BOB EJIKE: I WAS A COLUMNIST AT 13
Bob Ejike is an embodiment of many things. He is an actor, writer, musician and a lecturer. He could pass for jack of all trade and master of all.
At 13, Ejike had become a famous scriptwriter for television and radio. With this feat, it did not take him much time to become a popular face on television, where he featured in many films.
Speaking with Saturday Sun , Ejike, who is also a professor of English, revealed what he has been doing in recent times.
Could you tell us about yourself and early career in life?
I was born in Umuahia, Abia State and raised in Enugu, Enugu State. I started the art when I was pretty young. I was the youngest columnist in Nigeria. I wrote for the Drum Magazine and Renaissance Newspapers, which were in Enugu then. I wrote with the famous Ben Okiri. We shared the same page in Drum Magazine, which was the biggest in Africa. It was based in Yaba, Lagos. You know, I live in Kampala; so, I still associate with the magazine. I was also writing poetry and later ventured into drama. I was quite a kid then because I was still in secondary school.
Then I was writing drama. I wrote for NTA, Port Harcourt as well Radio/TV, Kaduna and later Radio Plateau. In Kaduna, my producer was Duro Solomon, while in Plateau, it was Suleiman Ajara, who later became a politician. Tommy Sekiye was my producer in Port Harcourt and Jide Ogungbade, in the Radio Nigeria, Enugu.
I was first a writer before meeting with Rev Chris Okotie, a wonder boy, first vocalist in Nigeria and first super star in the country. He taught me music. That was how my music career started. I played with a number of guys, like the Dizzyk Falola, who played 'Baby Kilode,' Jide Obi and others. Those were the people of that era. It was the period we had great artistes, like the Mandators, Terry Manson, Ogungbemi Amas, Onyeka Onwenu, Doris Fudi and others. The industry was very exciting at that time.
Where are these artistes you mentioned?
I don't know where they are, but at a time, because of the down turn of the economy, music became precarious and many artistes disappeared. As for me, I refused to quit. I went to school, in University of Port Harcourt, in 1982. I wrote the drama that brought what is now called Nollywood. It was a drama written essentially as a movie. It was produced by Festus Ighalo and presented by NTA Benin to the NIFEST. It won and became the best movie of that year. And I launched Richard Mofe-Damijo first time on television.
My production was the first movie in Nigeria and not 'Living in Bondage,' as people thought. Living in Bondage came 10 years after I had done two films that were well marketed in Nigeria. It is embarrassing to me, when they say Living in bondage is Nigeria's first movie. It was not the first and not the second. In fact, Living in Bondage stole our idea and used it to do a popular film in English. So, let people know that, by no means, was it the first Nigerian film. I made the first Nollywood film.
What is the connection between you and Ejike Asiegu?
I started acting with him since 1978. I also acted with Nkem Owoh (Osuofia). He wasn't Osuofia then, but Nkem Owoh. And there was a team of Basi and Company, which I was also a part. I was acting and writing for them.
What was your role in Basi and Company?
I was a guest artiste. I was writing scripts for them. Everything was happening in Enugu then. So, it was this great migration to Lagos that brought all of us here. But Enugu was where we had the New Masquerade, Basi and Co and with a whole lot of interesting and lively artistes.
In New Masquerade, what part did you play?
I didn't act in New Masquerade. I was just saying that it was all happening at the ABS TV, Enugu. As I said before, I was at UNIPORT, where I studied English and Literature. That was where I got exposed to many talented people, like Prof. Ola Rotimi of blessed memory, Chidi Amuta and Mr. Aniegbu, who was also a great writer. I did quite a lot of acting and writing as a student. Let me not forget that I met Daniel Wilson at UNIPORT. He is still a very good friend of mine. We worked together and still working together.
