Oct. 27, 2021

Music and dance entrepreneur builds connections between African, Caribbean, and Black communities in Alberta

2021 Top 40 Under 40: Ọláwunmi (Wunmi) Idowu
Ọláwunmi (Wunmi) Idowu
Ọláwunmi (Wunmi) Idowu Jared Sych, Avenue magazine

Ọláwunmi (Wunmi) Idowu, a 39-year-old irrepressible dancer and performer, has been igniting arts communities in Edmonton and Calgary with programs that provide opportunities for African, Caribbean and Black artists since 2006, the year she launched Woezo Africa Music and Dance Theatre Inc. Since then, more than 4,800 African, Caribbean and Black dancers have performed with Woezo Africa. Besides what you see on stage, Idowu has also turned Woezo Africa into a social enterprise, raising more than $2.5 million for philanthropic initiatives worldwide.

Idowu is a graduate, Human Resources Management Program (2013), UCalgary; Haskayne School of Business Rozsa Arts Management Program (2019), UCalgary; guest lecturer, African Studies 301 Program (2021), UCalgary; founder and director, Woezo Africa Music and Dance Theatre Inc.

What do you miss about student life?

The energy I felt from being around people on campus. Just walking the hallways and seeing everyone strengthened and created a sense of community for me.  

Where did you hang out on campus? 

The atrium in the Administration Building.

What makes Woezo Africa Music and Dance Theatre Inc. unusual?

The organization provides an array of services and educational community-outreach programming, including dance classes and workshops, school-based artist residencies, events, documentary films, productions, festivals, and the Black Arts Development Program. Everyone is invited to join our dance classes and Afro Urban Dance Workshops.

Does Woezo Africa mean something?

Woezo means “welcome” in the language of the Ewe people in the West African country of Ghana. When we established the performing arts organization, “Africa” at the time meant the “land of perfection.” Woezo Africa means “welcome to the land of perfection.”

What is the most satisfying thing about your job? 

Providing supportive, inclusive, vital environments for self-expression and creative collaboration to create pride, belonging and understanding among cultures.

Do you think mentorship is important?

Yes, because it provides direction, support and leadership to the mentee. A mentor is invaluable in getting them to the next level in their career and enhancing their prospects for success.

When you are not working, what do you do? 

I spend time with family and friends, listen to podcasts, ride my bike, watch movies and travel.

What’s your favourite board game? 

Ludo. It’s a strategic game for two to four players. The need to be skilful and disciplined increases the probability of winning the game.

What are you reading these days?

I have been doing extensive research with my team by reading various historical books and other written sources regarding the cultural relations of modern dance history and its African origin. We are illuminating the threads of African traditions that are woven into nine dance styles: Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Cuban, hip hop, step, tap, Capoeira, samba, salsa and jazz for our fifth Black History Month dance theatre production called UNGANISHA: Explore. Connect. Dance. It’s happening on Feb. 26, 2022. 

The production is a large-scale performance that explores the African diaspora throughout Western colonial expansion and its influence on several modes of modern and contemporary dance. Dance, music, theatre, film and history merge to demystify dance roots and shine a light on the seeds of contemporary culture. Because there’s a lack of resources that accurately reflect the origins of these dance forms, I’ve wanted to archive the documents that do exist and then have them used by dance instructors, individuals and institutions in cities with rich dance communities.

How do you define an entrepreneur?

Using their courage, skills and integrity, an entrepreneur finds new ways to be impactful and add value to society.

Why did you decide to turn Woezo Africa into a social enterprise and what sort of initiatives do your funds support? 

One of the tenets behind creating the UNGANISHA Diaspora and Community Engagement (UDCE) project was to deepen cultural understanding between African, Caribbean and Black communities and to increase social cohesion. The project that we have created includes the Black Arts Development (BAD) Program, UNGANISHA: Explore. Connect. Dance; UNGANISHA Professional Networking Mixer; and the Roots to Branches documentary. These projects provide funding for community development, anti-racism initiatives and engagement that promote diversity and inclusion by encouraging interaction among community groups.   

These projects are needed at this time to promote further understanding and appreciation of the contribution that African, Caribbean and Black people have made and continue to make to our culture and society. There are often highly vulnerable immigrants and youth who are excluded from many communities and have many challenges. We believe there is a significant need to implement strategies that focus on enhancing these communities’ leadership, general knowledge and equitable access to services they most need to ensure full participation into Canadian society. 

With files from Avenue Magazine.