SUI: Why did you go into comedy? Was it because of the money or the fame?
Basorge: It was neither for fame nor for the money, but I went into comedy for self-expression. I used to perform for free. But when you are starting and you’re among the pioneers of an industry, you are not sure if the craft will be accepted first of all, not to talk of the fame. I am a trained and consummate artist. So, when I graduated from school, I wanted to express myself, to show what I had been taught either as a writer, an actor, as a director or comedian. I just wanted to entertain because this was the only form of expression I was familiar with. A doctor knows how to use his tools, an engineer knows how to be an engineer, I just know how to be an artist and being an artist was a platform to express myself. I was almost fooled in school that I was going to be a social philosopher because the most interesting subject for me was dramatic socialism – that is socialism in drama. I remember one of my lecturers then, who now lectures at the University of Ibadan, had drummed it into my head the words of Tom Stoppard that, “a man must do something as an artist and his work of art must reflect prevalence on dominant issues.” So, I came out with the same enthusiasm. I think art offers one the opportunity to either describe or prescribe. I came out as a prescriptive artist, I wanted to say what I think society should be and I thought that my best tool was humour. But, honestly, I never thought for one minute that it will bring me fame way back in 1995 when I first started.
SUI: Do you still see art as an instrument of social engineering?
Basorge: Yes, that is how you will know that I’m a different type of artist. I’m not out there on the red carpet, in the pages of colourful publications, or on television, except on some occasions, that is when people hear about me. So, I still see it as a form of expression and if you are a dedicated artist, you will not just be a comedian, you will almost be a poet, a writer and producer because your energy from within would want to find reasonable forms to express yourself meaningfully, either by reflecting to society or contributing to society .
SUI: Do you think there should be boundaries on the kinds of jokes that are told especially in a society like ours that is quite sensitive to a lot of issues?
Basorge: First of all, I’ll say an artist should have that freedom of expression; that is where poetic license and comic license come to play. But then, society has always been flexible or rigid at different points. A lot of things define how a man portrays himself as an artist. It could be personal characteristics and influences, cultural background, home training, what the artist stands for, it could be where the artist is coming from.
Now we are talking about artists who will not want to hold back. For example, Fela took time to achieve that liberty to sound off and to regale. In our society presently, humour is mostly patronised by an elitist group, especially the Nigerian comedy world and you will expect that they would demand; those who play the piper must dictate the tune. If the artist is a free born artist like a poet whose performances are not tied to a certain fee, the comedian would express himself better. But if you are paid by someone to perform at a show or function, you would expect to conduct yourself by the expectations of your employer. However, if the comedian in Nigeria begins to see himself as an artist and so aligns himself with the issues and struggles of the society, then he would find the freedom to speak. Entertainers go for the money and artist for the freedom of expression to say it the way it is or contribute to behaviours. So, it is societal, individual and collective idiosyncrasies that define who we eventually become. Some people are influenced by money; some are just influenced by the innate desire to be expressive. Some people are born of truth or falsehood, so it depends on how the artist sees himself or herself.
I’m a consummate artist and when I perform for my corporate body I must respect that there’s a class of persons. So, my jokes are always a bit of acerbic but they are intelligent. But I would speak as an artist because I earn a living from various genres of the art. I’ve found a little freedom. Also, a typical artist who is content with what he has does not have to impress anyone or go bootlicking and allow the society or persons to control his expressions. A true artist would want to express himself like a true artist. The truth is we will never go global because we’ll never make any sense from our jokes; people really don’t find anything to learn or any sensible thing to derive.
SUI: Why is that so?
Basorge: This is because we are not critical enough as comedians, as commentators, or as people who hold serious opinions but from a humorous perspective. And this has not allowed us to write brilliantly as individuals. We don’t write or develop our jokes as critical subjects. What we do is we lift from existing scenarios, from persons, movies, stories and joke books that people have written all over the world. I remember one of my classic jokes that I said in the peak of the Niger Delta issue ‘… that young man deserves the right to work in oil companies because oil is lifted from there but that anytime we go to the offices to get a job, they tell us don’t worry you are indigenes you will get the job, come back in three weeks. Then we go back in three weeks and they’ll say, come back in two weeks. Two weeks later, they’ll say, don’t worry, there’s job ‘in the pipelines’. So, the illiterate fellows just figured, ‘why are we going to the office when the job is ‘in the pipelines’? These people are telling us to go and collect the oil.’