When I left the university, after the national service, I joined Basi and Co. After that, I made my first album in 1995, entitled 'No Vacancy.' It was talking about unemployment in Nigeria and the Third World, in general. It was a popular album at that time. In fact, there were a lot of other popular albums because, shortly after that, Majek Fashek came with Send Down the Rain, which shook the entire world. He became known as the rainmaker.
I had a manager, who was well connected in Italy. He got me to play in a concert, in Milan. It was Radio Milan International, launched in a night club and I was there to play with many popular and talented artistes, including MacFold Maclaren, who was big at that time. At the show, I met an Italian Reggae group called 'Ire' and they needed a black face for image and chorus, then I joined them. I looked back to Nigeria and I didn't see anything drawing me back. So, there was no point going home. It was an avenue to improve myself. I have been there ever since, where I had to study more, and later became a lecturer at the Universita Populare Di Roma. I am an associate professor of English Language. I have written some books and the most popular one is the 'Weapon of Biafra.' I have also written for The Sun Newspaper, on the page called Kleighlights. I have presented for the NTA, Tropical Rhythm, which was Sunday entertainment programme. And I have done about 40 Nollywood films.
Was going into this profession your childhood dream?
From the very start, I wanted to be a musician because I could create music. I can compose a piece of music with 14 instruments and give every instrument feelings, rhythms, harmony and melody. So, I knew that was where I wanted to go. I had other talents that came along the way, but I also knew that my destiny is music. My grandfather was a musician; so, I think I inherited that gift.
At what point did you come into it?
I started acting on radio and not on TV. When I was writing scripts, I was made to voice some of them. And I was working with people, like Tony Saint Iyke. Radio drama was very interesting then. It was when TV became dominant that emphasis on radio drama reduced. So, you have to adjust if you didn't want to be left behind. At that time, Ikebe Super, an entertainment magazine, had become a TV programme. We too had to adapt. We moved from voice acting to stage acting and thereafter, to TV. I started acting at NTA, Victoria Island, Lagos, where I acted in a number of dramas before Basi and Co, which was a big exposition for me. After that, Nollywood came. It was a reaction to those people on TV, who felt that we were not good enough to be paid for our services. They felt we were just local artistes. But we proved to them that we were professionals by taking the drama away from TV and giving it to the people. Since then I left for Europe and came back after seven years and became a full time actor.
What are the movies you have featured in?
I acted in movies, like Princess, Scores to Settle, Narrow Escape, My Cross, Executive Crime, Campus Girls, Polygamy, The Next of Kin, Dead of Night and many others. I did 'Sharon Stone,' with Genevieve Nnaji; 'Outcast,' with Shan George; 'Maximum Risk,' with Regina Askia; 'Wanted Alive,' with Saint Obi and Paul Obazele. I have done a whole lot of movies, but after sometime, I didn't see what I was still doing. So, I decided that I could do other things by giving my energy to something else no one was thinking about, which is the international promotion of Nollywood. I returned to Rome and got involved in an organisation that was interested in projecting African culture. We started by having annual exposition of Nigerian arts and culture in the University of Milan. Every year, we put up exposition of Nigerian arts and we showed Nollywood films, prompting people to ask, if there were really Nigerian? The idea was to change foreigners' mentality by simply showing Nollywood films to them. The greatest achievement of Nollywood is that it has given a voice to the black man in world media. Before now, everything that was said about black people was by the white and you we had no voice. You will write a positive story about Africans, they edit it to suit themselves, just because we were not publishers. Since they are the ones editing it, they could twist your story the way they liked, without seeking your opinion.
Have you experienced such acts before?
