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Of MOPICON and Moping Cons: Nigerian Film, Theatre and the Ignorance of Fundamentals

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I came to know about MOPICON and its bill a couple days ago when I stumbled across this article on True Nollywood Story. I read the bill itself and my first reaction was a chuckle. Having grown bored, many years back, with the inanity of some of Nigeria’s so-called associations and their vehement dedication to purposelessness, my automated response was to chuckle and move on.

However, as controversy surrounding the bill continued to build on social media, I found myself, like many others, offended by the brazenness of some individuals to just poof and seek to become law over private enterprise – especially one the government hasn’t made any vital contribution to since Lord Lugard used Top Bond to glue us together.

I wasn’t going to blog about the MOPICON fiasco until I came across this Facebook post by verteran Nollywood producer and director Greg Odutayo in which he implies that young Nigerian filmmakers are “afraid of regulation”. Afraid! That word did my head in.

Okay then! Let’s examine this fear. Let’s actually assess this issue at its core. I will offer a retort to Mr Odutayo’s implied slight but first let’s deal with the fundamentals of this issue. For, indeed, that is what this is all about – fundamentals and the surprising ignorance about them.

For long I had intended to write an article about creative entrepreneurship in Nigerian theatre and luckily for me that topic aligns perfectly with the current controversy rippling through Nollywood; so luckily for you, you get two for the price of one.

So, Capua, shall we begin? First of all …

What the Hell is a MOPICON?

The Motion Picture Council of Nigeria, now more popularly known by its petrol-station-mimicking acronym MOPICON, is an association which seeks to position itself as a regulatory body, BACKED BY LAW, that will preside over Nigeria’s film industry – oh and television too – with the badass virtuosity of Judge Dredd. A bill which was drafted by the association about ten years ago has been puked forth for “review” and redrafting.

Essentially MOPICON claims its mission is to set standards which will drive practitioners in Nigeria’s film industry towards the achievement of excellence. What is quite different from global practice is that MOPICON seeks to do this by leeching on to the Ministry of Information/Culture and make itself the all-powerful law.

However this post isn’t about the problems with the MOPICON bill, no. For that you can read the in depth analyses done by Feyi Fawehinmi and Rotimi Fawole. What I am focused on here is a more foundational problem, one that stretches beyond MOPICON into the entire set up and operation of Nigerian film and theatre.

Potential is Overrated

As a kid I often heard about Nigeria’s film and theatre as industries having the potential to be great. Growing up I heard, over and over, how Nigeria’s film and theatre industries have potential to be great.  I went to University, ate a lot of kosh and dosh, graduated, spent one year in the shackles that are NYSC, started working in Nigerian film and theatre and here I am still hearing about Nigeria’s film and theatre industries having the potential to be great.

At some point common sense demands we stop and ask ourselves: of what use is the potential to be great? Usain Bolt isn’t great because he has the potential to run a hundred metres in 9.58 seconds; he is great because he runs a hundred metres in 9.58 seconds.

Potential (energy) is pointless if it never converts to actual (energy). The question before us is obvious: what is hindering Nigerian film and theatre from converting the potential to be great industries into actual greatness? The answer, which also posits problems of utmost pertinence, is equally obvious: there are no film and theatre INDUSTRIES in Nigeria.

Film and theatre in Nigeria aren’t actually industries. We just refer to them as industries because … well, how the hell else are we going to refer to them.

Industry, Fundamentals and Non-existence

Here’s the thing, just because a group of people produce and sell a product does not mean an industry exists. That may seem tricky and contradictory but think about it. Maybe the non-existence of industry is harder to grasp in the creative industries since they aren’t purely manufacture-based, but to practitioners in film and theatre – to professionals! – it should be obvious.

But why? Why despite well over a thousand films produced annually and various theatrical performances put up yearly and numerous people and companies engaged in the commercial enterprise of show business should anyone say that Nigeria has no film and theatre industries? This is where fundamentals come in.

All industries are built on four fundamental pillars:

  1. Infrastructure
  2. Equipment
  3. Labour
  4. Industrial framework

Fundamental pillars. Should one of these be absent or ruined industry collapses. What use is infrastructure without equipment or labour? What is the point of equipment without infrastructure to contain or labour capable of utilising them? What’s the point of labour when infrastructure and equipment are not available? And if infrastructure, equipment and labour exist, but they are not structured by a cohesive industrial framework, can the resulting ramshackle of businesses REALLY be called an INDUSTRY?

Fundamentals. When we come to film and theatre, we must play substitution to understand what these four fundamentals are in the performing arts industries:

INDUSTRIAL FUNDAMENTAL FILM THEATRE
Infrastructure Production studios, sound recording studios etc. Theatre houses, artist hostels etc.
Equipment Cameras, lights, cranes etc. Lights, set design tools, make up tools etc.
Labour Actors, directors, producers, camera operators etc. Playwrights, directors, actors, choreographers etc.
Industrial framework Operational model (i.e structure) for distribution and sales based on platform created by above 3. Operational model (i.e structure) for distribution and sales based on platform created by above 3.

Studios and theatre houses, warehouses and hostels are the “factories” of film and theatre. These are the infrastructures which bring labour and equipment together; without these, equipment and labour cannot operate even near optimum hence industrial framework can never manifest because there is no platform upon which to form a structure. (See Alaba for further reference.)

Let He Who is Without Huzzle Cast the First Stone

In the absence of industry what we have are businesses subsisting on the sheer resilience and/or ingenuity of entrepreneurship, and/or on the exploitation of disorder. In other words, without these fundamentals in Nigerian film and theatre, what we have are HUSTLES not industries. (See Alaba for further reference.)

So ask yourself: how many state of the art production studios are there in Nigeria? How many theatre houses are there (NOT event centres and multipurpose halls!)? How many Dolby-Digital-standard sound studios are there? How many artist hostels/residencies are there, so that producers don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands to millions of Naira on hotel bills?

Ask yourself: how can theatre practitioners successfully make theatre with no theatres? How can filmmakers successfully make films with no film studios? How can doctors be doctors with no hospitals? How can you have a football league with no stadiums? How bankers bank with no banks? How can surgeons perform surgery with no operating rooms?

And even after Nigerian film and theatre practitioners surmount enormous challenges and somehow squeeze milk out of stone (See Alaba for further reference) how can this chaos be ORGANISED into industry without first establishing the platforms necessary for an intricate nationwide system to function?

And then MOPICON

It is in this environment that MOPICON (this really is a great name for a petrol station) rears its head and decides that the best way to rein disorder is by lording itself over the chaos. Never mind trying to understand how to actually solve the fundamental problems as unique to Nigeria’s socio-economic conditions, just make us the kings and queens of calamity and we will set firm rules – and, ehem!, membership fees – that will magically make our industries world class. Sorry? What do you mean that is pointless without infrastructure and framework? Gerrarahia men!

Regulate – Warren G ft. MOPICON

Facetiousness aside, regulation is ridiculous. You can’t focus on interior decoration when there are no walls. This is not to say that everything must come to a halt and the fundamentals required by Nollywood must first be put in lace before anything else can happen, no.

Priorities, however, must be set. We need to identify the essentials and prioritise them. This can be done WHILE Nollywood continues to do its Nollywood thing. We can pick the furniture, plan and conceptualize how to design the house, and work on the floors while the walls and roof (The roof! Can’t have a roof if there are no walls!) are being built. But the walls must be prioritised as primary because without them there is no “room”.

What the pro-MOPICON crowd don’t seem to get is that film practitioners aren’t protesting against the bill. There are two key problems with the MOPICON situation.

First is the fact that an association has the chutzpah to attempt to make itself LAW over PRIVATE ENTERPRISE. That pro-MOPICON people don’t understand why this is troubling, or do and don’t care, in my opinion, tells us all we need to know about them. I’m yet to find a pro-MOPICON person who can put forward a cogent argument as to why the association has to become the law. Even if MOPICON’s intentions were for the benefit of all, this does not justify their intent to become law.

The second problem is the attempt by the pro-MOPICON crowd to synonymise “regulation” with “setting standards”. Apart from being an insult to the basic education of the average Nigerian filmmaker, it is worrying that such a basic difference has to be explained to practitioners, in some cases, long serving practitioners.

Regulation of private enterprise infers that a system has been under exploitation and/or abuse hence government needs to take executive action so as to return it to decorous and optimal function. Hence, for one to say he/she/it/they want to regulate the Nigerian film industry is to infer that disorder has overtaken the industry.

