By Amber Wiles

This Black History Month 2021, clothing brand Saint Aaspire hosted COBA 2021 at Hull University’s Asylum. The night hosted rappers, singers and spoken word artists from across the UK to celebrate black achievement in a night to remember.

I sat down with Saint Aaspire’s CEO Simon Mupenda (SM) and Vice-President Pro J (PJ) to discuss the event.

To start, what is Saint Aaspire? And how long have you been around?

SM – Saint Aaspire is a clothing brand, but we’re built on more than just being an apparel company in terms of the work we do with communities around us. We sponsor events, football teams, etc, because it’s work like this which is important to us. I started this brand when I was 16 by cutting and sewing my own clothes, and through that I saw a vision of something I could build. So, I started a business which could provide a sustainable income. The brand has been running for 5 years now, which was also part of the celebrations at the COBA event.

Could you tell me a little about the brands ethos and how this led to COBA?

SM- Not many brands put community and grassroots work at the forefront of their brand. I came from a poor background and I came to England by chance. When I did get here it was charities that provided; food, clothing, and resources for us to get by. So, it was important to focus on charity and organisations, alongside the brand because I wouldn’t be here without it. I also feel I have a responsibility to help those who may be in the same situation I was growing up.

This leads me to my next question, what is COBA 21? And what is its importance?

PJ – COBA means Celebration of Black Achievement, and the purpose of the event stemmed from 2020 when a black history movement in Hull was formed. The movement really highlighted the importance of the black diaspora in Hull, and the organisations which aim to serve and tackle challenges within minority and ethnic communities. COBA was an opportunity to collectivise all these groups and highlight the work they have done over the past year in response to Black Lives Matter. It also allowed us to celebrate their work as there are no accolades or acknowledgment for the community work that many of these organisations do. It’s important work and needs addressing.

How did these collaborations come about? Did you go to the organisation or vice vera?

PJ – We approached them, for example our biggest supporter HANA (Humber all Nations Alliance) we went to them and said we want to amplify the work that you have been doing in Hull over the years, we want to provide a platform to say thank you for your service to the community.

Do you believe that the lack of support and amplification of these organisations is prevalent to Hull?

PJ – I think there is a definitely a lack of awareness of these organisations. I grew up in Hull, and growing up I wasn’t aware of these groups, whereas in cities such as Manchester, Leeds, London, etc you can feel the presence of organisations like HANA, that serve particular communities. But in Hull they are less known, these organisations could be around for 15 years, and you would only ever find out about them through direct contact or through word of mouth. I didn’t even know about HANA until I went to one of their fashion shows, and I became aware that this is something that does exist in Hull. When Hull won City of Culture it highlighted that there was something here, but not enough was being done to get their name out there.

So, do you feel City of Culture was a turning point for these organisations and what you wanted to do in Hull?

PJ – Accolades such as City of Culture bring awareness to the rich and diverse cultures of cities, and that was definitely a turning point for us as a brand in move towards events like COBA. As we are community lead, we look at how we can bring the achievements of these charitable organisations together. It also allowed us to bring exposure to different artists and highlight the big music scene in Hull because people aren’t hugely aware that it exists either. It epitomises the Saint Aaspire brand, in terms of half of us being from Hull, and not being aware of this scene, and then the other half of us from around the UK where music and diversity of culture is a lot more prevalent.

Do you think a clothing brand like Saint Aaspire is the perfect platform for events like these, especially with you being catered to a younger audience?

PJ – Absolutely, our target audience and style allow us to host events like COBA which marry up with the interests of our audience. One of the challenges we have as a brand is do people care about community issues. So, we thought COBA would be a perfect opportunity to see if this is the case, and it was. The vast majority of our audience were students. So we believe we have achieved what we set out to do.

Is this why you chose the university to host your event? Was there anything else that attracted you to that venue, because I know it was event about celebrating Black achievement did you want to highlight the importance of this is in education?

PJ – Yes definitely! Hull is a place where if you don’t know you don’t know, so the University was the perfect place to host. We went into lectures and talked about the brand and the event to try highlight that this is out there. There are people who come to the university, then leave and nothing has changed in terms of their perspective, and of Hull, and we want to challenge these perspectives. But this is just the start of something that we want to become continuous and to include the celebration of more ethnic minority groups, COBA was just the start.

Speaking of the event, how was it? Was it a success in your eyes?

PJ – 120% It was a success. I came into the event from backstage a little later in the evening and opened the doors and the whole venue was filled. The team was busy, and the artists were on the stage performing. It was amazing to see all the planning accumulated into this, and it be so successful. We had a range of artists such as LILO who is from around Hull and Moonchii who came from Leicester to be there. It was great to experience. Our pop up shops were also running smoothly, as did the interviews.

Moving forward what are your plans for COBA? Do you have any more events planned?

PJ – Yes! The aim was to try and make COBA an annual event. We’ve started with five organisations but there are so many more organisation out there that we’d like to collaborate with next year to make it bigger. COBA is coming back!

In terms of Saint Aaspire as a whole is the community work something you want to expand in your next 5 years?

SM –Yes, we aspire to a level of putting on events like Park Life or Glastonbury. After COBA and seeing how people reacted to the event we want to continue the work, but on a large scale. After running the business for 5 years there has been ups and downs, but lessons have been learnt. And through that we have learnt where we want to take the brand going forward. 

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