Master & Dynamic: Redefining Sound Tools for the Creative Class

Earlier this spring, Business Insider said what we were all thinking: Michael Kors isn’t cool anymore. Morgan Stanley removed the sportswear brand from its atsst Ideas list, shares dropped 37 percent, inventory was up another 65 (meaning product wasn’t being sold), and thanks to the introduction of diffusion lines and lower price points, its accessibility went through the roof. In short, it had saturated the mainstream and lost out on its aspirational value. Depending on how you look at it, the same can be said about a certain Dr. and his headphones company.

No, Beats by Dre isn’t hurting; parent company Beats Electronics was acquired by Apple in an astounding $3 billion deal last May, after all. But its ubiquity—who do you know that doesn’t or hasn’t owned a Beats headphones product?—doesn’t make it the most-coveted name in high-end headphones. Especially for the creative set.

That’s where Master & Dynamic comes in. Founded by serial entrepreneur Jonathan Levine and his business partner Vicki Gross, the company has one objective in mind: to build sound tools for creative minds. With premium leather, stainless steel elements, lambskin ear pads, and a price point starting at $349, Master & Dynamic headphones are beautiful. And that’s all just superficial—it doesn’t begin to describe the superior sound quality. The Telegraph, Forbes, Bloomberg, and Wired all agree.
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With a seamless blend of luxury and quality sound, it reaches the consumer who’s outgrown Beats culture but wants something that’s as timely as it is timeless. No wonder Gross says the brand is “the only tech product” in many of the stores that carry it. That’s because Master & Dynamic products don’t sacrifice style for sound. Just check the company Instagram feed — perfectly crafted images that you wish you’d taken your self. Or scan the company blog: a space that celebrates all creativity, even that beyond the world of music and sound. But more on that in part two.

We visited Master & Dynamic’s NYC headquarters to talk with Levine and Gross about designing for the creative class, collaborating with private work collective Neuehouse on the M&D Boom Mic, and the void their company fills in the headphones industry.

Angel: I heard you all just remodeled the recording studio. It looks great.

Jonathan: People come in and they see that, [and say,] “Of course, you’re in the headphone business. You have to have a studio like that.” Actually, before I even got into this business, I always had a recording studio in my office so my older son could come in, and hang out, and do his stuff. We sort of backed into it.

A: So that’s always been a part of your business model?

J: Not the sound studio, no. Just the creativity, I guess. I’m blessed with two creative kids—I think I got some of their creativity, not the other way around.

A: So what exactly makes you different from other headphone companies?

J: We’re a very product-driven company. That alone sort of differentiates us from a lot of the companies today, because a lot of the companies have become marketing-driven companies. You look at a Beats… they did a masterful job of marketing their product. And we have great respect for them because if it wasn’t for Beats, we wouldn’t be in this business. They created the category, and we are doing something very different.

We expect to be here 40, 50 years from now, building this brand, and building a great product.

We did this project in a vacuum. We didn’t have any focus groups. The only “focus groups” we had were the early people on the team: my son, Vicki, a few creatives. When I say we developed this product in a vacuum, we didn’t say, “Well, we think there’s an opportunity for this type of headphone or this type of headphone.” We just designed stuff that we loved. And as we designed it, we became more in love with it, and the people around us—whether it be people my age in their early 50s, women, friends of Vicki’s, my kids—everybody could see themselves wearing these products. That became very exciting to us. But then, you launch and you pray that the customers and the world is going to like this product. And, for whatever it’s worth, we’ve hit a nerve among a great swath of the consumer base of people who love design, materials, craftsmanship, and we really nail it on the sound profile as well.

I think when they saw the materials and the design, they thought, “They can’t really sound great.” But, if you look at the reviews, the reviews are stellar.

We just were fanatical about the materials we wanted to use and the design and the sound profile. We consider ourselves sort of the new generation of some of these very vaunted brands that we respect: Bose, Bowers & Wilkins, Bang & Olufsen, who’ve been around for 40, 50, 60 years. We expect to be here 40, 50 years from now, building this brand, and building a great product.

A: Do you think your success is linked to sort of catering to the creative class?

Vicki: I think it’s the product, first. But there’s a natural fit with the creative class. People who like good design, craftsmanship, are interested in this product. I think that link is natural and it’ll always be there.

J: Brands go through their evolution. And I think there was room for something new in this category, but it had to be very new. It couldn’t be plastic, and shiny, and bright, and colorful. People were searching for that new luxury experience. An alternative to [other headphone companies] and we seem to hit that void.

Obviously, I don’t want to talk too much about my competitors, but I bring it up in that when I see somebody on the street wearing my product, I gently sort of accost them. And I’ve had four sightings so far. And, I talk to them—I don’t tell them who I am initially—but they are all people in creative fields.

