DADDY X RECONEKT

It's Time to RECONEKT

Meet the skincare brand that calls attention to Black wellness  and creates a soft space within the community

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“The place in which I’ll fit will not exist until I make it.” - James Baldwin

It’s getting colder outside, the trees devoid of colour, the days becoming shorter by the minute… Our bodies are longing for warmth, sun, and rest. In this branded feature, DADDY’s Janice Heinrich interviewed Tobi Ayé, founder of the new skincare brand RECONEKT about soft spaces, wellness activism and community. 

With a hot cup of tea and a blanket around my shoulders I cosy up on my bed and start opening the package. It includes two thoughtfully packaged products, called Soft Land and Journey. Etched on their outer box is RECONEKT’s logo, which I carefully trace with my fingertips, mouthing each syllable. What does reconnection mean to me? When was the last time I truly felt connected to my body? 

Slowly I open the box to reveal a housing of glass and wood that contains a translucent, gold-tinted liquid. Soft Land is a body oil made from Mongongo and Ximena. I open the lid and inhale its nutty smell before I pour a few drops into my hands and gently rub it in. I close my eyes and remember what it feels like... to dig my hands into the dirt and have them resurface with the first potatoes I have planted myself... what it feels like to run my hands through the warm fur of a kitten bathing in the sun... what it feels like to lick sweet raspberry juice from my fingers…

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I look at my hands and the stories they tell, and I am grateful for all that I was given, for all that I’m still about to experience with this body of mine. I am grateful to have found a place within myself that I can reconnect to.

RECONEKT is a plant-based and gender-neutral skincare brand that centers melanated skin; its formulas and philosophy inspired by ancestral African wellness and wisdom. Born out of a desire to create a place of belonging for Black bodies and cherish them in their uniqueness, RECONEKT aims to create high quality, harm free cosmetic products that encourage us to be tender towards ourselves and others. DADDY had the opportunity to get to know the face behind the brand and sit down with the wonderful Tobi Ayé for a talk about Black wellness, the creation of RECONEKT and the future of the cosmetic industry.

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Its vision: to create awareness within the Black community of how caring for our body and mental health is necessary for our survival.

Tobi Ayé (she/her) spent her last seven years in Berlin, which is where the idea for RECONEKT was born. Now she lives in Portugal where she is realising her dream of a simpler, more serene life together with her two children and her partner.

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After growing up in Benin, Tobi travelled to many different places around the world, which led her to become more aware of the condition of Black people in the diaspora. From there, an urge grew inside of her to care for Black bodies. What started off with artistic projects, quickly turned into a deep wellness journey through the body, finally evolving into developing the RECONEKT brand. Its vision: to create awareness within the Black community of how caring for our body and mental health is necessary for our survival.

Why do you think now is an important time to call a project like RECONEKT into being?

It’s time because there has been a lack of beauty products for Black people for many years. I couldn’t find any cosmetic products that were actually made with Black people in mind so I thought, this is something I can bring to the community. What I want to bring to the table are questions. How do we authentically connect as a community? how do we befriend the body we are in, the Black body, in a surrounding which constantly belittles and violates it? What does being Black mean? What does belonging mean? RECONEKT should be a space where we can explore these questions, where we can figure out what to do with the answers. It should be more than just a cosmetics brand.  

Personally, I have noticed a lack of connection within the community. People will show up when asked to go out for a beer but when someone’s crying or breaking down, oftentimes no one will be around. So many times, when we meet to strengthen each other, the conversation will somehow wind up being about racism - which is our daily reality - but which also takes up so much room and energy, and we happen to leave the meeting even more depleted. We rather end up being triggered than healed. More frustrated and weaker, instead of feeling better and becoming stronger. Our experiences of racism should not be the only thing that connects us. Connection happens in so many ways, especially connecting with the body and with ourselves. I believe that if we learn how to reconnect to ourselves, we can create more safety within ourselves which allows us to connect with each other in healthy ways.