So, when you tell sensible and classic forever jokes, they will be meaningful for the rest of our lives; people can make reference to it whether those challenges exist or not and they become part of the history. But when all the jokes are about very frivolous scenarios which does not develop or promote us as a people culturally, there’s nothing to it. Even when you watch some of our movies, they are ‘just there’; it’s more about the basic subjects, for example, love. But love has a million metaphors which can be addressed. Love from the perspective of freedom, love from the perspective of unconditional commitment, love from the perspective of patriotism; but our subjects are very obvious. So, a lot of people will tell you that I know all about the movie before it starts. I did a movie more about 14 years ago, ‘My Guy’. It’s still Nigeria’s finest classic. It was hilarious but it still talked about friendship, honesty and loyalty and from a very emotional perspective, because there was no struggle to make it funny, the scenarios were just hilarious. It was as real and as emotional as it was funny. So, we need to be better artists.
SUI: You’ve been in the business since 1995
Basorge: Actually, I’ve been in the movie business since 1983, but the comedy business since 1995.
SUI: Some people have argued that comedy offers Nigerians an escape route from the country’s problems and economic situation. Do you think that is why comedy is thriving?
Basorge: Yes, this is one of the reasons because our society has become so discouraging and challenging that human beings are always on the edge. People not living well, electricity is almost non-existent, there is a high rate of unemployment and inflation, there are so many issues. And in a country like this, the only thing that can bring relief is entertainment. Look at the music industry, it s wonderful, but anytime I hear the beats, they all sound alike. Most of the lyrics are not anything to write about or the metaphors are inconsistent. But people just want to laugh and unwind and go on holidays. They want to go to the cinemas and other places. The tough society and economy in Nigeria today has given birth to our thriving industry.
This is a country one can come and dump fifth rate Mexican soaps and people will be excited, whereas we claim to be the third largest movie producing country in the world. People just want to get excited; they don’t even know the difference. I think Nigerians are intellectually brilliant enough and smart enough to demand better, sensible and more educated jokes. Most jokes are eye-openers on many subjects, for example, when comedians talk about taxation, government policies, parliamentarians, one realises that the jokes are intelligent and that, ‘oh, there’s an angle to this and this comedian just shed more light on it. I should take a closer look at it.’ But if you also tell people chicken jokes, they would laugh, not because it is funny but because there’s a natural need for people to laugh, people just want to laugh. This is a country where you find someone fall off the back of a bike on a motor way and people laugh as if it was a joke. This is a country where a man suddenly goes berserk on the streets, tears off his clothes and begins to run, and the whole crowd is laughing. People just want to be entertained, they want to laugh and be happy, and so, they even laugh at incongruous situations. This is such a country.
SUI: You once had a music label, what happened to it?
Basorge: I still do, but the quality of music and the type of musician that I produce is not what the Nigerian mind wants to listen to. We have a way catching up fast, the gift we have is in our loudness. When I first started travelling around the world I heard other people saying we are loud people. I couldn’t understand it because I found very civil and well cultured Nigerians. Eventually I started understanding this. I guess it’s not only the fact we make a noise or that we like to be noticed, the truth is Nigerians acquire cultures or take an industry and improve on it. Let me use an analogy, Nigerians could plan to host NUGA games and make it sound like the Olympics, but when you go see the games, it would not be worth the hype. Nigerians would vow to host the World Cup and Olympics, but perform poorly in organising it because, for us, hosting is in winning the right to host and not the capacity to host a well-organised event. We have suddenly made so much noise about our music that it has exposed us.
SUI: But Nigerian music is now played all around the continent…
Basorge: Nigerian music is played in cars and in small bars. Name two artistes from the hugely successful artistes who have played in one concert in Europe, apart from the usual suspects like Asa and Femi Kuti.
SUI: I was going to say D’Banj’s ‘Oliver’ as well as Tuface and a few other acts have crossover appeal.
