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The story of MTV Base at 15

By Monde Twala
24 August 2020   |   3:14 am
In February 2005, the world was a different place. Let Me Love You by R&B artist Mario Barrett was the world’s number one song.

PHOTO: Brandspurng

In February 2005, the world was a different place. Let Me Love You by R&B artist Mario Barrett was the world’s number one song. A fresh-faced 19-year-old called Rafael Nadal was having his breakout season as a professional tennis player. Africa was in the middle of a robust economic boom driven by high commodity prices, and a pervasive sense of optimism and newfound dynamism were in evidence everywhere you turned from Accra to Lusaka. A song by a fast-rising Nigerian music artist called Tuface Idibia ruled airwaves across the continent, and everyone in the newly resurgent Nigerian music industry knew that a new star was on their hands.

Not even he could have predicted what would happen next though, as his song would go on to become an essential part of the origin story of Africa’s 21st-century music and youth culture renaissance. That month, African Queen, the breakout single off his wildly successful debut album “Face2Face” became the first music video to be played on MTV Base Africa, a new MTV channel created to cater specifically to Africa’s urban music audience.

Whereas previously such videos would only go out to at most a few hundred thousand viewers on a few dozen local TV channels scattered across the continent, African Queen scored a phenomenal 1.3 million viewers on its first MTV Base screening. From that moment, the world would never be the same again. The era of Pan-African music audience aggregation had begun, led front and centre by the impact of this new TV channel which came into existence through hard work, tenacity and sheer force of will. MTV Base had liftoff.

“Showcasing Africa to the World”
Operating with the mission: “Showcasing Africa to the world,” this channel would have an African content quota of at least 30 per cent, and the content would have to meet ViacomCBS’ high production quality standards. In other words, this was not to be merely an urban music channel branded with “Africa” without much actual African content. However, it would be an African channel in every way and without compromising quality standards – even if that meant directly investing in content.

Despite the Nigerian music industry’s growth, driven by exciting new artists like Tuface and Dbanj, music video production quality was a sore point. The industry itself functioned in a very ad-hoc manner and the new MTV Base channel would not only have to prove that it could be commercially viable quickly, but it would also have to invest significantly in the very ecosystem it hoped to benefit from. From the premiere of African Queen in February 2005, this journey would culminate in the establishment of a thriving African music ecosystem that has now put Africa’s youth culture firmly on the global map.

An Acorn Becomes a Tree
What many may not know, however, is how much work we still do in the background to ensure that Nigerian and African music retains its pride of place and achieves increased global visibility. On the one hand, scheduled broadcasts like MVP, The Bigger Friday Show, Word on the Street, Base Real Talk, 100% Naija, Down South and East Side effectively help along the entire career development process of African music artists, building them from niche upcoming through breakout to international star. On the other hand, above and beyond these established on-air platforms, offline platforms like the MTV Africa Music Awards (MAMA) have also been key to advancing the interests of the Nigerian music industry and similar burgeoning music ecosystems around Africa. From the inaugural edition of the MAMA in Abuja 12 years ago, it has evolved into a hugely significant global music event that has in no small way enhanced and transformed the careers of African music talents.

From a situation where, Nigerian music and much of African music was only just emerging after the turn of the millennium, artists like Davido, Patoranking, Wizkid, Yemi Alade and their contemporaries now regularly share award stages and collaborate with their global counterparts. All of this would have been barely believable back in 2005, but such is the potency and effectiveness of platforms like the MAMA. Many of these artists have even testified that their prices literally went up after receiving a MAMA, in addition to their enhanced global profile.

From the initial generation of Tuface and Dbanj, Nigeria has now spawned dozens of such bonafide international recording artists with superstar billing. The outsized role of MTV Base in the vast majority of these cases is on the public record. The channel, at one point, even went to the extent of shooting video content for artists without charge. In other words, MTV Base actually spent its own money to create high-quality video content to promote songs by Nigerian artists and put them on the international map. The impact that all of this has had on the fast-growing Nigerian music industry is that Nigerian (and African) artists now enjoy a level of visibility, respect and financial heft that was unthinkable just 20 years ago. Through the platform given to them by a continental channel and global award shows, artists can now cultivate new audiences around the world and achieve better compensation for their creative work. What is more, it goes beyond just artists and other people who are visible on the front lines. There is an entire ecosystem that now exists and thrives, which was either threadbare or nonexistent in early 2005.

Everyone from graphic artists and animators to sound engineers and video runners now has something approaching a thriving, well-structured system to operate in – this is all relatively recent.

Nickfest, by ViacomCBS kids brand, Nickelodeon, is another offline platform I oversee which has an outsized impact on youth culture across the continent. In just 5 years since the inaugural Nickfest, it has become one of the most eagerly awaited family-centric events on the calendar. The 2019 event in Lagos, Nigeria had more than 4,000 children and families in attendance to witness performances by beloved characters from some of Nickelodeon’s most popular shows including SpongeBob SquarePants, Paw Patrol and Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Going forward, VCN Africa intends to keep on investing time, money and effort in improving the depth, quality and exposure of the Nigerian music industry.

A lot has been achieved in 15 years, transitioning from one channel into a series of on-air and off-air platforms that are now fixtures in Africa’s youth culture, but we believe that the journey is still just getting started. There are still numerous opportunities to explore in terms of incubating new sounds and artistic subcultures and connecting even more with audiences around the world. Modern artists continue to emerge every day, and with MTV Base around, they have that extra bit of a chance to explore their potential. The world is definitely a different place for the African youth culture ecosystem in 2020, and we are incredibly proud of what the channel has achieved in a decade and a half.

It is fair to say that “showcasing Africa to the world” is a mission statement that MTV Base has comprehensively delivered on.

Twala is senior vice president and GM, ViacomCBS Networks Africa.