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On power, appropriateness and the ‘gossip’ tool

One of the ideas I have become consumed with over the last 5 years is the concept of power. How we wield it, how it influences the interactions we have with others and how it shapes our perception of ourselves. 

I have been lucky to experience power imbalances in many spheres of my life, in my work as a manager in a media business, in my career as a writer and my time as an independent entrepreneur running a small business. I have often had enough detachment in those situations to experiment with many approaches to realigning power imbalances in those relationships and coming to a place of equitable partnerships expressed by what I consider as ‘authority’. 

An equitable partnership is a position where a person willingly submits to the authority of another person based on that person’s experience, achievements or manifesto. This transfer of autonomy happens with the explicit agreement that the person who receives this transfer will not misuse it and will relinquish it without pushback when the giver asks. This transfer of autonomy is also dependent on the receiver maintaining the elements (experience, achievements, manifesto) that made them eligible in the first place. 

GOSSIP IS A GOOD THING 

There are some situations that require people to have and wield power. Especially in work environments where a lack of resources or time might require decisive decision making. But access to power eventually becomes inadequate if the leader who is given power does not work to become an authority figure to the people they lead.  

As a person in power (I managed teams from 2015 – 2020), I learned very quickly that simply being a person with power over others skewers your relationship with them. This happens whether a person rises through the ranks to a management position or is transplanted from another organization for their unique skill sets or to solve a particular problem. The fact that you are responsible for the performance and livelihood of others alienates you from them. 

Simply asking your subordinates to speak honestly with you about a problem that is disrupting productivity or convening meetings to resolve what you perceive as friction does not work and can further alienate you from the people you are trying to connect with. I have had to find other ways to gauge if I am being a leader who rallies his team and creates an environment where they can thrive, or if I am a despot misusing my power. The single most consistent tool I have discovered is the ‘gossip’ tool. 

In an ideal workspace where communication lines are clear and open, there would be no gossip. Or at least, there would be no gossip about you, the leader of this unit, team or organization. People would simply approach you with questions, compliments, concerns and grievances, convinced that they would at least be heard fairly, and their input acknowledged, even if it is not acted on immediately or in the near future. To achieve that, as a leader, you would have to clearly communicate the collective goal of the unit, show your contributions to the goal and support each team member in the manner that best suits their needs as they work towards your collective goal. It is difficult work, which is why most people don’t do it. 

As a leader coming into power, gossip is good. Gossip is an early warning system that tells you the people you lead have grievances against you, or lack sufficient communication about you and your goals. It also suggests you have not created an environment where they can simply approach you to discuss their grievances or seek clarity when they lack information about your decisions or your choices. Gossip also tells you that the people you lead believe you are redeemable, and that the work/social environment you have created might have weakened communication lines but it is not yet toxic. It can still be fixed. 

When you strip gossip of its negative connotations and the questionable morality of the people who engage in it, gossip is just data, skewed by bias and a lack of adequate information, but data nonetheless. Do with it as you will.

What can however not be fixed, is an office where there is no open communication and no gossip. What this suggests, is that going beyond being a poor communicator, a leader has rewarded sycophancy and encouraged a culture of self-preservation through nepotism. An office, club or organization where people don’t speak openly and do not gossip can only exist if people have been punished for speaking up publicly and had their confidences betrayed after speaking out privately.  The distrust has grown beyond the leader and the team and infected team members themselves. Situations that deteriorate to this point are rarely redeemable. Once self-preservation sets in,  the team begins to orchestrate their exits, each person emboldened by the successful exit of the person before them. Only a purge of leadership can save that ship. 

In contrast, a person with authority is conferred power by the group, given the mandate to make decisions on their behalf. A person with authority is often ‘endorsed’ for a position of power through nominations for roles, or overwhelming support when they indicate interest in a particular position. 

A person who is thrust into a position of power must also seek to be eventually authorized by the people they lead. 

A LITTLE MATTER OF INAPPROPRIATENESS

People who have come into power, either through personal effort or through an executive decision struggle with growing into authority. They do so, because while power demands obedience and dangles swift retaliation as a consequence for dissent and disobedience, authority must be earned and consented to, sometimes on a daily basis. 

People say wielding power is difficult, but I find that this is not true. What is difficult is relinquishing power once you have wielded it and experienced its addictive duality; power functions as a magical sword to cut through bureaucracy and barriers and reach conclusions and resolutions more quickly and a massive shield to protect yourself from consequences. But bureaucracy and consequences exist to keep relationships professional and personal equitable, and when power is used in this way it is often at the expense of others. 

With authority, a consensus must always be reached, even when the decision is being made is the wrong one. A person in authority is constantly reminded that their power over the group is not absolute and commits to the work of repeatedly proving themselves. In return for seeking the consent of the group, the person with authority is affirmed, supported and forgiven when they make mistakes. 

Power is alienating. The alienation worsens as a person rises up the ranks of an organization or a social group or even gains more power in a romantic relationship. Along with alienation, usually from people the leader considered peers, friends or romantic partners, a leader must also contend with othering. Their actions suddenly have a larger repercussive effect, things they say and do are scrutinized more closely. They are held accountable in differing ways by their subordinates and the people who put them in power (e.g a CEO or a pastor). The effect of this can be very disorienting for someone who didn’t have the preparation and self-appraisal that is baked into the process of coming into authority. 

A lot of powerful people desperately want to be liked. It is a universal need that is amplified by the othering that happens when a person is made a leader. Language and actions that were once accessible to them are now offensive, or worse coercive. There is no explicit guide that outlines what changes when a person is made a leader and what doesn’t. Many leaders, especially the ones who are thrust into power, must navigate this minefield on their own and discover their new boundaries through trial and error. Many powerful people turn to inappropriateness as a way to return some normalcy to their lives. 

WHAT THEN IS INAPPROPRIATENESS?

It is any situation/interaction where a person in a relationship with a power imbalance uses that imbalance to their advantage, but stops just shy of outright misuse of power, relying on the knowledge that the disadvantaged person would rather avoid conflict by allowing the inappropriate behaviour run its course than protest it and face backlash or ostracization. 

A good example of this, would be a parent enforcing communal ‘morning prayers’ when they know one of their children is agnostic. The agnostic child is put in a situation where they must pretend to be religious or be positioned as rebellious and someone who refuses to conform, as their non-conformity as presented to the group as not a personal choice but an act of dissent against the parental figure. 

Another example would be a team leader in a work organization insisting that rather than a neutral activity that all team members can enjoy, his team bonding activity will be a bar crawl or a trip to a strip club when they know some of their team members are deeply religious. By telegraphing their choice of event as harmless, they force their religious team members into a dilemma where they either avoid bonding events and miss out on closer relationships with their co-workers, or join these bar crawls where they are either unable to fully participate and thus must endure awkward interactions with their co-workers or are pressured to conform against their beliefs. 

People in positions of power are inappropriate with other people because they refuse to acknowledge that the difference between a leader and despot is how much personal and public accountability a person in a position of power welcomes in response to their actions. A person of power knows that inappropriate behaviour with a peer or a superior will be swiftly questioned and punished unless it is consented to, and so they avoid situations where the imbalance of power does not work in their favour. It is for this reason that exposed predators like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby could have mutually fulfilling, wholly appropriate relationships with hundreds of powerful white men while also being sexually and emotionally inappropriate with several dozen women. 

When a powerful person refuses to account for the passive ways in which they misuse their power, they refuse to acknowledge that an imbalance of power can change the appropriateness of an interaction or a conversation. They know that they must publicly give up power (resign from public office) to indulge their desires or slake their loneliness (have that affair, take that trip during a pandemic) but they do not, because the reason they have access to the recipient of their inappropriateness in the first place is their proximity to power. They refuse to acknowledge that inappropriateness has a price, one that is eventually paid in the short term by the person who wields less power in the relationship/interaction. 

When people in power are inappropriate, e.g texting a contractor that was introduced to them for a specific task and expanding that relationship beyond that task when they know the contractor must be polite because of how they were initially introduced, they must give up their assumed position of authority to engage in this inappropriateness and essentially relinquish some of their power over this person. They are comfortable doing this because they know whatever power they relinquish in this relationship pales in comparison to the power they retain in other relationships, power that can be swiftly redirected and used to retaliate against or silence the recipient of their inappropriateness when the situation no longer favours them.

