Things were so tough I worked as a casual labourer for two years – Holy Mallam’
Ajibola Adebayo, popularly known as Holy Mallam, is a household name in comedy. He tells “NONYE IWUAGWU his grass-to-grace story and why he does not do vulgar jokes. You have clocked nine years in comedy; how has it ben since then?
Initially, it wasn't easy. Nobody gave me a chance. Nobody believed in what I was doing. You know, I started in the church. At that time, I was a gospel comedian. There was nothing like gospel comedy before I started.
But along the line, I realised that I shouldn't confine myself to the church. I decided to toe the line of the likes of Dr. Livi Ajuonuma, the late Yinka Craig, Uncle Soni Irabor and Mr. Bisi Olatilo. Those are the people I have learnt from over the years.
I decided to work on myself and to develop myself. I was so crude when I started. I wasn't refined at all. I made use of the opportunities I got to develop myself.
So you no longer restrict yourself to stand up comedy.
No. I had to start anchoring weddings and corporate events, including Annual General Meetings. When I started, it wasn't very easy. It took me time to lay the foundation. But gradually, people started believing in me. My approach had to change over time. I wasn't doing the Hausa intonation thing anymore; it was now queens English. But when the need arose for Hausa jokes, I did it. But then, I had to start doing all the major languages. I had to start talking about unity. It is very important.
So we have a 'rebranded' Holy Mallam
Yes. We have just rebranded. It used to be comedy as usual. I am a professional Master of Ceremony. I need to fill into the shoes of these prominent broadcasters I mentioned earlier. But that does not mean I no longer do comedy. I still do that.
How did the Hausa intonation that you use in jokes come about?
Before I started, every comedian wanted to sound like a Waffi person. I wanted to be different. Hausa intonation was not common. Only Danjuma was doing it at that time. I came up with the idea and, somehow, it became a part of me.
But do you have any Hausa blood in you?
My mother is from Niger State. I schooled in the North as well. My father was an Ijebu man. But he always advised us to claim Lagos State. So I am from Lagos State since I was born and bred here. I am still breeding here too. I have two kids.
Why did you decide to be a comedian?
When I started, comedy wasn't even the in-thing. There weren't many comedians then. I went into it because I believe it is a calling. If you are destined to be something, no matter how you try to shy away from it, you will definitely find yourself doing what God wants you to do.
How far did you go in school?
I went to Lagos State University. I studied Communication Arts. I wanted to be a journalist. That was what I was preparing myself for in life. But then I noticed that people would laugh whenever I said something, even innocently. I have many parts in my life. I could be very shy and remain inside a shell for a long time. But my friends in church at Okokomaiko, Lagos where I grew up said I made people laugh a lot. They suggested I should be doing this on the altar. Alarm Blow used to come to our church then. Ultimate Mallam also suggested that I should go into comedy since I had what it took to be a comedian. But being a shy person, I didn't want to take any risk. I don't like doing things and failing at them.
But they kept pushing and pushing me. They eventually pushed me to the stage and left me there alone to face my destiny. Fortunately, I was able to do well that day. I had to front with the Hausa intonation thing. Then again, I used a cap to cover my face. I hid behind that cap. It worked out and that was it. If I had flopped that day, you wouldn't have heard of Holy Mallam.
So when did you adopt Holy Mallam as a name?
Initially, I was answering Mallam Ismaila or Mallam Adamu. But I wanted a name that was unique. I wanted just one name. If you use a conventional name, it won't attract people. So, I decided to choose Holy Mallam. I am a Christian. One part of my name contradicts the other. I was reading the Bible, Leviticus 11:44, which says , 'Be holy for I am holy.' After that, I decided to name myself Holy Mallam.
The name has overtaken your real name.
Yes. If not that people write cheques in my real name and my international passport has my real name, I would have preferred Holy Mallam. My mother calls me Holy Mallam. It is nine years now, so I should be used to the name.
Has there ever been a time your joke was not funny?
I don't think so. I cannot remember. When you are experienced, you hardly fall into such situations. Like I said, I cannot remember, but I know that more than 96 per cent of my performances have been a success. I can say all my jokes have been good, but some are certainly better than others.
You don't do vulgar jokes?
No way! It is deliberate. Why should I? To start with, it is unethical. You should know the implications of doing unethical, obscene publications in newspapers. The profession does not allow such.
Then again, I started in the church. How can I come from the church and be doing vulgar jokes? Where did I learn that from? I have tried to set a standard for myself. If the joke is not clean, then it is not mine. I am a family-friendly entertainer. People of different ages, both young and old, can be present at my events. I don't insult people. If you are a comedian, you have a mandate to make people happy. You don't have to remind them of their sorrows. When you insult people with your jokes, in their quiet time, when they ponder on the jokes, you make them sad. I can't do such jokes.
So your jokes have not put you into trouble before?
No. When I started initially, I didn't use to filter my jokes. But even at that, they were not vulgar. One should be sensitive and diplomatic. You should know the kind of audience you have so that you don't step on toes.
I don't insult expatriates. If you continue insulting them, it reminds them of how unsafe this country is. It is a way of stylishly sending them away. We should be talking about unity within and outside Nigeria. Imagine how much the US spends on fighting wars. If they had used the money to better the economy, this melt down thing wouldn't have happened. I believe in making people happy. Don't make a group of people laugh at the expense of some other people. It is unfair.
Do you have comedy shows like most comedians?
Yes. Mine is called Holy Laughter. It is usually an evening of gospel comedy, music and dance. As the name implies, it is organised for the general public.
How did your parents take it when you decided to become a comedian?
