Bright Okpocha looks at his wristwatch for the umpteenth time. He doesn’t joke with time. A bright smile, evidently that of a man pleased with life, is still planted on his face. The gate opens after two more minutes of waiting and we drive into his compound. When we alight from his car – a customised 2013 Opel Insignia, he opens the door and leads me to a tastefully furnished living room.
Bright, popularly known by his stage name, Basketmouth, is currently the most popular comedian from Nigeria. One could tell from the expensive furniture in his apartment that comedy business has been good and he is obviously laughing to the bank. Although, the process for this interview began in Lagos, Nigeria; it was completed in Manchester, United Kingdom while he was en route Amsterdam for a comedy gig – a pointer to his busy schedule. Well, you could say, not only is he proudly Nigerian, Basketmouth is now truly a global citizen.
For one who is regarded as one of the African kings of comedy, being a comedian had always been his lifelong ambition. “I remember a time when one of my friend’s parents asked us what we would like to become when we grew up and I said I wanted to be a comedian. I must have been stupid because the idea only popped into my head and I had been watching too much Eddie Murphy… Instead of me to have said I wanted to become a doctor, lawyer or even politician for that matter, I looked straight into their eyes and said ‘comedian’,” Basketmouth recollects.
As expected, his friend’s parents were shocked. But little did they know that his ambition was made of sterner stuff. This was about 20 years ago, a period when only a few people were really making money in Nigeria by cracking jokes. It was more fashionable to go into more lucrative professions such as medicine or law.
However, in recent times, things have changed. Like he put it, comedy is now a way of life. “In fact, everybody wants to be funny. For example, you’re in a board meeting and the CEO wants to throw in a joke to ease the tension after firing somebody,” he quips. “Comedy is popular because there is so much stress in the world that everyone wants to laugh once in a while. Imagine a young man in Lagos without a job. His life is not a joke at all,” he says and adds that he believes the comedy business is thriving because of the stress people go through in a country like Nigeria.
“The average man is stressed. He sees stress in everything. When he wakes up in the morning, his landlord gives him stress. The small girls on his street give him stress. Commercial motor cyclists are stressed by the police who want to collect bribe. So the cheapest way to relieve his stress is to get some easy laughter once in a while. That’s why humour sells and there are so many of us stand-up comedians,” says the humour merchant who is a big dreamer. “Anyone can achieve whatever he conceives in his heart, as long as he believes it is possible,” he notes.
He should know better. From earning paltry sums and doing university gigs about 13 years ago, to selling out shows to packed audiences everywhere and making big money in the process, Basketmouth is arguably the most sought after comedian in Nigeria today.
“Okay, the long and short of this story is this: never give up on your dream, no matter what – as long as you’re not dreaming of shooting somebody or snatching your best friend’s wife or making five babies with five different partners – keep on dreaming and working towards it. Someday you will blow. Seriously,” he says. “Dreams come true,” he proudly tells me.
At that point, he begins to sound like a motivational speaker, until he says, “let me officially warn you to be careful what you wish for. Even when you wish to be rich, be careful so that you don’t get the kind of money that can give you stroke. If you want to be a comedian, wish to be the best in the land. Those who laughed at me for wanting to be a comedian at that time are laughing at my jokes today. You know the funny part? They pay to listen to me tell those jokes. And yes, they pay very well.”
Now that he is so successful, what is his driving force? “Fear,” he says, “the fear of failure. Someone once said that it is easy to get to the top, but very difficult to stay there. And if you’re not careful, the only way to go is down. So the fear of failure pushes me on; the fear of not being funny makes me funny. I don’t want to be that kind of person who people would say, ‘Hey, remember that guy Basketmouth? Yes, that guy who used to wear dreadlocks like a mop. Yes, that’s him. God knows where he is now. And he used to be funny o.’ No way! I don’t want to be that guy.”
From all indications, he cannot afford to be unfunny. That perhaps explains why he works hard at his routine. “The fact that I don’t want to be lazy makes me work harder and reminds me to keep myself strong. Also, I have so much love and support from people everywhere and I don’t want to let them down. The urge to make these people proud is very strong that I don’t want to stop going forward. Sometimes I ask myself where the energy comes from, but then I thank God for it. And I’m also thankful for having a job that I really love. I want to get to the height of it, keep making my friends and family proud and representing my country excellently.”
No doubt, Basketmouth – billed to host the prestigious comedy gig and TV show Comedy Central Presents…Live at Parker’s in Johannesburg, South Africa, on April 24 – is sure making Nigeria proud. And he is the first Nigerian to be on the show. So what makes this different or special from his other shows across Africa, Europe and America? “I am doing this show because it is beyond Africa. I am bringing out everything that I have to make Nigeria and Africa proud. As we speak, I have not created a set for the show yet. I am still working on materials. Although not yet finished, but the few ones I have come up with will make them laugh, by the grace of God,” he replies and adds that this was not the first show he would be doing in front of an international audience. “Most people in Nigeria don’t get to see most of the shows I do abroad. I have done other big events; unfortunately they were mostly private (exclusive) shows. I have done the Choice FM comedy show in the UK, performed at the international congress in Ethiopia, where I was probably the only Nigerian in the building. I am going universal and people will get to see what I do when I perform outside Nigeria.”
Breaking new grounds seem to be the norm with Basketmouth. So after Africa, what is the next step? “The world, I want to take over the world. I am looking at the American Market. Even comedians in the UK and other places are trying to move down to America. Comedy is universal and I will like to take my act all over Africa, and to every part of the globe.”