However, this ignores a fundamental fact: there isn’t disorder because practitioners don’t want a system; there is disorder because there is no platform/structure/framework for a system to operate through. Regulation, then, which is a control mechanism has nothing to offer an industry where the necessities for practitioners to impose control upon themselves DO NOT EXIST. You no fit tell khaki make e turn leather, you no fit tell hustle make e move like industry. (See any failed attempts at organising touts for further reference.)

We should be thinking of how to achieve nationwide access to films so that filmmakers and audiences have a platform upon which to interact. Not regulation. We should be thinking of how to establish a chain of cinemas nationwide or provide top quality broadband which would enable mass streaming of content. Not regulation. Without either or both of these a film industry can’t operate like a film industry. Where’s the sense in restraining an already handicapped situation?

Theatrical Carts Before Tragicomic Horses

The same applies to theatre. Nigerian theatre needs a feasible plan which builds from the ground up; an operational model which is founded on the fundamentals required for the industry to function as unique to Nigeria’s social and economic environment.

All the workshops and entrepreneurship training and associations upon associations and paper presentations upon paper presentations will not make this appear from thin air. Neither will one-off shows – theatre performances which run for a couple days then close – lead to the manifestation of industry. The, frankly very strange, belief that one or a string of shows can be so good they will kickstart the theatre industry is a myth I have discussed in the past.

One-offs aren’t bad, I’m certainly not implying they should be stopped – heck, I’m currently working on a one-off theatre show myself. However to expect them to lead to industry is ludicrous.

It’s like constructing a storey building starting from the first floor and believing that the sticks in place as makeshift pillars will hold the floor up, therefore a foundation is unnecessary. And sure, the sticks do hold the first floor up, for some time, but eventually the building collapses. Then once again we raise the stick-pillars and start building from the first floor again. And once again the first floor is held up just long enough for us to throw a pretty cool party before it inevitably comes crashing down again. Some people escape, some get caught in the rubble. Then once again we raise the stick-pillars and … and so the cycle continues.

At some point one just has to ask oneself, why don’t we just build the damn foundation and start from there?

The Curious Case of Nigerian Music and Nigerian Stand-up Comedy

A common excuse as to why we shouldn’t bother with fundamentals is that there is no chance of the creative industries working successfully in Nigeria. No research or study is proffered as proof when this is stated, it’s simply stated and validated by Nigerianisations like “you know say Nigerians no get time for that kain thing”. This is very often averred by people who don’t work in film and theatre or people who – pardon my crassness but the truth is oft a hurtful bizatch! – have no business working in film and theatre.

We don’t need to state how insanely difficult it is to do business in the “giant of Africa”, not to mention show business! But the point isn’t to achieve flawless operation of film or theatre, rather it’s to figure out how to make them work within Nigeria’s unique circumstances.

About thirteen years ago the music industry in Nigeria was a wasteland inhabited only by vagabonds. Choosing a career in music was to crown oneself an outcast. Today? Well, I don’t need to tell you, despite whatever reservations you may have about creativity of content, how the music industry is and has been doing for more than a decade.

Here’s the question: what did they get right that film and theatre haven’t? Contrast that with Nigerian stand up comedy. An art form which rose, greatly due to the resilient entrepreneurship and creative genius of the Night of a Thousand Laughs team, alongside music. Both saw the rise of the telecommunications giants and expansion of corporate Nigeria at the turn of the 21st century. Here’s the question: why is the one doing better as an industry while the other is on a downslide? What did the one get right for itself that the other didn’t?

Disclaimer: I’m not saying the music industry is perfectville, of course it has its problems, but it certainly has left hustle territory and is operating in the land of industry.

Side note: With a potential to be a thriving industry, for the same reasons as music in the early 2000s, it’s quite sad that no one has figured out how to unleash the Kraken that is Nigeria’s entertainment television industry. We saw a demonstration of the power of this beast with the phenomenon that was When You Are Mine aka Paloma. By 8pm every Thursday, for the best part of a year, AIT owned Nigeria. It’s always impossible until someone else does it then it becomes standard and we forget it was once impossible. (See Telemundo for further reference.)

Moping Cons

“Regulating” Nigerian film and theatre “industries” is essentially a scam, a racket. Even if the initiators mean well, so long as their priorities are focused on regulating phantom industries, they will ultimately operate like a racket, wasting a lot of time and resources in the process.

They will receive funding which cannot be utilised to any concrete developmental ends because the platform for development does not exist. To continue the storey building metaphor, they will receive funding to build third, fourth and tenth floors but since the foundation doesn’t exist everything eventually comes crashing down.

And so the funding will only end up being partially used for the conveniently broad purposes of “regulation”, “development” and “setting of standards” – a seminar here, a workshop there, a training program here and there – which meet the vague mandates of the organisation while allowing them “save” most of their funding. And, well, you know, if we’ve met our mandates yet money is still lying around … well, you know …

It used to boggle me how organisations could do little to nothing and have long term plans to keep doing little to nothing, comfortably so, from big offices in nice and pricey parts of town. It used to boggle me. See, that’s the thing, our poverty – of the pocket and mind – has been efficiently financed by a buoyant oil-driven economy.

Noise

Veteran producer and director Greg Odutayo asked: why are the young [Nigerian] filmmakers afraid of regulation? Then he went on to describe said young generation as “social media noise”. Noise.

The implications of such questions and statements suggest why there is such a chasm between young Nigerian practitioners in film and theatre and the older generation, one that only further complicates already contorted state of affairs.

The non-existence of film and theatre as industries really is basic economics of show business, so it is troubling – I find myself reiterating – that this has to be stated in near-rudimentary terms to some who have been working in the industries for many years. It is scary.  These are the people still primarily in the positions of influence and if they don’t get the basic arithmetic at play here then … well …

In his Facebook post Mr. Odutayo speaks of “a conducive environment for creativity” and I find myself wondering how an environment which doesn’t even exist in the first place can be made conducive. Theatre departments across the country, for example, churn out thousands of graduates every year, how can we make the environment conducive for them when there is no directly related industry for them to progress into? This being just one layer of one example.

And no – hell no! – young Nigerian filmmakers are not afraid. To label a generation which has clawed and scratched to create some form of barely barest minimum cohesion in an environment where most of the predecessors left no legacy that can be built upon as “afraid” and “noise” is a disappointing choice of words.

We are not afraid, good sir, we are fed up! We are fed up with the Federal Gerontocratic Republic of Patriarchial Nigeria. We are not noise, good sir, we are voice! We are voice bellowing, in the immortal words of Paddy Chayefsky’s Howard Beale, that we are mad as hell and we are not going to take it anymore.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Africa Ukoh is a creative director, playwright, screenwriter and arts administrator. His works have been the recipients of the BBC African Performance prize and the Stratford East/30 Nigeria House award, as well as being published and performed on various platforms.

He is currently working on a theatrical performance of his award winning play 54 Silhouettes and if you’d love to work with him, he’d love to work with you.

africaukoh@gmail.com

@Pensage

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Power, Art and Estrangement: The Mystique of Television and the Soul of Nigeria’s 80s Generation

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Lurking Fury

Back when I was in university our third year project for playwriting class was to write a play on the theme “the days of old”. We were to reflect Nigeria’s decline from its golden age into a 21st century cesspit. This was what the lecturer expected, it was not what he got.

The climax of my play had two young adults abandon their backward parents and move on to a new today, condemning the parents to lonely deaths. I reveled in the expectation of offending my lecturer who, under those circumstances, symbolized the older generation. I thought the play politically incorrect to the point of disturbance, that was until I read what my classmates had written.

We were about twenty taking the course and excited to see what sentiments my classmates expressed I skimmed through most of the other plays. Discovery gripped me. Almost every single person reflected the exact sentiments as I did, with even more shocking and offensive conclusions.

One had a son shoot his father point-blank in the head and suffer no repercussions. A daughter reversed a trend, this time she was the one who disowned her parents, forever severing them from their grandchildren. A son achieved financial success and abandoned his parents to a life of squalor, just as they had done to him in childhood.

We weren’t aggrieved sons and daughters spitting fictional dissent at our parents. We were a young, frustrated generation screaming under the scourge of oppressive gerontocracy.

A History of Estrangement

This experience echoed tensions prevalent in the larger society, tensions which I first observed in senior secondary school days, tensions which now define the gulf of estrangement between two generations – children of the 80s and the generation of their parents.