It was very fulfilling to see that the people we were sort of thinking about were actually buying the product… We sort of go from people like [established designers], who are definitely in a creative field, and go to the new people coming out of the creative field. So we seem to have really hit a nice swath.

V: We’re also the only tech product in a lot of our stores. Which is interesting. The first tech product [Ralph Lauren is] even launching with is ours.
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A: Just looking at them, they give me more of an accessory feel. Even if you’re not listening to them at the moment, they’ll still complement the rest of your look. Very GQ.

V: Ours are much more like a pair of shoes, or a belt. A pocketbook. Something you can wear with everything that you have. We designed them on purpose, that way.

J: It’s a male-dominated category in general, but we actually have a nice selection of women. A growing part of our business is women. When you talk to the men… everybody who likes our headphones seems to love watches, cameras, and cars. Not that it’s all a macho thing, but we just had a write-up, our second write, in The Financial Times’ How to Spend It… When Vicki and I started this business, one of the things on our wish list, our bucket list, was “Wouldn’t it be great if we had our headphones in that magazine?” And we’ve been in there twice in six months. And the fellow who writes the article, I met with him, and he loves cameras, and he loves technology, and he loves craftsmanship, and he loves watches.

V: It’s a tech column in a luxury magazine.

A: What about the people who work for you? Are they into the same things?

J: These are the people who search around for the great coffees. I’m just talking about my office: we have clothing boxes coming in here all the time from people like Mr. Porter. It’s a very interesting culture.

A: Speaking of company culture, there’s the open floor plan. It gives that communal feel.

J: When you talk about the creative class or the creative community, you look at our office… It seems like every office I go into, when I go into an office that has cubicles and offices, it seems very old-fashioned. There aren’t that many around today. This is how people live and work today. Everybody—a lot of this is driven by real estate prices, quite frankly—corporations are making their offices smaller, but they’re making it open.

People want their own space. So, every desk you see… everybody’s trying to create their own space. Part of that is our headphones. We’ve created that stand that has become very popular. People love the fact that they can take off these great headphones, put them on their stand when they leave the office… it’s become a nice part of their curated community.

A: Now, how did the Neuehouse collaboration come about?

V: We had a similar design aesthetic.

J: I knew nothing about them, but I liked the name. There’s sort of a German design philosophy that flows through some of this office. If you go to Neuehouse on 25th Street, it’s fairly nondescript. You don’t know what you’re walking into from the outside. But the minute I walked in, I felt very at home. You walk around in our office, or my apartment, you’d see that I like that sort of industrial, chic vibe. So when I saw that—Vicki was there—we just felt we were at home.

After meeting with the principals, Joshua Abram and Alan Murray, they are very design-driven as well. It was designed by David Rockwell, so, they wanted a particular experience for their members. So the headphones just matched organically. The stand was a perfect fit. We were talking, we gave them samples to play with, and they realized that there was a bigger need in a place like that, where people are having conversations throughout the day and it gets crowded, to have a higher-level communications experience.

I wanted to do it because I wanted to please Neuehouse and I thought it was a great idea. I never expected it to be the level of commercial success it is now. It’s a big product for us and we have big plans for more microphones in the future.

People sort of meet us, they embrace us. I think people want it to succeed. And I think there’s a New York-centric vibe that goes with it. I don’t know what it is, I can’t explain it. But, everybody who we meet—there’s a new opportunity that’s created.

V: That makes us different from other headphone companies: New York. That’s one of the things.

J: I think there’s something—an energy—that I feel that people are excited that we’re doing this here in New York. It’s amazing. When people come through our office— we’ve had DJs come through, people of all levels, who we embrace, and they see that we have a recording studio, they’re like, “Oh my god,” because recording studios are hard to come by. And they’re expensive. So we open up to anybody, free of charge. We’re trying to promote that creativity. We’re a very sort of open, collaborative business.

Come back next week for part two of this series, where we talk the Master & Dynamic blog, the brand’s work with Harlem Village Academies, and how young entrepreneurs can make it in a competitive climate.

AIF Tour: Nnenna Okore at David Krut Projects

This week will be your last chance to see Nnenna Okore: Twist and Turns at David Krut Projects. Hailing from Nigeria, Okore is an artist graced with the ability to transform seemingly mundane materials (like used newspapers or cloth) into fluid pieces of sculpture. Her body of work is the result of an intense artistic process where biodegradable objects and materials are manipulated by hand. Each abstract sculpture represents a rebirth. Okore twists and tears her way through discarded and decayed forms to reach new layers of understanding. If you’re in need of a creative stirring, be sure to head over to the gallery in Chelsea. But first, take our tour below.

