51.5074° N, 0.1278° W
‘London is the kind of place that allows you to rethink and rewire who you are.’
Gems in this
Founder of African focussed media brand Nataal, plus actor and producer, Alassane Sy is a pioneering voice helping to share Africa's diverse creative and artistic culture. Born in Mauritania, raised in Senegal, and having lived in France, the US and the UK, Alassane's ongoing global journey is one that has shaped his keen sensibility.
He's acted in New York in the acclaimed 2011 picture 'Restless City', directed his own shorts 'Fallou' and 'Marabout' in Dakar and created a vibrant community by founding Nataal in London. In everything he does, Alassane looks to dig deeper into, and to celebrate West African history and culture. We caught up with Alassane to find out where his creativity has taken him, his top gems for experiencing Senegalese culture in London and calling the city home for more than a decade now.
On travel opening doors
I was born in West Africa, in Mauritania, but I grew up in Senegal. Close to 2001 I moved to France, and it was from France that I visited London. I think I fell in love with the city before anything, but I didn't move here at the time. I ended up in the States, where I lived in Brooklyn for four years, and where I started modeling and then acting. Through that process, things happened in life and I ended up meeting [the director] Andrew Dosunmu who cast me in Restless City. That's where things really started.
On finding your love of storytelling
It really didn't start right away. But from acting there was a click — me finding out that there was something I had to do with this world of cinema and storytelling. There was this feeling that it came at the right moment. I also don't think that I was made for modelling, because it wasn’t something I was really looking for. I did not come from a place where people dream of those things. Maybe there was a part of me that was always about storytelling or just communicating with people or being in front of people. But it definitely wasn’t modelling. So the transition into acting did help me a lot — I finally found myself in a much bigger and more complex world where there are many ways of expressing yourself. It was a blessing to get into acting.
On reconnecting with your roots and slowing down
After the States, I went back to Senegal for about a year and a half. It had to do with a real need for going back home — not Europe, but Africa. I got to a point where I needed to go back to the roots and also just disconnect in general. I couldn’t be around cities anymore, so I went deep into the Senegalese villages where I stayed and did some farming, growing tomatoes and peppers. Not for the money but just as a way of disconnecting. I think it was the best experience I've had in my life.
On feeling Senegalese vs Mauritanian
I'd say I feel 99% Senegalese. It's also hard to separate the people who live in Mauritania and those who live in Senegal. Especially my tribe, we've always occupied both sides until the Berbers and the Arabs started to become more and more present on the continent, which pushed back lots of blacks closer to Senegal and Mali. But in reality, we have always considered that whole part of what they call Mauritania as part of our, say, kingdoms.
On founding the Nataal media collective
The idea behind Nataal came around in 2012 when I was part of a campaign. I was cast among a number of creators from the African continent to go to Senegal and highlight the creativity, positivity and holiness. When we came back to London, the whole creative team stayed in touch. We felt there was a need to extend the campaign further. At first I came up with the idea of a film and music festival. That was supposed to happen in Saint Louis, in Senegal, where you would get musicians and filmmakers to come every year. But it wasn’t just about the festival — because before a festival you are encouraging people to clean up the city, you're encouraging them to do reforestation.
'I finally found myself in a much bigger and more complex world where there are many ways of expressing yourself. It was a blessing to get into acting.'
The idea was to use the festival as an excuse to really do what those cities needed. A place like Saint Louis, for example, is a beautiful city, but unfortunately the environment is not well protected. It's predicted that it will disappear eventually because of the rising waters. Even how to manage the rubbish is sometimes an issue. So the festival was for culture, for inviting people to come together and for creating a better life. I spent a few years trying to make it happen; it was very, very hard. People were like: 'Why would I give you money to go and clean cities?' And so at some point we decided we should start an online platform where we can achieve change, but digitally: having events, exhibitions and the magazine. I still have the idea to host the festival at some point.
On falling in love with London
When I first arrived here almost 10 years ago, what struck me was Camden. It was summertime — that day always stays in my mind. You can imagine the whole vibe, the energy. I walked around watching people jumping in the canal, they were drunk. Lots of tattoos. I could do that for days, watching people like that. And it also inspired my second short film, where I was trying to create that type of atmosphere, but of course I never got as close to the real thing. But that's the energy that I feel here: you can chat to anyone and anyone can chat back to you — that’s the thing that I couldn't find in France.
On how London feels to you
I come from a background that is charged with beliefs, culture and religion. I don't know if I can call London a crazy-positive energy, but you can see that there is an intelligence around the structure. It forces people to bump into each other and meet strangers. In New York you can go to the place where you will find only the Senegalese or only Italians, but here — and I'm not saying it's fully 'married' at all, it's very far from that — you can definitely see a mix of different people in the same spot. That part is one thing that struck me.
On your favorite things about the capital
I love the parks. That’s one thing that definitely attracted me to London. To me it was like, ‘Wow, these people get it’. I love Finsbury Park — I play football there on Sundays with some Caribbean brothers, Africans, Moroccans. Museums are also one of the greatest parts of London. Here, like in the British Museum, you find lots of things about our history that you wouldn’t find in Senegal. Which is crazy. So sometimes, when I really miss home and I want to see something powerful, inspiring, I go to the museums.
On exploring Dalston
There's Kaffa Coffee on Gillett Square in Dalston. It's an Ethiopian café run by a man called Marcos. There's also Nigerian place on Kingsland High Street called Moonshine — I know the name sounds a bit...! But actually it has a certain particularity where you can go and easily feel like you're not in Europe anymore. You're somewhere in Lagos.
'I don't know if I can call London a crazy-positive energy, but you can see that there is an intelligence around the structure. It forces people to bump into each other and meet strangers.'
On Senegalese culture in London
There is a Senegalese pop-up that happens once a month, called Little Baobab. It's run by a friend called Khadim. They collaborate with a Senegalese artist called Abdoulaye Samb. He plays in most of the gigs and I'm working with him right now on a musical creation. We have put together a certain number of artists, musicians, filmmakers who are all Senegalese. We talk about the colonial history of Senegal, because in Senegal people don't learn their own history. In school they learn about Napoleon, Columbus, trade, slavery, colonisation — and done! So we all felt for many years that this is one of our main issues, that we don't know our own history before colonisation, the glorious part where there was none of that. So the idea is to study and learn, create songs, literature and write books for kids.
On a window or an aisle seat
On London in one word
Rewire. Or rethink.
I feel like London is the kind of place that allows you to rethink and rewire who you are. No matter where you're from or what religion or beliefs you have.