Benkos Biohó and Martin Luther King were black leaders who left a legacy of struggle and respect for the human rights of Afro-descendant communities in the Americas.
Biohó achieved the emancipation of African people from the Spanish yoke in San Basilio de Palenque, thus becoming the first town in the 1600s to be free from slavery in the Americas.
Luther King, a more universal figure, did the same to eradicate racial discrimination in the United States, but in more recent times: the mid-twentieth century.
Both men are remembered for their brilliant persona and for their messages of activism and resistance, which today can be read in biographies, history books and on the lips of other leaders who, like them, continue to work to assert the rights and raise the collective self-esteem of Afro communities in the countries of this continent.
Básico pero Nítido: Garments that Help Shift Consciousness
Biohó and Luther King, as well as Nina Simone, Muhammad Ali, Lauryn Hill, Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Pele and Tupac Shakur are world figures that symbolize the roots, culture, dignity and pride of the nearly 300 million people of African descent that populate the world.
All of them have been an inspiration for Sham Selassie, an Afro-Colombian who in 2015 created Básico pero Nítido (Basic but Neat), a line of T-shirts whose designs carry the faces of these figures, but that also share revealing messages that break stereotypes regarding people of African descent.
“Black history does not begin with slavery”, “My hair does not need your approval”, “Zero Discrimination”, are some examples of the phrases that Sham gathered after a process that took him to investigate the speeches of black thinkers and activists. And thus they appear in Básico pero Nítido.
“T-shirts are not just a garment, they already serve as a means to express and expose and as an extension of our personality, that’s why we thought this would be the best vehicle to generate a discourse and a debate about how blacks are seen in Colombia”, says the young man born in Valle del Cauca, a department located in the southwest part of the coffee-producing country.
With each piece, according to Selassie, a new path is opened to “unlearn models of discrimination and own their identity through acceptance and dignity”.
The Path towards Breaking Myths through Colors
In Colombia there is a collective imagery that attaches warm colors and striking prints to the garments and accessories of Afro communities.
That was the first myth that this entrepreneur wanted to break. And that is why the designs he prints have three base colors: white, black and gray.
Flat colors, which Sham baptized as “basic” and blunt messages that are “crisp/neat” which is all that “you want put inside clothes.” This is how the brand name Básico pero Nítido was born and was simplified with the hashtag #BPN.
Another issue that he literally put on the torso of his clients, is what hair means for Afro-Colombians. “Hair is an extension of the body, as are the arms and legs, so it is a violation of your living space for a stranger to come and touch it because your braids or your churcos (curls) seem exotic”, he emphasizes with a hint of discomfort.
That is why it is not strange for women to be the ones who feel totally identified with these messages; each individual can use this as a battle cry, a warning or a way to educate about what hair is and represents for them.
Agelessness is another powerful element with which Básico pero Nítido has managed to pierce through not only among Colombians, but also markets, such as Brazil and the United States. “These shirts generate recognition, dignity and pride. It is nice when a client confesses that the messages on these garments reach the soul and the heart, or when it makes somebody else happy they are taking one for their child or parents”.
Discrimination Told by an Afro-Colombian
Sham Selassie’s first name is Shamyr Caicedo. He was born in the port city of Buenaventura 38 years ago. In this town, one of the most biodiverse in Colombia and with a population that is more than 90% black, he never felt discrimination.
However, his family had to move to Cali, known as La Salsa Capital of Colombia, and prejudice began to overshadow his life. “At school I was excluded many times because I was black. I was teased and taunted because of my name, until my dad decided to stamp “Shamyr” on my shirt, so that both classmates and teachers would pronounce it correctly”.
Such ostracism, unfortunately, has been with him throughout his life. When he travels to other cities in Colombia, such as Bogotá or Medellín, many times his dreadlock, his urban clothes and tattoos draw attention from police authorities.
So searches or arrests to verify his documents are frequent in his daily life. “This year I have had to travel regularly by plane and I am always the one they pick out in random searches. I’m still seen as odd or as the suspect”.
In this task of seeking answers to this behavior, this English and French graduate has found his: “Anything that is not common or whose aesthetics are unusual or unknown will always cause controversy”.
Related article: Black musicians who have put Colombia on the world map
Many Social Movements but Lack of Unity
In a country where 10% of its population is black, Afros still suffer from segregation. In the last decade, some ground has been gained thanks to black characters, in music, arts and sports.
Sham thinks there are many initiatives from San Andres to the Amazon, the two ends of Colombia, “but each territory lives its own struggle for its rights and improved living conditions.”
He believes that the key is to awaken the collective consciousness and for that, every peaceful form is valid. From the fashion and art world, this entrepreneur found his way of joining this fight.
“In these almost 40 years of life not much has changed, but there is hope because I see that the generation of young people from 20 to 25 have great strength, and they are empowered and proud of their roots. They are ready to continue to gain ground in Colombia and throughout Latin America”.
Meanwhile, Sham continues to do his part as a teacher of pedagogy and as the creator of a brand where he is joined by 7 other dreamers, including designers and creatives. Next year, the challenge of Básico pero Nítido is to control the entire manufacturing and design process in a local workshop, diversify the garment line by including coats and caps and swim across the Atlantic Ocean to anchor its products in Europe.