Tell us more about the process behind founding RECONEKT. Did you face any difficulties or obstacles while launching your brand?

Founding a brand is a lot of work. Then, I’m also building a brand as an African woman in Europe which doesn’t really make it any easier. And to top it all of it is a brand for Black wellness. In Europe, a majority of the people don't believe in Black wellness. They don't understand the need for Black wellness, how different it is and why we need wellness spaces and specific products. Frankly, they just don’t care about us. 

The first thing you’ll need for launching your brand is money. It’s vital in introducing a product to the market. I started thinking about me being here in Europe as a first generation and how I’m surrounded by Black people who are also first or second generation. It’s for them, for us, that I’m building RECONEKT. But building a brand needs a lot of support, especially financially and the problem is that we don’t have generational wealth. Without generational wealth, how do we invest, how do we support each other? The people with generational wealth are the people who don’t believe in us, who don’t invest in Black people. The Black community really needs Black investors. We need to empower each other because who will do it for us? I’d love to work with Black investors for RECONEKT and I hope that it’s something that will be possible in the foreseeable future.

"It’s time because there has been a lack of beauty products for Black people for many years."

Who is RECONEKT intended for? Do you have a specific audience in mind?

RECONEKT is an open ended project. I have created it but I don’t know where it’s gonna go. Normally the products should’ve already been online a year ago but Covid changed my plans. I then decided to set up the Instagram profile to make people aware and present the brand’s voice and philosophy to the world. I started receiving lots and lots of DMs which made me see that there is a great number of people who are on the journey of reconnecting with themselves. RECONEKT welcomes everyone who’s curious to discover something about themselves. I hope that it will speak to the people who need wellness. Black people who really need wellness and understand what it means to them.

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"The Black community really needs Black investors. We need to empower each other because who will do it for us?"

You’re a gender free cosmetic brand. Do you believe it is possible for the industry to move beyond the binaries?

Actually, I believe it is us customers who need to move beyond the binary first. Then, hopefully, the industry will follow. What’s happening now is that the industry is creating whatever they want but it should be creating according to our needs. If we continue claiming our gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and everything else that makes us us, the industry might start creating for us. It is our needs and wants that should be shaping the cosmetic industry.

As a wellness activist, how would you define “wellness”? What do you believe needs to be done to make wellness more accessible, especially for Black bodies?

The title “wellness activist” kind of developed as a joke. After the murder of George Floyd everyone suddenly became an activist for everything. And I was like, you know what? My activism is closing my computer. My activism is to not go online but instead doing something beautiful for myself, taking care of myself. Going to the forest, cooking, dancing - those are things that bring me peace and calm down my nervous system. Things that won’t reopen the wound inside me, that won’t trigger me like so many things I see on the Internet. Considering what I need and what I can do to come back to myself is wellness. My activism is taking care of myself and my mind so I am able to raise and take care of my Black children without putting trauma on them. We shouldn’t underestimate the trauma of racist colonial slavery. It is still there. And it’s important for us to acknowledge our trauma and how it is connected to all the injustices happening in the world. 

Then there’s also the political activists fighting on the front, fighting on the streets and receiving hateful DMs and threats. Who’s taking care of them? My hope is that they can find some relief and some joy in using RECONEKT products or in the RECONEKT community. That is why I always try to create our Instagram as less triggering as possible. I choose every word carefully because I really want it to be a wellness space, somewhere to retreat to and collect energy. 

Wellness doesn’t have the same definition for white people as it has for us. I am afraid the Western world or white society will never understand our need for wellness. This is why I truly believe that our wellness as Black people is our own responsibility. Being aware of that and being aware that wellness is important for our nervous system already is a big step. The more we are aware, the more we will empower each other in the process of making wellness accessible for us.

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What are your favorite plant-based ingredients and why? What was the first beauty product you ever made? Is there a story to it?

