Nollywood At The Precipice… Musings Of A Nigerian Artist
I have been prompted to write this piece at this critical juncture of a 40-year history of the Nigerian entertainment industry with Nollywood as the prime motivator of a brave and vibrant journey of Africans grappling to re-define their culture and personality after total decimation by Europeans.
I am also writing this piece as a chronicle for posterity and a report to Almighty God who has given me the opportunity and mandate to visit earth, participate vigorously in its development and make sure to contribute positively, disseminating his wish for us humans living in this beautiful creation called earth.
I am writing this piece without fear or favor, telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth so as to encourage my people and to chart a future for their yet unborn children.
I have spent 40 years on a quest, observing, learning and investigating the future of Africans on the continent and elsewhere, to discover why life has been so harsh for Black people all over the world and what it will take to alleviate their suffering. This quest took me out of Nigeria 30 years ago to the United States of America.
First, naively at that time, for the search for artistic purity after concluding that Nigeria could not provide the impetus for the development of high end art.
I had earlier received the best result in Fine Art in the West African School Certificate exam, but of course relegated it to obscurity, due to the prevailing opinion in Nigeria at the time that Art and Music were elementary courses not fit for a well educated man. I intended to study a more respected profession, Architecture, in line with my father’s Engineering discipline and my mother’s Architecture profession.
InNigeria in 1975, one could not gain admission into the University directly after Secondary school to study Architecture. You must first proceed to receive a two year higher School Certificate (HSC) and take three mandatory courses: Math, Physics and Chemistry or Technical Drawing. So, since I was proficient in all four courses in high school at St. Finbarr’s College, I enrolled at The Ibadan Polytechnic.
Fortunately, I had a roommate Yemi Fagbohun (Now a world class Mural Artist and Graphic Designer based in America), who forcibly took my drawings to the Art teachers at Ibadan Poly and I was reluctantly convinced to study Art and abandon Architecture.
The teachers admonished that I would be doing Nigeria a disservice if I abandoned my true calling as an Artist. I graduated best Art student and during the graduation ceremony, my proud Dad was flabbergasted, proclaiming after my 4 years in Art school that: “I thought it was Architecture that you studied!” A very sad day indeed for me at the time.
But, Dad’s pride was rekindled when I started working at the best Advertising Agency in Nigeria, Lintas Ltd, where all Graphic Designers were mandated to be sharply dressed in business suits and neckties. Dad would even religiously drive me to work every morning beaming with pride all the way from Ikeja to Lagos Island (a Seven mile distance) and drive back to Ikeja to his office at the Airport as Nigeria’s Chief Signals Officer. So imagine my father’s dismay when after two years, I resigned my juicy appointment at Lintas sighting stagnated artistic creativity.
During my sojourn at Ibadan Poly, I had been exposed to the Afrocentric teachings of music legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Fela was sowing seeds of “rebellion” in our young minds during his lecture series visits to Universities all over the country. He emphasized the need for selflessness, re-discovery of the African mind and the need to unleash the African sense of creativity. He challenged us that the only hope for Africa is a true belief in ourselves, thereby spurring indigenous creativity in all spheres.
Fela cautioned that Africa was on a downward spiral and doomed to fail if it continued in its “Colonial Mentality,” selling off mineral resources without producing and selling its own indigenous products. Unfortunately, Fela’s admonitions fell on mostly deaf ears, but it resonated profoundly in my mind and inspired me while at Lintas to start a magazine “Black Ivory – Ancient Africa illustrated.”
It is also pertinent to note that while in College in 1976, I had written my first screenplay “The Scroll,” with a childish dream to shoot it with no budget, no equipment and with only classmates as actors. On realizing the impossibility of that dream I applied my artistic skill to create Black Ivory magazine 5 years later. I also spent some time during College visiting the home of the great Nigerian Playwright, Actor and Film Producer, the late Chief Hubert Ogunde, who advised me to persevere and inspired me with his authentic, culturally rich and lavish Yoruba plays and epic films.
By 1984, I began to notice the erosion of authentic African inspired Art in Nigeria. Though great Nigerian Artists such as Chief Hubert Ogunde (now charged with the re-invigoration of the Nigerian National Troupe), Prof. Wole Soyinka, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Prof. Chinua Achebe, Sir, I.K. Dairo, Sir, Victor Uwaifo, King Sunny Ade, Chief Ebenezer Obey, Chief Eddie Ugbomah, Francis Oladele, Jab Adu, Ola Balogun and a few others still maintained artistic excellence, the handwriting was already on the wall as many young artists were reaching for a more global opportunity for quality training and the need to compete on a global level.