Of course at the interpersonal/familial level the relationship between these two generations varied, from the very good to the horrible, to the myriads between. However on the public scale the relationship between them was a definite unquestionable mess. Signs of dissonance first appeared – or became obvious to one’s perception – in our teenage years, the senior secondary years. To the older generation we suddenly became vagabonds and dissidents destined for failure and certain to be the ones under whose reign Nigeria will crumble like six-day-old agege bread left too long under the scorching sun.

The dividing line between discipline and abuse cracked, and from schools to homes to the streets, the younger generation was constantly under attack. Teachers ensured to include time in their lesson programs to remind us how useless we were and how our level of education was incomparable to theirs. Strangers and neighbours never missed an opportunity to ridicule us, ever equipped with anecdotes illustrating how much better they were at our age. Dinner in front of the TV was seasoned with chatter of how pathetic social circumstances surrounding us were, and how they were certain to get worse because we were certain to get worse. Though we were kids, we had already failed at being adults.

These psychological abuses scarred our growth into young adulthood, and with those wounds estrangement between the two generations widened. As we moved from childhood to teenhood, developing new social norms, the older generation realized we were nothing like they expected us to be. We had emerged from the nest with corrupted wings. Many attributes of olden youth which were the pride of then Nigerian society had been relinquished in favour of Western ways. We walked different (“See how they are bouncing.”), talked different (“Yo man, what’s up?”), and dressed different (FUBU jerseys over baggy jeans were the shit!). Having wasted so much time in front of the television, we had been irredeemably ruined.

What the older generation did not realize was that it was in front of those televisions the battle for the younger generation’s soul was fought – a battle which the older generation lost.

Power Plays

Growing up, TV wasn’t just a machine. It was a friend, teacher, seducer. A place where unhinged imaginations exploded into existence. It played important social roles – families structured activities around it, parents used it as a tool in child-raising. It was a status symbol and making the revered transition from black-and-white to colour TV was a statement of power (Nigga, we made it!).

This power is most evident in how televisions dominate our living space. Every physical object’s power is determined by its spatial value i.e its level of influence over us based on the physical-cum-psychological space it occupies in our lives. Spatial value is determined by factors such as size, function, social perception and durability. A television is considerably sizable and takes a central position in our living rooms, commanding attention. Even if it’s small and placed in a corner, the room’s arrangement is focused towards the television – still a position of power. It serves vital entertainment, informative and communicative functions. It is perceived as both a household standard and an item of luxury. Though considerably durable it can easily be damaged, thus it must be treated with love and care. All these conspire to give the television amazing power over us.

So when the battle for the soul of Nigeria’s 80s generation began the older generation did not realize its main rival was one it had willingly brought into its homes – the television.

(Note: while I use the broad term “television industry” focus is on the entertainment division of the television industry. Also, given that generational divisions have converging points, “the 80s generation” can be stretched to include children of the early 90s.)

Battle Grounds

If a society is restricted from interactions with other societies, cultural preservation is considerably easy. Since external influences upon young generations are limited there is little resistance against traditions. However the more exposed a society is to the wider world, the more it begins to compare ways of life. The more it compares, the more it ask questions about its way of life. In time, resistance against some aspects of one’s traditions must arise.

Therefore it was only inevitable that effects of globalization combined with the socio-psychological impacts of colonization would see Nigeria’s 80s babies comparing its society to another which it was most exposed to – the West. And what medium made this exposure possible? The television.

Our very homes became battle grounds. Television was the nuclear bomb of cultural transference and the older generation did not arm itself well enough to face this Fukushima. Rather, a disastrous decision was made: the older generation assumed it did not have to fight for the soul of the younger generation. This seemingly stemmed from the expectation that the younger generation was obligated to revere and adhere to Nigerian culture. In the globalized world this presumption is wrong.

Cultural preservation is not an obligation. It does not occur automatically. Culture must be consciously and actively preserved. The generation in seats of social and political power must consciously and actively pass on a society’s culture to the younger generations. This cyclical act is one of the many key functions of the creative industries. Unfortunately Nigeria is yet to evolve a social and political elite who understand, before even valuing, the pertinence of the creative industries.

In a globalized world, transference of culture becomes not only inter-generational but international. Depending on your stance, or on intricacies at play, this transference of culture from one nation to another may be an intrusion.

There are many reasons why a nation would want its culture to gain relevance in other countries, chief among them are political and economic benefits. The West understood that the young generation was the prime candidate to be seduced, so while Nigeria waxed hypocritical about “catching them young”, the West actually caught them young.

Battle Strategies

Make no mistake, what was sought was authority over our beliefs and dreams, our likes and dislikes, our loyalty, our future buying power, our soul. Both parties at war shared this one desire, what differed were the strategies of choice. Our older generation’s strategy was defined by power, apathy and drudgery; the West’s strategy was defined by art, artifice and creativity. While the West involved itself in our childhood/teenhood, our older generation pushed itself away from it.

In television these differing strategies manifested in the form of content created. You see, if television was a nuclear bomb, TV shows were the enriched uranium that made it go KABLAM! (Nickelodeon pun intended.) The West came to the party with an abundance of youth-attractive content, most of which were excellent. Our older generation came with very little youth-attractive content, most of which were mediocre.

From our infancy to puberty there just was not enough Nigerian television content for young people to find appealing. The psychological abuse from society around us further worsened an already delicate situation. So, Western content became our custodian, our haven. Television, our third parent, was our escape from a society constantly berating us. Television didn’t oppress us (at least not directly), it embraced us.

Childhood

As a child Sesame Street made learning absolute fun. It hypnotized me with that infectious theme song – “On our way to Sesame streeeeet!”. The Muppet Show, Looney Toons, Tom and Jerry were outlets for my insanity. The Great Space Coaster was a thrill ride (Gary Gnu!). Towser and King Rollo tutored me in rascality. I didn’t know it then but Fraggle Rock aptly captured the estrangement, survival and rebellion of my generation. Super Ted was just a boss! I wish I owned Sport Billy’s bag of everything.

Knight Rider defined what it meant to be cool. Dr Neinstein from Terrahawks taught me it was cool to be smart. Alf, V for Visitors and Small Wonder made me marvel over the possibilities of extra-human existence. Telematch (the greatest game show ever!) made me a lover of contraptions. I gorged myself on the mischief of Rentaghost, the space adventures of Galaxy Rangers and Silver Hawks, the heroics of Father Unwin and shrinkable Mathew from The Secret Service. I laughed endlessly at the clueless bravery of Dynomutt, Dog Wonder. Freakazoid was my hero, my junior secondary school moniker. Don’t even get me started on Pinky and the Brain – zort! And has there ever been a duck cooler than Ovid?

Some shows left remarkable imprints on my life. The Littlest Hobo mirrored my desire to help people yet be left alone to my whims – to this day the theme song remains the anthem to my loner life. Good Times and Mixed Blessings brought racial issues to my awareness with the warm severity of humour (Good Times especially taught me that a social group must question itself as much as it does others if it seeks genuine growth). Magnus Pyke in Don’t Ask Me answered questions I hadn’t even thought about asking. Big Blue Marble taught me this world and its people are beautiful. Keeping up Appearances remains a vital guardian against self-induced hypocrisy. In The Wonder Years I confronted, sometimes fearfully, a silent and indescribable sadness that seemed to me a natural part of childhood and growing up; from it I learned about family and friendship, and was warned about the trap of tortured love – a warning I still haven’t heeded.

Others taught me things about writing long before I knew I wanted to be a writer, planting invaluable lessons in my subconscious. I didn’t know it at the time but We’ll Tell You A Story played a major part in me becoming a storyteller – I sat before Christopher Lillicrap with bedazzled eyes, listened to him, with that big book in his hand and that guitar slung across body, and just wanted to weave fiction that took people to the places he took my imagination.

Voltron (the most awesome cartoon ever – Power Rangers can kiss my ass) taught me how a powerful idea can become a template, defining standards for an entire genre. In G-Force I learned how to give such a template unique twists. In MacGyver and Captain Planet I learned how formula imposes itself on art, and come to strangulate it. From Thundersub I learned serious content, handled aptly, can engage minds of young people. From Tales of the Unexpected I learned the value of a plot twist and the impact of suspense – and it probably has something to do with my love for the macabre. Samurai X (not a show from the West but we got the English dub version, so on a technicality …) burst into our lives with never before seen pizazz, instantly winning the affection of an entire generation of teenagers. For me this would later expand into an adoration of anime/manga and the storytelling styles of the orient.

