The Responsibility of Nigerian Celebrities – Ahmed Sule, CFA
The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery.
I have made my choice. I had no alternative
- Paul Robeson
As we approach the midpoint of the second decade of the twenty first century, Nigeria is experiencing a renaissance in the world of arts and entertainment. This renaissance bears some semblance to the Harlem renaissance that took place between the 1920's to the 1930's when a new black identity was conceptualised and expressed in the United States. In the Nigerian version of this renaissance, the previously unrecognised entertainment sector is now gaining continental and global recognition. Nollywood is the third largest film industry in the world trailing only Bollywood and Hollywood. Nigerian musicians and film stars are celebrated throughout Africa. A number of our musicians, actors and actresses have won numerous awards both within and without Africa and some feature on the cover pages of international magazines.
In football, we are also experiencing a kind of renaissance. The Super Eagles are the current African champions and have qualified for the World Cup. Nigeria is the reigning FIFA U-17 World Cup Champion. A number of our footballers play in the top leagues of Europe earning millions of dollars each year.
As a consequence of the exploits of our film stars, musicians and footballers, we now have a new generation of celebrities i.e. FMF Celebrities. Although the word celebrity refers to a famous person, for the purpose of this article, I will limit the term “Nigerian celebrity” to film stars, musicians and footballers of Nigerian origin.
While we experience regeneration in our films, music and football, unfortunately, we are experiencing degeneration in most aspects of Nigerian life. Our business leaders and politicians may be ecstatic that Nigeria has recently overtaken South Africa to become Africa's largest economy; but if they pay close attention to social indicators, which are of more relevance to the person on the street, they will notice that Nigeria lags behind other countries. Corruption is near an all time high, quality healthcare is almost non-existent, youth unemployment is at unsustainable levels and the gulf between the haves and the have nots continues to widen while the security situation worsens. To put it another way, the social contract between the government and its citizens is yet to be fulfilled.
As Nigeria gradually metamorphoses into a two-tier country in which a few live the Nigerian dream and many live the Nigerian nightmare, there are a number of questions worth asking. Do Nigerian celebrities have a social or moral responsibility in this two-tier environment? If they do, have they embraced that responsibility? If not, in what ways have they ignored that responsibility? How can our FMF celebrities use their influence for the benefit of mankind? Are there any examples from other socially responsible celebrities that our FMF celebrities can emulate?
Martin Luther King once made a distinction between enforceable and unenforceable obligations. According to him, enforceable responsibility, “Are regulated by the codes of society and the vigorous implementation of law-enforcement agencies,” while unenforceable responsibility, “Concern inner attitudes, genuine person-to-person relations, and expressions of compassion which law books cannot regulate.” In any society where suffering and injustice prevails, men and women of goodwill ought to rise up and say NO. Those who are influential in such societies have an unenforceable moral responsibility to speak out and act on behalf of those who are suffering.
The Nigerian celebrity can be described as part of the modern day version of what W.E Du Bois, the American sociologist called the “Talented Tenth.” In his seminal paper of the same title, W.E Du Bois suggested that the educated and influential among African Americans in the early twentieth century should lift up the remaining blacks. He wrote, “The Talented Tenth rises and pulls all that are worth the saving up to their vantage ground”. In a follow-up article, Du Bois argued, “The power of this aristocracy of talent was to lie in its knowledge and character, not in its wealth". In today's Nigeria, our celebrities ought to do likewise and use their influence to lift up their fellow Nigerians to their vantage ground.
To what extent have our FMF celebrities embraced this unenforceable social responsibility to lift up suffering Nigerians? While a number of Nigerians from all walks of life have taken up personal responsibility to redress the two tier structure of our country, conspicuously absent in the roll call are many of our FMF celebrities who are oblivious to their moral responsibility to join in the fight against the degeneration in most aspects of modern day Nigeria.
Does this mean that there isn't a single Nigerian FMF celebrity that is socially responsible? Not at all. We have a number of celebrities working for the benefit of humanity. Kanu Nwankwo's Heart Foundation is saving many lives, Omotola Jalade Ekeinde is championing the cause of victims of oil pollution in the Niger Delta, while Seun and Femi Kuti continue to speak up for those that don't have a voice. I am also conscious of the fact that some of our celebrities go to orphanages during Christmas or on their birthdays and sometimes have a photo shoot with the orphans in front of the cartons of Indomie Noodles and Bournvita that they have donated to the orphanage. Furthermore, our celebrities through their success have given young Nigerians hope that if they can be creative and hardworking, they might also prosper. However, for every Kanu, Seun or Omotola, there are hundreds of FMF celebrities who could do more to help the forgotten 99%.Unfortunately, as a collective group, Nigerian celebrities have failed to live up to its social responsibility in a number of ways.
