How Internet Fame Became The New Nollywood

With the exponential growth of influencer culture, these internet sensations have steadily transported from mobile phones to the big screen. Today, Nigerian cinema is rife with these big names, but what's the efficacy of this "mass appeal over merit" course the industry is currently barrelling down?

Nollywood is extremely traditional and the Nigerian movie industry prefers to stick to familiar quantities, often to the detriment of the craft both entities are centred around. We routinely make jokes about the fact that five or less actors/actresses break through every decade and if they are accepted enough by audiences, they become the go-to performers almost monopolistically. While things might have opened up in the last cycle, the fact remains that popularity is the most sought-after ticket in a creative craft that should be purely based on merit. The advent of internet celebrities has accelerated the "decline of the merit over mass appeal" course the industry is currently barreling down, but first, it is important to pinpoint when the shift began.


Picture any Nigerian celebrity – an actor, singer or presenter. Take the most popular in class. Now multiply their hard-earned fanbases by five and you might put a dent in the followers any of these self-acclaimed actors and actresses have garnered in a quarter of the time. Their growths can only be defined as exponential. Take Mark Angel, a 29-year-old from Port-Harcourt, Nigeria. Taking the initiative and starting a company backed by the talents of none other than Nigeria’s most loved child performer, Emmanuella. The sharp-witted, sharper-mouthed 12-year-old content creator is the main character in one of the world’s most loved comedy sketches. Twyse, Craze Clown and Chief Obi, Nigeria’s favourite internet dad were some of the earliest Nigerian practitioners to scale social media fame into mainstream celebrity and financial stability. All three began their online careers while finishing academic degrees in diaspora and came back to their home country as full-blown internet superstars.

One of the earliest participants of influencer culture and one of the main subjects of this essay, Lasisi Elenu (government name Nosa Afolabi), found his fame on Snapchat in its earliest days, allowing the violation of his face at the hands of the iconic “big mouth” filter. This quirky approach helped him touch hot button topics with a whimsical air and shed the usual self-righteous approach older Nigerians sought to tackle the same issues. In turn, his avid fan base helped him become a media persona.

Internet character, Don’t Jealous Me (government name Tolu Ogunmefun) possibly set the tone for the industry in diaspora, transitioning from Twitter and YouTube fame to being a full-fledged actor in the U.K and appearing on multiple Netflix shows i.e. Man like Mobeen. A similar tactic has been employed by many of the Instagram and Snapchat influencers within the country; Broda Shaggi is perhaps the first name that comes to mind when considering the “comedians” in this class. “Comedians” because while they might create skits and sketches targeting a broad audience, their reliance on the slapstick elements of comedy – sometimes bordering on abusive, sensitive and downright unfunny topics they are uninformed about – has made the same audiences wary of newcomers. Reportedly influenced by his father, a drama teacher, Broda Shaggi pursued a creative arts degree from the University of Lagos and began his ascent to the heights of virtual and real-life stardom.

Broda Shaggi in Omo Ghetto

A24, one of Hollywood’s youngest but more compelling studios, recently released the trailer for the story of the first Twitter thread aptly titled #TheStory. Zola is the (personal) narrative of Aziah Wells King, a woman dragged into the dark underworld of human trafficking by another woman she met on Twitter. The credentials of the studio, the historic position of Hollywood and the fact that the community who the story was first broken to have been involved in its development, are the ingenious marketing strategies applied for the project. In some ways, Hollywood is late to the personal narrative-based form of film that centres on these characters and their experiences with the use of regular people, not actors. While Nollywood does not quite mirror their approach, it is arguable that our industry possesses the superior framework as far as adapting stories from the most seemingly basic situations and using familiar but grounded characters (influencers) to sell the fuck out of them.

