In this comprehensive study of Nollywood stardom around the world, Noah A. Tsika explores how the industry’s top on-screen talents have helped Nollywood to expand beyond West Africa and into the diaspora to become one of the globe's most prolific and diverse media producers. Carrying VHS tapes and DVDs onto airplanes and publicizing new methods of film distribution, the stars are active agents in the global circulation of Nollywood film. From Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde’s cameo role on VH1’s popular seriesHit the Floorto Oge Okoye’s startling impersonation of Lady Gaga, this book follows Nollywood stars from Lagos to London, Ouagadougou, Cannes, Paris, Porto-Novo, Sekondi-Takoradi, Dakar, Accra, Atlanta, Houston, New York, and Los Angeles. Tsika tracks their efforts to integrate into various entertainment cultures, but never to the point of effacing their African roots.
About the Author
Noah A. Tsika is Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Queens College, City University of New York.
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Media and Migration in West Africa and the Diaspora
By Noah A. Tsika
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2015 Noah A. Tsika
All rights reserved.
From Yorùbá to YouTube
Studying Nollywood's Star System
When Nollywood star Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde was shooting the VH1 drama series Hit the Floor in February, 2013, she started live-tweeting from the set, describing the Paramount lot and calling her colleague Kimberly Elise "a beautiful Method actor." That tweet in particular seemed to say so much all at once: that a Nollywood star can thrive when 8,000 miles from home and filming scenes with an American costar; that she can classify that costar's performance style according to what is perhaps the most revered model of realist acting; that she can join forces with a fellow woman of color in order to furnish a reflection of global "girl power" (the tweet came with the hashtag "GirlsRock"); and that she can define her own ever-evolving identity as a truly boundless one. This tweet alone displays the notion that Nollywood's star system well equips its constituents to achieve expansive success. Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde has, as she says, "the power" to infiltrate American popular culture; the proof is in the Instagram photos that she provides—the charming self-portraits of the Nigerian star weaving her way through a Melrose Avenue lot with the legendary Paramount banner as a backdrop.
When a star like Omotola travels to Hollywood, she demonstrates the possibility of respecting Nollywood's specificity—its celebrated self-development outside of state support and foreign subsidies—while simultaneously linking it, via the visibility of stardom itself, to production sites in Los Angeles. VH1's Hit the Floor may not represent a Hollywood-Nollywood coproduction in the conventional economic sense, but it still makes use of a performer whose star was born within the boundaries of southern Nigerian films. Conceivably, Jalade-Ekeinde's travels to Hollywood help shed light upon the singularity of Nollywood without necessarily introducing a qualitative dimension or suggesting a hierarchical relationship between the two industries. If Nollywood develops star performers whose identities become so widely known and so wildly popular that Hollywood begins to take notice, and if such stars as Jalade-Ekeinde accept acting gigs in Los Angeles, then Nollywood and Hollywood do not necessarily converge in typical ways. VH1's Hit the Floor is not, after all, an international co-production; it remains very much an American project. But one of its performers is a Nollywood legend.
FROM TELEVISION TO "CINEMA": BILLING VIDEO STARS
In focusing on Jalake-Ekeinde's actions in Hollywood, I am perhaps getting ahead of myself. How, after all, did the actress become a star in the first place? What is her persona's special significance in Nollywood, and how does the industry develop stars more generally? Such questions are rarely asked in scholarship on Nollywood, if only because the matters of narrative, aesthetics, economics, and access—not to mention of nation, region, race, and culture—have been so pressing. But one could easily argue that without stars, such industrial factors simply would not matter, precisely because Nollywood, as popularly defined, would not really exist. "Evidence of a Nigerian star system dates back at least as early as 1992," writes Stefan Sereda, "apparent in the opening credits of the best-selling Living in Bondage." While he does not elaborate, Sereda is right to look to on-screen credit sequences for evidence of stardom in operation. Indeed, Living in Bondage functioned, in part, to publicize a host of well-known Nigerian television stars as, suddenly and specifically, movie stars, using its opening-credit sequence to signal a new set of professional terms for Francis Agu and Kanayo O. Kanayo, among other beloved performers. Broadly speaking, the politics of billing, in which one performer's name will inevitably appear before (or larger than) another's, can lead to illuminating superimpositions—"juxtaposed graphic signifiers of stardom and success," to quote Lisa Kernan.