Basorge: Well, music is good business. Artistes all over the world who have made less noise have played in 20,000-, 50,000- and 100,000-capacity concerts all over the world. They are opening acts for the Lady Gaga, Kanye West, and Jay Z. Name one of our major artistes who has opened a show in Europe last year, this year and the year before, none! I’m not saying I’m not happy, I celebrate them; some of them are my close friends, and people who look up to me, but I always say, let’s not expose ourselves in an industry where we have not met the world’s standard. It is better for you to speak in the language of Femi, to sing Afrobeat and play shows in Belgium, Amsterdam and the whole of Europe where shows are organised on a regular basis. Our so called big super stars go to small clubs in Canada with 100 or 200 persons and play to them in the club and come back to say they had a Canadian tour. The last time I went to America I heard some comedians came to America and performed to a crowd of about 45 persons in a night club, but when musicians come and perform at two night clubs, they say they just returned from an American tour. Let’s not deceive ourselves, but I am happy for them. In Nigeria today, the multinationals, telecom companies and banks are helping us to make a lot of money, but are they also setting up infrastructures to ensure that we are part of the global development in terms of music.
SUI: Do you think Nigerian music has made appreciable progress?
Basorge: Yes, it has, but I’m just saying that considering the kind of accolades we’ve received in terms of our development, we should begin to structure it properly. During the last Glo/CAF award hosted in Nigeria, some of our super stars came on stage with live band, but it was the most disgraceful performance that we’ve seen in many years. Do they have music notation? Did they score the songs? Do they record them? What are the lyrics about? What are the metaphors? Are they consistent? Play a couple of Leona Lewis’songs, listen to the lyrics, it transcends time. That’s what the late professor Ola Rotimi talked about. He said any good work would transcend time. That is why it could take an artist 10 years to do a work of art. It could take me that long. I’m happy I’ve done three movies, and I would be first to criticise those movies and tell you that the last two movies had very poor quality in terms of picture, but in terms of content and subject, they transcend time. That is what an art is all about.
SUI: 14 years after ‘My Guy’ are we expecting a sequel?
Basorge: Yes, ‘My Guy in London’. A friend sent me a story of ‘My Guy in Bromwich’. The original plan was to sign a contract because we wanted to develop a brand that will be consistent, identifiable and sellable. So, we’ll have a series of ‘My Guy’: ‘My Guy in London’, ‘My Guy in America’, and ‘My Guy in India’. We could also have collaborations. Nigerians are hardworking people, they want to come back home when they visit, they don’t want to stay back.
SUI: Do you think there’s been growth in the Nigerian movie industry?
Basorge: There’s been growth for a while, but in the last decade there’s been serious stagnation, I’m talking in terms of content.
SUI: The growth you talk about, is it in terms of quality or quantity?
Basorge: In terms of quantity, we have been successful in churning out movies, but in terms of quality, no. I’ll tell you my reason, after two decades, we should have a laboratory for experiments and inventions to find better ways to improve the industry. We must stop looking out. We must look inwards and begin to search for better ways to improve. If we are in a serious business, like I said, we must have a laboratory for invention and development, we must be innovative. We live in a tropical area, so we must also understand how best to use lighting in our movies shot here and the advantages we have. So, these are experiments that we should have and share in workshops and find technical partners. Also, we should also establish better relationships with other organisations in terms of the freedom to shoot on streets and other places. From the marketing perspective, we should also have the marketing associations and the outdoor associations here come together and chart the way forward for the industry. It has huge potential because we have a large consumer market in Nigeria with over 170,000,000 Nigerians, that’s my opinion. We have one of the largest markets in the whole of Africa. The reason Africans identify with Nigerian movies is that it is easy to identify with the colour of the skin, the subjects, the characters and sometimes the names and mannerisms. So, we should not be fooled, South Africans and Kenyans produce better movies. One of the finest movies shot is ‘The Meeting’ by Rita Dominic, in which I played the role of a 60-year-old professor. It was shot by a Kenyan, in fact, the whole crew came from Kenya and when I saw how they handled the camera and manoeuvred the equipment, I realised that we must be kidding ourselves to think that we are doing anything in this country. That’s why I said ours is mostly a publicity industry rather than a content industry.