Mike Ezuruonye

Last weekend in one of the genteel halls of the State House, Marina, Lagos, President Jonathan, serenaded by the PDP Governors’ Forum Chairman, Governor Godswill Akpabio, and the cream of Nollywood’s A-List stars celebrated Nollywood’s 20th anniversary with the announcement of a 3 billion grant to the industry and an exhortation to the practitioners to redouble their efforts in the promotion of the best of our pop culture. Another 50 million Naira was also pledged by Governor Akpabio to the industry.

As I read the piece, I was seized by a sweet sense of nostalgia, because I was right there in the thick of things   when what we have come to celebrate today as the defining instrument of our pop culture-Nollywood came into existence; when the thoughts of a flourishing Nigerian movie industry was all but a dream- a grandiose dream that even the most optimistic of us, thought it would take years to materialize and blossom.

I remember vividly that warm Saturday morning when my dear friend- the man who is appropriately called the “Czar” of the industry, Zeb Ejiro, came to my house in Apapa in 1992, Lagos and proclaimed with messianic zeal: “Ekerete, it’s about time we started a nascent Nigerian movie industry because the elements have aligned themselves and we must seize the moment.  I am going to lead efforts in that direction and I am here to solicit your support and those of your colleagues in the media to help plant and nurture this mustard seed. I am absolutely willing to spearhead this movement and I know I can always count on you.” I remember telling my friend: “I will do all I can to help you spread the word because I share your dream and hopes for a nascent Nigerian movie industry.”

Zeb Ejiro and I had been friends right from when he shot the pilot episode of ‘Ripples’ which became probably after the classic-‘Mirror in the Sun,’ the longest and most popular soap opera on the Nigerian television scene.  Zeb had dominated the soap firmament like a colossus and it was no surprise therefore, that the bulk of the first crop of stars that would later define and provide some élan to the nascent Nollywood were mostly stars that had cut their teeth from Zeb Ejiro’s ‘Ripples’-stars like my brother and good friend-Richard Mofe Damijo (RMD), Kanayo O. Kanayo (KOK) whom I had known since 1988- and whom last month, during breakfast at NANET Suites in Abuja,  we had reminisced on the evolution of Nollywood. KOK was also part of the cast of the seminal if not classic movie-‘Living in Bondage’, Fred Amata, Regina Askia, the late Jennifer Ossai etc.

The success of the first ever Nigerian  made for home movie -“Living in Bondage” had opened the possibilities of the huge appetite and market for home produced movies and it was this great momentum that my friend Zeb  Ejiro had promised to seize and appropriate which he did to stunning success in such a short time.  From the early days of Nollywood, Zeb worked hard to define and discover talents who today illuminate the Nigerian pop culture landscape.

With help from his younger brother, Chico, Nollywood became a national pastime that has today permeated the millions of households all over the world. It was fitting therefore, that former President Obasanjo recognized his pioneering efforts at building the blocks that gave birth to Nollywood when he gave him the National Honor of ‘Order of Order of Nigeria’ (OON) long before others would be equally honored by President Jonathan.

It is worthy to note here that I had also, in 1992, been  privy to the making of  “Living in Bondage” when the lead actress in the movie- the  then Ms. Nnena Nwabueze-who played ‘Merit ‘ in that movie,  and who is today happily married to Chief Okonta,  informed me of the making of a movie as she told me “that would change the face of entertainment industry in Nigeria “ of which she was “the lead actress”  and working alongside other  “ great actors and actresses and that I “ look out for it soon.”

My house then in Apapa  was  the hub  for entertainers- from the leading pop stars of the day-Alex O, Mike Okri,  Yinka Davis, Sunny Neji,  Chris Hanen, Cecily Omohemi (God Where are some of  these guys now?)  to beauty queens- Binta Sukai and her equally delectable sister-Amina etc. I had seen the incredible talents these guys packed and the only value I could add to their craft then was to use my considerable media platform to help them, and looking back today, I couldn’t be more proud that 20 years down the road, Nollywood and Nigerian music scene have taken over Africa and is gradually and surely making huge impact in the Western world.

Nollywoood has become a global phenomenon, an addiction that has taken over most of the Caribbean world, and is making strong in-roads into the American mainstream. About a month ago, the industry finally made its grand entry into the American mainstream media when the Akwa Ibom born entertainment promoter-Perry Umoh, called me from his base in Laurel, Maryland, and exclaimed that finally Nollywood movies are being shown in American mainstream cable channels including  the venerable Time Warner, Cox Cable and Xfinity . “After years of rigorous technical collaborations with the above media platforms, I am happy that Nollywood is finally going to enjoy the mainstream American visibility it deserves” Mr. Umoh had told me and went on to state that he was “soliciting your help in promoting this major breakthrough.”

