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Bernice Mulenga

PRIM is the Black book club making reading cool (and accessible)

We sat down with this innovative storytelling platform ahead of their pop-up event over Black History Month.

12 Oct 2022

“I always say I’m trying to make books cool.K, chuckles. Our zoom interview takes place four days before the launch of PRIM’s highly-anticipated Black History Month story-focused event. It’s an early Sunday morning start, and K Bailey Obazee, a DJ and the founder of PRIM, is in remarkably high spirits for our chat.  On the wall behind her in her London home there’s a framed poster proclaiming “Queer Love,” and it is this sentiment radiates throughout her words and in her work.

In 2019, K felt there was a growing need for a platform “dedicated to educating, connecting, documenting and sharing stories of the world’s African, Caribbean and Afro-Latinx communities” and so PRIM was born. It’s “a space to connect, to learn, and to grow the story of us,” their website proudly states. They run OKHA, a monthly book club prioritising queer and Black authors, as well as panel discussions, Q&As, and many other live events. But whether written or spoken; filmed or sung, every form of storytelling is welcomed and celebrated in the house of PRIM. 

From Thursday 13 October, PRIM is launching a four-day pop-up bookshop and a programme of activities designed “to show the breadth of creativity within the queer Black community” in collaboration with the British luxury brand, Burberry. The pop-up finds its home in a stunning rooftop location in North Greenwich where they’ll also be premiering PRIM’s debut film POWER IN READING, directed by filmmaker Sannchia Gaston with the support of Burberry, which will be screened alongside an exhibition by artist Cameron Ugbodu.

Reflecting on some of her earliest memories of libraries, K remembers the power of their uninterrupted silence. “It breathes serenity, from the moment you walk in,” she says. Between the hustle of a busy city and the hecticness of family life, these quiet moments weren’t always easy to find.  “My four siblings, mum, dad, and my grandma lived [with me] at that point. My house was never quiet, let’s just put it that way,” she laughs.

The library served as a place for her to study, revise and find time to get lost in books. But in these moments of respite from the constant buzz of the world, K felt uneasy. Looking back, the reason was glaringly obvious. “When I was 18 or 19, I spent most of my time not being engaged or really enjoying reading that much. I didn’t necessarily realise the impact of that until I got older and really started reading books only by people of Black ancestry, and feeling the impact of reading at that point.” When visiting Nigeria in her teens, found herself in a library full of parable books and stories written by Black authors, with Black characters. It was something K could finally resonate with, and something PRIM would bring to others. “I think I was talking to someone and asked if they could name ten Black authors, and they couldn’t. I just thought that was really sad. I’m sure a lot of people can, but there are a lot of people that can’t. And if they do it’s the ones we’re always given.”

During our discussion, my mind travels to authors like Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and James Baldwin, all authors that K happens to reel off as names mentioned time and time again. But for Black British authors, I ashamedly could barely count them on one hand. This is a conversation that isn’t new to K and she doesn’t make me feel ashamed about it. After all, these authors are cultural pacesetters and activists with writings that still ring true to the tribulations of today. It’s not that those books don’t deserve celebrating, but we need to hold space for others too. 

“I think I was talking to someone and asked if they could name ten Black authors, and they couldn’t. I just thought that was really sad.”

That isn’t a problem for PRIM, who have been able to right some of the wrongs of the industry, bringing the serenity of a bookshop to a community of over 4,000 Queer and Black creatives across the diaspora in an innovative digital space. With audiences across the UK, Nigeria, Brazil, and beyond, the platform shares a truly diverse range of books exclusively from Black authors, including The Chiffon Trenches by André Leon Talley and Here Again by Okechukwu Nzelu. They also boast a pioneering author’s catalogue, written stories, films, documentaries, photography, and more. 

It’s a platform born out of love for the Black queer community, with a catalogue that emulates the rich, unbridled nature of queer creativity. “You’ll meet someone who only works with audio. You’ll meet someone who’s a DJ. You meet someone who’s a digital artist.” K explains. Each discipline allows someone to tell a story in a way that’s true to them. “The endpoint in creating a story might be the same, but the journey to is completely different.” 

PRIM wants to be accessible, reaching those often excluded from engaging in books and stories. For some, finding the time to read is a luxury they can’t afford, and having a diverse approach to storytelling can rectify that. “You find that sometimes people are working two jobs,” K explains. “I wanted to also provide something else so you could come and engage in so that whether you read the book or not, you can still come and enjoy or hear about parts of this book.” And the pop-up will also be making strides to mitigate costs to attendees with a community library that offers some the chance to take books home for free. “I want people to come and enjoy and feel enriched from this, without spending a penny… other than maybe TFL.”

For PRIM, working with brands is all about finding out what they do to help PRIM achieve these goals. Having collaborated with other big brands, like Aesop and The British Fashion Council, K attributes their unrelenting authenticity to the success of their past events. “When brands approach we tell them ‘this is what we want to do this year, where do you fit in?’” she says. “It works better than having them ask us to do things that don’t align with who PRIM is.”  And having created a pop-up bookshop for one of Burberry’s past events, this was a union that made sense for their shared goals. “They’ve been doing a lot around reading and books, especially already working to put books into schools, ” says K.“There’s that mutual understanding, and that love of reading and of books that meant this just felt like a very natural, collaborative project.”

“We would have done it regardless,” K says, “but working with Burberry allows that to be a much larger scale, it’s allowed us to bring in more people and make it a much more of an event.”

The pop-up and exhibition has even more to offer as guests can also take advantage of the DJ decks, open for everyone to use, relax and read within the space. The pop-up is designed by set designer Jade Adeyemi, but guests can also take to the rooftop basketball court where they can join in a basketball tournament. The programme includes performances from TAWIAH, Kadeem Tyrell, and TianaMajor9. There’ll also be poetry readings with Chloe Filani, free portrait sessions led by Bernice Mulenga, and a Vogue Ball brought to you by The House of Bodega. We just want to expand and include as many people from our community as possible, by including all the things that we enjoy and love.” K states.