“Oxford was so beneficial for me as a person, and this is the least I can do”: In Conversation with Cuppy

Florence Ifeoluwa Otedola, more commonly known as Cuppy, is a Nigerian producer and DJ – as well as an Oxford alumna, graduating this year with a Masters in African Studies. A few months after her graduation, she has decided to set up the Cuppy Africa Oxford Scholars Fund, which has promised £100,000 to support African graduate students. I spoke to her about her time at Oxford, her experiences in education and what she hopes to achieve through this initiative.

Why did you want to study here?

That’s a great question. When people ask me this, I ask if they want the truth or like, some sort of theoretical ambitious answer. I like to say I just love studying, but then the truth really is that as a DJ, I was completely unemployed because Covid happened and I was sitting down gig-less. 

Would I have studied again if not for Covid? No. But was I always regretting not going to Oxford? Yes. I remember as an undergraduate, I could have gone to Oxford, but I chose music and DJing and I needed to be in London. And so, I believe Covid gave me this amazing opportunity to slow down my DJ career and focus on building myself. 

Oxford is a place that I had visited several times and I’ve always felt like, apart from it being a competitive Uni and just so highly academic, I wanted to see the like-minded people that are asking questions outside the box, the energy and the international community. I just wanted to know what it was like to be a pink head Nigerian girl walking around!

…Covid gave me this amazing opportunity to slow down my DJ career and focus on building myself. 

How did you find studying here?

It was the most difficult year of my life. I was very honest – I’m quite against the celebrity culture of perfectionism. And so, I wanted to come across as very authentic and real. As a 29 year old international DJ that already had a career, it was really tough to focus – I’d be in the two hour lectures and I would kind of switch off. It was hard. Adult learning is very difficult and you have to be prepared for it. It was amazing learning African politics, but the actual activity and the process of learning as an adult is harder because we’re not like sponges anymore.

I always refer to when I was younger – I could listen to one song and quote the whole song lyric by lyric. And now I’m like, ‘What? Wait, what did they say?’ It’s the idea of your brain, not necessarily being slower, but having to deal with adult life and responsibilities. 

Being in Oxford was nice. It was nice to be away from London, nice to be away from Pink Penthouse. My favourite part of the whole experience was my college, Lady Margaret Hall, and also my actual faculty. I was in the faculty of African Studies, so I got to connect with people from around the continent and spend time with Ugandans and Zimbabweans and Ghanaians and South Africans – it was kind of like a home away from home. 

What about studying here made you want to give back?

This whole Cuppy Africa Oxford Fund was birthed from an experience. You know, I think we started as 28 students and we graduated as 27. And the pure fact was lack of resources. And it broke my heart because one of my classmates worked so hard to get into Oxford and couldn’t continue, not because of his academic levels and not because of his abilities, but just because of his resources. People talk about the hardest thing about Oxford being actually getting in, but a very hard thing for many people is staying in. 

Academia is more than just books. It’s a support system. I really want to provide a cushioning to allow people to ease the experience and allow them to focus on what matters – really getting down to the demands of academia. I empathise with students that really don’t have that support, especially when you’re coming from back home, from Africa, and you come into the winter. Michaelmas Term is harsh! It’s cold and it’s tough.

People talk about the hardest thing about Oxford being actually getting in, but a very hard thing for many people is staying in. 

Considering your familial background, and your own impressive music career – why are you interested in education?

First of all, I’m obsessed with learning. I love the idea of learning. I don’t think anyone should ever stop learning and developing, but I think it’s more to do with me as an individual. I’ve always felt like a rebel in every environment. When all my friends were getting married and kind of doing what a good Nigerian child is supposed to do, I decided I wanted to be a pink-haired international DJ.

When my album dropped and it was time to go on tour, I was like, ‘oh, actually I wanna go back to school’. And I remember my label saying that you’re gonna ruin everything we built. I always love being unpredictable and I always feel like no matter what room you’re in, if you have a different lens on, it’ll give you an advantage. That means not only being someone that is educated but has a very creative career, it also means someone that is creative and has a bit more of an intellectual approach to things. In the classroom in Oxford, I was the DJ and backstage at the festival, I’m the academic and it’s a nice marriage because I always feel stimulated mentally – neither one side would kind of satisfy my curiosities.

I think the best way of applying my intellect, but also my creativity is through philanthropy. I do philanthropy in a very different way. And that’s kind of where I’m headed towards now. I turned 30 and thought ‘I’m finding what feels good’, because I’ll be honest with you, I thought, ‘Oh, okay, I’m gonna get a degree from Kings, then I’m gonna get a degree from New York University, then I’m gonna get a degree from Oxford’. And it’s like, nothing feels good. You kind of graduate and you’re like, okay, I’ve done this. Or I was like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to DJ here’, or ‘I can’t wait to earn this amount of money’, or ‘I can’t wait to be on the cover of this magazine’. And then you’re like, okay, done. What I realised personally makes me feel good and fulfilled is actually helping people.

What are your hopes for this AfOx initiative?

The idea behind this is really me trying to leave something behind that is sustainable – hence we decided to commit to a 10 year fund. I set it up because like I said, there’s so many vulnerable and neglected students, particularly for people of African descent coming from the continent. 

This is a very flexible fund. It could be a maximum payment of 2000 for each of the 5 students. It’s going through AfOx so students can apply through AfOx. It can be for anything outside academia, it can be for mental health, it can be for learning, it can be for disabilities – it can be anything that helps you achieve that course, to finish that course to, you know, go past the finish line. 

Why do you think that education is important to Africa?

I think education is important because it’s what makes the big difference, the reason I’m so ambitious, the reason I’m so confident. Education is not about academia, it’s about the values of it. It’s not about what you learn, it’s the fact that you’re opening your brain to learn and that is a skill you need in life. 

I can think about so many things I did – like I did this calculus class and I hated it. Am I now sitting down punching numbers all day? No, but I can understand the basics of how money works. Education is really the only thing that can unlock knowledge, and knowledge is power. If you wanna go anywhere in life, you need those skills. 

Nigeria, has a population of over 320 million people. It is one of the biggest economies in Africa, and the majority are young people. And when we look at some of the bigger problems of unemployment and of equality, education has the tools in order to solve this kind of disparity. I personally think one of the worst things for me that I think I’ve experienced living in Nigeria is ageism. There’s a, ‘you are young, you don’t know anything’ attitude, and education is the only thing that can allow us to bridge those gaps. Another reason I think we need to learn, particularly as Africans, is that we must make sure that we have structure. When I think about some of the things that frustrate me about being back home, it’s the lack of structure, it’s the lack of governance. And I think that this is something that we can actually learn from from other environments. 

Education is really the only thing that can unlock knowledge, and knowledge is power. If you wanna go anywhere in life, you need those skills. 

In Nigeria, we recently had a massive presidential election, and the Cuppy Foundation was able to support that. What we did was completely neutral – we weren’t telling people who to vote for, but we were telling people to educate themselves enough to know who to vote for. You have to know to make a decision and in a world with social media and a world with so much going on, when you know you can make a better decision and it’s less overwhelming.

These comments have been edited for clarity