On Saturday, December 2, 2023, Lanre Alfred was conferred with an honorary doctoral degree (Doctor of Letters) at the Achievers University Atlanta, USA.
As he stood on the podium to speak, Lanre Alfred squinted under the limelight and remembered his journey to that particular moment. But it was neither the day nor hour for a teary recourse to the past; this was his moment of attainment, a diadem on his wall of laurels.
Soon after the conferment, Alfred stood on the podium before graduating students of the prestigious institution in a speech titled, ‘Graduation: A commencement of new beginnings in the journey of learning’, addressed salient issues characteristic of every graduate cum ambitious human’s life. Alfred established why he is not seen competing or running with the crowd.
As a journalist, publisher and prose stylist, Alfred may be likened to a force of nature or the proverbial chisel of the muse used to create masterpieces. Moved by his works’ intricate depth and brilliance, the university awarded him an honorary Doctor of Letters, recognising his immense contributions to journalism and literature.
For a start, Alfred took a cursory look at why knowledge acquisition has remained central to human existence, civilisation and innovations, stressing that the innate curiosity of the human mind has been the driving force behind the relentless quest for knowledge.
The cultural evolution of knowledge acquisition, argued Alfred, paved the way for the advancements that have shaped the modern world.
“Have you imagined a world without computers, mobile phones, aeroplanes, ships, automobiles or the Internet?” he asked, reasoning that the quest for knowledge drove the world into the contemporary digital age, which has exponentially expanded humanity’s access to information.
He said, “The internet has become a vast repository of knowledge, connecting people from different corners of the globe and democratising access to education. These are some of the products of our insatiable quest for knowledge.”
What Alfred failed to state was how the quest for knowledge had also driven him to dare and achieve exploits hitherto considered beyond the reach and capacity of a journalist.
Despite the remarkable progress made in understanding the world, he said, the quest for knowledge remains an ongoing and open-ended journey.
“As we unlock new mysteries, we invariably encounter new questions and challenges. The more we learn, the more we realise the vastness of the unknown. This realisation, far from discouraging us, should fuel our curiosity and propel us forward,” said Alfred.
Alfred urged the graduates to maintain a culture of seeking knowledge and acquiring skills beneficial to self-improvement outside the university walls.
He said, “The quest for knowledge is no longer confined to academic institutions; individuals can now pursue knowledge in diverse ways. As I said earlier, the internet has democratised access to education. Therefore, I charge every one of us not to relent in seeking knowledge but rather seek to add value in our respective fields, for therein lies our relevance to humanity.
“Finally, as we devote ourselves to continuous learning, we are assured of continued intellectual development, readiness to face the complexities of the real world, a myriad of opportunities, both personally and professionally, and an opportunity to make meaningful contributions to society. It’s worth emphasising that the commencement of new beginnings extends beyond the academic realm; it encompasses personal growth, relationships, and a broader understanding of the world we live in.
“The pursuit of knowledge, he argued, will remain a defining aspect of the human experience for as long as humanity exists, and so will problems requiring the breadth of knowledge.
“It will then be a matter of choice to proffer lasting solutions or be drowned in the problems. If the former is our collective choice, we should then choose whether to be mere beneficiaries or be among those who brought about positive change. To this amazing audience, I leave you with this verified fact: ‘It’s either we keep learning or we are left behind!’”
An elated Alfred, however, dedicated the award to millions of Nigeria’s out-of-school children whose horizons may change if granted the opportunity to experience quality education. There is no gainsaying Alfred is most deserving of the award given the way he commits to his work; he carries on with the passion and understanding of a man who knows that nobody achieves excellence by doing the bare minimum.
From Bottom to Top
Alfred’s work has, over time, established him as a doyen of celebrity journalism. He is to the genre what the pliant wind is to a merchant ship. Alfred is a force of nature: a leader, writer, celebrity journalist and social activist all rolled into one impressive character.
His journey to acclaim, however, dates back to his integration into larger society in childhood. As a child, Alfred watched people around him give life to utterances by their actions and inaction, which were oftentimes precipitated by the purpose and intensity of their words.
It was a rich experience that nurtured Alfred’s interest in society and exposed him to human intrigues and episodes that manifested theatrically – new characters walked in and out, conflicts arose, and conversations got interpreted and misinterpreted, giving rise to a range of actions that thought him to see the world through any prism but a tunnel vision.
The experience was enriching and not far removed from the theatrics of the most captivating literary masterpiece or movie. Hence, Alfred’s background was vocal.
His evolution through those impressionable years undoubtedly had a great bearing on the adult he became. As a young adult, Alfred fell in love with society journalism at his encounter with Gay Talese, the Italian-American journalist notable for his impressive contribution to the 1960s new journalism. The piece that endeared him to Talese and celebrity journalism was the one he did in the winter of 1965.
Talese had arrived in Los Angeles, USA, with an assignment from Esquire Magazine to profile the late music genius, Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was clocking 50, feeling sick and unwilling to be interviewed. So Talese remained in LA, hoping Sinatra would recover and go back over his initial refusal to grant Talese an interview.
Talese reportedly started ferreting information from Sinatra’s associates, staff, groupies and family members even as he closely observed the late music genius. Eventually, his persistence paid off, and he got his exclusive entitled, ‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold’. The feature article was published in 1966 and went on to become one of the most celebrated magazine stories ever published, a revolutionary example of what came to be called new journalism.
He said, “I remember the way Esquire introduced the story: ‘A work of rigorously faithful fact enlivened with the kind of vivid storytelling that had previously been reserved for fiction. The piece conjures a deeply rich portrait of one of the era’s most guarded figures and tells a larger story about entertainment, celebrity, and America itself. We’re very pleased to republish it here.’ Reading Talese and the encomium that his effort garnered, I wanted to write like him. I wanted to write better than he did.”
Subsequently, Alfred developed an inexorable thirst for celebrity journalism and went on to tell not one or two great stories similar to Talese but multiple ones as part of a rich repertoire of timeless narratives replete with the most interesting characters.
Alfred advocates a journalism practice that seeks to truly inform and entertain rather than one that perverts our vision and ruins it. He seeks to achieve this with an inquisitive eye and a reflective mentality while remaining deeply committed to traditional media values and standards.
Conscientious practice brings joys and challenges, he said, adding that it is rewarding to produce quality content that attracts a growing audience — and to do so efficiently. It’s all part of navigating the intersection of the news business and the exploding world of social media.
Alfred is the publisher of the widely accepted coffee table book, ‘Nigeria At 60’, ‘Highlife —Amazing Lifestyles of Nigeria’s Rich and Famous and biographies including ‘Pacemaker — Triumphs of Igho Sanomi at 40’, ‘The Lion of Afia Nsit —Triumphs of Scott Tommey at 45’, and ‘Julius Rone…The Jewel of the Delta’.