If the colour yellow ever needed a PR agent, it found the best representative in Oumi Janta. The Senegalese and German roller skater moonwalked on eight wheels in a sunshine-hued matching set and absolutely mesmerised everyone (including Viola Davis, Janelle Monáe, and Reese Witherspoon—casual) with just one Instagram video this summer. Her smooth moves racked up millions of views on the platform (2.6 and counting on her account alone), and if you ask me, the shade she wore had something to do with it. She’s wearing the hue again, this time in the form of a bright Adidas tank top, when I "visit," ahem, Zoom her in Berlin for this interview. Also spotted: a printed scarf headband, pendant earrings, and tinted blue sunglasses, which made me rethink my whole accessory game and solidified the fact that in 2020, roller skaters are undoubtedly the coolest influencers we have.
Since COVID hit, we've all been looking for hobbies to fill up the endless socially-distant blursdays. Tie-dye kits, sourdough starters, puzzles, and, yeah, even foster animals' stock went up so much that, uhhh, they kinda went out of stock. Naturally, the same happened with roller skates, the perfect exercise-adjacent, reason-to-get-out-of-the-house quarantine purchase. And when people weren't buying them to try the sport themselves, they were watching roller skating videos...from their couches...in their pyjamas, yet still feeling as though they're breezing through the air vicariously through the skaters floating around on their screens.
On platforms like IG and TikTok, skate stars—Janta included, of course—have gained massive followings. And beyond being just awed by their sheer talent, fans love the fact that many of these talented athletes (yes, athletes!) have the most low-key, cool style that winks nonstop to the '70s, '80s, and '90s. Combine that retro-inspired fashion with the smooth moves, spins, and feel-good dances, and, yeah, it's easy to see how anyone with eyeballs and two feet would want to be a part of the scene—even just from the sidelines.
But back to how Janta single-handedly influenced us all to search for yellow sets in June: “I wasn't even thinking about it that day,” the 29-year-old says of her 'fit in the popular IG post. “I was just feeling myself, and said, ‘Today, I'm going yellow.’” She actually hasn’t worn the outfit again because she’d be too recognisable. Relatable, right? “They already recognize me just sitting here,” she says—"they" being the other skaters and spectators behind her and "here" being Templehof Field, the abandoned airport in Berlin where she usually practices. The blue hair's a dead giveaway, "and then having the yellow shorts on top of it?” Caught for sure.
Like any viral star, Janta wasn’t always a local, er, global phenom. She was born in Senegal and immigrated to Berlin at two months old with her parents. When she was younger, she was actually drawn to figure skating (her favourite white skates were originally made for ice and she switched out the blades for wheels. Did you even know you could do that? Me neither.). Then six or seven years ago, she went to her very first roller disco with a friend and, well, “I fell in love with it, because I really liked the vibe." The vibe in question: party on wheels.
She started taking skate lessons for about eight months during *in my poshest accent* "university," but they became an expense she couldn’t keep up with as a student. Eventually, Janta quit the roller classes and branched out on her own, picking up moves from the international skating community, like the Skate Love Fest in Barcelona. “I try to just do what I like. And I would describe it more like...a rhythm-skating-jam-skating-slash-artistic-skating-Oumi style,” she says with a laugh.
If you’re all, like, “What is jam skating?” let me explain. It’s exactly what you’d envision: Dancing to really good music while gliding around on wheels. This type of roller skating—and roller skating in general—has its roots in Black history, especially in places like Detroit, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. With disco music and R&B tunes reverberating in the background, Black people danced and grooved around local roller rinks in the '50s, '60s, and '70s. Those rinks also became battlegrounds for desegregation in the Civil Rights Movement. Famously, Ledger Smith, aka “Roller Man,” skated close to 700 miles from Chicago to D.C. to attend the March on Washington, almost getting run over in Fort Wayne, Indiana on the way.
So, yeah, the recent resurgence of skating may seem like a fun! hip! new! quarantine activity, but there’s crucial history that needs to be recognized—as with many trends. For Janta’s part, she’s thrilled that her fave activity is reaching even more fans, as long as they know it's been around way before social media.
She shares the collective history of skating through her friendships with other Black female skaters from around the world. "It's like a little community," she says. “It's important to skate with people—with humans and souls—and not forget the roots of it.” The skate circles lean more white in Germany, but she references Chicago's "JB style" (JB for James Brown), and calls the skaters in Atlanta her idols, noting once more the huge impact the Black community has had on the sport.