First, rather than show concern for their suffering brothers and sisters, a number of our celebrities seem more concerned about "ME, MINE and MYSELF." The advent of modern technology and the proliferation of bloggers have given our celebrities the platform to flaunt their newfound wealth to millions of Nigerians who struggle to eat three square meals a day. The Internet is filled with images of Nigerian FMF celebrities posing with their Rolex watches, hugging their diamond encrusted iPads, sleeping beside thousands of dollar bills and leaning against their Bentley. It's as if narcissism has become the opiate of the Nigerian celebrity. Fortunately for our celebrities, the general public appear comfortable with this public display of wealth in the midst of lack as can be observed from comments on a number of online forums like, "Go girl, if you have it you should flaunt it" or "I am happy for you o. May God also bless my own runs.”
But some celebrities might say, "I have the right to spend my money the way I want." This is understandable, but can't they also use the same medium in which they flaunt their wealth to also promote social advocacy. Some other celebrities may say, "Leave us alone jare, shebi musicians in America flaunt their wealth, so what we are doing is not new." But because some artist 8,500 km away “flaunts it” in a society where majority of the people are prosperous doesn't mean that it has to be done in a society where majority of the people are less prosperous.
Second, they have failed to speak truth to power. Despite the influence they have through their access to people in the corridors of power, they have failed to use these interactions to urge politicians to abide to the terms of the social contract. Instead, they have often allowed themselves to be used as pawns by implicitly supporting government officials vying for political office or providing politicians a platform for photo shoot opportunities. While there is nothing wrong with celebrities using their influence to support a political candidate, something is wrong when they fail to use that same influence to plead with politicians to deliver on their promises. Recently, members of the Actors Guild of Nigeria visited President Goodluck Jonathan. So far so good. They then took a group picture with the President. So far so good. Then the delegates honoured Mr. President by making him Grand Patron of the Guild. So far so good. The delegates then presented Mr. President with a list of demand including a call for the dismissal of some senior executives in the film industry and a request for land and a building in the Federal Capital Territory for their headquarters, which they promised would be named ‘The Goodluck Jonathan Screen Actors House’. Unfortunately, they somehow forgot to ask Mr. President for improvements in the lives of the millions of Nigerians suffering from the troika of youth unemployment, corruption and insecurity. In addition, a number of our so-called celebrities have been seen going on entourages with government officials to attend international conferences, while others entertain at parties hosted by corrupt politicians and businessmen who have bled the country dry.
The third way in which our celebrities have failed to live up to their social responsibility is by their deafening silence towards the sufferings of their fellow Nigerians. As Martin Luther King once said, "There comes a time when silence is betrayal." Through their silence, our FMF celebrities have betrayed millions of suffering Nigerians. As our celebrities ‘walk from Jerusalem’, they have ignored the Nigerian masses who have been left naked and bruised on the road to Jericho. It’s clear for all to see that our so-called celebrities speak out when it’s convenient for them or in their own interest. We are used to hearing the voices of our celebrities when they have released a new movie; we are used to hearing the voices of our celebrities when they have signed a new record deal; we are used to hearing the voices of our celebrities when they have bought a new car, built a new house or are interviewed on the red carpet.
But where are the voices of our female celebrities, as women all over the country are increasingly becoming victims of domestic violence? Where are the voices of our male celebrities, as millions of men around the country have nothing to live for? Where were the voices of our celebrities when some youths died during the stampede at the Abuja National Stadium as tens of thousands of unemployed youths went to the stadium to take an aptitude test? Where were the voices of our celebrities when a lady was stripped naked and sexually assaulted with sticks and pepper for allegedly stealing? In short, when it comes to the suffering 99%, our so-called celebrities develop Laryngitis which impedes their ability to speak.
