Those familiar with Nigerian Idol appreciates the creative excellence of the man Obi Asika, moreso, his ability to discover talents is legendary. Few Africans have contributed to the growth of popular culture, and entertainment entrepreneurship as this Nigerian creative industry entrepreneur. Many regard him as the godfather of the emergence of Nigeria’s music industry as a global brand. His name has remained a recurring decimal in the foundation of the infrastructure for the growth and development of the media & entertainment industry in Nigeria, and by extension, Africa.
Asika is the Chairman of OutSource Media, a leading communications and content company that has been involved in the production of Nigerian reality television programming such as Big Brother Nigeria, The Apprentice Africa, Dragons Den, Glo Naija Sings, Vodafone Icons Ghana, Calabar Rocks, Amstel Malta Box Office, 100% Naija, And the Winner Is…, Football Legends, The Voice, and Ignite Africa. He is also founder of Dragon Africa – a strategic advisory firm based in London, Lagos and Accra, which holds the rights to, and produces Social Media Week Lagos – a conference on new media, technology and business. Asika holds sway as the chairman of its advisory board and the executive producer of the conference.
He is equally the founder and CEO of Storm 360 – an indigenous music label which spawned entertainers including Naeto C, Ikechukwu, Sasha P, General Pype, L.O.S., Ms Jaie, Tosin Martins, and Yung 6ix among others who changed and developed the Nigerian music landscape as we know it today.
A quintessential entrepreneur, Asika also sits on the board of the Collecting Society of Nigeria (COSON).
He is the first overseas individual invited to join the African Advisory Committee of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington DC. In this interview with Kelechi Deca, Asika highlights the need for Africa to be in the driver’s seat of weaving its story and the importance of deploying soft power as a diplomatic policy tool. Excerpts:
It is quite hard to box you. You seem to have your hand in virtually every aspect of the creative industry, media, entrepreneurship, real estate, oil and gas, civil society, just name it. What drives you?
I am driven by the opportunity of my country; I believe we have an incredibly important role to play for the dignity and reputation of all black people; how Nigeria does will always affect the world. To my mind, we are massively underperforming as a nation. We face huge challenges such as unemployment, education, crime and more; a disconnected economy, bad or nonexistent infrastructure and the limited capacity of the federal and the state governments.
But even with these bitter truths, we are the largest economy in Africa and the leading soft power on the continent. I believe if we can stop fighting each other and learn how to collaborate; the world will be a much better place from what that positive contribution will offer the world.
I am a firm believer in Nigeria, the talents of Nigerians, and our combined opportunity. Some say I am an optimist, but I believe that we simply need to confront our issues and work at them instead of playing the blame game.
Recently, many seem to have taken notice of the power of entertainment, especially as a vehicle for national image laundering. What is your take on this?
I don’t like the phrase national image laundering; it is a negative action. What I am interested in and have always proposed and pushed is the power of narrative. Unfortunately, Africa, Africans and Nigerians have not told their stories and have allowed outsiders to tell the story, to define our narrative, which has almost always been negative.
Nigeria’s soft power is enormous and I am proud to be one of those who have always supported it. When something becomes massive, it is natural that leaders, governments, brands and businesses all want to associate with that hot product or moment. I think that this has always been the case through modern history. Indeed, Nigeria and Nigerians are increasingly becoming aware that entertainment is a very serious business, and we have world-class talents with enormous audiences.
We are living in the attention economy where many of the major Nigerian influencers make their money because they can affect brands and businesses. I think that Nigeria and her leaders have failed to build a cohesive national narrative, and this causes our malcontents. We have gifted storytellers in music, TV, film, visual arts, poetry and literature; we have the most cultural festivals in the world and we are blessed with an incredible youth bulge. However, these gifts can be negative if we refuse to engage and motivate our natural talents.
Our storytellers can help to provide the deep inspiration and hope that can be found in our mythology, history and culture and bring them to new audiences and to educate ourselves about each other. We seem ignorant of our own capabilities and that is an immense pity.
When Storm 360 was born, did you envisage that the Nigerian music industry would get to where it is today?
When I founded Storm 360 with some partners 30-plus years ago, we were just seeking to disrupt Lagos nightlife, create hot TV programs, promote the music we loved (Hip Hop, for me) and provide a voice for our generation. Looking back today, there is no way one could have predicted what has happened, but I feel fully vindicated that there is no longer any need to validate our natural ability and talent. In 2022, everybody on the planet knows Nigeria produces gifted musicians, actors, comedians, fashion designers, dancers, artists, poets, authors, tech leaders, footballers, etc.
The largest opportunity for Nigerian music and entertainment is still in Nigeria, even with our global footprint. The fact is, we need to grow our domestic market in terms of merchandise, touring, festivals, platforms, TV shows, and so much more. Even as Afrobeat is now widely accepted as one of the emerging forces in world music, Nigeria still has so much more to offer. If we can connect to our own internal marketplaces, our opportunity remains exponential here and everywhere.
The creative industry is probably the only platform for children from poor to humble backgrounds to break away from the traps of poverty. However, kids in the rural areas appear to be shut out of these opportunities. How best can industry players like you harness rural talents?
I think the best pathway remains education, but we need to reform education; we need to push digital skills, innovation and creativity, and enable access for the masses. I was privileged to lead the Sector Working Group that took part in putting together the 2021-2025 National Development Plan. We made strong recommendations for a national hub strategy to deliver hubs around Nigeria to offer access, training and support to the people and allow them the ways and means to access an ecosystem.
This sector is all about skills and access and we have thought-through solutions that will massively up skill our talent and enable the right platforms for them to offer their services. We need a national skills strategy to support this sector and others. The NSB (Nigeria Startup Bill) model is commendable and the creative industry is taking key notes.
