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‘Who no Know go Know’: when Africa’s creative economy took centre-stage at Felabration 2023

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  • October 20, 2023
  • 13 min read
‘Who no Know go Know’: when Africa’s creative economy took centre-stage at Felabration 2023

* The creative industry is like Banana Republic without National Cultural Policy, says Anikulapo

* Writing has been a lot like Nigeria’s crude oil; we ship out our best literary voices and buy them back, says Shoneyin

* ‘What we have is literary colonialism; it’s worst in literature’

Moderating Fela Debates 2023, Obi Asika (left);Oye Akindeinde; Lola Shoneyin; Thembi Mpungose Niklas and Jahman Anikulapo

By Godwin Okondo

FELABRATION, one of the most anticipated festivals in Nigeria, dedicated to celebrating the late music icon, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, began on Monday, October 9, 2023 with the 15th edition of ‘Fela Debates’ 2023. It had as theme, ‘Who no Know go Know: Leveraging on the Global Rise of our Creative Economy,’ and featured a panel of distinguished professionals in the creative sector. They included the CEO of Storm 360 Record label, Mr. Obi Asika, which also served as anchor, writer and publisher, Lola Shoneyin, journalist and culture communicator, Mr. Jahman Anikulapo, a South African lawyer and active player in the creative sector, Thembi Mpungose Niklas and the General Manager of Music Services for AIRTEL Group, Mr. Oye Akindeinde. The engaging discussion took place at NECA House, Ikeja, Lagos. Freedom Park takes the bulk of festival activities that end on Sunday, October 15.

Before now, Felebration’s ‘Fela Debates’ usually focuses on Nigeria’s failing, nebulous politics and its myriad of problems. But this year, organisers took a break and focused instead on the medium through Fela threw his political jibes: the creative economy, as a welcome, wholesome diversion from the bleak political landscape further exacerbated by the incongruous last election.

Asika, who was the moderator for the debate, said in his opening remarks, “Stepping on the Felabration stage is like a rite of passage, and I’m happy we have a ministry for the creative economy which serves as a driver for this. This is a wide space that will be able to deliver jobs to a lot of people, and this is a big moment for us Nigerians, because when our music grows, it takes along the Nigerian personality. Nigerians should appreciate what lies within this sector.

“Nigeria is manifesting all over the world, and a lot of people are working with institutions, which is why training is important, so we need to upscale our capacity through the entire space to unlock opportunities. Nigerian influencers usually have millions of followers, but can’t monetize via digital platforms by making their followers their customers. For those of us who have been entrepreneurs in this space for the last 20 years, we know that nobody waits for the government. We understood what needs to be done, and we did it, and now we have the power of attraction like Nollywood, which made Netflix and Amazon Prime to come to the continent.”

Shoneyin likened current Nigerian, nay African literature to how Nigeria’s crude oil is being handled, where Nigeria sells crude oil but has to buy back petrol for domestic usage. Sadly, literary validation, she argued, flows from the West, so Nigerian writers must first seek that validation outside before shipping back the products for the domestic market.

“I’ve spent the last ten years getting jealous of people in fashion, film, because these are being discussed more than literature, and I don’t know if it’s got something to do with the immediate classification of the other branches creativity offers,” Shoneyin said ruefully. “One of the theories I’ve had about creativity in literature, it fails because we haven’t created a market for it, and I have studied this since I found my publishing house when I was 23.

“Taking books to a literary festivals and running a bookshop, I know what the traffic is like. I know the effort I put in to make talking about books attractive. Writing over the last 18 years has been a lot like Nigeria’s crude oil. We ship out our best literary voices and buy them when they come back. When you write a book, you ask what success means to you, and lots of times, success is closely tied to international recognition. The first thing to look for, as a writer, is an agent in the West (global North – America, UK, Canada), and they find you a publisher who publishes your book and eventually it filters back to Africa and we have to buy our literature, in terms of the right to it.