Yes. I do remember writing a book in Milan and sending it to a publisher, a great lady, who has done so much for African literature, to read through the work. Thereafter, she called me and said: 'Bob, let me give you an advice. If you want to succeed, stop writing about Africans as people with a mind. Write about primitive Africans with a machete, like Okonkwo chasing Ikemefuna in the jungle; then you will make a great success. If you still want to think of an African who is intelligent and using computer, no one would buy it here because that is not the Africans they want to see.' So, this is something we had to fight instead. I gave speeches and held exhibitions at the Central Library of Rome, which is like a small town. It was all about Nollywood. Do they make films in Nigeria? Yes, they do. You come and watch. After watching, they said: 'This can't be Africa.' They were surprised to see skyscrapers because you can't see it shown on their televisions. That was much I was doing, as part time before I decided to come back to Africa. I wanted to know much about Africa and not just Nigeria. I stopped at Benin Republic and it was a bit different. Thereafter, I went to Uganda. I went there on a brief holiday and it was a lovely place. So, I decided to set up four studios there, visual and audio. I also have Prof. Bob Ejike Foundation for performing arts. It is used to help indigent artistes by providing them with training and giving them recording facilities.
At what point did you eventually come into music?
It was on TV, in Enugu with Chris Okotie. We were guests on Soundcity, produced by Sam Okoh. That was where I met Chris Okotie and we became friends. Then he lived in one room apartment, in New Haven, Enugu, where we used to eat rice together. He would play his guitar and I would sing. He always told me: ' Bob, this is not you; be yourself.' Then he had this voice made of gold. Till today, I know all his songs. When I sing them, you would think it is Chris Okotie. That was how I started, but it took me a very long time to develop because I was always playing in concert. It was when I graduated from the university that I was able to record an album.
How have you succeeded in combining music, acting, and writing with teaching?
It is just that at any point, one of them becomes dominant. You gradually shelve the others, as I have not acted in films in the last five years. I have been busy with my music. It is not really a problem because I am not really dragging everything along.
What motivated you into show business?
I know I was going to be a showbiz person right from day one. I was creating stories by myself, which I know was a gift. My parents tried to direct me into area of their interest, like Law and Medicine, but I bluntly refused because I knew that this was where I was going to find my relevance and peace. So, that spirit has been there right, from my childhood and I didn't allow anything to stand in my way. I was just like a racehorse.
Music and acting, which one pays you most?
In terms of cash, I think acting does. In acting, you don't invest your money. All you need do is to get on set, do your beat and get paid for it. Beside the risk of jumping from upstairs into the Lagos lagoon, there is no financial risk on your side. But in music, you have to invest your money and record. In my own case, I had to go beyond that to building studios. At the end, you don't even know what will come out of it. Sometimes, you lose a fortune. You look at it and everybody thinks you are mad but you know where you are going.
How has life been?
It is very exciting. I have gone everywhere and met everyone that is important. I have met Yakubu Gowon, Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Atiku Abubakar and others. Orji Uzor Kalu is a very dear friend of mine. I don't think they would have been my friends if not for acting.
What challenges are you facing?
If you decide to be a musician, you must face music. The first challenge you face as an artiste is that no one thinks you are serious. No one wants an artiste until he is famous. The problem is that someone has to assist you along the way for you to be that famous. I come from a family with so many successful people, people who are millionaires. But none of them has ever put a dime on me because when you talk about music, they think you are a joker. They don't see it as a credible and remunerative business, where you can make your money. They regard it as a drainpipe. As a result of that, no one is there to assist you in any way. As an artiste, I have spanned three generations of art. What that means is that I have to keep changing my genre of acts in order to be relevant. Now, I am singing R&B. I started by creating my own form of art called Afro Rap. At every point, people look at you not just the same way they look at engineers, lawyers and architects. They can only take you serious when you had hit the peak, like King Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obe, D'Banj and others.
A writer, they say, writes from his or her own heart content, what do you express in your writing?
Generally, I express what I see around my environment, including the socio-political situations. The things around me influence what I express. I am not into abstract art. It is reality. We have a lot of problems that need to be addressed through the arts. They are my concern.
Are you still teaching in the university?
Yes. I am teaching at a university in Rome. I have also taught in many places, not only in Rome. l have taught at Queens College in Nigeria, France and an Italian Institute.