“ECSTASY” is defined as the overwhelming feeling of great happiness and joyful excitement. For model and creative TJ Sawyerr, this was the perfect title for his first solo project, due to release this summer. Centring around the documentation of the raw reality of London youth culture, ECSTASY is not only a powerful and resonant publication but an eye-opening one too.
Born in South Africa, but raised for 17 years in Clapham, South London, TJ, from a young age, rejected the common misrepresentation and commercial stereotyping of Gen Z street culture. With the desire to do justice to his roots, inspired greatly by Jamaican photographer Nadine Ijewere and her project ‘Tallawah’, TJ conceptualised ECSTASY, as a means of shedding an uncensored light upon the defining experiences in the lives of the new generation of Londoners, and, most importantly, giving the youth a voice.
The project is an ultimate culmination of TJ’s venture into creative direction and production as he brings a very personal vision to life, creating energetic imagery and a striking storyline capable of putting a smile on one’s face or bringing a tear to one’s eye.
ECSTASY takes you on an unparalleled journey. Carefully compiled as a 35 page printed magazine, the immersive story takes you from Shoreditch nightclubs to Soho link-ups, to Brixton skate sessions, showcasing a candid yet compelling insight into the lives of over 50 real youths from every corner of the city, all of whom are in their element.
With an early August release on the cards, all profits made from the sale of ECSTASY, are being donated to Key4Life, a charity close to TJ’s heart, providing opportunities for ex-offenders and the ‘at-risk’ youth of London and around the country. TJ worked closely with Key4Life during the creative process behind ECSTASY, The project aims to inspire a positive change in the society’s attitude and treatment of ex-offenders and can fund the reformation of many lives affected by tragedy.
In honour of this project and its’ objectives, Rhys Marcus Jay interviewed TJ and the following creative practitioners about their pursuit of creative success and whatnot.
TJ Sawyerr // @tj.saw1
Zoárd Heuzé // @zoardheuze
Wisdom Onwubiko // @boywis
Noah Sapon // @nwuh
Shaquille-Aaron Keith // @shakka.d.badmon
Can you tell us who are and what you do for a career?
I’m TJ Sawyerr and I’m a 17-year-old model, creative and activist from London.
My name is Zoard Heuze, I’m a casting director; co-founder of casting and management agency Tide Casting, as well as a photographer. Rory and I work with designers, photographers and brands casting models from campaigns to runways and everything in between.
We’ve started becoming much more of a 360 creative agency last year, being commissioned to produce work for brands and working on projects from the concept to the production from our own ideas. We manage a number of models, so we spend a lot of time managing their careers, making sure they’re happy, and putting them in sight for new opportunities.
As a photographer, I bring my camera with me whenever I travel somewhere, and being friends with models is a big bonus. Documentary and fashion mix together within my work – I like to take a photograph and document when I want to remember a particular moment. I studied fashion photography for years so it comes natural to style the shoot and involve an element of fashion too. I’ve actually managed to finish my website last week – it has my photography work on it.
Wisdom Onwubiko is my name, I’m a model for the most part and I take film pictures for fun.
I’m Noah, I’m a videographer/director/model/artist from just outside London.
I am Shaquille-Aaron Keith, I am a multi-disciplined artist, poet, TV show talent and sometimes I model.
How is the lockdown affecting what you do for a job?
TJ: I must say that being quarantined at home has only meant positive things for my career. The lockdown has really levelled the playing field in the industry, with even the most successful of creatives now being limited to their phones/laptops and confined to their houses. People are now forced to showcase their resourcefulness and creativity without access to expensive equipment, a studio or a team, and so, as a new face in the direction game, without substantial finances, this has been the perfect opportunity to shine! However, since the horrid events of May 25th in Minneapolis, I have put my work and career aspirations on hold to fight for the Black Lives Matter cause in the streets of London, and that is the most important work I have ever done without a doubt.
ZH: The lockdown has completely halted casting for now, so I’ve been focussing solely on photography recently – working with clients shooting content for them over FaceTime as well as shooting editorials for magazines and working on ideas I wanted to try out.
WO: Honestly it’s been very productive, I’ve acquired a lot of new skills and I’m also working on something special to me.
NS: At the beginning it felt near impossible to do most of my work, I couldn’t physically attend any shoots so filming and modelling was out of the question, I ended up doing a lot of editing.
