The Job Is My Struggle

(Being an interview granted OLIVIER BARLIET, leading critic and Documentarist of African films and Moderator of Africultures in August 2007)

1) JAHMAN ANIKULAPO, AFTER HAVING BEEN CHIEF EDITOR OF THE CULTURE PART OF THE GUARDIAN, YOU ARE NOW CHIEF EDITOR OF "LIFE", THE GUARDIAN MAGAZINE DELIVERED FREE WITH THE NEWSPAPER ON THE WEEK-END AS IT IS OFTEN THE CASE IN THE ANGLOPHONE COUNTRIES. DOES THIS EVOLUTION OPEN YOUR FIELD AND YOUR POSSIBILITIES OF PUBLISHING CONTENTS YOU LIKE ?

JAHMAN: Thanks Olivier. You are indeed right. I was Arts, Culture and Media reporter for The Guardian (Daily) for 15 years (12 years as Editor); and in that period my area of influence was concentrated on matters relating to the arts in all its ramifications - Literature, Visual Arts, Music, Film, Theatre, Media, as well as culture-related subjects including the museum, language etc. In 2003, I moved over to edit the Sunday edition of The Guardian, and one of the innovations we brought in to increase the reach of the paper was the idea of a weekly magazine that would be devoted to creating a new class of readership - aside from the conservative readers of the papers usually bracketed as the elite and intellectuals. We thought of a publication that would cater for the interest of the young readers - the group that we consider restless and eclectic in terms of taste and cultural orientation. We know that this particular generation (those tagged the Generation X) is hooked on the visual - television, video, fashion, computer games etc - that they do not really care much about heavy textual content or could not be bothered about heavy matters of politics and economy; so we wanted a systematic break into their world. The end aim is to gradually draw them to issues that should be of interest to them as potential future leaders of the nation, but which they would rather shun due to their socialisation process, occasioned by the nature of a computerised age and era. Thus we wanted a schematic bridge between the print and the screen; a sort of 'movie in print'.
And that is what The GuardianLIFE has come to represent.
It started in October 2005; and we are proud that the magazine has become a stable on the table of the targeted readership; so much that now it has fans club in some university campuses and among youth groups. In terms of objective, we also decided to make it a grower/mentor of the new Nigerians; the post-military interregnum generation. We are in a period of renaissance - having just come into real Democratic Governance in 1999; and this means that the environment of public discourse was beginning to open up; the economic landscape was becoming more expansive and creativity was in full swing. We thought there was the need to facilitate a new atmosphere of expressions for the young ones who we reckon are going to become the new Middle Class in the next few years. The GuardianLIFE was thus conceived to be a 'spokes-platform' for the new Nigerian (man/woman) leaders in all the facets of the national life.
Besides we thought of creating new Role Models from among (and for) the youths themselves. And in line with that contextual brief, hardly would you find already known faces in the national life on the cover of the magazine or even in the inside pages. Rather we search out new voices/faces that are making solid contributions to the divergent aspects of the economy and national life both at home and abroad.
So in a way, we have focused on the idea of a national renaissance, which promotes freedom to expand the cultural capsules to accommodate a lot more lifestyle-type sort of discourses.


2) WHAT WOULD YOU SAY ARE YOUR MAIN EDITORIAL LINES AND FOCUSES ?

JAHMAN: The main editorial lines are generally lifestyle in the context of national culture and character of the emerging new Nigeria; and that includes just about any material that would cater for the interest of the young Nigerians -- the ones in the teenage/late thirtyish bracket. Thus, while we write about their sort of music, movie, fashion, literature, sports etc; we also focus on what they are doing in the new media - ICT, their foray into politics at local or national levels; their activities on the economic turf; what they do on the university campuses; their non-governmental activities among others.

3) THERE IS OFTEN A TIDY LINK BETWEEN CULTURE AND BUSINESS IN NIGERIA: DO YOU SEE THAT AS A PROBLEM OR A CHANCE? COULD YOU GIVE US EXAMPLES?

