African content and new consciousness

(Being text of a presentation by Femi Odugbemi,Fta. Founder/Executive Producer Zuri24 Media Lagos, At The 10th VERDANT ZEAL INNOVENTION SERIES on Thursday 20th October 2022).

‘…our stories must articulate and foreshadow a future we desire. Too many stories of Africa are reflections of our worst instincts with not enough vision to foreshadow how we want to see our communities, our governance, our infrastructure, and our leaders. We need to empower ourselves with our stories’

I AM excited to speak to the conference theme ‘African Content and new consciousness.’ It is a theme timely and vital in its essence because we live today in a period unlike any other. It is at once exciting and complex but filled with endless possibilities. Content is simply Africa’s soft power. How we understand and deploy it is the promise of our future prosperity and survival as a continent. What is called the “creative/content industries” today is an ever-expanding definition that covers many professions whose value proposition demands some measure of innovative expression, performance, talent, and creative design. The traditional expressions remain the visual and performance arts like writing, poetry, fine art, sculpture, music, dance, acting, cinema, photography, fashion design, poetry, advertising, and architecture. It now also covers app design, blogging, social-media enterprise, online marketing, and the dark arts of internet hacking. The currency is imagination. The economy is virtual. The reach is global. And its possibilities are endless.  Three important factors drive the new consciousness propelling the age of African storytelling: Convergence, Mobility and Content. It is simply the aggregation of followership that is the wealth of social media engagement, the data-driven access to stream and see our favourite content on the go wherever and whenever, and the variety of content genres on offer to align to every taste and inclination that can afford subscription.

Today, more than 60% of the world’s working-class people under the age of 40 make a living and earn their reputation from some aspect of the creative industries. An online-offline ecosystem of content, creativity, and consumption has African stories and stories from Africa at the centre of a global concentric circle.  Today across our continent more than half of the educated population under the age of 30 identify themselves as creative industry players in some capacity. The entertainment industry is active across Africa with talented self-employed young people who are creating, marketing, and distributing products and building an ever-expanding consumption base in several markets locally and in the diaspora. Of course, you already know that Nigeria’s Nollywood is now well-recognized as a global player in cinema. Our music stars are now global brands. Burna Boy just won a grammy. Davido easily fills up large concert arenas like the O2 in London. Our music videos have a brand and a vibe that attracts high-rotation play on major music channels. Reality TV brands like Big Brother Africa and The Housewives of Lagos, Johannesburg or Capetown are redefining urban culture and creating superstars out of ordinary people.  Our fashionistas and designers have redefined looks even in local costumes as you can see from the slew of red-carpet events and international runways. Photography is now much more than a passion, it has become a multi-million naira enterprise that has turned many young self-taught photographers into brand-name celebrities themselves.

The story is the same in art, dance, spoken word poetry, and many other creative content expressions.  We are living today in what has been described as the golden age of creativity and storytelling in Africa, and you can see it in the bustling urban spaces of the continent whether it is Lagos, Johannesburg, Nairobi, Accra, or Cairo. The world seems ready to embrace stories of Africa from Africa and by Africans. There is an openness to the nuances of our history, our cultural experiences, our worldview, and what constitutes our ambitions as a people. The massive success of the Black Panther film and the global response seems an inflection point that has awakened something that is prompting deeper conversations about representation and the authenticity of what constitutes an ‘African story’ as against a story from Africa. The continent is suddenly the new bride of streaming platforms, major film festivals and content markets. The world seems to hunger now for our stories and is asking us, daring us, to show them the ‘Africa’ we wish to sell to the world.

INTERNET IS THE VILLAGE SQUARE: MOBILITY+CONVERGENCE.

Incidentally, the village markets in African societies were as much information and entertainment domains as much as they were marketplaces to buy and sell goods and services. They were where the community connected and engaged. From the tales of the hunter’s exploits in the forest to the political happenings in the palace, the market day brimmed with the possibilities of new tales always.  So, storytelling has always been the language of commerce and its value in the marketplace is an African heritage. The difference now is that the market square of stories is now virtual, global, and immediate. Technology has given us a village square where stories are traded, and legends invented. Technology has simplified the creative process and reinvented the creative artiste into the creative entrepreneur by empowering him/her with a combo of opportunities that straddle the value chain from invention to distribution, to sales. The internet is the imagination economy providing resources to learn the basic tools and techniques needed for every manner of creative enterprise. It also offers references to creative expressions using those tools and techniques from everywhere on the planet. It gives you the contacts of the best practitioners to reach out to if you need mentoring. It aids your attempts at marketing your own brand with websites and social media promotions. And it helps to host the data of your growing client and customer or audience base. The tools of every creative trade are today more powerful, less complicated to use and evolutionary in design. And cheaper too.  Photography and filmmaking equipment today are less than 50% of their cost 10 years ago for instance. The bigger plus is that it has brought convergence and redefined how creative products are created, produced, archived, shared, marketed, and accessed not just in one locality but across the world, instantly. It has brought the possibility of a global audience for every single creative product. It no longer matters where you create from, what matters is the content of your creativity. No middlemen, no curators, you can actually connect directly with an audience via self-distribution platforms.

