If you’ve seen Beyonce‘s new visual album, “Black Is King”, then you’d remember an intriguing blue-painted figure captured with the superstar time and time again, leaving many viewers asking about his significance or offering his sleek African dance moves known as ‘Gbese’ and ‘Legwork’ praises.
That other-worldly figure is Stephen “Papi” Ojo, a self-taught 22-year-old Nigerian-born performer who has quietly played an outsize role in bringing African dance to American stages.
And in Black is King, Ojo is the most prominent face beyond that of its headlining star. He plays the “blue man,” who represents the subconscious of the protagonist prince and the power of African dance.
— PAPI_OJO (@PAPI_OJO) July 31, 2020
But before manifesting one of his biggest dreams by working with Queen Bey, Ojo who grew up in Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous city has always had a thing for dance. He told TIME that he was steeped in the country’s art and culture, listening to Afrobeat artists like P-Square and Sound Sultan and dancing at naming ceremonies and birthday parties for fun.
Then after his family moved to East New York, Brooklyn in search of better opportunities in 2008, Ojo started a dance group alongside his older brother Emmanuel and friend Caleb Bonney.
According to him, they would watch YouTube videos of African dance routines and rehearse incessantly until they were ready to post their renditions on social media. Before long, these videos earned them live audiences.
However, after experiencing harrowing personal tragedy, Ojo stopped dancing for a while, but soon after resumed and branded into a duo group named A.V.O. Boyz alongside his best friend Caleb Bonney. While speaking to Okay Africa, he talked about doing dance lessons, viral challenges, and live performances, which led to them gaining a larger following.
All these at the same time as Nigerian musicians like Wizkid and Davido were making waves internationally. A year and a half later, Ojo who was now a political science undergraduate was offered his first industry job: to flank Rihanna onstage at the 2018 Grammys during “Wild Thoughts.”
The gwara gwara dance (from South Africa) they displayed became a moment of international fascination and trended on social media for days. “I got to teach Rihanna moves from Africa,” he says. “I thought, ‘we’ve reached the top,” he told Okay Africa.
OMG Rihanna is doing the gwara gwara a South African dance step 😲😲😲
— Eilani 🦋 (@EilaniWhyte) January 29, 2018
This impression incorporated other high-level teaching and dance roles for artists from Big sean and A $ AP Ferg at Teyana taylor and Janet Jackson, whose “Made for Now” video has more than 72 million views and counting.
For Black is King, Ojo simply got a mysterious call which transported him to the music video to Beyoncé’s “Spirit,” the rousing lead single off her album Lion King: The Gift.
His role isn’t noticeable in the video by any stretch as he is just among many featured dance troupes. But Ojo tells TIME, he helped choreograph parts of the dance and show her team different movements—like the network from Ghana and the kpakujemu from Nigeria.
Not long after, he was asked to fly to South Africa, where he realized he was about to play a much bigger role. Black is King is loosely based on the story of The Lion King: a prince is born and must overcome adversity to find his way home.
Since the film’s release, many have theorized about the significance of Ojo’s “blue man.” Some have speculated that he represents a water genie; another article postulates that his shade is a reference to “haint blue,” which is thought to protect against evil spirits or represent a spirit itself.
Ojo wasn’t particularly forthcoming about his character’s significance but in his TIME interview, he noted that he’s “supposed to be guiding Simba, with culturally-rooted afro-dance moves, throughout his stages of life.”
As for the collaborative process with the megastar, he stated that it went smoothly. “She was a very good student,” he says. “Paying homage to the originators, paying respect to our culture—some people might not care. But she was very receptive. She was being respectful the whole time, listening. And every move was clean, sharp, crisp.” he told TIME.
Ojo recalled that he felt an enormous weight in serving as an African dance ambassador to one of the world’s biggest pop stars.
How was Ojo able to keep the secrets for months? He said he was inspired to dive further into his own fledgling Afrobeat music career after returning home. But the coronavirus halted all of his performances, and to make money, he took a job at Amazon’s warehouse in Staten Island, before leaving to focus on his creative work.
Speaking about his future to Okay Africa, Ojo says he’s taking what he’s learned from everyone he’s worked with so far, not just Beyoncé. He’s also hoping to capitalize on the moment by putting out new dance videos and songs; in striving to match Beyoncé’s work ethic, he hopes to raise even more awareness and love for his cultural roots.
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