“This was inspired by my own story. I think when something comes from the heart, it just flows out of you, it literally bursts out” says Itunu Para-Mallam (@itunu.pm) who is ½ of WE ARE SOUL when talking about creating their latest project ILE WA. ILE WA is a coffee book featuring the work of over 40 creatives of African and Caribbean heritage exploring the concept of home and our land.
A platform dedicated to connecting music and art lovers, WE ARE SOUL has been a space for lovers of poetry, lo-fi, neo soul and R&B music since their beginnings in 2015. Starting as an event back when they were uni students, Itunu and Tiffannie Mersades (@tiffanniemersades), the other half of WE ARE SOUL curated Soul Sessions – a night where singers, rappers and open mic artists could share their work and vibe with other like-minded creatives.
Itunu: We just wanted to throw an event for fun, but it went so well so we decided to do more. Then the next one, we added live music and then live art; and then, by 2019, we had our own live house band, who are still with us.
As well as being a go-to for creatives, Soul Sessions had a greater meaning behind it- one that got cut short by the pandemic.
Itunu: Behind the scenes of the events, we launched our CSR- Corporate Social Responsibility, which was called Soul Purpose. We linked up with a charity based in Nigeria who help women and children that go through domestic violence or sexual abuse, they help them with legal aid, housing, education, all sorts of things. We would take proceeds from our events, ticket sales, and we would use it to fund school fees, school uniforms and school materials for three girls that we’ve been sponsoring since 2017”.
While they prepare to return to live events and curate physical spaces again, the ILE WA book, which comes out in 2023, serves as a way to continue supporting Abigail, Joy and Queen, and give back to the community.
In the meantime, they’ve released a short film with the same name, and are giving viewers an opportunity to donate to their Soul Purpose campaign and be a part of the change that We Are Soul is pushing for.
We speak to co-founder Itunu about the WE ARE SOUL journey, the importance of philanthropy to the brand and the making of ILE WA.
Tell us about yourself, what do you do?
I’m Itunu, the creative director and co-founder of WE ARE SOUL, a music and art platform. We started off as an event brand, but had to put that on hold because of lockdown; so we just decided to convert into an online platform and just go ham on that. Create content, connect with new artists, existing artists, bigger artists and uplift the emerging ones.
But then I’m also known as Jedidah to some people, which I use for all my creative work. My actual job right now is I’m a full time freelance creative director, director, video editor. And then occasionally I’ll produce stuff, and do photography. So I kind of fuse the two worlds together, like, I’ll direct and edit stuff for WE ARE SOUL or I’ll do projects for clients as Jedidah.
What’s the criteria for being featured in a Soul Sessions? And what do you look for in the people you platform?
We curate it ourselves, so for the shows we decided to have a small lineup of three to four performers that we handpicked and we’d connect them with our band to rehearse. We always look for people that are visually but also sonically aesthetic; and that align with our brand ideals.
For online, we usually have meetings as a team, we’ll have a conversation about who we’re vibing with, if there’s anyone new we should know about; and it’s the same process, we’ll reach out to them and see if they’re interested.
Could you expand on the community aspect of We Are Soul as well, what does that support look like?
We started doing this a year or two ago, where I would ask my social media manager to start tracking how many people we share on our feed, share on our story, how much of our audience would take the time to listen to their music and respond to them.
We also had a scheme called Get Published. So artists would send us their music, and we would publish it on our website, which was a big deal for smaller creators, because it gave them a stamp of approval. A lot of the time, for really small emerging artists, brands with bigger audiences might not want to share them because they’re not gonna get clicks from it.
But we wanted to create something for the small creators that don’t have a huge following; so we include stats from across email, socials, and the website- any kind of support we’ve given creatives, we had a spreadsheet so we can track what organic investment looks like.
Do you have any success stories or testimonies from anybody that you’ve supported over the years and how you’ve seen them grow through your support and your community?
There’s an artist that performed at our events called Luke Burr, he was very new, and then all of a sudden, he blew up- his music was on Love Island, he was performing on TV, so Luke was a good one.
