Taiwo Ajai-Lycett- A Legend of the Reel (Part 2)
We present the concluding part of the interview with celebrated veteran actress Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, first published on Friday, August 3, 2018.
You came back to Nigeria when the standards weren’t as high as those in the UK and acting wasn’t so popular, how can you compare the difference then and now, and is there any room for improvement?
In Nigeria, there is always room for improvement. Life is a stage and every one of us is an actor but because we are Nigerian, we are more theatrical than most countries and think each of us is an actor or an artist. This is the reason we do not appreciate art; it is all around us. It is difficult for some to particularize what we do. They take it for granted when they see masks and paintings, and do not take an academic, analytical or the intellectual view. Actors think they can do anything, including standing on their heads, especially in performing art, where everyone is a dancer or singer. I have studied singing all my life but I would never say I am a singer. We do not know our limitations; it is difficult because everyone wants their five minutes in the sun. When one is put on television, it doesn’t matter what he or she is doing. As it is a compelling medium, the content is irrelevant. Everyone wants to be recognized, but one should be recognized for something. There is no self-criticism; there is little humility in our show business as we think we know it all. Nollywood exemplifies that. There is no doubt that it is an energetic system that has breathed life into show business in Nigeria in the last 20 years, but it is very complacent. When it started there was nothing happening around and some people with a business survey decided others were going to be entertained. It was very imaginative and creative to do that, the energy is prodigious, but to what purpose? It is exploiting people’s need. I understand that is the essence of the entertainment business but it is abusing their helplessness and inability to question, and just take what they have. This is a national malaise because 51 people are stealing us blind and we do not say anything because of our ‘poverty mentality’, we think well they are lucky, maybe one day we would be there as well to eat some too. Well, it is shortsighted. If one does not plant the seed, what one is eating now will finish. One constantly has to grow things so that one can harvest. The same with the people who started Nollywood; anything that is moving on the screen will engage people. It is not for nothing it is called an idiot box. It carries some of us, who are acting, away because we are recognized on it. There is no literacy in what we are doing; Nigerians are not reading and do not understand their own culture. Take this fetish nonsense as an example. When we had Babalawos, they were not useless people. They were our modern psychologists and medical people, who helped explain what the universe is. They were not trivial, and not killing people. Everybody was mystified about why they were here on earth. They had certain knowledge about herbs and many other things. They solved problems. What do we do to them? We make them a laughing stock. I think everybody should be ashamed of the way they have portrayed the people who kept our culture and society together. These people understood their responsibilities to their community and discharged them. In that contract, it is written that if you do not deliver, you must go into your room and as Yoruba call it, parada (change yourself). In other words, go and join the ancestors. It’s not like this lot on TV, who thinks they have the power of life and death over people. In those days, if a witch doctor said it was going to rain and it didn’t, he had better disappear because what is the use of predicting something that doesn’t happen? They were good, kept people calm and comforted them. They healed the sick, but what do we see now? That my husband is interested in another woman, I come to you and say give me poison to put in his food. This is rubbish because it is not what they were doing in those days; at least those who did so were charlatans. But then we start our own thing and project to the world that we are a people who are superstitious and fetish. The way we are packaging and misrepresenting what is happening shows we do not truly understand what they are. That’s my fight with Nollywood. If you couldn’t have a baby, you went to see the Babalawo because he was your doctor. He was the one who knew which herbs to put together for you, and to tell you what to eat so that you can be more fertile, ready to ovulate and pregnant. Is that what we are seeing now? We ought to be ashamed of ourselves for rejecting our culture and becoming such a laughing stock that people think we are witch doctors. My understanding of what these Babalawos were in our community is that they carried us through before inoculations and vaccinations were discovered. They knew what to put together and though they didn’t have injections, they would cut you to rub these things in so that they go into your bloodstream. We may not have invented whatever it is, but it is our responsibility to tell the world that we are not people to be trifled with. A lot of them came here to get the herbs for most of the things they are giving us through injections. They synthesized and advanced them because that is the way of universal knowledge, called universal consciousness. You could start something but the next country would advance it. That’s the nature of knowledge but Nollywood constantly projects to the world that we are so backward and knew nothing about anything, and you think I should align with that? I don’t agree. They imbibe other people’s cultures they do not even understand and make them look superior, so why should I be doing business with them? My business is to make the world know who we are; it is because I am like that I have been able to work with them. They respect you for who you say you are. When I was modelling, they said my teeth had too many gaps and wanted to fill them up, but I said, ‘in my country, this is sexy, it is beautiful.’ So they learnt something. We have sold a great deal to Europe that many do not realize. I used to carry my nephews on my back down Oxford Street and people would stand and watch us. They developed the sling that you use to carry children, and now we buy that and think they invented it. These are the things that show business in our country should project. I remember I would go in the underground and Nigerians would get away from my side because I looked so backward, like a maid or a village girl. They wore wigs or their hair relaxed. I used to do my hair the way I did back home and I don’t come from a backward family, but I am an African and I do not intend to look White for anything or anybody. I have lived and witnessed Nigerians going to sit somewhere else. This business has been carrying on for 60 plus years now. There is this incredible self-loathing we have that everything foreign is the currency. It would fascinate Europeans that Nigerians do not want to be associated. The Europeans say our hair is nappy; we buy it and then hide it. In America it is a different kettle of fish, the Whites do not want to see our hair, so Black Americans have to put on scarves. People should educate themselves even in America. The Black Americans have different types of hair and bleach to become more acceptable. I can accept that because it is where they live, but what is our excuse here? They were forced to do that over there to get jobs and be more assimilated because if they do not look a certain way, they won’t employ them as they are not comfortable with the Black skin if you buy into that nonsense. Here in Nigeria, it is only if you want to accept that but I didn’t, I was intensely African and still am. I am Nigerian and I find it insulting for anyone to even challenge how I look. My boss was very fond of me at the first place I worked, the Lion’s Tea Shop at St. James, London. People used to come there because I talk a lot. Wearing their bowler hats, they wanted to know where I come from, because to travel all the way from Africa to England was a big deal at that time. They hadn’t even gone to Brighton themselves (laughs) and yet, I came all the way from Africa, talked like this and knew about their country! Nuns educated us in the type of home I came from, so we were articulate and knew all about England. My brothers and all my family are very articulate and very well educated. I started my professional life in the city of London and how we projected ourselves was essential. I got into an industry and projected ideas and images. My people should not be projecting the kind of images we see because we do not need the outside world to tell us who we are. Look at the way the international media is projecting Africans the way they see us but we have a chance to let them see who we are –the largest population in Africa and the cleverest brains in the world. Showbiz has a responsibility to project what Africa truly is, and the contributions we have made, and continue to make, and how important we are to the rest of the world. We are consuming here, everything they are producing, all our resources are being exported over there and yet we project that we are still so helpless and useless, do not have anything and have to depend on them to give us things. Hollywood almost single-handedly colonized the world with the idea of America and the American lifestyle. A lot of it is from their films but false. America is the land of the peaceful and the free, but many of us know the reality. Have you seen any film from America without the American flag in the background? One way or the other, that flag is flown all the time, even in the romance films. Are we thinking deeply? When I talk about illiteracy, I mean the inability to think analytically and deeply about one’s self. Project only what you think is good about yourself, not judging yourself badly by ideas received from other people. In our films we are still consuming everything that Europe and the rest of the world throw at us, not looking at contemporary issues. Take romance, what is the style of romance between our young today? The only examples we have are what Hollywood is giving us – the high number of one-parent families and the fact that our women are ready to have babies without husbands, and plan not to have a future with their men. I remember when I did Winds Against My Soul. People didn’t just know me from watching me in England, they also know me from work that I did here. They talk about my accent, but I say what accent? It is just an educated voice because you must hear what I am saying. Even the market woman understands what I say because of the inflection my voice comes with. I am seeing the money I spent on many teachers, as I grow with my inflection. I have an actor’s voice and I am not trying to conceal that I am a Nigerian. It is because my voice is trained that I give value to my vowels and diphthongs, as there is no point in talking if no one can hear what you are saying. Everybody watched Winds Against My Soul; it caused streets to shut down. This was the mother of all soaps and so intelligently written by Laolu Ogunniyi. Romantic love fades but what makes love, is not romantic love. It is like Valentine’s Day we celebrate, what does it mean to Nigerians? We should have a film about that. It seems to me now from what I read and hear, that on Valentine’s Day, you get a present so you can bed her. Do they even know the background to the Valentine that they are talking about? Some people said they didn’t see J.P. Clark at my 75th-anniversary celebration. I replied it is not his bag for those who know him. Just before my birthday, he brought me three white roses; one each for 25 years of my life. It is pure love; his feelings towards me are adulterated affection that does not cover sex, but many people wouldn’t understand this. I am not part of Nollywood because it is not portraying our culture. I believe Nollywood should be the mirror of our society. There is good and bad in life. When you show bad, show good but what we show is this very rich ‘big’ man. We do not know what he does to get money, but the media shows that you have to be bad to get up in life. In our films, we want to be that rich man who stomps on the poor like they are nobodies, further polarizing the society and sending the wrong message to the architecture of our culture, as the enemy of an open society.
