by Wilfred Okiche
Ikenna Azuike is a London based, Nigerian born entertainer and founder of the video blog What’s Up Africa. A trained lawyer, he abandoned his wig and gown after practicing for about 10 years to pursue his creative instincts. Recently in Lagos for the Social Media Week, we grilled him on the runaway success of his video blog, memories of his life in Nigeria, thoughts on the anti-gay law and his father’s lingering disappointment at his career choices.
Enjoy excerpts from the conversation.
How often are you in Nigeria?
After leaving the country when I was 8 years old I used to come back regularly until I was 18 and then there was a break of 12 years and then I came back and in the last 2 years I have only been back twice but I plan on coming back more.
Tell us about your background?
My dad is Nigerian and my mum is English. I was born in Nigeria but moved from Nigeria to the UK.
Do you recall your life here in Nigeria before you moved abroad?
I do, I have snapshots of what my life was like here. Of course I was still very young but I remember playing in the streets and in our compound. I have memories of my school, of Ikoyi club.
Are they fond memories?
Absolutely. I remember visiting my dad’s village in Imo state, growing up. My dad always reminds me of me crying that I didn’t want to leave my country on the day that we were leaving for the UK.
How was life in the UK. You were a kid but there had to have been an adjustment phase, no?
Yes there was a bit of adjustment but the most important thing at that age is to have two loving, supportive parents who provide you with everything that you need. When you have that you can adapt fairly easily to new surroundings. For me I kept visiting Nigerian family and friends so there was still some continuity in my roots.
Lets talk about Whats Up Africa. How does an idea like that develop?
It develops from both positive and negative energy. The negative energy was frustration from what Chimamanda has eloquently captured as the single story. The representation of an entire continent of 1 billion people in the media in a very cliched and one-dimensional way. But it also developed from a positive energy which takes into account the power of satire and comedy to engage a generation of young digital Africans. I was inspired by this US television show called The Daily Show and that is how I came up with Whats Up Africa.
Did you always know you had comic instincts and how did you develop them?
I guess from an early age right from primary school I enjoyed drama and making people laugh. But then the typical Nigerian father that I had insisted I focus on education and generally speaking, lawyers are not necessarily the funniest people and so that side of me sort of got lost while I was studying Law. But when I started my video blog I got a lot more comfortable. Of course I learn along the way but I get more comfortable and better with each episode.
Is Whats Up Africa a full time job for you now?
Yes it is
So there is no side hustle?
You know I am a Nigerian so there is always a bit of a side hustle. Sometimes I do commercial voice over work.
What is your primary audience?
It is for Africans in Africa and in the diaspora. Young, social and politically engaged who care about making a difference and also for people with an interest in Africa.
How long have you been doing this?
Before this 3 years, you used to work as a lawyer. How long did you practice law?
Four and a half years. In total the whole law thing was like 10 years, it was crazy. 4 years of studying to qualify, 1 year of law school, 2 years of articles then I was with a firm for 3 and a half years.
Why did it take you so long to step away from it all, if you had known all along your heart wasn’t in it?
You know how powerful Nigerian fathers can be. I am surprised it didn’t take me 20 years.
True but you have been adult from the period you graduated…
Correct but you have to understand that my parents sacrificed a lot for me, to get me into good schools, to give me opportunities they didn’t necessarily have. So that has a certain weight that stays with you for a long long while and I wanted to continue making them proud. I knew that it would be very disappointing for my dad if I gave up law so I kept postponing it, rationalizing that it would get better with each next step; when I qualify, when I am in the department that I prefer, when I get to senior management but it came to a stage where I had to decide if I wanted to be at the bottom of a ladder that I would rather climb or half way up one that I would rather not. Better late than never so I decided to give it a try. I am still ambitious though and determined to succeed.
So the law thing was for your parents and not for yourself?
Correct. I mean I cannot give them all the blame. When I chose to study law in the university it wasn’t like there was something else that I was passionate about doing. I was kind of indifferent then so maybe I should have been more active in determining the course of my life.
What was the very first idea that birthed Whats Up Africa. How did you start?
Whats Up Africa has always been the name but the format has changed. It is political satire and like I said, it was modelled after The Daily Show and its American presenter John Stewart who is very funny, erudite, socially and politically engaged. He cares about the subject he is talking about and it was very engaging for people who did not necessarily care about hard news or politics. On the internet, there are other video blogs doing pure comedy but I wanted to make a difference and be relevant in terms of politics and news.
When you do politics, is it news from the United Kingdom or Nigeria and Africa?
It is a mixture. Sometimes I could talk about a particular bill or law that has been enacted in Sub-Saharan Africa. I have done an episode on the anti-pornography bill in Uganda which also means that girls will be restricted from wearing short skirts which I think is absurd. I also made an episode about same sex marriage and the #ChildNotBride campaign in Nigeria. These are issues that I have strong feelings about but equally I have made episodes about inappropriate comments by UK politicians as regarding Africa.
Which of your episodes are huge, in the way that people respond to them?
The Yerima episode was big and got picked up by different blogs and television stations here in Nigeria. An episode on the media restriction bill in Kenya was quite popular and I once made a fun episode about Patrick Obahiagbon…
Who also happens to be a lawyer…
Yes but I would not want him working for me because I wouldn’t understand him.
What is your take on the anti-gay law recently enacted?
From the episode on What’s Up Africa, I think that my view is pretty clear. I tried to make a mockery of the bill and show how absurd it is.
Uganda has also joined the anti-gay bandwagon bringing the number of African countries that criminalise homosexuality to 38. Do you think it is a case of the continent regressing while others are progressing?
Politicians do things at certain times because their popularity is waning. They enact laws that they think will enact their popularity and this usually works for a while. But I think that Nigerians care less about this law and more about power, better education, good healthcare.
How did your parents take your jumping ship? What do they make of you now?
They now absolutely accept it and they would always tell me that they love me and how much they are proud of me but till this day despite the appearances on CNN and BBC, my dad is still shattered that I am not a lawyer.
But you are a lawyer, you just do not practice…
Technically. But I don’t even have my practicing certificate so you can say that I have a law degree. The most important thing is that they love me and are proud of me.
Do you think your dad will ever come around completely?
I don’t think that is going to happen and I think that I am the one who needs to accept that and live with that. My dad is 72, there is a 10 year age difference between he and my mum so you can teach an old dog new tricks only to a certain extent. I think he is pretty much set in his ways now.
But you are happy now?
I have not fulfilled my dreams but I am certainly happy.