Bob Ejike is a man of many parts. The multi-talented artiste started writing at 13, and made a mark in all the genres of show business in Nigeria before relocating to East Africa to help establish a movie industry. Ejike spoke to OMIKO AWA on Nollywood and his work in East Africa
Some say your claim of being the founder of Nollywood is baseless and untrue. How do you respond to this?
There is no salary, pension, royalty or residual fee for founding Nollywood. Therefore, I do not claim to have founded Nollywood. Incidentally, because the art is a profession that is practised in the light of day with an audience, sometimes a national audience as witnesses, it is difficult to claim fictitious accomplishments in the arts. For example, you can say you are the best mathematician and you discovered some rare theories and there is no way of proving that it is false because mathematics is practised in the seclusion of remote classrooms, but art is on communal stages, TV, radio, Internet, newspapers, magazines with the populace as witnesses.
I started writing short stories for Drum magazine at 13, sharing the same page with Ben Okri. I also wrote for Daily Star under the managing editorship of Cyprian Ekwensi and, with the evolution of radio, I dramatised my stories into radio drama and eventually TV drama, with actors participating. My dramas were presented on Radio/Television Kaduna, directed by Duro Solomon; Radio Nigeria, Enugu, directed by Jide Ogungbade; Radio Plateau, Jos, directed by Suleiman Adara; ABS Radio, directed by Emeka Ekpokoba; NTA Benin, directed by Festus Ighalo, to mention but a few.
This was in the 1970s. I managed a production company, which was financed by Moses Onyeabor, the elder brother of the celebrated musician, late William Onyeabor. My movies and productions were syndicated to TV houses and theatre groups nationwide and commercialised in VHS formats and sold in various Nigerian markets. As an emergent artiste, I worked with the late Professor Sonny Oti, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Professor Chinua Achebe and Chief Eddie Ugbomah.
I veered into music after tutelage under Rev. Chris Okotie. When I started producing movies in the 1970s, Olu Jacobs was still abroad; Pete Edochie was a radio broadcaster, and my beloved Richard Mofe-Damijo was an unknown University of Benin (UNIBEN) student, until we launched him with my 1982 revolutionary movie Echoes Of Wrath, which won the national award NAFEST, and Kenneth Nnebue of Living In Bondage fame was still in his village. My visible colleagues were Nkem Owoh (a.k.a Osuofia), Kanayo O. Kanayo, Ejike Asiegbu, Zulu Adigwe and others. Those who question my pioneering role in Nigerian film were not even born when I started film production, but they found a platform and do not know that simple people, not millionaires, died wretched to build that platform on which they now find fame and fortune, and all I ask of them is a little respect.
I just watched my friend Prince James Uche die; no one raised a finger to help him, but he was one of the greatest movie icons in Africa. I saw Ashley Nwosu, Sam Loko, Chris Orakpotobo, J.T. Tom West, Justus Esiri pass away. These were geniuses with whom I played against live cobras, facing death so that Africa would have a voice and an identity.
Twelve years before Living In Bondage, we sold Okpuru Anyanwu comedy series, which was produced in my village Oba, and it sold in every market in Nigeria. It must be understood that making a film that sells well on an existing platform doesn’t mean you started an industry. To start an industry like Nollywood is not the job of an illiterate because it involves serious thinking, with acutely intelligent, trained minds, years of consultation with specialists, exhibitions, seminars, symposia, screenings and promotion at the international level. Initially, I conceptualised a situation in which we could take away our dramas from stingy Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) middleman and sell them directly to the audience via VHS tapes and when I discussed it with my colleagues they laughed at me, saying it was impossible. I did it and Nollywood was born, and I spent the next 30 years in 22 countries giving lectures, publishing papers, carrying out exhibitions, talking on radio and TV, writing in newspapers, magazines, Internet portals, scripting, acting, singing, performing live, modeling, directing, producing, editing, publishing, marketing, spending the last kobo of my savings, selling my properties to promote and expand Nollywood so that the very creative Nigerian youths can have a future.
I spent over N1 billion to make Nollywood an international brand, and lived through much hardship and my friends said I should have invested my money in politics and won a senate seat, or built an estate and let the Nigerian artists go to hell, but I was adamant. I protested with Onyeka Onwenu and Charlie Boy in front of NTA, Victoria Island, Lagos, for artists’ residual fees, facing police guns and bullets and the only thing I got out of it is that those who have witnessed the works I have done and my sacrifices have honoured me with the Legend Award and recognise me as the Father of Nollywood, because they know that nobody living or dead has sacrificed more than me for this artistic revolution and that I am the Founding Father of Nollywood. Researchers from Harvard University quote me as the greatest authority in Nollywood and national governments consult me when they want to start a home video industry.
Were Nigerians not producing films before the effective emergence of Nollywood in the 1990s?
