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Nollywood Stars

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In this comprehensive study of Nollywood stardom around the world, Noah A. Tsika explores how the industry’s top on-screen talents have helped Nollywood to expand beyond West Africa and into the diaspora to become one of the globe's most prolific and diverse media producers. Carrying VHS tapes and DVDs onto airplanes and publicizing new methods of film distribution, the stars are active agents in the global circulation of Nollywood film. From Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde’s cameo role on VH1’s popular series Hit the Floor to Oge Okoye’s startling impersonation of Lady Gaga, this book follows Nollywood stars from Lagos to London, Ouagadougou, Cannes, Paris, Porto-Novo, Sekondi-Takoradi, Dakar, Accra, Atlanta, Houston, New York, and Los Angeles. Tsika tracks their efforts to integrate into various entertainment cultures, but never to the point of effacing their African roots.

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1. From Yorùbá to YouTube: Studying Nollywood’s Star System

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When Nollywood star Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde was shooting the VH1 drama series Hit the Floor in February, 2013, she started live-tweeting from the set, describing the Paramount lot and calling her colleague Kimberly Elise “a beautiful Method actor.” That tweet in particular seemed to say so much all at once: that a Nollywood star can thrive when 8,000 miles from home and filming scenes with an American costar; that she can classify that costar’s performance style according to what is perhaps the most revered model of realist acting; that she can join forces with a fellow woman of color in order to furnish a reflection of global “girl power” (the tweet came with the hashtag “GirlsRock”); and that she can define her own ever-evolving identity as a truly boundless one. This tweet alone displays the notion that Nollywood’s star system well equips its constituents to achieve expansive success. Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde has, as she says, “the power” to infiltrate American popular culture; the proof is in the Instagram photos that she provides—the charming self-portraits of the Nigerian star weaving her way through a Melrose Avenue lot with the legendary Paramount banner as a backdrop.

 

2. Glittering Video: Format, Fashion, and the Materiality of Nollywood Stardom

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There is a moment on Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde’s reality television series, Omotola: The Real Me, when the Nollywood star addresses the intense public backlash against the dress that she wore to the 2011 Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. Making history as the first Nollywood star to grace the Grammy red carpet, Omotola caused quite a splash in a black-and-white, sequined sheath dress, albeit for all the “wrong” reasons: form-fitting around the chest, waist and hips, Omotola’s sleeveless costume was said to accentuate both her best and worst physical features, making her seem, as one Nigerian publication put it, “too much the mother of four that she is”—too, in a word, womanly.1 While the star on her reality TV series acknowledges the “backlash against the backlash”—the discourse of Afrocentrism and self-empowerment that promotes appreciation for “big black bodies”—she also makes an important point about her Grammy appearance, noting that it was live, “in the flesh,” and subject to countless far-flung flashbulbs.2 It was not, in other words, a well-regulated, formally constructed scene from a movie. In the glare of live coverage, it laid bare Omotola’s “real” identity, allegedly giving the lie to her persistent on-screen portrayals of young adults.

 

3. A Mobile Glow: Nollywood Stardom and Corporate Globalism

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A woman proudly hoists a BlackBerry in what appears to be a promo for the phone but is in fact a poster for a film. In another image, the same woman is holding a similar phone, only this time the ad has nothing to do with a movie. It is a flyer for a particular cell-phone service plan, and it first appeared on the pages of The Punch, a popular Nigerian newspaper. In yet another image, the woman’s face is rendered in cartoon form for the cover of Nigeria’s Y! Magazine—a cover whose upper right-hand corner is comprised of an ad (couched as a contest) for the BlackBerry Bold 5. Beneath the ad, but above the illustrated face, is a quote. It comes from Hillary Clinton: “You have just one life to live. It is yours. Own it, claim it, live it, do the best you can with it.” What Clinton’s words are doing on a Nigerian magazine cover—and at the precise meeting point between a Nollywood star and a cell phone—is hardly obvious. Upon closer consideration, however, the Clinton quote seems entirely appropriate, even indispensable. It speaks volumes, not only about Nollywood’s star system but also about that system’s growing relationship to a specific form of corporate globalism.