The significance of the on-screen (opening or closing) credit sequence should not be underestimated. Jonathan Gray argues that such sequences serve "to create genre, character, and tone," but surely they also function to foreground stardom, literally showing who comes first in the panoply of performers. The one-name-after-another crawl of a credit sequence is perhaps the clearest textual indication of a hierarchy of actors and actresses—of a behind-the-scenes star system with demonstrable on-screen effects (such as, for instance, a performer's precise role and time spent in front of the camera). Anyone who regularly watches Nollywood films has surely had to sit through more than a few elaborate, impossibly prolonged opening-credit sequences in which superimposed performers' names slowly fade in and out, or in which such names become legible through digital pixels that explode into different directions in order to make way for the next credit. Such sequences usually end, as in Western media, with the identification of the director, reflecting Nollywood's auteurist culture and also inviting auteurist analyses. But they also, invariably, illuminate particular pecking orders among performers, some of which might seem surprising.
Consider, for instance, the case of Emotional Crack (Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen, 2003). In this film, Stephanie Okereke plays the lead role, that of Crystal, a battered housewife who has an affair with her husband's mistress, Camilla (Dakore Egbuson). Despite the fact that Okereke has by far the most screen time, her name appears fourth in the opening credits, reflecting a stardom that was, for the performer, nascent in 2003 and easily eclipsed by that of three others (two of whose names appear before the film's title) : Ramsey Nouah (who plays Crystal's abusive husband, Chudi), Patience Ozokwor (popularly known as Mama G, who plays Crystal's protective mother, Magdalene), and Dakore Egbuson. Befitting images that were well-established and widely celebrated by 2003, Nouah and Ozokwor are the two above-the-title stars, and Egbuson is the performer whose name appears immediately after the words "Emotional Crack" but before Okereke's credit.
Viewed today, in the wake of Okereke's ascension to the ranks of Nollywood's most prolific and itinerant writers, directors, and performers, the opening credit sequence of Emotional Crack might seem strange and somewhat misleading as an entrée into the narrative's breakdown of characters. Okereke, however, has frequently been at the center of similarly odd or inaccurate billing practices: in the opening credits of Teco Benson's 2002 thriller Terror, the words "Introducing Stephanie Okereke" are superimposed over a shot of her character typing away on an office computer; Okereke, in fact, began acting in 1997 at the age of fifteen, when she appeared (albeit in relatively small roles) in multiple Nollywood films. An equally deceptive credit occurred in 2009, when the first posters advertising the Nigerian theatrical release of Izu Ojukwu's Nnenda gave Okereke fourth billing, after the male stars Francis Duru, Ramsey Nouah, and Uti Nwachukwu, despite the fact that Okereke (who was by then a major international star) plays the prominent title role. Suggesting a level of sexism incommensurate with Nnenda's feminist narrative (the film follows an intrepid activist as she seeks to reform orphanages), the initial, controversial posters also signaled an opportunistic attachment to reality television: Uti Nwachukwu, who received billing above Okereke despite his comparably scant screen time and short Nollywood résumé, had represented Nigeria on the third season of Big Brother Africa, becoming a fan favorite and later winning the series' fifth season, titled All-Stars. But was it really a movie-style stardom that Nwachukwu had earned with his reality-TV victory or just a reasonable degree of name recognition and an associated commercial cachet? As Julie Wilson argues, reality television stardom represents a culturally debased yet readily salable phenomenon, one that is frequently defined against a more "genuine," intricate, or intelligent cinema stardom. When reality stars attempt to shift toward this more respectable echelon, they are often stymied by the publicity circuits that, in Wilson's words, "do not primarily work to construct a broader star image" for each of the individuals in question, and that prefer to function within limited rhetorical constructs ("the 'good girl,' the 'scheming bitch,' the 'average joe,' the 'homophobic jock'"). Publicity for reality TV thus acknowledges that the format's stars must "play roles"—that each is compelled to "perform an identity"—but it does not, generally speaking, allow for much flexibility, in contrast to more searching coverage of bona fide film stars.