THINX Underwear: New Period Panties Breaking Taboos Around Menstruation

If you think launching a startup sounds tough, try launching a startup that’s talking about periods. Fortunately, THINX was up for the challenge, and created underwear with built-in technology just for that time of the month.
At a glance, the THINX undies look like any other lingerie: black and lacy, in what they call “the three most classic styles”— hiphugger, cheeky and thong, with an additional, even lacier “Luxe” option.
But the similarities stop there. The material of THINX underwear is anti-microbial and stain-resistant, moisture wicking, and can absorb up to six teaspoons of liquid.
For anyone who has had to toss a pair (or two) of panties or tie something around her waist to hide a stain, this is a welcome change.

“Our technology is completely new to market, and it’s patent-pending,” says marketing director Veronica del Rosario. “It’s really game-changing for women in terms of it being four layers of awesome.”
Like most great startups, there are a few interesting stories behind what inspired THINX. Co-founder Miki Agrawal recounts being at her annual family barbecue with her twin sister, Radha, defending their three-legged race championship, when her twin’s period started in the middle of the race.
The two had to run together to the bathroom, and while they were scrubbing the bathing suit shorts, they had an epiphany: “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was underwear that was stain-resistant, that actually worked for girls when they had their period?”
Years later, Agrawal was in South Africa for the 2010 World Cup, where she ran into a girl on the outskirts of Johannesburg. It was a weekday, and she asked the girl why she wasn’t in school. “It’s my week of shame,” the girl replied.
After doing some research, Agrawal says she found that more than 100 million girls in the developing world were missing a week of school because of their periods, and using things such as leaves, old rags, or plastic bags in the place of sanitary pads.
After talking to friend Antonia Dunbar about “doing well and doing good,” the Agrawal sisters and Dunbar started to work on THINX together, with a social mission in mind. Through a partnership with AFRIpads, the purchase of a pair of THINX also funds the production of seven washable pads for girls in Uganda. AFRIpads employs local women, meaning the purchases also create jobs.
“The idea was originally just underwear that thinks of you and thinks of women around the world,” Agrawal say. “Just thoughtful underwear.”

THINX also has a mission in mind for girls in the U.S., and it comes back to breaking the taboos around menstruation. The team is creating a manual for elementary school girls to learn about their bodies—“in a way that’s celebratory versus shameful,” Agrawal says.
“Girls are learning about their periods as 12-year-olds through a 1969 government health workers manual, which is terribly uncomfortable and not relevant today.”
Though talking about menses has its challenges—especially when trying to get stores and boutiques on board—other companies avoiding the subject actually works to THINX’s advantage.
“I think one thing that we’re all very excited about, and why we’re all here, is also the idea that we’re completely transforming a category,” Agrawal says. “The feminine hygiene category hasn’t been disrupted [for years]. It’s a huge opportunity.”
Some businesses are more concerned about selling sex than period-friendly undies, so THINX is carving out its own space.

“[We realized] that our voice, our story is the most important thing that matters to our company,” Agrawal says. “We’re going to continue to share that over and over again. It’s going to be one of the most important things we do.”
The give-back mission with AFRIpads helps shift the focus on what’s really important. “It deflects the attention off of us—having our period problems, having leaks, stains, issues that are kind of uncomfortable and embarrassing,” Agrawal says. “We’re talking about girls in the developing world… which makes it a much easier story to tell.”
“Ultimately, it’s a huge, important thing that every woman in the world faces all the time and no one’s talking about it or fixing it,” del Rosario says. “Our goal is to break that taboo, so that all women and girls around the world can handle their health properly.”

Seeing Double: Zoe Kazan on Transformation and “The Pretty One”

What’s your identity? Beyond the figure you see in the mirror, the façade you fabricate for social media, the friends, and the outside world? Who. Are. You? Zoe Kazan—actress and screenwriter best-known for 2012’s Ruby Sparks—explored that notion with The Pretty One, a once blacklisted dark comedy from Jenée LaMarque that plays with concepts of identity, self-awareness, and duplicity. In it, Kazan portrays identical twins Audrey and Laurel, the latter of which assumes the identity of the former, “prettier,” more popular sister after her untimely death. We won’t give too much away—The Pretty One will be available for your home-viewing pleasure on June 3rd—only that as a creative, tapping into an alter ego is sometimes necessary to meet a desired end. It’s all a part of the journey. In Kazan’s case, the performance played out perfectly on the silver screen. For you, it could be a tale of self, lost then found. Editor Angel Lenise chatted to Kazan about this, and more, including the state of financing for female filmmakers, and the freedom that comes with taking to the stage.

Angel: It’s interesting in The Pretty One how you assume an identity other than your own, similar to what you did with Ruby Sparks. Are you particularly drawn to that type of character?

