As we celebrate another year of national independence, it is imperative that we take stock of what is, what has been and, perhaps, what can be — particularly as it concerns our most defining and treasured asset, culture. Shocking? Culture in its undiluted form is the element that defines us as a people, influences how we interact, absorb new ideas, innovate and even entertain. Basically, it is the grundnorm from which we draw as we innovate and evolve. Hence, preserving it is the highest duty we can take on, one we have not always revered.
Historically, we have been a people who accommodate other cultures, at the risk of losing our own. There was a time when being African, being Nigerian was believed not to be a thing of prestige or pride; but rather an identity that had to be hidden and discarded— perhaps because we had been taught to do so. All of that began to change, with cultural champions who refused to whisper “Nigeria” at the expense of feeling inferior when asked to identify their country of origin. These phenomenal people paved the way, I daresay, for the revolutionary work Paramount Africa commenced in the country.
In 2005, we, at Paramount Africa conceived the vision of reimagining Africa. Reimagining it as a land bursting with incredible talent, exciting innovations and proud culture— not because it had not always been so, but because we had somehow learned to see it as deficient and second-class. We embarked on the ambitious journey of providing entertainment and edutainment platforms for Africans to control their narrative, to tell their stories how they wanted them told.
We were aware that he who controls the media controls the narrative. Hence, without giving the actors an opportunity to tell their own stories, there was the impending danger of having their stories re-written, altered and perhaps mislaid. So, we started out with the most unifying pillar of culture— music.
In 2005, we launched our flagship channel, MTV Base, in the African continent, Nigeria to be precise, with the aim to showcase Africa’s vibrant talent. With this channel, we began to push African talents into the limelight. Innocent ‘Tuface’ Idibia’s African Queen was our debut choice, and within one hour of it being aired, the music video garnered over 1.3 million views. From there, we continued the groundwork for what is now one of Africa’s biggest entertainment markets— starting with necessary upgrades to one of music’s most powerful marketing tools, videos.
A cursory glance at the quality of videos being produced at the time, in comparison to what was being produced by leading international acts, assured us that changes had to be made. If African music was to become mainstream, we needed to elevate the quality of videos to enable African creatives make the stories woven into music videos more captivating. Our discovery also revealed the impasse we were at— Africa, at the time, lacked the local capacity needed to elevate African-produced music videos to global standards.
To solve this problem, we began training and upskilling videographers to improve the quality of their video and production quality. In 2007, we partnered with Shell on the “African Video Project” to improve the quality of African music video production. Through the project, MTV Base provided indigenous acts access to the expertise of international talents, including U.K Music Director Nick Quested and sensational singer Amerie. We also availed African artistes an opportunity to have their videos shot, edited, and produced by an internationally-acclaimed music video crew. With these efforts, MTV Base helped indigenous creatives build the capacity to produce phenomenal videos locally.
More than seventeen years after, because of these investments, it is normal to see African creatives clinching Awards like Video Director of the Year. But not before we kickstarted the tradition of celebrating Africa’s incredible talents. In 2008, we initiated the MTV Africa Music Awards (MAMAs) — the first international awards platform to celebrate the brilliance of African music acts. This platform has been a beacon of some sort, further drawing attention to indigenous artistes. Since its inception, the MAMAs has showcased and celebrated many artistes who have either been nominated for or have won various highly-acclaimed international awards, including Burna Boy, Wizkid, Tiwa Savage, Yemi Alade, Davido and Tuface Idibia.
Unsurprisingly, more than a decade after we made the decision to showcase, invest in and celebrate African talents, sounds conceived on Africa’s soil emerged. Today, the world consumes the eclectic sounds of Afrobeat, Amapiano, and Afro-soul — sounds that have unarguably taken the world by storm and have fast become mainstream. Proof of what we believed all along that African talents had the potential for the global stage and that if Africans could embrace their identity and culture without reservation, they would unlock unbelievable levels of creativity.
Our mission to reimagine Africa did not stop with the music industry but rippled into other entertainment industry segments. Leveraging what we had begun with MTV Base, we expanded the channel’s offering to include drama. Over the years, we have launched several edutainment and entertainment series that cut across different genres — the most popular of which is our MTV Shuga series.