Femi Kuti (left) and other guests at Fela Debates 2023

“The worst part about having to buy your stories is that as a publisher, now wanting to buy Nigerian stories, the publisher in the West will say they cannot give you the rights to a story by your own people. I call it literary colonialism, and that’s what is happening now in all the sectors, but we have it worse in literature. What we need to do is put an infrastructure in place, so that success can be tied to just being a successful writer in Nigeria or Africa, and that includes growing the consumers.”

It was heart-breaking what Shoneyin found when she recently visited Kenya: “I visited a place in Kenya which had a row of bookstores four weeks ago, and every single one had a pirated version of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. I don’t know whether to feel happy or sad, because a lot of people are reading the book but nothing is coming back to the producers. Publishing and printing, in many ways, have kind of become the domain of older people, but as the world evolves we must find ways to create books. Without these individuals being properly trained, we cannot create products we can export effectively.”

Anikulapo could not hide his disgust at the entire creative landscape, especially government’s perennial failure to activate the National Culture Policy. He quoted copiously from the document launched in 1988 and in need of update and implementation. He said several retreats organised to update the document were mere jamborees by civil servants to line up their pockets, as nothing was ever achieved. According to Anikulapo, the 1988 document, though needing revision, contains important provisions for all sectors of the creative economy to thrive, from theatre, literature, film, fashion, visual arts to festivals, etc. It remains a mystery for him and other creatives why that important document is yet to see the light of day. His summation was simply that Nigeria is not a serious nation.

“The problem in the creative industry is not production,” he said. “How do we distribute what we produce when we haven’t fixed our problems? I gave a similar talk at Quramo Festival of Words recently where I said we are not a serious nation. A sector that generates a lot of money, and second only to churches in terms of employment; the people employed in the creative industry are the new middle class citizens. But what is the system doing to help them?

“I don’t know how many of us know of the document called the National Cultural Policy of Nigeria. It was the first document I wrote on when I joined The Guardian in 1987, and up till now we don’t have a cultural policy to help the creative industry to push works out there. The Copyright Commission, National Council for Arts and Culture, Nigerian Film and Video Censors Board — everything is in this document. Every year we were invited to Abuja, and I got tired. I attend these workshops every year, and when we get to the meeting to review the cultural policy, the first thing they talked about was: ‘who is producing the bag, who’s making the food, and arranging the hotel?’ We don’t get to discuss the document, and this document has remained in the cooler. A lot of people don’t know about it, and this is supposed to help you produce and push your work out there.”

Anikulapo outlined some of the vital provisions in the National Cultural Policy that should help all players in the creative industry benefit: “In the National Cultural Policy, there’s provision for the National Endowment Fund. I was pained that Lola (Shoneyin) wanted to stop Ake (Arts and Book Festival) last year. The endowment fund says that every corporate organization in Nigeria will draw up a percentage from that fund. There’s also something regarding piracy control in this document. There’s also an academy for the arts where you go to get trained, the same way lawyers go to law school (after graduating from university). A country without a constitution is a Banana Republic, and that’s what the creative industry is right now.

“You hardly find companies that have survived over a hundred years because we don’t have structures to keep them running. Refineries are getting repaired every year, yet we don’t produce fuel. The government should create cultural policies that guide us, and employ people that would guide our organizations — people who know how to do the job. Nigeria is a country that is known to sign a lot of treaties, but nothing is done with them, and we are also not informed. We need to interrogate the people involved.”

Akindeinde said Nigerian publishers needed to do better by keeping pace with technology by transforming texts to modern media for accessibility: “I have kids, and it’s been hard getting them some Nigerian authors to read, because those books don’t even exist any more, and what their peers are talking about is Diary of a Wimpy Kid. So, the interest is not there. I’ve even tried to get Nigerian authors we read, but they’re all at premium price. We need to be better with technology and move at a pace our target audience is going. Whether the format changes from visual to audio-visual, we need to adapt and move in the same direction.”

