I’m traveling too much this fall, not getting enough time with my family or my students, but there are occasional trips that would simply be a mistake to miss. For the past two years, I’ve traveled to Nigeria with my friends and colleagues Colin Maclay and Mike Best. On our last trip, we ended up working with Nollywood directors and producers to brainstorm new business and distribution models for the field. This week, Nollywood filmmakers are in Atlanta, Georgia, visiting Georgia Tech and engaging in a discussion on the future of the industry.
They’re having some fun, too. Zik Zulu Okafor is working on a film while he’s here, a story of a Nigerian hero who finds himself at university in America, wrestling with relationships at home and abroad. As we’re having a discussion about the aesthetics and business model of the industry, Georgia Tech students are auditioning for the production in the next room over.
And we’re surrounded by some marvelous folks who, who’ve been generous in sharing their talents.
That’s Hausa rapper Ziriums – Nazir Ahmad Hausawa – performing his hit “This is Me” in front of an appreciative crowd, who looked up from their goat and jollof rice to cheer him on. The handsome dude dancing with him is Zeb Ejiro, one of the fathers of the Nigerian film industry. The beautiful lady who comes into the frame is Monalisa Chinda, one of Nollywood’s hottest contemporary stars. On the surface, it’s the sort of warm moment that happens often when you’re lucky enough to hang out with groups of Nigerians. But it’s richer and more complicated than that.
There aren’t many Hausa rappers in Nigeria. The language, spoken primarily in the predominantly Muslim north, isn’t heard as commonly in the commercial capital, Lagos, and when Ziriums looked for a contract from a Lagos record company, he tells us that he was not warmly received. And his work has proven pretty controversial at home as well.
While Ziriums’s music is rooted in his culture and faith (he’s the son of a religious singer, and his early performances were Boyz To Men songs rewritten to praise the Prophet), it’s also deeply political. One of the tracks he’s best known for is a reworking of Busta Rhymes’s “Arab Money” as “Government Money”, a satirical track that busts on money-obsessed Abuja. When Ziriums dropped his own album, it featured a track called “Girgiza Kai” – “Shake Your Head” – which pilloried the governor of Kano State.
The governor wasn’t pleased, and the song was banned from local radio.
According to this report from Carmen McCain, his website was also blocked in Kano – while I can’t verify that, this would be a very unusual instance in Nigeria, where the internet has remained largely uncensored. (Carmen has contacted me – while the song was banned from local radio, his site was not blocked.) Ziriums now lives in New York, for fear of arrest or harassment in Kano, and is using digital means to ensure Nigerians at home can hear his music and his message.
So it’s not just a warm moment when one of the pioneers of Nollywood cinema shares the mic with a controversial political Hausa rapper – it’s a reminder that Nigeria, for all its complexity and conflict, is a place where respect for each other’s culture and creations can cross lines of language, religion and generation.