Basketmouth reminds me of ‘Vince’ Chase in Entourage, the hit HBO TV series. Just like Chase, who navigates the complex terrain of celebrities and Los Angeles with his close circle of friends, Basketmouth also works with his posse of close friends. He is called several nicknames by many of them: from Emperor, The Mafia Boss, Eze Gburugburu 1, to Bobby Sparkles; the fondness for him is incandescent. So who does he consider his best friend among this close circle of friends? “I can’t say one particular person is my best friend because they all have their own input into my life. I love them for several things. For instance, I have about 20 best friends. There is Bayo Adekeye, my first manager, Magnus Umeri, one time manager too, Bovi, Buchi, Okey Bakassi, Dotun Makun, Kayode Ariwayo, Chichi who happens to be my cousin, Simcard, Ogonna (he mentions a name I will reveal at the end of this feature…), I have more names, Oke, Emmanuel… these are guys who started with me,” he says, and adds matter-of-factly, “I judge my best friends, not just by how long we have known each other, but also by their loyalty. Loyalty is the main thing for me. If I open up to you about my plans, dreams and deepest secrets, that means I have accepted you into that circle. Once you get in, it is hard to get out. Bovi and Buchi are the only friends I have made in recent times, and they have grown beyond some of the friendship I’ve had for over 20 years. This is because we connect. I like them for their selflessness. I don’t see any of my colleagues as competitors. All we do in this friendship circle is help one another to become successful. It doesn’t matter whether one person is more or less successful, as long as one person in that circle is successful, we are all successful.”
No doubt, the unbreakable bond within his circle transcends professional relationships. One of them, Bovi – also a successful comedian, credits Basketmouth for his success as a comedian. How true is this? Was Bovi a personal project? “From the first day I saw Bovi, I immediately recognised his talent. But I didn’t make Bovi who he is today. With or without me, he would still have been very successful. He was just a time bomb waiting to explode and I was privileged to be part of the people that pulled the trigger. Apart from the fact that Bovi is smart and very talented, he is also a good friend. So what I did for him was based on his talent and our friendship. So yes, he was more or less a personal project; I wanted him to become who he wanted to be. Right from the beginning, Bovi was exceptional. But he is not the only person on that platform. There is Buchi, Simcard, amongst others. These are the guys I want to do things for and have them become bigger than me,” he explains.
Born September 14, 1978, Basketmouth holds a diploma in Social Work and Anthropology from the University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria. Highly intelligent and blessed with good business acumen, he says he learns mostly by observation. “It started from drumming. I used to watch this guy who played drums in my church. During one of the choir practices, he left the drum set, and I took it over and started playing. The drummer was surprised and asked where I learnt how to play drums. I told him I learnt from watching him play in church. I am always observant. I feed on things around me.”
Basketmouth also has an interesting back-story. From 2006 to 2009, he performed free for prisoners at the Kirikiri Prison in Lagos. “It was my way of giving back and keeping their heads up. I went as far as Ibadan prison. I want to start doing it again from next year during festive periods.”
He also has plans to release an album this year. “I am tilting towards rap music without leaving comedy. Comedy is my life. Rap music is my first love. I just featured in a song by J. Martins. I am going to be doing something with Jesse Jagz very soon. On my album, I’m working on having Timaya, Darey, Tuface… I have done stuff with these guys before. I’ve been doing music, which was never released; except the one with my brother Godwin “Steel” Wiz-Kid, El Dee The Don. Music is something you don’t want to get wrong. So it is not something you dive into, it has to be something you have to get right. That is why I am taking my time.”
Married and blessed with two lovely kids, I ask him how he separates Bright from Basketmouth, especially at home. “That is one part people always get wrong. I am Basketmouth only when I’m on stage and Bright when I’m not on stage. Bright at home is a loving father, husband and a typical homeboy. I play with my kids and wife. She said there is no life in the house when I am not around. I make my wife and kids laugh, and that is not me being Basketmouth; that is Bright. Bright is also a funny chap but not as funny as Basketmouth. Bright is charming and brooks no nonsense. I have about three personalities: there is Basketmouth on stage, there is Bright the businessman, and there is Bright the family man. I appreciate the three characters. If you come to my house, you will meet Bright; on stage, Basketmouth and in my office, Bright the MD of Baron’s World.”
Whichever personality you encounter, I can tell you that each will act in a completely charming manner. Whether you meet him as Basketmouth or Bright, he is genuine, an extremely good company and a talented professional who is bent on staying on top of his game. But why does he come up with new projects every time? “I get bored easily and I’m always willing to take on fresh challenges,” he says. “I remember at Muson Centre, Agip Hall, during Teju Baby Face show; Julius Agwu slapped me playfully and wanted to know when I would do my own show. I have never said this before, but Julius Agwu was one of the people who pushed me into wanting to do a show. He gave me the extra push to do Humour Unlimited with Basketmouth, where I had Dan Foster and Lagbaja as MCs. It was one of the biggest shows I have ever done. I had all the big names in the business there; from Ali Baba, Okey Bakassi, Basorge, Tee A, everyone was on the bill. After the show, I asked myself what next and that was how Basketmouth Uncensored came about.” From running solo shows, bringing foreign comedians, to creating niche entertainment shows like Laffs and Jams, as well as doing shows for companies; Basketmouth is a man on a mission…
In a flash, our time is up. The car to take us to the Nigerian restaurant is waiting downstairs. As we descend the flight of stairs, I am torn between maintaining the objective distance between me, the journalist, and my subject, Bright Okpocha, who had earlier counted me as one of his best friends.