Young Nigerians leave talent shows to discover all that glitters is not gold.
Are they just tools in the hands of corporate Nigeria? Or are they failing to step up a ladder held firmly by an industry eager to create room for new stars?
Exclusive to Nigerian Entertainment Today
On the night of Sunday, December 6, 2010, an unknown 27-year old singer won the second edition of MNET Glo Naija Sings, beating off strong competition from other finalists. His name was Casey Edema and the runners up were Da Brodas and Rasing.
The reward was a princely $100,000 cash prize with a Toyota RAV4 to boot, a recording deal with Storm Records and an ambassadorship deal with Globacom, the title sponsors.
Tall, lanky and packing neat dreadlocks alongside his incredible vocals, bloggers proclaimed him the next big thing. Some Voltrons prophesied that it was only a matter of time before he went international.
Six years later, he is languishing in obscurity; his only claim to international fame: touring Africa as back-up singer for Sinach, a gospel singer.
The prize money (N15 million at the time and more than double that at the current exchange rate) was delayed long enough for him to almost lose hope while the ambassadorship, like the promised stardom, never came.
All that materialised of his record deal was a video shot by Clarence Peters for ‘Not The Girl’ – which has a little over 2,600 YouTube views as at the time of writing this – and a couple of poorly promoted recordings with a Lagos-based producer TY-Mix.
For Mike ‘iMike’ Anyasodo, winner of Project Fame Season 2, neither change of stage name nor an endorsement deal from MTN could prop up his shadowy career, which fizzled out with the lacklustre sibilance of a damp firecracker.
Some aspiring musicians have evolved into serial reality show contestants, hopping from one to another in the hope of winning just one to actualise their dreams. And even if they do win, it doesn’t mean they will stop hopping to focus on shaping their career.
In 2009, DJ Switch, an Abuja-based rapper and disc jockey won the Star Quest talent show as a member of Da Pulse, the exciting band that collaborated with American rapper Busta Rhymes to release the street anthem, ‘So Tey’.
Fast forward to 2013 and she was winning Glo X Factor’s N24m as well as an SUV, as a solo artiste. Three years later, she is yet to make a dent in the entertainment industry. Another Star Quest winner is currently slugging it out on The Voice, a music talent show sponsored by Airtel.
It has been a similar pattern of unfulfilled potentials for winners of the myriad of talent shows from MTN Project Fame, to Nigerian Idol, Nigeria’s Got Talent, Peak Talent Hunt, X-Factor, Dance234, Roc da Mic, AMBO, etc, whose faces cascaded on television screens across the country in the evenings. They have all mostly disappeared under the radar just as swiftly as they bobbed up.
Conversely, some of their fellow finalists in the same competitions have gone on to establish fledging careers despite not coming tops. These include Omawumi, Darey and Ebuka Obi-Uchendu. Only few winners like OC Ukeje, Chidinma, Iyanya, Timi Dakolo and Yemi Alade have, in pidgin English parlance, ‘blown’ properly.
So what then is the issue with reality shows and winners? Are the big brands pouring money down the drain? Or is this a real-life exemplification of the Bible verse ‘So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.’
Mixing with the multitude
Reality shows are a dime a dozen in Nigeria. There’s quite a number for singing and acting, one for cooking, there’s one for interior design, there’s one for singing, another for entrepreneurs and yet another for running through a forest in search of supposedly hidden treasure.
Given the notoriously short attention span of the listening public worsened by the uniqueness of the entertainment industry, what are the odds that a newbie will make it?
In a fast moving music industry like Nigeria’s for example, veterans struggle to make comebacks, so how much of a chance does a newly minted act have of winning the market’s attention after just months in the public eye?
‘First, it’s a simple game of numbers’ posits ‘Yomi Kazeem, an on-air personality with Top Radio and the Quartz correspondent in Nigeria. ‘During the show, contestants are up against 20 people or so. After they win, they’re up against maybe 2,000 more.’
‘They are handed fame with no opportunity to develop’, says Kamara Bature, a talent manager with Chocolate City Group. ‘An artiste develops by building a fanbase but they (reality show alum) win shows, become famous with no fan base and they do not know how to start building from scratch.’
Winners are usually treated to grand exit parties with the accompanying pomp and pageantry; they wake up to see their smiling photos hoisted on entertainment blogs alongside strategically placed brand collaterals, ambassadors and officials. But that’s where it ends. There is no cushion to pad them when they step out.
‘The experience in the Big Brother house didn’t really prepare me for living and working in the outside world‘, says Melvina ‘Vina’ Longpet, one of the finalists in 2011’s Big Brother Amplified.
