Moyo Oyelola is sitting at the desk in his office spinning a tabletop globe with his hand like it’s a basketball. Behind him on a shelf there’s two more globes, a world map, a replica Daft Punk helmet he made, and an assortment of photo and video equipment he’s laid out as decorations. He stops and palms the globe. “I want to see 30 countries by the time I’m 30,” he says. “I’m on eight right now, and pulling five or six more this year.”
The people outside of Moyo’s inner circle don’t really know what to make of him. Last November he was in South Africa. He just came back from Shanghai, Tokyo, and New York City. They aren’t quite sure how he affords it, or what he does for a living. It’s turned into a quite the mystery, but his Instagram feed gives them a heads up on where he’s at.
After graduating college he took non-creative jobs and started freelancing before joining an Austin-based startup. Through the company he went to San Francisco with a group of co-founders. Eight people shared a one bedroom apartment that cost $3,000. Three bunk beds were in the room and Moyo slept on the couch, the piece of furniture that he’s still most comfortable in to this day. But after four months the group returned to Austin to continue working.
Around a year ago at a conference with the company in Nigeria he realized he wanted to leave the startup. In the early hours of that morning the building’s Wi-Fi went out. The group went back to their hotel to spend the rest of the morning uploading photos and other tasks that didn’t require internet. They worked until 5 a.m. before returning to the conference building at 8 a.m after two hours of sleep.There were many long and tedious nights like this, and Moyo loved every moment. The fact that he got to spend some of them in Nigeria was a dream itself for him. He loved the startup and he believed in what they were doing, but he wanted more out of life. He wanted to experience it. He wanted to taste and see it. He left the startup shortly after.
Moyo rejoined the workforce for a temporary stint at a business he had spent prior time with before transitioning into his current contracted position at a local company in Austin. His new role allows the flexibility for him to travel. He can work from the other side of the world. He takes a 10 gigabyte portable Wi-Fi adapter with him and take calls at the airport if he’s traveling stateside.
It’s 1996 and a seven year old Moyo sits at the US Embassy in Nigeria waiting for an interview. His family’s name was drawn through the lottery system to receive a Visa. His uncle is living in Austin, and he applied for the family to join him. When Moyo’s family is selected, they sell everything they own and move to the United States. They only take two bags and a few hundred bucks. Moyo remembers most of this.
The plane went from Lagos to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Minneapolis, where he got his first American hot dog, “not whatever we had in Nigeria,” he jokes. From Minneapolis they landed in Austin at the old Mueller Airport where planes used to fly over i-35 to land and the city was still building the 183 overpass. His parents got jobs at an assembly line to start, then his dad worked at a convenient store while his mom retook classes to be a certified nurse again.
Moyo wanted to come to America since he was three because of the images he saw on television. He would see Bill Clinton and Michael Jordan and think, “let’s do it.” He even had a shirt that said ‘America’ on it. He remembers his family cramming into a room in his uncle’s apartment when they arrived, and he remembers having to start school all over.
His grandparents still live in Nigeria and growing up he spent the summers with them, an uncle, and his cousins. He was shuffled around and people were always cooking for him. He loved it, though he wasn’t able to return to Nigeria until 2012.
From a very young age Moyo was a creator, a builder, a “storyteller,” he’s coined himself. The functions differ, but within all of his work there is a story, a reason, a point of inspiration curiosity where his experiences come to life in a tangible manner.
There wasn’t necessarily a click moment that led him to this. Everything has always been building. In high school he took woodshop classes. Everytime he had a project he would do more than anyone else. When the other students had a report, Moyo had video presentations with music splices. After he read To Kill a Mockingbird he made a four-sided house to represent the conflict of racial class systems. In French when everyone wrote a paper—he built a two-story house with all of the rooms labeled. He even cut and crafted plastic to build showers and a sink. He was doing the most, but he was having a great time. When he went to college he started in engineering because he knew he wanted to build and create before switching to advertising.
A video starts on the computer monitor in the office. Moyo is dribbling a soccer ball across a rented South African complex he sometimes calls “home.” The building has more square footage than his parents’ home in north Austin. The space is set to create with multiple cameras positioned to allow him to capture moments. While he was there he put together a quick exhibit using scrapwood from his neighbor. On the far right of the complex a space is designated for company, equipped with a dining room table where Moyo hosts his South African friends and any willing travelers from abroad. Everyone is welcome, his goal is to build community, interpersonally and physically.
“I tell people none of this really works unless you’re sending the elevator back down to others and sharpening them. I want friends living their dreams,” he says. Collectively these groups can create, innovate, and influence the communities around them. The end game is to inspire those that know him, the youth of Austin, and to improve the lives of others. Improvement not only in the form of resources, but exposure that can change the trajectory of less fortunate children and communities by changing their perspective to understand that they aren’t limited to their current situations. “Once you see something, it’s forever,” he says.
That’s the purpose of his work for Distant Relatives, a project co-founded with his friend Hakeem Adewumi geared toward the idea of people learning of their roots, their ancestors, and it’s the tie-in as to why Moyo is so adamant about his own travels. The primary focus is countries in the black diaspora--almost all countries now--to showcase the culture in a multi-sensory form that includes: food, drinks, music, and spoken voice performances while allowing people a setting to gather to be a part of an experience and share their stories.
The first event for the project will be featured as the second episode of the PBS series Art in Context that will air in the fall.
A rotolight is shining on Moyo’s mustard yellow shirt. We’re sitting inside what used to be his bedroom, a space that he’s since converted into a full-blown photography studio. “This art thing, it’s a game. There is a lot of perception, everyone derives a different value out of it,” he says. He understands that he won’t appeal to everyone, but the biggest thing about art is deriving inspiration, and pushing others to do things for themselves. “People don’t realize how capable they are,” he says.
“There’s a qualitative and quantitative part to this whole life thing, you just gotta go do it, go through it. And you’re like, okay cool, this time I’m going to things better and better and better,” he says. “You realize that there is a purpose to everything, not too many coincidences. You start to recognize patterns.”
These patterns help Moyo think above problems because he’s already seen them before. He’s learned to be scrappy. He’s learned to pick himself back up. He uses these experiences to learn how to navigate the challenges and obstacles that life throws at him. “You really decide, you have to manifest the kind of life you want for yourself.”
Moyo recently turned 27, and in a sense he doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, but he’s determined that he will be happy, creating, successful, and fulfilled. He just wrapped up shooting for McDonald’s during South By Southwest, the biggest brand he’s worked with to date. But he does invision this to be the year where he starts to really hit his stride, the stride that carries him into true adulthood. His favorite number is 27, and there’s a lot of aura around the number. A lot of successful artists and athletes hit their prime at 27, most recently guys like Stephen Curry and Kendrick Lamar.
“Martin had a dream, Kendrick had a dream, I had a dream,” Moyo sings in reference to Kendrick Lamar’s track Backstreet Freestyle from acclaimed album, Good Kid Maad City. Moyo continues,“but you’ve got to wake up from those dreams, man, and you’ve got to make them reality. That’s that."
“I believe we always have these dreams and visions or whatever, and I feel like whatever God ends up manifesting is always bigger than what we imagined,” so he isn’t surprised by anything anymore. “Look at me thinking some peanuts would be good, but he was like, ‘nah, eat some steak bruh.’”
Follow the author, Diego Contreras, on Twitter @thediegonetwork