The recent call by the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Professor Mahmood Yakubu, for Nigerian celebrities to “utilise their platforms to promote voter education, youth inclusion and non-violent participation in the 2019 elections”, is a good one. However, it got me thinking – should he have even had to call for it?
Nigerian society is a broken one, I don’t think anyone can deny that. The obsessive celebration of financial success is not uncommon to the rest of the world but, combined with our peculiar interpretation of democracy and scandalous leadership, it makes for a society that can hardly claim to have any kind of dream at which to point a compass. Indeed the true Nigerian dream may be to leave Nigeria. The politicians, as is their wont, are happy to exploit this in their effort to divide and conquer. After all, they profit from it.
So where can the push for social justice come from? Oppressed societies have historically had heroes and heroines, people who would call it like it is (many times satirically) with neither fear nor favor and damn the consequences. These champions of social justice many times emerge from fields such as philosophy, religion and the like. But there are many others who come from the arts (singers, painters, writers, filmmakers, etc) or from the press. Where are ours?
Nigerian press is woefully lacking in objectivity, it saddens me to say. When I read the news, I often read the same story from 2 or 3 different newspapers because it’s difficult to rely on one source whose other reports are so clearly slanted so I look for both extremes because the truth usually lies somewhere in-between. In truth, though, most reporters are too hungry to find the energy for unbiased objectivity anyway. And since I have previously written on the limitations of the Nigerian press, I needn’t flog that horse again here. Maybe in the future we can examine the Nigerian religious culture in some depth, but for this piece I’ll just focus on the arts.
L’Art pour L’Art?
The arts? Well, they’re arguably even more hungry, despite (or because of) their bigger pay checks. It wasn’t all that long ago that the indomitable Fela would get regularly thrown in jail, emerge from it, and pick up right where he left off. These days? Well, many famous musicians deem fit to quote Fela, but show little interest in pursuing anything resembling his legacy.
The Nigerian movie industry, I find, is a particular culprit. There are generally 2 kinds of viewers of Nigerian movies in my experience. There are those who see even the most purportedly serious ones as some kind of comedy. Then there are those who follow them religiously and engorge themselves on this medium of entertainment. However, even among the ones who follow these films with careless abandon, many of them do so for the laughter appeal. There may be Nigerian films that can be seen without laughing, though I cannot recall them at present. For clarity’s sake, there is nothing wrong with a good comedy, or even any type of good entertainment. But the main purpose of art, in my opinion, is not simply to entertain.
“Anyone who thinks education and entertainment are different doesn’t know much about either.”– Marshall McLuhan
Art changes the world through many means, but the most endearing to me (and arguably most effective) is through satire. There is a fantastic breakdown of what satire is that you can read here. It may be a bit long for some, but one quote which persists (though itself borrowed from elsewhere) is that satire is intended to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” It is difficult to think of many items in mainstream Nigerian media these days that meets that benchmark.
The Fun Factory
As I write this, there is a Nigerian film playing on the television before me. Other people are watching. But what they see is people who are seemingly below them. Maybe not financially or any other such material benchmark, but mentally and intellectually.
Here is what I mean. One of the great abilities of movies, songs, acting and other such artworks is that the audience gets to see the bigger picture that the characters cannot. This gives a sense of empowerment. It also creates a sense of inevitability though. Think about horror movies and how they make you want to scream at the actors to take a different path. They cannot hear you, they do not know what you know. But you are aware of what they do and do not know. Most times, you want to save them, but can’t. It’s a fantastic emotional trick where you have to watch, knowing what will happen, but being unable to affect it.
And this is what Nigerian films play on, to a fault. In fact, one could argue that the extremely bad acting (which becomes comical at a point) is an unconscious ploy to perpetuate this system of complacency in viewers. Even the apparent complete disregard of cinematography, character development and direction seems geared toward giving the viewers a feeling of superiority which they possibly cannot get in other areas of life(political, social, etc). Strong words? Maybe. But potentially truer than many others. I would argue that even the person of lowest station who watches a Nigerian film feels superior to the comic characters in it, who are possibly not trying to be satirical or even comical.
I do not mean to belittle anyone. In all likelihood, the producers, directors and actors probably do believe they are providing much needed relief to a suffering population. I just believe differently.
I’m reminded a little bit of those scam emails. You know the one – a Nigerian prince needs to move a ridiculous amount of money somewhere and somehow got your email address. The emails contain serious grammatical errors and lack the fluidity of a professional email, which makes many of us wonder who on earth would fall for this. But there’s a theory that the emails are intentionally crafted that way to sift out people like you who wouldn’t fall for the tricks to come later. In the same way, Nigerian movies are probably designed to be dismissed by people like me but warmly received, even adulated, by their true intended audience.
Of course there are some who, possibly without thinking it in these terms, feel the weight of responsibility on their shoulders and know that they represent more than just their bank accounts. But these people are few and far between. I do know of a few of them, but the vast majority appear to conform to a standard which is much less inspiring, which describes no social challenge, nor presents any sequence which inspires viewers, no reasons for them to strive for greater or even think differently. Rather it is an easy ride; a chance to watch some king’s jesters, laugh at them, feel no personal responsibility, and move on. This is in the interest of most movie makers and artists, after all, because they see their business as providing a good time, rather like a prostitute or (if they’re any good) a drug dealer.
I am not implying that every production should be about education or social justice, far from it. Pragmatically, there has to be a great diversification in the different works being produced – some religious (To God be the Glory), some satirical, some educational, some revolutionary. After all, “it takes all sorts to make a world.”
But for me, the entertainment industry needs to realize that it has duties and responsibilities to the society which it purports to serve. I do appreciate that profits need to be made and that it is a cut throat business but are you really trying to wait until it’s easy? After all, Fela did it when there was tons less money, and even some directors and artists today carry it (relatively) well when there is this much money, then there is little excuse. Indeed it has been successfully done in other climes, from satirists shortly before the French Revolution to rap artists in the late 1980s. Truth be told, it is not an either-or equation because you can produce meaningful quality AND get paid handsomely for it.
But then again, maybe art is truly just a reflection of the times in which it is created. By this I mean that perhaps the unwillingness or inability of our art forms to serve as a vehicle for social justice is simply a reflection of a greater trend in Nigerian society which ignores the perils of the country and tries to simply enjoy life today. Viewing the issue through this prism, the creators and artists are pretty much blameless because they are simply mirrors reflecting the values the rest of us hold dearest. If that’s the case then maybe I’ve been too harsh on them and you should forget everything you just read.
I mentioned what a social justice work of art is supposed to be. I should therefore give an example of one. For lovers of artwork, this site is worth a look. I’m not very big on art though, so I’ll talk about a film. It is unfortunate that I cannot mention a single Nigerian (or indeed African, through no fault of theirs) film that can rival the American movie “12 Angry Men”, much less surpass it. Anyone who has seen the film will understand my meaning, I’m sure. For those who haven’t, it is a film which depicts a few hours where the beliefs of a group of 12 male jurors are affronted, then argued and then, finally, almost all are changed. It is an old movie (1957, to be exact) which I saw many years ago, but which stays with me to this day. I highly recommend it.