Yet as I watched these shows a dissatisfaction in me kept on asking “Where is the Nigerian content? Where are we? Why are we as a people not on this magical platform?” Sure there were great shows: Tales by Moonlight, Third Eye, Village Headmaster, Cockcrow at Dawn, Icheokwu (one of the best shows in the history of Nigerian television), but they were so few and scarcely lasted on our screens. How could television – Western television – not win?

Victory, Defeat, Constant Wars

Victory was not total, television alone, regardless of its might, cannot wipeout an indigenous culture. Today, the 80s generation stands in a peculiar position. Unavoidable environmental influences plus the realizations that come with adulthood have thrust us into a re-evaluation of our past as we seek to build a future upon it – perhaps also against it.

One man may be able to refuse the blood birthed into his veins and become the adopted child to another land, but a generation cannot. Neither can we deny that influences which shaped our childhood, though external to our culture, are inseparable from who we are today. A part of the older generation has accepted this, another has not, and perhaps never will.

Adaptation presents itself as our wisest option, especially in the face of wider scale globalization spearheaded by the immensity of the internet. A people-defining ideology is the starting point of adaptation and all present and future journeys. A people-defining ideology would be a nucleus, balancing the plethora of external influences constantly flowing into our social consciousness with indigenous needs. This ideology does not exist. As such we can only manage haphazard attempts at adaptation, executed blindly, accidentally, randomly, instead of through conscious control.

This ideology does not exist simply because we have been unable to answer the question: What is the Nigerian experience? We have failed to answer this question because we are still unable to balance ethnic and tribal loyalties with a national vision and loyalty. Without answering this question the creative industries will struggle, if not fail entirely to attain certain national and international heights, while other sectors like the tourism may never come to concrete and/or reasonable existence.

One need only look at today’s Nigerian television content to see the manifestations of this. While the volume of content has seen appreciable growth, indigenous content specifically created for children is still largely lacking. The little which does exist is so distorted by Western influence that it appears as a half-assed imitation of the real thing. And who wants to watch Avengers-Lite when they can watch THE Avengers?

This forces Nigerian children and teens seeking to engage with content that captures the Nigerian experience to turn to entertainment designed for the adult mentality. Yet again, given that a key percentage of the creators of such content are children born in the 80s, hence adults who grew up on Western entertainment, the Western imitation factor comes into play and ruins the indigenous potential, if there was any in the first place.

In the absence of a compass providing aesthetic, stylistic and technique/technical guides to indigenous entertainment of the past, a generation which grew up on Western entertainment, in the process of trying to create content for itself, turns to that which is in the archive of its (sub)conscious. Perhaps a neo-classical approach would help – a return to the classical, and supposedly untainted, African expressions from pre-colonial times. The (obvious) challenges in that approach are a discussion for another day and another blog post.

Adaptation, I reiterate, is our wisest option. We must filter influence from imitation. Personally I consider it pointless to reject Western influence because of a colonial past. Perhaps, however, having only a second or third-hand understanding of colonization makes this easier. But then, regardless of how it comes, isn’t external influence imminent and paramount to the introspection that leads a society to grow in consciousness?

The problem with adaptation is that for it to be successful it requires a fixed point to anchor the intricacies of balancing multitudinous influences – indigenous and external. This fixed point, like the beam used by a tight rope walker, is the people-defining ideology. The idea of what we are and what we aspire to be which we use to balance the blowing winds of influences from within and without. But in the absence of this people-defining ideology we are looped in a cyclical trap. Can you see it?

Zola’s Story: A Master Lesson for the 21st Century Screenwriter

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Money, sex, kidnap, murder, Zola’s story – a neo-noir black comedy told with savvy grit – has it all and then some! You’ve probably read or heard of the story, the tale of a wild (or hell maybe regular) weekend in Florida as told by Aziah King @_zolarmoon.

Zola’s story isn’t just a great read, it’s actually a great study on how to tell a compelling story especially holding the contemporary audience-storyteller climate in consideration. I tried and successfully failed at resisting the urge to go all nerd-writer and do a structural analysis of Zola’s story, henceforth titled Florida Nights, and that’s basically what this post is.

So here I breakdown the nuts and bolts that make up Florida Nights and how they work to make the story compelling. Being such a visually vivid tale, and being a scriptwriter, I naturally assess it from the angle of a screenplay.

My focus isn’t whether the story is true or false but for the purposes of examination I treat it as a work fiction. This post is merely a structural analysis of the tale and is not in any way concerned with or a reflection of the broader (controversial?) issues surrounding the story and their implications.

If you haven’t read Zola’s story click any of these two links and read it before going any further:

Zola’s story on the Complex website.

Zola’s story on Huffington Post.

If you have read it, then let the analytic games begin! (sfx: dramatic theme music.)

THE PLOT

Florida Nights is told in such a fluid manner that I feel bad about reducing it to its key plot components, but well, necessary evils and all that. The story can be broken down to a three-act structure of sorts:

Act I

Exposition – working at a Hooters restaurant in Detroit, Zola meets Jessica, a fellow stripper. The two exchange contacts, promising to hook up on a stripping job. Jessica soon invites Zola on a trip to Florida. Cautious but enticed by the money-making prospects, Zola links up with Jessica, Jarrett (Jessica’s boyfriend) and Z (Jessica’s pimp).

Inciting incident – after failing to make any money on their first night out, Z suggests the girls go trapping (stripper slang for “sex work”) and Jessica agrees.

Act II

Rising action – Zola helps Jessica attract a high number of sex customers. Jarrett discovers Jessica went trapping and blows his top. Z humiliates Jarrett and orders him to drive Jessica to meet other customers. Jessica goes to a hotel to meet a customer and gets kidnapped.

Climax – Z goes to the hotel where Jessica was snatched. He shoots the kidnapper and makes a run for it with Jessica.

Act III

Falling action – Z sends Zola and Jarrett back to Detroit while he, his fiancé and Jessica remain in Florida to keep trapping.

Resolution – back in Detroit, Zola receives a collect call from Jessica who has ended up in a Las Vegas jail with Z. She reveals to Zola that Z is wanted for trafficking and murder. She asks Zola to help bail her out or get Jarrett to help. Zola declines, wanting nothing to do with any of them. Zola later learns Jarrett has a new girlfriend and Jessica is also in a new relationship and expecting a baby.

Now let’s look at features which contribute to Florida Nights being such a compelling story:

The set up

Probably the most popular way of setting up a plot is through a climactic plot. A climactic plot is basically the hook which is meant to keep the audience curious to the very end (e.g Will Neo become “the one”?). However, decades and decades of movies and series have seen audiences become so accustomed to climactic plots they scarcely carry any genuine weight anymore.

Movies have largely failed, or refused, to adapt to the 21st century’s audience’s familiarity with climactic plots. Thus their presentation has become so formulaic they have mostly lost the additive value of excitement and anticipation. Most hooks end up presented with mechanical drabness, as if the storytellers (studios, producers, directors, scriptwriters) are prescribing an analgesic – you know what it will do, so just take it.

Florida Nights does NOT do this. Rather than a clear cut climactic plot (e.g will Zola make it back to Detroit alive?), the story looms with a pervading sense of something. An uneasiness that suggests things are going to get ugly. But the story doesn’t define this something and never presents it, rather it lets it unravel as we meet the characters and begin to understand the interplay of character relationships.

Zola starts the story by letting us know it’s about a falling out, so we begin knowing things will go wrong. Knowing they are strippers we have a suspicion of what could go wrong, but the mastery of the telling is in not hinting at how things will erupt by putting forward the stakes. Instead Zola’s story makes us wait and watch as the pieces fall in place like a game of Tetris then fall apart like a house of cards.

We can identify the hook as “will Zola make it through the weekend”, yet Zola manipulates this hook expertly. “Bitch you got me fucked up! I’m not about to play with you ho. I’m going home!” This is the first line in which Zola suggests the climactic plot’s angle yet she immediately switches it by feeling pity for Jessica when the latter starts crying.

Essentially, Zola goes from wanting to escape the weekend to wanting to see Jessica through it and not minding making some money while hating the weekend. The climactic plot is distorted from its typical linear format and turned into a zigzag. The hook doesn’t latch unto us, it sinks into our skins. Slowly. Patiently. Disbursing sensation across our senses.

Conflict

Key to a great story is conflict; a gripping interplay of forces that drive characters such that the tale remains in a continuous eruption of fluctuating tensions. Conflict is very simply about a clash of desires. That’s all. How this clash is complicated or simplified is up to the writer.

