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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?

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How to Play the African King: A Guide for Nigerian Actors Trying to “Hammer”

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Congratulations! You have just been cast to play the most prestigious role in Nigerian acting – the African King! Ah, yes, things are looking good. The hustle in combination with the ministry is moving. (Or maybe Babalawo is working … all na huzzle!) Now, you are probably scratching your soon-to-be-fictionally-crowned head looking for tips on how to do a stand up job. That is good. It means you understand the extreme importance playing an African King has in this Nollywood hustle. Execute this performance with bland generic expertise and you can secure a succession of roles in movies and theatre performances for years to come – in other words, you go don hammer!

King naira poker

The king of hammers. (Photo attribution: Nicholas Gemini)

To play this iconic role you must meet a minimum of two out of three strict criteria:

i. You are tall and/or huge and/or muscular and/or fat – you sha have body sha.
ii. You are old.
iii. You have a bass voice. Or you can talk as if you have a bass voice.

If you do not meet these criteria but have somehow been cast to play an African King, please, please, please, be very careful; another actor more equipped can easily steal your shine (note: if Babalawo is involved talk to him about this). So if you are not buff enough, better start gyming immediately. No money to register at a gymnasium? Join your local cement-block-and-iron-lifitng gym, there’s one in every neighbourhood. If you do not have a bass voice, beg the bass vocalist in your Church’s choir to train you.

Another worry you may have is that your acting skills aren’t good enough. Relax, you don’t need actual talent. All you need is ability to execute the ‘typical moves’ expected by an actor playing an African King. And for that I got you covered, homie! Follow the 6 easy steps broken down below and you will be on the yellow brick road to hammering. So, Capua, shall I begin?

Step 1: Don’t research
I repeat, DON’T research. Do not follow all these oversabi actors prancing about doing so-called ‘proper’ research so that they can give ‘original’ and ‘exciting’ performances that will be enjoyed for years to come. Ridiculous! First of all, you will just confuse your director. Secondly, you will make your executive producer nervous. After investing so much and hustling all that sponsorship (oh yes, even executive producer gaas huzzle) you now want to do something outside the comfort of conformity? Don’t put your hammering at risk, please. It doesn’t matter if audiences forget your performance after a few days because there’s no real substance to it. Just stick with the familiar and the predictable. ‘Mediocre’ and ‘generic’ are your watchwords. Hold them close to you at night. Cuddle them. Kiss them. Caress them. Now slowly undress them and begin to slide … Oh … sorry … I, erm, got a bit carried away there.

Step 2: Bulge your eyes
As wide as possible! Bulge them! Stretch open those big white orbs. Wider, I say, wider! Good. This will make you look FEARSOME, so you don’t have to stress yourself to do any actual acting. You must maintain this look for the entirety of the performance and as you can imagine that is no easy task. I recommend 2-3 hours of daily practice in front of a mirror. I also recommend purchasing a considerable stash of Panadol Extra or Alabukun. Eye problems are likely to occur, register ahead of time with your nearest optometrist.

Step 3: Look like a boss
Now that your eyes are popping more than a bottle of champagne in a Dr Sid song, the next thing you must do is bone! Or as the oversabi-grammar people say, scowl. This is the one facial expression you need for a long and prosperous career. Be careful not to be deceived by a few people who will ask why you always look the same in all your roles. They are enemies of progress. Do not be distracted by trivialities such as emotional range and psychological depth. Abeg! Abeg! Abeg! Abeg! Abeg! Just bone that face! If you are working on a movie, discuss with your director to find a proper bulging-eyes-to-scowling-face ratio. This is important so that when you add ginger to your performance (see step 6) your current level of overacting will not go into hyper-overdrive.

Coin Mansa Musa

Alas, 10 kobo! I spent it well, Horatio. A currency of infinite jest… (Photo attribution: Olutosinscorpio)

Step 4: The King Hath Swag
First, puff out your chest. Then, spread out your arms like a chicken frozen in its attempt to take flight. You know those body-builder guys with muscles so thick their arms can’t lie straight by the side of their body anymore? Great, just like them! Next, fill yourself up with a sense of pride so thick Tracy Obonna’s booty would write you a tribute song. Now, walk in large stomping strides, bouncing on every landing step, like an overweight ballet dancer whose recent surrender to a plate of swallow and egusi soup has pulverized his centre of gravity. This is especially important for you who will be performing in a theatre show. In a movie role you will spend 99% of your time sitting down so you may want to focus more on step 5.

Step 5: The King’s Speech
To TAAALK like an AAACtor plAAYing the AAAfrican KING, what you must DO is RAAAANdomly emphaSIZE SYllables in your DIAlogue without AAAny sense of rhythm, style, or PURPOSE. YOOOUUU must-also-ensure-that-you-master-the-ability-to-speak-very-fast-then-suddenly DRAAAAAAG the final (pause) words (pause) in your speech. This is what some ‘astute practitioners’ call the art of Shakespearean line delivery. “Why? Erm … Because … you know … that’s how they talk in all those Shakespeare films.” Remember, lines must always be rendered in the classic monotonous bass tone (see list of criteria above).

Step 6: Ginger
Ah, ginger! The secret ingredient of ancient Chinese tea and bad Nigerian acting. ‘Tis ginger which gives overacting that extra spicy flavour that makes viewers say: “O’boy that guy sabi act oh, see as him just dey ginger“. Who says an actor needs interpretive skill, analytical ability and aesthetic sensitivity? Abegi! All that one na sufferhead! Just ginger your way through every performance! Be sure to add copious amounts of ginger to your portrayal of the African King and success is yours.

ABOUT THE WRITER (this is where I talk about myself in the third person)
Playwright Africa African
Africa Ukoh (@Pensage – abeg, follow me for twitter oh!) is a playwright, screenwriter, actor, theatre director, and arts administrator. And protector of the realm. He is a co-founder and artistic director of African Renaissance Theatre & Entertainment, an Abuja-based performance art outfit. He has been the recipient of awards such as the BBC African Performance competition and the Stratford East/30 Nigeria House prize. In 2014 he won the prestigious Oscar award for best actress in a supporting role … Oh, no, wait, that … that was Lupita N’yongo. His works have appeared on platforms such as the BBC World Service, Voice of Nigeria, Sentinel Nigeria Magazine, Sentinel Annual Literature Anthology, and more. If you’d like to get in touch with him you can send N1500 MTN recharge card to 08036207841 and he will call you back, sharp sharp. Or maybe just email him: africaukoh@gmail.com.

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