Zoe: You’re the first person to ask me that—I thought more people would! I think it is such a juicy thing for an actor to do—to get to play multiple people or different versions of the same person, so that was definitely really interesting to me. I think it was also the sort of transformation that happens over the movie as Laurel becomes a different version of herself by pretending to be her sister. I feel like a lot of people do some kind of version of that, whether they’re in their teens or their 20s. They can make a decision about “OK. I’m not going to live my life this way.” People do a mini-version of what Laurel did. “Now, I’m not going to smoke,” or “I’m going to exercise every day.” Whatever that thing is. Even though this is more extreme, I still think that people have an idea that they can become a different version of themselves.

A: How do you feel about that? Becoming a different version of yourself?

Z: Change is something that’s incredibly painful. That is sort of what I think this film deals with.

A: It’s interesting that you describe it as being painful. I read an interview you did with Mary Pols in Time, and she described you as a “chameleon.” Seeing you on screen—it just seems so effortless. How do you tap into that?

Z: I think it has to do with what my appetite is as an actor. People are drawn to acting for different reasons. I think people do it because they want to be famous, or some people do it because they’ve always loved action movies and they want to be in that kind of a movie. There are a million different reasons why people become actors. For me, it had to do with wanting to transform myself. It had to do with loving a very certain type of actor, who was different in every kind of part, and never looked the same. Sort of being able to go to a place that’s so far away from yourself and then come back to yourself and reveal something in doing that—help the audience make that imaginary leap by making it yourself—that’s very moving to me. It’s the kind of acting that I like watching and it’s what I aspire to.

A: I want to jump back to Ruby Sparks for a bit. You not only starred in that film, but you were also a screenwriter. When you were writing the story, did you immediately see yourself in the title role?

Z: I felt really compelled to write the thing. I wasn’t thinking about acting in it at all. I had written one screenplay that I wasn’t that happy with, and I wanted to write another. I got this idea that was so exciting to me to have an idea that I felt really lit up about. So I started writing it, and then I gave the first 10 pages to Paul [as in Dano, her boyfriend], to read, and he said “Are you writing this for the two of us?” At which point, I said “Oh! I guess I am.” I tried to put it out of my mind as much as I could; I didn’t want my vanity to get in the way.

A: How was it working with Paul for that?

Z: It’s so funny. We’ve been in a relationship for years now, and I just love him so much. But, when I think about making The Pretty One, for instance, and getting to act opposite Jake Johnson, that was actually more fun for me in a lot of ways. It’s easier to imagine—I know Paul so well. So we’d be in scenes together, and I’m looking at him as the character, but I also see Paul. The person I live with, who drives me crazy when he does X, and makes me feel happy when he does Y, Z. Then, when I look at Jake, I was just seeing the character. In some ways, it’s a lot easier to be totally immersed with someone you don’t know that well.

A: In The Pretty One, which twin do you feel you most resonate with in real life?

Z: They’re different parts of me. That’s one of the beautiful things about the story, is that we all have these different parts of ourselves, we just sometimes choose to lead with different things. Like some mornings, I wake up, and I’m like, “I don’t want to leave the house. I don’t want to put my clothes on. No one look at me. Nobody take my picture.” The next day, I’ll wake up and I’m like, “I want to go dancing and flirt with a million boys and then come home to my [boyfriend].” There are a thousand different versions of ourselves all the time, who are at work, and that we just have to, somehow, allow those different parts of us to exist. That’s part of what the movie is about. Laurel, at the beginning of the movie, is really rigid with herself. She only allows herself to behave one way. And by the end of the movie, she’s much more free.

A: This is a rare project in a sense because it not only tells a woman’s story, but it was also written and directed by one. How does that reflect the industry today?

Z: I’m going to give you the real answer, which is going to sound a little jaded—and I don’t mean for it to be. There are a very, very small number of women who can get films financed. And there’s a large group of men who can. And what that creates, I think, is a kind of cycle of feedback that teaches people to write for men instead of writing for women, because you’re more likely to get your film made. There are, of course, exceptions. This film is a film that got made on a micro-budget, so we got to make this movie about a girl’s story. Those stories are few and far between. Which means that the kind of parts that you get to play, in film, start to look more and more alike: the girlfriend, the mother, the wife, the sidekick friend. That is not why I got into acting.

A: I read an interview you did of . You asked him “What do plays give you that you don’t get out of the other parts of your life?” I want to pose the same question to you.

Z: I was saying earlier, I really love transformation. That’s sort of the thing that turns me on the most. If a movie or a TV show doesn’t come along with that kind of part in it for a long enough time, I start to get really hungry to do the kind of acting that I love again. I’m going to do a play this summer, and the part is just so different than anything I’ve gotten to do on film. I think live performance also sharpens you as an actor. Having to be totally responsible for your own performance. Actors never acknowledge this on talk shows or when they win awards, they never acknowledge the fact that their editor has helped them enormously. Every actor is helped by their editor, even Meryl Streep. A bad editor can do terrible things to your performance; a great editor can help you give the performance that you want to give. You’re so in the hands of someone else. When you’re on stage, you’re really in your own hands. It makes you better at your job, in general, to be responsible for yourself in that way.