Three prominent problems with conflict in lots of today’s movies are:

  1. The save the world factor – which is basing conflicts on overly grand scales arising from the erroneous assumption that being bigger will make more people relate to the conflict.
  2. Forcing the conflict – which is a) failing to establish a strong link between the characters and their desires, and b) failing to establish unique desires and counter-desires. Both cases lead to the use of generic or cliché clash/interplay of desires.
  • Cushioning – which is softening the degree of crises involved in the conflict (maybe the writer goes soft on his characters, maybe the producer or studio goes chicken) thus depleting the emotional and psychological impact of the story.

Florida Nights deftly avoids each of these pitfalls.

The scale of the conflict is very personal. In fact, the story never leaves the world of these particular sex workers before us. This draws us into it wholly because that’s how highly personal conflict works. We all, after all, identify with wanting something desperately, whether trivial or major.

We are never left in doubt about the value of these desires to each of them. Being sex workers they all have a common desire – getting paid, but the clash comes from what they are willing to open themselves to in pursuit of the Benjamins. Two crucial characters in this regard are Z and Jarrett.

Z, being the dominant physical presence, lords himself over everyone, forcing them into situations they may opt out of where it not for him. This factor of forcefulness is vital to the sense of danger in the conflict.

Jarrett, being the only one who isn’t a sex worker, provides a very important counter balance to Z’s bulldozing. He doesn’t need Z and he interferes with Z’s desire (Jessica). Despite his physical weakness, structurally Jarett is a very strong character. Conflict wise, he’s a crucial opposition, keeping Z’s character from running amock unchecked.

As far as cushioning goes Florida Nights pulls no punches. The tale unveils its world the way it was seen by our point of view character. Whether that is or isn’t too much is left to you.

Subtext

One thing Florida Nights does well is that it never comes off as being on the sleeve. Our point of view character, Zola, guides – and perhaps, suggests – what our feelings should be but never such that it feels like we are being told what to feel or think, or what stance to take.

We live the entire story through Zola’s eyes, and expressing her feelings towards the occurrences rather than about them allows the story’s subtext rise to the precise level it needs to be – just beneath the surface where we can see enough of it to tempt us to dive in further.

The wild adventures of the weekend stretch from the very beginning to the very end, permitting only very little time when the drama of events isn’t revolving. Structurally this is a stroke of genius. It allows the story maintain momentum without forcing the characters into a position where they reflect on the situations which would compromise the subtext.

Suspense

A major reason the suspense works is because the writer understands a crucial factor about suspense – it’s all about information. What is there to be known? Who knows it? When does it become known to other characters? When does it become known to the audience?

These four questions are the pillars of suspense. Great suspense is created from the manipulation of these four points, the more the information moves around those four questions in a non-linear manner, the more complex the suspense.

In Florida Nights, even basic information which other stories may toss aside becomes fodder for suspense. Take Z for example, for a quarter of the story we and our point of view character, Zola, don’t know his name – an uneasy feeling for a “”hulking black” stranger we just took an interstate trip with.

Then just when he is threatening to kill someone we learn his name – Z. A single letter. In that subtly blistering moment when Jessica cries, “don’t kill him Z, just kick his ass”, Z is simultaneously humanised and dehumanised. We learn his name yet more mystery is instantly thrown on it: what does Z stand for? Why just the one letter? Why that letter?

Contrast

Black comedies are tough to execute. The line between humour and darkness is very thin, and in today’s highly cause-oriented society it has become even thinner. Yet Florida Nights straddles it excellently.

The contradiction between Zola’s narration and the grim nature of the events leaves us in a restless middle point – we laugh at the situations, we laugh with Zola, yet we are appalled by the dismal happenings and at our delight towards them. This middle point is the Shangri-La of black comedy.

The contrast executed thus keeps us bouncing between distanced participation (which allows us laugh at the situations) and closer introspection (which makes us discard laughter and take a serious look at things). It’s the mirror-image technique used exquisitely and this becomes key to the story’s moral ambiguity (examined below).

A second way contrast works in the story is an adept manipulation of vulnerability. The general rule of vulnerability is: the most vulnerable person in the scene is the strongest one in it. Florida Nights applies this rule to .

The characters are stripped of their guards and laid bare. This exposure of everyone’s vulnerability creates a dynamic flow of ever-present energy. At any point in time this energy from vulnerability is surging through individual characters or the entire group. This is why it works so well as an ensemble cast.

For the audience this energy becomes a constant feeling of thrill. A feeling which doesn’t slump when the energy of one or two characters slows down, because when one character’s surge takes a breather, the surge of another rises and fills the space. And when the vulnerabilities of all characters collide (the scene where Z has sex with Jess in front of Jarrett, the scene where Z rescues Jessica, the scene where Jarrett attempts suicide) what beautifully smouldering intensity erupts.

Another intriguing aspect of vulnerability is in the relationship between the viewers and Zola the narrator. Zola’s control of the story as its narrator contrasts her lack of control in the events of it. And to be able to tell a story from the position of one who is now safe yet create a gripping sense of danger really is masterful. For the viewer that middle point is again evident – we are safe with Zola as she tells this tale yet at risk of harm as she is in it.

Moral ambiguity

“In the place where there is neither good nor evil there is a field, I will meet you there”. If this quote from Rumi was advice to writers it would read, “…I will write you there”. If you’re not interested in a didactic tale and also want to create a work that will stir group debates and personal reflections, you need to embrace moral ambiguity.

Discard notions of good and bad, forget right and wrong, toss aside black and white and allow your characters embrace the beautiful shades of morally ambiguous grey.

Two lessons from Florida Nights about moral ambiguity.

Firstly, no moral judgment is passed on any character/situation by the characters or the narrator. And if any is suggested it is weighted with a counterbalance so as to keep the scales in the ambiguous zone.  Secondly, the story’s central character relationship – Zola and Jessica – is also where the strongest moral ambiguity lies. This allows the ambiguity to seep into other characters/character relationships connected to the centre.

Perhaps the most interesting question regarding moral ambiguity in the story is: does Zola abuse Jess by pimping her?

Voice

Much has been said by others about Zola’s narrative voice so I’ll just highlight two other key angles to it. One reason it works so well is because Zola genuinely sounds like she’s talking to a friend or a close knit group of friends.

The presence of this quality, more importantly than being in the style of the narration, is in the energy of it. That indescribable quality we can’t or don’t want to put into words but which resonates with us.

The second aspect of vitality to the narrative voice is how extremely personal it is. The narration is ZOLA talking to us. ZOLA. Not a stripper. Not an ex-stripper. Not a ghetto girl. Not an African-American woman. If any of these aspects are present in the voice they are present merely as that – aspects, features. But at the heart of Florida Nights is a story told not by a stereotype or an archetype but by Zola aka Aziah King aka @_zolarmoon.

Contemporary Awareness

The last thing I’ll say about Zola’s story is the reason it is a master-lesson for 21st century screenwriters.

Writing for a globally linked world which has access to over a century’s worth of cinematic content, the 21st century screenwriter (and filmmakers as a whole) is in a peculiar position. Additionally, the information age has long burst the bubble of exclusivity to the tricks of the trade.

Hence, just like a corporation announcing its quarterly reports for public scrutiny, today’s audience is or can be as aware of the traits of storytelling as the storytellers themselves. The challenge then for the storytellers is to be able to use the same tools which audiences are conversant with to entertain that very same audience.

While this may seem like a daunting challenge on the creativity of storytellers, the answer is very simple: tell your stories from your unique perspective. That perspective of you as a person. Bring to the tale that indescribable quality which can only be present if you tell it the way you know how to.

This is the summation of what Zola does in her story. The components used are not new, nor does she reinvent any but she uses them in a way no one else but Zola can.

Naturally the long-standing factory process of filmmaking frowns at the individual voice, it goes against the factory formula. Boosted by advances in the marketing industry mainstream cinema will persist with factory processed films for as long as it can. And if history will, as it almost always does, go in a circle, we will at some point revolve into a period where the individual perspective will become the thrust of mainstream stories once more.

And that’s that! And like Zola said, if you stuck with this analysis to the very end, you’re absolutely awesome!

WILDEST DREAMS: Taylor Swift at the Precipice of Prejudice or Ignorance

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A few days back Taylor Swift sent her Swiftlings into euphoric fits with the announcement that she would be dropping a video for her song Wildest Dreams on the 31st of August, the night of the 2015 VMA’s. Tweets announcing the video release and a 15 second teaser on YouTube contained enough mouth-watering features to get fans excited.