My dad didn't have a say because he was going to die. He is late now anyway. He was on a sickbed, so he couldn't even criticise me constructively or destructively. But I overheard him say he was happy that he could see me on TV. We suffered a lot.
Oh, you want me to go into details? There were times we didn't have food or money to buy food. But my mum was very hardworking. My mum bore our burdens alone to an extent. My dad paid school fees and all that. But the extras that could have made us stand out were not there. We had to work very hard. I worked in a company as a casual labourer for two years. My annual salary was about N23,000. A year after, I was promoted and my salary was increased to N24,000. I was a teacher at one point. I was being paid N500 per month.
I was a labourer. I sold pure water for my mum. I know where I am coming from.
And you didn't think of getting into a shady business?
God forbid! I don't condemn people, because of where I am coming from. But I can't imagine myself doing 'yahoo' business. What if I get caught? You don't even have to wait till you get caught. Don't you have a conscience? You defraud people and you make them sad. That is not what I want in life. I want people to be happy.
Most comedians are gong into music; do you intend to join them?
Yes. I have comic songs. My video has just come out. We titled it Bench Warmer. It is a gospel comic album and it has like six, seven tracks.
Apart from Ali Baba, which other comedian do you respect?
Maybe we should schedule another meeting for me to answer this question. Before that time, I would have thought of the answer to give you.
Comedians are in different classes. How I am is different from how the next person is. Ali Baba is an icon of comedy in Nigeria. He helped us to revolutionise comedy. Abroad, established comedians are very wealthy. But it is not really like that here. My other colleagues are best comedians in their own ways. We should respect all comedians. This is a very difficult profession.
You married an Igbo woman; was that where you found love?
Yes. We have been married for four years.
Did you marry her because you wanted to be a 'true' Nigerian?
No. Not at all. You don't consider such things when it comes to marriage. Marriage is not a one off thing. It is something you do for life.
So how does she cope with the kind of job you do?
She just has to cope. She had an idea of what she was getting into before we got married. Her mind was prepared. She takes care of the home when I am not around and she supports me. She listens to me. If you are not funny, you can't impress my wife. If my wife laughs at a joke, then I know it is funny. That is the advantage I have over some other people. She criticises me constructively and she encourages me to come up with materials.
My wife was very prepared for the marriage. She knows I am not a static person. I try as much as possible to be around my family all the time. Whenever I am not around, they know I have gone to work. Later in the week, I would be going for a short tour in London, Manchester and Aberdeen. I have prepared their minds for the trip. When I come back, we will continue from where we stopped.
Do you hope to do comedy for life?
That is how you know those who were actually called to this profession. But let's watch. I really intend to continue in this profession. I have no intention of retiring at a young age. I am a comedian, a master of ceremony and a businessman. I have been able to build a platform with comedy. I will diversify. But comedy has made me popular. Why would I want to leave comedy after it has given me all these benefits? It has become a way of life. I am passionate about this profession. It makes me happy. I want to continue to be happy. I want to affect lives positively.
Tell us a bit about growing up...
Growing up was sweet, sour and bitter. I was born into a family of four. We were living in Apapa before we moved into a duplex in FESTAC. My dad was travelling abroad that time. It was wonderful. We were ajebutter children. Later, things weren't like that any more. Maybe my parents should be the ones to tell you what went wrong. My dad's finances started experiencing a meltdown.
So how did you adapt when things changed?
We didn't have a choice. What you have is what you use. My mother trained us in such a way that whatever we had was what we had. If we didn't have sugar in the house to soak garri, my mother would kill you if you go to borrow sugar from neighbours.
If we didn't have sugar, we had to make use of soya beans. In fact, there is creativity in poverty. We didn't have a choice, we just had to be contented with what we had. For five years, we didn't have a TV. But if you dared go to watch TV outside the house, my mother would kill you.
My mother was so strict. I didn't like her at that time.
How do you cope with female admirers
They are everywhere. People say they don't have time for them because they have a wife. I am a Christian and I know the Bible says by strength shall no man prevail. You can't handle such things yourself. You just have to pray for grace. You have to be disciplined, but is still goes beyond discipline. You have to pray for God to help you.
So you get tempted at times?
Every human being gets tempted. It is not aloe vera that is flowing in my body. It is blood. But when you remember what you have worked for to get to this level, then you don't want any scandal to pull you down.
Remember I do clean jokes. A lot of people look up to me. I just pray that God will help me to remain level headed. I am still in the making. I look forward to lasting very well in the industry. I want to affect peoples' lives.
You are a shy person, yet a stand up comedian...
That is the irony. I am a very shy person. I can't even look into the eyes of ladies. But when I am on stage, I am something else.
Now that we have a lot of comedians...
Yes, we have a lot. Some of them are not experienced. They say a lot of vulgar things. Some say a lot of things against the church, against pastors and even against the Holy spirit. I can't criticise anybody. We all have our destinies to pursue. Time will tell.
So you are not scared of competition?
People usually say that the sky is so wide that birds can fly without clashing. But again, at night, you look at the sky and you see the stars. They are so tiny yet they are bigger than the earth. Every star has an accommodation as far as I am concerned. Let them come. They are welcome as long as you don't go into it with the sole aim of stealing people's materials. People work so hard to come up with these materials. When I hear that people are using my materials, I am not always happy. My jokes are my assets.
Are comedians born or made?
You must have the innate ability to make people laugh. Comedy comes from within. You don't learn to become a comedian. If you learn to become a comedian, that means you are learning other people's jokes. It is a spur-of-the-moment thing. That is what makes a good comedian.
What do you hope to achieve in future?
I am not satisfied with where I am. I want to become a household name. I am not crazy for popularity of fame. I don't let fame go to my head. I hope to become that entertainer that people would look up to.