By Vanessa Obioha
Most presidential visits to Nigeria are often formal; limited to the political and business sphere with little room for the creative industry. But that narrative changed with the visit of the French President, Emmanuel Macron.
A man who fell in love with the cultural scene in Nigeria when he worked at the French Embassy in Abuja over a decade ago. His tour of the country then didn’t end in the capital city. Mr. Macron explored other parts of the country including the iconic New Afrika Shrine, home of the Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. He fell in love with the Shrine, its rich cultural heritage as well as its oddities.
So it wasn’t surprising that he would request to visit the Shrine in his official capacity. The home of Fela in recent times has attracted top political personalities. Last year, Governor Akinwunmi Ambode made history as the first sitting governor of Lagos state to visit the Shrine. It was also the venue for Vice President Yemi Osinbajo to campaign for President Muhammadu Buhari during the 2015 elections.
What is interesting is how the Shrine which was once described as a den of thieves and society outcasts is now seen as a campaigning ground for anyone who wants to appeal to the masses. More importantly, is the impressive legacy of Fela as a politician – a fact Macron easily acknowledged – and an artist that has continued to fascinate Europeans, particularly the French and Germans. They have always supported and promoted Nigerian artistes.
With this in mind, it became imperative that the French President’s visit must be worthwhile.
Trace, a global broadcast and digital afro urban media group in association with EcoBank, Lagos State, Institut Francais and the New Afrika Shrine came up with a brilliant plan to showcase the creative industry to Macron. The strictly by invitation event would feature music performances, art exhibition, fashion show, and a theatrical display by Nollywood.
This was going to be a perfect show for the President to relive his moments at the Shrine as well as have a good feel of the talents that abound in the Nigeria creative industry.
Everything almost went as planned but for the ugly head of African time. Scheduled for 7pm, the show didn’t kick off until almost 10pm. By then, some of the early birds had taken their leave. Only few from the motley audience stayed glued to their seats. They must see the President! Those who arrived early however had the opportunity to witness a cultural dance group performance. The group drew the attention of many who queued outside the venue to exchange their invitation for their tags with their performances.
Inside was already bustling with activity. DJ Jimmy Jatt dished out music from his turntable while a big screen on stage displayed music videos on the Trace TV channel. Almost every nook and cranny was occupied. From upstairs to the ground floor, there were barely seats for the teeming audience. Those who considered themselves very important took the front row seats, denying others access to vacant seats in that area. But they were rudely reminded by the MC of the event, Banky W, that there are no VIPS in the house of Fela.
As the hours dragged on, feet began to get restive. However, the generous flow of drinks and finger foods kept the atmosphere bubbling as friends, colleagues, loved ones engage in talks revolving around politics and of course the historic event they were about to witness. Once in a while, the Managing Director of Trace Nigeria, Sam Onyemelukwe, came on stage to update the audience on the arrival of the president.
Finally, the president, dressed in a suit, arrived at 9.45pm in the company of the Lagos State Governor, Akinwunmi Ambode. He was greeted with a loud welcoming cheer and he equally responded with a wave. Without much ado, he was taken through the various art exhibitions on display by iconic artist Victor Ehikhamenor, Ndidi Emefiele and Abraham Oghobase. Led by the founder of Art X Lagos, Tokini Peterside, Macron interacted with the artists who felt honoured and probably intrigued at his genuine interest in their works.This was somehow expected.
Earlier in the day during his meeting with the President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, and later on that night, Macron revealed that he has a deeper connection with Nigeria because he had lived among them and found them to be people with “humanity, and lovers of art and culture.” This explained his request to visit the shrine: to relieve the art and cultural heritage of the people.
Indeed, he did going by the lineup performances for the night. From a dance presentation by Footprints of David, Yemi Alade, Charlotte Dipanda; fashion shows by Mai Atafo, Jane Ekanem and Ituen Basi to the portrait presentation by 11 year-old Kazeem who did an artwork of the president in two hours.
Nollywood on the other hand failed to live up to its name. Led by ace filmmaker Kunle Afolayan who took the president through the rituals of directing by giving him the clapperboard, one expected the thespians to deliver a thrilling act. That was not to be the case. The actors spent the alloted time laughing and conversing in a plotless manner that one was forced to question what is the narrative of the presentation. The idea was completely lost on the audience. With their beautiful attires, they painted the picture of children who were on a parade to impress the French President. Some of the notable Nollywood faces were Chika Okpala, Jide Kosoko, Joke Silva, Ramsey Nouah, Caroline King, Rita Dominic, Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde and a French actor Florent Cedric.
If their performance was tasteless, celebrity media entrepreneur Mo’ Abudu’s question to the president was embarrassing. Mo, beaming with confidence asked Macron what the film industry can do to win the highest prize at Cannes film festival Palme d’Or.
“I’m not the right person to ask that question,” the president told her, directing her to another official who bluntly told her “You have to be patient and diligent.”
Despite their lacklustre act, the thespians still got the opportunity to take a selfie with the president. Perhaps, the most sensible thing to come out of Nollywood’s interaction was Cinefabrique and AFRIFF’s announcement to launch a film school in Nigeria.
It was the female talking drummer Ara and Femi Kuti who stole the night away. Dressed in a white and red ensemble with her long red-coloured braids, Ara thrilled with her talking drum. She got the crowd cheering when she handed a drum to the president and encouraged him to play it. By now, the president had discarded his suit and rolled up his sleeves. He boldly took the drum and hit it gingerly. Ara completed this act by signing her autograph on the drum. Smiling, the president turned to the governor, showing him his present from the artist.
There is no questioning the artistry of Femi Kuti. Together with his Positive Force band, he raised the roof with his electrifying act. In his signature style, he opened with ‘Truth Don Die’ before playing his saxophone. Expectedly, he stretched himself beyond his limit, playing the wind instrument for more than three minutes. Macron was visibly amazed by his showmanship. He stood up and applauded him.
Femi decided to take his performance a notch higher by inviting the president to join him on stage. Quite a few expected Macron to show some killer moves but the young president instead clapped his hands and shuffled his feet. It would have been very interesting to see the president imitate one of Fela’s moves since he was familiar with the happenings in the Shrine. After all, he knew that like Las Vegas, anything that happens in the Shrine stays in the Shrine.
Moments later, Ambode, Beninoise singer Angelique Kidjo and Senegalese singer, Youssou N’dour, joined in the party.
It was on this bright note that the show ended with many including the daughter of Yeni Kuti, coming on stage to celebrate.
The French President’s visit also featured the launch of the Season of African Cultures 2020, a series of events that would be about promoting African culture in Europe. Macron added that the event was going to be for Africa and by African artistes.
“It will include people with fashion, African movies, new generation of artistes will be coming from Africa and it will be organised by them to show Europe and France the real culture of Africa.The event will be financed by African leaders. It will not be sponsored by France or European businesses, but by African businesses, it is brand new. This season is a unique one and it will be the new face of Africa in Europe organised by Africans, providing what you like and what you have here,” he said.