Apparently styled after The Notebook, the video appears to be set in 1950s Africa with Taylor Swift and Scott Eastwood entang– Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! REWIND! “1950s Africa?” As in: nineteen-fifties Africa? As in: the African continent in the years dated 1950 – 1959? Oh, boy!*insert facepalm emoji here*

Now, I don’t know how big the issue of Swift’s Shake it off video being racist got (didn’t really follow the story at the time, and as far as I’m concerned the video isn’t racist) but having tread into “are you racist?” territory before, you would think more aptness would be shown by the Swift camp when entering the mother of all “are you racist?” territories: the (mis)representation of Africans.

Not caution in the “let me present everyone as good so as not to offend anyone” sense. Rather caution in the “let’s get our details right so that we actually know what we are presenting” sense – you know, life professionalism dictates.

The possibility that a large number of people can’t fathom why a music video by a (though I detest using skin colour to describe any human being) white musician set in “1950s Africa” is (potentially) offensive suggests just how vacuous this great age of information is.

Here’s the thing: 1950s AFRICA IS COLONIAL AFRICA! Colonial Africa as in oppressed Africa. Colonial Africa as in socio-politically enslaved Africa. Colonial Africa as in European occupation of Africa and subjugation of Africans.

The last female mail carrier service. Photo: C.R. Dickenson, O.B.E, ex. P.M.G. Nyasaland. Donated 1982 (from Flinaa, USA). Mr. Dickenson, Spears.

The last female mail carrier service. Photo: C.R. Dickenson, O.B.E, ex. P.M.G. Nyasaland. Donated 1982 (from Flinaa, USA). Mr. Dickenson, Spears.

The way I see it there are only two ways this can play out: the video will end up as some prejudiced assed ish or some ignorant ass ish. I don’t want it to be. I would much rather be writing the fourth scene of my play or watching re-runs of House than bitch about two people kissing under the rain while zebras run around, but I just don’t see how else this video can end up if not in prejudice or ignorance. Consider the two likeliest outcomes:

1) The video turns out to be an inaccurate representation of Africa in the 1950s.
2) The video turns out to be an accurate representation of Africa in the 1950s.

Outcome A:
History and geography would probably crumple themselves into the foetal position and weep in agony if 1950s Africa in Taylor Swift’s Wildest Dreams video turns out to be generic Hollywood Africa. What greater embodiment of ignorance in the 21st century when a simple Google search with the phone right there in the palm of your hands will give you, at the very least, an idea of something you are clueless about?

The phrase “1950s Africa” doesn’t help either. That’s already a big fat finger pointing at ignorance. Saying “1950s Africa” in the context used is like saying “1950s Europe” or “1950s Asia”. That’s like me saying, hey I’m writing a new play and it’s set in South America of the 1980s … ya, but where though? Reducing the myriad of cultures and histories of a freaking continent to a set of stereotypes is …? No extra marks for guessing the answer.

Outcome B:
If the video turns out to be an accurate depiction of Africa in the 1950s it will be digging one of two graves for itself.  (i) It would be a critique of the colonial era, and we all know that isn’t going to happen, or (ii) It would be a celebration of the colonial era, inadvertently so, at the very least. Any need to explicate why both of these are graves? Good, didn’t think so.

And here’s the thing, except the time period the Wildest Dreams video is shot in changes, there’s no escaping the fact that it is occurring in colonial Africa. Only 6 African countries gained independence during the 1950s (Libya, 1951; Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, 1956; Ghana, 1957; Guinea, 1958) so it isn’t like the last days of colonialism in Africa. It’s smack in the era which means, if you think about it, Swift and Eastwood are playing the parts of colonials.

***

It’s quite ironic that not so long after Taylor Swift’s mini-squabble with Nicki Minaj on Twitter OVER THE ISSUE OF PREJUDICE in entertainment/pop culture, a video teeming with such rich and colourful possibilities for prejudice would be coming from Taylor Swift.

Of course, music or a music video isn’t necessarily a representation of an artist’s personality or personal beliefs. For some the art reflects the artist, for others the art is just an image, a manufactured product. What cannot be ignored is what that art, artist, image or manufactured product advocates in the pursuit of its own success.

That’s why things like this are dangerous. On the 31st of August, 2015, Taylor Swift’s Wildest Dreams video will help millions of people around the world believe that Africa in the 1950s was Zebras running around buck naked or some other blindly painted portrait.

Things like this, in their institutionalised multitude, are the stumbling blocks to the flourishing of inter racial relations at the global level. A music video set in 1950s Africa about colonials falling in love (and getting to second base) is like a music video set in Auschwitz about two Nazi’s falling in love (und immer zur zweiten base) while the Jews watch from queues leading up to the furnace.

Here’s hoping I’m wrong and jumping the gun. Here’s expecting that I’m not. On the flipside:

Find Me in Issue 11 of the Critical Stages Journal

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So I’m super excited to have my works as a playwright be feature in an essay in the latest issue of Critical Stages – a journal published by the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC). The essay was written by Professor Emmanuel Dandaura – who, among many awesome things, is the president of the International Theatre Institute, Nigeria (ITI). Working as a research assistant on the paper was a great experience for me, and it is delightful to see the final product be so brilliant.

The essay is titled From Page to Stage: Influences and Challenges Shaping the New Generation of Nigerian Playwrights, and I appear alongside two terrific playwrights – Sefi Atta and Donald Molosi.

It’s a great read and if you are interested in theatre, playwriting and 21st century history in African/Nigerian literature, you’ll definitely be captivated by the essay. Give it a read and share a thought if you wish. Linked to the text below:

Critical Stages journal, issue 11: From Page to Stage: Influences and Challenges Shaping the New Generation of Nigerian Playwrights

NARUTO isn’t Sexist Just Because Sakura Is Weak

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So I’m taking a scroll down the ugly-beautiful streets of Twitter when I come across a tweet that brings me to a halt:

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Tyler Perry’s Madea read this and laughed in Ancient Greek

The WORST female character EVER!

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Photo credit: Stefan Schubert

I found this very hard to ignore, especially as we live in a world where Tyler Perry’s Madea exists. A Twitter search on: “Sakrua, Naruto, sexist” led me to various tweets expressing the same sentiment:

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I guess a woman with flaws and challenges = “wretchedness”. Good to know.

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Apparently Sakura gets the same treatment as Tsunade. And Mizukage. And Grandma Chiyo. And Temari. (Maybe there’s an alternate version of “Naruto” I haven’t seen?).

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Who needs rational arguments? “I know it!”

Oh, boy! *Insert face-palm emoji here*

Now anyone who watches Naruto knows that Sakura is a frustrating character. In the first part of the series her dependence on Naruto and Sasuke drives you nuts. In the second part, her indecisiveness and clinging to a bygone fantasy exasperate you.

However, just because she is weak does NOT make the writing sexist. Just because a character, male or female, is weak does not mean he/she is badly written. The notion that: a weak female character = sexism, is, ironically, as linear as the thoughts that lead to sexist writing.

The popular opinions I came across in my search on this topic are:
• She’s weak – physically and emotionally.
• She’s just a plot device.
• She doesn’t show up often in the series.

In order not to veer into the lane of ‘personal opinion’, let me put forward an objective examination of Sakura in Kishimoto Masashi’s Naruto based on critiques of sexism. But first let’s get a definition of sexism from a couple ol’ pals o’mine.

Concise Oxford Dictionary: prejudice or discrimination, especially against women, on the grounds of sex.

Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary: the unfair treatment of people, especially women, because of their sex; the attitude that causes this. (Just realised I have 2 Oxford dictionaries. Chambers, no vex.)

Merriam-Webster dictionary (ipad app): behaviour, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.

Key words/phrases: PREJUDICE. DISCRIMINATION. UNFAIR TREATMENT. FOSTER STEREOTYPES.

IT’S SO SEXIST!

Now, let’s expand those points which argue that Naruto is sexist because of the way Sakura is written:

1. Sakura is physically weak
Of the four shinobi that make up team 7 (Kakashi, Naruto, Sakura, Sasuke), Sakura is the weakest. In the first part of the series she is always the liability whenever the team faces an enemy and has to rely on her male team members to be saved.

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So what about the other males who are not as strong as Sasuke and Naruto? And what about the other females who, for most of the story, are stronger than Sasuke and Naruto?