Unfortunately, though, almost every film made in Lagos feels more like an advert for the city instead of a portrayal of any single story; the product placements are plentiful and slightly overwhelming and while we might complain about the cost of production, these things take away from the substance of the picture if they are not subtly/covertly handled. Movies released in the last half-decade cycle have become increasingly tinged with the presence of more and more of these performers. The Wedding Party, Omo Ghetto, Namaste Wahala, The Millions, The Fate of Alakada and more recently, The Razz Guy, have all alternatively featured either Broda Shaggi or Lasisi in varying capacities, with them steadily approaching lead roles in full feature films, a far cry from their earliest skits and sketches. Even Emmanuela Samuel – of Mark AngelComedy recently featured in an indie theatrical release titled Survive or Die, providing more success in a week on YouTube than it had across two years of festival screenings. That's power.

The internet in the '80s simply provided over-the-web communication for a tiny community of computers and computer users to finally touch base remotely. The internet today – more specifically, one of its offsprings: social media – is responsible for providing a free marketplace for people connected to the interwebs. More importantly for countries like Nigeria, it is finally doing something to even the playing field for a population largely composed of young adults and teenagers. While the more (yes) traditional platforms like Facebook and Twitter allowed millennials the (sometimes poorly judged) freedom to express their truest selves, the next generation of social media apps took things to a new level – monetization. The birth of Snapchat (2011) and Instagram (2010) came with the creation of a class system (if you will) that distinguished the true creators of content from the mere consumers. Influencers became a thing.

The meteoric rise of (arguably) talented amateur comics and content creators has raised the question of legitimacy. Are they truly funny? No one person can make seven billion people laugh so it is understandable that certain people will not be attracted to your form of humour. The acting route is one that many of these entertainers deem the most sustainable for their careers. Not being professionally trained, they obviously enter the industry at a disadvantage to their more qualified peers but leverage their already found internet fame as a powerful tool for breaking into the hype-machine that is Nollywood.

Lasisi Elenu in The Razz guy

Hence, brands and businesses are more willing to receive a boost from these internet personas over almost any other forms of celebrity. While the brands these comics have built may possess less credibility than most of the traditional choices for ambassadorship, their immense followerships more than make up for it. The guarantee of not only visibility but actual engagement and conversions make their appeal undeniable and the role of “influencers” in a capitalist society cannot be overlooked. For less economic reasons, their presence presents an opportunity for much-needed representation in modern Nigerian media.


The regular forms of derision younger Nigerians routinely endure are presented satirically by these performers in their sketches and skits; things like coloured hair and body modification that would ordinarily have earned you (more whimsically) a reprisal by a parent or (more extremely) the honour of being profiled by law enforcement are often present. Sexism and homophobia are also social issues that have received a fair share of attention from the public with the help of these streams of content, even if the vessels carrying these messages are ill-equipped to speak on them.

While a lot of what has been said presents these individuals in glowing terms, every cross-section of people is tinged with variety and sometimes, it isn't the positive kind. Sometimes these comics unsuccessfully toe the line between the politically correct and the grossly inappropriate. Issues like rape and sexual assault have historically been trivialized by performers and sadly, that tradition has seeped into the new generation of comics.


The regular forms of derision younger Nigerians routinely endure are presented satirically by these performers in their sketches and skits; things like coloured hair and body modification that would ordinarily have earned you (more whimsically) a reprisal by a parent or (more extremely) the honour of being profiled by law enforcement are often present. Sexism and homophobia are also social issues that have received a fair share of attention from the public with the help of these streams of content, even if the vessels carrying these messages are ill-equipped to speak on them.


The pros of letting influencers and comics into this industry could be primarily economic, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. A lot of the studios in Nigeria operate independently and these projects are carried out on very modest budgets; there’s a good reason why our movies are commonly referred to as home videos. The democratisation of film is also another pro: why should silver screen access be limited to the minuscule group of professionally trained thespians? Many beloved performers never went to film school or trained at any academies, they were simply discovered or handed a chance to deliver. The cons however mean that we might be forced to endure a batch of severely mediocre films for the foreseeable future, until we reach a plateau of both film development and influencer culture that can produce appreciable actors. A major con is the fact that the representation audiences clamour for will continue to be absent until this happens and a lot of the films listed above are guilty of this. A sad lack of relatability hinders a lot of these stories from touching base with their intended audiences and until that changes, we will remain firmly in third place as far as the Woods of the world are concerned.


#nollywood #movies #influencers #Nigeria