Kazan can next be seen starring in What If opposite Daniel Radcliffe this August.

Co-working Toward Changing the World: Centre for Social Innovation New York

If you’re branching out as an entrepreneur, the typical office space just won’t do. If you’re branching out as an entrepreneur and trying to change the world in the process, then you really have to take things to the next level. Enter the Centre for Social Innovation. The co-working space and community center is home to nonprofits, innovators, and, of course, social entrepreneurs in New York City.

CSI started in Toronto in 2003, and now has a space in the Starrett-Lehigh Building in West Chelsea. David Gise, the director of operations in New York, met with hundreds of people before CSI Starrett-Lehigh opened its doors last year. He said that social innovation is a movement ­– and the wave is coming. “We didn’t realize when we first started down this road how much interest there really was, “ Gise said. “It’s been amazing how fast the community has built and the kind of work that they’re doing all over the world.”

AIF spoke to Guise about what CSI looks for in its members, the importance of social entrepreneurs having the space, and bringing the big idea to the Big City:

Ashley C: What do you do at CSI?

David: I am the director of operations here at Centre for Social Innovation, and I am also the one who brought concept for it from Toronto to New York City. My best friend bought this building in 2011, and expressed an interest in doing something to build community amongst the [6,000] tenants in this building. He asked me if I would be willing to take space to help do that.

In 2009, I wrote a blog post about Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto, and I said, ‘You know what, let me go there and see if I can get some ideas as to what we could do here.’ Flew to Toronto, in two seconds, I said, ‘Dead or alive, this concept needs to be in New York City.’

Give up your next birthday and bring clean water to people in need

A: Why was it so important to have this type of space in this city? What did you think it was about New York City that warranted bringing CSI here?

D: I had studied co-working models around the world, and I’ve been to a lot of spaces, and a lot of the spaces have felt very crowded, but there was no vibe. And it was when I walked into CSI, I didn’t know it at the time, but it was that central theme of social innovation and the passionate people that were in that space, putting them all together, there was a palpable intensity and feeling. It was different from any other space that I had visited.

And then after meeting with people in New York City, and hearing how many people were working on these amazing projects, but were working in coffee shops, or working at home, in libraries, and were potentially failing because they weren’t getting the support that they needed, building a home like this for them, where they could come and they could gather and show expertise and knowledge and networks and really build a community, it just made so much sense.

A: Going off of the name, “Social Innovation,” what type of entrepreneurs or thinkers do you feel flourish in this space?

D: Anybody [who is] trying to make the world a better place. We have a very diverse number of sectors within this space. The people that tend to flourish in this space are people that know both what they hope to give back to the community and what they hope to get out of the community, and also that want to be part of a community.

So by coming here, they understand that sometimes it’s ideas that come from different sectors that really help to push their initiatives forward. So it’s not always just surrounding yourself with like-minded people, it’s all these different ideas. So coming in with an open mind, wanting to be a part of something bigger than their initiative alone, has really led to a lot of collaboration in the space.

A: How do those collaborations or that interaction work between the different groups or the members that are here?

D: Basically from the design of the space, which was really designed to maximize the interaction between our members, to the staffing and the way we train our staff. We have someone on staff called “Community Animator,” and their job is to get know everybody in the space, and to help connect the dots. Not only between members, but also to introduce them to programs that are happening within the space that will support their work.

We have volunteers, that are also trained, they’re called “Desk Exchange Community Animators,” and their job is also to connect. So we really place a lot of emphasis on talking to our members and listening to where they need help and connecting them with other members.

But then we also do a lot of events where we get them to connect. We have a weekly salad club where we supply the lettuce and everybody brings an ingredient, and we just have a big communal lunch and everybody gets to talking and gets to know each other. We have waffle breakfasts where we make breakfast together and people get to know each other.

We have one event called “Six Degrees of Social Innovation,” where we not only bring together our members, we also bring together the very diverse ecosystem of social entrepreneurs in New York City.

A: I noticed that on the website, CSI is described as an incubator.

D: So we’re not doing that here yet in New York City. We do have an “Agents of Change” program that we launched when we first started here in New York City, [in which] people applied and we have given them free space to advance their projects. Some of those ideas have really taken off—it’s amazing how far they’ve come with just an idea.

A: Who are some of the “Agents of Change”?

D: We have one organization called Drive Change, and Drive Change created a food truck business to help formerly incarcerated youth. So when she came in, she came in with this idea. We are one of the few buildings in New York City [in which food trucks can come in] and come up the elevator and drive up onto the floor. So we had our last “Six Degrees” event, and she debuted her truck. The truck is now built and operational, she’s now serving all over Brooklyn, and she has hired I think ten formerly incarcerated youth to work on the truck. So what was an idea is now an actual operating business.