JAHMAN: The relationship between Culture and Business has not been really so well defined at any point in time. Though Business has always come in as a backbone for vibrant cultural expressions; it is also a slippery terrain for the arts; for crass commercialisation is incongruous to the soul of genuine artistic expression. I guess that holds true for most other societies. But here, specifically, the popular dimension of culture such as the entertainment beats have assumed a more aggressive business attitude; to the point that expansion in fields such as Telecomm, ICT and Restaurants, for instance, has provided a platform for culture to spring out to better, greater visibility. For instance, the advent of the Global System of Mobile (GSM) telecomm has yielded greater financial support for youth culture, which in content and context is largely domiciled in the entertainment (music movie, fashion) and sport. A lot more musicians have greatly benefited from the promotional activities of the three big mobile telephone companies - Globacom, Celtel and MTN; as well as from the scores of Private Telecom Operators, PTOs. Also the industry of eatery and beverages has been rendering a lot of support; particularly to the music and movie sections of the culture sector. However, this romance of business and the arts has unwittingly found a way to nimble at the quality of cultural work being produced by the youth, so much that one is apprehensive of what the future holds for enduring cultural products; though the literature and the visual arts are to some extent insulated from such decimation of qualitative cultural productivity and discourses.

4) NIGERIA IS A HUGE COUNTRY AND HAS BEEN QUITE DISCONNECTED OF THE REST OF THE WORLD DURING THE YEARS OF MILITARY DICTATORSHIP. HOW IS IT NOW? ARE THE NIGERIAN READERS INTERESTED IN THE CULTURAL EXPRESSIONS OF OTHER PARTS OF AFRICA AND FURTHER OF THE WORLD? IS IT A NEW TREND? DO THEY HAVE A GLOBAL UNDERSTANDING OF ARTS?

JAHMAN: The last eight years of democracy have probably opened up Nigeria to the rest of the world more than the country's over three decades of largely military dictatorship. It is expected anyway, as Democracy itself portends opening up the space of freedom of expression. But very significantly, the eight years have witnessed greater and bolder expression of the idea of nationhood vis-a-vis participation in the global cultural activities. An example would be seen in the way the Nigerian video drama productions, (otherwise christened NOLLYWOOD) have spread their influence beyond the shores of Nigeria to become main menu on the national screens of most African nations; and spreading to as far as even Brazil, Mexico; Cuba; and now with a lot of showing in the US and parts of the United Kingdom. This spreading influence was also helped by the foreign policy thrust of the former President Olusegun Obasanjo's administration, which set out to redeem the battered image of Nigeria in the comity of nations. Many of us will recall his extensive travel around the world (in the first part of his eight-year administration) spreading the gospel of a new Nigeria, with a much cleaner image; and a ready comportment to take on the world at its own terms. This helped the push of the production of the artistes to world attention.
Of course, there is a reciprocal interest by Nigerian artistes in what is going on in other parts of the world. Many of them were able to participate in many international cultural events. Their works became very popular and influential at international forums such as the music videos that now play prominently on such influential international television channels as Channel O and the MTV; and the video dramas that are gradually worming themselves to attention of mainstream film festivals around the world.
The general consumer of media products also took more than a passing interest in what is going on culturally in other parts of the world. This begins with first attempting to track the careers of their own fellow countrymen who were making impacts around the world; and then it took on the dimension of really showing interest in affairs of culture from around the world.
We, however, have to remember that deep down into history, Nigerians have always been very cosmopolitan in taste; this is partly attributable to our trajectory as a colony of the West; which means that quite a lot of the citizens were/are educated in Europe and the West; and there are more than 10 millions Nigerians scattered around the world; operating in divergent economic spheres. This makes their interest in consumption of cultural products from other parts of the world quite extensive.

5) THE GUARDIAN "LIFE" FOCUSES OFTEN ON FASHION AND COUTURE OR COOKING : IS FOR YOU CULTURE ESSENTIALLY A WAY OF LIFE ?

JAHMAN: Culture for me is essentially an expression of a people's way of Life. It is the summation of their philosophical contention; belief system; social orientation as well as a window to their peculiar characters and pointer to what they want their future to be like. This, you are right, must have informed the content character of the GuardianLIFE - although on introspection, I can say I did not really set out to make it so.

