In this political moment, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the culture we make have never felt more critical, and no one understands the power of those statements better than Adesuwa Aighewi. Since the model and filmmaker was discovered back in 2010, on her college campus in Maryland, she’s built a strong track record walking in shows for, among many others, Alexander Wang, Kenzo, Vivienne Westwood, and Miu Miu, not to mention her editorial work, including the covers of magazines like L’Officiel and Numéro, all of which has placed her firmly among fashion’s elite. But it’s her reputation for speaking out—about her industry and beyond, on social media and elsewhere—that makes her truly stand out as a leader for social change. And it doesn’t hurt that, with her long, flowing dreadlocks, she has an unmistakable, undeniable look. (By the way, the politics of black hair in fashion is a thorny issue she tackled in an essay in The Guardian.)
While Aighewi has already proved her modeling bonafides, she’s been experiencing a personal creative renaissance of late. In July, she released a stunning short film titled Spring in Harlem, which she co-directed with the fashion photographer Joshua Woods in collaboration with Love magazine. In the video, Aighewi, who was raised and is still Buddhist, captures the beauty of Muslim women in New York’s Harlem neighborhood—where she’s lived for the past year and half and where the photographs for W‘s latest Instazine were shot—and in doing so utilized her platform to transform her complaints about representation into art and actions.
When I called Aighewi, who was in Nigeria, on WhatsApp recently, I admit I did not know what to expect on the other end of the line. I’ve long been an avid follower of her social media, where you get a little bit of everything, from memes of possums to polished runway footage to a rap-a-long videos to Nicki Minaj. What’s always present, though, is a dynamic personality and a real sense of humor. But, of course, some larger-than-life Internet personae fall flat when you connect with them IRL. It wasn’t the case with Aighewi. From the moment she said hello, she made her surroundings in the red-dusted Benin City, located in the southern Nigeria, come alive (Aighewi, who was born in Minneapolis and is of Nigerian, Chinese, and Thai descent, spent parts of her childhood in Nigeria). Benin City is known for its bronze reliefs, used to depict the city’s history. “The entire city is literally red because our soil is almost clay,” Aighewi explained. “My skin is, like, covered in, like, a red filter. Everything is just red.” Here, she talks about where she’s been and, more importantly, where she’s going next.
So, let’s begin with the film Spring in Harlem. Why did you make it?
I just wanted to do it because I just felt like it was an important story to tell, to be honest. I had the means of doing it, and so I just did it. It was literally as simple as that. I’m not even Muslim; I’m Buddhist. I just thought it’d be a really good story to tell. I just wanted to show a different side, to show a nonnegative or more positive view of Muslims.
Have you always been interested in storytelling like this, or was it just this project that really made you feel like you’d found your moment?
Well, I didn’t really have any friends for mad long, because I kind of grew up really isolated and sheltered, so I loved stories. Like, love, love, love stories. I love nonfiction. All my friends [now] get upset because I always talk to random people all the time, and I want to know their whole life stories. I want to hear it. I want to learn it. So I’m always talking to Uber drivers, basically anybody who will sit down with me or just stop for a second. I just feel like a lot of the cool stories are not in books. I feel like there’s gold, gems everywhere. Every person, I feel like, has something that anybody else can learn from. So why not?
True. So why make a film?
I guess I never really dreamed in film before because I wasn’t really exposed to film as a kid. We didn’t have constant TV. My parents are both academics, so they were never really like, “Oh, you got to watch th[is] TV show.” I grew up in Nigeria. We barely have light. The government takes the light every five minutes. So a lot of my friends were books. My parents really, really exposed us to books. So I’ve always dreamed in books, in words, but it was only recently that, being a model, I got exposed to film. And [then] I met this woman who was a director. And it was after meeting her that I was like, “Oh, my God. Oh, shit. I can dream in video, I can actually have a voice without anybody using my physical appearance as a way to determine my work”—if that makes sense.
Yes, that makes sense.
Yeah, you [can] actually watch my videos and I can get my point across without you judging me and being like, “Oh, she’s a black girl and she’s pretty, so she must be making shitty videos.” You know what I mean? With a video, I could have an alias and no one would know that it was me.
So where are you now? Nigeria? Lagos?
I’m not in Lagos. I’m in Benin. So Lagos is, like, popular—lots of Americans, lots of foreigners. I’m where I grew up, which is in Benin City. [The Benin Kingdom] is one of the oldest monarchies in the world. It is old. I’ve been here for a week, and it feels like eternity. It’s been wild, absolutely wild. Like, if you go see my [Instagram] Story, it’s crazy. And I wish I had more data, because I wanted to livestream, because this place is insane. The entire city is literally, like, red because our soil is almost clay. It’s so red. My skin is, like, covered in a red filter.
That sounds beautiful. How often are you able to get back home?
Dude, I haven’t been home in 13 years.
