Detroit Tales: Behind the Lens with Emmanuel Afolabi

BY Danielle Zito

A celebrated Nigerian American filmmaker partners with Shinola
to amplify Detroit’s Black voices. Sharing stories of love,
perseverance, and craftsmanship, Emmanuel Afolabi focuses
the lens on four artists in “The Portrait Series.”

Becoming a storyteller was always in the cards for Emmanuel Afolabi.

Born into a family of creatives—his mother a fashion designer, brother a music producer, and sister a writer—Afolabi learned how to tell stories through art from a young age. It was only a matter of finding the medium that spoke the most to him.

His journey began in Lagos, Nigeria, then led him to New York City to study film. It was in this fast-paced city that cultivates creativity where his love for filmmaking bloomed. He found his voice by first looking inward, then widening his aperture to include those around him.

It’s through the art of film that Afolabi creates representation and accomplishes his goals—and representation is a powerful amplifier.

“It’s important because representation matters. I imagine a younger version of me watching the stories that I tell. I think it creates a sense of identity and a sense of confidence to see people who look like me doing and making incredible things.”

Detroit-Based Filmmaker, Emmanuel Afolabi.
“I want to amplify Black voices
 by telling stories about communities
 and the people.”


The pursuit of his passion eventually led him to Detroit, the city he now calls home. Its rich history, spirited culture, and genuine people sparked new ideas and opportunities to hone his craft.

“I noticed that the stories of Detroit aren’t always being told,” he recalls. Today, Afolabi reaches a wider audience for these important tales by partnering with brands looking to utilize this his storytelling on their platforms.

Bre’Ann White. Shot by Emmanuel Afolabi.

One of his latest projects— “The Portrait Series”—drills deep into Motown’s roots by profiling the city’s diverse artist community. Afolabi focuses his lens on four of the city’s Black makers to tell their stories of love, perseverance, and craftsmanship. Once he was ready to share it with the world, all he wanted next was the right partner to help him uplift their voices.

“Because Shinola has such strong connection to the city, I felt that working together to tell the stories of Detroit artists who are making beautiful things here was a natural fit.”

The series showcases the unparalleled prowess of photographer Bre’ann White; artist and muralist Sydney James; artist and visionary storyteller Olayami Dabls; and artist and designer Tony Whlgn. In his unique way, Afolabi brings the significant work they’ve done around the city to light.

“I think that all four artists can speak to Detroit better than most because they speak with a strong voice from an authentic perspective,” he points out. “They were all born here or have lived here for a very long time.”

Olayami Dabls. Shot by Emmanuel Afolabi.


It is not inconsequential that “The Portrait Project” was created during the coldest months of a Midwest winter. Afolabi captures his artists continuing their craft during a season when most of us want to hibernate under a blanket or bolt for the beach. “It just shows how deep the people of Detroit’s work ethic runs,” he said with a smile.

Tony Whlgn. Shot by Emmanuel Afolabi.

However, one of the biggest takeaways from this project was the discovery of what Detroit means to him. Being a transplant, the way the city welcomed him with open arms shaped his narrative.

Sydney James. Shot by Emmanuel Afolabi.

“There is so much love that emanates through all the people here. My empathy for this city draws me to tell these stories because these people are my people too.”

Most of all, he wants the world to know that Detroit is full of love and is home for anyone who wants to call it home.

Get familiar with more of Emmanuel’s stories at emmanuelafolabi.com and view “The Portrait Series” on YouTube.

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