We launched MTV Shuga to have difficult conversations, conversations that in the past were treated as taboo topics that had to be shied away from or held in whispers. Through the initial series of MTV Shuga, which was launched in 2009, and the subsequent spinoffs, including MTV Shuga Down South, MTV Shuga Naija, and MTV Shuga Alone Together, we tailored episodes to address a wide range of issues — HIV prevention, HIV testing, gender-based violence, gender equity, mental health, and modern contraception amongst other things.
Surveys evaluating the impact of the edutainment series revealed that it has caused significant behavioural change among viewers. One survey by the London School of Medicine and Tropical Hygiene (LSHTM) showed that exposure to the series led to an increase in awareness of HIV self-testing (60%), PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) (52%), and HIV status (71%). Exposure to the MTV Shuga Alone Together episodes — which focused on debunking COVID-19 myths, highlighting lockdown coping mechanisms and methods of prevention — also had a massive impact as 90% of viewers reported learning new facts, while 85% adopted new behaviours.
Beyond the impact it has had in causing behavioural change across the continent, MTV Shuga has been the springboard that launched the careers of some of Nigeria’s most sensational actors. Since 2009 when the series was launched, the series has featured many who have now become household names, including Jemima Osunde, Rahama Sadau, Timini Egbuson, Amal Umar, Tomiwa Tegbe, and Abayomi Alvin.
Going beyond edutainment, we have showcased some of the best contents from the continent through shows such as Inside Life with Erica, Behind the Story, Celeb Living, Slayed or Shade, Fit Fam, The Bigger Friday Show and many more. These shows have portrayed Africans the way they are — vibrant, ambitious and dogged. It has been a refreshing departure from the single narrative, plastered on media materials of many international NGOs, that was once mainstream.
Expanding our vision to encompass yet another set of creatives whose strengths did not particularly lie in music or drama, we introduced the MTV Base VJ Search. Initiated in 2012 to give creatives who enjoy playing host and have a way with crowds, the search created a platform capable of catapulting talents to the global stage. Today, past winners of the MTV Base VJ Search — Ehizojia ‘Ehiz’ Okoeguale, Stephanie Coker and Ada ‘Folu Storms’ Ogunkeye— have not only had the opportunity to host various MTV Base and BET shows and programmes with incredible reach but have, on many occasions, graced international scenes.
In addition to this outlet, our VJs form the backbone of the Paramount Africa pan-African Culture Squad. Through the culture squad, we provided our VJs, and subsequently other additions to the squad, a bigger stage to showcase their uniqueness, address global issues they are passionate about, set trends, influence cultural shifts and lead conversations through a VJ-centred content portfolio. Currently, the Culture Squad team constitutes Folu Storms and Ilo.
With the ground we have covered and the achievements recorded, we have paused at various points to reflect and recalibrate — to prepare for the next phase. This has led to outstanding discoveries. Quite recently, we carried out the Reflecting Me: Global Representation on Screen survey to evaluate the real-time perception of on-screen and off-screen representation in select countries, with Nigeria (one of Africa’s biggest social hubs) being one of the critical focus points. Drawing insights gathered from respondents situated in the North-Central, North-East, North-West, South-East, South-South and South-West regions of the country; we reaffirmed the ethos driving all we do at Paramount Africa — having African stories told by the actors of the stories.
Our study revealed that 94 percent of Nigerians consider an accurate depiction of the country’s different cultural groups and identities essential. 70 percent felt on-screen representation of certain groups needed to be improved, and 47 percent felt they were not represented enough. There are other statistics, but they point to one exciting revelation, we as a people now consider it normal to see people like ourselves on the world stage. We consider it necessary for our culture to be displayed proudly for the world to see and learn from.
As we press forward, we are elated to keep representing and reimagining Africa through our various channels, shows and awards. We commit to continue showcasing and celebrating black culture and excellence through BET Africa and to continue providing platforms for African talents to shine through MTV Base.
Our unparalleled devotion towards re-defining the African entertainment space is second to none and has transcended beyond being a conduit pipe that brings creatives to the limelight, but has become an immersive world where creatives find full expression, thereby no longer being a means to an end, but an end in itself.
*Akintunde-Johnson is Country Manager for Paramount Africa.
Culture in its undiluted form is the element that defines us as a people, influences how we interact, absorb new ideas, innovate and even entertain. Basically, it is the grundnorm from which we draw as we innovate and evolve. Hence, preserving it is the highest duty we can take on, one we have not always revered