What does it mean to be Black and boujee? Rani Patel Williams, the Ugandan-born and London-based creative entrepreneur, answers that very question in a joyful new short film. Rani had been working in the creative industries for over a decade, championing brands with purpose while striving to effect real change at a local and societal level, before founding FANGIRL, a radical non-gendered accessories and apparel label, in January this year. She found inspiration in Black and LGBTQI+ club culture, spaces which she believes are "focused on giving individuals the confidence to express themselves without limits".
Constructed from recyclable paper and biodegradable wood, the brand's handheld fans are available in snake prints in vivid shades of coral and lilac – an homage to the outfits found in Jamaican dancehalls – and in flame prints emblazoned with the words "Girl On Fire". The T-shirts are just as covetable: Home Gxrl Quarantina, a collaboration with non-binary trans illustrator BLKMOODYBOI, advocates for a safe lockdown via a cute illustration and rules for "avoiding a run in with Ms Rona". Now sold out, the profits from that tee went to the UKQTIBIPOC Hardship Fund. Black & Boujee, another T-shirt in FANGIRL’s roster, is a "positive affirmation for our community" with the words printed across the back of the piece to reflect how "for too long Black people have been victims of police brutality when their backs have been turned. Like police and security uniforms, Black & Boujee is designed as a uniform for Black individuals to see and recognise each other’s Blackness and greatness." Throughout June, Rani is donating 100% of the profits from every Black & Boujee T-shirt and fan sold to the BLM foundation.
Hi Rani! How did FANGIRL begin?
FANGIRL stems from my love of handheld fans, my fave accessory to wear when I go dancing or to complete a cute summer outfit. I’d always been disappointed with the designs available, and it was hard to find prints that weren’t dated. I started developing my own designs over a year ago as an outlet when I was struggling with my mental health and couldn’t really express myself the way I would normally. I wanted the designs to be inspired by Black and LGBTQI+ club culture, spaces I’ve enjoyed and felt safe to express myself. Even just being in this space mentally, really helped me to find my creativity again.
Why was it important to you to make the brand non-gendered?
I identify as a woman but with gender there comes a lot of expectations. I have often felt the expectations and ideals of other people projected onto me, and trying to meet them can leave you feeling isolated! Things like, Why is she so confident or dominant? Why isn’t she more girly and timid? I’ve struggled with this idea that your gender isn’t defined by you but by what society has conditioned us to believe. For me, it’s another way of policing self-expression.
The events of the past few weeks and the growing momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement have also reminded me of the ways in which gender has been used as a tool of both colonial and postcolonial oppression. Black men, for instance, have repeatedly been othered through highly sexualised stereotypes, which has allowed the West to paint them as a threat to the purity of white women. Ultimately, I think with any form of expression, labels just get in the way. By taking away this idea that the brand is here to serve one gender over another, FANGIRL stays open for everyone and anyone to empower themselves to be whoever they want to be. You’ll see the brand refers to the community as FANGIRLS, FANBOYS and FANDEM.
What do you find the most inspiring about Black club culture and LGBTQI+ club culture?
Black club culture is something I love, partly because of the music but also the energy I feel when I am in those spaces. I love that when the Black community congregates in that space, we all participate in the same traditions and rituals – it’s a culture that can’t be replicated. Certain dance moves and songs bring out this explosion of self-expression. Nightclubs for the Black community have been one of the few safe spaces where we’ve felt we can be seen fully and unapologetically ourselves. The stifled version of yourself falls away and everyone can be exactly as they wish. In those moments of joy, without saying a word we can look at one another and know exactly what the other is thinking or feeling.
Equally, LGBTQI+ club nights are a safe place for individuals to step out and be who they really know they are without fear of judgement. The two spaces are not so different: the music and fashions that contribute to both cultures are connected and for me they all stem from this idea of breaking the shackles of repression and being free.
Historically, what role have handheld fans played in both cultures?
Those who take part in Black club culture are often from typically hot countries and so fans are a common everyday accessory, even outside the club. In clubs, fans become even more necessary – not only because we expect to work up a sweat through our love of dance but also because fans can act as a natural extension of our expression on the dance floor.
In the LGBTQI+ club culture, specifically in ballrooms and kikis, vogue dancers have historically shown how gender is a performance. This performance through vogueing, often featuring fans, was used to peacefully settle disputes among rivals in an environment that assumed a degree of mutual respect. Using dance and pantomime, voguers would 'read' each other. Ultimately, the winner would be the person who 'threw the best shade'. I always thought it was interesting how fans are used as a way of expressing resistance in that space.
What's up next for FANGIRL?
This summer was supposed to be the moment to celebrate FANGIRL with an official launch party. But lockdown has meant that’s not happening any time soon. I still hope to hold our own FANGIRL club night in the not-so-distant future. Looking further ahead, I want to continue dropping the products that people can interact with, and give visibility to more voices in the community in various mediums.
Talk me through your open letter calling on the advertising industry to admit it’s racist.