As time’s gone on, working has become way easier and there’s actually a load of opportunities popping up. I’m also lucky enough to be quarantining with my brother who is also a model so that’s a perfect combo to continue making videos.
SK: In regards to the fashion side of things, like fashion week or modelling, jobs are slow to come by, but that’s okay because I feel like for the first time in a while I’ve been able to sit down and focus on my artwork which comes first before anything else, there are a few projects and things I’ve been meaning to do and I felt like I never had the time to do it but now I do. So there are some pros to the situation but also some cons.
Tell us how you have adapted to the current climate.
TJ: As I said, I have never really had the funds to employ a large crew or purchase advanced kit, so I am very much used to working solo on personal projects. However, being a model with an agent that usually negotiates terms on my behalf, working on a project on ECSTASY’s scale independently during quarantine has been a totally new experience. I have never been busier, and have had to, for the first time, make important calls and forge business relations myself without the advice or help of a more experienced agent or booker. This has been so exciting for me and I’ve become much more mature and self-sufficient as a result. This is my first real taste of what large scale independent direction really is and I’ve truly fallen in love with the process.
ZH: I’ve adapted well, I’m shooting a lot and constantly being productive in some sort of way as I don’t want to waste any time doing anything pointless. I’ve managed to get a lot more organised.
WO: Kinda just had to figure out what to do with my time. Can’t just sit around all day, that’s boring. Wanting to do things pushes my productivity.
NS: It’s taken a minute but I’m getting into it now. I’m creating content of myself, with my brother and also directing via FaceTime or messages and other people are making content for me to edit. I’ve also started to pick up work in other fields such as graphic design… It’s all a hustle, you just have to be able to adapt and evolve to whatever situation you’re put in and carry on rather than dwelling on the negatives. We can all continue to work, we just have to be able to switch it up a bit.
SK: I’ve been meditating, thinking, most of all growing. I’ve used this time to reflect on how I can improve as a person for myself and those around me. I’ve learnt how to appreciate my own company more and myself as a person, whether that be with my flaws or my insecurities.
We’d imagine that you had some goals for this year, can they still be carried out despite the circumstances we’re in? If so, how?
TJ: Last year was really my break out year on the modelling scene, culminating in me being named as one of the 8 new faces to watch in 2020 by MoreModelsofColour. A lot of people were tipping me to blow internationally this year and there were some lofty expectations on my back. As it turns out, the year, on the modelling front, started in the worst way, as I suffered a serious knee injury at the turn of the new year, a day before I was due to walk at London Fashion Week. My entire FW20 season was over before it had even started and it was at that point that I decided, while unable to walk shows, that I would start working on ECSTASY, in a spontaneous venture into creative direction, with the idea of charity and community work at the forefront of my mind. Quarantine has really given me the chance to realise the potential of the project, and has given me the time to put what was once a distant dream, into reality, while the modelling industry as we know it, grinds to a standstill. Obviously during this time I have stepped up as a young voice and leader of the BLM movement, and that is something that I intend to continue and expand upon for the remainder of the year and beyond, even if it means being in the streets every single weekend until we are acknowledged.
So while my ambitions now, for the remainder of the year, are starkly different from the goals I began the year with, I think that lockdown has been hugely beneficial for me, and that this year can still, most certainly, be a success in a different, and much more important and powerful way than I had originally anticipated.
ZH: One of my goals this year was spending a longer time in New York and getting a taste of what it’s like to live there. I went with some friends and got to know every bit of the city, and managed to work remotely with the time difference which was great to find out that it could be done. Luckily the trip was planned early in the year and I came back just before lockdown.
I wanted to work on more of our own concepts, which Rory and I have been able to do during lockdown by working with our amazing models creating some really cool projects with magazines. All our models are within the creative industry, and they are also from all around the world so we’ve got some really incredible photos from Kazakhstan, Caribbean, Hong Kong, France and others for our collaborative project with F Word Magazine.
I’ve got plans to travel again, which I will be able to do whenever everything opens, so for now I’m just planning ahead and working on what I can from confinement.
WO: Man I hope, my goals, for the most part, involve me travelling. I can’t really travel under these circumstances.
NS: I’ve always been able to adjust to fit my current climate – I moved around a bit when I was younger, I guess I picked it up from that. If you’re focused on your final goal, all the smaller objectives that come first should lead you there, some plans I had for this year have definitely been delayed and I’m not sure when they will end up happening, but we’re all getting on with what we’ve gotta get on with, nothing’s been forgotten or cancelled, everyone is in the same situation and dealing with similar issues – I like to feel there’s mutual love, respect and loyalty with everyone I work with.