‘Think about it. When you are locked up with people you don’t know for that length of time, you don’t really sit and think of how you can use your experience to work. You [simply] think about how to play your words right to avoid being evicted.’
‘Spray me the money’
Meanwhile, the titular sponsors having increased their goodwill and made money off the sentimental attachment of the viewing public, selling branded merchandise – millions of money spent on airtime by fans, friends and families of contestants, for instance – and product placements, return to the drawing board, to plan for another season.
The organisers and middlemen follow suit, tampering with the prize money in the interim through all sorts of legal provisos and withdrawal of commissions.
In the case of Jon Ogah who won the maiden edition of Naija Sings as an 18-year old, his father, a top military officer had to intervene when his prize money was withheld after he allegedly refused to sign the contract offered him by Storm Records.
Organisers of the Next Movie Star for example, are yet to deliver the winning prize of a car to 2015 winner, Cynthia Shalom almost six months after winning the competition.
‘It’s a double-edged sword’, argues Ayodeji Rotinwa, a writer for ThisDay Style and Forbes Africa. ‘I don’t think any brand that sponsors reality show does it for an altruistic reason and not that this is a bad thing. It’s a kind of corporate social responsibility, and it’s also a titanic marketing tool.’
Chichi Nwoko-Udeokuro, a former project manager for Nigerian Idol, lays it bare: ‘When a producer wants to make a reality show, the only way that it can come to life is when a brand supports the initiative; the brand only supports the initiative when the reality show is in line with its brand message and brand promise.’
‘This rings true for the brands that I work with. I find that while they want visibility for their brands they are just as interested in impacting the individuals who participate in these shows. Of course the brands are interested if their participation in the show will positively impact their bottom line as they should be, they are business not charity organisations.’
The road to Damascus
A contestant on the 2014 season of MTN Project Fame spoke to Nigerian Entertainment Today about the baggage that comes with being a reality show alum. After passing out as one of the finalists that year, the singer, who would prefer to remain anonymous, came into the industry brimming with confidence but even that has simmered down.
According to him, after being asked to sign an exploitative 360-entertainment deal for five years, his label boss treated him like an extra piece of studio furniture, remembering him only whenever a gig being organised by his friends came up. Soon, the label tired of his presence and ended things ‘by mutual consent.’
‘It was supposed to be the icebreaker for me but nothing happened like I was promised. After that period, I began to hang out with OAPs and buy them lunch so they could play my songs but that didn’t work. Some would play it just once or twice while others would just chop the food and clean mouth then still ask for ‘small thing’ to play the songs. It was very frustrating for me’, he told Thenetng.
After one popular OAP on an Abuja radio station tried to woo him through a female colleague, he stopped frequenting the stations and turned to God.
These days he plays instruments for one of the new generation churches in the Federal Capital Territory, scrounging off his meagre weekly allowance (N10,000) to record songs at the off-campus studio of an undergraduate of the University of Abuja.
‘God dey’, he says in a tone that sounds more frustrated than the optimistic note he hopes his tired voice will convey. ‘I’m looking to bounce back from collecting small transport fare for singing to performing on big stages. I just need someone to believe in me.’
When the hits don’t come, reality show alumni crumble under the weight of expectations, says Rotinwa. ‘When one single doesn’t immediately hit and then a second one, and then a third, the winner/singer may be harshly judged as a fluke.’
And when they don’t crumble, they switch to gospel music – a comfort zone given their usual church roots – after leaving music academies or attempt a 360 degrees turnaround in search of that elusive hit.
Since Chidinma of Project Fame in 2010 and Yemi Alade of Peak Talent the year before, no winner of a major competition has fully broken into the mainstream. And it took a redirection into the murky waters of pop for both divas to firmly cement themselves in the upper echelon.
While the one channeled her inner Terry G street appeal, the other has pulled a J. Martins, releasing faux pan-African themed songs in search of continental hits.
Iyanya, the 2008 Project Fame winner had set a precedence, morphing into a pop superstar after seeing ‘Kukere’ – 2012’s pop anthem – catch on like wildfire. He went on to ditch his signature R&B in 2009’s My Story album for panegyrics of the human waist and its attendant gyrations in 2013’s Desire – and has cashed out.
But not all who get on the road to Damascus end up in the Lord’s vineyard.
Monica Ogah, 2011 winner of Project Fame has been quite unlucky with hits. Despite dropping out of nursing school and releasing a string of collaborations with highlife acts Harrysong and Wizboyy, only a nomination in the Best Vocal Performance category of The Headies has come her way.
‘It’s a different game entirely…competing with a lot of people to claim your stand in the industry; it isn’t [an] easy task‘, she told Nigerian newspaper The Vanguard in a June 2015 interview.