Though in the second part (Shippuden) she grows in strength, she is still inferior to Naurto and Sasuke.

2. Sakura is emotionally weak
Love-struck to the point of servility, that is what Sakura is because of her love for/infatuation with Sasuke. We first see this attribute as a crush and after Sasuke betrays his village, Sakura struggles to come to terms with the conflict of loyalty to her village and feelings for Sasuke. She largely comes off as emotionally fragile.

3. Sakura is just a plot device
From the point of view of writing structure, Sakura’s defining role is to heighten the conflict in the rivalry between Naruto and Sasuke as they seek to surpass each other.

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PSA: all supporting characters ARE plot devices. She serves her function as a device and gets character development beyond being a device. Somehow that’s “very bad”.

Naruto loves Sakura, but Sakura loves Sasuke, but Sasuke doesn’t care about Sakura. Yet she dotes over Sasuke so much you just want to pull your hair out and scream. Outside of this, her only other function is to be involved in the plot where required/suitable.

4. Sakura doesn’t show up often in the series
This fourth point is based on Sakura’s intermittent appearance compared to Naruto and Sasuke. Since she’s mainly a plot device, she only shows up when needed and a couple moments when there’s time to spare.

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So a female supporting character = sexism. That’s going to be a long list

Kishomoto involves her sparingly and it is probably so out of sexist disdain.

IT’S SO NOT SEXIST!

Examined in isolation, these points suggest Kishiomoto is a sexist myopic dude worthy of some bitch-slaps from a gender-empowered fist. However, a story does not exist in isolation, it exists in a world (in this case, the Narutoverse) and must be considered within the context of that world.

Taking into consideration key factors such as theme, message and structural cohesion, the counter arguments to the above points reveal layers which we cannot eliminate from the issue of sexism. Let us consider these counter arguments:

1. Sakura is a supporting character.
The crux of the series is Naruto vs Sasuke. This is the defining conflict, the foundation. Everything else exists to serve or expand this. Of course other conflicts and themes exist but they can’t develop fully because they aren’t central.

As a supporting character, Sakura cannot be expected to be as developed or appear as frequently as Naruto and Sasuke. (Perhaps some sexism-accusers assume that she is a lead character.) Though her role is important for the plot narrative and emotional timbre of the story, she is still a secondary character. Her limited involvement is due to STRUCTURE not PREJUDICE.

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Do I even need to …? Oh, boy.

Comparatively, the key male supporting characters aren’t developed any much more than her. In fact, her character gets developed more than the likes of Rock Lee, Shikamaru and, notably, fan-favourite Neji. It cannot be ignored that we see a variety of dimensions to Sakura – weak, strong, crybaby, determined, boychaser, intelligent, studios.

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Because supporting characters who make a fictional world come alive = “useless”

Rather than toss aside Sakura once she has served her function as a source of conflict between Naruto and Sasuke, Kishomoto goes further to add layers to her character and her journey. We see her struggle with her lack of strength then take up tutelage under Tsunade, the fifth Hokage.

But, like all supporting characters, male or female, there is a limit to which the character can be stretched. Scripts and screen don’t have the luxury of space and time you find in prose, a supporting character can’t be as developed as the leads. A casual viewer not realising this is understandable, a writer not understanding this is disappointing.

2. There are strong female characters
You can’t pick one female character out of many, ignore the way women are represented AS A WHOLE in the story, then say it’s sexist because of that one female character whom you don’t like. That, ironically, is prejudiced!

And as a matter of fact, there are more strong female characters than weak ones. Sakura (to some extent), Hinata, Ino and Tenten can be called weak. Their functions and frequency of appearance are limited, they aren’t especially strong and (except Tenten) their roles involve a lot of male acceptance/recognition.

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Apparently being a medic is “useless”. Encouraging for female nurses out there. Oh, and a shy girl who fights to overcome confidence issues is a “pussy”. Ok, then!

But on the strong list we can name female characters like: Tsunade, Mizukage Mei Terumi, Shizune, Konan, Kurenai, Temari, Anko, Kushina, Grandmother Chiyo. These women are excellent ninjas, independent, loving to their male counterparts yet not reliant on them, and highly assertive individuals. They aren’t perfect, they have their troubles and their flaws, but they certainly aren’t weak.

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Ok, so we’re selectively ignoring the tons of other female characters who can and do think and act for themselves? Ok, cool beans, yo!

In the totality of female characters in the Narutoverse, the strong outnumber the weak ones. I’m baffled over how that can be sexist.

3. Sakura fights against her weakness
The reason I added ‘to an extent’ as a condition to Sakura’s inclusion on the weak list is because it cannot be excluded from her characterisation that she recognizes and fights to conquer her weakness. There’s a whole plotline dedicated to Sakura’s frustration with her dependence on Naruto and Sasuke, leading her to seek tutelage under Tsunade.

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Yes, let’s ignore her personal achievements and what they mean to her. But let’s compare her with the lead characters whom tons of other characters are inferior to.

She develops insane physical strength, which other senior shinobi recognise, and becomes a medical ninja. Achieving this is no easy feat for her, she faces doubts and fears but keeps pushing and being pushed by her sensei. As her physical and medical training grows, so does her emotional maturity.

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A writer develops character traits he established, making a weak ninja seek to get stronger, and that is “forced, apologetic and inconsistent?” Ladamercy!

So while she is weak, it’s not just a trait slapped on her and left at that. The writer builds aspects of her character out of her weakness, out of her struggle to conquer them.

4. Sakura’s weaknesses are NOT glorified
This is, in my opinion, the most important point. Kishomoto doesn’t write Sakura in such a way that her weaknesses are lauded. They aren’t admirable qualities. They are traits which Sakura herself recognises as limitations.

Sexism, being a prejudice, is founded on exploitation. Sexism involves a glorification of negative stereotypes. But Sakura’s weaknesses aren’t advocated as traits worthy of a girl or woman. They are attributes of her character which bother her as much as they do viewers.

Neither is Sakura exalted for her infatuation with Sasuke. It’s a complex relationship the three (she, Naruto, and Sasuke) share, and I believe anyone who has been in the position of loving someone who doesn’t/can’t/won’t love you back would appreciate that Kishomoto doesn’t gloss the difficulties of the love triangle.

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So a central character relationship that develops throughout the entire series = “wasted”.

To be sexist, Kishomoto would have to be saying, through Sakura, that weakness is an admirable trait for a woman. But engaging with the character leaves viewers feeling the exact opposite. There’s more than one way to present a case for empowerment, you know.

5. Bonus: male characters are just as goofy, inept and have unappealing traits as well
Naruto is dumb, Kiba is uncouth, Shino has insecurity issues bordering on inferiority complex, Guy sensei is ditzy, Jiraiya and Mizuki are perverts, Sasuke is cold hearted, Iruka is a weak/failed ninja. Kishimoto does a great job overall of not judging characters based on their attributes (not even the core evil ones like Orochimaru) but just presenting them as who they are and letting them unravel as events build. That leaves it up to us to see what we want to see, feel what we want to feel.

Last thoughts

Kishimoto, like all writers, has his flaws. I particularly don’t like the way his plot lines lose tautness when he stretches them beyond necessity. And I haven’t (probably never will) forgive him for that atrocious twist in the climax (who kills the lead villain at the final minute just to introduce a whole new villain with a rushed background story!?!?). But what he does handle well are the characters and character relationships in his Naruto verse. It’s a world rich with people, male and female alike. And we get to learn a lot about each of them.

I understand why many consider Sakura weak, but personally I consider her human. The fact that she doesn’t surrender to her challenges but fights to surmount them has to count for something! Who isn’t struggling with some fear or flaw or personal challenge? It’s called intrapersonal conflict and Sakura has it in loads, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

A weak character, male or female, doesn’t automatically mean a poor character. You must assess the character within the context of the story. I mean, what if it’s a story that needs a man or woman to be weak so as to get its message across? Can I as a man seriously call Dickens’ Great Expectations sexist because in it a woman turns a man into her plaything? Is it really sexist to have fictional characters that are as flawed and complex as real women (and men!) are?

Good female characters can’t all be Ripley or Wonder Woman. Just as good male characters shouldn’t all be Superman or Rambo. Replacing the ‘flawless male’ character with the ‘flawless female’ character does not solve the problem of sexism in fiction, it just changes the form.

NOTE: There is a case for sexism in Naruto, and shounen manga as a whole. But if you’re going to put forward an accusation, you must get your argument right. Just because you are ‘standing for something’ doesn’t mean you should lose your objectivity.

