Almost eight years ago, Amedodji Atsu Joseph boarded a plane in Lomé‚ to start the gruelling 23-hour journey from the tiny west African nation of Togo to the sprawling giant of Asia. Three flights later, the then-20-year old finally touched down in Shanghai.
Joseph was one of the 35,000 African students to travel to China that year in search of higher education. Government statistics show this figure has risen significantly since 2008, thanks in large part to Chinese government policy and the increasing engagement between Africa and China.
“I chose to come to China for the simple reason that I am really adventurous and also because back when I was in Togo, we had Chinese people in our district and that actually pushed my curiosity to go and learn more about them”, Joseph explains to me as we catch up over zoom.
With the growing interest in studying in China across the continent, scholarship opportunities are advertised widely – sometimes by official agencies, but other times by local agents who claim to have ties to universities on the ground.
As many students discover on arrival, the terms of these scholarships can differ significantly to those described by local agents – that’s if they exist at all. In his first 24 hours in China, before he’d even had the chance to unpack his suitcase, Joseph discovered that the scholarship he was set to receive on arrival was too good to be true.
“The hustle was real”
Not one to give up, he turned to friends in the Togolese community, and before long another countrymate agreed to host him in the southern city of Nanjing, with the faint promise of admission to the city’s largest university.
“I bought myself the only remaining ticket to Nanjing… a standing ticket for a trip that would take about 20 hours” he recalls, laughing.
“I remember arriving in Nanjing and couldn’t even stand on my feet no more…the hustle was real” – But Joseph’s gamble paid off and before long he’d enrolled in a computer science degree at Hohai University.
He tells me that the first few months – and then years – flew by. “My first impression of China was definitely a great one. The Chinese people I encountered along the journey were really nice to me despite the surprising look they sometimes gave after seeing a Black person for the first time”.
Nanjing soon began to feel like a home away from home.
One degree, three businesses and a string of successful events later Joseph, now better known amongst many in Nanjing as Mr Black, has established himself as a successful entrepreneur and community figure. It’s hard to find an industry or field the 32-year old hasn’t somehow explored or worked in and around. He puts this down to his humble childhood in Togo.
“Since primary school, I have always been that kid that would help [my] mom sell her pies and food at school during each break time. Our culture made us hustlers from childhood and that built me up to become a man of many ventures”.
The first of his many Nanjing-rooted ventures would explore social entrepreneurship， as Joseph sought to amplify authentic visions of Africanness, concerned with the image of Africa in China.
In 2017 along with a group of friends, Queen-Elizabeth from Namibia, Arsene from Burundi, Jessica from Angola/ Portugal and Chris from Burundi, Joseph formed Roots association.
Building bridges between cultures
“I wanted to introduce the Black culture to the Chinese community and integrate the foreign community in China”, he recalls. Four years in Nanjing had shown him that there wasn’t much exchange between the local and foreign community and this had led to stereotypes forming.
The group soon organised an annual “Roots Festival”, a celebration of African & afro-diasporic cultures, food, music and fashion that sees 100s in attendance, both foreign and local.
The team had effectively created a space for engagement to combat negative images of Africaness – an opportunity many of their peers relished. It was also an opportunity for Joseph to combine his love for dance, fashion and music in one place – the event would welcome African fashion designers across China to as part of a fashion show, alongside young up-and-coming musicians who were invited to share their musical talent. Several of these have gone on to become big names back home.
“What I enjoy most about what I do is that I know for a fact I am not doing all this for me. Every time I get feedback from people who tell me they’ve been inspired to do better in their lives because of what I do and how I present myself to them I feel like I’m doing something great. That feeling of influencing other young people in a good way is priceless.”
Between university studies and growing Roots Association, most people might be hard-pushed to find time for any anything else. But in 2018, the year of his graduation, Joseph and his then-girlfriend (now Fiancée), Queen Elizabeth, launched Born Black, a fashion & streetwear brand incorporating African prints in innovative ways.
The couple is laying the groundwork for BornBlack to become “the most successful clothing brand, specialising in Afrocentric streetwear”, registering it in some 28 countries to date, including China.
Joseph explains that he has always wanted his entrepreneurship to propel African cultures and traditions to new heights. BornBlack’s focus on fashion and, by extension, culture lends itself to the couple’s interest in creative industries.
When asked about the origins of the name “Born Black” he explains it in one sentence: “Everything comes from Black”, an allusion to both the colour black and the widespread view of Africa as the cradle of civilisation.
Like many expats living in China, Covid-19 has forced Joseph to temporarily leave the middle kingdom. Now back home in Togo, he’s adding yet another string to his bow.
“I was able to make use of so many opportunities just being in China. Not every Togolese will be able to do the same, yet there is so much talent here. So I want to bring the opportunity to them.”
He’s referring to his talent and entertainment scouting event, Rap Flow & Slam, in collaboration with Nanjing-based record label The Society. Together, they hope to connect talent scouts and record labels in China with young and hungry Togolese talent.
This may well be a gamechanger for these young people – the Chinese music market is home to 750 million digital music users as of 2019 – even just scratching its surface gives artists access to a massive potential audience and fanbase.
Joseph’s advice to young Africans at home and in China is simple: ‘Work your a** off!!!!’
“The Best advice I could give anyone now is that no one will plant the tree for you, and in turn allow you to simply eat the tree’s fruits – anything worth having requires hard work. My Brothers and Sisters just please wake up and be an enterprising person.”
Opportunity and exposure for Africans and African cultures both in China and back home has been central to Joseph’s countless ventures to date. We ask him jokingly “is there anything you can’t do?!”.
“I am actually a touch at anything…as long as it’s legal haha.”