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Creative Leadership Interview :: Tamika Abaka-Wood

We all have access to powerful tools to learn almost anything, at any time, from anyone. And alongside this, we have several platforms to express these learnings, thoughts and musings. It’s equal parts exciting and scary.

In our series Creative Leadership: A New Way of Thinking about Creativity, we explore just what Creative Leadership looks like in today’s culture and modern economy. Speaking to the creative thinkers and practitioners shifting the needle in our perceptions of creativity and its outcomes.

Currently based in London, Tamika Abaka-Wood is a true digital nomad.

As current problem-solver at creative management consultancy Bespoke+Accelerated, Tamika has spent the past 10 years developing and running global research and insight processes for brands, charities and cultural institutions such as Nike, UNICEF, MTV and Converse.

Anthropological insight, a BSc in psychology, and multiple roles as dancer, choreographer, bartender and PhD linguistics MRI assistant, have all enabled the provision of impactful strategy and creative output across sport, beauty and youth culture.

Tamika is also co-founder and editor-in-chief of Plantain Papers, an annual print journal stocked at Moma PS1 NYC, Somerset House London and Kubrick Hong Kong. Plantain Papers provides a platform for the diaspora across the globe to connect with each other and tell their own stories, in their own words.

Q) How would you describe yourself in 5 words?

Curious. Reflective. Kind. Intuitive. Warm.

Full disclosure: I crowdsourced these answers amongst friends, colleagues and people who call out my BS with love. Then I chose the ones that I thought fit best.

Q) Could you describe your pathway into creative industry?

I was 19 and ended up spending time at a Nike “inner circle” research project that my partner at the time was involved in. I learned that the project was being run by the Ruby Pseudo team. I didn’t know who they were or what they did at the time. But I immediately sensed that they were people who would expand my world. Whilst I wasn’t supposed to be one of the ‘consumers’ in the project session, they always made extra space for me to learn, listen and be heard.

I ended up giving the final presentation for the group because no one else wanted to do it, the stakes were pretty low for me, because I wasn’t even supposed to be in the room. Days after this, I was offered a part-time job at the Youth Consultancy whilst I was studying for my Psychology degree.

The exponential growth that occurred from that point was off the chain. There was no space made for sycophancy at Ruby Pseudo and that’s rare – especially within the agency-client dynamic. I’m forever thankful that I got to ‘cut my teeth’ in the creative industry with them.

It’s about reclamation of power, agency and ownership for the diaspora. But at the same time, it is a very vibey publication – this is fun, we’re having fun with it.

Q) Plantain Papers is a collaborative effort between yourself, Lemara Lindsay-Prince, and Tahirah Edwards-Byfield. How did the connection for collaboration come about and what was the impetus behind setting up?

Back in 2017, when Lemara was living in NYC, we spent a rare, spare afternoon together away from the grind and by the water next to East River State Park. Inside her notepad, she had ‘Plantain Papers’ written down. Together we schemed on what this killer name she came up with could manifest as.

Plantain is such an everyday, dynamic and delicious fruit through which the Diaspora connects – whether those more immediate roots are in Africa, the Caribbean, South America or beyond. For such a humble food, it has a rich cultural legacy. It’s more than about whether you pronounce it ‘plan-tain’, ‘plan-tin’, ‘platanos’ or ‘dodo’. Plantain speaks directly to questions of home, identity and belonging. Weeks after our little brainstorm Tahirah put all three of us in a Twitter DM out of the blue. The message read – ’Random but both of you two are on my mind today. I thought about the bad-ass supergroup we could form. Of creative, intellectual black girl brilliance.’

At the core of it, we’re all fascinated and driven by connecting with people, communities and the changing landscapes around us. Humanity is the true value which brought us together and cultivated Plantain Papers. I have carved out a deep and special place in my heart for those two women – we challenge one another, affirm one another and take care of one another.

The impetus to create Plantain Papers came from a deep desire and, actually a need, for black, brown and Latinx people to shape and own our own individual narratives. We aim to centre a wide spectrum of voices from without a business case, bottom line or a deck in mind. Plantain acts as a dynamic, versatile and everyday conduit for accessing a spectrum of personal histories. It’s about reclamation of power, agency and ownership for the diaspora. But at the same time, it is a very vibey publication – this is fun, we’re having fun with it.