But once inappropriateness has been introduced to a relationship, power can only delay the eventual consequence of that action, but it cannot suspend it.   Unfortunately, it is impossible for a person who has been inappropriate to a colleague, partner or subordinate to silence the recipient of their actions alone. They have already relinquished a significant portion of their power to the other person and can no longer simply command the person to be quiet or remove them. To hide their inappropriate behaviour, they must co-opt others, wielding their power in other relationships to buy silence, to coerce and incentivize others to participate in silencing their victim. 

A side effect of co-opting others in inappropriate behaviour as a leader, is that colleagues interpret this as permission to be inappropriate to each other. You relinquish power to your accomplices and lose the authority to call them to order when they indulge in their own smaller but no less damaging acts of inappropriateness. When a leader at a team bonding event shares an inappropriate story about himself, for example about his sex life, he co-opts silence from his subordinates, and creates a toxic environment that pressures them to share something inappropriate about themselves in return to ‘balance out’ the equation. If they do not, they are branded as ‘difficult’ and ostracized. 

Other times, leaders encourage inappropriateness in relationships between their subordinates as a preemptive way to excuse their own as yet hidden inappropriate actions. Eventually, a single incidence of inappropriateness will grow into such a web of co-option and accomplices that the powerful person at the centre will eventually be forced to misuse their power or relinquish it altogether, e.g punishing an employee for sharing his inappropriate story from that bonding event to ‘outsiders’, or dealing with the public humiliation that comes from the story getting out. 

The longer power is used to silence or delay the consequences of inappropriateness, the worse the consequences become when the dam eventually breaks and the true nature of the person in power is revealed.

This is why Harvey Weinsten and Bill Cosby’s fall from power was so thorough. They had spent decades using inappropriateness to sate their personal desire, co-opting accomplices from unrelated relationships and requiring larger and larger does of inappropriateness to keep that initial act a secret. The web grew so wide, both men were eventually forced to escalate into misuse of power. It might take some time but inappropriateness will always end in shame, disgrace and scandal. 

WHAT HOPE DO WE HAVE THEN?

No one is above inappropriateness. Our society is built on misuses of power and even well-intentioned people can underestimate their impact on others in relationships they perceive as wholly equitable. We will all make mistakes, but what we cannot escape, is the consequences of our mistakes. 

One concept we must embrace in our professional and personal relationships is voluntary resignation. Nigerians are groomed to latch onto power and desperately defend their access to this power, even when power no longer serves them. This is why, otherwise upstanding journalists and technocrats, enter into Nigerian politics and in a few short years, engage in and defend acts of injustice and cruelty that only years before they would have shunned. This refusal to relinquish power is not exclusive to politicians, we see it in startups, at government ministries, in daily interactions between Uber drivers and passengers. Every time a Nigerian is given even the slightest bit of power, they engage in acts of inappropriateness to extend that power, which eventually leads to them losing that power in disgraceful ways. Across more established societies with more powerful social structures, voluntary resignations give people who have been inappropriate in positions of power a chance at redemption, in exchange for a temporary loss of status. 

A classic example of a Nigerian who relinquished power through voluntary resignation and in some ways redeemed his image is former President Goodluck Jonathan. There is a lot to be said for his leadership style, and for his achievements, but one thing that is not in contention is his handling of the 2015 elections. His sportsmanship, his willingness to relinquish power at the tipping point where his actions would have extended beyond inappropriateness into an outright misuse of power redeemed his public image and has allowed him reenter many conversations where he would have otherwise been ostracized. There are many on-going legitimate discussions about the enduring consequences of his inappropriateness as president, but his decision to relinquish power when it mattered most was the single most important thing he could have done for his legacy as a president. 

It doesn’t matter how far into an act of inappropriateness you have gone, once you recognize the signs of inappropriateness using tools like the ‘gossip’ tool, you have a chance to course-correct and save yourself from eventual, inevitable disgrace.

The consequences will be dire, but it is never, ever too late.

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You should read Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’

Film and literature are different mediums, and I go to them for different reasons. As a person, my countenance is overwhelmingly stoic. While I have visceral emotional reactions to the actions of others, I am also capable, unfortunately of emotionally dissociating myself from my feelings while they are happening, sifting through them for veracity and discarding the parts of my emotional response to the actions of others that don’t benefit me. The few people who have experienced this in real time have described it as terrifying. But literature and film allow me to embrace the full range of emotions felt by the character, to immerse myself fully in their lives and feel as they feel. I am not particular about what medium I first encounter a work in, but more often than not adaptations pale in comparison to written work. 

I first encountered Sally Rooney on a Buzzfeed list. Her debut novel had received praise for its deft storytelling and Rooney’s peculiar ability to talk about normal life in ways that fully enthralled audiences. The last Irish writer who had received this kind of acclaim was Eimar McBride, and when I had read her debut novel, nearly a decade in publishing purgatory before it was finally picked up, I was sorely disappointed. Mc Bride’s story was compelling, but the prose was gimmicky and it took too much effort to read. A lot of the early praise around Rooney’s debut novel emphasized the ‘normalness’ of Conversations With Friends, rather than the compelling characters, or the unique circumstances of the plot. 

Then early 2018, buzz began to gather around Normal People, Rooney’s sophomore novel. The superlatives were trotted out, ‘Best Book of 2019’ among them. One thing stood out to me then, Normal People was about two young people, navigating an intense and somewhat dysfunctional relationship and how the power dynamics in their relationship shifts as each person grows and changes. I had struggled for most of 2019 with reading and writing original work, so I put her on my to-read list and tried to wade through the detritus that was my life that was year. Then in early 2020, Hulu released the first season of the film adaptation, 6 hours of torrid love. Fareeda, with whom I share many of my artistic inclinations, asked that I watch it, even though she warned she couldn’t get past the first 6 episodes. Then Mofe, with whom my interactions are more primal and present, also recommended it. He’d watched the show and was about to start the book. He insisted, so I found all 12 episodes and committed a weekend to losing myself in its dreamy, yellow tinted world. 

 

There’s something truly magical about Sally Rooney’s novel that is completely lost in adaptation. Granted, I watched the adaptation first, and I found its pacing torturously slow, yet too intense. I found myself forwarding through huge swaths of the conversations between Marianne and Connell, and then pausing to rewind and rewatch those huge swaths for context. Both actors do a fantastic job of bringing the characters to life and the chemistry  between Daisy Edgar Jones and Paul Mescal burned with the intensity of a supernova. But by the final episode when a major life event causes Marianne and Connell to re-examine the strength of their relationship, I weep for their relationship, but I don’t fully believe the turn of events that have led them there. 

There are many challenges with the scripting, directing and casting that damage the authenticity of the television series. The first is  ‘Adaptational Attractiveness’, a concept explained by Trope Anatomy. The basic premise of Adaptational Attractiveness is that film as a medium, is predominantly concerned with profit, and profit is determined by who you have leading your visual project. Daisy Edgar Jones is visually stunning, her dimpled jaw and almond eyes are utterly convincing. She seems to bristle with intensity she can barely rein in as protagonist Marianne, that we have absolutely no reason to disbelieve that Paul Mescal as an equally attractive Connell would fall deeply, madly, in love with her. As a result, Marianne is nothing like the character in the books, neither in her physical presentation or in her attitude. Neither is Connell, whose cruelty is softened by his attractiveness. We are never really repulsed by his actions, or by Marianne’s demeanour, neither stray too far from conventional attractiveness to truly embody the characters they portray.

 

There is also, the robust internal lives of both characters that are sacrificed on the altar of adaptation. Marianne and Connell are both in a state of constant flux, a state of being that is as much influenced by their perceptions of the world, as it is by their social standing in their small town. Their identities shift as their social dynamics change, but we understand why, because Connell and Marianne are always thinking, always debating within themselves, the merit of their actions, the authenticity of their convictions. All of this is lost in the film adaptation, especially the true nature of their collective social standing. By the final scene of the film adaptation, the many social barriers that inform Connell and Marianne’s decisions are erased, so the pivotal twist, a moment that changes that lives of one of the characters, feels as pedestrian as any of the other challenges they have faced in their relationship, rather than an irreversible moment widening the ever growing chasm between them. 