SK: Yes, I do think I can still carry out those goals, In fact, I think there are goals we all had for this year, that can still be carried out. For those who think this year is done and there’s nothing to achieve, I’d beg to differ. It’s definitely a set back yes, but It’s a chance to think, rationalise, plan and if you look at life like that, then 2020 didn’t really stop anything.
What equates to ECSTASY for you?
TJ: For me, ECSTASY was the perfect title for the project as it describes not only a feeling or sentiment, but an experience. For every person, the word ECSTASY resonates in a different way, it conjures up a different connotation or memory. For some, it may be the craziest night of their life, for others, maybe just a beautiful, peaceful moment. ECSTASY is in the eye of the beholder and that is truly what this project is. Every person who reads the magazine will have a unique experience, and especially during periods such as these, it will act as a nostalgic reminder of better times, as well as a driver to create a better future for us all.
ZH: Spending time with friends, seeing new places and working on projects I’m interested in and with people I respect.
WO: Honestly I don’t know. When I think of Ecstasy I think of drugs. I don’t do drugs. I don’t even drink. I guess to give a different answer it kinda equates to having the freedom to do what I want.
NS: Ecstasy is levelling up, evolution, knowing that I’m on the right path – there’s nothing like being able to see that.
SK: The feeling of connecting to people via one of my art mediums. It gives me a high like no other. I really feel good when people connect with my artwork.
Is this shown through your day to practise?
TJ: I am known by most as a charismatic and fun-loving guy. When I am with my people, it’s always a memorable time, I feel ecstatic on a daily basis because of the opportunities I have and the life I live, as is reflected through the positive, bouncy energy I brought out to the protests. Not everyone is as fortunate as me, and with charity being something that I carry as an integral value and practice of mine, I am also using the project to raise awareness for those who cannot flourish and feel ecstatic about their lives in the same way that I can, as a result of, at times, personal, but more so, systematic restrictions and attitudes. In donating all profits to Key4Life, as well as working closely with them in the production of the project, we are helping to provide work and life opportunities for black ex-offenders who otherwise had little hope of employment, due to current attitudes in the workplace, that overlook and disregard minorities with previous convictions. I have always felt that it’s important to use the voice I have to inspire a change, and with ECSTASY and all of my activism work I hope to do that.
WO: I’m not sure…
SK: (Answers this in the following response to the next question)
What’re your thoughts on social media and the impact that it’s had on the youth?
TJ: Whilst I do believe that social media has been instrumental in creating one of the least productive generations in the history of humanity, I do know for certain that, without it, I wouldn’t have achieved anywhere near what I have today, in modelling terms or with ECSTASY. Being able to reach a wide audience at the click of a button and contact editors and casting directors so easily means that motivated young creatives like me are able to gain recognition for our work, as well as broaden our horizons and create opportunities for ourselves, especially during times like these when we can’t leave the confines of our own house. This ease of communication and sharing of information, on a much larger scale, is the reason for why BLM has become the biggest civil rights movement in history. People are, not only, able to inform themselves through reading, and speaking directly with people from across the globe about their unique experiences, but are also able to show their support and solidarity for the cause, in a way that was never possible 50 years ago. There have been many who have said that BLM is solely being treated as a social media trend, and I do, to a certain extent, agree with that, especially considering the wholly un-constructive #BlackoutTuesday trend amongst others, so I do see the coming weeks and months as a very telling period in evaluating the world’s genuine commitment to this cause in the long run. Having said this, despite the fact that, social media has brainwashed the majority of the youth into a lazy and nonconstructive way of living, I think that it definitely provides avenues for success for the small number of motivated youngsters, as well as the platform from which such a powerful movement can grow.
ZH: Everything is just a tool – Instagram isn’t good or bad it just depends how it’s used. It’s like you’re not going to blame a gun for shooting someone. There’s been a lot of opportunities created by people who would otherwise not have had a platform to share their work on, and it’s a major tool for many in terms of marketing themselves, especially in London. A lot of the younger generation who are working for themselves in the fashion industry would not have been as successful, and possibly may not have been able to make a career without the use of Instagram, so I would definitely say it has had a largely positive impact on the youth.