A: What do you look for in members?

D: No. 1, they have to show that they have some social mission as part of their mandate. We look to see the issue areas that they’re working on, and for us it’s important that we curate a very, very diverse community of people across all sectors. We look to see that people clearly articulate, like I said earlier, what they hope to give to the community, but also what they hope to get out of the community.

We know that communities don’t work if it’s only take, take, take—that they have to be willing to give back as well. We like people to come in and we meet with them, because we want to make sure it’s a good fit in terms of just the vibe. And it’s a very warm vibe, I’m sure you feel it when you come in. It was intentional—in two seconds you feel that, just goodness that comes out of people when you meet with them, and that’s the right fit here.

Taking Shape: Nnenna Okore at BAM’s 2014 DanceAfrica Festival

Images of sculptures don’t exactly pop into one’s mind when thinking about dance or performance art. But for acclaimed visual artist Nnenna Okore, drawing parallels between the two art forms is easy to do when you consider their use of motion. Both employ labor-intensive techniques to enter another realm of creativity and form. Like dancers, the behind-the-scenes work of a sculpture is messy. This upcoming weekend, the Nigerian-born artist comes to Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) 2014 DanceAfrica Festival as a headline speaker, and will demonstrate her creative process at BAM’s Hillman Fisher Studio. Ahead of her artist talk, ArtInFact Magazine’s Semmi W. got in touch with Okore to learn more about her use of materials, her beginnings as sculptor, and her never-ending fascination with decay.

Semmi: You have a background in painting. What made you want to start working in sculpture?

Nnenna: Right from my childhood days, I was always attracted to the spatially composed, tactile, and organic environments. Then, even as a young painter, I was sculpturally minded. My paintings characteristically had a third dimension with supple buildups of paint, soil, rope, fabric, and other found objects. When these accumulative methods no longer satisfied my sensorial delight, I decided to embark on a full journey of immersing myself in [the field of] sculpture through my graduate degrees.

S: Your artist talk for BAM is part of DanceAfrica—the nation’s largest festival dedicated to African dance. How do you think performance art impacts sculpture or visual arts?

N: When I teach many rudimentary art classes, the first lesson I impart on my students is that they need to master the art of dancing with their materials and tools, in order to become expressive and fully engaged. For without learning to glide or feel the energy of movement, it is hard to free one’s self from the enslavement of fear, rigidity, and closed mindedness.

S: You are known for using recycled materials. Why do you like working with discarded materials?

N: The thrill is in the ability to create intriguing or meaningful forms from useless articles… it’s equally satisfying to repurposing urban recyclia, knowing that in my own little way, I am drawing attention to problems of excessive production and material wastefulness, in addition to impacting the global discourse on environmental conservation.

S: Do have a favorite material to work with?

N: Yes, I am totally enthralled by paper — old newspapers, recycled print paper, cardboard paper, etc. The range of possibilities with this material, in terms of applicable processes, is limitless. For instance, as a material, it can be folded, twisted, shredded, pulped, braided, sewed, or self laminated. And these attributes keep me totally absorbed.

S: How do you think “green” culture or recycling differs between American cities and urban centers in Nigeria like Lagos and Kano?

N: Well, I can only speak for a place like Lagos, where economic and political challenges prevail and prevent industrial recycling from functioning properly. The shortage of resourses alone promotes a domestic kind of recycling, whereby discarded materials are re-appropriated for household uses. Some examples include, newspapers used as table and book covers; food cans as cooking utensils, and small milk gallons saved for fluid storage, like oils.

S: How do you discern between a great idea and a great project? For artists just starting out, I think it can be hard to differentiate.

N: That’s a very interesting question. As a rule, I try not to impose greatness on an idea from the onset of a creative project, because it is in the making process that the mediums and ideas interact and connect. And this is especially true for sculptural processes, where the result could either hit the mark or spin unexpected out of control. For this reason, I generally refrain from getting fixated with my ideas until its completion. Open-mindedness, also, to an extent guarantees no real failures.

Nnenna Okore will giver her artist talk at BAM’s 2014 DanceAfrica Festival on May 25th.

Chef KayKay: Cooking with the Stars.

Personal chef Kayla Greer first caught our attention when we spotted her wielding a knife for “fajita night” on a client’s Instagram page—and the client happened to be Drake.

The culinary artist also known as Chef KayKay got her start at events company Divinity by Cory Martin, serving as the assistant to chef Rashon Smith. Her first event with the company was a private party for Fendi, and similar events for big brands—Burberry, Prada, Oscar de la Renta—followed. From there, Greer says she has always kept high standards: “I wasn’t trying to nickel-and-dime myself; I wasn’t just trying to do stuff for my friends. I never really took that route, as far as my career, because I took it very serious.”

