We own the industry. Go back to research. The industry belongs to the Yoruba people. If you go back to research, you will hear from people like Hubert Ogunde and Ade Love
By Azuka Onwuka
Last week, The Tribune had a headline that read: “Yorubas started Nollywood, own it — Aisha Lawal, actress and scriptwriter.” The headline was taken from the interview the newspaper had with the Yoruba movie actress, scriptwriter, and filmmaker, Aisha Lawal.
While interviewing her about her role in the biopic Awujale, the paper had asked her: “Critics are saying that streaming platforms have come on board and are now pumping money into the industry and that the Yoruba aspect of Nollywood is playing catch-up. What can you say about that?”
She responded: “We own the industry. Go back to research. The industry belongs to the Yoruba people. If you go back to research, you will hear from people like Hubert Ogunde and Ade Love. I don’t want to go into details. But, if you go and research very well, you will discover that Yorubas own this industry, we started this industry. We messed up at some point, but we are not playing catch-up. We are there already. Now, everybody wants to shoot a Yoruba movie.”
That headline raised some dust because of her outlandish claim that Yorubas “own” the Nigerian film industry. Expectedly, the debate degenerated into an ethnic supremacy contest and attempt by each side to understate the contributions of other people and regions.
Different sub-sets of the Nigerian entertainment industry have been a source of pride to Nigeria largely because they are completely independent of government control. Individuals, hungry for fame and wealth, made them happen. The most noticeable areas that have experienced boom in entertainment are filmmaking, music, comedy, and disc jockeying.
For example, many decades before Innocent Idibia (known as 2Face or 2Baba) was born in 1975, Nigerian music industry had started to boom. But it was 2Face’s 2004 song “African Queen” that kick-started the global success Nigerian music – recently named Afrobeats by the American media – is enjoying today. Note that before 2Face, there had been many other musicians who sang Nigerian hip-hop. In the 1990s, there were musicians like Junior and Pretty, Daniel Wison, Paul Dairo, Tony Tetuila, Styl Plus, Remedies, African China, Weird Mc, etc. In the early 2000s, Sound Sultan, Eedris Abdulkareem, 2Shotz, Azadus, etc, held sway. Long before that, the 1980s saw Onyeka Onwenu, Felix Lebarty, Kris Okotie, Funmi Adams, Christy Essien Igbokwe, Charly Boy, Stella Monye, Blaccky, etc, keeping the airwaves agog.
Through highlife, juju, Afrobeat, reggae, fuji, pop, gospel music, Nigeria had a vibrant music industry right from colonial times to the turn of the twenty-first century. But there was something missing: Nigerians saw Nigerian musicians as “local” and inferior to musicians from the United States and other parts of Africa. Nigerian radio stations, parties and shows paid far more attention to hip-pop songs from the US than Nigerian music. For any musical show in Nigeria to be seen as premium, a reigning foreign musician would headline it.
That was one of the reasons Eedris Abdulkareem had an altercation with American rapper, 50 Cent, in December 2004. It was alleged that the hosts of the multi-city show had reserved the business class of the aeroplane for 50 Cent and his team, while the economy class was reserved for Eedris and other Nigerian musicians. That was the same year 2Face had released “African Queen.” “African Queen” became popular across Africa and got into the US. It was used as a soundtrack of the 2006 Hollywood film named Phat Girlz. That song started the turnaround in Nigerian music, making Nigerian music steadily rise to global prominence that no organisation would invite a foreign musician to headline any musical show in Nigeria anymore.
In comedy, it was a different ball game. Unlike music, there were no professional comedians in Nigeria until Ali Baba came on the scene in the 1990s. Before him, there were actors and broadcasters who acted as MCs or comedians at events like John Chukwu, Patrick Doyle, Bisi Olatilo, Tony St. Iyke, Papa Aluwe, Nkem Owoh (“Osuofia”), etc. But it was Ali Baba Atunyota Akpobome that first resigned from his job and practised comedy as his only profession. Ali Baba made comedy so relevant that those who hired an MC to anchor their events still saw the need to have a comedian perform at such events. When he made a success of comedy, other young men and women trooped into it.
Another entertainment area that someone professionalised was disc jockeying. Since time immemorial, DJs have been part of us in every part of the country. However, people saw them mainly as ne’er-do-wells who drank a lot, smoked a lot and womanised. It was when DJ Jimmy Jatt (Jimmy Amu) made a success of it in the 2000s that the image and financial status of the Nigerian DJ changed. Unlike in the past when the DJ was heard but not seen, Jimmy Jatt made the DJ to be the centre of attraction of the show. Because of the success he made of it, many male and female young Nigerians – including the daughter of a Nigerian billionaire – became proud DJs.
We can draw a parallel between these sub-sets of the entertainment industry and the film industry. Since 1926 when the film Palaver was shot in Northern Nigeria by a Briton, Geoffrey Barkas, the Nigerian film industry has come a long way. From the 1950s to 1980s, productions on stage, cinema and TV boomed across the country. Sam Zebba, Hubert Ogunde, Eddy Ugbomah, Moses Olaiya, Wale Adenuga, Jide Kosoko, etc, led the charge.
However, all through the 1970s and 1980s, even though there were TV series and some recorded videos that were popular in different regions, Nigeria did not have what can be called a film industry. Films from the USA, UK and India held sway: James Bond, Bruce Lee, Clash of the Titans, Coming to America, Burning Train, etc.
The success of Living in Bondage, released in 1992 by Okey Ogunjiofor and Nek Links, brought a turnaround to the Nigerian film industry. It was followed in 1993 by Circle of Doom, Evil Passion, and Living in Bondage 2. With that, the Nigerian film industry took off as a commercial success story that spread across the regions of Nigeria, the African continent and other continents. From that period, foreign films that used to dominate the drawers and shelves of Nigerians lost their place. This boom attracted young men and women into the industry as actors, producers, directors, marketers, film lenders, etc. The explosion in the movie industry led to Europe and North America recognising it, and an American journalist coining the name Nollywood for it. It was also ranked as the second largest film industry in terms of number of films produced.
In response to the ethnicity-tainted debate, Kayode Olagesin wrote: “I don’t know what the argument is about. Yorubas pioneered organised theatre and cinema in Nigeria but certainly the Igbos commercialised the industry as they exposed it to a wider audience, starting with VHS tapes and then VCDs. The Igbo marketers were the ones who used their distribution network to push the works across the country and beyond.
“Ebinpejo Lane and environs in Lagos Island come to mind (and I add: Upper Iweka Road in Onitsha and Pound Road in Aba). We had successful producers in the South-West that preceded what is today known as Nollywood but Igbos, beyond any doubt, made the industry the commercial success that it is today. Their ingenuity took movies into many homes after the cinema culture collapsed in Nigeria due to lack of infrastructure.
“It is those VCDs that took Nigerian movies beyond our shores as they followed Nigerians to wherever they were across and beyond the continent. Those who had families and friends abroad back then knew that one of the best things you could send them were VCDs of Nigerian movies. Whilst most of us at home were put off by the poor works being churned out, those in the Diaspora couldn’t get enough of this content that told stories they could relate to.”
After the VCDs became popular, cable TV stations began to show those movies in different countries, thereby taking them to more people around the world.
The debate over Nollywood is unnecessary. But it buttresses the saying that failure is an orphan while success has many parents. If Nollywood were a failure, many would have washed their hands and ethnic groups off it.
– Onwuka is a newspaper columnist and author.