6) WHAT ARE THE MAIN DIFFICULTIES OF A JOURNALIST LIFE LIKE YOURS IN LAGOS ? AND THE MAIN AWARDS ?

JAHMAN: The main challenges have been in terms of surmounting the enormous logistics inadequacies that make the job one hell of a task. The terrible traffic in Lagos is a world legend; just as the inadequate power supply; and the insecurity. My job for instance, demands that I move around a lot in the night, but the spate of insecurity and police harassment in the night make the job so uninteresting and difficult. Also there is a general luke-warmness in readership perhaps due to poor purchasing power of the public. You are convinced that your media product has a potential to attract a huge size of readership but then you are not bold enough to explore the potentialities because the purchasing power of the public remains at a steady low level. This means that one deliberately under-produces and moderates one's ability to perform. One is just not motivated enough to explore the limit of one's potentials. This is quite discouraging for journalistic enterprise on one's side.
Quite fundamental challenge also is the growing mercantilist attitude of most proprietors and owners of the media enterprises. They allow commerce sometimes to dictate the content of the publications; and this confers no respect on the vocation of the journalist.


WHICH AWARDS HAVE YOU WON IN THE PAST?:
JAHMAN: Personally, I have won the following Awards:
1. Nigerian Culture Merit Award (Print Journalism) (endowed by Federal Government of Nigeria)
2. Critic Award for the film, Critical Assignment (Endowed by Guinness International)
3. Excellence Awards, Ist Segun Olusola Award for Culture (endowed by NANTAP)
4. Art Writer of the Year 1996 (Travellers Award)
5. An Insightful Art Critic Award (2002) (National Association of Fine Arts Students)
6. Outstanding Film and Television Critic Award (ITPAN)
7. Award For Musical excellence Critic Award.
8. Etc

The paper too has won so many awards both locally and internationally. And it has a huge following on the web with as much as 2 million hit every Sunday.

7) YOU ARE VERY INVOLVED IN ORGANIZING AND PROMOTING CULTURAL EVENTS AND FESTIVALS AND YOU HAVE TAKEN A BIG PART IN THE CONSTITUTION OF A NIGERIAN PART OF THE AFRICAN FEDERATION OF FILM CRITICS. IS THIS INVOLVEMENT A FAITH IN A CERTAIN KIND OF JOURNALISM, MORE ORIENTED ON THE CRITICISM THAN ON THE PROMOTION OR THE PURE INFORMATION ?



JAHMAN: Below is something I have extracted from a paper I had written for a conference on criticisms, but which I have never been able to present in Public; it sorts of sum up my conviction about the delineation between my Journalistic career and my Cultural activism:

When people talk about the absence of Criticism in the culture sector, you tend to ask yourself: what are they expecting?
Criticism can only thrive in an environment where there is enough room for creativity; quality creativity. But when you live in an environment that stifles creativity, you cannot expect criticism to thrive.
You want to look at a work of art; you want to talk about somebody's performance -- a dancer or a visual artist -- you must look at the environment of performance.
What policy instruments and operative environment has the state or the society provided for the artiste to perform optimally or at least to the best level of his capacity.
It is clear that most African societies have not created an environment that is even prepared for the artist to perform effectively, or optimally.
Here in Nigeria, there is abject poverty of vision by the State on how to grow culture and its allied industries to serve the need of national (social, political and economic) development. Even basic fundamental instruments that other societies take for granted such as a national cultural policy; an endowment fund for the arts and a national academy for the arts are non-existent, in spite of decades of clamour by culture activists and the artistes. Ostensibly, this has weakened the template for artistic and cultural productivity; and dissemination.
Why are we therefore expecting the artiste to live above that philistines environment of absolute visionlessness?
Then you say you are a critic, you sit down and, you are observing the trend of performances and making comments on them, and pointing a way for the future! What future are you pointing to, when the people that consume the works of art are not even prepared for qualitative ones?
For me, bogged down by frustration occasioned by under-performance in my career as an arts writer/critic, I took a decision; I said the era of just sitting down in my newsroom and writing critiques about somebody's work has to be postponed for sometime!
I resolved that I wanted to be more involved in creating the necessary environment for the artists to be able to, at least, produce qualitative works. If I succeeded in that conscientious activism, then I can sit down and write comments; objective and conscientious assessment of the work of art.
I don't want to go through the exasperating experience of writing comments on works that, by all the parameters for critical discourse, are substandard; especially works I know that given the right environment, the artist could have accomplished better.
Perhaps, if I am myself not one who engages in creative enterprises all the time, it wouldn't have mattered; but I am an artiste first - I trained as a culture producer; the critical vocation is only a gift of talent and a bonus acquired through my training in Dramatic Theories and Literary Criticisms; and years of practice as a writer on artistic and cultural productions.
I am not just an observer of the trends in culture production, I am an active participant; just as any producer could be. I cannot afford the luxury of a mere journalistic interrogation of artistic experiences. The journalist can do that, I have no qualms. I am informed in my practice by something deeper than journalistic inclination and expertise.
By my training and antecedents, I cannot continue to be saying: 'That theatre performance is not good enough'; 'That painting is not good.' etc. Do I know how much the artiste has had to steal to be able to produce that film? Do I know how much of his properties he had to sell; or the dirty things that she has had to go into to raise money to produce a play.
In this constraining environment of production, people have had to engage in a lot of subversive activities in order to survive and realise their artistic dreams. I was a witness to a lady theatre producer having to condescend to having an unwarranted love affair with a senior banker just so to be able to pay the balance of her cast and crew fees, when already secured sponsor ditched her at the last minute. She got a loan through that means but the cast needed not know where the money came from. There are uglier stories that I have heard from artistes themselves... many of them are big stars today... on what they did to get their first album off the demo stage...
Then, I sat down and reviewed my intervention in the institution of critical discourses and I resolved that I'd be better off, conscience-wise, if I diverted my critical sensibility to culture activism. We try to create the right environment for quality creativity to flower, then nobody will have an excuse for under-performance or perfunctory production. And this is why I am very compassionate when it comes to matters concerning the arts.
So, instead of jumping on the bandwagon, and jumping the gun, I decided to stay on one spot and use my talent and a little link that God has helped me to gather these years in the course of the job, in ensuring that the right environment; the appropriate visions; functional policies and beneficial actions are taken by whoever the political process throws into the leadership of the culture sector of the economy.
That is more important to me than writing reviews and critiques that don't even get read by the public but the artists themselves and their colleagues. Even at that, how many of those can afford to buy the papers to read up what you have written about them. Most times, you -- the writer -- still has to take the paper to the artists and say, 'look what I have written about your work'... Haba, the burden that the so-called arts writer carries is enormous; painful at times.
So, midcourse in my career as an arts/culture journalist I reviewed my vocation, and I said since God has been kind to me I have a voice - when I write and when I talk people listen - I should use that to make the right noise, the right statement; so that we can challenge the polity to give recognition to the labour of the artists and culture workers; so that we can begin to create room for quality intellect that would produce qualitative art.
That is why I have been so engrossed in what has come to be termed 'Culture Activism'... I am sure the sobriquet is in the context of a civil activist, human rightist or social activist. But really, it does not really matter what it is called. I only know I have a missionary zeal to the cause of the art and culture.
That is why I am deeply involved in cultural activism structures such as the Committee for Relevant Arts (CORA), which also incorporates such other bodies as Culture Enthusiasts Club; Lagos Circle of Critics; Friends of the Arts; Culture Working Committee etc.
We formed the Committee for Relevant Art, CORA in June 1991, and since then it has succeeded in facilitating an active environment of discourses around the arts and culture to the extent that there is now a veritable platform for the culture producing community to articulate their needs and objectives for the purpose of engaging the general public; and ostensibly attention of policy makers. The very few achievements in the past
I believe that it is when I have succeeded in helping get the right environment, that is the point at which the critic in me will come out. And I don't have to still be a practising journalist when that time will manifest.
That is my position and I have no apology about it; not even to myself.

Jahman

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