Nollywood: The Incredible Explosion Of Nigerian culture
November 22, 2011 11:39 pm
Driving the imagination and hips of a continent
By Parselelo Kantai
It is not clear where or when the term “9ja” (or Naija) originated as slang for Nigeria. Commonly used by young people in the age of social networking sites, it has become a powerful evocation of hip Nigeria.
Across Africa and beyond, the mention of Naija chimes with a vaulting youth culture and fast expanding entertainment industry. Nigeria may be the continent’s troubled big brother; Naija is a different proposition altogether – the party-animal sibling with all the latest music.
The change in the country’s reputation has everything to do with the phenomenal growth of the entertainment industry. Hit releases from Naija’s young artistes are a standard feature of nightclubs in capitals across the continent, capturing the imagination and hips of a generation of Africa’s youth in much the same way Congolese music did for an earlier one.
Likewise, the international success of the country’s artists, writers, photographers and fashion designers.
But it is the success of the Nollywood film industry that is most responsible for the buzz around Naija. For the past 15 years, the video-film industry has churned out low-budget productions at an astonishing rate, said to average between 20 and 40 a week, each of which sells about 30,000 copies, with blockbusters selling as many as 500,000 copies. Employing about 1m people, it has become one of the largest private sector employers in the country.
Purchased cheaply by African TV stations and wilfully pirated both in and outside Nigeria, Nollywood productions have turned their leading actors into continental celebrities. The likes of Genevieve Nnaji, Rita Dominic and Jim Iyke are regularly trotted out by Nigerian embassies for promotional roadshows.
The government may be using Nollywood to extend the country’s diplomatic reach, but it has been slow to formulate strategies to exploit the industry’s potential further. As in most African countries, the creative economy has developed before government policies have been devised.
The rise of Naija has recently interested the World Bank. In a report on the potential of creative economies, the Bank notes that exports of “creative goods” from developing countries more than doubled their share of the world economy from 20 per cent in 1996 to 42 per cent in 2005.
Recognising the potential of the Naija entertainment industry, the Bank recently launched a $200m fund to finance individual artists. Managed by the Nigerian Bank of Industry, the aim is to deepen links between art and entrepreneurship.
Working with the British Council, the initiative has so far trained 300 “creative entrepreneurs” and is engaging government and industry stakeholders to draft an intellectual property law.
“We discovered that while there was a huge number of people in the creative industry, they were not necessarily skilled business people,” says Ojoma Ochai, assistant director at the British Council.
But for Nollywood, as well as the Naija entertainment industry as a whole, the lack of government support has deepened the crisis of intellectual piracy.
Produced fast and cheap, Nollywood films arrive in Nigerian households through an informal but highly efficient distribution system set up by electronics traders selling video cassettes and recorders.
While Nollywood has gamely fought the pirates over the years, the failure of government agencies to clamp down on piracy, as well as official inertia in regulating intellectual property has deeply frustrated the industry. “Where is my government? I have worked in this industry for 20 years and have never seen the hand of government coming to support us, even as we are criticised for making poor quality films,” says Yinka Akanbi, a film director.
There is little doubt that piracy is the biggest problem. So much so, says Ms Ochai, that “the artists have now surrendered to the pirates”.
In the past, marketing was conducted independently of the pirates, she says. Today, established artists as well as hungry newcomers are willing to cut deals with pirates in the hope that subterranean marketing will raise their profiles.
Not everybody has given up just yet, however. The internet has provided producers with new ways of sidestepping the pirates. Increasingly, filmmakers and music producers are selling their wares online, using social networking sites as both marketing and distribution tools. And in Nollywood, there is an increasing recognition that the box office may be just as profitable as direct DVD sales.
“Before 2009, there was hardly any Naija film that wasn’t going straight to DVD. Now, you’re seeing a situation where at least two are heading straight to cinemas every month,” says Ms Ochai.
Naija music has adapted faster. At Storm 360, a leading record label in Lagos, online marketing has become part and parcel of the business.
“We’re more than just a record label. We like to look at ourselves as lifestyle producers. We build the artist as a brand, get him on to big shows and release the music online,” says Olisa Adibua, a co-director at Storm.
The label has also developed a unit devoted to marketing releases online. “There are 3.7m Nigerians on Facebook. Social networking has made it easier to market music, but it’s also taking the industry to another level. It’s like instant karma. You can start a spark without moving from the comfort of your bedroom,” says Mr Adibua.
Taking advantage of the power of the Naija brand, the label has also made links with record labels in east Africa to channel its music.
“When we were starting out, people were calling my father and asking him how he could let me pursue such a profession.
“Today, mothers are bringing their daughters to my record label,” he says.
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