Our Vanishing Concept of Celebrity

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By Femi Akintunde-Johnson

My endeavours as an associate lecturer at the foremost journalism school, Nigerian Institute of Journalism, NIJ, expose me to a varied and enriching experiences that have substantially improved my appreciation of human psychology and relationships. While teaching a specially designed subject, elaborately titled “Topical Issues in Nigerian Mass Communication”, the lynchpin of the entire 13-week lecture was “Celebrity Journalism”; and the great enterprise was masterminded by the Provost, former Punch editor and TVC director, Gbemiga Ogunleye.

The most exciting topic, to the intensely engaging Post Graduate Diploma classes I was privileged to share experiences with was, “Who is a celebrity?” The answer to that question may be as diverse as our different noses. Their choices range from the burlesque to the borders of ludicrousness, and back to profundity. Some of the names bandied as “celebrities” included: Wizkid, Davido, Hushpuppi, Toke Makinwa, Linda Ikeji, Tonto Dikeh, Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde, Genevieve Nnaji, RMD, Don Jazzy, D’banj, PSquare, Funke Akindele, Flavour, TuFace, Tiwa Savage, Anthony Joshua (and more contemporary entertainment names unknown to me)… then… Fela, Chinua Achebe, Gani Fawehinmi, Wole Soyinka, Dora Akinyuli, Femi Falana, Muhammadu Buhari, Bola Tinubu, etc. Many of the names were welcomed with guffaws of derision, prompting some stubborn whoops of resistance here and there.

Few things became clear to me as I encouraged them to spare not their thoughts and selections; the fabric of societal valuations of upstanding and accomplished models of imitation and inspiration have skewed violently in the last two decades. The squeeze of physical and mental poverty occasioned by irresponsible and reprobate policy tweaks in Nigerian economic and educational systems have made our people less and less repugnant to immodest, lavish and fraudulent lifestyles…our people have progressively been smashed around by the cold batons of institutional and governmental neglect, public stealing and mis(pocketed) appropriation.

My class, with an estimated average age of 25 years, is a microcosm of the vast majority of Nigeria’s most active, vocal and enterprising demographics. Rightly or not, they represent a huge segment of the Nigerian youth who have scant regard for stimulating values that were the steaming rods propelling the children born in this space up until the 1960s.

Worried by this realisation, I spent four or five lecture periods, instead of the two allocated for the topic, to challenge and engage the students with the aid of robust debates, assignations, definitions, connotations and anecdotes, to nudge their mindsets to some sort of higher parameters that graduates of journalism studies should hold leading lights of their society to.

Recent happenings have provoked me to flip through my lesson notes, to review and restate my considered position in, not only defining, but profiling who exactly is a celebrity. And the difference between a celebrity and a socialite.

Have you not seen headlines such as: “Famous kidnapper, Evans, gang sentenced” and “The Hushpuppi in all of us”…? Go to the Google search engine and read what some of our people are looking for: “Who is the richest (sic) between Hushpuppi and Davido?”; “How much is Ray Hushpuppi worth?”…”Who’s the richest Yahoo boy in Nigeria?” Is it not symptomatic of a broken value system when a search for the “best actors in Nigeria” merely yields “Top 10 Richest Actors”? Or when our children flock to the online platforms of figures with highly disputable substance but of generous and flamboyant expressions – and clearly, from their numerous conversations, no one is in doubt about the doubtful source of their acclaim!

Recent online indicators show that leading suspects of the Yahoo-Yahoo kingdom (acronym for internet fraud) have Instagram followers in hundreds of thousands. The meteoric Hushpuppi is leading at 2.4 million followers. Others in his firmament also post hefty figures that belittle efforts of more aspirational personalities: Mompha is cruising with about one million followers, in spite of his police fiasco; B. Naira – 1.3m and Baddy Oosha – 1.2m. The list is shamelessly long.

In fact, if you want to fully appreciate how dysfunctional our values in Nigeria have become, check what we search for on the internet – the volume and brazenness will stagger most optimists.

Back to the issue: Who really is a celebrity? First, let us understand that the denotative (dictionary or literal) meaning of any English word (e.g. celebrity) is not the final statement on its meaning. To an educated mind, there are other levels of meanings – connotations, associations, annotations and assignations – which, when fused and filtered, will give us a robust view of a word’s full meaning. For instance, most publications of stories and news associated with celebrities, including the Nigerian media, are influenced by the simple dictionary (literal) definition of “celebrity”.

Let us scan through some definitions. This is from Google: “Celebrity – /siebbrnti/ – noun –
plural noun: celebrities… (Person) – a famous person, especially in entertainment or sport.

‘he became a sporting celebrity’. (Thing) – the state of being well known: ‘his prestige and celebrity grew’.” Several synonyms follow to deepen the meaning (mostly ignored), such as famous person, VIP, superstar, celebutante, leading light, giant, great, master, guru, dignitary, luminary, worthy, mogul, supremo, megastar…. And as a “thing”, these synonyms apply: prominence, renown, pre-eminence, distinction, greatness, prestige, stature, repute, illustriousness, glory, etc.

And here is Wikipedia: “Celebrity is the fame and public attention accorded by the mass media to individuals or groups or, occasionally, animals, but is usually applied to the persons or groups of people (celebrity couples, families, etc.) themselves who receive such a status of fame and attention.”

More explanations… “A celebrity is a person, who has a prominent profile and commands some degree of public fascination and influence in day-to-day media.” – Definitions.com.

Finally, this explores further than the denotative: “Celebrity comes directly from the Latin celebritatum, meaning famous, and is related to the verb celebrate which means to honor something with the proper ritual. We usually use celebrity now when we talk about entertainment stars, but someone doesn’t have to be on the supermarket tabloids to be a celebrity. Celebrity can also be used to mean the state of fame. If you are seeking celebrity, develop a thick skin for nasty rumors.” – vocabulary.com

The 1999 creation, now very popular amongst young readers worldwide, the Urban Dictionary, has tons of colourfully brutal “definitions”. Just few entries, by unknown persons, will leave you in stitches: “A lucky slacker multi-millionaire. Rarely has more talent than you or me. J.Lo…”. “Celebrities – They are full of self-delusion, hypocrisy and attention seeking drug habits. They are spoiled drama queens and usually have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about because they’re under-educated. They drive cars that cost enough to feed a small country.”

“Simply put…useless in everyway shape or form… any attempt to get any celebrity to do anything productive shall be punished by death”. And this: “Celebrity – The reason why we have poor people. All they do is act\sing\get naked\some other thing that we don’t need and they get millions of dollars for…”.

My “definition”: simply put, a celebrity is one who has become relevant, influential and inspirational within his or her own environment as a result of remarkable accomplishments or respectable achievements. He or she may be from any field or practice beyond the more common entertainment and sports, and must have been thrust into fame or popularity by the activities and coverage of the media.

Generally, people respond to celebrities (properly so called) positively, aspirationally and reverentially; in deference to what they (people) perceive the objects of their admiration (celebrities) have sacrificed, undergone, and overcome – despite the great odds and hitches along the way. Are today’s celebrities alive to these ideals?

Next time, we shall explore the attributes of the genuine celebrity, the dynamism of societal values, and the collapse of the Nigerian moral framework, leading to the ogre of unabashed corruption and the epidemic of get-rich-quick-or-die-trying that we nurse today. We may also engage the slippery slope between the Nigerian celebrity, and her faux alter ego, the socialite.