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Rethinking The Reward System For Talent Shows

On Sunday, December 13, 2020, Nigerians celebrated the birth of a new star from the MTN Y’ello Star reality TV show. Okeowo Oladotun Alani, aka Dotti out after a long campaign where he shone so bright and won the prize. The other top five contestants include Gideon, Storm, Caesar and Fay Fay Diamond.

Dotti isn’t the only winner. Everyone who signed up for the show and went through the weeks of training and contests, will go home armed with something. They all get connected to opportunities and certifications from prestigious schools for capacity building and long-term empowerment.

This new reward system goes against normalcy. We’ve seen variants of this scene a million times. A group of young people are ushered on to a decorated stage, with lights, cameras, and a charismatic host who controls the event. The young people carry out a prearranged activity—singing, dancing, blowing flames from their mouth—and get scored for points based on their comparative level of success. One by one, they are all deemed as ‘not good enough,’ except for one candidate who’s crowned a winner and ushered into wealth and functional prizes designed to improve their lives and boost their careers. The other contestants walk off the stage, and back into a world that has become aware of their existence but hasn’t equipped them with tools to thrive.

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The winner usually takes it all. The second place carries nothing of value. And if you come third? Only the memories and learnings from the competition would provide comfort. This reward system isn’t unfair. But after weeks of fame and hypervisibility and hope, it provides an allowance for people to fall through the cracks. Our cultural space is packed with prime talent from reality TV shows, who fail to spark and explode due to inadequate support to maintain the momentum of a good run. Nigeria is fertile ground for myriad talent shows and artsy skill hunts. And each time, the reality TV show organisers do little to support contestants.

Talent hunt shows have been at the heart of a lot of good in Nigeria’s music industry, and a conveyor belt of stars and talented prospects. MTN Project Fame West Africa, one of the show’s earliest versions, introduced local stars including Iyanya, Darey Art Alade, Chidinma, Praiz and many more.

Afrohouse artist, Niniola is a reality TV show alumni. Her comeup grind has taken her to many flashy spaces where rejection has been a constant companion. She’s storied a veteran of reality TV shows, running around Lagos and Abuja, singing at auditions, looking for a way in. When Nigerian singer Timi Dakolo emerged winner of the inaugural season of Idols West Africa in 2007, Niniola auditioned for a spot. And when they didn’t pick her, she travelled to another audition centre in Abuja, cried and threw a tantrum to get another chance. She still received a no.

Another talent hunt show, X-Factor, came around in 2013 and Niniola threw her hat in the ring, facing more rejection from a panel that included renowned singer Onyeka Onwenu and rapper M.I Abaga. “I got a standing ovation from them and in my mind, I was like yes! At last! And after that, they dropped me again. I’m like, ‘O God, are my village people following me?’ she says.

Her big break came a few months later at the MTN Project Fame West Africa, where she got a nod, eventually finishing the third runner up, and walking home with N2 million as her prize. She transferred that cash into seed money for her music, which helped her along to become a star.

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But her case is anecdotal. She’s the one that got away. Hundreds of reality show winners struggled to find their feet after leaving the comfort of the program. Cut adrift, they wander the cold music industry, meeting frustrations at each turn. Without guidance or any post-show support, they tire and exit the industry. Their potential, unfulfilled.

“And you know all this reality show thingy. You think that is the industry? That’s not the industry. That is not it. That is just TV, one konkolo show,” she tells me, over an interview.

MTN Y’ello Star is introducing a new way for the future. A musical platform created by Nigeria’s leading Telecommunications and data services provider, MTN Nigeria to search for, discover, nurture, expose and launch music talents in young Nigerians. When these talents are discovered, they are assembled in a house where their skills and talents are horned through lectures, guidance, mentoring and practical sessions by renowned teachers, artists who have distinguished themselves in the industry. Through the contest, the winner, and runners up get prizes that will assist them in their musical aspirations. A grand prize still goes to the winner, alright. But there’s something for the rest of the gang.

To further provide value, the showrunners partnered with the Berklee College of Music and the Henley Business School to help develop the music and business understanding of all contestants of the competition. Here, there’s a working realisation that talent is not enough for Nigerian artists to compete on the global scale. So, capacity building and empowerment for everyone is the target.

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Dotti, the winner of the show will head home with 5 million Naira cash, a new car, brand new fully furnished apartment with a home recording studio and a brand new car. He also gets to record and produce a song at Berklee World-class Studio in New York, USA. For the 26 year old diploma holder, it’s a chance at a second life. The cash means no money worries for a long time. The house and the car take care of his other basic needs, the studio gives him an office, and the new song gets him out the blocks. Before the show, Dotti worked as a songwriter and a jingle producer inspired by Fatoumata Diawara, Oumou Sangare, Mali Music, Adeolu Akinsanya, and Brymo. He now has a personal studio to expand his skills. Easy life, easy win. Without the need and pressure to earn immediately, and cater for self, Dotti is mentally free to pursue the art and soar.

Beyond Dotti, there’s something for everyone. All 14 contestants get into an online Music Training Program from the prestigious Berklee School of Music. They also get to go through a Creative Entrepreneurship Training Program from the Henley Business School. The program gives them a certification and inducts them into the Henley school alumni. The top five finalists— also get a scholarship to attend Berklee 2021 Summer Music Program at the Berklee School of Music.

By prioritising education, Y’ello Star is equipping all contestants with a crucial career-boosting skill. The knowledge gap in the African music industry is a hindrance to economic progress. And very few people have access to globalised structured music programs for the business. All 14 contestants already have that leg up.

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These rewards will definitely help Freeborn, a contestant of the show. A single mom of two girls. Freeborn didn’t make it into the top 5. She had dropped out of primary school and never got any form of formal education. But thanks to MTN Y’ello Star, she will be getting specialised degrees from The Berklee College of Music and Henley Business School certification, which is given to all 14 contestants. In line with the empowerment theme of the project, she won a special scholarship to the Berklee College of Music 2021 Summer Music Program in the USA. Due to her inclusion, 6 contestants will be attending the Berklee College of Music 2021 Summer Music Programme in the USA. This is heartwarming stuff. Her first academic certification came via a reality TV show!

Perhaps, this is the future of rewarding prime talent who battle it out on reality discovery programs. A core focus on empowerment and capacity building ensures that everyone goes home a winner. There’s tangible growth through the in-house training, and the added education ensures that beyond the show, the benefits keep rolling in.

Y’ello Star might be in its inaugural year, but it’s already solving pre existing moral and professional problems in our cultural space. As the new platform continues its quest to locate and amplify Nigeria’s best, it’s already leading on the right foot, and charting a course to elevate the industry via talent empowerment and capacity building.

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