When Kwame Owusu moved from his native Ghana to Berlin as a young boy in the 1980s, the life that stretched out before him was anything but clear.
His father had moved to Germany several years earlier to try and make a better life for his family back in Ghana, and when Kwame was old enough to go to school, his father arranged for him to be brought to Germany as well.
There weren’t many Black children in Berlin in the 1980s and Owusu, better known as “Juice,” experienced racism and discrimination throughout his youth in Germany.
As a young adult, his passion for music saw him gain experience in organizing events, parties and concerts. By the time he was 20, he had already taken his first steps into entrepreneurship, setting up a company where he helped those looking to organize events find the right venues and services.
Today he runs LEH, on the platform hidden-locations.de, which organizes corporate and hospitality events of all kinds. He is also the organizer of the African Food Festival, an annual event showcasing pan-African cuisine and culture in Berlin.
He spoke to DW about his experiences growing up in both Ghana and Germany, and how his career in business in Germany has taken the path that it has so far.
DW: Can you tell us about your business and what you do?
Kwame Owusu: My business is event management. So using our own locations and event spaces, we organize and manage events. So for example, events for SAP or METRO, these kinds of corporations can rent out our venues for meetings or corporate events. Also, private people can rent it out for their weddings and so on.
Besides that, we also run big conferences for SAP, for example, so-called “start-up demo days” which we do not do in our own venue spaces, but which are in our venue networks.
In this case, our function is like an event agency which means we make the implementation and do everything we have to do for the client. They come with an idea, they might be looking for a venue space that have certain services they need so we help find and organize those events. That’s my main work.
With the different spaces that we rent out, we try to put them all on the portal hidden-locations.de. The name of the company is LEH, which stands for location, event, hospitality.
How did you get into this business?
When I was 16, I started to make music with my friends, German hip hop. We were looking for a space where we could do a party to get a crowd and to perform by ourselves. We struggled to find a place. But through looking, I learned a lot about organizing events and I started to build up an agency which I was running with two friends.
Someone would tell me someone wants to do an event, this is the estimated budget, etc. I would organize with them and take a percentage. One day it came to my mind, maybe I should do it all by myself because I have got the customers already. I don’t need to give up most of the part of it, because most of the work was not done by the venue owners. So I started renting my own spaces and bringing it on the market.
That’s more than 20 years ago now. I was 18 or 19 when I took my first steps into entrepreneurship.
Another major project of yours is the African Food Festival. Tell us about that.
Four years ago, I started the African Food Festival in Berlin. I wanted to get a platform for Black people where they can share the culture, even for my kids.
This is my contribution for my people, for the culture. It’s a platform for the culture but also access for the Germans where they can learn the culture in a different kind of way, not the cliché like going on safari or all this kind of bullshit.
Last year was the biggest one. We had 8,000 people in two days. This year it was supposed to be double that. But we had to cancel this year because of the coronavirus. But we will make other small events this year. One is called the Black Business Dinner, where Black entrepreneurs will come together and also so people can come together to see what’s going on in terms of entrepreneurship for Black people. They can support Black business, whether they are Black or white. If they want to support Black people they can do it.
When you moved to Germany in the 1980s, you were a very young boy. Did you immediately experience racism?
Yes, yes. I was not confronted with it before because the white people who lived in Ghana were cherished, they didn’t get hate, they got more love just because they were white! Kind of ridiculous. But it was like, if you are white, you are a good guy. It was this kind of thing.
Owusu is the organizer of the African Food Festival, an annual event in Berlin showcasing pan-African cuisine and culture
What kind of things did you experience in your early years in Berlin?
It started with kindergarten and then school. Everything was different. Kids were talking about your color, telling you you don’t belong, this kind of environment. You were the outcast and you didn’t know why. In Ghana, you didn’t get that. Sometimes kids behaved in a bad way against another kid but it was not because of the color. It was quite a tough time. The first year, I told my father that I wanted to go back. It was very frustrating. I felt rejected. You didn’t understand that as a kid.
Did things get better at any point or was it always a challenge?
It was always a challenge. It was a challenge because I was a kid who tried to defend himself against an enemy which he didn’t understand. You have to fight someone and you don’t know why. Even if you want to get close to someone, there is rejection and also people are kicking you.
It was also difficult between me and my father because we didn’t know each other very well. It was like a part-time father and son. It was very tough. But one thing he did very well was, because we had nothing, we didn’t have money, he wanted to give me the key for this society: the language. So he forced me to learn German very well because he found out that language is the key. He was always pushing me to it and in the end I am very thankful for that.
At that time, I didn’t know the so-called structural racism. I was facing it but I didn’t know what it is and what it was. I found out when I became a father. You see the struggles you had as a kid, now your kids have them again. It was like, no. It can’t be true. I was starting to get what makes this kind of society.
It got better from the beginning of my twenties. This was the first time I felt more self-confident. That was because I was doing my music with friends, you get people who cherish you, who give you credit. People give you self-confidence. Not just people like my teachers who say, “you are not good enough.” This was the first time I thought, I can do something that the people enjoy.
Did teachers treat you badly?
The thing is, now I understand the situation better. I was always asking myself what is happening to me. The structural racism I found is something that’s already in the system. For example, teachers saw me like a Black child who is not good enough to work in something more than, for example, a cleaning job.
My school results meant I was supposed to go to the gymnasium (the top academic level of second-level education in Germany). But my teacher said she didn’t think I could do it so she sent me to realschule (the second-level).
As a child, I was very thankful simply because I didn’t belong to the lowest group. You get my point? It was kind of crazy but at that time, the main thing for me was that I don’t belong on the bottom. If I am not on the top, then OK if they didn’t think I should be there. But in the middle, I’m fine with that. This was always pushing your potential more down than what you can reach.
Germany has a highly bureaucratic society and being a businessperson here involves a lot of bureaucracy and dealing with institutions. Did this process involve a lot of racism for you as well?
It was always there and is still there. The difference now is that my self-confidence is so high that they can’t disrupt it anymore. I know now what I can do and I know that I pay taxes, I employ people, I have audits. I know that most Germans are afraid to be entrepreneurs. It’s not easy to be an entrepreneur in Germany.
Again, I am thankful to my father for the key. As long as they see that you can talk, talk better than many Germans, that also gives me self-confidence. As a teenager, I used my fists to deal with rejection. Not anymore. I know how things work now. But still I have to face discrimination. Sometimes when I am working at one my spaces and I maybe walk through and the company or clients see me they say: “oh you are the DJ?” And I just say, “well I’m not the DJ but I can help you, what do you need?”
That doesn’t change. But it’s not hurting anymore. It doesn’t hurt deep anymore like it did in the teenage times. The teenage times were tough.
But I know that if I was a white German guy with my qualifications, I could have achieved more. If my name was Sebastian or Frederick it would be easier. You always have to explain yourself. They see first the color, they don’t know what kind of person is behind it. It doesn’t matter. First they judge you by the color and then you have to show them, come on, put the color away and see what the guy can do.
The interview with Kwame Owusu was conducted by DW by telephone. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.