The Kids Are Alright

“Others talk about pain through music. Ours is our pain through cotton.” That’s the sentimental ethos driving the Ghanaian collective and clothing brand FREE THE YOUTH.

Together, co-founders Jonathan “Joey Lit” Coffie, Richard “Kweku Maposh” Ormano and Kelly “Kurlz” Sekfafor Foli (as well as Winfred “Shace” Mensah who passed away in 2021), prove that creativity is a viable way to not just live your life, but create a life for yourself. FREE THE YOUTH wants to inspire the next generation —and they’re doing it through fashion.

This message starts with clothes that speak to the Gen Z and millenial streetwear communities in Africa. Next, FREE THE YOUTH tells the story of life in Ghana with transparency and authenticity. Theirs isn’t a hype mentality, it’s one of lived cultural experience. As such, price points are affordable, often aimed around $40 USD, while graphics are centered on representing African life: think Afrobeats, strong matriarchal women, and digs at government corruption.

“Our ‘bigger picture’ goal is to make it easier for every African youth to dream big,” explains Coffie. “We got it hard and we don’t want it to be hard for the next generation.” To achieve this goal, FREE THE YOUTH operates a store in Accra, Ghana with a deeper purpose than just selling clothing — it’s a creative community hub that welcomes anyone and everyone into its space to make friends, listen to music, create T-shirts, or just feel a sense of community.

The brand also aims to tells the story of Ghana — from the country’s trials and tribulations to its love and success — globally.

“The name is bigger than us. They’d say that we freed them.”

What does the phrase “FREE THE YOUTH” mean to you?

Kelly Foli: The name came very naturally. Kids here in Ghana don’t always get a chance to do what they want to do – to pursue the career that they want. It’s chosen by their parents. After we finished high school, our love for fashion, art, and culture really inspired us. We took outfit pictures for Instagram, Tumblr and Facebook, and that was new and fresh within the Ghanaian community here in Africa. Some people called us black sheep for how we defined ourselves because we looked different. We wanted to ask for the freedom to do what we want. The name is bigger than us.

What is Ghanaian streetwear and culture?

Richard Ormano: Ghana is the place that the world is trying to tap into right now. They’re coming for our music, our style of fashion. FREE THE YOUTH brings traditional fashion into the present day. The streetwear here is not popularly known, but because we are leading the path, everyone is trying to tap into FREE THE YOUTH. We are the breadwinners of streetwear culture in Ghana and we’re trying to bring up the little ones.

KF: Everything happens naturally here. There’s a hustle. It makes people entrepreneurs, to do their own thing in their own way. It’s fresh, and there are no rules to it.1 of 112 of 113 of 114 of 115 of 116 of 117 of 118 of 119 of 1110 of 1111 of 11

Do you think FREE THE YOUTH is inspiring kids to follow their passions?

RO: If everyone is trying to have a career in medicine, what happens to the creative world? It dies. We’re showing how we can make the country a good one by using the creative scene.

KF: If you go to primary schools in Ghana, 90 percent of the kids are really good at art, without even taking art lessons. There are a lot of great painters in this world and many come from Ghana. We can’t let this talent go to waste.

What does it mean to be paving the way for Ghanaian street culture?

RO: We’re overwhelmed with gratitude to be recognized as a brand that tells African stories. But there are always more stories to tell. FREE THE YOUTH is known for those stories, and people relate to them. We give the kids hope through the clothes.

Is there anything that really changed the game for FREE THE YOUTH?

RO: Hard work and consistency. But what really changed thighs for us was our collaboration with Virgil Abloh. It’s still in the pipeline, though. It’ll be crazy for Africa — an African brand, doing everything in Africa and collaborating with someone of that stature — when it comes out. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.

“Growing up in a country where the creative art scene is not well-regarded can be challenging. Every kid looks up to you. You are the influencer.”

What was it like to work with Virgil Abloh?

RO: Working with him was so easy—he comes from Ghana so he has the same ideas, the same experiences, and he easily communicated them.
KF: We learned how fast things are. Even after his passing, he’s been teaching us through his books. Anyone who wants to know how to start a brand should read them. He taught us a lot—everything in fashion right now has been influenced by Virgil.

Have you faced any challenges?

RO: Growing up in a country where the creative art scene is not well-regarded can be challenging. Every kid looks up to you, so like it or not, you’re the “influencer”.

Are you the influencer or the role model?

KF: We’re role models for these kids — each one teaches one. Our shop is a creative hub for them. They always come here, ask questions, and support each other. We want to pass on what we know to them so they can pass it on when it’s their turn.

You’ve said that you don’t sell clothes, but stories. Why is this approach so important?

RO: Think of how many clothing brands we have in the world. What are you selling to the people? To make the difference, you have to have a story. You have to stay true to yourself and be authentic. That’s the only way people can relate to what you’re saying.

Do you think that authenticity is missing from streetwear?

RO: People are just doing it for the clout and for the bag. If it’s just for the bag, why are you doing it? If it’s your passion, the bag will come. You should start from somewhere, they should see the suffering, they should be able to relate. We’re in a warzone. There’s a lot of stuff in Africa that people need to know and pay attention to.1 of 22 of 2

HYPEBEAST Magazine Issue 31: The Circle Issue is now available on HBX.
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