In Nigeria, the culturally denigrated status of reality-TV stardom is arguably a function of the reality format itself rather than a reflection of television's "lesser" status vis-à-vis cinema, in large part due to the longstanding lack of extensive moviegoing opportunities for Nigerians. Within the nation's particular postcolonial circumstances, the small screen has always been an acceptable place for stardom, if only because it has often seemed like the only place, the only available medium. However, the television stardom that served to publicize Living in Bondage as a repository of professional acting talent, with its roots primarily in scripted dramas (such as the 1990s soap opera Checkmate, starring Francis Agu), is not the same as that which would influence the billing of Nnenda. Nowadays, Nollywood producers are less likely to turn to local soap operas than to a plentiful crop of globally popular reality television programs in order to select some already-famous faces—some widely publicized if relatively untested talents. In fact, Nollywood's growing reliance on reality television for a roster of ready-made stars has transformed the opening credit sequences of numerous films into promotions not simply for the stars themselves but also for the T V programs out of which they first emerged. Nwachukwu, Karen Igho, and Tonto Dikeh are three major Nigerian stars whose earliest Nollywood credits centralized their reality-TV credentials, often in openly celebratory ways. The 2008 film The Celebrity (Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen), for instance, features the following on-screen credit, stylized typographically through various fonts and colors, and ending in an exclamation mark: "Introducing Ofunneka Molokwu of Big Brother Africa as Esther!"
If reality television, however widely consumed, is also, and simultaneously, widely denigrated throughout Nigeria—a point that Wole Soyinka made in his extensive keynote speech at FESPACO in 2013—then Nollywood producers would seem to be responding unapologetically to a pronounced popular appetite for the format's stars. Perhaps, in employing such hyperbolically celebratory credits as the one quoted above, Nollywood films that rely upon reality-TV stars also work to defuse or preempt a public backlash, implanting the notion that such stars, whose names appear alongside those of the industry's legendary leading lights, are themselves worthy of considerable esteem. But to what extent are they professional performers? With what thespian tools are they able to act for the camera? It has become increasingly difficult to argue that the star of a reality-television franchise like Big Brother is ever unaware of the mechanisms of the franchise's production and transnational dissemination. Indeed, the structures of monitoring that feature so prominently on Big Brother and that lend the franchise its name lead inevitably to contestants who "play to the cameras," but who also, as competitors, seek to out-act each other. This call to consciously perform was especially pronounced during Uti Nwachukwu's season of Big Brother Africa, on which he was pitted against contestants from Ghana, Malawi, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Angola, and South Africa, each of whom sought to suppress a "personal secret" as part of the season's effort to further mystify the boundaries among a wide range of African national "traits." For Meryl Shikwambane, a South African contestant forced to feign a lack of worldliness (in alleged contrast to an "expected" South African cosmopolitanism), that secret involved a steamy affair with an unnamed Namibian celebrity; for Tatiana Dos Santos Durao, a contestant from Angola, it entailed a refusal to reveal the extent of her singing talent, so that she could pass herself off as "simple" and unaffected, and experientially far from the thriving popular cultures of her native Luanda.
