PAYA Houston Honors Ball recognizes rising stars
Nigerian Artist and Model Chiugo Akujuobi (Left) accepts Top Rising Star Award by PAYA Houston Founder, Olamide Kayode (Right). Photo by Jimmie Aggison.

After a year hiatus due to the COVID-19 lockdown, the Professional Association of Young Africans (PAYA) returned for a night of elegance, networking and fun to celebrate African excellence during its signature fourth annual Honors Ball at the Heights Villa.

Editor’s note: This article originally ran Dec. 2, 2021.

This year, PAYA honored “Africans that make noise” recognizing 20 Rising Stars and three honorees who are stepping out of the box and disrupting their respective industries while making an impact in the Houston community and the society at large. 

An estimated 200 guests arrived decked out in modern-day themed “roaring twenties” designer dresses and suits, serenaded by the sounds of Houston-based recording artist Lolade. Attendees enjoyed a silent auction, West African delicacies, live art presentations by artists Leo “Degreat” Orji and Chukwunonso Ofili of Ofilidesigns along with live poetry and African dance performance. 

“People of African descent are doing big things and there is never a shortage of greatness especially in Houston,” said Chigozie Otum, PAYA chief programming officer. “Nominations are open to the public and the executive board then decides the final list of honorees based on accomplishments, community service, and those who are excelling in non-traditional (S.T.E.M) professions.”

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Chiugo Akujuobi, one of PAYA’s 2021 Rising Stars, is a non-binary Nigerian artist and model whose socially-conscious photoshoots opened the dialogue about embracing their gender-neutral pronoun as a Nigerian.

“I consider myself lucky. It’s literally illegal to be gay in Nigeria. Being able to express my authentic self through fashion and photography has been fulfilling,” said Akujuobi. “I’m so grateful to this community for supporting my creative journey.”

Former NFL player and Honors Ball honoree Fendi Onobun talked about how this recognition came full circle for him.

Former NFL player and Honors Ball honoree Fendi Onobun. Photo by Jimmie Aggison.

“I grew up in Alief, and it feels good to return and give back to the community that gave me so much,” he said. “I’ve offered free football camps, motivational talks with middle and elementary school kids, assisting families during the holiday season. I’ll continue to do this until the day I die.”

Rising Star Ayodele Shofoluwe opened up about his latest photo exhibition titled The 20.10.20 Project commemorating the first anniversary of the Lekki Toll Gate Massacre and #ENDSARS protests in Nigeria. He said just like PAYA, it was his way of connecting Africans together and encouraging forward-thinking solutions to the nation’s most pressing issues.

“This award is a small reminder of the power Africans in the diaspora possess and how we can better utilize our skills for the betterment of Africans who don’t have the opportunities we have here,” he said. 

Otum said the funds raised through the event’s silent auction will go directly toward PAYA community service projects and professional networking events.

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Laura Onyeneho covers the city’s education system as it relates to Black children for the Defender Network as a Report For America Corps member. Email her at

Laura Onyeneho

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...