Faces of the future: Some of the rising stars of Ireland’s black community
Black Irish Lives: Young people making their mark in business, sport, music, film, food and beyond
Lydia Gratis, Nick Reynolds, Jeanne Nicole Ní Áinle, Aghogho Sophie Okpara and Nubi Kay. Photograph: Tom Honan
Gina Akpe-Moses is a 21-year-old athlete who came to Ireland from Nigeria at the age of three. From a very early stage, Akpe-Moses showed a keen interest in sports and athleticism, starting at the age of eight before specialising in sprinting at St Gerald’s AC secondary school.
Her first major win was at the European U20s Junior championships in 2017, an event that led to her becoming a contracted athlete supported by Sport Ireland. She then participated at the Youth World U-20 Championships in Finland in 2018, where she took home silver as part of the 4 x 100m Irish relay team.
When speaking on how the wider conversation around racism will impact the sports industry in Ireland, Akpe-Moses says she believes it will push the industry to elevate certain protocols and legislations. “They should really look at the stigma and the structure of the sports industry, to make sure that they are handling and partaking in making sure that the basic human rights of their athletes are being met” says the young athlete, who would also like to see a zero tolerance approach for athletes in the sport.
Athletics is not the only area where Akpe-Moses shines, as she was also offered her first choice university course to study psychology in the University of East London.
Her long-term goals are to graduate with a first-class honours degree and then continue on to do a master’s. She also has her eye on future Olympic medals, in the 100m, 200m and 4 x 100m relay events. – FK
Founder of Nigeria’s first online takeaway site, EasyAppetite in 2012, Kay is an operations program manager at online payments company Stripe. The 31-year-old won the Accenture Leaders of Tomorrow award in 2014 and is heavily involved in community projects and events, as well as leader of the interfaith community at Stripe.
Based in Clonee, Kay is also juggling a number of personal projects: Soup Bucket, a business delivering fresh African soup; Afro Colour, a 50-page colouring book that aims to build a connection with Nigerian heritage; and the Umbala Project, which puts a focus on building a community for technology entrepreneurs from minority backgrounds across Ireland.
Kay is also the president of the African Professional Network Ireland (APNI), an organisation that offers networking opportunities and engagement with the African community in Ireland. “I would like to see education, conversation, and mobilisation within the black community in Ireland and dialogue between the white and black community on racial issues to enable true allyship,” he says. – FK
Limerick rapper and spoken word artist Denise Chaila started making serious waves in the Irish hip-hop scene in January 2019, thanks to her debut EP, Duel Citizenship, where she addresses the themes of identity and belonging. The emerging rapper previously appeared on the second album of Limerick rap group Rusangano Family, but decided to run solo after performing with the band for a couple of years.
The Zambian-born star uses her music as a vehicle to fuel conversations about social identity and more, singing “My name’s not that hard to pronounce, Pre-K, it’s not profound C-H-A-I-L-A, sound the words out. It’s not Chillay, it’s not Chilala, not a hard pill to swalla, Chai-li or Chalia, Chia, Chilla, Dilla. That’s not my name. Say my name,” in her recent single, Chaila.
Combined with her breakthrough hit Copper Bullet, these singles have led to this charismatic talent being one of the most sought after women in the Irish hip-hop scene.
She received widespread praise during Covid-19 lockdown for her hour-long remote performance in the National Gallery of Ireland for Other Voices: Courage in May 2020 and she previously delivered a smash performance at the all female Perspectives – Imagining Ireland event in the National Concert Hall, Dublin in February. Chaila is currently gearing up for the release of her first album, Go Bravely. – FK
Dublin-based photographer and film-maker, Bobby Zithelo Mthombeni’s family moved from South Africa to Ireland when he was 10 years old. “I always loved movies growing up, I was watching films back-to-back whenever I had free time” he says, but he “never thought about myself becoming a film-maker, I just assumed you had to go to some fancy rich film school in the UK or America to become a film-maker”.
Zithelo studied digital media at TU Dublin’s Blanchardstown campus and it was there that he realised he could become a film-maker when he worked on a short film as part of an assignment. He also discovered what has become the driving force behind his work: the need to work on projects that start a national conversation.
In the film, he explores the bright impact immigration has had on Ireland over the last few years. It features people of colour who’ve grown up in Ireland and the conversation centres around race, racism and identity.
“I think once we started talking to different people, we realised we could go deeper with this piece and really tap into an emotional aspect,” he says.
He says he wants to keep creating films that don’t shy away from the reality of life. “The creative scene [in Ireland] is very inspiring and I want to contribute something to it.” – ZB
Lydia Gratis is an advocate for the inclusion and understanding of deaf people in Irish society and in the hearing world.
The 26-year-old, who is of South African and Malawi origin, moved here with her family when she was seven. Growing up in Ireland was tough for her, she says, as being deaf and black, she struggled with feeling like an outsider.
“Being a minority within a minority is absolutely hard.” she says. “In the deaf community, especially with older deaf people, there’s a lot of ignorance that facilitates micro-aggression and stereotypes.”