Q) What stories in particular (in Plantain Papers) have resonated with you and why?

The three co-editors all get paid to pay attention and notice things for a living, in slightly different ways, so are quite adept at clocking cultural shifts. We always curate Plantain Papers with a theme in mind which we’ve been chewing on, pulling apart and trying to wrap our heads around. But we never explicitly name the theme of the issue when we launch. We leave room for people to add their point of view. That’s why on the front cover there’s a blank space for people to name their own edition: The _____ Issue.

I guess, for me, the articles which ask the reader to intimately engage and interact with the subject matter have a special place in my heart. I’m not a writer, but I write – my life’s work is centred around human behaviour. I know we’re journeying down the intended path when I hear that teachers in London have printed articles and are using them as teaching materials in their classes, or a teenage girl from Detroit messages us to say a piece has changed their perspective on their body, or that a man from Johannesburg has reconciled with a family member after answering questions we posed around relationships. The stories that resonate with me are those which resonate with our people and the interior of their lives – it sounds like a cop-out but its the truth.

Q) With a background spanning psychology, strategy to community work, how useful have your past career experiences been in launching your own enterprise?

It’s been invaluable. Without consciously realising it – it’s enabled me to think laterally and to steal ideas from several industries. I tend to be the person who gets involved in the early stages of ventures. It’s the stage where you have license and, actually, no other choice but to make decisions which shape the future of that work. I’ve worked as an assistant clinical psychologist in a trial A+E mental health unit, I was the first employee at my current workplace and just piloted a zine with a group of young ‘city leaders’ in my local borough.

Working at the inception stages means you absolutely have to develop an entrepreneurial mindset and play several roles. You bank the learnings with each project you work on – whether those learnings are good, bad or ugly. The more experience us three co-fryers collectively gain the more we’re able to intuit how-to guide and grow our own baby.

Q) Also, how do you think having such a rich background of experience informs your practice as a researcher / writer?

I’ve been thinking a lot about breadth vs. depth quite broadly lately. Alongside the role of expertise. We all have access to powerful tools to learn almost anything, at any time, from anyone. And alongside this, we have several platforms to express these learnings, thoughts and musings. It’s equal parts exciting and scary.

The more I think about it, the more “T-shaped” my set of experiences have made me. The vertical stroke of the “T” is the depth of expertise. I think it was important for me to name this expertise this year at risk of me constantly feeling the weight of Imposter’s Syndrome. Being a ‘multipotentialite’ (aka a jack of all trades) definitely became less romanticised in my head. But, I needed to recognise for myself that I’ve racked up ten years of experience conducting anthropological research across Africa, Europe, North America, South America and Asia. Naming and owning this was important for my confidence.

The horizontal bit of the “T” represents the dabbling, playing and experimenting more widely. This has fostered of two things – firstly, empathy. Having a range of experiences sparks imagination and allows a view of the world from another perspective – it allows us to stand in somebody else’s shoes. Secondly, curiosity – getting excited about other people’s expertise, passions and experiences, allows us to step back, actively listen, and to let people tell their own story in their own words. This horizontal experience allows me to set the stage for other people to shine, whilst playing hype-woman behind the scenes.

Being a ‘multipotentialite’ (aka a jack of all trades) definitely became less romanticised in my head. But, I needed to recognise for myself that I’ve racked up ten years of experience conducting anthropological research across Africa, Europe, North America, South America and Asia. Naming and owning this was important for my confidence.

Q) Culture – in its widest sense of the word – is the consistent thread throughout your work. What does culture mean to you and how does it shape your outlook / output?

A few years back I had the pleasure of co-facilitating and creating a book with the House of St Barnabas <https://hosb.org.uk/read-our-book/> – a private member’s club in Soho which exists to break the cycle of homelessness. A key theme throughout their work is culture, for good reason – it has transformative power. During the book-writing process, I had a 30 min time slot to interview Tony Nwachukwu on the topic, and it quite naturally turned into an animated conversation that lasted 3 hours – between us, we found culture notoriously difficult to define but we really came alive when speaking about specific manifestations of culture. To me, it is a resource we can use and create to explore and express human truths. There’s nothing more potent than culture.