WO: Social media is good and bad. Again social media has connected me to a lot of good people and has given me great opportunities. Also it’s kinda weird because a lot of people look up to me on social media. People have to realise that social media isn’t real. Followers don’t really mean anything if you don’t do anything.
NS: Social media has its good sides and its bad sides. It’s really positive that you can literally come up from nothing just because of talent, hard work and consistency – there’s the possibility of anyone seeing your work and if your work ethic is right then it’s likely that you will be noticed. It’s so full of opportunities, if you use it the right way it can be so beneficial.
I do think it’s had negative impacts on youth though, it’s a lot easier to gain what can feel like fame. People can get really caught up in that and I think it can be unhealthy; mental health issues are really prevalent at the moment and I think this could have something to do with it. You get judged so much and it’s so easy to get caught up in it all, you have to be really strong and secure in yourself and what you’re doing to be able to get through it. Also, there’s wayyyy too much false information on there, it’s so dangerous, I’m not gonna get into it but everyone needs a reliable source to confirm what they see on social media because it can get dangerous. I feel like that’s definitely an issue for our generation.
SK: I think it was good in the beginning, It was nice to see what you’re friends are up to, but like most things that are good, too much of it becomes a bad thing. A lot of The youth have become obsessed with portraying lifestyles and lives they do not live everyday to create a different perception online to get the validation they seek or lack in reality. This isn’t always the case but when I see it, it’s upsetting, to think some people aren’t able to appreciate their real life and create a false one online via images and selfies. I think it’s also good that it’s been able to create a platform for the youth, no longer do talented people need to wait to get discovered, they can just put themselves out there just like that. I think that’s amazing. I would just want the youth to remember it’s all about balance.
How have you been using your voice to tackle injustice?
TJ: As a mixed raced youth with two mixed raced parents, I have always found it difficult to truly identify my ethnicity, and this, paired with me being one of the few black youths in my area to go through private education on a scholarship, caused me, for a long time, to lose sight of the very real, yet increasingly subtle and engrained racism that is so prominent in today’s society. Of course I knew it existed, but I had become so accustomed to being the only black kid in a white community and being surrounded by ignorant people influenced with deeply racist sentiments, that I no longer saw it as something out of the ordinary. It was only when I stepped out of this bubble of privilege and actively explored the true black culture in London over the past couple of years that I have properly been able to identify the oppressive reality of our society. I vouched to never be silent on the issue as I once had been, and with the brutal murder of George Floyd catalysing such a global response, there was no better opportunity for me to step up and stand up for what I believe. I now see it as my duty to speak for those who have been silenced for centuries, taking to the streets everyday, even while studying 6 subjects at 6th form, to fight for the cause. I have led protests outside Downing Street, spent hours speaking with Met Police superiors about their handling of the situation and have conducted discussions and seminars on live streams and on the streets, to inform and educate those who may be even more ignorant than I once was. For me this is the very least I can do to honour the lives of every person who has fallen at the hands of this dysfunctional system.
ZH: Rory and I decided to donate towards the Black Lives Matter campaign and Du Nord Riot Recovery Fund through Tide Casting. Working with many black creatives and representing black models, equal representation is a huge part of Tide and we felt it very important to speak out and show our support to the black community. I have also been using my platform to share daily information regarding the riots and the positive changes which have come because of it.
WO: I’ve just tried to highlight current issues and share videos to spread awareness. I haven’t been protesting because of coronavirus, also because my parents are a little on the older side. I don’t want to risk bringing a virus home.
NS: Social media has played a big part in the impact our voices have. We now have the power to make changes to the world by simply posting something on our instagrams. I’ve been sharing links to petitions, donations and videos/photos that I thought were important to share. I’ve also been having conversations with a lot of the people around me to get different insights. It’s weird for me because I’m actually mixed Ghanaian and British but no one would ever guess it, I just look racially ambiguous; I feel like I don’t fit in with any specific race which just kinda means I don’t think about it until I’m dealing with direct racism. It really shows that racism is based on ignorant stereotypes rather than anything factual.
SK: I try to spread as much awareness through things in my daily practices, For example, in my poetry the topics I choose sometimes are often political, I understand I have a platform and people who like my work so when I get a chance I try to educate when I can. Even on PAQ, I often brought on black creatives because I noticed how much the industry was starved of them. Literally only a handful of them and it’s not right, and of course social media. I often share thoughts and opinions that create discussion on my instagram and twitter. If I feel like I have enough knowledge on something via educating myself or experience I like to use my voice to evoke conversation on those opinions to get the younger audience talking and thinking, and questioning the society they live in. Questions are the most important things to have, I want to encourage people to ask, debate, and think. You judge a person based on what they do when no one Is looking, talking about it or trying to fix the issue. Injustices are something that are constantly in my mind, I want to know that when we look back on everything, that I really did what I could for the causes.