Iroko TV-the Netflix of Nollywood and run by the visionary young man-Jason Njoku last year was able to raise 8 million dollars form the Manhattan based hedge fund group-Tiger Global, and today, millions of household are watching Nollywood movies for a small subscription fee of $5.00. That a firm such as Tiger Global with its fastidious approach to investment-could invest such a huge sum of money into the promotion of Nollywood speaks volumes about the future of the industry. In an e-mail an executive of IROKO TV- Jessica Hope had sent to me earlier this week, she had lauded the efforts of the company in selling Africa to the world “ we are all about Africa-African stories, by Africans , for Africans.”

Nollywood has helped changed a deeply internalized stereotypical definition of Nigeria and Africa in general. While a senior Account Manager at a  34 Street, Midtown  Manhattan based Fortune 500 company in 2009, I remember some of my colleagues-mostly whites who would come to the office and tell me “Mr. Udoh, you have turned us into pure addicts of Nollywood. I went to bed by 3 am this morning because I just simply couldn’t stop getting to the end of the movie I was watching.’” Others had asked some rather insulting but borne out of ignorance questions like “wow, Mr. Udoh! I saw some humongous mansions and exotic cars. Y’all live like that? Thought y’all live in mud houses-from what we see on television.”

Put simply, Nollywood has erased a lot of negative depiction that the Western mainstream media has for decades fed the gullible and mostly provincial minds of some Americans. I remember in 2010 when I got a call from Sam Amenyaw- the Ghanaian businessman whose company –Executive Image Movies is the leading distributor of Nollywood movies in North America and the Caribbean and one whom every producer deals with. Sam had told me that a representative from HARPO Productions- Oprah Winfrey’s production company had called, and informed him that I had provided his contact information, and that Oprah Winfrey was putting together a program that would be dedicated to stars in movie industries outside of Nollywood- Bollywood and Nollywood and that she wanted some movies to be sent to her office.  Sam had asked me what movies and  featured stars I should recommend he sent to Oprah Winfrey. He later sent a number of movies and the result of that collaboration was the 2010 episode where Oprah crowned Genevieve Nnaji “The Julia Roberts of Africa” and that segment was broadcast all over the world-and helped improve the profile of the industry in a significant manner.

All over the world, and even in academic circles, the growth of Nollywood has become an intriguing proposition. In 2011, I was invited to speak to a packed hall of academics at one of the leading universities in New York-The New School, whose President is the former Nebraska Senator-Bob Kerry. I remember feeling giddy as I was being introduced and surveying the packed auditorium and seeing some of the leading intellectuals braving the deep November freeze to listen to me make a presentation on Nollywood. Christ! I remember muttering to myself “this Nollywood is really making huge impact. I hope government back home recognizes this and help deepen the growth of the industry.”

For over five years now, I have been the publisher of The Diasporan Star www.thediasporanstaronline.com  – a newspaper that is editorially heavily weighted to pop culture-Nollywood to be precise or as our corporate slogan states “Where African pop culture meets politics” to a spectacular success. The strategic editorial decision of using Nollywood as editorial thrust has enabled the newspaper to become the voice of African pop culture and our evolving democratic culture in the United States, earning rave reviews from such storied mainstream newspapers as The New York Daily News- easily the largest circulating daily newspaper in the entire New York City.

As the industry turns 20 years, here is imploring the private sector to become more involved. With proper structure and professionalism in place, I have no doubt that Nollywood can become a major foreign income earner; apart from helping to change the way the world looks and defines us. I have always said it that the first image which cemented and deepened the everlasting love we had of the United States was not based on its hard or soft power, no it was based on the images- hugely sanitized that Hollywood had sold of America to the world, and we bought it hook, line and sinker, not knowing that we also have our own “Ajegunle” in America.  Nollywood has and should be helped to further ‘sanitize’ our image and I commend President Jonathan for the love he has shown for the industry. He should extend the love further  by appointing a pop culture Czar whose job it should be to use this great instrument of our pop culture and diplomacy to redefine Nigeria and African in general.

A young Nigerian’s heart-warming reaction to my column last week
Of the hundreds of reactions I got form my column last week, one in particular actually made a profound effect on me, and the message in it was very sobering, yet heartening. The young man who goes by the name-Robertson Osisi had in his reaction expressed what I believe is the prevailing feeling of people of his generation and their disappointment over the manner over commonwealth has been mismanaged. He had written thus “Interesting article, Uncle. My dad tells me the problems my generation are facing and working hard to fix were created by yours and his generation. He entered the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) to study pharmacy in 1977 and met four bed sheets for his use absolutely free of charge but left in 1982 with all destroyed. You better come back home and help fix it (this country) because there will be little space for gate-crashers after we may have fixed it (the country.) We are on our way.”

I am heartened by the fact that younger people are mobilizing and planning, strategizing and waiting for the moment to realign our governance mechanics in line with modern realities and practices. Mr. Osisi. I share your disappointment and the fierce urgency to fix our problems. Yes, your father’s generation and to some extent, my generation share in the blame, but together, if I may use your nice phrase “we are on our way.”

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