For the Nigerian entertainment industry, accountability is a relatively new concept. The idea that endorsing, promoting and even reaping off certain toxic world views, thoughts, sentiments and opinions could cost much more than some heated clap-backs on social media, is still gaining some footing.
No problem. We can wait.
However, no other part of the industry is actively involved with weaning out current political and social conversations, through words and often unchecked diatribes, into tools for hilarity as the comedy industry.
Top of the order: Satirical criticism of the government, poverty porn, hilarious takes on relationships, light-weighted angles to approaching even the most devastating circumstances, whether present or past and of course the occasional rape and homophobic jokes.
Jokes that not only bear a contextual and aesthetic ugliness but further encourages the blurring of lines when it comes to what should be taken seriously and what can be laughed about. Jokes, that most, unfortunately, feed off people’s trauma in the cruellest and triggering ways.
The conversation around censorship and the stifling of creative agencies boils down to intent. What is a joke designed to achieve after it has elicited laughter? That should be the underlining question. Not that this ever seems to be taken stock of. Because comedy rests at the base of an endless mental dissection, there is often the ease to believe that comedians are critical thinkers. That they are people who not only consider the jovial material situations are made of but are aware and sensitive to the unpleasant realities of that situation.
In this way, comedians, like many other outcrops of the media, can easily become authorities on subjects they speak on, but know almost nothing about. So what happens when Nigerian comedians cross the line? How are they clocked and reprimanded? How do they respond to these reprimands? What do they do in acknowledging and fixing their mistakes?
Because Nigeria didn’t seem to have been awake to the problematic bowels of our favourite Nigerian jokes, made famous by our favourite Nigerian comedic acts, there really isn’t any way to identify how they were called to order before now. Or if the audiences found any problematic undertones therein, to begin with.
In recent times, however, social media, along with a revamped social engineering that amplifies and centres the voice of marginalised persons who were and somehow still are inspirational prey for these comedians. Jokes themed around ableism, toxic masculinity, homophobia, with hefty insensitivity to conversations of rape, assault and consent are now being spotlighted and shunned. A culture that has more or less made these acts aware of the impact of their craft, even though the change seems slow.
The recent removal of Nigerian stand-up comedian, Basketmouth, as an ambassador for the European Union (EU) in Nigeria’s Sexual Based Gender Violence campaign, is a good place to start from.
Basketmouth (Bright Okpocha), whose 2014 rape joke was widely bashed for blatantly encouraging rape and sexual assault, while trying to compare dating experiences between white and black girls, was made an influencer to speak on issues affecting women. Issues that coincidentally ties in with the context of his joke. An offensive joke to which he rendered a wonky apology.
At the announcement of his role in the campaign, Director of The Equality Hub, Pamela Adie and the host of Plus TV Africa’s The Advocate Ireti Bakare-Yusuf, championed a call that revealed Basketmouth as an unsuitable candidate. While there is much to be said about the EU’s shabby move of failing to thoroughly research the people who they’ve given such a large platform to and reluctantly putting out a proper statement after reissuing their campaign e-flyer, there is something hopeful about Basketmouth’s swift removal regardless.
At a time when marginalized people have a very little reprieve, it always helps to see people who enable several pockets of that marginalisation, being taken off platforms that would further empower them. Social media has proven to be a powerful tool; inspiring history-making movements, providing safety for unbridled feminist and queer expression, but most importantly making accountability a firmly achievable reality.
The question remains now of how this might nudge established and emerging comedic acts to consider the weight of their art, and how it can be employed for malicious means or simply remain funny.
Nelson C.J is a culture writer with works in The New York Times, Xtra Magazine, OkayAfrica, Black Youth Project, AfroPunk, and a few other spaces. You can find him saving dog pictures on Twitter.