Can you list 3 tips for creatives who are experiencing a lack of motivation?
TJ: First and foremost, what I always say to young gs that ask me how to make a start: you’re only ever one step away from success. In this day and age, it only takes one person to recognise and appreciate the work you’re doing for your career to change, so the first tip would be to stick with it, even if you don’t see the numbers or impressions immediately. Second, have fun with it. If you’re not enjoying the work that you’re doing, it will always be hard to commit to it to the point of success. Find what you enjoy and are passionate about and trust that your love for that particular field of work or topic, paired with hard graft, will gain you the recognition you deserve. Finally, don’t restrict yourself. There’s a reason I call myself a creative, and not a model. Modelling can come across as a one dimensional field, and in order to have the best chance at success you cannot let yourself be confined or defined in such a way. Branch out, discover new things, new interests, and even if you don’t end up pursuing those things at least you have the understanding of those fields. I’ve always felt that a model who doesn’t have an understanding or appreciation for the work of a creative director or designer and who is not genuinely passionate about their craft, can never rise to the very top of the game. The creative industry is so broad, and those who can cover large amounts of it with their resume, while acting as informative role models, will always tend to achieve the most. Experiment! Don’t be afraid to speak!
ZH: Find some inspiration, and do a lot of research. Write all your ideas down and develop them. Collaborate and share ideas.
WO: If you’re not in a creative mindset don’t make anything, because it’s going to be forced. You can’t force creativity or motivation. I normally just look at art for an hour or 2 or just talk to the mandem about ideas.
NS: One tip would definitely be find your own inspiration, it’s easy to follow what other people are seeing and getting inspiration from, try to find things that you naturally drift towards and see how those things can inspire you.
Another would be to try not to focus on the bad things happening around you, it can be really hard but I feel like it’s sometimes good to just surround yourself with your own thoughts and not let any of the negatives from the real world get in. Realise what you want and what you’re aiming for and let that motivate you. It’s easy to feel like everything is against you, get into your own world and win.
Finally, get your headspace right. However you need to do that – follow a routine, meditation, isolation… If your headspace is messy it’s really hard to stay focused and motivated.
SK: Everything is inspiration if you allow it to be, maybe try changing the medium you’re working on and even if the other medium you try out doesn’t work, the journey itself evokes inspiration.
EVERYONE that is a creator in their own rights goes through a phase of not having inspiration, don’t worry about what everyone around you is doing focus on yourself, but with that being said, you Are human if you do look around you don’t beat yourself up about it just remember to be appreciative of everyone’s journey, especially your own.
Stop doubting yourself, you set the bar for how much people appreciate your work based on how much you appreciate it. If you don’t love your work as the creator, who will?
Tell us your dreams and goals you’d like to achieve in the next 5 years.
TJ: I would hope that my venture into creative direction lasts, and extends to larger collaborative charity projects on an international scale. While I still have high ambitions in the modelling industry as well, I would love to forge relationships with top designers that can extend further than just the catwalk, with work that can aid the community and help sway the dysfunctional state of the society within which we’ve lived for centuries. It’s an exciting and unpredictable time for the entire creative industry so there is a lot depending on how we bounce back from this COVID-19 situation and how black creatives can use our true emotional connection the BLM cause to fuel genuine, resonant work that can educate the masses.
ZH: Travel a lot. Release a book. Expand Tide. Have fun.
WO: Have a Vogue/ GQ cover, reach the point where my parents don’t have to work and put my friends on.
NS: Let’s wait and see what happens.
SK: My next couple years seem like a crazy journey just thinking about it, there’s so many things I want to do, but off the cuff. I want to do my first real solo art exhibition and release a poetry book filled with a compilation of written works by me and art. It would be cool to do something with a musician I really appreciate lyrically like Kendrick or J Cole, doing an interlude of something, I also want to explore different avenues. I want to try acting, my experience of being in front of the camera is 4 years and I want to expand on it even further. I have a lot more dreams as do a lot of other people including those reading this, but to condense what I want over the next 5 years is definitely overwhelming. I’m just excited for the journey.