After I watched the show, I wasn’t motivated to read the novel. I feared that perhaps, because Rooney had been personally involved in adapting the book, Lenny Abrahamson (who directed the heart wrenching Room) had directed, and the show runners had twelve episodes to explore the many nuances of the source material, reading the book would be doubly disappointing. I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

I finished Normal People in two sittings of 3 hours each, taking a 6 hour break between my first and second readings because my heart hurt too much. The critics had been right. Rooney had written a book that was deceptively simple on the surface, but asked many pertinent, painful questions about the nature of youth, the power of obsession, and how our families shape us in ways we can never fully understand. Book Marianne and Connell wield cruelty with as much ease as they do compassion, to each other and to everyone around them. They explore consent outside of sexual situations, what is permissible and what is forbidden when sex, the barometer with which we traditional explore relationships already carefully negotiated. This oscillation between cruelty and compassion builds through the entire book, as does the emotional and social disconnect between Connell and Marianne. 

Marianne can never understand why Connell, while brilliant, is afraid to dream, to pursue ambition. She seems unable to truly understand why he constantly returns to the safety of Sligo, the small town where they grew up. For Marianne, Sligo only holds hurt, hurt amplified by the privilege that was supposed to protect her from hurt, but instead isolated her, at school and at home. Her privilege gave her safe passage away from Sligo to Trinity and eased her passage into her new life. But it was also the one tether to her old life that  her many reinventions of self couldn’t quite detach. Connell and Marianne are familiar to each other, but they also do not understand each other at all. That misunderstanding is simultaneously personal and cultural. They feel familiar to each other, so they fall into familiar patterns of sex and obsession and painful uncouplings that happen over and over, seemingly beyond their control. I don’t know if Sally Rooney ever listened to Mitski’s ‘Two Slow Dancers’, but the soupy, saccharine sadness of the Japanese American singer’s ballad seems to telegraph the doom that envelops Marianne and Connell’s relationship and the loneliness they both seem to feel together and apart. By the time they reach their final test, we understand why they choose what they choose, even though it is devastating to watch them come to their shared resolution.

 

A lot of African literary fiction involving young people revolves around characters either living with or trying to divest themselves of the consequences of events outside their control. A senior brother who goes missing, a civil war that warps parents, a political coup that causes an economic recession. I have always been fascinated with the point when our own choices, often in mid to late adolescence, forks that path that we and our families share and starts our own journeys into adulthood. The young adult characters in these novels often have their actions corrupted by or twisted to serve the novel’s looming central plot device, nothing they do can be attributed solely to them. The relationship between Marianne and Connell in the book is isolated in such a way, that their actions towards each other, kindness and cruelty, is motivated by their insulated relationship with each other and influenced by their complex internal lives. I envied this in her work, her ability to imbue these private moments with immediacy and intensity, to map out the long term consequences of each action on their collective life together. It affirmed that Anthems, the story I’d written of a teenage girl, trying to make sense of a life fracturing in spite of her best efforts, had an audience out there that would resonate with it, and her. 

I wasn’t quite sure what this would be when I started writing it. I am skeptical about reviews, and abstract essays seem like personal vanities. But I felt compelled to share how I felt about Normal People, because Rooney’s novel bears some kinship to many ideas I have about literature, especially about how we must learn to believe that the lives of young people, even ‘normal’ ones,  are complex and glorious enough to demand of our time and our ingenuity as writers. To quote Hillary Kelly, ‘it is the story of the moment when adulthood begins, and when choices start to matter’. 

The Milkmaid proves Nollywood is capable of more than we give it credit for

The Milkmaid has had quite a journey before it reached me as a pre-event screener. Finished in 2018, it has been banned by the Nigerian Film and Video Censors Board (as all great Nigerian cinema is) and has languished in a purgatory of sorts as its producers, Might Man Entertainment fight to get the ban overturned and their film in cinemas. The film’s crew has also had to stay silent while the film’s trailer routinely went viral in 2019 and 2020, starting up rumours of its viability in the Oscar Best Foreign Film category.

When I first heard about the film, I couldn’t understand why they didn’t simply circumvent the hostility of Nigerian media regulation and court global film festivals, but now that I have seen it, I understand. This is a film that Nigerians need to see.

The Milkmaid is unlike anything else I have ever seen come out of Nollywood. The closest film I could say falls in the same broad thematic area as the film is Anakle Films’s ‘Up North’, only because they are both set in a Northern state and cinematically engage a region that Nollywood as we know it has largely avoided. But where Up North uses Bauchi as a beautiful tourist-y backdrop for its film about a Southerner working through his preconceived biases, a premise that while noble others the very people Up North seeks to humanize, The Milkmaid spares no thought for explaining the lived experiences of its characters or justifying their realities to its intended audience, it just gets to work. After all, clocking at 2 hours, there is a lot of ground to cover.

As someone who lived through the religious riots in Kaduna in 2000, and lived in the North for most of my life, I understand implicitly how the whole region is flattened and people like Aisha, the Talakawa who live largely unaffected by the politicization of religion and the homogenization of the North into ‘Hausaland’, preserving their culture and customs that have survived for hundreds of years are erased in service of an agenda. So I was especially apprehensive to see that the film was directed by Desmond Ovbiagele, an ‘outsider’. The first scenes of the film quickly allayed my fears.

Obviagele’s film opens with the slaughter of unsuspecting but resigned villagers who are lured into an ambush by Hauwa, one of the film’s lead characters. There are two betrayals in this first scene, one by Hauwa, and one by her husband and leader of a band of insurgents who reneges on a promise not to kill. We are introduced early into the world that Hauwa and her friends, milkmaids living in a hamlet somewhere in Northern Nigeria, must navigate and follow their spiralling  lives  as they become entangled in the ongoing occupation of the region by a terrorist group.

It is not a world that is all gloom, even though Ovbiagele does not shield us from the violence, brutality, betrayal and death that characterizes oppressive insurgencies. He also takes care to show the beauty of a pastoral life. One of the film’s most enduring scenes is a modest but joyful wedding party, introducing the principal players, Aisha (played by Anthonieta Kulunta), Zainab (played by Kannywood veteran Maryam Booth). It is a small wedding, with guests in second hand t-shirts and faded but clean atampa. There is none of the ostentatiousness of traditional Nollywood wedding portrayals, or the voyeurism with which many Nigerian filmmakers portray poverty. Small markers of civilization suggest that the village knows there is a world outside theirs, but they have little interest in joining it. Ovbiagele shows a crucial skill that carries through the entire film, his ability to frame a self-contained narrative.

This self contained narrative is how he manages to hold our attention for the film’s ambitious two and a half hour run-time. It is also an explanation for why the film is shot entirely in Hausa, with all the principal and supporting characters either speaking in Hausa or what I surmise is a Fulde dialect, the language the small tribe in the homestead from which Aisha and Zainab are kidnapped speaks. This kind of trust in the audience is rare in Nollywood, even among auteurs like Kunle Afolayan and Kemi Adetiba exploring new genres, and veterans like Ramsey Nouah revisiting old classics. That confidence allows him to make some truly astounding creative choices, including a wholly non-chronological timeline that flits between the past, present and future of Aisha and Zainab’s lives over the course of 10 years.

This is even more impressive considering there is hardly a scene in the entire film that is frivolous or wasteful. He projects a confidence in the ability of his audience to follow a complex plot without losing interest or becoming confused that is rare among Nigerian filmmakers. Voice-over narration is used sparingly to reacquaint the audience when the film makes one of its many narrative shifts and he keeps the scenes short and the pace fast, only slowing for moments of tenderness. Michael Ogunlade provides an auditory feast to conjure the appropriate response for each charged moment. There are no overt text or auditory cues to alert the audience of the film’s time shifts, instead Ovbiagele and Obijie Oru who costumed the film work together to create a sartorial lexicon that takes a few moments to get used to but helps the audience shift perspectives when the film needs them to. Each era of Aisha’s life is codified by her wardrobe, bright print atampas to mark her young adulthood, A hijab to delineate her time in captivity with the insurgents, gauzy veils to signify her return to favour and her new relationship with Dangana, her insurgent husband, full ceremonial dress to match the happiest points of her life.