Q) What has been your most exciting accomplishment so far and the most challenging?

When I was 21, I spent an exhaustive but exciting year speaking with over 700 teenage girls in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Rwanda for the Nike Foundation and the British Government. I wore several hats that I couldn’t even name at the time – project management, production, research, strategy, to name a few. But, the moments interviewing in girls homes, villages, hair salons, brothels, and stores stay with me — it was the usual anthropological approach but with an extremely meaningful output.

The reaction to this style of research from the girls was an accomplishment – they didn’t expect that “Westerners” would speak to them on their terms, without pity and pre-conceptions. Together, we spoke about everything you would with teenage girls – money, relationships, sex, love, school, work, style, fashion, hopes, dreams, fears.

It was never an extractive process – the relationship was symbiotic – there are definitely girls in Bahir Dar who know more about my life than most. The insights from this year informed the Girl Effect’s work – a creative non-profit which builds brands and platforms which are imbedded in youth culture. The apps, radio shows and magazines they create exist to explore vital issues for girls living in poverty whilst helping empower them socially, culturally and financially.

Fuck around and find out. Everyone is making it up. No-one knows what they’re doing, really.

Q) What advice would you give other creatives wanting to start their own independent ventures?

Fuck around and find out. Everyone is making it up. No-one knows what they’re doing, really. Reach out to the minds and the souls you admire – ask for their advice, give them advice and make sure you’re taking care of business as well as each other.

Quite practically, I’d recommend learning how to navigate a business model canvas, though. It looked so intimidating to me initially but is super simple. Update it and adapt it regularly. It’s not meant to be stagnant. I find that the conversations, questions and feelings that come out of filling it in are more valuable than any piece of paper you end up with. Damn, I definitely need to heed my own advice and do another for Plantain Papers!

Q) What current or future culture shifts do you foresee, that will impact our ideas of storytelling / DIY publishing (if any)?

I don’t have a crystal ball but what I do see is that for many children of the diaspora in London, we’re the first generation to navigate the creative industries. We’re learning on the job and, in my humble opinion, doing it really well. It’s not new news that from music, fashion, language, art and politics, the experience and history of the African diaspora has always and will always continue to influence people worldwide. Black people are cultural pioneers. There’s a momentum that’s growing when it comes to self-publishing which feels collaborative, open-sourced and fresh. We’re creating an archive of our everyday experience.

Many of us have consciously and unconsciously lived our lives by the ‘it takes a village’ tenet, oftentimes through scarcity and necessity but quite often through pure love for each other. So, quite naturally, this approach lends itself to storytelling. My own DIY publishing-experience has felt very collective – our efforts are often powered by sharing our resources, growing expertise and knowledge. The barriers for individuals to create digital and physical storytelling platforms are lower than ever. We have always had cultural capital, I think we’re on the brink of innovative and talented minds turning this into economic capital. What a time to be alive.

Q) Perfectionism in creativity – a limiting force or necessary evil?

Perfect is the enemy of the possible. Perfectionism blocks inventiveness, playfulness and energy. That being said, I always aim to take pride in the quality of my work.

Q) What’s on your reading / play list [books / magazines / podcasts / music] etc?

Music:
2Sim by Duval Timothy.

Mags:
Post.Script / Hannah Magazine / Caricom / Belly Full / Riposte.

Books:
The Sovereignty of Quiet, Beyond Resistance in Black Culture by Kevin Quarshie.
Thick and Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom.
Think Again – How to Reason and Argue by Walter Sinnott Armstrong.

Q) What’s next?

The first and last questions of this interview are deceptively deep. I don’t really know.

Continue thinking + making. Keep figuring out how to have fun, drink enough water, deepen relationships, mind my business, look up, exist in multiple cities, spaces and places. Remember to breathe. And learn. And grow. But immediately, hop on the bus and meet my pals for roti, rum and bad decisions.

::

Photography: Almass Badat // Plantain Papers designer: Andreas Brooks

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