22 October 2012
Posted in Theatre
Writer and producer Ade Solanke on the African new wave
It’s made Afrobeats a global sensation and Nollywood the second largest film business in the world. Now the vitality and verve of Nigerian popular culture is set to burst onto the English cultural scene.
One day in August a friend tweeted, ‘D’Banj is playing on EastEnders,’ and I had to stand still for a moment to process the news. An African song on a British soap about the East End but with no African characters? What the Dickens?!
But if you’ve been paying attention, it’s no surprise really. More like the first gust onto these shores of a massive wind of change that’s blowing worldwide; a wind generated in Africa but equally propelled by the energies of the Afrospora – the African diaspora – especially its younger generation.
Afrosporans, Afropeans, Afro-Saxons. They live in London, New York, Paris, Munich, but are keen to connect with their roots as much as they are in - and into - western culture. The result? An explosion, a veritable renaissance of African culture, mashing up and remixing African, American and European influences.
Africa Utopia at the South Bank in London in July, Africa Weekend at the Royal Opera House in September … African and Africa-inspired culture is in vogue. It's reshaping the global cultural landscape (in film, fashion, you name it) and, along the way, impacting the fortunes of British-African writers and other artists.
We'll come to that. But behind all this are seismic shifts in the global economy, with Africa (50 years after the winds of change of decolonisation) rising to its economic potential. The 21st Century seems set to be as much Africa's as it is China's, and Nigeria (or Naija), Africa's most populous nation (160 million strong) is working towards being one of the top 20 economies by 2020.
With his aforementioned top 20 hit, ‘Oliver Twist,’ Brit-Naija star D’Banj (like P-Square, Tuface and Asa) has become one of the most prominent ambassadors of the cultural dimension of the new wave. He's signed to Kanye West’s record label and has a sell-out US national tour.
His pop is inspired by his African heritage and original Afrobeat, the sound created and popularised by the Nigerian icon, Fela Kuti. Fela's music (itself a fusion of Nigerian Highlife and Jazz) inspired the multi-award-winning broadway show, Fela! That raked in $50 million and seems to have been the wake-up call behind the Nigerian government's now serious interest in harnessing the commercial potential of their creative industries.
But the impact of D'Banj's Afrobeats anthem is as much due to his Euro background as it is his African one. Oliver Twist! How apt that in the year of Dickens’ bicentenary, a London-born, British-Nigerian has brought one of our greatest writer's most enduring characters into the pop charts. As one commentator observed, for a whole generation, Oliver Twist won’t be recognised as a classic from English literature, but as an African pop tune.
As a British-Nigerian writer, I’m thrilled by the rise of Africa’s creative and cultural industries. I also totally get why D’Banj tuned into Twist, and why audiences have, in turn, responded to his song. Little Oliver’s Victorian hunger for ‘more’, as re-invoked by D’Banj (who relocated to Nigeria when his talent and great expectations hit a brick wall in Britain), speaks directly to so many parts of contemporary British society.
I name-checked the same character myself at a conference on the African creative economy in Kenya last year. Talking to fellow artists, artistic directors, theatre producers from across the continent, I’d been amazed at their receptiveness to my play, Pandora’s Box. I wrote of the experience: 'If Oliver Twist had asked, "may I have some more?” here, he'd have been bombarded with the answer, “Yes!" '
Now ‘more’ – African and African-inspired arts and culture – is on the way.
How and why? First, because, audiences on the continent and in the diaspora are supporting it, hungrily. The appetite for Nigeria's Nollywood films speaks volumes: consumers are bored with the negative stereotypes about Africa and Africans (war, famine, disease, yawn, yawn) and eagerly investing their black pounds/naira/cedis in realistic depictions of their lives.
Second, many African economies are on the rise, spawning a burgeoning middle-class with more disposable income to spend on recreation and leisure. Nigeria is forecast by the IMF to experience 7% growth next year and for the foreseeable future (along with other nations like Kenya, Tanzania and Ghana). It has enough arable land to feed itself and produce a surplus for export. Lagos, its commercial capital, is set to become the world’s third largest city in the next decade or so. The country is an energy superpower with vast (untapped) natural gas resources and oil. Loads of it.
Third, there's that growing recognition that the nation’s wealth is not just in the black gold, but also cultural gold. Nollywood has shown there is a huge appetite for Nigerian stories all over the world. The quantity and quality of the films are increasing to match that demand.
And just as Bollywood tapped into artists as well as audiences in the Indian diaspora, so too are links between made between Nollywood and the Nigerian diaspora.
One of the ways the new wave is having an impact on British-African writers is in terms of practical support for their work. This year, 24 young UK-born and based Nigerian-heritage artists are being supported by the Nigerian government, in a cultural Olympiad initiative with Theatre Royal Stratford East.
Another development is partnerships between experienced 'home-grown' artists and diaspora producers/ artists/ storytellers. I'm writing a script for award-winning director Tunde Kelani and I know many other British-Nigerian writers, actors and directors who are teaming up on projects with their counterparts in Nigeria.
An important impact of the new wave is psychological. It’s been inspiring to see audiences flocking to the African plays and films that have been on in London over the last few years.
This May there were three British-Nigerian plays on in London (my debut, Pandora's Box, included). We were worried that this would split the audience. The result was the opposite. They were each lapped up. Many people made a point of seeing all three! I spoke to several members of my audience who said they had never been to the theatre before.
The old notion ‘there’s no audience your work’ has been refuted by this enthusiastic support. The supply made the demand even more evident.