This visual language extends into the film’s setting. It is shot in Taraba state, a place trapped between the past and the present. Ovbiagele  goes to great lengths to present a faithful representation of life as it is lived in villages and small towns across Northern Nigeria, and certain locations like the scene with the itinerant market populated with stalls made of corrugated roofing and the dilapidated bungalow style local government primary school class blocks from the Universal Basic Education era are a visceral metaphor for the historical markers of classed poverty that is often missing in contemporary Nigerian film. It all comes together to reinforce The Milkmaid’s self contained narrative, at no point is there an element in the film that jars you out of the trance he weaves, at no point can you question the choices his characters make.

This is a testament to Ovbiagele’s writing, which surpasses his already intimidating talent as a director. He writes a weaving epic that connects its principal characters in ways that are not immediately apparent, giving plot and motive equal importance as the film progresses. Obviagele is also humble, as evidenced by the sheer number of consultants and guides who helped hone the language of the script, accurately represent customs and ensure accents were to par. The single thread of an evolving relationship between two sisters is the weft on which the whole story is spun. It is why Zainab’s betrayals of Aisha surprise us even when we expect them and why Aisha’s optimism is believable in light of everything she endures. A bridal souvenir in the director’s hands is transformed into a symbol of innocence lost and regained. Some characters are radicalized while others grow mellow and regretful, both responses triggered by the same trauma. The film’s twists range from subtle to overt, but never out of place, never gratuitous.

With a script this strong, the cast could really shine.  Anthonieta Kalunta is a revelation, delivering career best work. She disappears into Aisha, mastering two languages for the film and cycling between a range of emotions with such ease that she becomes a mesmer on screen. Kannywood veteran Maryam Booth is a scene stealer, relishing her role as the film’s flawed villain as her opportunity to finally crossover into mainstream cinema. They are supported by a stellar ensemble cast with a special mention to Gambo Usman Kona, who as Dangana provides a stoic contrast to the roil of emotions between the sisters.

There were many opportunities for Ovbiagele to have chosen a more crowd pleasing ending for The Milkmaid, and he teases them at various points during the film, but ultimately the Milkmaid ends as it begins, with a teenage milkmaid, alone, at the start of a precipitous moment. That kind of confidence is hard to ignore.

People are buying the Alexis, Not Melodia.

Anyone with a cursory interest in Nigerian fashion has heard of the Alexis dress from Melodia_NG. A viral hit that started gaining momentum among women in their late teens and early 20’s mid 2020, the Alexis dress has become a  niche symbol, telegraphing for the women who have added it to their wardrobes, their daring and sex appeal. Its rise to become the season’s second it-dress (after Kai Collective’s Gaia print) is a social engineering marvel, exhibiting the power of cultural acceptance, social media and the politics of desirability. 

Its success is a phenomenon that hasn’t happened in the Nigerian fashion industry since the early 2010’s and it offers a rare opportunity to contrast between two generations of Nigerian fashion and map how much the industry has grown or regressed. 

There has been  a lot of chatter around the Alexis print in particular, so but not a lot of context, lets start with a most pertinent question. 

“In the worst of circumstances and with fashion’s traditional advertising and marketing structure irreparably damaged by Covid, why did the Alexis go viral, and what does it mean for its parent brand, Melodia_NG?”

YOU GET AN ALEXIS, YOU GET AN ALEXIS, WE ALL GET AN ALEXIS 

Design-wise, the Alexis dress makes sense. It incorporates a number of trends that gained prominence in 2020; drawstring ruching, high slits, structured bodices and peekaboo cutouts at a decent price point (N10,000 – N15,000), theoretically appealing to diverse tastes. It also began to gain prominence as the country slowly reopened after months of government enforced social isolation, a cyclical response to forced isolation that research shows triggers hedonistic behaviour and adventurous fashion choices. The now iconic fashions of the roaring 20’s were a direct response to the end of the Spanish Flu of 1918. 

 The Alexis dress was equal parts conservative and provocative and provided just enough drama to transcend its origins as a fashion curiosity and become pop-culture subtext. On one end, women who buy often share their purchase and signal via their social media that they are part of an informal but fashion savvy tribe who can pull off the dress’s risque design. They rarely speak of the dress’s fit, cut, fabric quality or tailoring. On the other, the Alexis dress has been informally adopted by men as a way to court women, with commentary on Twitter and Instagram almost exclusively about buying the Alexis for women they desire or suggestively alluding to it as increasing a woman’s desirability. This feedback loop of social acceptance and external desirability has worked wonders for the brand, with the conservative estimates suggesting that between 500 – 1000 units of this particular design have been sold and that the brand currently has a wait-list than some suggest is 150 names long.  

Unfortunately, this virality has not  translated to a stronger brand.  A perfect storm in marketing, especially for fashion brands is difficult to achieve and even harder to replicate. Melodia has tried, without much success to promote its jumpsuits by associating them with  Feyikemi Abudu, an influential Twitter personality who is open about her preference for jumpsuits, as well as a few other social media virality campaigns that haven’t quite taken off. This is a troubling omen for the Alexis, as attention, especially for high street fashion brands, is fleeting without concrete plans to consolidate, including properly expressed design ethos and an understanding of the niche they occupy in the market. People are buying the Alexis, not Melodia.

The next logical question to answer is if this virality will persist and what Melodia can do to ensure that the success of this design translates into brand recognition and longevity for the brand. 

FASHION IS A NEVER-ENDING CYCLE 

The last time, a brand attained this level of viral success was before social media really took off in 2010. A young Ejiro Amos Tafiri, then a designer under Folake Coker’s Tiffany Amber, created the first viral made-in-Nigeria designer dress, a structural wrap dress that drew inspiration from traditional Nigerian silhouettes. Such was the success of the wrap that Amos Tafiri would eventually replicate it when she left to start her own eponymous brand. Some say it is her most enduring best seller, still in high demand today.  Succinct and structurally superior, the Ejiro Amos Tafiri wrap was visually appealing, incorporating complex design without burdening the client with any technicalities. 

Ejiro Amos Tafiri’s version of the famed wrap dress

Ituen Basi would follow two years later with several successes, including her Oleku series which made the Iro and Buba fashionable again and her much lauded collaboration with visual artist Victor Ehikhamenor for her ‘Ekemini’ collection in 2014. Ekemini was a global success, selling out across several production cycles once Basi debuted it at New York Fashion Week and cementing Eku Edewor’s status as a fashion muse. The fabric and collection was eventually retired into the Ituen Basi archives when it began to distract from subsequent collections. 

Ekemini (circa 2014)

A critical difference between then and now is how collections attain virality. While cultural gatekeepers and fashion media lauded Amos Tafiri and Ituen Basi based on a laundry list of battle tested design expectations, a democratized social media community comprising influencers and niche communities champion Alexis because of how it intersects with a complex and ever mutating matrix of pop culture references. The results couldn’t be any more different. 

VIRALITY IS NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR INTELLIGENT DESIGN

Something that should worry any designer is the inability of its biggest champions to articulate clearly why they like a particular design, or its parent brand. There is nothing that distinguishes the Alexis as a Melodia original. There is no easily discernible logic to its fabric offerings, no peculiar design choices that other fast fashion/high street brands cannot replicate, no unique print or trademark that elevates the product for the consumer and communicates its value.

Brands like Lisa Folawiyo, Maki Oh and Clan have an explicit profile of the women they want to dress and create a corresponding design language which their clients understand and align with, a language that is explicitly expressed in their design and storytelling. This language is what distinguishes each brand and allows them weather trends. Melodia on the other hand, is an avatar for many Nigerian mid-level fashion brands who straddle the line between being a high street design brand courting a discerning middle class clientele, and a fast fashion brand seeking to  capitalize on transient contemporary trends. 