We also had Shae’s Universe. In the early days, Shae performed at our event and obviously we all know who Shae is now. TINYMAN as well, he’s so respected and well valued in the industry. And he’s in a collective called Steam Down, they’re touring the world now, their song has been on FIFA, I think. So they’ve done amazing.
Emmanuel Speaks also performed for us in the early days and he’s gone on to be like a spoken word guru; he has his own sound agency and voiceover agency. it ‘s been fun watching people grow.
Let’s talk about ILE WA. What does it mean? How would you translate that for people who don’t know what that means?
ILE WA just means our land. That’s the way my mom translates it to me. The project was originally called our land in English. And then from our land, we felt like, let’s actually connect it to our roots. So we stuck with ILE WA.
S: Where did this idea come from? And what do you explore in the book?
We were thinking of creative ways to get the word out about Soul Purpose and fundraise so that the girls could keep going to school; so in 2020, we decided to initially do a small exhibition with work from photographers in our home countries.
We obviously couldn’t do that, so fast forward to February of this year, we did a call out to get photographers, artists and poets to send us existing work that showcases what African and Caribbean culture and heritage looks like.
My work is in it, Tiffannie’s work is included as well; there’s people from the UK, the US and from Australia. And then there’s people that are indigenous from Nigeria, from Mozambique, that are from Jamaica- it’s genuinely a global project, everybody is either in the diaspora or they’re indigenous. It’s a beautiful marriage of Caribbean and African culture as well, for the reader to see from their lens of indigenous people and people from the diaspora.
Talk to us about the creatives that you featured in the project, what inspired you about their work and made you want to feature them in the book?
I was looking for people that had work that was at a high quality in terms of the visuals and photography and artistry of it, but for poets, I needed to read it and resonate with it. I wanted to read it and immediately understand the journey of life, our land, our country, our culture.
Those were the two things I was looking for, high quality work, but also work that made me feel something. And then there were also a few people that I reached out to because they were already in my network. People like Nwaka; she’s a friend of mine, and I reached out to her because I love her work. Artists like Aiden Harmitt Williams and Ejatu Shaw, Karis Beaumont, those are people that I’m friends with so I felt like yeah, let’s include them. Because their work is incredible and it fits really well.
Then for the film, we shot it in Nigeria; I contacted Aiden who is a photographer in the book, but also the writer and narrator of the poem. And then I contacted Oye 2.0.
It was important for us to shoot it at home, I wanted true and authentic storytelling, and the majority of the crew were Nigerian so it was a beautiful moment, I guess to be at home creating that.
S: What would you say inspired you as you were making it? What was your biggest takeaway?
I knew I wanted to create something special for the fundraising sides of things and like something great to go with the book. But genuinely, like I said earlier, I think it’s my personal story. Like it is a man in the film that you see. And it’s a man that’s doing the narration, but I like I said, I was indigenous. I was born and raised in Nigeria, but I’ve also lived most of my life here. So I was just visually showing how I was feeling living there and how I’m feeling now.
What’s next for WE ARE SOUL?
For musicians and artists, we really want to be that space, especially like in the neo soul, Lo Fi, r&b soul, that type of genre, we want to be that space for artists to feel seen
We want to bring back events, to be like a physical manifestation of our community-I think it’s important for us to have offline and online spaces for our community right now.
And again, that will tie back into Soul Purpose, because we’ll take some of the funding from that to go back into the Soul Purpose campaign. And I think with the book plus the events, we could actually add three more people or six more people to support. ILE WA has really opened the door for us to do more for our community outside of music and art, like our community back home.
A film by @wearesoul
Written and Directed by @jedidahm_
Produced and Filmed by @oye2.0
“Sacred Land (ILE WA)” Written and Narrated by @aidenhw
Location Production Manager @cedricgreen_
Edited by @jedidahm_
Post-Production Producers @baileyafracreative and @adiamyemane_
Music Score and Sound Design by @_dmtech
Co-Produced by @bloody__civ
Graded by @vanya.colour
Photographed by @just.fae and @jedidahm_