A True Wonder: Roye Okupe Talks ‘Iyanu,’ African Superheroes And The Importance of Afrofuturism

Right now, a cultural shift is reaching a tipping point.

Shows such as Abbott Elementary, P-Valley, and the Power universe have showcased not only how diverse Blackness can be on television but how it can have a real-world impact. The same can be said regarding animation, as Roye Okupe, the mastermind behind the YouNeek YouNiverse, has joined with HBO Max to bring his epic storytelling to stream in homes across the globe.

Together with Cartoon Network and Lion Forge, a Black-owned production company (Hair Love), Okupe’s Iyanu: Child of Wonder is set to be adapted into an animated 2D cartoon. The graphic novel series chronicles the journey of a teenage girl, Iyanu, who is tasked with uncovering the story behind her powers and saving her people from an ancient curse that threatens to destroy all of humanity.

The Nigerian filmmaker, who grew up loving Transformers and X-Men ’97 as a child, has been inspired by the blockbuster potential of Black creativity. A graduate of George Washington University with a degree in computer science, Okupe went from shopping around his ideas to blossoming within the world of self-publishing to become a mainstream media darling. 

With a steady fanbase, backing from those within and outside of the Black community, and a host of new tales ahead — the thirty-something-year-old sits down with ESSENCE to talk about the importance of supporting Black creators, the impact of Afrofuturism and Afrocentric content on the masses, and why Naija no dey carry last.

ESSENCE: I wanted to start this interview with a tweet from DJ Benhameen of the For All Nerd podcast. He wrote, “All of these Black superheroes owned by Black people, they could use your support.” What’s your initial reaction to the tweet? What are your thoughts about the state of being a Black creator right now?

Roye Okupe: I think what he said was important because [Black people and their support] are the main reasons I’m here today. The Blerd community is such a fixture in my life and career, and just for everybody that doesn’t understand, the Blerd community is Black nerds who love everything involving comics, anime, animation, tech, sci-fi, and more. Before I signed that 10-book deal with Dark Horse, I self-published all of my work via Kickstarter. Each one that I did, the Blerd community supported me and meant that they were always successful.

I think it’s only fair to say that Black people and the Blerd community have supported me. I’ve seen them do this so much for myself and others — not just here in the U.S., but in parts of Europe and Africa, as well — I think it is a great time to be a Black creator. We continue to fight for more, which looks like diversity, but in the age of social media and Kickstarter, this time has benefited us to go directly to the readers and fans. I’m just very grateful to be in the position that I am in today, and that’s because of the support that the Black and Blerd community has given me.

ESSENCE: What obstacles do you and other Black creators continue to face?

RO: There’s still a ton of things and obstacles that are ahead of us. Mainly, one of them is financing. I know I mentioned Kickstarter, but the lifeblood of any company is its finances. Starting a comic book company, they’re not cheap. They cost a lot of money to make. It takes a lot of marketing and publicity dollars to create a good comic and have it do well. For me, financing is the biggest hurdle — at least it was certainly for me. The more investors Black creators get that are interested in supporting Black businesses, the more support we can get from venture capital firms and angel investors.

ESSENCE: With your interconnected comic universe coming to HBO Max, the move comes at a time when a lot of Afrofuturism is being spotlighted. From Black Mask’s cinematic adaptation of BLACK to LeSean Thomas and his stellar anime work, is it safe to say there is an Afrofuturism renaissance in film and TV?

RO: I wouldn’t call it a renaissance because I’m still counting how many Black animated shows are on my hands. Until we start to see more, I think we can wait to call it a renaissance. Every month there’s some animated film, TV series, or something connected to the African diaspora getting greenlit. There’s a bevy of creators creating fantastic stories heavily inspired by Black culture, whether in the U.S. or the African diaspora. As mentioned earlier, they/we could use the people’s support to build it into the next great creative renaissance.

In my opinion, in terms of animation and film, I don’t think we’re there yet. I feel like one of the lucky ones to get my book, Iyanu: Child of Wonder adapted as an animated series by HBO Max and Cartoon Network. We’re financed by LionForge Animation, a Black-owned company, and were the winners of an Oscar for Hair Love. We’re on our way there, hopefully. The more we see things like this in monthly development, I mean announced and greenlit for production, we can call it a renaissance.

ESSENCE: Most companies and popular industries are quickly learning “Naija no dey carry last,” so what is important to you where Afrofuturism is represented now in a diversified pop culture landscape?

RO: That continues to energize me because I want to create a scenario where people from the next generation can see our work and say, ‘I can do this as well. I can see that Roye has done it. Maybe even I can do it better.’ I love that phrase, ‘Naija no dey carry last,’ and every Nigerian loves it because it’s the truth. That pushes us to achieve many of the great things you see from us individually. I want to underscore how very important [Afrofuturism] is because whether you were born in Nigeria, the U.S., the U.K. — if you’re Black, and we all come from the same place.

I am a huge proponent of unity, and “each one, teach one.” You see it also in this project that LionForge is producing with Iyanu, and you have people from Nigeria working on it [and] people here from the U.S. This story is an amalgamation of many talented Black people working together, making this whole thing even more exciting. Based on lore within the continent, Africa has 54 countries and over 3,000 tribes and so many exciting stories to pull from. I believe that’s one of the reasons why people are paying attention to what’s going on in Africa because these are new and exciting stories that people have never seen before.

It was then that I knew that it wasn’t just people that looked like me that wanted to see more of this; it was also people from all parts of the globe.

ESSENCE: Would you go so far as to say that this time marks a bridge that connects Black Americans and the African Diaspora in a mainstream way?

RO: That’s what I hope. I’d love for this to be a bridge. But it’s up to us to walk that bridge both ways, right? It’s not just about connecting to the African continent, but also people on the continent connecting to the people outside of Africa. This bridge should go both ways essentially. I want these stories can do that, bring us all together, and open the pathway for us to collaborate as much as we can to create great Black stories that the whole world can enjoy.

ESSENCE: With Iyanu still on the way, are there other things the people should know ahead of its HBO Max release?

RO: [Laughs] Nothing that’s not gonna get me in trouble. I will say that the books for Iyanu are out now. And if you can’t wait to see what the show looks like in animation, I believe the books should satisfy any urge you have until we get to that point. Head to YouNeekStudios.com and check out everything that we have. It doesn’t matter whether you start with The Windmaker, Malika, Exo, or all of them — this YouNiverse is something I know people would enjoy.

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