This dissonance is why the Alexis dress bears very little resemblance to Melodia’s previous collections and operates as a standalone piece, with no storytelling connections that the parent brand can leverage on as the piece gains virality. Dissonance is also responsible for a problem consistent with most of Nigeria’s ‘high street’ designers, a poor understanding of tailoring and pattern cutting. Without artificial editing and suggestive photography in the crowdsourced photos of the viral Alexis, there is little to hide the distressed seams and distract from the  ill-fitting bodices and skirting. 

For brands who mass produce designs, or deal with a lot of demand, it is vital that pattern cutting be included in the brand’s design process. Complex design incorporates many disciplines, including architecture, textile composition, human anatomy and kinesiology, all of which pattern cutters incorporate into their work.  Often slight alterations to the component parts of a design by a pattern enhance affects drape, movement and fit without significantly altering the base design.  The needs of women in the XL category and beyond are different, requiring invisible design alterations introduced to the patterns to include support for bustlines, waist and thigh when a best selling design is replicated in larger sizes. Without a pattern cutter, a design that is flattering on a sample size will be ill-fitting on a different silhouette or body size. 

The very traits that have made the Alexis design successful also expose the technical deficiencies of Melodia’s design team. There are glaring, almost inexcusable variations between early and later versions of the Alexis dress, fabric choices are arbitrary and design elements are included and dropped with no reason. Each time the Alexis is reissued to serve a new batch of customers, the design team at Melodia gets a chance to iterate their design, improve their construction, remove fabric options that clearly do not work and offer an updated, more valuable product to their customers. Instead, customers get a diluted, inferior version of the design, rushed through production and made with whatever fabrics the label can get its hands on.  

NEVER TOO LATE TO GET IT RIGHT

Social media virality is validating but ultimately unsustainable, especially when it does nothing to propagate the brand’s story. The cultural context that is currently driving the popularity of the Alexis is local and will not survive international buyer markets, the same markets with the funding to help Melodia scale on the Alexis and its other designs. 

In spite of its missteps, the Alexis dress still presents an invaluable opportunity for Melodia to reintroduce itself to the Nigerian market and scale. While this wave of virality persists, Melodia must sort out the kinks in its process. A pattern cutting team and a quality control team must be introduced to improve the design process and monitor the product, culling defective pieces and fixing the existing design flaws in the prototype. It would also be beneficial for the brand to consider investing in trademarks that complement the Alexis design, including a signature fabric, embellishment or logo that is trademark protected.

The Nigerian apparel industry suffers from many setbacks, including a rent seeking government that seeks to frustrate fabric and equipment imports, allegedly to protect a fledgling local industry that doesn’t exist. These hindrances to scaling locally means that  Melodia must look outwards to meet its demand and scale while maintaining global standards.  Supplemented with intentional storytelling that outlines and simplifies the design philosophy behind the parent brand and connects it to the Alexis, Melodia might ride this perfect storm into true brand success. 

A class migrant goes home

The first stirrings of this essay began sometime in late 2016 when the trailer for ‘Process’, the transcendental short film from Khalil Joseph and Sierra Leonean musician and producer Sampha had just hit the internet. I listened to Sampha because of Drake, but considered him one of the many talented but uninteresting British singer/producer archetypes that dominate contemporary music.

Then Sampha released Process, an achingly raw album that chronicled his attempts to make sense of his mother’s death from cancer in 2015, five years after she was first diagnosed. Through music, he explores his own depression after her death, the realisation of the void her absence leaves in him, and the weight his memories of her carry as he tries to live without her. Listening to the album alone, you get an acute sense of his grief and the alienation that it wrought, but Process, the film seemed to acknowledge something that was conspicuously missing in his equally powerful music, his acknowledgement of his African heritage and how that heritage, through his connection to his mother, shaped his life and his music.

As a first generation immigrant to England, Sisay’s parents are his only real connection to the Limbe people from which his parents descend and Sierra Leone, the country they call home. Khalil Joseph (who also directed Beyonce’s bravura project Lemonade) juxtaposes the sterile graffiti ridden streets of England against rustic but vibrant expressions of life in Sierra Leone. Through deft vignettes, Sisay chronicles his pilgrimage back to Sierra Leone, existing simultaneously as a tourist and a perceived prodigal. Scenes of him reclaiming his heritage are juxtaposed with montages of pop-n-lock crews in basketball jerseys rehearsing by moonlight, a reminder that the idealised Sierra Leone Sisay was regaled with by his parents before he came to discover the country for himself exists as a myth, never to be reclaimed. Reality is more fluid and complex.

What is hinted at, but never overtly expressed in Process (the film & the album) is how his choice to pursue music was received by his mother. Sampha has spoken in detail about writing the skin and bones of the album in the years between 2012, when his mother first went into remission and 2015 when she died. He cared for her full-time during the worst of her illness, his life, career and ambitions railroaded by his duty to her. Her loss freed him to complete the album, a terrible cost to bear for creativity.

She never got to see him release his debut project, never got to cheer in the audience when Sisay eventually won the Mercury Prize for Process, the most prestigious prize for creativity in music in the United Kingdom.

It was unnerving to come to that realisation and seeing the film unplugged a dam inside me, releasing memories long buried. Memories of my father who after years of being a doting stay-at-home dad disappeared when I was 6, during the worst years of a deadly military junta, leaving my mother with 6 children and no money. Doubly burdened, my mother lashed out at me and my siblings, emotionally alienating herself from us. I resented her for most of my adolescence for the distance she put between us, distance that I widened as her clumsy but well-intentioned attempts to reconcile only caused me more hurt. The years only cauterized the hurt, leaving ugly scabs of teenage trauma.  Process was an augury into a possible future that lay in wait for me, a confirmation that permanent alienation through death was worse than anything I’d already experienced.

I began to actively seek out first generation immigrant artists, parsing their music for ways in which heritage and trauma was folded into their experimental pop albums about LSD and polyamory and gun control. Two years before Sampha’s album was released, I had discovered singer Moses Sumney via a Saint Heron profile by Taiye Selasi, a Ghanaian-Nigerian writer. Sumney is a first generation Ghanaian born in America and raised between Ghana and America. His music however, sounded otherworldly, and drew inspiration from Yiddish chants, melancholic grunge guitarists, electronic house and chamber pop. I followed Sumney’s career, finding kinship in his EP’s and eventually catharsis in his debut album released in November 2017, only a few months after Sampha’s debut.

His album was titled Aromanticism, a choice which seemed to simultaneously acknowledge and dismiss the internet’s obsession with Sumney’s private life and especially his sexuality. For an album that proposes to celebrate a rejection of conventional expressions of romance in its title, Sumney’s debut project dwells almost entirely on love, loneliness, the dynamics of contemporary romance and the politics that come with loving publicly in a post racial world. It is such a powerful, unexpectedly cohesive record that you could go the entire album without really noticing the 1 minute spoken word monologue, wedged as an introduction to the album’s midpoint and mission statement, Lonely World.

This non-song is Stoicism, a soundscape that made my breath catch the first time I heard it. I spent so much time unravelling the song that I felt compelled to share my findings as my first annotations on Genius, providing what I hoped was context for the song and by extension, the entire album.

This is the Rosetta stone of Aromanticism; the all-important flashback that explains just how the unnamed protagonist Sumney has woven the album around became this unemotional, detached adult who rejects love in its traditional incarnations.

The more I have listened to Aromanticism, the more these words I wrote in a haste in 2017 mirror my adolescence. Stoicism is only 4 lines long, an auditory feast that conveys to the reader a succinct retelling of a singular event in the childhood of the album’s semi-autobiographical protagonist. Footsteps on a gravelly path are heard as chiming gives way to horns that swell to a climax and wash out afterwards, spent from effort. A child is being dropped off at school in a second-hand Mitsubishi Caravan. An exchange happens between mother and child, simple enough on the surface but laden with meaning.