Greer, 24, attended Los Angeles Trade Technical College, training under the likes of seasoned chef Giovanni Delrosario, frequenting culinary conventions, and competing in the 2008 IKA Culinary Olympics in Germany. “I had the opportunity to go to Le Cordon Bleu and all those really high-profile schools,” Greer says. “But my mom and I made a deal with each other: ‘Let’s see if you really want to do this and then we’ll take it from there.’”

She did really want it, and now counts Trey Songz, Kevin Liles, and Zendaya Coleman among her clients. The West L.A. native says she tries to keep a low profile (“I don’t really post who I’m working for, or what I’m doing”) and wants to always remember her humble beginnings. Here, she speaks to AIF on how she went from hustling lunches to landing in Drake’s kitchen:
Ashley: When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

Kayla: Coming out of high school [in] 2007, I asked myself, What am I going to do? I’m sure everybody should have this talk with themselves. What are you going to do; how are you going to thrive; how are you going to make money? You want to be happy doing what you do, you want to be comfortable, you want to work hard, and I knew that I wanted to work for myself, first and foremost. I know that young, I had high standards, and I wanted to be able to provide for myself without having handouts from anybody. I knew it had to be something that I enjoyed.

I knew I was fast; I was talented; I had good flavor profiles; I was creative; I was clean; I had good work ethic. So, I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to go to culinary school. I can do this.’ And I just went for it. I knew that I would be able to work for myself, I could make a lot of money, and I enjoyed doing it. It’s hard work, but I knew I enjoyed doing it, and I was willing to put in the work that I had to do.
A: What do you consider to be your big break?

K: Last year, I was working at a restaurant for probably like three months, and I was just like, “I cannot do this.” I thought, “I can’t just sit around a wait to get the perfect job.” Sometimes you get so stuck in, “I’m just waiting for the perfect job, I just want this person to hire me, or this is what I really want.” When it’s said and done, you have bills, you have things you need to handle. You can’t just wait for that; you have to suck it up sometimes. And the time came where I had to just suck it up and had to go get a regular job.

I was working at this restaurant called Bottega Louie, and it’s in downtown L.A. It’s a very popular restaurant, it’s a really nice restaurant. And I got the job, and I was miserable. I was very miserable. I was just tired, I wasn’t eating, I was on my feet all day, and it just was not making me happy. It was taking all the fun away. You don’t get to be creative, you don’t get to do any of that. You just have to do what you’re supposed to do. So I quit… [and] from there, I was like, “You know what? I’m going to start making lunch.” And every day, I would make lunch.

I would make about 10 to 15 plates, I would package them nicely, and I had all these friends that I knew owned their own businesses or didn’t have to go to an office every day. I would make lunch and I would deliver them, and I was selling them for $10. So I was making anywhere from $100 to $150 a day, which is okay. It’s about a $12 an hour, $13 an hour job, that’s not bad. I was doing that every day and I would post pictures on Instagram, and that’s how I started cooking for Ryan and Danielle Gomes.

He was playing for the Clippers at the time, and Danielle asked me to come cook for Valentine’s Day, and from Valentine’s Day, she was like, “You know, I like your [food].” I started cooking for Ryan, [and] he was with the Clippers, so DeAndre Jordan was his friend, so I started cooking for DeAndre Jordan. I can honestly say that might be considered a “break.” I never want to forget, like, “Yo, I really was cooking every morning and selling lunches.” Nobody’s doing that.

Healthy Artists Take on Health Care Reform

A little over a year ago, a friend lent Julie Sokolow a book by New York Times bestselling author T.R Reid, titled “The Healing of America.” The book gives a comprehensive breakdown of the U.S. health care system compared to other countries. ” “It was eye-catching,” says the 25-year-old acclaimed musician turned indie filmmaker. “Every other first world nation offers healthcare to its citizens. We spend more on healthcare, but we don’t take care of everyone. This is the great American injustice of the 21st century.”

Sokolow was instantly inspired, and started to get heavily involved with efforts to reform U.S. health care. An artist herself, Sokolow wanted to tell the stories of her peers. “I started interviewing my friends in the arts scene about their lives, their art, and their experiences with health care,” she says.

In January 2012, she assembled a team of young creatives to produce the documentary series “Healthy Artists ,” in which Pittsburgh artists talk about their lives, their work, and struggles with the current, broken health care system. With so many of the nation’s young adults uninsured, (approximately ages 19-29), Sokolow’s main approach is to expose the horrific injustices caused by the current system, while calling for a more just solution–universal health care.

“I’m thinking more critically about the artist’s lifestyle: Why do we accept that it should be fraught with instability? Why do we accept the starving/poor/tortured artist cliche? And why are all my creative, intelligent, artistic friends uninsured and unable to see a doctor when they need to?”

AIF talked with Sokolow about her efforts, and how artists of all kind can become “Healthy Artists.”

