I had just gotten back from Lilongwe on a business trip, straight into a training session for a new venture at our offices in Blantyre when I noticed Twitter was abuzz with KNQR related news. I didn’t have a moment to find out what was going on and who was saying what, but it seemed like there was an accusation of KNQR being a stolen idea and its designs being unoriginal. I wasn’t sure what to make of it and was too exhausted from driving four hours to want to engage in that issue, so I checked out and mentally bookmarked it for later.
“I would rather wear a cheap original brand than a knock off of a famous brand.”
After a well deserved rest and recuperation, I returned to the dog vomit that is a Twitter lynching. I scrolled through my timeline and the issue had grown fungus, with different camps, firebrands and siege engines fully formed. Even an article had already been written by a reputable publication. You had those that were watching from the stands, those that were angry that there was also another brand called KNQR from Australia and those that were defending the local brand saying this was just haters being haters. In all of this three things stood out for me 1) There was another KNQR 2) It had been there since 2016 and it seemed Hayze knew about it and 3) The Don’t Quit T-Shirt design wasn’t original. These were not benign issues, they had meat on them, these were serious accusations.
I didn’t want to think the worst cause I figured knowing the sort of person Sindi (Hayze) is there was probably a perfectly good explanation for this. But then something strange happened to me, I thought about the two KNQR T-shirts I had just bought and was yet to wear or take a customary social media picture with and for a split second I didn’t want to be seen in them. I felt bad, like I was being disloyal and wondered why that thought had entered my mind. I thought about why I wanted to wear the brand in the first place, was it vanity? Was it the fact that Hayze Engola is a friend and I felt I had to support his endeavor? No, it wasn’t. I actually wanted to wear the brand because, I genuinely thought it was cool, I liked the name, the merchandise, the Don’t Quit slogan, I believed in it. I am someone who doesn’t patronize Malawian businesses or ideas on the basis of “support local”, but on the basis of their being well put together things period. In fact I have never begged for support on my own projects, if you like what we do thanks. If you don’t, that is also ok, but not pulizi chonde support us because, we are black or this and that (insert identity). I wanted to wear KNQR because, it was something that was original in the world and it happened to be Malawian. I was proud of it.
Something about this entire KNQR Australia mess had tainted that and I didn’t feel as proud to be seen in it. I was no longer sure of the brands authenticity and if it wasn’t original then it wasn’t cool to wear. It would not send the message “I am original, I wear something original”. It would send the message “I support frauds and I am proud”. It is as if we woke up and found out Hayze had been recycling other rappers’ lines. It might not end his career, but it would take away some credibility to his stature as an artist.
I remembered a quote a lady tweeted not too long ago that said, “I would rather wear a cheap original brand than a knock off of a famous brand.” That seemed to sum up what I was feeling. Not that I am so bougie that I have never knowingly or unknowingly worn something bootleg, but that to me it feels better to wear an original anything than a fake version of something. At the core of all of this was the issue of integrity. It was whether we were being lied to. It was whether we believed Hayze was who he said he was, whether KNQR was what it claims to be – Original, Authentic or if in fact this was all just a big misunderstanding.
So I drove to Maselema to the KNQR store to get to the bottom of this issue because, though it wasn’t the sort of thing that would affect my friendship with Hayze, it definitely would stop me from wearing the label if I couldn’t wear it with pride.
Please note the conversation may have been paraphrased in places.
ME: Dude, just saw the firestorm on Twitter so I came through to find out what’s up.
HAYZE: Eh my guy, inenso it just came out of nowhere. When it started I didn’t pay it no mind, I thought it was just Twitter being Twitter. But then some things started getting said on there that weren’t ok, people have no idea how much I have had to sacrifice and to put in to make this work.
ME: Yeah. But KNQR Australia, I looked them up. There are two KNQRs in the world, which in one way is a testament to how original the name is by the way. Only two and the other one doesn’t seem to be a brand its some sort of a support group and storytelling club.
HAYZE: Yah men and you know I have known about these KNQR Australia guys for a while now. I think the mistake I made is when we started I should have said “don’t confuse us with these guys” and acknowledged their existence. Then it would have addressed that issue from the get go. But their social media seemed dead, they didn’t post frequently so I thought it wasn’t necessary.
ME: I hear you, I can’t fault you for that. I did the same thing with Home Grown African.
HAYZE: Really, how?
ME: When I took you guys on for management I did a cross check of your name for websites and entities with a similar name. I found a few. Not surprising because, home grown anything is quite an everyday term when you think about it. Homegrown latin cooking, homegrown terrorism etc. Anyway, one entity was a South African Music label actually owned by some lady. Same issue, pages seemed dead with no activity. They weren’t active or well known. The other I think was a botanist dealing with plants. There was no real overlap, as none were artists or bands. So I made the same call. Years later if you search Home Grown African only we come up, because we long buried the other guys.