The car is a Mitsubishi, a Japanese brand considered inferior to the Ford thoroughbreds that populate American urban legends. It is second-hand and a caravan, suggesting it was bought for its price and utility. The exchange sees him mimic expressions of intimacy that have been modelled to him on television and among his peers who have all-American parents. His immigrant mother however, either tired from her never ending obligations, or oblivious to American gestures of intimacy, replies with a non-committal ‘Thank you’ to an overt declaration of love. Our protagonist’s sensitivities and emotional needs go unnoticed in the whirlwind of family life.

 It is a scene that resonates vividly with me, mirroring my earliest childhood memories. The sentiment it expresses is one that is often described on darkly humorous Twitter threads by millennials and perfectly captured by Ken Liu’s haunting short story, The Paper Menagerie. Ill-equipped parents, unwilling or unable to express their emotions to children raised by the media to expect overt expressions of love.

Whatever lessons were learned from this exchange are so powerful that they shape how our protagonist sees himself; his inability to connect to others, his view of conventional love as doomed, the stoicism with which immigrant parents honour their obligations, the detachment which they fulfil their duties; it is all  immortalized in the album.

I return to this epiphany over the years, refining it, coming to further realisations. It becomes clear that there are two kinds of first generation immigrants; immigrants whose families physically migrate from a 3rd World country to a first world country, and those whose families migrate from a lower social class to a higher social class. We are all familiar with the first, but fail to recognise, even within ourselves the second. Stoicism in less than two minutes lays bare how first generation immigrants and their parents seem to speak different languages, the chasm between them widening as the children assimilate and their parents withdraw, frustrated by their own inflexibility. It exposes how immigrant parents hide their bitterness and resentment behind a facade of stoicism as their children shed accents and ethnic names to take on affectations that skew their very identities so they can navigate easier in the brave new world/social class in which they must survive.

Moses Sumney’s Stoicism was not only a rosetta stone for his album, it also unlocked keys to a deeper understanding of Sampha’s film. Process as an autopsy of sorts, of a first generation immigrant assessing fully for the first time, the strength of their relationship with their immigrant parent and the heritage that parent represents. It breaks past the facade of quiet stoicism and uncovers the vibrant inner life that was denied, tucked away in service of blending in, helping the child succeed.

I had my answers, about why my mother was secretly terrified that I would never become streetwise like my brothers. Why she questioned my decision to give up my degree to pursue writing, why she seemed convinced I would be the child who took the longest to find their feet in the real world, the begrudging respect she eventually accorded me for independently forging my own path. But the answers they gave me seemed bleak, like the children of immigrants (social and otherwise) were doomed to suffer through stultified relationships with their parents, or bear the misfortune of repeating their mistakes. There had to be something out there, some hope to be found.

I found my hope in Loreley Rodriguez, who performs under the stage name, Empress Of. I found her work in 2015, at about the same time as I found Sumney and Sisay, and quickly became enamoured with the deftness with which she combined electronic dance music and powerful treatises on feminism, social justice and misogyny. Her debut album Me, defined my 2015, a blurry dance fueled mess as I exorcised two failed relationships with wildly intelligent but deeply flawed people. Her sophomore album Us was hard for me to get into but I pushed through, feeling I owed her that much loyalty.

When she announced ‘I’m Your Empress Of’, her third album, the product of two months of frenetic recording, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The first two singles deviated from everything I knew of Rodriguez, a mean feat when your genre is electronic dance pop. The messaging that preceded the album seemed designed to highlight Rodriguez’s Honduran heritage, a decision that made sense in light of the cruelties meted on South American immigrants by the American government and tweets like this that exposed the rot that seemed to have seeped into music spaces traditionally owned by minority creatives. Then in April, Rodriguez released ‘I’m Your Empress Of’, with as much fanfare as possible in a pandemic.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B-hpwMrAZrq

The album’s opening track, which shares its name with the album title, is a revelation, not just for its triumphant latin inspired horns that evoke the frantic joy of religious celebrations but for the heritage it represents. Nestled in a salsa riff she learnt from her pianist father was a gift, a 40 second freestyle monologue from Rodriguez’s mother Reina. I am unprepared for the monologue when it begins, and unprepared for the visceral reaction it plumbs out of me.

Third world immigrant parents are the same anywhere in the world, they bear the same anxieties, have the same hopes and dreams, feel the same burdens. Burdens like language and cultural barriers remind immigrant parents that no matter how much they assimilate, they remain foreigners, one wrong vowel away from being found out. First generation immigrants on the other hand, assimilate almost seamlessly, and are tethered to their ethnic heritages only by their connection to their parents. Rodriguez, who is racially ambiguous, celebrates her mother’s accent and broken English, elevating them by including them in her album, demanding her audience look beyond these superficial markers and acknowledge her triumphs.

“It was no easy, no es speak English

It was no easy, has to learn it

But I did, I got it”

Reina’s story parallels many millennial African stories of a generation of parents who endured demeaning jobs they hated and denied themselves so their children could move up a social class or travel to a better country and make the ‘right’ choices. It expresses the disconnect that comes from not being able to properly quantify the poverty and suffering they have endured, their frustration as first generation immigrant children reject their advice and dismiss their concerns, choosing experimental jobs and creative adventures over the safety of prestige careers. The friction that grows as they try to ‘save’ their children with corrective violence and alienation, behaviours learned in their own childhoods.

It expresses the triumph of finally having a tangible marker of success; a novel published, an album released, an exhibition attended, and the pride they feel, limited by their lack of context to understand the scope of this achievement and why it matters in the world, but there none the less. The ways this success is validation that they did something right, that making those sacrifices paid off.

I only have one girl

But the only girl is like the having thousands of girls

Because look at how many times she reproduce herself in each bunch of you

It feels like such an innocuous statement, but it is a huge emotional moment for Rodriguez and Reina, and by extension for every immigrant child who rejected parental expectation and followed a creative career. Sampha speaks for his mother and tries to understand her, Sumney’s protagonist interprets his mother’s actions and acts upon them, but Reina, she is given a moment to speak for herself, offering an authoritative perspective on how she sees her daughter. It is such an honest, vulnerable moment, an affirmation that behind the stoicism and the silence, there is acceptance, celebration of individuality and even a willingness to unlearn and relearn.

“This is Empress of’s mom”

As a declaration, ‘Empress Of’ it is factually inaccurate. Rodriguez is nowhere famous or successful by industry standards to be the empress of any genre, but in the context of their interpersonal relationship, it expresses the faith Reina has in Rodriguez’s ability to make a way for herself in the world. Every creative remembers the first time their parent addresses them by their chosen creative identity with pride instead of resignation, disappointment or sarcasm. For the children of immigrants this moment is doubly special, because first generation immigrants do not only carry the weight of their parent’s expectations, but also the integrity of their home countries. To be seen in this way is priceless.

My relationship with my mother remains fraught. She is aloof when we are apart, smothering when we are together. I am still too impatient with her, too angry at how long it’s taken her to accept that I define my own terms for happiness. But now I understand her a little better. We are all on our journeys, and that her triumphs matter as much as mine. I seek out her stories, about her life, her fears and her failures. I see her gestures for what they are; acts of love, swaddled in cautious pride.

The rest of Rodriguez’s album sees her in cycle through the throes of infatuation, heartbreak and restitution, regular fare for pop albums. But knowing that this is a heartbreak album where she has no reasons to hide her pain, or obscure her sexuality in sly language because she worries it might upset her immigrant mother is liberating, for her and me.

As the creative child of a class immigrant, it is my Homecoming.

Oloture will start conversations, just not the ones it desperately needs to

All revolutions are driven by stories. Stories that transcend the medium in which they are told and gain a life of their own, radicalizing and evangelizing everyone who encounters them. It is part of the reason I became fascinated with storytelling and why I spent years working in journalism. During my time in journalism, as a fashion and film critic, I have personally experienced how stories can elicit unexpected reactions and I have learned to be careful with how I craft them. I never want to be misconstrued, to have the point I’m trying to convey become distorted by the tools I choose to tell my story, or the choices I make in my delivery. This responsibility is even more urgent when a storyteller is adapting another person’s traumatic story or lived experience. 

