Memo to President Jonathan: Time to Appoint a Pop Culture Czar

27 Jul 2013

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Diaspora By Ekerete Udoh

Let me start first by sending you my heartfelt condolences on the unfortunate passage of your mother-in-law through a ghastly auto crash earlier this week in Port Harcourt. May the good Lord give you and your dear wife, our First Lady, Dame Patience Jonathan the fortitude to bear the loss.

Mr. President, it is not often I get to do this: sending you an open memo, but I am compelled to do this, based on my patriotic instincts and unbridled pride as a Nigerian and my deep and abiding conviction that we should appropriate any and every available platform that the Nigerian project could be marketed and its potentials projected.  I make bold to declare that I am a severely hopeless believer in the Nigerian enterprise, the talents and creative drive of its citizens, our capacity to become the beacon of hope for the black race.

I am eternally optimistic that our dreams and hopes of eventually becoming a major and consequential nation whose voice would be heard and respected all over the world, in spite of the challenges of nation-building that we currently experience will soon materialize. The signs are already manifesting, however, incrementally.

It is in the light of this patriotic fervour that envelops and defines my fiber that I decided to send you this memo. Mr. President, the Nigerian pop culture as represented by our music and movies (Nollywood) has helped re-define the essence of our being, it has helped change a deeply held and internalized definition of our country and its people as purveyors of grand schemes and other get –rich quick fixes; it has sanitized the mud that a tiny percentage of our compatriots had slapped on our collective image as a nation  and in the light of this, I humbly recommend that you appoint a pop culture Czar to harness and consolidate the gains of this industry towards national development and our rebranding efforts.

Mr. President Sir, Nollywood in the past 15 years of its impactful 20 year history, has become a global phenomenon. It has been embraced by millions of people across disparate entities, especially, here in the United States. Within the Caribbean community for instance, it is almost like a religion. Our stars when they visit New York cannot walk the streets in Brooklyn, most notably the Flatbush area which has the largest concentration of the Caribbean people in the entire world. They cannot also walk the streets of Jamaica, Queens, New York without being mobbed.

Two years ago, while on a vacation in Ochio-Rios, Jamaica, I was shocked when I saw Nollywood movies being shown on the local television station and my pride as a Nigeria just got so large and deep. All over the Island of Jamaica, the Bahamas, Barbados, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago and other island countries, Nollywood has opened the eyes of these African Diasporas about the beauty of our country, our culture, our ways of life and most, now view Africa and Nigeria in a decidedly positive manner. The industry is gradually making steady gains within the African-American population and the mainstream American population as well.

In 2010, the Queen of day-time television, Oprah Winfrey, convinced that Nollywood has come to stay, devoted a segment in her programme to showcasing the leading stars in both Bollywood and Nollywood and our dear Genevieve Nnaji was featured on that segment where Oprah dubbed her, “the Julia Roberts of Africa.” I can still remember the pride I felt when I was contacted to provide background information to HARPO Productions - Oprah Winfrey’s production arm - on the stars of Nollywood.

Two years ago, the New York Times, did a front page article on Nollywood, and knowing the fastidious ways of the New York Times editors, if a piece of news or features is not of deep interest to its readers, the paper will not touch such  news item or features. I was pleasantly shocked to see the newspaper’s editors devote about two and half pages to Nollywood. The New York Daily News and New York Post have respectively done articles on Nollywood.

All over the African and Caribbean communities, Nigerian music now is enjoyed on the same scale if not more than hip hop or reggae music. At lounges and parties, Nigerian music enjoys similar play like other hitherto more popular genres. From D’Banj to Tuface, to Flavour, Omawumi to Tiwa Savage, Timaya, these stars continue to enjoy mass appeal across ethnic and cultural lines. The cumulative effect of all this is that the Nigerian project is seen in a different light, and that is all value-added enterprise.

America, Mr. President, recognized the awesome power of its pop culture and did everything possible to support the industry when it made its improbable debut in Hollywood California in the late 19th Century. Ever since, America has used Hollywood to present a sanitized version of its society so much so that the first contact millions of people all over the world had of the United States were seen through the lenses of Hollywood with its over-sanitized depiction of the American essence and culture. Even though America had its own difficulties arising from the Great Depression and other social tensions, the world was shown carefully orchestrated aspects of the United States that everyone wanted to be a part of.

During the ideological fight for supremacy between capitalism and socialism otherwise called the ‘Cold War’ between the United States or the West and the defunct Union of Soviets Socialist Republics –or the East, Hollywood was employed to show the success accruable from the liberating impulse of the individual and the prosperity that comes with the unfurling of the human spirit and potentials as opposed to a controlled and collectivist model that stifled creativity and the human spirit’s capacity to dream and dare.  Soviets and its allied states saw the prosperity in the west especially in the defunct West Germany, the huge homes, the beautiful boulevards that literary reeked of milk and honey that Hollywood had shown as a reward for capitalism. This optics of prosperity that those in East Germany saw helped weaken the appeal of socialism that eventually led to the breaking down of the Berlin Wall of isolationism. Hollywood has been a major component of the American tool box of diplomacy. We can use Nollywood and our music to do same, Mr. President.

In the 60s and 70s, the Island of Jamaica became an emotional place to visit not because of its riches or wealth, but because of the popularity of its reggae music. Today, Jamaica is known more for its reggae music, which has helped spur a thriving tourism industry. While at the Club Carib Holidays and Resorts in Run-Away-Bay in 2007, over 90 percent of the tourists-mostly whites from all over the world that thronged the resort came alive every night when various reggae artistes came on stage to perform for the tourists. We can use our pop culture to drive our tourism.

Mr. President, I have interacted at close quarters with the leading figures of our Nigerian pop culture and the one issue they keep hammering away is the need to have someone appointed by you to coordinate and consolidate all the gains of the industry and help set up solid structures that can raise the profile of the industry and that of the nation in general, and I agree with them totally. I am aware Your Excellency that you made a pledge of over 200 million dollars as an intervention fund for the industry, which is domiciled in the Ministry of Finance and oversights granted to both the Minister of Finance-Dr. Okonjo Iweala and the Minister of Culture and Tourism-Mr. Edem Duke. I am also aware of another 50 million Naira that the Governor of Akwa Ibom State and Chairman of PDP Governors’ Forum- Barrister Godswill Akpabio donated to the industry. I would humbly recommend that you appoint an assistant with deep knowledge of the industry to manage the funds and ensure that this great tool that has promoted and projected our country is appropriated and the desired mileage earned. If America succeeded in using the awesome power of its pop culture to advance its interests and appeal, we can do same with Nollywood and our music. Appointing a Pop culture Czar will be a huge step in the right direction Mr. President.

Thank you for your time, Mr. President
Warmest Regards,
Ekerete Udoh
New York/Lagos

Akwa Ibom 2015 Taking Shape
Earlier this week, the Secretary to the State Government of Akwa Ibom State, Obong Umana Okon Umana formally intimated the world of his long rumoured plans to offer his services further to the good people of Akwa Ibom State come 2015 as a candidate for the office of governor of the oil-rich state

As I wrote on this page sometime last year, Obong Umana, a fierce loyalist of the current Governor of the State, Barrister Godswill Akpbio and a tested technocrat and policy wonk enjoys a large support base across the three senatorial districts. With experience that spans over two decades in the service of Akwa Ibom State and his reputation as a good manager of men, materials and resources, he is absolutely a formidable if not the most formidable candidate in what is shaping up to be highly competitive primaries in 2014. Look out for my detailed analysis of the shape of things to come in Akwa Ibom politics in 2015 soon.

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