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Sunday School Founder Josef Adamu on the Power of Telling Untold Stories

Images courtesy of Josef Adamu. Design by Danielle Campbelle.

Welcome to My Story, our new weekly series dedicated to creatives of colour and their paths to success. By championing these diverse stories and backgrounds, we hope that our understanding of the cultural conversations around beauty and fashion will expand and that respect for our differences will flourish.

Meet Josef Adamu, a creative director who splits his time between Toronto and New York, and who started his own creative agency, Sunday School, from his Toronto basement back in 2017 which has since grown to a team of four. Here, he shares, in his own words, his company’s mission and what fuels him creatively.

On growing up:

“My parents are Nigerian and they came to Canada in ’89. I was born a few years later in Toronto, and my family bounced around a lot between Toronto and Brampton. I even lived in Calgary, Alberta for one year as well. I’ve always been in a Black space for the most part, meaning I’ve always lived in areas where there was a highly concentrated Black or South Asian community. That was beautiful to me. And I always took note of things. Like, when I went to friends’ houses, I was very inquisitive about where their parents were from. I’ve always been that friend that was questioning everything and I’ve always documented it. When I went to the hair salon, I took note of things. When I went to play basketball with friends, I took note of things. I’ve always made mental notes. And, honestly, those experiences play into what I’m doing now.”

On what he does professionally:

“Creative director, entrepreneur, visual storyteller. I run a creative agency that brings different creatives together to work on campaign projects, and partner with other companies on projects, that bring to life untold narratives. I do dabble in a bit of photography and a bit of consulting, but creative direction is the overarching element. I spent about two to three years prior to 2017 studying the game — learning about the best photographers in the industry, learning about the spaces in which I could fill as a creative — and then eventually started Sunday School.”

On his agency, Sunday School, and the company’s DNA:

“It’s a creative agency that focuses on telling narratives from a Black perspective, and integrating art and education at its core. And we do that through stories that are often untold, overlooked, or not as amplified. And when I say Black perspective, I mean Black at the forefront. The stories we tell are not only Black ones, but they’re Black-centred because there are a lot of companies that don’t include these narratives at all. And I’m not going to lie: Sunday School is everything I’ve ever wanted. Being from the background I come from, my upbringing, the kind of spaces I’m used to taking up — this is a complete reflection of what I stand for. And you know what they say, ‘Be the person that you never had.’ And I never had this. I wanted to make sure that the next generation after me could be super inspired about what I’m doing, but also find and see ways to make it possible for themselves.”

A still from Sunday School’s REPRESENTATION MATTERS series. Photography by Jeremy Rodney-Hall.

On what inspired the idea for Sunday School and how the company has evolved:

“I started it out of frustration. I wanted to see change in the space I was working in; change in an industry that was very linear and that didn’t include much room for my community. There wasn’t ideal space for this type of content, for these type of campaigns, especially here in Canada. So I created one. I had no real goals at first; we were just having fun with the idea of visual storytelling. But then in 2018 I was like, let me put my foot down and set actual, intentional direction with this company: register it, do all that good stuff. See if we could create something long lasting and that will attract corporate-level interest. And we’re at a point now where we don’t just take on any project. Everything is completely centralized and intentional by constantly finding ways to integrate art with knowledge. Like, what can you gain from this? How can you teach a friend? For example, a lot of people don’t know about Africa’s different components and its regions. So, if we can use our platform to show people just how beautiful Africa is, and how all these different parts come together and coincide to make up the continent, then we’re teaching through the work we do. And that’s exactly what we set out to do.”

A shot from Sunday School’s JUMP BALL: THE AFRICAN DIASPORA STORY series. Photography by O’shane Howard and Joshua Kissi.

On the name Sunday School:

“So, I grew up in the church, and if you know anything about church, Sunday school is the youth service that the kids go to. It’s a class where you learn about the word of God, but you also come together and really unite with kids your age: you get to speak like them and you create like them. And I’ve always found that admirable because you really get the opportunity to be more yourself. So I took that as a metaphor for creativity and how, with me, every project I work on is collaborative. You’re always working with a team, and you have all these different ideas, opinions, values and backgrounds that come together to create something beautiful, like a photographer, a videographer, a creative director, and a makeup artist. And then ‘school’ really ties into the educational component of this is not just being art. It’s a lot more than that.”

Shot from Sunday School’s THE HAIR APPOINTMENT series. Photography by Jeremy Rodney-Hall.

On one of his favourite work projects, The Hair Appointment:

“I grew up with an aunt that had a hair salon and her hair salon was attached to the barbershop I went to. I was always in that space, whether I was getting my hair cut or just soaking up the culture. And there’s something about the hair salon where, when you enter, you feel like, “I’m welcomed here,’ from the smell to even the temperature of the room. Everything about it. You just feel like, ‘I can be myself in here.’ That’s something about the hair salon and the barbershop that I’ve never, ever felt anywhere else, and that inspired me. I have a really good friend that lives in New York and that works with her mom at their family hair salon, so we shot it there.

Josef Adamu
From Sunday School’s THE HAIR APPOINTMENT series. Photography by Jeremy Rodney-Hall.

We wanted to evoke the idea of unconventional beauty and the stories that often go on in hair salons. We also wanted to highlight the different makeup of Black beauty (the light-skinned girl, the brown-skinned girl, the dark-skinned girl) and how braiding techniques have their origins rooted in Africa. We also found ways to tie in Black youth because that perspective is so authentic to the Black hair and salon experience. I think it all came together and made something really beautiful for the community. My proudest career moment has probably been the fact that we were able to take The Hair Appointment on four different activations around the world: New York City, Oakland, London, England and Ghana. And honestly, until this day, I didn’t expect the feedback that we got from it. I didn’t think it would take off the way it did. It just shows you the power of social media, the power of togetherness, and the power of telling stories that are untold.”

Josef Adamu
From Sunday School’s THE HAIR APPOINTMENT series. Photography by Jeremy Rodney-Hall.

On the Black Lives Matter movement:

“Sunday School has gained over 2,000 followers over the past week just based off people wanting to tap into more Black-oriented storytelling, and that’s what we do. But we’ve been doing it for so long that, for us, it’s just another day. But it’s all been very tough, especially because I have a lot of American friends and now having lived there physically myself, too, I feel like I’m seeing this all first-hand. I’m super upset and disgusted with how the Black community is being treated. I understand the rioting. I understand the looting. But what’s next? I’m always looking for solutions. I’ve been doing what I can: I’ve been encouraging myself and my team to donate where we can, and we’ve been using our Instagram stories and feed to really push the awareness out there to people who are not informed, especially because we take up that space. We live in that space. It’s been overwhelming. I pray for better days. I pray for progress.”

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