Entwine App Creator Cole Ezeilo Talks Connecting Continential & Diasporic African Youth
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Throughout Cole Ezeilo’s apartment are hints to his distinct ethnic identities. An American passport lies on a table next to a Nigerian one. Colorful Ankara fabric adorns one wall, while a hand-drawn picture of singer Frank Ocean hangs on the others. It’s really good; his cousin drew it for him.
Cole shows me all of this on a virtual tour of his apartment in Madrid, where he is a freshman at IE University. When I call for our interview, he is sitting at his designated Zoom workspace. So am I. We’ve both adjusted to the world of online school fairly quickly.
We chat quickly about music, “The Godfather” trilogy (which I’ve only just got around to watching), and the rapid deterioration of America before digging into what I’ve actually called to talk to him about: the app he’s about to launch.
The app is called Entwine and its goal is to unite the African diaspora in a way that has never been done before. But I’ll let him tell you more about it.
KENDI: So tell me about when this idea first came to mind?
COLE: It was around a year and a half ago. My high school, African Leadership Academy (ALA), is super focused on [topics like], “What do you care about? What are you passionate about?”
K: Wait, ALA made you choose a passion at...how old were you? 16?
C: I mean yeah, I was 16 but at that point, it was my...eleventh or twelfth school and my third country. So there was a lot of introspection that’d been happening for the past couple of years, especially when I went to school in Lagos, Nigeria, at 15 years old.
K: Real quick, for the people, let’s give a quick timeline of where you were born and what order you jumped around in.
C: Yes, okay. I was born in West Orange, New Jersey.
K: Gross. (I’m a New Yorker. Jersey gets an obligatory “gross.” No hate)
C: I moved from there when I was two, so I can’t even claim it! But then I moved to Atlanta and moved around a lot there.
K: That’s where you met me!
C: Haha, exactly. I went to four different elementary schools there. It was at Paideia, the school I went to for fourth through sixth grade, that I really started to notice things about the world, specifically the injustices, just through the microcosm that was my classroom. In sixth grade, I started a club with my friend called African American Leaders to talk about the problems we faced in school. We were trying to create a safe space for Black kids. After that year, I left to go to a small Afrocentric school, then I moved again and went to one middle school for half the year, then another for the rest. Finally, I did my freshman year of high school in the U.S. before moving away
K: Why did you want to leave the country in high school?
C: I don’t think I had the diction to express it back then, but upon reflection, I realized that I was mentally unwell when I was living there. I had a super rough history with my confidence. I didn’t feel like I could express who I was in a lot of different spaces I would go into. I have an African-American mother and a Nigerian father, so there is that intersectionality that comes about at different times in my life. There was just this burden on my shoulders.
As I said, I’m a person who's quite connected to my people and I would see a lot of things happening not just due to history, but a lot of current things going on. As a young Black kid, it was really tough for me to take on a lot of these things. But I always knew I wanted to be a part of the change. At the moment, I didn’t really know how. That’s when I was like, let me try to look past this pain, look past what’s going on in my head [and] about this country. I had another passport and I just thought, what’s going on there? Things started to align and that’s when I moved out.
K: That makes perfect sense.
C: A lot of things started for me when I left the country. I went to boarding school and that was so transformative. I was around only Nigerians all the time and a couple [of] people from international schools. I saw the different things happening on the continent, specifically with Nigeria, and I actually got to learn about my heritage and my people in that way. I had information about who I was as an African American because my parents were super Afrocentric and they wanted to make sure I had a good foundation and a good core. They always taught me about my African American heritage, but it was at this moment that I got to learn about my Nigerian identity. Different things came about and I just really started to see who I was as a person. Not necessarily the different things that come with being Black in America or being Nigerian in Nigeria, [but] being Cole Ezeilo anywhere in the world.
It wasn’t until I went to ALA in South Africa that I started to be in a super diverse setting as far as Africanity goes. Being with different people from across the African continent, that was...a powerful experience. Hearing about everyone’s different experiences, that’s when I started to feel that there were a lot of similarities in all these different spaces. A lot of different “-isms” were plaguing different societies. It just shifts and bends in different cultural contexts. I think that it's powerful to work on a system, not just a single solution, and that’s why Entwine came along. I’m trying to create a system.
K: You’ve said, in a very real way that I can relate to, that before you felt kinda split in half. You have an African American mother and a Nigerian father, so you have these two distinct sides of yourself. Would you say that having your experience as a Black man in America and a Nigerian man in Nigeria allowed you to fully come into yourself as a person? Did that help you grow in your confidence? And does that connect to the mission of Entwine?
C: Yeah, definitely. I think you said it quite well. Entwine came about from the examination of myself and seeing the different parts of my identity as I grew up. I felt like two worlds were just pulling apart. I don’t always talk about it, but when I went to Nigeria, people were making fun of the way I spoke and stuff. Then growing up in the U.S., whenever my Nigerian side was mentioned, different things would come up and this isn’t always from people outside of African identities but within the community. That was definitely something I grew up with and noticed, all these different fragmentations from what I saw as one society, a people, one nation.
I saw the North Africans on my campus not necessarily integrating with other groups within the student body from Sub Saharan Africa. Seeing those divisions, I saw it goes beyond the interaction between the continent and the diaspora. It definitely is about that, but it’s also about so much more. It’s about different groups interacting with each other to make themselves better while simultaneously making the whole better. That’s why I try to push the idea of African unity and really expanding the idea of what it means to be African. There [are] different aspects of Africanity to be expressed. We’re part of a greater whole. So to answer your original question, hell yeah. It was connecting the two parts of my own identity that made me realize there was something so much bigger than myself.
K: Let’s get into the logistics then. How is Entwine going to help achieve this goal? What do you hope it can do, and how will it do that?
C: Entwine is a Pan African app organization that has the goal of fighting African disunity and promoting African unity through our different projects and programs. That’s the tagline.
K: Yeah, that’s fire.
C: Thank you! But that last bit is actually quite important, “projects and programs.” It’s the structure that Entwine has organically come into that I believe is the most sustainable and most powerful. It doesn’t just touch on one thing. As I spoke about before, we're trying to create a system, so we’ve split up our different operations to be Entwine Think, Entwine Act, and Entwine Media. As we like to say, they represent the mind, body, and soul of the African people.
Entwine Think works as the knowledge base for African people, specifically African youth around the world. We have two different projects we’re working on now that I genuinely believe have the potential to change the mentality and mindset around what it means to be African.
Entwine Act is the body. It’s probably where my heart is closest. Speaking out and taking action is something I’ve really gravitated towards these past few years. There are a lot of problems happening on the continent. With Nigeria and protests against SARS, Namibia and protests against gender-based violence, there’s so much and I’m passionate about all of them. Entwine Act is working to figure out how we can mobilize people across the world around these issues. There are so many filters news goes through before it reaches the Western world. I want to eliminate those filters and make sure people’s voices are being heard.
Lastly, with Entwine Media, we are able to capture the stories that need to be told through art and through mixed media. The stories of African people are so important and need to be told by them. There is just so much cool stuff going on and coming from the continent that deserves to be highlighted, and it’s the youth in the driver's seat of all these things being done.
Okay. I feel like I’ve been talking a lot.
K: Cole, it’s an interview. You’re supposed to talk.
C: Ah. Okay. The last part is the actual Entwine app. It’s almost fully designed at this point and moving towards the development stage. I’m not trying to rush the process because I envision it to go alongside and even replace a lot of mainstream social media apps. A space where African people can be free and be ourselves without any borders or filters, and see other African youth doing the same, expressing their individuality. It’s possible. I’m gonna do it, and it’s gonna be pretty cool.