My fight with Nollywood is that we consume other people’s ideas. In show business where we should be spilling ideas, we are still consuming their bankrupt philosophies and ideas, and thinking people would take us seriously. We do not take ourselves seriously, and when somebody says Nollywood, the largest film producer, we fall for that. We are so happy that we just spew it out like that. How clever we are (laughs) when people are actually insulting us because nobody can produce any quality feature film in two weeks. There is no greater fool than a fool who doesn’t know he is one. Do you know how long it takes to plan, the shooting and everything else? However, there is something nobody can teach you – your own ideas. There is nothing original in this world but different perspectives on the same idea. For example, the roots of jazz are from here, and most of it is experimental. I am offended by the way we have opportunities and don’t do anything about them. One might ask, why aren’t you doing anything? Well, I am an actor. I am portrayed as an enemy of the industry, because they can’t hear what I am saying. They think I am criticizing them and being too snooty because I am from Europe. What insult! That’s why I do not want to join them. It isn’t all about talking; you have to talk to people who are listening to what you are saying. But maybe they are beginning to understand because recently, Nollywood gave me the award for Legend of Nollywood. I said to them, ‘This is very funny because everybody knows that I am one of the greatest critics of Nollywood.’ I also said, ‘I hope this is a new dawn for Nollywood. My business is not quantity, it is quality.’ If it were up to me, I would be the last person they would want to honour. I was encouraged and received the award. They were very hospitable and maybe they are now listening. I have never been averse to working with anybody and yes, it is true that I am a juggling actor, but I care about what I do. I want to make a mark; I want to make a contribution, because it has to be worth something. This is a journey that none of us has traveled before, so someone shines a light on it for somebody else. That is the only reason one should be there. I am self-educated; when you travel it broadens your mind. I didn’t go to Europe just to get Europeanized. Knowledge isn’t only in Europe; it is universal and belongs to everybody. You take knowledge and not wait for somebody to give it to you. The Pope carries his own briefcase and umbrella. People are mystified when they hear from him that the secret of success is service; they do not understand.
I want to establish the Taiwo Ajai-Lycett Arts Academy. When Ike Ude visited and interviewed me, he met several of the actors. He challenged me to run master classes for them. However, they don’t think they need training, but there is a new generation in entertainment, who want to learn. Those are the ones I am trying to catch. I have a place at Egbe but in the meantime, I’ll see if I can run at Freedom Park. Money is the engine; they can see more people flashing money around, but I still want to correct that to stop them thinking that everything starts with money. I want them to know that one creates prosperity through knowledge and execution, because both total success, and that for one to make it, one must not pursue money first. It’s not the reason to want to do something because one must first have a vision and line up how you want to achieve it, and that as you are doing, you would be getting. At the moment they are attracted to showbiz because they can see all these so-called celebrities. First of all, I want to stop this celebrity nonsense so that they can see this as work they can take a high sense of responsibility to, a commitment to change, a blessing to themselves and the community, and an avenue to build the society while making a statement about their culture. You have to do the work for the money to come in. That is the philosophy behind my school. If you want personal recognition, then you work for it. When I say work, I mean not necessarily with sweat but work smart, don’t even expect anything because you do not work for nothing, the world gives you what you give to it.
First published in Omenka Magazine Volume II Issue III
March 25, 2021