Janta knows that her experience as a Black person in Europe is different than if she lived in America. When Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd caught on worldwide, she was “quite shocked” that so many people attended the march in Berlin. “It was the first time in my life I realized people care, and that other ethnicities care and tried to fight. It felt really, really good.”
Over our pixelated video call, her positive, bubbly energy was steadfast except when talking about her own negative experiences with discrimination. “The ‘90s were rough. Kids can be mean,” she says about being the only non-white person in her classrooms growing up. But she quickly collects herself and brushes it off; nowadays she doesn't pay other people much mind. "I love that I can be myself and I can just skate.”
And if you were questioning her dedication to her craft (I know, I know, you'd never), she’s a full-time instructor too. When she’s not at the airport nailing tricks, filming herself dancing, and trying out new moves, she’s teaching beginners how to do the same. She tells her students to embrace themselves, feel each movement, and when they’re “ready to fly, they fly."
“I really like to teach people a little bit of what I can," she says, "but I'm still a student. I think you should never forget that.”
When I ask about the first move she learned, she volunteers to show me “The Downtown.” She sets her phone up, faces the camera, and starts crisscrossing her legs, floating from left to right. “It took me a while to get it because my brain was like, ‘Ugh, what are you doing?’ But once you unlock it everything else gets better.” The current one she’s trying to conquer is the sit-spin, and, for the record, she’s NOT actually a fan of any spins.
When she’s dancing, Janta has to be “comfortable always.” Though standing out in a sea of white peers in elementary school in the 1990s was "hard," those years are still her absolute favourite from a fashion standpoint. Really anything old school will do, though.
"I really like vintage clothes, is the thing. So many things you see—” pointing to basically every piece of clothing and accessory she has on. “My skates are vintage. This is vintage. Even the Adidas shirt is vintage.” (Her advice to those struggling to find their own pair of skates—they’re pretty much sold out everywhere—is to search for, yep, vintage ones on eBay or other resale sites.) Instead of going to thrift stores, she thrives in flea markets. Her dream shopping scenario is one where she can negotiate prices with vendors to score the best deals. If only she could teach a class on that, too, right?
While her style definitely leans more towards the casual, comfy, throwback side of the spectrum (she loves herself a bucket hat and colourful windbreakers), she still likes to switch it up: “When I feel badass, maybe I have my blue lipstick on or when I feel kind of cute, I’ll wear a dress, even though I can’t do so many tricks with it on.”
Sadly, roller skating season—i.e., summer—is officially over, so what happens when it gets cold? “Great question, great question,” a sarcastic Janta answers. Last winter, Janta still practiced outside as long as it wasn’t raining or snowing, although she has an indoor studio she uses as well.
“It's so hard to find space in Berlin. The skating community and culture is really, really small in Germany, and the awareness is not there,” she stresses. But she's optimistic about the future of the sport and that it'll stick around, comparing it to yoga. "There are always those waves," she says, speaking about the rise and fall of trends. Yoga was once considered an alternative practice that's now completely mainstream, in large part due to education, and she's hopeful that talking and teaching others about jam skating—"What is it actually? Where does it come from? And what is it about?"—will accomplish the same result.
Considering that her viral video did a hell of a lot to amplify the sport to, oh, just a few million new fans, I'm willing to bet her go-to roller skate spots in Berlin—and really, skate parks all over the world—are only going to get more crowded from here. The real question is...how many skaters will show up decked out in yellow?
Credits: Video Director: Vinnie Liazza; Videographer: Federico Boccardi; Producer: Alessandro Salerno; Stylist: Serena Pompei; Stylist Assistant: Elisabeth Quan; Hair/Makeup Artist: Berenice Ammann; HMU Assistant: Jean Battirola; Creative Director: Abby Silverman; Supervising Producer: Abbey Adkison; Associate Creative Producer: Ruben Chamorro; Fashion Director: Cassie Anderson; Beauty Director: Julee Wilson; Video Producer: Liesl Lar; Snapchat Editor: Mia Lardiere; Senior Visual Editor: Raydene Salinas Hansen.
On Oumi: Striped jumpsuit look: Y/Project jacket. Sheriff & Cherry jumpsuit. Sweater and shorts look: Louis Vuitton sweater, shirt, and shorts. Gentle Monster sunglasses. Jeans look: GCDS shirt and jeans. Green cardigan look: Versace cardigan and skirt. White tee look: Y/Project T-shirt. Sheriff & Cherry shorts.
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