She channelled these emotions of not feeling represented or understood within deaf spaces and turned them into her motivation. As part of a youth leadership role, she served as president of the Irish Deaf Youth Association, a non-profit organisation catering to deaf and hard of hearing young people all over Ireland. They also create social, educational and networking opportunities for Irish deaf youth.
Independently, Gratis runs awareness and anti-racism workshops where she delves into topics relating to the black community in Ireland. “Being black and deaf is not hard,” she says, “it’s other people that make your experiences hard.”
Gratis is now a youth and diversity board director with the Irish Deaf Society, and she says in line with the organisation’s values, her focus is to promote the equality and rights of deaf people in Ireland.
Republic of Ireland U21 international Adam Idah made his major breakthrough earlier this year after scoring a hat-trick in his FA Cup debut for Norwich City.
The Cork native, who has played a starring role for the U21s in their European championship qualifying campaign, went on to start for Norwich at Old Trafford. The 19-year-old striker first took an interest in football at the age of six playing with College Corinthians.
Idah is highly rated by the Canaries and scored a spot-kick in their penalty shootout victory over Spurs in the FA Cup in March. The promising athlete recently took to Instagram to show his solidarity for the Black Lives Matter Movement, writing: “We, the Players, stand together with the singular objective of eradicating racial prejudice wherever it exists, to bring about a global society of inclusion, respect, and equal opportunities for all, regardless of their colour or creed. This symbol is a sign of unity from all players, all staff, all clubs, all match officials and the Premier League. ” – FK
AGHOGHO SOPHIE OKPARA
“I think it’s important to volunteer yourself as an agent for change, because if everybody waits for somebody else to do it, nothing will ever get done,” says 20-year-old, Aghogho Sophie Okpara, who is a Nigerian-Irish student living in Dublin.
The final year undergraduate received an All Ireland Scholarship at Leaving Cert level, and went on to study biomedical, health and life sciences in UCD. She was the president of UCD Africa Society from 2019-2020 and in that time, she organised the first black studies event to occur in Ireland.
In June 2020, Okpara wrote a poem entitled “Black is a made-up country (to which you are a national)” and shared it at an Irish Black Lives Matter virtual rally, drawing praise from across the black community.
“My aim is to provoke people to think outside their comfort zone. I wrote the poem in order to highlight what I call ‘the black experience’ so that people who relate to me feel less alone, and so that others who can’t relate can understand.” – FK
AFONSINA PACA MUKUNDAYI
Afonsina Paca Mukundayi established her food delivery service Chez Mary in March 2020, just as Covid-19 restrictions were announced in Ireland. The Dublin-based company offers a variety of meals ranging from Afro to traditional Hispanic staples. The timing of Mukundayi’s launch of her “cook and drop” service (where Mukundavi drops pre-cooked meals to her customer’s door) could not have been better, as restaurants shut and demand for home delivery increased.
Although her new venture is demanding, Mukundayi says she has a strong support network to help her business thrive. The 31-year-old is living in Blanchardstown, but says her love of cooking goes back to her childhood. “I have a passion for cooking, this goes way back from when I was little and my mum showing me how to cook from the age of eight. I had my own little pots and whatever she would cook I would cook the same.
“Chez Mary is my way of reconnecting with her and doing something I love doing,” says the Angolan-born food lover.
At present, Chez Mary is operating on a delivery basis, but Mukundavi hopes to expand the brand before opening a restaurant. – FK
DONALD MZONDO/VIOLA GAYVIS
A new member of Dublin’s Drag scene, 22-year-old computer science and software engineering student Donald Mzondo was inspired by local drag queens in Dublin’s popular gay club The George as well as the long-running TV series, Rupaul’s Drag Race. “They always seem like they’re having a great time and I wanted the same kind of attention,” he says.
Mzondo was born in Zimbabwe but grew up in Lucan, Co Dublin. He says that he was very lucky to have gone to schools that were multicultural as he never had the feeling of being different, everyone in his primary and secondary school had different cultures at home.
As Viola Gayvis, he says he gets to express himself with absolute confidence. Recently, Viola hosted a digital drag event called Ireland Cares. The event featured a line-up of Irish drag performers, raising funds for non-profit LGBT organisations, Black Pride Ireland and Origins Eile.
“Lately, black queer people in Ireland are starting to become more visible” Mzondo says, but “going into the drag scene, I knew I’d be the only black person. I do think about it, it’s at the back of my head”.
Mzondo says he is excited about what his future in drag looks like, and is so eager to take on new opportunities that to date he’s never turned down the offer to do a show. “I enjoy doing it, it brings me so much joy.” – ZB
Deborah Somorin (26) is a qualified chartered accountant with a master’s in accounting from DCU and works as a consultant for PwC in Dublin. She is a strong advocate for social justice and is advocating for black women to have a voice in the gender pay gap conversation. She also organises intersectional pride events, including an event in Dublin’s Pride 2020 in June.