A storyteller must juggle many elements to find a balance between the storytelling tools of a medium and the facts of the event or experience being adapted. This was the task put before Kenneth Gyang, one of Nigeria’s true auteurs, with Oloture. Adapted from a Premium Times investigation conducted in 2014 by T.O, a Nigerian journalist who went undercover into a prostitution ring to better understand the system that funneled desperate men and women from across the country into Europe and forced them into indentured servitude through violence and isolation. T.O details her personal experience in ZAM magazine and discusses the unforeseen complications that could have cost her a body part or worse. It is clear what her motivations are, what precautions she took, what her plan for extraction was, all standard practice for undercover investigations and she goes to great pains to emphasize that despite the meticulous planning by her and her superiors, things still went south. 

It is suggested that EbonyLife Films, the production company behind Oloture asked for and received permission from the Premium Times team to adapt T.O’s story and that she was allowed to see the film before it was shipped off through the festival circuit. This information is relevant because while there are many similarities between Ovuorie’s first personal narrative and Gyang’s adaptations, there are also many important deviations that warp the story in ways that lower the stakes and move many working Nigerian investigative journalists to comment on the film and its shortcomings. 

Gyang’s directorial eye is not one of those shortcomings. Since his 2013 Confusion Na Wa, Kenneth has impressed critics with his commitment to storytelling and his preference for gritty stories that frame the Nigerian condition in all its unvarnished yet glorious authenticity. Oloture continues in this tradition, with Gyang setting up one of the most impressive Lagos nightlife scenes ever created in Nollywood. From sets to costuming to tracking shots and a soundtrack that pays homage to Nigeria’s highlife legends, Gyang manages to capture the grittiness of Lagos without patronizing the audience. It is the familiar but alien world that Gyang creates that allows us to believe that his cast, many of whom are playing roles outside their own traditional stereotyping, are actually who they say they are. Omawunmi as a brothel madam is subtle but imposing, allowing Omowunmi Dada, Wofai Fada, Sharon Ooja and Lala Akindoju to shine as a motley crew of prostitutes with differing motivations. We are expected to empathize with their individual journeys, and we do for the most part. But we never quite reach the point where we can fully suspend belief and immerse ourselves in the story Oloture promises to tell because of glaring plot holes that weaken the foundational premise of the story being told. 

All of Oloture’s shortcomings can be traced to its writing. Yinka Ogun, a long time EbonyLife collaborator and Craig Freimond, a South African screenwriter, are tasked with adapting Ovuorie’s story for the screen, and from the very first scene, it is obvious that neither T.O or any of the journalists who worked on the 2014 case were hired to consult on the storytelling process. This is obvious because there is no depth to Oloture, the principal character they model after her. We are never informed of Oloture’s motivations for leaving her regular life to go undercover as a sex worker. It is never stated, explicitly or otherwise. We are never told what goal she is working towards, how long she has already been undercover and what the metrics for extraction from her undercover role are. Oloture simply shadows more experienced prostitutes, stealing their clients and clumsily handling compromising situations. 

There are no consequences for Oloture’s glaring gaffes, her madam simply rolls her eyes  and her fellow prostitutes, whom her behaviour puts at risk seem to shrug off the fact that Ehi (Oloture) never sleeps with the johns whose attention she works to attract. Ehi jeopardizes Linda’s investments towards Italy and puts her life at risk when she tails Linda to the front business of a pimp madam and is caught, yet there is no punishment and Alero, the ‘hardened’ madam who organizes Oloture’s trip to Italy simply accepts that Oloture spied on her and exposed her cover business. Ehi is only in any danger once in the entire film, when Chuks, a pimp character who only seems to exist to move the plot along and ‘show’ the dangerous side of sex work, threatens her for interfering in his relationship with Blessing, who is his only remaining girl.  

Oloture’s  inexplicable behaviour is used to set up the film’s one gratuitous rape scene. After months undercover as a sex worker, we are expected to believe that  she doesn’t understand what it means when she is invited by Alero, a pimp madam who has already threatened her with physical violence earlier in the film to a sex party. She has no exit strategy, and gullibly agrees to take a pill from the stranger she is assigned to for a headache she is faking. Her surprise at her violation is hard to take seriously and her decision to go to Italy rather than seek out therapy so impulsive, it beggars belief. In the same vein, the film goes to great lengths to set up a narrative where Chuks is contrasted with Sandra and Alero as the old school vs the new school. But the story itself does not support this ‘truth’, because we find out soon enough that like Chuks, Alero and Sandra are also pawns with tenuous power, on the lowest rungs of a more expansive crime syndicate. 

Oloture spends the entire film in a haze of entitlement, making decisions because she feels ‘compelled’ to, stumbling into avoidable situations and dragging others into those situations. The consequences of those impulsive actions lead to a violent death and increased danger for herself and everyone around her. This entitlement, which the writers desperately try to sell to the audience as naivete is hard to ignore, worsening as the film progresses. By the end of the film, with its ‘unconventional’ final twist, you are left feeling like the victim of a bait and switch, and the film you sat through, pales in comparison to the film you were promised in its first few scenes. 

Oloture will start conversations, granted, but at the expense of an already underrepresented journalism community hoping desperately that one of these days, a filmmaker will actually ask them for their stories and replicate them faithfully. 

LOFTICRIES

She likes when she’s pushed against the bed frame, the high headboard of her princess bed solid behind her. It provides a rhythm, something against which she can arch the small of her back and lift herself up to meet him as he greedily clutches her buttocks and drives into her. Her arms are around his neck, hands drooping to the down on his back, her small breasts dwarfed by his saggy pectoral muscles are taut as his chest hair rubs up against them, teasing to an almost unbearable sensation. She leans forward into him, her feet stretched out till her pointé is perfect just like she learnt in ballet.

Mold yourself to your partner, mirror his movements.

She pushes into him, meeting his thrusts with little ones of her own, her tiny pelvis grinding against the scrub on his groin, drawn out grunts of exertion escaping her as he pushes into her slowly, deliberately, each thrust starting from his diaphragm, travelling down in a slow wave of tautening muscles and finishing with finishing with a tip to hilt burial. She leans back and watches herself get invaded over and over, the fluidity of his technique fascinating to watch in her lustful haze, his feints hitting her in secret places and making her thighs tremble. His belly is a maze of indented lines and rippling muscle under his pale skin and in the delirium of ecstasy, she is tempted to trace them one by one, till she reaches the source of her pleasure. Her dancer feet find the swell of his buttocks and kneads them, a gentle urging to a faster, urgent rhythm.

 You are the delicate swan to his brusque stout lion, graceful.

“Sit on me.” He says and flips her off him.

She obeys and clambers on, the smooth insides of her hairless thighs mooring against the outside of his rough hirsute ones. She sinks smoothly onto him and settles. The tempo is hers now. She’s not a doll being used anymore. She imagines someone else, a prince, questing for her hand, fairly won and claiming his prize given voluntarily by her. He’s mewling under her. In this position, he loses all his masculinity and whimpers as she exceeds what he has taught her and shows him how much more she has learnt on her own.

“Luna.”

He says it once, softly and it throws her. She slows and her eyes flutter open and find his face, He’s still mewling, eyes tightly shut, pupils fluttering underneath. He has never called her by his woman’s name before. She contemplates this as her princely conjuring flutters away and the reality weighs down on her, threatens her sanity. In the swirl of emotions, she latches on the most irrational one and holds tight.

He comes to me because he cannot bear me with anyone else. I must show him I understand.

Her hips circle in half circles, clockwise, counter clockwise. She is too close to his groin, her buttocks are too delicate, she knows this but she continues to twist into him, pushing till he sputters and spasms under her. There is a rash of pain, small swaths of her buttocks have rubbed raw. She crawls off him and curls into a circle, her duvet cradles between her still trembling thighs.

He kisses her cheek, starts to shuffle off the bed.

“You were so good. I love you.”

He walks out of the room stark naked, briefs bunched in his hand. She doesn’t look as he leaves.

“I love you too, Papa.”

“What the fuck was he doing to you?” His anger is like hell, hot on her face. She tries for contriteness, but only barely.

“Have you ever fucked someone you didn’t like?” She asks offhandedly.