Nollywood did not emerge in the 1990s. Nollywood started with the commercialisation of my film, Echoes of Wrath in 1982. Thereafter, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Basi And Company series was sold in VHS; an Igbo version of Things Fall Apart (not the version with Pete Edochie) was also on sale, and so was New Masquerade, and subsequently our production, Okpuru Anyanwu. Of course, Nigerians were producing celluloid films for the film theatres; no one had put a film on tape and sold it. Herbert Ogunde, Ola Balogun, Duro Ladipo, Eddie Ugbomah and others made box office movies. John Chukwu’s Amadi was there; Bisi: Daughter of the River was there, too, but they were not home video films. The actual commercialisation of motion picture into a viable and rewarding industry came with home video, thanks to the electronic traders who sponsored this movement.
You used to be a popular face on TV in the 80s and 90s. Why are you still not in the movies?
In much of the last decade, I have been on diplomatic posting for my second country, Italy in Uganda and Dubai, and I spent one year on performing tour of the U.S.. I have been recording, performing and filming on the international mainstream platform. In the last 10 years, I have recorded over 100 movies, about 100 songs and 40 music videos, which you can watch and listen to on about 1500 websites. In the last one year, I have been in London and I have been the protagonist of a major U.K. government campaign against child slavery entitled, Have You Heard? Modern Slavery (check it on Youtube). It is on major TV networks in the U.K. and globally. It is true that my face dominated Nigerian television in the 80s and 90s, but my father told me that you don’t watch masquerade from one spot. I am presently recording soundtracks for Warner Brothers on the world stage and I will take Nollywood to the global mainstream.
What informed your venture into music?
I recently featured in seven movies in Nigeria, including Zeb Ejiro’s Merciful, Chico Ejiro’s Ije Uwa, Inikpi, The Most Beautiful Girl, The Angel (with Juliet Ibrahim, which has been shown several times on U.K. TV, The Gamble, and I wrote and acted in the DVSV hit soap opera Nollywood Scandals, which is currently running on global satellite. So, I don’t understand it when someone says I left movies. I have always worked as an actor, singer, producer, director, editor, writer, TV presenter, model concurrently, effectively facing the challenges of eight talented people operating in eight highly competitive professions.
You have traversed all genres of entertainment from writing to acting, singing and even show promotion. Which do you enjoy most?
It’s like asking which of your children you love most. I love challenges and get bored easily. So if I find that this area is no longer exciting and increasing my heartbeat, I switch to the other, but most people say I am best at writing.
You were in East Africa to promote Nollywood and help establish a movie industry. How do you see showbiz there? Can it be compared to what we have in Nigeria?
I lived in Uganda for six years and visited Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi and South Sudan, but the bulk of my enterprise was in Uganda, where I sited my studio and Professor Bob Ejike Foundation for Performing Arts (Probe). I worked with former minister and presidential adviser, General Elly Tumwine on the Ugawood project, which was more or less an effort at replicating Nollywood in Uganda. I recorded and performed with most of the superstars of that region. My art permeated the country to such an extent that I was known as Ki Nigeria, meaning ‘Nigerian film,’ and by the time I left Uganda, Nollywood had taken over from Hollywood in the whole of East Africa, as the major fount for home entertainment.
Ugandans take me as one of their local artistes and they still call me and say, ‘Bob, when are you coming home,’ because they take me as their own. Uganda has more aggressive musicians; the people have a culture of attending concerts and shows almost on a daily basis. So, all the beaches and local pubs are packed all weekends, but Nigeria has, by far, a greater population, which ultimately means more patronage and better-trained and more experienced technicians, producers, cameramen, and editors, and one of the biggest CD marketing networks in the world, thanks to Nollywood.
How would you rate today’s performers? Are they as creative as those from the past in terms of production quality?
Frankly, I think it isn’t fair to compare the older generation of artistes, who worked so hard to build the industry with the new generation that simply walked in and inherited a bed of roses. The new generation has the benefit of improved recording technology, corporate endorsement and, having studied the old ones, they now know their pitfalls. So, it is only natural that they should produce better and quality music, both from the creative and production perspectives. This is the reason we built the platform.
Do you still hold the view that pirates help popularise artistes’ works, considering the damage they inflict on artists’ income?
Do you remember the context within which I made that statement? I was by no means implying that it is a nice thing to have your work pirated. In fact, I advocated for maximum prison sentence for pirates because it is the same thing as currency counterfeiting. I just observed that they have become so strong that when they start stealing from an artiste, the artiste becomes very popular, which is still a fact, but this is precisely why we have incredibly famous paupers in Nigerian arts.
How can artistes best safeguard their works from being pirated and be better rewarded?
In these days of streaming and e-commerce when you don’t even know which part of the world the pirate is operating from, it is extremely difficult. But if pirates are reined in by government and residual fees are guaranteed, which means that as long as a work of art is selling the artiste should be getting royalties and not the one-off payment that has pauperised our artistes, there would be hope.