Social media with its relentless opportunities to attract, connect, engage and entice followers round the clock across geographical spaces and time zones creates the twin trending factors of MOBILITY and CONVERGENCE. Mobility and Convergence are the two most important factors feeding our desire to see and be seen and voraciously shaping the trends in the entertainment business today. If

I cannot access your content or presence from wherever I am and on more than one device, you might as well count yourself out of the competition. Content creation is no longer the reserve of some curators or producers or broadcast houses, it is in the hands of everyone who owns one of the over 4.2 billion mobile phones around the world. And whatever story we tell is only the first level in the multilayers of communication that can follow. Everybody is telling a story. Every post, every picture, and every shared joke on WhatsApp groups is telling AND selling a story. This leads us to realize that the content that win and trend are not always curated simply from the imaginations of a single storyteller. They are co-curated in an online-offline loop with the viewer, the audience or the consumer. Depending on the size of your community online, your audiences pick the story and retell it in their own ways. You only get the conversation started; you don’t know where it can go. The key to successful content creation, therefore, lies not only in how much research data unveils in terms of age, gender, earning power, demography, etc but also in how to personalize and emotionalize stories, cull it and retell them in the images and sounds of your audience’s subconscious.

As someone put it, “… the social web is the modern version of Alice in Wonderland, where we follow not one, but many rabbits down innumerable rabbit holes”, that is quite true about today’s digital consumption patterns. It is now commonplace to have a single programme being simultaneously broadcast in multiple versions to suit different devices and platforms – television (satellite and terrestrial), computers, tablets, smartphones, game consoles (X-Box, PlayStation), and so on. So, you could start watching a programme in your living room, and if you need to leave the house, you simply switch to a mobile device (smartphone, tablet, or mobile TV) while in your car. You could connect with other audiences on the platform simply by tweeting about the programme on Twitter, sharing comments on Facebook or Instagram, or you could download it and own a copy of your favourite programmes. According to BBC, over 2 billion people watched the recent State Funeral for Queen Elizabeth II live via all platforms at the same time – that is CONVERGENCE. 

To state it simply, the era of MASS-MEDIA (where we all sit back at home and some folks dictate what we see or whether we can be seen) is over, we are now in the era of ME-MEDIA (I choose what I want to see and whether I want to be seen). This trend is opening tremendous opportunities in ways that are simply mind-blowing. Accessibility of the audience and consumer is driving the economy of the creative industry and creating opportunities to admit every other profession needed to fully harness its opportunities. It is an economy that is real.

An economy that is also an open opportunity for a vast array of non-performance-related contributors who are desperately needed to provide the grounding for sustainability and profitability.

Beyond being economically successful, I also the world is inviting us to also tell significant stories of Africa that are real and genuine to counter decades of colonization, ignorance and bigotry and to present a clarity that is missing when the ‘African story’ is told by ‘others’ from outside the Africa. The politics of misrepresentation is real. The dilemma we confront is that the youth population of africa who are at the vanguard often have no deep connections to their own history or the heroes of their cultures. The schools they have attended and the books and curriculum they have read have paid more attention to the learning of histories, cultures and heroes of Europe and America. They have not prioritized how to embrace any indigenous identity or cultural representation. So we have to understand that in coming to this space, many of those who are our storytellers and content creators are not as psychologically equipped as they need to be. Historically. Culturally. Ideologically.

Still, the global creative space yawns for authentic representations of Africa – from traditional folklore to urban tales or even the identity crisis that bedevils African immigrants in the diaspora. The authenticity of the African story extends beyond colourful costuming, dance, and drumming or the appropriation of ancient symbols. The African story is also the story of enterprise and innovation, of exploits in technology, medicine, literature, and sports. So, when we speak here about bringing authenticity to our stories, we speak really about bringing a ‘balance’ to the imagery and the subliminal elements of our creative products. It is about acknowledging the complexities of our history, but also to express faith in our values as a culture and to build honest capacities in our pursuit of happiness and prosperity.

Finally, our stories must articulate and foreshadow a future we desire. Too many stories of Africa are reflections of our worst instincts with not enough vision to foreshadow how we want to see our communities, our governance, our infrastructure, and our leaders. We need to empower ourselves with our stories. African communities have a heritage of passing moral and cultural values through storytelling. The village square, the markets, and the courtyards were spaces filled with folklore. These stories were always deliberately crafted to offer guidance and insight that shape the future of our communities and modified behaviour. They invented heroes and told tales of uncommon courage and selfless sacrifice in service of community. They fostered tribal pride with poetry and songs that detailed the history of a thousand sojourns and valiant progenitors.

They created realms of metaphysical existence where their forebears translated into unseen protectors and guardians of the tribe. They built into every story a foreshadowing of the future and the sustenance of the peace and prosperity of their tribes. They were conscious always to choose the future they desired by imbibing it in the imagination of their audience today. Insight. We absolutely must be far more deliberate and conscious about the insight we leave in the subconscious of our audiences about what is ‘Africa.’ Because what we imagine, and storify, becomes our reality. In what direction our stories move our world, becomes our historical and moral burden to bear.

*Odugbemi, Storyteller and Media Content Creator, is the CEO of Zuri Media24.

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