— John Boyega (@JohnBoyega) May 10, 2020
Nigeria is enjoying its longest spell of democratic governance since colonial independence, but the promise of better quality of lives for citizens remains elusive.
Halfway through the second term of Buhari-led presidency, the terrible tetrad of terrorism, militancy, banditry and secessionist agitation troubles the country’s security architecture with its attendant loss of lives and properties. Add the rising inflation rate to a staggering recession plaguing an oil-dependent economy and it is easier to understand why the unemployment rate is predicted to hit a new record high in 2021.
Nigerians, bereft of dividends of basic governance, are under stress. Little wonder, they bolster their resilience with determination and distraction, luxuriating in the emerging dance music known as Afrobeats and the country’s indie-powered film industry, Nollywood.
Since the arrival of GSM technology (the most notable dividend of Obasanjo’s presidency), the use of the internet via smart phones and other handheld devices as well as the consequent explosion of social media and microblogging sites with enhanced video technology have improved progressively.
With the growth of Nigerian subscribers on social media came the opportunity to curate content. This began with short clips uploaded of comical scenes of old Nollywood films.
Disregarding the grainy picture quality of these humorous skits, social media users luxuriated in the memorable characters of Aki and Paw Paw (the infamous small-statured twins of the Upper Iweka faction of Nollywood) and melodramatic theatrics of Yoruba Nollywood’s Odunlade Adekola. These videos – treasure troves of innumerable quantity but admirable quality – went viral, providing slang, gifs and memes for banter as well as national discourse on social media.
What followed were short videos shared on social media platforms like Instagram, Tik-Tok, Whatsapp and Twitter. One of the earliest viral videos was an unscripted prank by a teenager residing abroad who advised his Nigerian father that he had impregnated his underage girlfriend. It erupted in a comical meltdown of a concerned father transcending language conventions, grappling with possible untoward consequences of his son’s irresponsible act. Soundbites from this video continue to be fodder for future comical recordings.
What is uncanny is figuring out what becomes viral. The exact mechanism of how a little known act could become popular is almost left entirely to chance. This is exemplified in the rise of comic duo – Black Camaru and Oba – whose impression of the pentecostal christian evangelism, transformed them into instant social media stars in a matter of days, with thousands of followers and corporate endorsements to boot.
It is this miraculous possibility that also explains the rise of Agba ( short for ‘Agbalagba’ which is Yoruba for adult man) the fictional sketch of a randy well-travelled, middle-class smooth-talker Yoruba man, developed by a Nigerian graduate, Tobi Olubiyi, late one night.
At the time, Olubiyi had just completed the one year mandatory service programme for Nigerian graduates and returned to his family in Ibadan, Southwest Nigeria but had no clear plans for the future.
“I was still thinking about it the other day that when I came back from NYSC, I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life… I was applying for jobs and [I kept being told] just go and start working at INEC,” Tobi told The Africa Report. He was willing to settle for a clerical job with the country’s electoral body for a paltry salary of less than $150 per month.
On one night in July 2019, while going through his Twitter timeline, he came across a post to which he responded to. By morning, his monochrome skit – which showed him serenading a lady with hazel eyes – had gone viral.
He would follow this video with others, typically recorded with his smart phone hoisted on top of his car dashboard, popular juju songs playing in the background. He would then make romantic propositions to popular actresses and female musicians, professing undying love for them with the promise of good time in exotic tourist locations around the world, ending with his signature sign-off, “Konibaje baby!”
“You know it could have been one thing for me to have made that very first video and just stop there…I continued. That’s where social media comes into play. The fact that I kept making more videos, I just kept seeing the reception.”
Olubiyi’s teeming fanbase was the better for it. His local celebrity grew to international status when John Boyega, English actor of Yoruba descent and Star Wars movie star, contacted him via Twitter to translate his affecting ode to barbers recorded during the Covid-19 pandemic into Yoruba. Upon release of that video, Olubiyi gained 12,000 Twitter followers in one day.
This opened doors of corporate branding to him. Prior to this, he had only enjoyed the patronage of local small businesses, inserting their merchandise, usually food and skincare products, into his skits for a modest fee. Soon bigger brands began to reach out to him and then he got a life-changing call from the branding team of the Nigerian arm of the Irish brew, Guinness.
These days, Olubiyi is a brand ambassador of Guinness Extra Smooth beer and his image adorns numerous billboards around Nigeria. He has starred in several feature films that have been modest box-office hits and scheduled to appear in at least three films before the year runs out.
By the sheer happenstance of a Twitter prompt and the industry of posting content online, he bypassed the seeming endless auditions to Nollywood stardom. He no longer needs to aspire to a small town clerical job. Social media, a smart phone and internet access has afforded him a financially viable option reliant on his unfettered creative freedom and the persistent hunger for content by Nigerian social media subscribers.
In a recent interview, actor Lateef Oladimeji – the lead character of the recently released Ayinla3: a fictional biopic on the Apala legend Ayinla Omowura – described his apprentice years which involved attending film locations to undertake odd jobs, with the severe hope of landing minor roles. His informal apprenticeship also involved servitude to an established actor to learn the secrets of his trade and even if this method sounds anachronistic for its time, it is a well-worn path to thespian prominence and superstardom.
Actor and ENDSARS activist, Debo Adebayo, best known for his philandering character similar to Tobi Olubiyi’s Agbalagba, also stars in Tunde Kelani’s Ayinla and his route to Nollywood is entirely different to Oladimeji’s trajectory. His ascension into Nollywood has been scaling the conventional strictures of informal apprenticeship and servitude.
Ope Keshinro, radio journalist at HotFM Lagos, also moonlights as a comedian at the weekends. She is a rising female star in the male-dominated world of Instagram comedy, offering her impressions of popular sermons, relying on lip synching and facial expressions to bring laughter to Nigerians.
“I would love to get into acting full time… I would really love to be on the big screens now and not just on social media,” the Theatre major graduate from the University of Lagos informed The Africa Report.
Medic and film critic, Wilfred Okchie says: “Nollywood as we know it was birthed from a DIY spirit so it makes sense that on a creative level, it would grow to accommodate IG comedians who are really creative people seeking outlets for expression.”
The work of these thespians is already garnering attention from academia. In a blog, US-based professor James Yeku – author of the forthcoming monograph, Cultural Netizenship – characterised their methods.
“With superb performances by comedians who deploy humor as the means of interpreting local experiences for social media’s transnational audiences, the structure of the Instagram skit as a short text is based on few characters and a condensed plot that evolves over a short time span, usually between one to three minutes. A recurrent element of most texts of Instagram comedy is the sonic appropriation of soundbites from previously viral videos…” he says.
There is also the abiding aesthetic of jumping on slangs with communal aggregating effect. Nigerian-born footballer and Leicester City striker Kelechi Ihenacho recently deployed the slang phrase ‘cut soap for me’ in a locker room skit with his fellow Nigerian footballer, Ndidi Wilfred. It pokes fun at metaphysical aspects of internet fraud. Easily, comedy becomes an effective tool of socio-cultural enquiry into popular myths and questionable practices.
Bigger Nollywood practitioners have also noticed and are beginning to latch on to the possibilities of social media. Actor Femi Adebayo has a Youtube channel where he churns out short videos of his transgender character, Sisi. While his methods align with dominant Nollywood conventions, he understands the importance of leveraging on appropriate technology to for his work.
A popular aphorism in the youth-dominated digital spaces in Nigeria is that content is the new oil and while this sector is fledgling and tentative, these young creatives are not setting down their oars any time soon.
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