 

4. When Stars Collide: Lady Gaga and the Pirating of a Globalized Persona

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Despite Tonto Dikeh’s boastful claims of complete autonomy, star-making remains a collaborative process. So, of course, do attempts to dramatize individual star personae. In 2011, several of the talents behind the BlackBerry Babes trilogy reunited for a project called Lady Gaga.1 As he had done with film pitches dating back to the days of The Celebrity, Sylvester Obadigie wrote a treatment—a prose story that would serve as the basis of a screenplay; Ubong Bassey Nya, who would eventually pen that screenplay, signed on to direct; and Oge Okoye, who had played Damisa in BlackBerry Babes and Return of BlackBerry Babes, signed on to star. The celebrated trio was back—only this time they were committed to cribbing from the life of Lady Gaga. Knowing that they would need not only trusted colleagues but also the kind whose talents could turn a black Nigerian woman into a walking reference to a white American music star, they enlisted three key people: make-up artist Matthew Alechenu, who had helped Eniola Badmus transform into a glamorous, lipstick-loving city girl in the BlackBerry Babes trilogy; costumier Ogo Okechi, who had designed and supplied that trilogy’s trendy dresses; and Austine Erowele, whose thematically relevant song “BlackBerry Babes” had given the three films a further, jaunty self-reflexivity. Together, these six collaborators would generate a melodrama about the fine line between piracy and fair use—a four-part film about a globalizing media phenomenon that both supports and subverts that phenomenon, in inimitable Nollywood fashion.

 

5. Nollywood’s Progeny: Stardom and the Politics of Youth Empowerment

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Once Oge Okoye had achieved star status, producers worked to solidify her specific star qualities by casting her in a series of similarly themed films. That, of course, is partly how Nollywood’s star system functions—through a process of conscious accretion. Indeed, film roles tend to multiply in ways that recall one another, inviting consumers to see something old in something new—something familiar and comforting in something fresh and untested. Casting the same singular star in even the most divergent of roles offers obvious corporeal and affective similarities, creating a complex creative fabric—an iconic through-line connecting narrative experimentation. “Stars are the product of intertextuality,” writes Gaylyn Studlar. “Their reception by audiences is produced by a succession of textual sources as well as by extratextual ones such as advertising and publicity.”1 That is as true for Nollywood as it is for Studlar’s subject, the Hollywood studio system. Discourses of craft and authenticity dictate that Okoye could only play Lady Gaga after having first cut her teeth on similarly driven characters, but according to the basic market logic of stardom, such a casting choice was all but inevitable: Okoye had already donned a series of Gaga-style wigs and dresses in public as well as in her previous films about the search for superstardom (such as Show Girls), and she had long since demonstrated a willingness to explore her own androgyny on screen. Her past roles and complex public persona thus comprised her audition for Lady Gaga, as the film’s producers have themselves suggested. Simply “being Oge” was better—more convincing—than any formal screen test.

 

6. Professionalizing Childhood: Nollywood and the New Youth Transnationalism

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It would be difficult to overstate the paradoxical dilemmas facing African child performers, who tend to inspire hope while evoking fear. Over the past several years, I have encountered numerous Nollywood fans who criticize the industry for, in their eyes, failing to facilitate child stardom, and for forcing them to accept adult icons Ramsey Nouah, Mercy Johnson, Genevieve Nnaji, and Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde (among many others) in youth roles. While acknowledging that it would be impossible to uncover any one reason for this contentious industrial trend, I nevertheless set out to better understand it. I found, almost at once, that fans’ overwhelmingly negative reactions to age-inappropriate casting—to, specifically, the casting of obvious adults in the roles of children—had much to do with these fans’ aspirations for Nollywood itself, with their collective hope that the industry might one day achieve a level of aesthetic realism commensurate with perceived global standards. While an orientation toward iconographic realism has fueled the so-called New Nollywood Cinema, with its focus on the ontology of the photographic image, it is clear that it extends as well to age, generating fan demand for the development of child stars to tackle child roles.

 

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