My favourite ingredients come from plants you can find on the African continent. I’m a minimalist and I love efficient products so I really like ingredients that can do many things at once. For example the baobab tree. We can cook its leaves, use its oil in cosmetics and for preparing food. Its powder which has 1O times the vitamin C content of an orange can be drunk but also be used for exfoliation and beauty masks. I also love the moringa plant. The fresh plants can be used in salads, the powder can be added to milk, smoothies etc. … It’s packed with important vitamins and same as with baobab, its oil does wonders in food or cosmetics, it’s one of the best oils for our skin and our hair. I think baobab and moringa are essential for any Black body living in the diaspora, even to the ones born here, we can quickly be deficient when being exposed to a different climate and european nutritional habits and general lifestyle.

I can’t remember the first beauty product I made, but I started when I was studying cosmetic formulation. When I began thinking about creating my own cosmetics brand the first thing that came to my mind were hair products, because hair is a pretty big thing in the Black community. But I’m not into hair all that much, I’d rather meditate or go for a walk than styling my hair for hours. When I was studying cosmetics formulation, I realised that hair is such a tiny part of ourselves and that we often spend so much time on it, because of systemic racism and the historical violence done to our hair. It happens often that we forget our body. And that’s exactly why at RECONEKT the first products we are launching are body products. 

I started to love making body products like body lotions and creams. Watching the process of emulsion really fascinates me. It’s when you combine oil and water with the help of an emulsifier and then you get this creamy white lotion. Experimenting with ingredients and textures is so much fun!

Are there any products you’re especially excited to launch?

What I’m most excited about is how the community will receive the products. As I’ve already said, RECONEKT isn’t just about the products, rather I want to create an experience for the people who buy them. This is also why I’ve put a lot of love and effort into the wellness part, I’ve added breathwork exercises and somatic exercises and encourage my audience to practice them. I believe these are important practices that our nervous system and our body need to feel safe. And while touching our body with a cosmetic product, why not combine it with such practices? Using a RECONEKT product should provide a moment where you take the time for yourself to really experience and try to come back to yourself. I’m looking forward to seeing how people will use the products and integrate them into their day.

With RECONEKT you want to create a safer space. What, in your opinion, defines safe spaces?

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The expression “safe/safer space” has been used so much lately, and in my experience, all the so-called safe spaces I was in didn’t keep their promise. Instead of safe space, I think about RECONEKT as a “soft space”, a “soft land” and a “nurturing space” for our community. It should be a space where each person can heal and rediscover themselves at their own pace.

What are some ideas, books or other resources that have inspired and educated you in your creation of RECONEKT?

I started with reading books that helped me understand why I wanted to found RECONEKT and that gave me the courage to go through with it. For example Simon Sinek’s Start With Why. I also read a lot of Seth Godin and Brené Brown. After reading a lot about business I moved on to more academic reading and books about the African continent. If someone wants to explore holistic nutrition, and discover African plants, I can really recommend African Holistic Health by Llaila O. Afrika and African Medicinal Plants by Maurice M. Iwu. Both contain essential knowledge for Black bodies’ health. 

Then I slowly moved on to reading more about the Black body and how it is policed. There’s Fearing The Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia by Sabrina Strings or The Body Is Not An Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor, which I read last year after the murder of George Floyd. It is the book to read for a true reconnection. Other impactful books were My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem and Living While Black by Guilaine Kinouani. Both of these books talk about racial trauma, how it lives in our bodies and the ways we can start to overcome it.

What part have your family, friends, or community played in the creation of RECONEKT?

It’s my community who has helped me to believe that we need RECONEKT. Especially in times like these. People have been telling me that Black people don’t invest in the body, that they don’t buy beauty products, don’t have the money… but it’s not only about the products. I know that there are a lot of people who RECONEKT will be helpful for and provide this soft space within the community.

I’ve also had a lot of mental support from my community, family and friends. Being an entrepreneur is very lonely. Even if you have a team behind you there are still many decisions that you have to make solely by yourself. I often tend to isolate myself and entrepreneurship isolates me even more. Having a family and friends I can talk to and rely on is really vital, even if it’s just a small circle. I’ve also experienced wonderful encounters with people hardly knowing me but who instantly believed in RECONEKT. In the end it is not only about money. Those believers push you further and beyond what you thought possible.

