Fifty Four Kingdoms

The apparel and accessory company, 54 Kingdoms, makes fashion with "a pan-Africanist sensibility." They thought the African Cup of Nations is a good place to start.

Kwaku A. Awuah (co-owner and President) and Nana Poku (CEO) of 54 Kingdoms (Image Supplied).

This summer, while viewing the progress of African teams in the 2014 World Cup on TV screens around the city (I managed to watch games with friends at Africa-themed bars and restaurants in at least three of New York City’s five boroughs), I kept running into Kwaku A. Awuah (co-owner and President) and Nana Poku (CEO) of 54 Kingdoms, an apparel and accessory company with, in their words, a pan-Africanist sensibility. They were on their hustle, selling their Score for Unity (SFU) range, a series of 3 shirts in the colors of the African countries participating in Brazil 2014. Since then, as their Facebook and Twitter pages show, their business keeps growing, including the new University of Afrika (UoA) sweater and henley range.  Long after the World Cup was over, we sent them some questions. Below is the email conversation.

Can you say something about your backgrounds? How did you meet? You have a background in fashion?

We were both born in Ghana, West Africa. Nana is from the Ashanti region, and Kwaku has ties to the Ashanti and Central region. We relocated to the U.S in 1997 (Nana) and 2001 (Kwaku), respectively. We lived only a few miles from each other in Accra, Ghana, but it took us almost ten years to meet through a mutual friend, who made the introduction back in 2007.

54 Kingdoms’ roots can be traced back to 2006, when Nana developed the concept in the fall semester of his senior year at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU). “What if there was a clothing line that integrated designs and concepts from the African Diaspora to tell the Pan-African story?,” he wondered. This idea of using the Diaspora as a source of inspiration for designing Pan-African inspired fashion helped in developing the company’s name, 54 Kingdoms. The number ‘54’ symbolized the total number of countries in Africa, and the word ‘Kingdoms,’ signifies that each and every African country is a part of a larger kingdom spanning overseas to include the African Diaspora.

Although, we both didn’t go to a fashion school, it was the desire to create a conscious movement through fashion that led to the official registration and launching of 54 Kingdoms as a company in 2009. The rest as they say, is history.

Can you break down the company slogan, “It’s a Kulture, not a Brand”?

Our slogan signifies the embodiment of the 54 Kingdoms movement. While most companies or individuals focus on building a brand, we sincerely believe in cultivating a lifestyle movement. A lifestyle, that acknowledges the core Pan-African creativity in everything we do.

As we always say, “fashion shouldn’t be just about aesthetics; it should be the thread that interweaves our culture and identity, into the fabric of life that displays the pattern of our pride and self-expression.” We pride ourselves in creating pieces that have educational expressions and can create conversations.

Kwame Nkrumah spoke of a “United States of Africa.” You have decided on “54 Kingdoms”? I know it is symbolism, but monarchies don’t have the best reputation on the African continent.

As students and strong advocates for the Pan-African movement, we honor the ideologies and teachings of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah; one of the most celebrated torchbearers of Pan-Africanism and African liberation struggles.

Even Europe speaks of “continental unity,” although it has fought more wars than any other continent. For us, the question still remains, why can’t Africa speak of and pursue continental unity? The vision for a United States of Africa ignited by Nkrumah should not be mistaken for monarchical exploitation, and must be clearly understood. Nkrumah made Ghana the base for every movement that fought against colonialism, but he also knew that a strong Ghana didn’t necessarily mean a stronger Africa. Hence, at Ghana’s independence celebration on March 6, 1957, Nkrumah said, “Ghana’s independence is meaningless, unless it’s linked to the total liberation of Africa.” After all, what is the point of Ghana’s independence if the remaining African countries were still colonized? It was all about putting the continent first.

These are the same principles that govern our work here at 54 Kingdoms. We are both Ghanaians, and could have focused on telling Ghanaian stories through fashion. Instead, we are learning from diverse cultures and sharing different stories from the Diaspora. Not only is 54 Kingdoms providing education through fashion, but also connecting and bringing people together. We see this emotional and unified connection at our annual Storytellers in Fashion showcase; we always knew fashion could be much more than what people have been conditioned to accept it to be.

Talk about creative process for the Score For Unity (SFU) collection?

The creative process for our SFU collection was thought provoking and emotional, but overall, an amazing experience. It involved so many unique elements such as the designs on the apparel, the packaging, and official theme song Team Africa, recorded by Congolese-born singer, Rafiya.

We went into creative mode knowing this would be a challenging project, because it placed emphasis on African Unity – a not so popular topic for most Africans (believe it or not). We believed that creating the SFU collection would start a conversation about African Unity, and it proved us right; we ignited a #TeamAfrica movement through this collection.

Some may class you as Afropolitans. What do you think of the idea of the “Afropolitan” which has its own critics and supporters?

The idea of the “Afropolitan” is not new, but may be a more popular term used to describe today’s generation of Africans and people of African descent with a very global outlook.

As we often say, “you can’t see the picture when you are in the frame.” When Africans migrate to other places, we pick up new ideologies and different perspectives on things (economics, politics, problem-solving, etcetera). It doesn’t make us less African, and it sure doesn’t make us better than our brothers and sisters on the continent. Through knowledge sharing, both Africans on the continent and “Afropolitans” can contribute effectively to Africa’s development.

You are Ghanaians of course. How did you make sense of the Ghanaian team’s meltdown during the World Cup? Who comes off the worse in this process? Who are the real culprits?

It is hard to defend the Black Stars’ meltdown in Brazil. There is no excuse; they let the entire continent down. Although, the embarrassment exposed the on-going corruption among top executives from the Ghana Football Association (GFA), the players looked worse in the process.

The top culprit is the GFA; they’re corruption principal, followed by poor leadership and coaching IQ exhibited by our then coach, Akwasi Appiah. We love the idea of African countries hiring African coaches, but each candidate should be examined carefully, and must go through essential trainings to acquire the necessary coaching skills needed to compete on the highest level and most importantly, win.

Finally, since I ran into you at a few places, especially Africa-specific restaurants in Brooklyn during the World Cup, from your experience where is the best place to watch either the African Nations Cup or, now, the World Cup, in the greater New York City area?

Madiba Restaurant (Brooklyn), Buka (Brooklyn), Suite 36 (Manhattan), Mataheko (Queens), Accra Restaurant (Bronx), Les Ambassades (Harlem) and Farafina (Harlem). More information can be found on our site, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.


Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.