If you follow Africa’s growing influence on global style, you’ll likely encounter one to two degrees of separation to Helen Jennings. As an author and editor of ARISE Magazine—the African lifestyles glossy founded by Nigerian publisher Nduka Obaigbena—her presence has become synonymous with African fashion. ARISE has become a regular sponsor of fashion shows, including the African inspired runway event at New York Fashion Week, a staple since 2009.
While most people connect ARISE and Ms. Jennings to African fashion, the magazine has a multi-topic focus and will add television news and entertainment channels in 2013. I caught up with the intriguing editor to learn more about her path from a beat reporter for a magazine sold by London’s homeless to driving the content of one of Africa’s widely recognized media outlets.
JB: Tell me about your career beginnings. How did you get started in journalism?
HJ: After studying English literature and doing a post-graduate degree in journalism, I started out at the Big Issue, a UK weekly magazine sold on the street by h
omeless people. I wrote in the news and arts sections about books, events, music, and the arts. I did not start with an orientation toward working with fashion or Africa, but I always liked lifestyle topics such as fashion, music, and the arts. From there I became editor of a club and music website, part of the first wave of digital interactive media. I did the website for that while doing fashion styling for the Big Issue. I also started freelancing for a number of other magazines: Mixmag, the Fader, Russh, Knowledge. I did features for Metro, Time Out, the National, the Guardian, Dazed. I had fingers in about 20 different pies globally. Lots of music, lots of fashion, but always a global approach. What’s always interested me is uncovering new things, things emerging—new spots, new names, new music.
JB: How did that lead you to ARISE?
When Nduka Obaigbena came up with the idea to do ARISE he came to London to find the team to do it. The PR firm he hired came to me. After discussion, I was told, “If you want to, you have six weeks to make it.” The precursor of this was Nduka’s newspaper, This Day. For a few years he’d been getting into the music and fashion side of things with events in Lagos, hosting artists like Rihanna and Jay-Z. In 2008 he went international with it, launching the This Day Music and Fashion festival in London, a combined catwalk and music extravaganza. He wanted to publish a magazine for this event, a one-off, and give it away. So I took it on and started putting it together. The first cover was Liya Kebede, Naomi Campbell, and Alek Wek. Everyone who’d done the event was profiled—Chris Brown, Seal, Youssou N’dour. We did it for free, gave it away, and the reception was quite good. The day after the concert, it was like, “We’re now a magazine.”
JB: How have ARISE’s editorial goals evolved since launching?
HJ: After the first issue, we had a little breather then decided [on] our main sections. We have our “News” section, that’s supposed to be cutting edge; the latest news and innovation. Then “Fashion,” which is what we are well known for. Our “Music” section. “Culture,” which can include content from film to sports. And then we have our “Polity” section, which is lesser known but an important part of the magazine that’s grown. It includes topics in areas such as politics, society, business, or education. And we’ve started to be a little more forward in that section. At first we were sensitive toward remaining positive, but as we’ve gone on, we’ve allowed ourselves to tackle more sensitive subjects in Africa. And finally we have our “End Notes” section, which is our heritage section on African icons and history. And that’s pretty much been our format since issue two. Covering all these things within a lifestyles magazine has been a delicate path to walk, we go from handbags to some of Africa’s biggest issues, but I think we’ve done it quite well.
JB: What are your main considerations in driving ARISE’s diverse content?
HJ: Overall we are trying to get coverage of a mix of regions and countries within Africa and the diaspora. It’s important to have that global voice and that the magazine is very inclusive and timely. We’re sold in over 26 countries. We want that global voice on African topics, so anyone who picks up ARISE—a business person, someone black, someone white, a woman, a man—can read it, understand it, and find something interesting.
JB: There’s been increasing buzz on Africa’s economic growth and changing business environment. What will you be watching most keenly in this?
HJ: The retail sector and the growth of the big brands coming in to Africa with big mall openings and shopping centers. We’ll be doing some coverage of that in the near future, looking at why they are coming in now and how these trends will work with Africa’s local market culture.
JB: What significant trends do you foresee in the African media sector?
HJ: The first thing is the emergence of new media. Social media has become very large. That’s been aided by portable outlets and greater internet connectivity in Africa. Online sites are growing and getting better. The African fashion community is very active online.
There’s also more non-state television media. ARISE is launching a TV network. It’s in development now with plans for London, Johannesburg, and New York offices and two channels: one for live news and another for entertainment. I can’t give names yet, but Nduka is lining up a lot of big names. We’re excited about that. Otherwise, there are more and more examples of established media doing things on Africa. For example, The International Herald Tribune is doing an African luxury goods conference in November. Vogue Italy’s Franca Sozzani is doing more with Africa, including Ghana fashion week in October. So there are a lot of noises in mainstream media on Africa.
JB: How have you perceived the emergence of the African music scene and new codified hit making structure?
HJ: I absolutely love it. And I think it’s been more able to grow well and grow quickly than other creative industries. In some of the international collaborations there has been a tendency for the non African artists, like Kanye, to try to turn the music into their own thing and lose that special flavor. Still, it’s creating hits, getting music out quickly and making money from sales on a global basis. That’s been a challenge in most of the music industry. Overall, I love it and we put something on African music in every issue.
JB: An intriguing African figure we should look to see featured in ARISE soon?
HJ: Oumou Sy. She is the queen of Senegalese couture and a pioneer in African fashion. I had read so much about her while researching my book, New African Fashion, but finally got to meet her during Dakar Fashion Week earlier this year. She’s faced a lot of adversity, yet remains a strong and fearless woman.
JB: Somewhere in Africa you’ve not been yet but most want to visit?
HJ: I’ve heard amazing things about Mozambique. The mix of cultures, their music scene, the architecture. Somebody take me to Mozambique.