After spending the majority of his life outside the continent he was born in, Arinze Emegoakor started Akuko, a company celebrating Nigerian and African culture through socks.
Arinze Emegoakor’s journey started in Nigeria and continued through Malaysia, the Netherlands and back to Nigeria, before finally settling in Malmö, Sweden. On his journey, he discovered a startling reality that came to shape his future. “It was the first time I faced racism,” Emegoakor recalls. “I knew I was Black, but I didn't know it was a problem.”
This experience turned into a desire to elevate African culture and to tell his story, but he didn’t know exactly what that looked like. Then he found the answer in a cultural habit that’s found in both Sweden and Nigeria: no shoes allowed indoors.
We meet up with Arinze to talk about sustainable bamboo socks, how to break stereotypes and the movie Black Panther.
Here are excerpts from our conversation with Emegoakor. They have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Arinze: I have a nine-year-old son and we were just hanging out on the streets of Malmö. He's the kind of guy that doesn't walk on a straight line. He was jumping around, just being a kid, and I kept telling him to stop. “Behave! Stand still!” Then suddenly he turned around and looked at me. At that moment, I realized that I should let him be a kid. It was my own fear of being judged that I projected on him.
I have faced many challenges, stereotypes and expectations. It affected how I acted. It made me hold back. I wasn't living my potential. Right there I decided to take my spot and tell my story.
“Since my socks are already a conversation starter, why not use it as a moment of enlightenment?”
I have been wearing vibrant and colorful socks for more than 25 years and I have been receiving reactions like “Wow, what's that?” I started thinking about using these moments to start a conversation and actually teach someone something. Since my socks are already a conversation starter, why not use it as a moment of enlightenment?
I wanted to make socks that I want to wear, but also socks that come with a message. That's how the whole idea started. I could tell my story of Africa--the story that you don't normally see on the news. I want to break stereotypes and take care of the environment while doing it. It’s not about me wanting to be a part of the fashion industry. I just want to tell my story.
I wouldn’t say I come from a rich family, but I was privileged. That’s not really what people think here. I want to correct these stereotypes, which are mainly based on a single narrative. On TV, you only see African kids suffering. It's very dangerous when you keep showing only one side of the story.
There are other stories to tell, and that's what I’m trying to do. I want people to look cool and take care of the environment, and I also want to tell stories that connect Africa with the African diaspora.
I’m tired of trying to prove that there is prejudice and racism. I want to focus on the positive things. I want to start with the decolonization of our mindset, because if you believe in yourself, it doesn't really matter what somebody else thinks about you.
On my first collection, the symbol was an ogene, a musical instrument used by the town crier to call for gatherings in the village. Even today, the town crier will play it to call for a meeting at the market square or elsewhere; people will just show up without knowing why they're being called. It’s an organic instrument of the people and that’s why I decided to use it--to call people to our various platforms to have these conversations.
Our next collection will be going back deeper into our history, bringing up something that even some of my own people don't know about.
Before the Europeans came to Nigeria, we had a written logographic system called Nsibidi; now it's only used by secret societies and a few cultures around Igbo and the Cross River area of Nigeria. It was exported to Cuba and Haiti through the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The script has been demonized, as they say it is the devil’s way of writing. For me, it’s painful that a part of our civilization was extracted, and that people are no longer talking about it. My mom is almost eighty years old and she doesn't know about Nsibidi.
We always talk about African storytelling, saying it is oral and never documented. This is not correct. Our ancestors wrote and Nsibidi is proof of that.
“I want people to look cool and take care of the environment, and I also want to tell stories that connect Africa with the African diaspora.””
We didn't just ’start’ the Akụkọ project. We studied a lot of things, and I ultimately came across the concept of Afropresentism, “the Black presence in the diaspora”. An expert connected it to Afrofuturism, as showcased in the movie Black Panther. We see a future where African people, a unified people of African descent, will be dignified. But what happens today? We want to take more space, right here and right now.
We are influencing culture, technology and people already. While hoping for that perfect world—the dreamworld—we highlight and mark our presence now. That's the concept of Akụkọ: celebrating Black excellence by acknowledging our contributions.