How best can government create the enabling environment for the creative industry to thrive?
Again, there are several key roles government can play. Take, for example, the CBN Cifi (Creative Industry Financing Initiative) fund intervention. Equally, the Bank of Industry (BOI) has been the largest backer of the creative industry, but the single most important issue remains unresolved. We must make IP function as collateral so that Nigerian banks and the financial system can fund ideas; we are in the age of ideas and the IP industry is driving the largest economies and businesses. Thus, I feel Nigeria needs to focus on using its digital economy as convergence for the tech ecosystem to deliver the new platforms to help connect our disconnected marketplaces.
The role of government in driving policy is critical, and it brings to the open the needs of entrepreneurs who create the opportunities that move all forward. This issue of IP as collateral is, somehow, related to the Innovation and technology industry. When local banks say show me the model, I say London, Los Angeles, and Paris. The West has been funding narratives and being intentional about representation for the past 500 years. One of our major issues is that we have failed to fund our own stories and then sit back and complain of misrepresentation.
Nigeria needs to back Nigerian stories and storytellers, as they will bring us closer together. And considering this world narrative and history told by others has defined us for too long, one of the best ways to empower ourselves and build our nation is to tell our own story and the story of her peoples.
You are involved with the Africa Soft Power Project. What is it?
The project was founded by Nkiru Balonwu, who invited me on board as a co-Convener. I have been talking about Nigerian soft power since 2008 while producing content, experiences, and stories. In real life, some of us have been building global bridges with our global black Diaspora for over 20 years and the agenda of African Soft Power is one I closely align with. That is, to celebrate and converge our soft power as expressed in our culture, music, film, fashion, hair, beauty, tech, art, and dance. Apart from that, it is also about building bridges and reconnecting us with each other. I am very proud of all we have done and in 2022; there will be more to come for sure.
Africa has refused to be in the driving seat of telling its story. Rather, it resorts to reactionary measures of swimming against the tide of putting the records straight after the genie has left the bottle. What is responsible for this?
I think it is psychosis. We don’t invest in our narrative and then complain. Others invest billions through their upfront and not so upfront institutions, but the simple truth is there is no excuse for Nigeria and Africa not to invest in their narrative. It should not just be the African century in terms of opportunity, but also in terms of narrative. We have yet to explore fully our mythology, history, legacy, and our past, present, and future. I believe telling our stories and bringing them to the world will not only lead to better understanding, but also a more nuanced conversation about Africa and our people. I hope Nigeria will become intentional in this critical issue and leverage its immense positive benefits for nation-building and collective action.
How best can Nigeria, and by extension, Africa, harness the positives within existing contents to change the narratives of war, crimes, diseases, and poverty that have become the default headlines?
The first problem might be that Nigerians are depressed and disaffected with their country and nothing is being done to address this. Beyond the core issues of governance, social welfare, jobs, law and order and utilities, the authorities have to improve their service delivery to enable the people to dream positive dreams.
In terms of our content, the truth is much of it offers laughs and distractions from the daily drudgery that all are affected by in Nigeria. News media is also obsessively negative, and that tone has been carried into social media and social conversations. To change that direction, then it’s about being intentional. Major corporations and the government need to invest in story tellers who can inspire and promote positive values and stories. When handled the wrong way, it comes across as image laundering; when done properly, it’s simply being intentional about the narratives and stories you promote to your citizens and the community.
In the next decade, the Nigerian domestic TV, pay TV and streaming segments will gross over US$1 billion per annum in original commissions and the sector will be close to US$5 billion per annum by 2030. The marketplace is growing; the audience is looking for the content and now, it’s up to the advertisers and the broadcasters to make it all happen. Sadly, our national broadcaster has not had the relevant programming to hold the attention of Nigerians for decades.
I hope the Committee on Audience Measurement will have a positive impact on the domestic TV market and enable advertisers to grow their spend and really develop as well as formalize the local content producers, aka Nollywood. If our TV market grows to US$5 billion by 2030 across all segments and we have US$1.5 billion in local commissions, then we have an industry that is fully visible and maturing.
Whenever the calls for the return of stolen artifacts come up, many people react with subdued optimism, especially the concern that Nigerians seem not to have value for such pieces of art, and also lack museum culture. What is your take?
I have a nuanced view on this. The historical reality of these artifacts being in Europe is as real as the colonial actions that disconnected Africans from the essence of these treasures of our culture. The irony is that many Africans are held back by their new beliefs in foreign religions, imported by the same people who stole our people and treasures. Today, the situation is complex.
As a custodian of a family collection with over 1000 antiquities, I know it is valuable, but I cannot trade or sell it. I cannot export it because the actions of the great museums have now made this conversation a one-way conversation.
There are thousands of African collectors and museums, and several governments who have been denied the value their own treasures generate in the open market. Now, while restoration sounds good, I would be more interested in a proper market that supports the trade and display of African antiquity. We need to kill that idea and notion that Africa is a victim of the world; I prefer we take our rightful place on the world stage. Our antiquities should be able to be global and earn value for us; our art is our essence and we need to be connected. Some of the art can come home, but we should not close our opportunity to always be global.
As the first overseas individual to be appointed to the African Advisory Committee of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington DC, how would you describe the experience and the lessons learned so far?
I was not even aware I was the first overseas individual; it was an immense honour to be appointed to the Advisory Board of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in 2014. I have maintained long-term relationship with them and in November 2021, I was happy to host their delegation to Lagos and executed with them their first pop-up event on the continent in their history at Alara in Lagos, “24hrs of the Smithsonian in Lagos”. They are a world-class institution and it’s always nice to be associated with true blue chip quality brands.
I am still excited about the possibilities and places that Nigerian soft power is yet to reach. I am thankful to be part of that movement and to be witness to so much history being made.