by Monique Franz
A Chinese city became the place where I—as a Black American—grew most connected to my roots as an afro descendant. Hong Kong is home to over four thousand African immigrants, a quarter being asylum-seekers and refugees with whom I worked for twelve years. One man, in particular, shared many of my theatre stages and impressed me as the city’s griot. For those who don’t know, a griot in West Africa preserves the community’s history, faith, and traditions through storytelling and music. In a similar vein, Kaze Ndassi Afritude lives within the Chinese metropolis, telling the story of Africa through music and art.
Kaze (Kah-ZAY) and his band of drummers play throughout the city, dressed in ceremonial masks and animal skins of West and Central African traditions. They lure crowds from all ethnicities with the beats of their djembes. As though hypnotized by the rhythms, the Chinese, the Brits, the Aussies, the Christians, the Muslims, and atheists dance together in a circle as one tribe. In a city where discrimination prevails, Kaze unifies the people as would a cultural ambassador.
“Entertainment is a way to make friends,” Kaze explained. “When I arrived in Hong Kong, there was a gap between Chinese and Blacks. The Chinese did not communicate with us. Entertainment was a way to show them Africa. It allowed people to come close to me.”
Kaze arrived in the city eighteen years ago, seeking political asylum. As a student, he protested the policies of the Cameroon government. Its dictatorship regime showed no tolerance for complaints against its power and targeted protesters as civil threats. Kaze’s older brother was killed in the conflict, so Kaze fled his home country to avoid the same fate. But his life as an asylum-seeker has been far from trouble-free.
Those who flee war-torn and unstable nations are often well educated and highly skilled, but Hong Kong prohibits them from seeking employment. This forces asylum-seekers into conditions of poverty and dependence on the state. Without the ability to work, the displaced struggle in their sense of identity, belonging, and wellbeing. They suffer isolation, depression, and stress due to financial strain and systematic oppression. Kaze, on the other hand, refuses to live stagnant or stifled. He busies himself with music and art to connect with a community that initially showed him disdain.
“When you are with people who don’t want to be close to you, find a way to be close to them,” Kaze told me. “In any situation, there’s something to learn. If you don’t open your eyes, you will not see.”
Kaze's admonishment to see and learn is clear in his art. A fierce pair of eyes is the signature feature upon his canvases. They live among a mélange of color, texture, and cubist forms reminiscent of carved African gods. The eyes seem to notice everything. They recognize what others don’t. And as the artist behind their gaze, they speak to the potential in what others throw away.
Kaze allows recycled materials to inspire his work. Abandoned treasures give birth to his sculptures and garnish his fashion hats and handbags.
“I use anything and everything,” he told me. He takes damaged items and gives them new life, providing opulent texture for his audiences to deeply experience.
“I like to give opportunity to the blind. Those who don’t see can still admire my art by touching,” he explained.
Kaze’s awareness of the existence, value, and potential in the discarded mirrors his philosophy about people and the time and talent they hold. He hopes for asylum seekers like himself to think differently about their lives, their displacement, and the time and opportunities that lie before them.
“You only have one life to live. The fact that you are here [in a strange country] doesn’t mean your life has stopped. You are still living. You need to take the opportunity to grow.”
The artisan practices what he preaches and doesn’t fail to credit his faith. He is grateful for his artistic gifts and attributes all creativity to his awareness of the Creator.
“I want to remind people that God is the first artist,” Kaze said with conviction. “We have two eyes, one mouth, one nose. We are a piece of art from the greatest artist.”
Awareness of the Creator marks the theme of Kaze’s latest art exhibition, “Consciousness.” Beyond Cafe/Bar, a niche venue in Causeway Bay, features over 12 years of Kaze’s work and raises community awareness about the challenges of displaced individuals. The art expresses the value and potential that asylum-seekers and refugees bring to a community, how there’s substance in their brokenness. The art tells the story of a community living in harmony with them. The people become one family, and when the music plays, everyone—no matter who they are—dances.
Kaze, the African griot of Hong Kong, now shares his story with the world. His life and example shows the fruit of the dispersion of our people. Although injustice, brokenness, and disregard continue to contribute to the African diaspora, our people beautify the world with passion, strength, music, and color.
When asked about his hopes for his art and his future, Kaze told me boldly, “I hope that my art will be seen around the world. I hope that someday I can have an exhibition in the US where you are. I hope to have an exhibition in Europe. I want to contribute to the universe. I want to give others a chance to experience where I am, who I am.”
To learn more about Kaze, to support his art,
or purchase his works or fashions, visit afrikazarts.com