While Nigerian creative bemoan a lack of infrastructure and point at South Africa as a model, the South African, Niklas said that was far from the truth, as South Africa also struggles with infrastructure, but that they tend to manage it better. She said African creatives needed to do better to get themselves out there in the global arena.

“Are we serious about creating infrastructure and having a creative economy which we can take to the world?, Niklas asked. “I like it that people reference South Africa, because people assume there’s infrastructure. We have the same problem, but we just dress them better, based on the region. We need to think about what happens when we leverage our skill, then we walk back. We need to own something about ourselves, because we are prune to speaking about what doesn’t work and what the disadvantages are, and that is why we are not looking serious, and we are focusing on the wrong thing — the disadvantages. It’s good to work towards an advantage, so that when you identify the disadvantage, you’re doing that with the reason of solving it.

“The way we measure success is by having someone being in your corner, and this is a lack of network capacity in Africa. We are all very brilliant people. Africa would not stand as it is standing despite it’s challenges. We say Nigeria is hot because we are not seeing the capacities here. No one should tell us what to say about ourselves, and how to say it, and how to share it with the world. Something is wrong with an economy if we are buying our stories outside.”

“The first book I read was Chinua Achebe’s Girls at War, and I was four years old at the time, and I didn’t understand the concept then, but what that did for me was that before I read Elizabeth Gilbert, a foreign author, I would read a Chimamanda first; I would read a Lola first. There are so many African writers. That’s where the custodianship comes from. We need to start fighting for ourselves and be unapologetic about it.

Sax duty at Felabration 2023: Imade Kuti; Femi Kuti and Seun Kuti

“Something is wrong when we are distributing music, and we have to share translations with the global market. No one is translating anything into Zulu for me to listen to. That on its own is wrong. These are the micro-issues, but they also affect the macro-issues, and that’s why I’m saying let’s walk back, because that would help us make sure the micro and macro are working together. Infrastructure is an Africa problem and it’s not unique to Nigeria. We need to start talking about infrastructure as the problem and something we need to solve. We need to figure out what we can do with what we have. We’ve allowed the world to colonize us and still speak for us. Something is wrong in the world where artists cannot fill stadiums here because we are still talking about the naira-dollar exchange as opposed to the social impact.”

Akideinde also stretched the argument further on the contracting level, where new artistes could fall prey to predatory contractual procedure and sign away his rights for life without knowing it.

“Artistes have always been exploited with signing contracts, without knowing they’re signing away their publishing right for life. So, the first thing to do as an artiste is to get a good lawyer, either an established one or one that will grow along with you in your trade. There are times where songs are written and it becomes a hit, and the songwriter doesn’t even know the song is a hit. As long as the artiste and producer don’t sign a work-for-hire contract, the producer still owns a percentage of that song.

“Most artistes just want to make money from their songs, shows and endorsements. I’ve seen contracts where they say they can only give rights to Nigerian audience, because they’ve given the rights to someone else. If the lawyer looks at the contract, he can refuse, and it all comes down to negotiation. A new artiste can’t find his way like an old one. Signing a contract with Don Jazzy, he might ask for eighty per cent of the song, but that’s negotiation, because he could make that song a hit. You need to build yourself. Most prosperous people don’t wait for the government. People need to apply education as the first step, and a means to empowerment.”

While partly speaking for government and the creative ecosystem, the Director-General of Nigeria Copyright Commission (NCC), Dr. John Asein said it was important to keep pointing out areas of lack or gaps by government with a view to redressing them. He said there was a need to reevaluate the National Cultural Policy in view of modern tendencies such as technology, especially Artificial Intelligence (AI). He, however, admitted to the huge gaps that needed to be closed. He made inference as to how everyone is sleeping in the same room and having the same nightmares, adding that it was only by working together that the nightmare jinx could be broken. He said the issues plaguing the creative sector were the same which only collective action could held eliminate. As usual he pledged his commitment to efforts to reposition the creative sector, adding that it was why the copyright commission was on the path of innovation with laws that strengthen the fight against piracy and other forms of criminality in the creative sector.

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