Mo Abudu does not wait for permission


LONDON – Mo Abudu has always understood the power of storytelling and the impact of its absence. Growing up here as the daughter of Nigerian parents, she was asked mind-boggling questions about her time in Africa, especially if she danced around a fire or lived in a tree.

“I never learned anything about the history of Africa,” she said on a recent video call. And, on the home TV screen, a lack of representation of anyone who looked like him also left its mark.

“It affected me so much that I felt like I didn’t count,” said Abudu, 57, who has since become the kind of media mogul who can do anything. “So you always felt the need to overcompensate by telling everyone who wanted to listen to you who you are.”

Decades later, Abudu is listening to the world. His company, EbonyLife Media, has produced some of the biggest television and box office hits in Nigerian history. The Hollywood Reporter named her one of the “25 Most Powerful Women in World Television” and she was invited this year to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

And last summer, EbonyLife became the first African media company to sign a multi-title film and television deal with Netflix. The first of these TV titles to launch new episodes in the United States, the Nigerian “Castle & Castle” legal proceeding, arrived last week. (Netflix picked it up from season 2; season 1 debuted in 2018 on the now defunct EbonyLife streaming network.)

In separate interviews – one by video last month from his home in Lagos, Nigeria, and the other last summer in person, in a park near his second home, north London – Abudu spoke the whirlwind of recent years and the challenges of building a media empire. It was all part, she said, of her quest to “sell Africa to the world”, with high quality – and locally made – productions.

“I think people are tired of telling stories, to some extent, of the West because you see the same stories over and over again – can I have something new, something fresh?” she said. “And I think the likes of Netflix figured it out.”

Born in London, Abudu was sent by her parents to Nigeria at the age of 7 to live with her grandmother in Ondo, a town about 140 miles northeast of Lagos. Back in Britain at age 11, she said: “I found out that I have become a bit like an unofficial ambassador.”

Growing up, black faces were almost non-existent in the on-screen entertainment she had access to. Those that she remembered were few, including in the 1980s television series “Fame,” which briefly led her to dream of being a dancer; and in the iconic 1977 miniseries “Roots”, about the history of American slavery, which she said left her in tears after every episode.

At 30, after a brief modeling career, she returned to Nigeria with the aim of seizing the professional opportunities that she saw open up in her homeland. Eventually, she rose through the ranks to become head of human resources for Exxon Mobil, but she couldn’t shake an ambition she had had since childhood: to tell the modern story of Nigeria to herself, and ultimately to the rest of the world.

Having no experience in the industry, she bought an Oprah Winfrey box set, enrolled in a TV presentation course and developed a business plan, before creating the first Pan-African daily talk show, “Moments With Mo “. She quickly earned the unofficial title of “Africa’s Answer to Oprah”.

Along the way, certain obstacles proved to be stubborn. Abudu was discriminated against on three fronts, she said: “You face inequality and racism because you are black. You face it because you are African. You face it because you are a woman. It happens every moment. “

Every moment she won. As Abudu contemplated her growing role in an evolving media landscape, a guest on her chat-show couch said some particularly inspiring words: Hillary Clinton, who at the time of the interview, in 2009, was secretary of State.

“I told him, ‘Stereotypical Africa is disease, despair, destitution, deception – why is that?’ Said Abudu, paraphrasing the conversation. And she said, ‘Mo, more and more voices like yours need to speak on behalf of Africa. “”

Abudu’s takeaways? “If you don’t take responsibility for changing the narrative, when you leave your narration to someone else, you can’t blame them,” she said.

By 2013, “Moments” had made Abudu a household name in Nigeria. Seeing opportunities, Abudu took full advantage of Winfrey and launched a pan-African television network: EbonyLife TV. In 2020, Abudu’s parent company, EbonyLife Media, ditched its TV channel to focus on a model based on partnerships with some of the world’s biggest streamers and studios.

Today, in addition to what Abudu described as “over 30 deals” to be announced, EbonyLife Media has contracts with Sony Pictures Television, AMC and Westbrook Studios, the production company founded by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. .

“I’ve been knocking on these international doors since day one,” she said, “but you know people weren’t ready to listen.”

When EbonyLife TV started in 2013, the mission centered around lifestyle programming that showcased the burgeoning cosmopolitan continent of the 21st century. But Abudu gradually tightened his muscles and broadened his creative palette.

“Castle & Castle,” which Abudu co-created and produced by the executive, concerns a Lagos law firm run by a husband and wife, whose respective affairs threaten to destroy their marriage. With this series, Abudu wanted to focus on specific legal issues in Nigeria. In one episode, for example, “there’s a case around lesbianism,” she said. “It is actually still illegal to have a same-sex relationship in Nigeria.

Other projects include a Sony Pictures Television series on the historic all-female West African army known as Dahomey Warriors; the dystopian series “Nigeria 2099”, which will debut on AMC; the Netflix Original film “Oloture”, released last year, which explores human trafficking and forced prostitution; and the 2022 film “Blood Sisters”, also for Netflix, which portrays drug addiction and domestic violence beyond class lines in Nigeria.

“What unites them,” Ben Amadasun, Netflix Africa Content Director, said of some of the Netflix titles, “is the unique ability of Mo and his EbonyLife team to portray the realities of Nigerian everyday life and to bring a unique perspective to each character. “

Other productions underway with Netflix include an adaptation of “Death and the King’s Rider,” the 1975 play by Wole Soyinka, the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature; as well as an adaptation of the novel by Nigerian author Lola Shoneyin “The Secret Lives of Women by Baba Segi”.

“I am a huge admirer,” Shoneyin said on a video call from her home in Lagos. Shoneyin had turned down several accommodation offers since the publication of “Secret Lives” in 2010, she said, but Abudu “really wooed me.”

“It was very important to me that the story was first told by an African who I knew would understand the book and the characters almost instinctively,” added Shoneyin. “But also because I wanted the story to be told in the tradition of African storytelling.”

Considering Abudu’s attitude and ethics, she certainly did the trick.

“Gone are the days when you could only force feed me with American content,” Abudu said. “They don’t have all the stories to tell in this world. They have had their fair share of telling them.

Abudu has made Nigeria her base and focus so far, but she is not restricting her horizons. (She already employs around 200 staff in her Lagos organizations, which include the EbonyLife Creative Academy film school and EbonyLife Place, a hotel, cinema and restaurant complex.) She also wants to tell stories from South Africa. , Kenya, Ghana and Ethiopia. .

This could be good news for the rest of the continent. Ultimately, she said, she would like her main contribution to be a “complete storytelling ecosystem” – generating jobs for everyone from cameramen to costume designers – whose productions can showcase brands and African talents on continents beyond.

It does not exclude a move to the United States. But if she does, it is only a means to an end – in an area where she has already made great strides.

“I will never be lost in my roots,” she said. “It’s not possible, even though I live, work and breathe in Hollywood; they can’t get me to the point where I never forget where I’m from.

“I think it’s important because in making this transition I’m taking a whole bunch of people with me on this journey.”


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