HAYZE: Yah, basically I hoped that’s what we were gonna do. It didn’t bother me coz the other guys aren’t selling clothes or doing what we are doing.
ME: Ofcourse, but you know the issue on that as far as people are concerned is whether KNQR is an original name or whether it was stolen or derived from those other guys. I am in this marketing space so I am familiar with how often you come up with a slogan or name you think is very original and do a search internally or online and find out it already exists. I mean, my sister who has a very original African name couldn’t find a website in her name because, there is a Japanese company with similar characters that has it. These things happen all the time that’s why before you register a company or start a brand the first thing you must do is a deep dive for website names etc. Because once you are committed to a name and have started to build a brand around it. To change it or rebrand becomes an incredibly expensive endeavor. (I actually have a Malawian friend who used to call himself “The Game” long before 50 Cent discovered “The Game”. When the American artist blew up he had to change his name to “Overdose” which he then used to win the Freestyle Battle Championships at the University of Capetown).
HAYZE: Damn, but you know people shouldn’t worry about that. I came up with that name independently whilst talking to @FlippinPage. I remember the conversation vividly. It ended with us deciding we would call the brand “Conquer”. I went home, then after some hours I called him saying we should actually spell it, KNQR. It came from me like it was from heaven and I knew that was the name. It was so unique I didn’t even bother checking to see if it existed elsewhere. It felt like it had been given to me by God himself.
Hayze consequently Tattooed the name KNQR on his Knuckles as a statement to the universe that he had accepted the name and would see this vision through to the end so help him God.
ME: Alright, nah I believe you. I am not so hung up on the names, I have been through this with my own companies. But I’ll be honest for me what shook me was two things 1) Your statement that you knew about the other brand and had consulted lawyers before, you sounded rather defensive understandably, but a proper well balanced response needs to be done from the brand itself because that one didn’t subside fears or address key issues and 2) something someone said that really got me personally was that the “don’t quit” T-shirt was a stolen idea.
HAYZE: *Sigh. You know about that, the Don’t Quit T-shirt design is like an internet meme that many people have been doing online so we jumped on it in that same spirit.
ME: Hmmm, like those “Keep Calm” T-Shirts that blew up a while back.
HAYZE: Exactly, just like those “Keep Calm” T-Shirts everyone used to make-
REUBEN: -Eh sorry guys. Hayze, I am here to collect some stuff on behalf of Ben.
We were interrupted by a certain @Reuby_Tuesday who was full of energy and very visibly excited to collect some merchandise that had been ordered by @wandaman online as part of his response to people trying to tear the local KNQR brand down. He kept asking for what was officially on the list of items ordered because, there were some items that were his and some that were for others. He rubbed his hands together like birdman and paced around the shop touching items. He even forgot to introduce me to his associate, Polycarp (don’t know if I spelt that right). Had to do it myself, couldn’t break Reuben’s focus he was in shopping beast mode.
Suddenly his attention was magnanimously arrested by a large flowing hoodie. Reminded me of the days he used to be a Black Berry ambassador in Joburg and would wear trendy long flowing cardigans from Markhams and Woolworths. A man of exquisite fashion taste, he was in his element. He grabbed one long hoodie off the rack and fumbatilad it (hugged it) in front of the store mirror. Quickly putting it on with affirmations, he strutted around the shop like he was taking the clothing for a test drive, exuding large amounts of this “hide your girls” kind of energy. You could see from the elation in his eyes that he couldn’t wait to make waves being seen in it.
That’s when it occurred to me, this crisis was no simple matter. People were really excited around this brand. I remember being given this long lecture by Reuben sometime last year about why he was particular about where he bought his Jordans and how much they cost because, real Jordans could never cost less than X and so on and so forth. He seemed almost as excited about this local clothing brand as he was about his Jordans. This brand means a lot to a lot of people and I needed to make sure Hayze would handle this challenge to his company and to his character with grace and power. My brain started cooking up some ideas as Reuben stood in the patio doorway to take a customary KNQR shop picture.
“Alright guys I am out.” He said as he walked out with such a tremendous bounce in each step it was as though his name had just been called to go on stage and collect an MTV Award or something and now he would like to thank God and his mom.
If someone says that you don’t write your own lines as an artist, but you do or tells a drug dealer that your drugs aren’t what you say they are in front of the whole school. It isn’t one of these things that you can let slide without it being dealt with or responded to properly.
ME: Damn dude, are people always this excited when they are buying items.
