francis kwame brings melbourne’s african community together through fashion and parties
“It used to be that you go to a party and the few African people are in the corner. Now when white people come to Popcorn and see there are more of us than them, they realise they’ve come to our zone.”
Image via Popcorn Funk
Francis Kwame is, among many other things, a facilitator of vibes. The Ghana born son of a diplomat has gathered a well deserved reputation for hosting some of Melbourne's most infamous parties in recent memory. His predominantly black club night Popcorn Funk is a throwback to 70s Soul Train, with a dash of Atlanta's Freaknik parties. But well before Popcorn Funk kicked off, Francis had been demonstrating his ability to pull a crowd for years.
In the 2000s, his Chapel Street store KWAMEE by Francis was a popular place to hang out and be seen. When it was forced to close its doors during the Global Financial Crisis he threw a goodbye party that was so good, it kind of never stopped. i-D caught up with the quietly sophisticated man behind the city's most energetic parties to talk about his place in and passion for his community.
Hey Francis, you've done a lot of stuff, so let's start at the beginning: Who are you?
A West African boy, product of Ghana!
I've heard you refer to yourself as African rather than Ghanaian.
I always think of us [African people] as one. I truly believe in that. When you hear stories about Africa it's never about one particular country, it's about Africa. I've always been around other Africans because my father was a diplomat. Children of diplomats always did things together. I kicked it with Zambians, Kenyans and South Africans. There weren't too many of us around so we were a mean ass clique.
That pride is evident in the afrocentric theme that runs through all your projects. Tell me about your influences?
I grew up in a creative household. Dad was always playing music, he was a big jazz buff. Mum was always in the kitchen or on the sewing machine and my older sister, who's probably my biggest influence, taught me the love of fashion. She was always looking fly.
Speaking of clothes, before we talk about your parties let's touch on your label and store KWAMEE by Francis.
In its heyday, that store was something very special. People would come in on Saturday nights for the music and the atmosphere, clients became friends, we would listen to music, people were taking photos of the shopfront, celebrities and all of that! We had parties for our clients where they would eat good, drink good and shop good. It was this really cool relaxed party vibe and people became drawn to that.
Like a lot of small stores, you closed during the GFC. How did you go from retail to throwing these wild parties?
I had a closing party for KWAMEE where we expecting maybe 150 people and ended up having to block off a freaking laneway in the street, it was huge! Afterwards, a friend and former client came to visit me and basically encouraged me to pursue that as a new chapter. He said "you don't realise that you are someone people are drawn to, people like your energy and vibe." I'm one of those people that doesn't like doing nothing, I feel useless.
How would you describe your infamous Popcorn Funk parties?
Wow, infamous? In the beginning it was underground: our first party was in a Collingwood warehouse and maybe 350 people showed up. Back then it was slightly different to what it is now. I suppose with anything, you're always generating a new crowd.
Then it was a more mixed crowd. Over time it became more of a black crowd and more of a safe space for us. It's an event for the community, everyone gets dressed up, people are dancing all night, and vibing like family. I was never expecting it to be so big. I think it's because of social media: when we put the photos up, people immediately want to know more about it. They wanna know who these fun cool people are, dancing, carefree; they're like, "Damn look at all these brothers and sisters, this shit is going off!"
Do you feel like you've started something in your community, you know, more than just a party?
No doubt! When I first started it wasn't strictly black. You gotta realise, we're still new in this country. It used to be that you go to a party and the few African people are in the corner together. Now when white people come to Popcorn and see there are more of us than them, they realise they've come to our zone. We're playing dancehall, reggae, our music, all this afro shit and they get overwhelmed and don't necessarily stay. At the end of the day, everyone is welcome but if you don't feel the vibe and don't come with respect—don't come.
Is Popcorn Funk a bit of a reaction to other clubs?
Truth be told, many young brothers and sisters can't get into many of the mainstream clubs. So I guess when they are rejected from other venues, Popcorn Funk is the only alternative for them. They think, this is a place where I'm welcome, this is a place where we can be ourselves. That's what it's come to be, that's why people from the community keep coming back.
Have there been negative responses?
Yes, sometimes there are minor problems, and that comes with the territory of running a club. There's plenty of nonsense that happens in these other clubs, I know, I've worked in them, but they don't necessarily get the media attention [that we do]. When even small incidents occur at our events, the whole community is sometimes portrayed in a negative way.
Why do you think that is?
It's because we're new here: the media blows up anything we do, the spotlight is on us. Most of the time there are no problems, but if there are, it's how you deal with it that matters. If something happens at my party, I'll deal with it there and then, otherwise it will be blown out of proportion. I like to keep low-key and just make sure everyone's safe and happy first and foremost. That's why people come back.
At the end of the day, we live in a community with so many cultures, why can't we do our thing and have our fun without it becoming a problem. It might sound a bit corny but this is what I always say to define Popcorn Funk: It's a collective of Africans and Black folks coming together under one groove.Everyone is welcome—as long as they're down with our groove.
So where to from here?
Well, Popcorn is my side gig, it's my hobby that just became very popular. My main passion and project is the label. There's a whole lot of things I want to work on this year. I'm working on a new range, BASEEK that's funky but affordable and more accessible and unisex. I want to take what I've learned from Popcorn and throw some fashion orientated events. I'm also planning some pop-up stores and of course, the main thing is my label, and I would really like to take that overseas and explore the global market. There's also my magazine UPPER VOLTA which I see as an interpretation of my creative ideas.
What do you want people to know about you?
I'm forward thinking and always trying to push the boundaries of creativity. In other words, I dance to my own beat and always have. What I do reflects what we're about—in a positive way. There are a lot of great, creative things in the community that are never highlighted and it's up to us as creative souls to showcase what we do more often by making it accessible to everyone.