He pauses, looking at her cock-eyed. She has never used that word before in front of him before, let alone in a sexual context. How she knew he was fucking the neighbour’s ugly spinster sister, he had no idea, but she knows.

“Did not liking the person make the fucking any less perfect?” She continues, taking his silence as assent. He’s still silent.

“It’s the same, except that I hate him.”

He sits beside her on the stoop of their quaint bungalow, shoulders hunched in horrified defeat.

“Why doesn’t he fuck Luna? She’s his girlfriend, not you.”

She starts to cry, little patters that splat on the concrete step. Left, right, left, they fall in synchrony.

“He calls me by her name, y’know, when we’re fucking. He always calls me by her…”

He puts his hands over his ears. He saw his father saunter out of her room, penis dangling proudly between his legs as he snuck back to the master bedroom to rejoin his girlfriend, Luna. It had paralyzed him where he sat in the toilet at the end of the corridor, peeping through the keyhole, the smouldering roll of weed hidden between his fingers spilling ash into his palm. That vision was more than enough; he didn’t want to hear the filth pouring out of her fourteen year old mouth.

He slaps her flush across the mouth, knocking her into the concrete wall from which the stoop protruded.

“Shut it, I don’t wanna hear. Doing stretches and splits everywhere, flashing your pum, fucking ballet whore.”

The patter of tears become rivulets, the rain that accompanies the rumbling sobs in her chest. He pulls her to himself and she cries into his plaid shirt, soaking it. They were not different, him and her. Their father had a thing for messing around with black women and running off with the kids he could snatch. He hadn’t been so lucky since snatching their baby sister, Kee got him in jail for four years. Luna was one of them crazies that visited inmates, courted dangerous men. It was disappointing that she settled for a baby thief. It didn’t matter, no woman would stand for that, if he told Luna, one way or another it would stop.

“I’ll fix him up. Don’t worry, Bae.”

She sniffles and sidles her head into him, the left temple already swelling the force of his slap.

“I’m sorry.”

“You little shit.”

He hits the boy. Prison toughened him up, taught him how to kill a man with his fists. The boy groans in the chair. His right eye is swollen shut, his lip split, and his cheek is weeping blood where it was dragged against the floor.

“You want to send me back to jail?”

He hits the boy again. A flurry of punches to the gut, the boy hunches forward to protect his sides but his arms strain behind him, tethered to the back of the metal chair on which he was restrained. The boy has never seen death before, not like how it radiates from his father’s murderous eyes. He’d liked Luna, even though she was dumb for picking his father. Once he’d closed his eyes and imagined his mother with her eyes, and cheeks and smile. He’d felt a little bad after when he remembered his father had stolen him. She hadn’t helped them. She had listened quietly and when he was done, she’d turned and left them, taking nothing but her purse. They waited for her, but instead their father came home with a murderous rage. He didn’t want to die like this. He didn’t want to die for trying to do the right thing.

“You want to know something?”

“Please, no.” The boy manages to say through the spittle and blood clamming up his gums. No one’s listening.

His father has her by the hair. “What she never told you is how much she liked it. When I’m fucking her, she be whimpering cos she don’t want me to stop. She sit on it and ride me like they pay her for it.”

He looks away, ignoring the pain lancing through the side of his face. The older man is incredulous.

“You don’t believe me?”

He drags her down to her knees and undoes his fly.

“Get to it.”

She looks at her brother in the eye, whose head snaps back to them involuntarily. Wide, sauce red eyes, brimming as her lips tremble. The accusation doesn’t need to be said out loud.

‘you promised you would fix this’.

 She turns wearily and pushes her hand through the yawn in her father’s pants. Rage takes him and his mind clouds over, adrenalin immolating him from the inside. He roars and rears against the ropes that bind his waist to the chair and they snap and break. The metal chair soars over his head and bludgeons their father’s and the buff body, honed by prison gymnastics deflates like a broken accordion. She shrieks and scrambles away and continued to shriek as the metal chair still tied to his hands reverses and returns to their father’s crumbled body, each impact shattering bone and denting muscle, till all that was left is a puddle of spreading blood around a vaguely human island of fractured, shredded flesh.

The lattice that constitutes the back rest breaks unceremoniously, and his fugue clears. And they stare at their creation, lips unmoving for fear that a word will reverse the horror they’ve wrought and bring the man back.

“We have to get rid of it.” She whispers finally, pointing away from the mess.

 His eyes follow her hand and pick up the thing that has riveted her. It’s a wig of greasy black hair, some strands still slick and low, the rest dishevelled, the whole thing still attached to one third of a slick spongy skull.

He picks it up and it shoots through his spastic fingers and clatters to the floor.

The salt soaks up the blood nicely, each crystal swelling and losing its shiny translucent lustre for a dull maroon soul. He pats the red grains into a little mound and drags it across the floor, soaking up the coagulating residue of their father’s life. She sprinkles more salt as he works, periodically holding out a cellophane sack for him to deposit a patty cake of bloodied salt. The silence is powerful, as was the chasm that separates this second from the hour before. He looks up at her, and the words gurgle up. Instead he says.

“More salt.”

The shower blasts him mercilessly, it is 3am and the flow was strong. He pretends not to notice as his hands shake around the bar of soap and his skin already wrinkling around it. He wants to stay here, forever, till the blasts wash the colour out of his skin and left him bleached and empty. He feels her like a presence behind him, fidgeting on the balls of her feet, frightened by his rage but driven by an overwhelming need to comfort him.

She knows. He doesn’t have to tell her. She is afraid, maybe even more than he is. He is all that was left in the world for her now. She approaches him slowly, shadowing him till she is close enough to feel the droplets ricochet off his back on to her skin. The moment comes and she takes it and wraps her hands around him from behind. She holds him as he begins to sob, and holds him till they stop and holds him till he acknowledges her with a hand on her thigh. His penis hardens as her hand travels and strokes. He has their father’s libido, and his rage, and both she knows how to sate it and stoke it as needed, like she’d done when she told their father about his plan to tell Luna about them. He’d never seemed as powerful as the old man, but in those moments when that chair went to work, she saw that he was even greater. She’d promised him once; he wouldn’t have to share her with anyone. She made good on her promises.  

From the Archives: Falana reinvents herself with Chapter One

A little background…

Falana and I met for the interview for this profile at a cafe in Yaba. It was the second time I was physically meeting an interviewee for a profile, everyone I had done prior, I had done remotely, finding ways to make up for the lack of physical presence. Though I’d met her many times before, interviewing her was reintroduction, to the cerebral artist who spent years between projects and cared only for an honest, compelling story. She is still the same today.

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Simi; Unlikely Anti-hero

A little background…

It feels like a lifetime has passed since I went to a rehearsal studio in Ajao Estate to watch Simi lead her band through her set list for her first headlining show at Hard Rock Cafe. Since then she got married to Adekunle Gold, had a baby, got cancelled and somehow managed score two of the biggest songs in the country in the middle of a pandemic. But even then it was obvious Simi was at the helm of her own career and knew exactly where she wanted to take it.

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Niniola embraced her sexuality and gave us permission to do the same

A little background…

Ninola was chosen for the first batch of the Native 14, a decision that seems insulting in hindsight, considering the global strides she would make mere months after the second issue of the Nativemag hit the press. A once-in-a-lifetime musician, with a divine ear for feeling out the most lascivious innuendo, Niniola never needs to share a spotlight with anyone.

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Amaa Rae: The woman with the whisper that steals hearts & spotlights

A Little Background….

I began writing this profile of Amaa Rae in late 2017. I’d discovered her through her feature on Aylø’s ‘Whoa’. The buzz around the single was unprecedented, endearing her an almost immediate Nigerian fan base. Ever the consummate artist, Amaa already had a project in the works, and solidified her position as one of the country’s most promising artists, with a debut EP, Passion Fruit Summers. I was commissioned to write about this exciting new artist and the otherworldly album she’d created. This is that profile, with a snapshot in time, preserved with minimal edits.

The featured image is from the photoshoot that was to accompany this profile, shot by Charles Lawson, you can find his work here.

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