University District

African Kingdom brings West African style to University District

Jainaba “JJ” Johnson has always been an entrepreneur.

Her career began 37 years ago at 16 years old when she started making and selling clothing and braiding hair out of her home in The Gambia, the smallest mainland country in Africa. She founded her first Memphis-based business 19 years ago.

“No loans. Nothing but my prayers,” she said when asked about the resources she used to bankroll her first endeavor and two later expansions. 

Her first business, African Braids by JJ, is located at 4216 Winchester and opened in 2001, a year after Johnson relocated to Memphis from Atlanta. It offers African braided and twisted hair styling.

Her second venture, African Kingdom, now has two locations. The first opened in 2017 at 3946 Rhodes Avenue on the southern border of the University District. The newest opened in October 2018 closer to the heart of the district at the intersection of Park Avenue and Getwell Road.

African black soap and shea butter are popular products at the newest African Kingdom location at Park Avenue and Getwell Road. (Submitted) The Rhodes location carries traditional and modern African clothing and serves as a second location for African Braids by JJ. The Park location focuses on and expands the retail side of the business. It offers clothing, bath and body products, fabric, jewelry and home decor. Black soap, shea butter, artwork and handmade throw pillows are popular items. The Rhodes location is the best of both worlds, offering apparel for sale as well as hairstyling services.

“So far so good," said Binta Fatty, Johnson's daughter, of the new store. "We are in a good location. We are by the road and we have the [Park Center] shopping center across from us.”

Johnson moved to Atlanta in 1989 and built a business there offering braided and twisted styles such as micro-braids, cornrows, locs and box braids, as well as kinky, flat and Senegalese twists. She saw the move to Memphis as a business decision.

“There was less competition for hair braiding here than in Atlanta,” she said.

Johnson built her hairstyling business by word of mouth and continues to gain customers who hear of her quality of work. Crystal Fortner, a patron since 2014, lives closer to the Winchester location but travels to the University District to get her hair braided when needed.

“She does a good job,” she said.

Johnson and four of her five children are the primary full-time and part-time employees. When necessary, they hire other family members to help with hair braiding.

Before opening the African Kingdom locations to sell apparel, Johnson sold at flea markets in Memphis. Her business model still includes elements of the flea market economy, such as bargaining on sale prices.

“We always take care of our customers,” said Fatty, who works at the newest store. “Also, we do have layaway, and we don’t really give people timeframes and pressure you. You can come and put in whatever you want to put in.”

Fatty and her siblings help manage the family-owned shops, taking on daily responsibilities and giving input on the direction of the business. Deciding to sell African wares came at an opportune time, she explained.

“Right now, the African apparel is in, and a lot of people are looking for it. So, it makes sense for us to incorporate it,” she said. “Having that is taking the business to the next level.”

Apparel imported from The Gambia. (Submitted) Through direct shipments and African vendors in New York, African Kingdom provides fabrics and pre-made clothing from The Gambia. Most of the clientele are Memphis-based and shop for occasions like weddings, birthdays, church services and high school homecomings. The busiest time in the stores is right before Black History Month.

Demand further intensified when “Black Panther” hit movie theaters in February 2018.

“I honestly feel like ‘Black Panther’ took things to the next level. Some people were always fascinated by African apparel, but they were not as fascinated as now,” said Fatty.

In November, the African Student Association at The University of Memphis hosted “A Night in Africa," a cultural and artistic celebration, and students went to African Kingdom for custom outfits.

In the long term, Johnson hopes to add more formal wear and original artwork to her offerings. Johnson's immediate business plans include focusing on the new store on Park and scaling back on hair styling. She wants to retire from hair braiding in fewer than five years.

By that point, it will have been 42 years since she first started her career in The Gambia.

“I did hair and sold tie-dye apparel at tourist markets. I would do white people’s hair that came for vacation,” she said. “I’m 53 years old. My back hurts.”
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Read more articles by Brandi Hunter.

Brandi is a freelance journalist, brand writer and tech strategist based in Memphis, TN.