In 2018, Somorin founded a not-for-profit organisation called Empower the Family (ETF). The charity plans to open a facility for student accommodation in Dublin with onsite quality childcare for single parents aged between 18 and 23 attending university (Somorin herself became a single mother at the age of 14). This social enterprise supports Ireland’s commitment to accomplishing 10 of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. “Some people can’t afford to go to university because they don’t have anywhere to live. We genuinely believe that if you have the determination and the ability to go through university, succeed and successfully get through it then you should be able to do that,” says the accountant whose work in this area earned her a spot on the prestigious 2020 Forbes 30 under 30 list, making ETF the only female-led organisation in Ireland to make the list this year.
She sits on the board of directors for Chartered Accountants Support (which supports members and students of Chartered Accountants Ireland), the Chartered Accountants Ireland diversity and inclusion committee, as well as the RTÉ Youth Advisory Committee. – FK
Maimouna Salif (stage name Celaviedmai) is a Galway-based rapper who released her first single, Dive, in 2018 but has been performing for the past seven years. In 2013, the Galwegian was one of the three acts chosen to open for American rapper Lil Wayne at the O2 Arena, something she considers to be one of her biggest music achievements to date. The 27-year-old has also opened up for Mac Miller, Tinchy Stryder, Sneakbo and Irish rapper Jafaris. Since the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, Celaviedmai has been advocating to have black female voices amplified in the music industry in Ireland. “I want to see the push of women in music in Ireland,” she says.
Celaviedmai recently took part in the Hot Press Lockdown Sessions for the magazine’s Young and Emerging series. She gave a memorable performance online in the event supported by the Department of Culture, and can next be heard on her new single, Questions featuring Irish hip-hop artist Nealo. – FK
JEANNE NICOLE NÍ ÁINLE
Jeanne is a 21-year-old model and aspiring actor born to an Irish mother and Ivorian father. She started modelling right after completing her Leaving Cert, but says she feels that she was late getting into the industry. Her achievements would suggest otherwise. She has already landed her first magazine cover (Confetti Magazine), and has acting roles in the upcoming feature film Lily by Graham Cantwell and Amy Huberman’s Finding Joy.
Her advice to black Irish women interested in modelling is to “not be afraid of your difference” and to embrace the features that “make you stand out”. Ní Áinle says that one thing she wishes to see more of in the Irish modelling industry is “more Afro hair styles”.
Ní Áinle is also a Gaeilgeoir, having studied Irish since primary school. She recently graduated with a diploma in theatre performance and says that her “passion for performing is what has made modelling so enjoyable”. – ZB
The 32-year-old Jamaican-Irish chef is the man behind Lil Portie Caribbean Kitchen which was launched in 2018, a weekly dining experience that pops up in Dublin’s Two Fifty Square cafe.
Born and raised in Dublin, many of Reynolds’s vibrant dishes were passed on to him by his grandmother who he regularly visits in east London. Reynolds has also spent some time living in Buenos Aires, learning about Latin American cuisine, which he now blends with Caribbean flavours to create his distinctive style of cooking.
When asked how Dubliners react to his cuisine, he says: “People are very keen to try it, especially those that have never tried these kinds of flavours.” He says he sources his meat and fish locally and picks up his herbs and spices from Asian stores on Moore Street.
His most popular dish is his saltfish fritters (made with salted cod), which he says he finds amusing as it’s historically a very cheap dish to make and is a modest staple in Jamaican cuisine.
OFFICA (TOM ADEDAYO ADEYINKA)
“I put my town on the map,” is the opening line of Face Reveal, a hit single by one of Ireland’s fastest growing music artists, Offica (19). The Drogheda-based drill rapper first came to light after his viral hit Naturo Drillings, made him the one to watch in the Irish drill scene.
Released in 2019, the song – which he had hoped would garner 100,000 views on YouTube – ended up with more than one million hits online. After the track caught the attention of celebrity rapper and YouTuber, KSI, the two collaborated to do a Naturo Drillings remix, which has now accumulated more than five million views.
The rising star attributes much of his success to the anonymity of the mask that he wears in the Naturo Drillings video, saying it piqued the interest of his audience, making them curious to find out whose face lies behind it. However, they didn’t have to wait too long as curiosity was put to rest after Offica unmasked himself in his Face Reveal video released in May 2020. That track garnered more than one million views in three weeks.
Offica mixes English with the Yoruba language from his Nigerian roots to offer something unique to the drill music scene. However, his dual-heritage has not stopped him from connecting with the people of Ireland’s Ancient East. He says he gets a lot of support from the Drogheda locals and from the local football team as he previously played in the League of Ireland for Drogheda United. Speaking on coping with the pressure that can come from rising fame, he said: “I tend not to think about it too much, I just go with the flow”. He would like to see “a bit more mainstream support” for drill and rap in Ireland: “There are so many good Irish songs that should be played on Irish radio and in Irish shops, not just UK artists.” He is gearing up for two upcoming singles, one of which is titled Lockdown, which will be released this month, with plans to release an EP towards the end of the summer. – FK