Our plan was to follow in the footsteps of Nigerian Artists, who had travelled to Europe and America before us. These vision artists included: Prof. Wole Soyinka, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Prof. Chinua Achebe, Jonny Hastrup, Remi Kabaka, Laughty Lasisi Amao of the band “Osibisa,” Jake Solo, Filmmakers Chief Eddie Ugboma, Ola Balogun and many others.
Our contemporary team of vision Nigerian Artists leaving in the late 70s to mid 80’s included Wole Alade (who trained at the prestigious Berklee College of Music and later signed on to Atlantic Records, now film scorer extraordinary, with such masterpieces as “Doctor Bello” film), visual Artist Yemi Fagbohun, classical Musician Professor Paul Konye, who later became Director of the Nigerian Muson Center), Adeboye Adegbenro (who became the first African Animator at Disney Studios, Warner Brothers Studios and Dreamworks Studios) and yours truly among a few others.
Fast forward circa 1997. After publishing Black Ivory Magazine in America, propagating African culture and Business opportunities for over 10 years, touring the Nigerian National Troupe for the first time in America in 1992/ 95 and creating the first Africa Music Festival in America, I was attracted by the creativity bustling in Nollywood. I reasoned that if given the opportunity, Nollywood could emerge as a viable vehicle for the exposition of authentic core African values and world view. It could also become a venerable alternative to our mainstay at the time of Oil. I had previously postulated severally in different media in America that Africa had the potential to sustain itself as opposed to African leaders always seeking foreign aid. I opined that the hope for Africa lies within its massive One Billion population ready to roll up their sleeves and engage in business activity. I visited Nigeria severally, engaging the Presidency especially through the Ministry of Information and Culture. I vehemently advocated and lobbied for the creation of a Ministry of Tourism and Culture and the need for it to be adequately funded. Luckily, President Olusegun Obasanjo obliged and knowing his antecedence as the “Culture President” ala Festac ‘77, we were elated that now, we could begin the arduous task of repositioning Nigerian creativity which could be jump started through Nollywood.
I engaged Nollywood vigorously in 1997 when I shot my first Nigerian film “Back to Africa.”
I wanted to experience the reality of Nollywood from within. I engaged the “Marketers” in Idumota, the heart of Nollywood film distribution. I was very impressed by their tenacity, though crude, without adequate record keeping to facilitate bank involvement and bedeviled with elementary skills in the art of storytelling. I was non-the-less taken by their diehard mentality and hard-nosed, unapologetic business sense. I made a commitment to join them.
In 2003, I set up the Filmmakers Association of Nigeria, USA (FAN, USA) with two other Nigerians living in America who had the same passion. Caroline Okolo was a seasoned veteran of American backend corporate structure development, and Rabiu Mohammed was a budding Nollywood films distributor. I had previously noticed after shooting “Back to Africa,” that there was no distribution whatsoever for African filmed entertainment in America. As a matter of fact, Africa was a pejorative in the ears of most Americans, and African-Americans (Black Americans) at the time, were too ashamed to associate with Africa, after being bombarded incessantly in the mainstream American media with negative images of Africa as a land of abject Poverty, disease, despots and a hopeless war ravaged continent. African Presidents inadvertently corroborated that image with their consistent begging for aid for Africa’s survival.
In 2003, FAN, USA engaged Nollywood officially through a partnership with the Filmmakers Cooperative of Nigeria (FCON), a conglomeration of distinguished Nigerian film Producers including bastions like: Zeb Ejiro, Famous Otakponwen, Peace Anyiam Osigwe, Olu Jacobs, Zack Orji, Paul Obazele, Fidelis Duker, Chris Ekejimbe, Don Pedro Obaseki, Ralph Nwadike,Chico Ejiro and others who felt that the business of Nollywood could not be in the hands of the Idumota Marketers exclusively.
They felt they were being shortchanged by the Marketers not revealing the true revenue numbers and therefore created a new distribution Market at a new location in Surulere Lagos, outside the Idumota enclave.
The FAN, USA/ FCON collaboration culminated in the introduction of 50 Nollywood superstar Actors, Producers and Distributors in America with the objective of creating a legitimate distribution chain in America.