I might be accused of making sweeping generalisations against Nigerian celebrities. Once again, I acknowledge that not all celebrities are insensitive to the sufferings of Nigerians; however I still believe that my overall analysis of the Nigerian Celebrity is valid. Some may say, "Why focus on celebrities, after all they did not cause the problems confronting Nigerians and there are other more influential people in the society that can make a change?" This is a valid question, but the talented celebrities have something which millions of Nigerians including the more influential Nigerians do not have i.e. A PLATFORM. Since our celebrities have a huge following it means that whenever they say or do something, people will take note.
There are examples of celebrities around the world who have used their platform for the benefit of humanity. During the Civil Rights era, African Americans were treated as second-class citizens in their own country. In response, a number of music and film stars like Bob Dylan, Paul Robeson and Ossie Davis used their influence to help the Civil rights struggle. Sportsmen like Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos chose to side with the suffering people instead of aligning with the oppressors in the corridors of power. In Nigeria, while other musicians were entertaining at the parties of the oppressors, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti pitched his tent with the suffering Nigerians by opposing a succession of military governments. In the 1980's, in reaction to the famine that occurred in different parts of Africa, Bob Geldof, Michael Jackson, Harry Belafonte and Lionel Richie rallied musicians around the world to use their talents to help the victims. Across the border in Ivory Coast, Didier Drogba a two-time African Footballer of the Year played an instrumental role in ending the civil war in the country. Our celebrities can also draw inspiration from Oscar winning actress Angelina Joli. While filming in Cambodia, Angela Joli noticed a humanitarian crisis in the country and contacted the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to get an understanding of similar crisis around the world. Since then she has visited refugee camps in over twenty countries. She also campaigns for the eradication of poverty and the protection of women and children.
So how can our FMF celebrities use their influence and talents to help humanity? Fortunately for them, it’s much easier to take a stand now, as they no longer live in the sort of environment that celebrities like Fela Kuti, Tommy Smith or Paul Robeson lived in when they made their stand. Our celebrities should try to take up a personal cause and run with it. There are lots of causes in Nigeria begging for champions. While we see many of our celebrities taking up ambassadorship positions for telecommunication giants, banks and state governments, perhaps they could also combine it with self-appointed ambassadorship for causes that benefit humanity. For instance, what is stopping a celebrity from appointing herself as an ambassador in the war against domestic violence towards women? Other causes worth pursuing include but are not limited to youth unemployment, child abuse, corruption, war against polio, war against poverty, war against electricity blackout, war against religious intolerance etc. Moreover, our celebrities should be bold enough to speak truth to power and consider setting up foundations where feasible. They can also get involved in social advocacy or collaborate to produce songs or films for charitable causes and donate the proceeds to the less fortunate.
In conclusion, throughout the vestige of time, celebrities have come and gone. Very often, today's celebrity becomes tomorrow’s obscurity. Songs that were popular today become outdated tomorrow; today's Nollywood blockbusters could end up rotting away in tomorrow’s archives; today's Premiership footballers could become tomorrow's Division Four footballers. However, what sets some celebrities apart is their ability to use their talents and influence for the benefit of mankind. The world still remembers the likes of Fela Kuti, “Music is the weapon"; the world still remembers the likes of Muhammad Ali, " My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America"; the world still remember the likes of Miriam Makeba, “I just told the world the truth. And if my truth then becomes political, I can't do anything about that”; the world still remembers the likes of Harry Belafonte, "My songs reflect the human condition. The role of art isn't just to show life as it is, but to show life as it should be”; the world still remembers the likes of Bob Marley, “The greatness of a man is not in how much wealth he acquires, but in his integrity and his ability to affect those around him positively.”
Taking the above into consideration, it’s important for our celebrities to spare some thought on what their legacy will be at the end of their fame. How will they want to be remembered? Do they want to be remembered as that generation of celebrities who tweeted images of themselves in front of mansions, yachts and cars? Do they want to be remembered as that generation of celebrities who prostituted themselves with the corrupt political class to the detriment of suffering Nigerians? Do they want to be remembered as that generation of celebrities whose anthem was ME, MINE and MYSELF?
Do they want to be remembered as that generation of celebrities who used their talents and influence to lift up a generation of suffering Nigerians? Do they want to be remembered as that generation of celebrities who spoke truth to power? Do they want to be remembered as that generation of celebrities whose anthem was CARE, CONCERN and COMPASSION?
History is watching.
Ahmed Sule, CFA
© Ahmed Sule 2014