Nwachukwu, for his part, attempted to hide his intense affection for Britney Spears—a fandom that complicated his professed allegiance to the "purity" and singularity of southern Nigerian popular culture. As a Britney fan hailing from Lagos, Nwachukwu exemplified a reception practice that is transnational as well as transcultural. That it represented his mandated secret on Big Brother Africa suggests that it is still capable of surprising those with fixed notions of Nigerian national identity (and of associated local reception practices). If multiple modes of mobility are necessary for Nollywood stardom, then the hybridity of Nwachukwu's fandom—the devotion both to "Naija culture" as well as to Britney Spears—would seem to position him as being at least partly suited to a film industry so famously committed to expansive pop sensibilities. After all, Britney posters abound in Nollywood films, particularly in those that take place on university campuses and that feature aspirational young women who self-fashion— often across strong national, ethnic, cultural, and class boundaries—while oversized images of the American pop star stare approvingly down at them. For instance, in Jénifà (Muhydeen S. Ayinde, 2008), Funke Akindele's title character (née Suliat), in attempting to transform herself from a strictly Yorùbá-speaking "razz village girl" into a post-ethnic campus diva, finds a measure of inspiration in the Britney posters that adorn the walls of various dorm rooms, reflecting a relatively mutable American star persona (spanning Spears's somewhat discrepant adolescent, young-adult, and post-"meltdown" phases). In the case of Uti Nwachukwu, however, a real-life reliance on Britney Spears as a source of encouragement is not, in itself, enough to establish him as a Nollywoodstyle star, as the Nnenda credit controversy makes clear. There, the issue was less Nwachukwu's reality-television origins—less his one-time role-playing "as himself"—than his résumé's restriction to Big Brother Africa. If his public persona has not yet undergone a series of shifts, it is due not to Nwachukwu's refusal to "reinvent" it (à la the maneuverable Ms. Spears) but instead to the scarcity of his major film roles, a preponderance of which would, in the everevolving Nollywood, demand consistent refashioning.
BEYOND "MERE CELEBRITY": CONSTRUCTING CINEMA STARDOM
There are, according to cliché, two types of film performers—those who, like Nwachukwu, appear to play themselves, and those whose fame rests upon a capacity for change. In cinema studies, however, there is a strong yet surprisingly underexposed subfield devoted to bridging the gap between these two perceived types. It goes by the name "star studies," and its central tenets are as follows: film stardom is a discursive construction developed and maintained through a variety of semiotic means; an individual star persona is mutable (albeit in often subtle ways and regardless of personal or corporate protestations); and the operations of a so-called star system provide an important window through which to look not simply at a series of film texts but also at entire film industries. In Nollywood, some of the top stars might seem equally unalterable, enshrined in typecasting and consistently associated with the genres that they have helped to develop—such as, in the case of Okereke, the lesbian-themed campus drama (in which young, female-identified university students explore same-sex desire). For Okereke—an especially in-demand and relatively well-paid actress—that genre represents only one facet of the kaleidoscopic Nollywood, whose producers, she maintains, "reward" her by permitting her to pursue a whole host of performance modes (from comedy to drama to just about every imaginable hybrid in between). Simply put, an industry as dizzyingly productive as Nollywood would seem to need a certain, stabilizing degree of standardization, but with productivity comes possibility—innumerable chances to change as a performer and to evolve as a star, even within seemingly fixed generic confines.
Excerpted from Nolywood Stars by Noah A. Tsika. Copyright © 2015 Noah A. Tsika. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
Preface and Acknowledgments
A Note on Orthography and Taxonomy
Introduction: Global Stars in Nigeria’s Postindependence Firmament: From Ossie Davis to Doctor Bello
1. From Yorùbá to YouTube: Studying Nollywood’s Star System
2. Glittering Video: Format, Fashion, and the Materiality of Nollywood Stardom
3. A Mobile Glow: Nollywood Stardom and Corporate Globalism
4. When Stars Collide: Lady Gaga and the Pirating of a Globalized Persona
5. Nollywood's Progeny: Stardom and the Politics of Youth Empowerment
6. Professionalizing Childhood: Nollywood and the New Youth Transnationalism
Afterword: Honoring Nollywood Stars
What People are Saying About This
Tsika makes a convincing case that one cannot fully understand Nollywood without a thorough and rigorous examination of its stars. He offers a complex, powerful, detailed, and engaging consideration of the actors' performances and films, addressing their many points of intersection with technology, advertising, music, the corporate realm, and various formations of cultural and economic imperialism.