Having worked in the industry for 12 years and still part of it, I’m aware of how it plays a massive role in shaping pop culture, pushing the boundaries of what we see on our screens and influencing perceptions. It’s an industry that has been marketing itself to be all about diversity and inclusion but actually doesn’t have skin in the game when it comes to who it puts in their businesses, or in the representation and stories in the content. I feel like brands have all jumped on this bandwagon to say they stand for Black Lives Matter now and want to do better but it’s like, Let’s not forget the 100 years of advertising when we didn’t matter. So for me brands and ad agencies can’t really take a step forward to making change without admission first.
One of the motivations behind making FANGIRL is because there weren't any brands really made by and serving the Black community close to me in this way.
You're raising money for the BLM foundation with your Black & Boujee collection, tell me a bit about that.
When I saw the news about George Floyd I was trying to think quickly about what to do in response – I just felt helpless! Looking at where my power was, I decided to donate all profits from every Black & Boujee T-shirt and fan sold to the BLM foundation. It was the most immediate thing I could do. FANGIRL is my form of resistance so transferring my capital to another cause for resistance made sense. FANGIRL is also about Black ownership, which is so important as the Black community often falls victim to being exploited, whether it’s our culture, talent or labour. We need to build our own infrastructure that sustainably allows us to produce and supply for our community. Giving to the fund is not all I plan to do to support Black Lives Matter; I’m working with other creatives on how the brand can contribute to a level of impact in the community at a grassroots level.
Do you feel hopeful that the current protests, sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, will effect real action and change?
Do I feel hopeful? I feel a lot right now. I feel the protests are at such a magnitude because the world has literally had to stop, listen, watch and feel. I can’t help but wonder if COVID-19 and lockdown hadn’t happened, would the world be responding like this? It’s incredible to see how it’s galvanised people around the globe, Black and non-Black, to push for change. I just hope this is not performative and when COVID-19 has gone, it’s not quickly forgotten because the world is distracted by something else. I hope this is the start of changing hundreds of years of oppression, hurt and trauma for the Black community. It’s not so easy to dismantle. I just hope white people can make the change, 'cause it’s really their problem.
What does 'Black & Boujee' mean to you?
Co-opting the term 'Bad & Boujee', I wanted to create a new positive affirmation for the Black community to help relearn how we see ourselves. The word 'black' is associated with all things negative and I wanted to reinforce how great Black people are, putting it next to the word 'boujee' which is nodding to being, and aspiring to be, great. I wanted the 'Black & Boujee' message and the Black experience to come through in the product design. On the T-shirts the design motif is on the back rather than the front, because throughout history we have often seen that when Black people’s backs have been turned, they have fallen victim to (police) brutality like George Floyd. Unfortunately it’s an image we know too well. The B&B print is repeated across the fan – like other affirmations, we (the Black community) need to continuously say it to ourselves and one another.
How did your relationship with twins Priince and Majeesty come about, and why were they the perfect subjects for your film?
I’ve known Priince and Majeesty for a year now and despite being 10 years younger than me, we share so many of the same values and became very close during the project. I feel like they have been here before, and somehow the universe connected for this purpose. Initially we were just going to shoot the stills for the look book, but as I was crystallising what I wanted FANGIRL to be – a platform for celebrating stories in the Black and LGBTQI+ community – I wanted to stay true to the brand’s purpose and give their story visibility because there needs to be more stories and voices like Priince and Majeesty’s in the media.
What was the creative process of making the film like?
I wanted the film to feel intimate, like we are in Priince and Majeesty’s inner thoughts. Their voices are so calm, you could easily be soothed into sleep by them. I played with this idea of it being dreamlike in the way there are various images and sensations throughout the film.
Like Black and LGBTQI+ culture, the production itself was very DIY and we shot everything in a day. If you saw how small the space where we shot it was, you’d laugh. I begged and borrowed and received so much generosity from my creative friends and family. Because the brand is independent, I hardly had a budget to work with. Despite the production being on a shoestring, it was one of my best shoots. So full of love and energy. The shoot required Priince and Majeesty to be expressive, open and vulnerable, which meant creating a safe environment for them. I think having a community of people on set that had also come from marginalised backgrounds, whether based on their skin colour, gender or sexuality, we were all energised to be part of sharing their story. It was also one of the few shoots I’d been on where the crew were predominantly Black and brown, and it was also my first shoot with a Black female director and that was because it was me!
What's one thing you want people to take away from watching the film?
The film is very much a reflection of the conversations we are having right now, around Black Lives Matter and Pride Month. If anything, the fact this was shot at the end of last year reflects not only the continuity of issues of repression but also the need to disrupt this by yearlong celebration of individuals and communities. Movements and months are great for visibility but they’re not necessarily enough anymore. I wanted FANGIRL to be a space for celebration and expression every day of the year.
For me, the one thing I’d like people to take away from this film is an awareness and understanding that race intersects so many other things – each individual has many identities to be expressed and celebrated for, and I wanted to create room for all of them.