Rebranding blackness through art: A conversation with Innocent Mutanga

A discussion with the co-founder, COO and president of Harmony HK on resilience, community and being fluid with the times

It all began when Innocent Mutanga met Anne-Marie Harmony in 2017 for a journalistic piece for The Wandering Voice, a media platform he runs. Little did they know that their conversation on the difficulties models of colour faced in Hong Kong would one-day result in establishing Harmony HK.

After their conversation, Innocent got curious and began connecting with models and designers of colour to understand the breadth and depth of their problems. But he didn’t think things would fall in place so soon. He elaborates, “I was hoping to begin doing something about it with Anne-Marie perhaps five years later. That is how long I believed I needed to grasp the fashion industry and its problems, but Anne Marie came back within a year after we had our initial conversation. She couldn’t wait, and wanted to do address the problem immediately and thus we began working on our debut fashion and music show for Harmony.”

Harmony HK was established with the drive to remove discrimination and turn the spotlight on ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. Calling themselves a “refugee-curated social enterprise”, the company hosts fashion and music shows and an online fashion store to showcase the artistic talents of underrepresented sections and minorities, and raise awareness on refugees.

The Harmony Show vol. 1 debuted in Volar in December 2018, redefining fashion and music shows like no one had in Hong Kong. With upcoming designers showcasing their collections and young artists performing, the event was a roaring success. It paved the way for the upcoming Harmony Show vol. 2 to be held on June 1 at Eaton HK featuring Mama Told Me, the Southeastwood Crew and other artists.

As co-founder, COO and president of Harmony HK, Innocent hopes to rebrand blackness. “Blackness in the west tend to be seen negatively. However, the global order is shifting from the West to East Asia. The future is here, so I see this time as critical. East Asians tend to not have those strong negative imaginations about blackness as those in the West, so I see it as my job to educate and let this side of the world see the truth. I will fight with everything I have in me to make sure Western racism isn’t exported to this side of the world,” he says passionately. “I see Harmony HK just doing that, creating a world where various forms of beauty are appreciated. I hope Hong Kong could be a city where people are rewarded because of talent and hard work and not because of how they look like.”

Raised by a serial entrepreneur of a mother, Innocent’s journey as a businessman started very young in life. Innocent’s mother sold fish, meat, clothes, loaned money, welded, farmed, traded and juggled many businesses to keep the family afloat as a single mother. “It was my mother’s policy that my siblings and I should always be running some business. She would give us the capital to run it and act as our advisor. I ran a farming business when I was around 5 years of age. I was also my mother’s partner in all her ventures, handling the finances, compliance, regulations and negotiations. I even paid part of my school fees through businesses I ran,” he shares.

Nevertheless, was it easy to launch such a unique idea in the market? Innocent believes they were lucky. “I think what made launching Harmony easier was that the team was great. We were lucky to know what we were up to and we want to achieve from day 1.” The Hong Kong startup ecosystem has also been pretty supportive of their growth. “There is always a pitch competition going on somewhere. Fellow startups running event space are always open to offering them for free. The government has a whole department called InvestHK dedicated to helping entrepreneurs especially of foreign origin like us. They also have the resources to support startups like Cyberport, Science park, subsidized co-working space, etc,” he lists. “There are some pain-points especially when it comes to opening bank accounts in traditional banks, but thank God for Fintechs like Neat who are covering this gap.”

Even if there were any lack of resources, Innocent is not one to be daunted. “Less resources excites me. Maybe it’s bad to feel excited about obstacles but I just enjoy surmounting them!” he declares. “Usually, when facing such circumstances I discover what I am made of or what I am not made of. So, I don’t try to immediately escape. I let them hit as hard as they can.” As a child, Innocent was Inspired by the words of Sun Tzu and Bruce Lee films, and even today, he tries to ‘be like water.’ “I remain fluid and learn almost all the weapons the enemy has. This way I get to a point I figure how to co-exist with discouraging situations without letting them take control of me. Fighting discouraging situations is stupid because they will always be there, but learning to live with them without letting them consume us is wisdom,” he says.

Innocent traces this spirit of ‘work with whatever you have’ to his uncle and his childhood in Zimbabwe. “I recall sometimes the situation would be so bad that we wouldn’t have enough stew to eat with the staple food called Sadza. My uncle would encourage me to budget the available stew. My smart way was to add more salt to the stew so I only scoop a bit of it. But salt was scarce. I had to discover many ways to acquire salt from different sources during this time,” he shares.

Growing up in Zimbabwe with many problems and dysfunctional systems also taught him to see the true value of social capital. “I always try to pursue and sustain relationships. Community is very important. Humans have for centuries been a part of communities to ensure their survival. Today, it’s still the same, you aren’t likely to survive if you aren’t a part of the community,” he explains.

Innocent considers himself an ‘entrepreneur without borders’: “I think for me this means not limiting oneself. We are still young, why confine ourselves? Bruce Lee created Jeet Kune Do with the goal of not being limited to one style, but realizing and embracing the complexity of being human. It is normal to use existing labels to identify ourselves. It makes things simple and makes us think we know who we are. But that’s sad because we really have more than just one label. Maybe today I feel very passionate about medical technologies and tomorrow I am into designing showers. This is all fine because that is really what humans are like. There are no straight lines!”

Innocent Mutanga is part of the community of Tribe Theory in Hongkong.