HAYZE: Dude you have no idea. This is what I am trying to say. I get all sorts in here, fathers come here with their whole families saying, “Tikulephera kugona kunyumbaku, ‘ndikufuna back pack ya KNQR daddy. Ndikufuna back pack ya KNQR.’ Nde lero tangobwera.” (“we are failing to sleep with people constantly requesting ‘I want a KNQR back pack daddy. I want a KNQR back pack.’ So here we are”). Feedback from Malawians in the UK is no different. Apparently someone was wearing it in a pool hall and it became a whole topic of conversation amongst their circles there. People are very excited about the brand that’s why we been able to grow it organically with no adverts or anything. The people have embraced it themselves. This whole thing I think is deeper than just me bruh, I wouldn’t be here still standing a year later if it wasn’t for the grace of God.
ME: Sure thing, but you know Hayze this is where you need to understand something important. If someone says that you don’t write your own lines as an artist, but you do or tells a drug dealer that your drugs aren’t what you say they are in front of the whole school. It isn’t one of these things that you can let slide without it being dealt with or responded to properly. What is needed now is a measured response both as a person and as a brand to ensure that this disrespect is dealt with once and for all and to dispel any doubts that people may now have around the KNQR brand being original, authentically Malawian and it being their brand. This situation is an opportunity for you, a challenge which you/we should accept as KNQR to show that there is only one and to also make it clear that we will not tolerate people trying to soil our good name. Moving forward this will be an inconceivable thing of the past. I think it’s time to take the brand to the next level.
Hayze says let me show you something and brings out his phone displaying the new line of products coming up. I nod my head and say, “they will never see it coming.” I feel strong, I feel he gets it. That people will always attack you and sometimes they even have valid reasons, but you must make it hard for them to hit you or knock you down. You must not make yourself an easy target. I end by saying
As for this guy that started all of this. You do need to let him know that if you are going to question another man’s integrity publicly you need to at least do your homework and call him out in a manner that itself shows integrity. Addressing him privately is a matter of principle and should be done soon. He should have at the very least in boxed you, asked about the other brand or at least made his intentions known so we would understand where he was coming from. Failing to reach out to the brand at all, meant this was intended to be an ambush, to discredit and to embarrass. Which is unfortunate.
Either than that don’t be too mad at him, we are all just people and very often the people that may seem like haters now might have actually been your biggest fans in disguise. There is a very big possibility that Malawian brands have let us down in the past and this cynicism is a byproduct of previous disappointments. I have heard stories of a certain famous Lilongwe based woman that was buying Louis Vuittons and reverse engineering them with her brand logo on them and selling them as her own original creations a while back. There is a very real possibility that with such things happening someone searched KNQR only to find another one in Australia. They probably didn’t try to find out whether they were a furniture shop or something and just jumped straight to assuming some sort of fraud was afoot because, you know – Malawi.
One, Hayze did not steal the name KNQR he came up with it independently. Happens more often that you may think in intellectual property and inventions actually (Just as Charles Darwin in 1859 was not the first/only person to pen the theory of evolution Alfred Russel Wallace penned his independently during the same period in 1858). He just needs to make sure his brand is protected and stays unique. There is nothing to stop someone else from coming up with an application or product whose acronyms also spell KNQR in future. I would imagine we won’t jump straight into accusing them of theft, but rather giving them a heads up that the name already exists and should change or face legal action (if that’s the most prudent course of action to take). You can’t fight everybody unless you are really big and very often it is not even necessary if customers are able to differentiate one product from the other.
Two, it is a good thing this came up now when the shop is still fresh not when it is a multi-million dollar enterprise. Everything is more complicated once substantial amounts of money are involved. Facebook had to buy www.fb.com for U$D 8.5million from someone who owned it before Facebook was a huge global icon just to protect their brand. Since everyone shortens Facebook as FB. So this experience gives Hayze the fuel he needs to make careful well thought out steps. So that the identity of the KNQR brand and all its properties are as different from other products in the world as possible and so that all his copyrights and trademarks are protected. It also gives him a realistic perspective on the market, you have haters, fans, competitors and then the masses caught in between. The emotions of those in each category are very real and very visceral. They can be tapped into and harnessed to build or turned against you to destroy. Respect people and their emotions and handle them well. Tides change and you either ride waves like a professional surfer or get drowned.
Three, I will be wearing my KNQR T-shirts proudly in the streets as I do not question whose head the idea came from and what they represent to all of us. I am proud of Hayze, his values and all the original work he has given us through his music and personality. You should too, because whilst he is only human and will make mistakes, he is not a thief.
Oh and I also can’t wait to see your faces when the next set of campaigns hit the market because, no one will be saying they aren’t Malawian, that they aren’t original/international and that they are not proud to be associated with them. We move…
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