kind of tap into that space a bit more.

“I’ll look into [working] with a lot more Nigerian musicians and British musicians that I feel like I understand and gravitate to their sound and their story as an artist, working a lot more in editorial spaces with magazines and just kind of finding a sweet spot between both Nigeria and the UK and finding a way that I can balance the two so that I’m working in both spaces quite comfortably.”

Stream ‘Young Preacher’ below.

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