This success is due in no small part to the Arts Council's investment in developing new writing and new theatre audiences. Through its work with companies like Tiata Fahodzi and Talawa, writers like myself have had vital support to develop new work and feed these new markets. Fahodzi first commissioned my play and supported its development. I also took part in Powerlab, a Cultural Leadership Programme initiative with B3 Media. This linked me up with a mentor, Jon Harris, who helped me produce Pandora’s Box.
Professor Osita Okagbue and Goldsmith College's Pinter Centre for New Writing were also sources of great support.
The rapturous audience response to my play (standing ovations and queues of autograph hunters for the cast after each show!) has boosted my confidence in not just my writing, but also in writing stories about British-Africans. ‘Write white characters,’ a writer friend once kindly advised me after yet another rejection slip. I do, and enjoy doing so. I've lived in England all my life so I can write about all of us. I see no reason to pigeon-hole myself. But I believe stories about black people are as valuable as any others.As are stories with black female protagonists. But in British TV, film and theatre, these are like unicorns: the stuff of myth. The recent film Fast Girls was a rare and refreshing example of a British film with a black female lead.
The first line of dialogue in Brian Friel's 1980s play Dancing At Lughnasa is: ‘When are we going to get a decent mirror to see ourselves in?’ Many African writers have been asking themselves that for ages. The answer is, now.
We can express ourselves and explore the richness and variety of our lives and experiences, without the usual stereotypes. Those are still being peddled, but now there’s a competing narrative. The fact that we see (and show) ourselves as we are is mind-expanding – for all Britons.
The black characters in the new African films are there as protagonists, not sub-plot characters (the best friend, the help). They’re leading the action and filling the emotional heart of stories. They’re making choices, as active agents in the shaping oftheir own destiny. They are the stars.
It's always surprised me that the commercial potential of the British-African story has been so ignored. I've always been inspired by the uniqueness of my story as a ‘British-born.’ As a child I was acutely aware of how weird and wonderful that experience was.
Through my company, Spora Stories, I’m telling the dynamic stories of the African diaspora. What’s dynamic about them? Well, being in a diaspora can be like being a fish out of water. The tensions between 'here' and 'there’, the departures, the arrivals and the returns. The ruptured relationships (some ruined forever, some to be repaired) between parents and children, siblings, lovers …the diaspora condition is inherently dramatic, full of compromises, regrets, yearnings, of losses and gains. It's fertile ground for storytellers.
For example, in recent years we’ve had a glut of plays and screen stories about troubled youth, black and otherwise, but very little about the story of how diaspora parents struggle to raise their children in spite of the pressures of being in a new land.
Pandora’s Box is about an increasingly common response: British-born parents of African-Caribbean heritage taking their British-born children back ‘home’ to Africa or the Caribbean. They’re changing not just schools, but also continents. To my knowledge, there has never been a play about that subject on the British stage.
The play was on at the Arcola in May and the response was quite tremendous. Being nominated in the Offies for Best New Play is a terrific honour. I was equally stunned by the audience response. Several people came to see it three times, returning with mothers, sisters, sons. But the high spot for me was the row of six-year-olds who sat through its 1 hour and 45 minutes (no interval) without fidgeting, pinching or giggling. That’s when I really knew we’d done something right!
We’re telling stories that haven’t been told before and foregrounding British-African experience. But, like D'Banj, I also drew on my Euro-American influences when designing the story. Citizen Kane was one inspiration. Like my main character, a British-Nigerian mother, Mrs Kane sends her son away to better his life chances. I simply made my mother less resolute and designed a story around her indecision.
Having studied screenwriting at USC Film School in LA and worked as a story analyst in Hollywood, I’m steeped in American film classics of the 1940s and 1950s. Films like Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Sunset Boulevard all display the crisp dialogue, complex relationships and deftly-orchestrated action characteristic of the best work of that era. No CGI to dazzle and distract the audience with, just great characters in struggle, discovering truths about themselves and each other.
I was recently part of New World Nigeria, a celebration of Nigeria’s arrival on the global scene, organised by Nigeria’s Bank of Industry and the Nigerian Olympic Committee to showcase the nation’s culture. I took part in a series of panels on Nigerian literature, organised by Nigeria’s Committee For Relevant Arts (CORA) and the British Council.
Bank of Industry has part-funded (along with the BFI) the forthcoming screen adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s best-selling novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. The screenwriter and director is Nigerian Biyi Bandele. It will star British actors Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor, and is produced by Andrea Calderwood (Last King of Scotland) and Gail Egan (The Constant Gardener).
I hope it ushers in a new wave of thinking in British film and TV and helps remove the age-old bar still blocking black writers from contributing to these vital areas of our national life.
With African-heritage British athletes like Mo Farah winning gold medals for Britain, isn't it strange and ridiculous that we have so few British-African characters on TV? We have no British-African families at all in any of the many communities depicted in our various soaps!
What are the prospects for doing in plays, film and TV what artists are doing in music – using both our English and diaspora heritage to develop existing formats and devise new material? Material that's really commercially viable in being able to appeal toseveral different audience segments at once?
What if every community was able to contribute to the cultural success of our nation, just as so many have contributed to its sporting success?
The African-American diaspora story is a real earner for the US, contributing to the coffers in music, film and TV. Independent filmmaker Tyler Perry's legion of faithful fans pay top dollar for his diverse material, making him a one-man studio in the process. Within the network system, my USC classmate, Shonda Rhimes, makes Grey's Anatomy, a huge domestic and international hit. Why don't we sell our diversity and use our black talent like that?
The world came to London in 2012, yes, and many leading artists from around the globe joined in the Cultural Olympiad festival.
But the world was already here. It’s been here for decades. And Danny Boyle's Olympics opening show screened that for all the world to see. Are we ready to screen the same story consistently to UK audiences, and to tap into the commercial potential of that Britain?