I haven’t been here since I left. And everything is the exact same. Everything is basically the exact same thing, like, literally. My grandmother looks the exact same. My uncles look the exact same. Nobody ages here apparently. I was like, “I thought the sun is supposed to make your skin bad.” They literally look identical. It’s wild.
Well, that bodes well for your future. And in this moment of your career, how do you keep your wits about you, balancing all the things you have going on?
It was a bit difficult at first, because I didn’t realize how taxing things could be, emotionally or mentally. I’ve always been like, “Oh, I’m tired. Because I’ve been working, I’m tired.” But when you’re working—this level is wild, because everyone that you meet, they expect to meet 100 percent of you. Do you know what I mean? If you’re having an off day, you don’t go anywhere because people get offended. You know what I mean? And I’ve seen lots of girls break down. So I guess because I’ve been modeling for so long, I’ve seen my friends go through this, so I’ve kind of learned from them how not to crash. A lot of girls will have a really big moment and be done after one season because they couldn’t handle it, or they just didn’t know how to balance and they freaked out and ran away.
And definitely I think it’s so integral, because I think that FOMO happens, especially with social media. Everyone is like, “Oh, I saw it on their Stories. I want to be there,” but sometimes—
Right. Yeah. I don’t have FOMO anymore. I’m past that. I’m done. I actually don’t care. I’m focused on my jobs. I want to always be, like, 150 percent at my jobs. So I’m always well rested. I started taking vitamins. I started [doing] f–king yoga, and I’m not a fan of yoga. I’m like, “Ugh, this is stupid.” But that shit actually works.
It does work. Are there parts of your self-care routine that you feel are really integral that you’ve come into?
Oh, my God, yeah. Like meditating. I’m Buddhist, my mom is Buddhist, and my mom is always emphasizing meditating, but I’ve never really put energy into it. But yo, recently, oh, my God. It’s really, like, a lifesaver. I went to the temple, and I was like, “I need to learn.” I was like, “Teach me everything now. I need to learn how to be focused and always be in control of my emotions.” So meditating has taught me a lot.
And on the other end of the spectrum, could you talk to me a little bit about your relationship to social media and why you find it to be valuable?
No one is watching TV like in the past. Everyone is on their phones. So your phone is the quickest way to impact somebody. So, if I’ve got something to share, why not just put it on my phone? It’s a catch-22, because it’s kind of like everyone is watching you, but you can also tell everybody everything. I don’t like the fact that everyone is watching me. To me, I find it a little creepy sometimes. But at the same time, I’m like, “Hey.” I don’t think of my Instagram as followers. I talk on my social media as if I’m talking to my friends. Do you know what I mean? I’m always like, “Oh, hey, guys.” Everything you see on social media is exactly how I am in person. I don’t have an alternative personality. I don’t have an alter ego. I’m myself 24/7. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, whatever. We don’t have to like each other. There are 7.6 billion people in this world. You don’t have to please everybody.
What are some of the things that really inspire you at this stage or have inspired you throughout your life?
I mean, lately, I’ve been looking at a lot of the kids who are 15 and 16 who are coming out on Instagram, or people who are going through transitions and blog daily about it. I think that’s really cool. I was like, “I don’t know anything about being transgender, but I can learn,” like this kid I follow, Chella Man.
Yeah, I love Chella.
Yeah. But I’ve been watching for months, since they had 5,000 followers. To watch their voice change and see how [much] happier [they are]…I’m like, “That’s fucking tight. That’s really cool.”
In this phase in your career, I’m wondering what you hope people will take away from where you are right now. Of course, even though you’ve been working for some time, you’re also just at the beginning, but I wonder if there’s some message that you’re wanting to relay to others.
Yeah, I haven’t really thought that far. All the things that I’m doing now, or things that I’ve been talking about, I’ve been dreaming about forever, and the only reason everyone is listening now is because I have magazine covers and campaigns, which I knew would happen, so that’s why I need to be more vocal. But I’m not really thinking, like, “Oh, what’s going to be my legacy? What’s going to be my mark?” I’m just like, “Yo, while I got your attention, this would be tight to do.”
But right now, the next thing that I’m working on, I want to do an art gallery. I asked a bunch of black photographers from around the world—whom I’ve known through social media, funnily enough—to shoot what they think the idea of black beauty is. Because a lot of the things that we see in today’s media are what the white man has said black beauty is.
And I am in no way the standard of what black beauty is. I’m not. But I’m privileged enough to be biracial and tall and slender, with my Asian genes and my black genes, and in America, that’s what’s popular now as the idea of beauty. But if you go to any large black community, I’m not the standard at all. So I’m working on this gallery. It’s going to be in New York City, and I want to call it Black Planet.
So, last question: Do you feel like you need to find a new way to label yourself as you take on all of these different initiatives?
I mean, I don’t really feel the need to. I did a story about black hair the other day, and my agent was like, “Oh, what do you want to be called?” I’m just Adesuwa, really.