Danielle Nicole: Tell me about some of the general battles/concerns artists, and freelancers alike, face with when trying to get access to healthcare services. What are some common issues you are always hearing about?

Julie: Artists and SO many other kinds of people in America lack access to good, affordable health care. And that’s a really scary position to be in. Good quality health insurance is really expensive and poor quality health insurance is just that. So most artists, freelancers, adjunct professors, service industry folks, and anyone else not getting health care from their employer, just cross their fingers and hope they don’t have an accident or get sick. It’s a very oppressive, anxiety-provoking way to live. And the US is the only industrialized nation that allows things to go on like this.

Danielle Nicole: As a community organizer, what is the most difficult part about what you do?

Julie: Apathy is easy. I totally understand that. For a long time, I didn’t pay attention to politics for that reason. You get home from school or work, drained of energy, and the last thing you want to do is hear about how bad things are in the world. So I want to keep Healthy Artists quirky and fun. The series is about talented, young, creative people. And the underlying message is: America would be SO AWESOME if health care was universal and considered a basic human right.

Danielle Nicole: Since starting Healthy Artists, what gains/successes would you say you’ve had? On a local level? Federal level?

Julie: Locally, we’ve assembled a big team of film/video folks to document stories and get the word out. It seems like just about every artist, college student, business owner, professor, community leader, etc we’ve talked to has been excited to collaborate with us. On a local level, it’s been proven to me that the vast majority of people are pro-universal health care. In the course of a year, we’ve made 30 short films, had a gigantic, roving art show (which started in January and is still happening). We’ve had some art exhibition/advocacy events that brought the Pittsburgh community together to talk about health care. Recently, we got invited to officially blog about Healthy Artists for Michael Moore’s website. Our local successes are indicative of what is possible on a national level. And people seem to recognize that.

Danielle Nicole: What are your thoughts on “Obamacare?” Is it progressive enough? Do you find that majority of the uninsured are in favor of its policies?

Julie: History suggests clearly to me that America will have single-payer universal health care someday. There’s just more work to be done to get there. Americans need to get savvy and vocal about it ASAP so we can get fair care sooner than later. Not to get too depressing, but people die in America a lot, because of this issue. Before his election in 2008, Obama was very vocal in support of single-payer universal health care (single-payer just refers to how it’s financed). As president, he successfully established the Affordable Care Act, which thankfully, was not repealed. The Affordable Care Act allows individual states to experiment with single-payer health care. So if people want to help, they can join or form single-payer universal health care advocacy groups. And they can do a number of things to help (including creative, artistic things!)

Danielle Nicole: In a perfect world, what would be an ideal health care system in the U.S.?

Julie: An ideal health care system is founded on the idea that health care is a human right and not a privilege. People shouldn’t have to work corporate 9 to 5s or be in prison to get health care. I think everyone should get health care despite their age, job, race, income, or any other factor. So a fair health care system would be a mark of a truly free and democratic society. You only have to look so far as to Canada, France, Germany, and the UK, for inspiring examples of universal health care.

Danielle Nicole: Does Healthy Artists’ have any projects coming up that you would like to mention?

Julie: A very talented film production co, Studio Corrida, is making a 30 minute documentary about Healthy Artists and what we’ve accomplished so far. We’re going to have a massive screening party for it this summer, which will be fun! We’ve been able to fight for universal health care in a creative and rewarding way. We hope more folks across the country will get involved. We totally encourage them to start filming health care stories in their communities. If people want any advice on how to help, they can contact us at

African American Flag | David Hammons

The Artist: David Hammons

The Territory: West 125th Street, Harlem, New York. The flag flies above The Studio Museum of Harlem.

Medium+Materials: Dyed Cotton, painted wood pole.
The Inspiration: David Hammons African American Flag was created in 1990, the same year David Dinkins was sworn in as the first black mayor of New York City. This period was by no means a time of racial harmony, but it’s safe to say that the political climate in Harlem was much different than that of the 1920s when Marcus Garvey walked neighborhood streets. The flag is a bold declaration of identity- Hammons took the Pan-African color scheme (used by Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association) to communicate the merged sense of duplicity that exists in being Black. For Hammons, producing the flag was not a question of citizenship, but rather an assertion. Being American and being Black are both one and the same, but Hammons – a man whose work was first provoked by the Watts riots- pays homage to his America, his version of history by melding the Black Liberation Flag with the traditional stars-and-stripes. Instead of the red, white and blue color scheme, Hammons uses black, red, and green, which represent skin tone, blood, and the prosperous wealth his ancestors were forced to leave behind. For some, Hammons’ use of Pan-African colors symbolizes not being considered American at all. But no matter your perspective, the flag has become a way to identify Harlem and its connection to both contemporary arts and the diaspora at large.

African American Flag is part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art.