J (full name withheld), a known industry producer explains. ‘The show doesn’t prepare most of them for Nigerian pop music. They get used to doing R&B and soul and showcasing their vocal prowess but then they enter into an industry where melody is the koko and they are exposed. A few like Iyanya have adapted but many have fallen by the wayside.’
‘There is a formula’, he continues. ‘Get your melody right and get us dancing. You give them a beat and they can’t ride it with a good delivery or freestyle properly because they want to compose all the time.’
Victims or villains?
So are reality show stars victims of the system or of their shortcomings?
‘Everything comes down to taking advantage of the little exposure and recognition that the reality show has given them’, insists Gbemi Ereku, an A&R and communications consultant.
‘Most of the time, artistes fail to engage a reputable management company to oversee their brand and capitalise [on their winnings]. The few reality show artists that have managed to do that, Iyanya with Ubi Franklin, Chidinma with Goretti/Capital. Most of them don’t even end up in a label.’
Given the capital-intensive nature of competing against established acts, they exhaust their shoestring budgets in no time and either slack or begin to find ways to refill.
‘There was one of them I worked with’, says J. ‘Because she was sleeping with a big boy in Etisalat, she was very nonchalant, always coming to the studio late and with a hangover. Even when we record a good song, he would ask her to remove parts of it to suit his taste.’
In 2013, UK-based Jungle Records in partnership with Paris-based La Cave Musik jointly released Casey’s Parisian Blues.
‘Once the album came out and he returned to Nigeria, he stopped communicating with us’, says a representative of both labels. ‘So all planned tours were put on hold [and the album did badly]. He said he wanted money and then asked us to pull the album off iTunes.’
While the veracity of the claims by the labels could not be independently verified (Casey is yet to reply any message as at the time of writing this), the artiste has since put out a free gospel EP for his fans.
In 2013, Anyasodo, went rebel less than six months after he signed a contract with August Pee Entertainment, contracting endorsement deals and music gigs without the knowledge of the label. Things got so bad that the label management had to put out a statement denying that he had penned a deal with MTN, stressing that all he had with the telecoms giant was ‘a very cordial relationship’.
Out in the wilderness
Like Monica who dropped out of nursing school to focus on her music, Chidinma, who got an offer to study Sociology at the University of Lagos, seems to have equally abandoned it as well.
‘These kids need to learn that they need a backup, either school or a business‘, J stresses. ‘It will help ease the pressure on them and fund their music.’
Jon Ogah went off first to the US and then to the UK after winning Naija Sings, graduating with a degree from the University of Portsmouth where he also won another competition, A Night With the Stars Portsmouth.
Inevitably, his star dimmed but he has released a decent album, – 2015’s Uncle Suru – and continues to perform at small venues in Europe, while studying for his MBA.
Ereku’s suggestion is for the establishment to go a step further, beyond the routine. ‘The organisers of such reality shows need to ensure that label signing and contracts (as one of its prizes) are effectively implemented.’
A pair of singing and dancing twins won the 2001 edition of one of the earliest reality shows in Nigeria, the now rested Grab Da Mic competition. Benson & Hedges, the sponsors, went the extra mile and masterminded the group’s debut album, Last Nite released under Timbuk2 Music two years later.
With five more albums and millions of copies sold, they have been catapulted from backwater relevance in the hilly city of Jos to global fame. Currently, their longevity on the contemporary music scene is almost unrivalled; stadium-packed headlining performances and collaborations with American superstars Akon, T.I. and Rick Ross have also become the norm for them.
The name of the duo? You guessed it already – P-Square.
For reality show alumni who have neither label support nor a contingency plan, a hustle mentality and a grit to grind unendingly is necessary to get a seat in the front row of the industry, says Osikhena ‘Osi Suave’ Dirisu of The Beat 99.9 FM.
‘They don’t hustle enough because they believe the market has accepted them.’
A case study is OC Ukeje, winner of the second season of Amstel Malta Box Office in 2007. Despite also winning the ‘Best Upcoming Actor’ award in the 2008 edition of the African Movie Academy Awards, he refused to rest on his laurels and set about conquering the industry with a mix of luck, hard work and dedication to improving his craft. Almost a decade later, he is a bonafide A-lister and one of the most popular actors in Africa.
‘Many are called but few are chosen, by the masses, the people that is. One has to have that ‘je ne sais quoi’ factor coupled with drive, determination and tenacity and this combination is simply rare’, adds Chichi Nwoko.
‘Winning does not exempt them from challenges, but sometimes I feel winners have a false sense of entitlement that proves detrimental to their success. All the reality show and the brand can do is create opportunity.’
‘What if there was no opportunity?’ she asks rhetorically.
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