TIDAL Troubles: Jay Z’s New Enterprise and the Artist-Audience Disconnect

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Stream of consciousness blog post coming in 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 …

Friends, Romans, Tweeters, lend me your ears!

Jay Z took to Twitter yesterday to defend his new streaming music enterprise TIDAL, an attempt to counter criticisms and what he claimed to be a heavily sponsored smear campaign labelling the venture a flop. It was a rare sight, prior to the so-called rant (didn’t seem like a rant to me) the @S_C_ account had only tweeted 215 times since 2008.

Jay Z who NEVER tweets actually turning to Twitter to try and connect with people (which he – not that I mean to be cynical – may only see as connecting with the ‘market/customer’) garnered your typical internet trolling reactions, a lot of insightful opinions, and even business advice.

“TIDAL is for all” … No?

Jay Z’s tweets re-emphasised TIDAL’s selling points: it aims to empower artists, connect them directly with their fans (cutting off the middle man) and give music lovers more and better music. TIDAL is pro-artist and fan.

For now, it seems most people aren’t buying it. Among the many rebuttals three popular opinions stood out to me:

  1. At $20 per month TIDAL is too expensive.
  2. We see what TIDAL will give to the artist but we don’t see what it will give to the fans/audience.
  3. Even if I wanted to spend that amount of money, today’s mainstream music isn’t worth it.

These opinion reflect a deep disconnect in the relationship between artist and audience, which, in my opinion, has been present for a long time but masked by systematic marketing.

Is it worth it? Did I put enough work in?

The artist-fan relationship is founded on a special bond. Though one (artist) delivers a service (music) in exchange for capital ($) from the consumer (audience/fan) what actually connects artist and audience is sharing the experience of art.

This shared experience is amplified by the cultural ties of a music genre to its fan base. Thus the value of country music, hip hop, punk rock etc, extends beyond just music. (This is one reason why some artists despise referring to audiences/fans as ‘customers’ or ‘the market’.)

For the most part, people don’t mind paying for music so long as in return they receive an experience they consider equal or superior in value. This return in value is extremely important because it is the pivot around which the business of show business revolves.

Though a portion of audiences have for long expressed discontent with the value of mainstream music, producers and (in some cases) artists have been able to ignore the pressure to create music with more value. Two reasons why this was possible: 1) the proliferation of free music on the internet 2) marketing developed to such a systematically efficient state that sub-par products/services (the music) could be sold successfully despite discontent from the buyers.  

Once the pressure to create great music was no longer a motivational factor for mainstream success, a disconnect was inevitable. In this light, one key problem facing TIDAL is that it is trying to cash in on an artist-audience connection which no longer exists.

Devaluation

Take rap music for example, back in the ‘80s and ‘90s rap music wasn’t just music, it was a movement, a voice for a generation. The heavily ideological music of rappers like Tupac and Nas were an affirmation of the African American identity. Even the ‘I’m flossing like a boss’ music of rappers like Jay Z and P.Diddy were essential parts of the movement – they affirmed financial success as part of an African American’s identity.

However, the music, in its mainstream form, did not keep up with the shift in priorities of the audience. The music stopped listening to its fans. The audience’s value-needs expanded but the music stayed narrow. And when it realised it could still make money without listening to its fans, it happily jumped into that pool. (This circumstance is not unique to rap, it has manifested in rock, R & B and, yes, even pop music.)

While this circumstance offered short-mid term gains for artists and producers, it always threatened to backfire in the long-run. People have spent so long asking the music to care about them but it couldn’t give a rat’s ass. Today we have TIDAL asking people to care about it but they can’t give a rat’s ass.

Show me the money movement!

Consider the refusal to identify with TIDAL in comparison to the cult-like followership with which people received enterprises like Wu Tang’s WU WEAR or Jay Z’s ROCAWEAR. In those cases people weren’t just buying into a brand, they were participating in a movement. More importantly, they felt they were contributing to a vision.

I reiterate: the business of show-business revolves around a healthy artist-audience relationship. When selling any piece of performance art (music, film, theatre etc) the superior producer aspires to create an artistic experience which transcends the financial cost of that art.

If after listening to that album or watching that film or play, the fan/audience is still ruminating on how much was spent then the producer and artist are doing something wrong. The least aspiration is to have the audience feeling it cost a little too much but it was still worth it. The highest aspiration is to have the audience feeling it underpaid for the art.

The greatest respect a person in show business can show an audience is return artistic value for their financial loyalty. Sadly, there’s not much respect for the fans in mainstream music and honestly even the fans show a lack of self-respect. This is one reason why Jay Z, an artist renowned for his skill in business is, at least for now, being disrespected for his business.

I for Indie

Is TIDAL doomed? I don’t know. Personally, I hope not. The music industry definitely needs a structural revolution. Even if its present format fails, I hope and trust Jay not-a-business-man-but-a-business-man Z will return to base and resurface stronger.

People do want to support platforms like TIDAL it just has to offer something to the people. And so does the music. Believe it or not some people take pride buying their music rather than downloading it. But when the system seems to be exploiting them, well, torrent sites are only a click away, no?

TIDAL needs to be pushed by the RIGHT FACES and super-star-rich Jay Z, Madonna, Beyonce ARE NOT THOSE FACES. Surprise-surprise but people don’t identify with mill(bill)ionaires asking for more money. Surprise-surprise but upcoming artists aren’t excited about bigger artists eating out of their pie.

I think, as do others, that TIDAL needs to have independent artists more at the forefront. I can’t figure out if Jack White, Jason Aldean and Arcade Fire are suitable or if they’ve been tainted by being part of the TIDAL 16. What independent artists would bring to the face of TIDAL is relatability; they’d bridge the disconnect in the artist-audience relationship.

To the audience their involvement would mean/suggest TIDAL does truly have benefits for indie acts. The impact of seeing indie artists being (sort of) backed by a Jay Z, Madonna or Jack White would also help break down barriers from the artist-audience disconnect.

Another advantage indie artists would bring is using the right language in trying to get people to connect with TIDAL. From day one Jay Z’s language has been wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. It sounds like bullet points from a business proposal. Even reading about TIDAL is a bore. Nothing to get one excited about having better access to music. It’s all money, percentages, shares, subscriptions … egh! It should be about the love of music, the shared experience of art.

And just to reiterate, the artist-audience disconnect means that the super-star-rich likes of Jay Z and Madonna are not the right people to be talking about sharing the love of music (for $20 per month).

Niggas in Paris, Cousins in Nigeria

A quick word must be said on Jay Z’s comment about his ‘cousin moving to Nigeria to discover new talent. First off, his cousin moved to LAGOS, not Nigeria. Don’t get the wrong idea now, Lagos is in Nigeria (No, CNN it’s not the capital, and neither is Nairobi) but that cousin is highly unlikely to have any impact beyond specific vicinities within Lagos. Heck, beyond specific offices.

Secondly, that cousin is highly unlikely to discover any new talent. And no, not because there is no new talent but like any industry, those at the top will place a stranglehold on the cousin going beyond them – if said cousin even intended to search beyond them in the first place.

Indie artists in Nigeria are likely to gain nothing from the presence of Jay Z’s cousin, while a few already at the top will be presented to the global market as new talent. Indeed, to the global market they are new talent but it would be a deception to present rich Nigerian superstars as TIDAL’s contribution to Nigerian music.

Vulnerability: the art of empowerment

My final thought on TIDAL is this: I do believe Jay Z would put TIDAL in a better position to gain more patronage if he made himself vulnerable. Jigga maybe needs to just put himself out there, financially, reputably  – sometimes the safe card is your enemy.

If Jay Z set TIDAL up in a way that he (and all/some of the TIDAL 16) are taking some sort of pain or loss in order for new artists and music lovers to have a better artist-fan relationship (which actually means more patronage for TIDAL) people would be more willing to back the enterprise with massive support.

Vulnerability is a reverse way of being in control. It’s an art no other artist knows better than actors. In order to gain control of the audience, the actor makes him/herself vulnerable by opening up completely. This forces the audience into an emotional and psychological corner from which they capitulate by giving themselves over completely.

The rule of thumb is: all things being equal, if two actors are in a scene and one is naked, that is the one who is in control because he/she is more vulnerable. However, that’s not to say I’m suggesting Jay Z should get naked on TIDAL, especially not when Alicia ‘Aphrodite’ Keys is in the building.

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