What are your visions for the future of the cosmetic industry and what part do you see RECONEKT play in it?

I hope to see a truly inclusive cosmetic industry. By that I don’t mean having campaigns with one or two underrepresented people in it. That is tokenism, not inclusivity. Especially after George Floyd many white brands decided to include Black models in their campaigns. But their products and formulation had never considered Black people. People need to know that creating for Black people is not about putting us in their advertisements, it’s about formulating for Black skin. Someone told me I’m not being inclusive by creating a brand directed at Black people but when you formulate for Black skin, white skin can use it as well. When you formulate for white skin, Black skin can’t use it. See what I mean? 

The industry needs to start listening to people. Especially to persons with disabilities. When designing a product, its packaging and everything else, does anyone ever think about how a disabled person will be able to use it? How for example a person unable to use their hands can use it? I would love to find a solution for this but so far the industry hasn’t created any packaging that includes persons with disabilities. My dream is to have products that are accessible for everyone who wants to use them.

Another thing the cosmetic industry needs to start considering is climate change. I’m thinking about these big, traditional brands and their exuberant use of plastic. They’re buying all this cheap, harmful packaging, imported from the other end of the world even though they have so much money. It’s making it harder for us small brands who want to be more sustainable and eco-conscious. Personally, I have decided to buy all my packaging in Europe which is expensive. But it is the best decision to reduce our CO2 footprint. Meanwhile the big brands are selling and selling and can sell their products at comparatively low prices. And then they proudly announce that they’re “going green” and launch “conscious” collections but most of it is just greenwashing. Capitalism is about exploitation. Exploiting the producers, the employees, the consumers and the planet. In contrast to that RECONEKT wants to promote respect, fairness and transparency. I also believe that we should invest more and work together with African brands and that together we can regain consciousness about how to treat each other and our planet.

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"People have been telling me that Black people don’t invest in the body, that they don’t buy beauty products, don’t have the money...but it’s not only about the products. I know that there are a lot of people who RECONEKT will be helpful for and provide this soft space within the community."

Do you have any tips on how we can take care of ourselves and find space to rest amidst everything that is going on in the world right now?

As I have already said above, rest and wellness for us as Black bodies look different than to white bodies. We could drink herbal tea, go to a spa, do skincare, yoga, meditation…. These will only give us temporary rest and wellbeing, because our need is deeper than that. The rest we need, in my opinion, is a durable mental, emotional, and physical rest. Otherwise we will constantly be in survival mode. By acknowledging that our Black body is traumatised and by consciously choosing information we are consuming and the people we are surrounding ourselves with. This could help a bit to achieve a state of mental peace.

I believe that our environment, the country, the city, the neighborhood, or the house where we live is deeply connected to our well-being. So if we can move, change home, if we are blessed by our passport’s privilege or by a family situation that allows us to move more or less easily beyond the borders, we must try to find a place in the world where we can find some peace of mind. 

Seeing a therapist is also a form of self-care we do not talk enough about when talking about wellness. There is more I could add, but one more important thing I have noticed here, for someone who has grown up in Benin, is the lack of strong friendship which makes us feel uncomfortable to ask for help. We are afraid of showing vulnerability, we need more friends and spaces that can hold our pain with us. 

Lately I’ve read a beautiful interview of Nikki Giovanni on rest, love, and care where she said these sentences which resonate so much within me and which are some of the whys of RECONEKT: 

“Today we are not helping each other, which we should be doing. We should be reaching out to see what we can do for each other. We used to reach out and help each other. We used to care about each other. Something has been lost and I don’t know what. I wish I did.”

Credits

Editor: Janice Faith Heinrich
Photographer: Catarina Lopes
Creative Producer: Kathleen Bomani
Stylist: Oko
Clothing: Ajabeng & Kkerelé

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