[AFRICAN CONNECTION] The Agbajes Blow Up African Pop Culture

Charles and John Agbaje

The melting pot of continental culture, made up of a mishmash of music and movies from across the African continent, has been slowly rising to a boil in recent years. In the past decade, African entertainment has reached new heights of sophistication, and Western financiers and audiences have begun to take notice.

Kanye West signed Nigeria’s D’Banj and Don Jazzy to G.O.O.D. Music. Akon has signed an all-star cast of prominent acts from across the continent. Half of a Yellow Sun, the feature film adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s evocative novel of the same name, is set for wide-release in November. And Broadway’s Fela! has wound its way around the world and back again, winning raves. This rapid development is setting the stage for the global rise of African entertainment and its emergence into the international zeitgeist.

Twenty-five year old John Agbaje went to Harvard Business School with a dream of teaming up with his 23-year-old brother, Charles. The Agbajes want to capitalize on the growth of the African entertainment industry and create a film and animation studio that produces cartoons and characters featuring African heroes on the African continent, telling African stories for a global audience.

With their first project, the brothers hope to challenge the story of a monolithic Africa “in a way that’s accessible to young audiences but deep enough for older ones.” According to John Agbaje, the pair had long watched the growth of the African entertainment space, noted the dearth on the animation side, and decided to fill that space.

“There are a few other folks that are starting to pick up on it,” Agbaje said. “So you’re starting to see things like Rise of the Orishas, a superhero live-action series based on African mythology. BET had the Black Panther series that got a decent amount of attention. The BBC has Tinga Tinga and The O Twins. Then there’s us.”

Agbaje pitched his idea, and in February 2013, the series and became the talk of Harvard’s African Business Conference, which puts young African entrepreneurs, innovators and emerging business leaders in the same space as established leaders and funders. Since then, he’s had meetings with several studios to discuss the project and its future.

On March 31, the brothers’ Kickstarter campaign wrapped up, and they successfully raised the funds to produce the pilot for a fantasy adventure cartoon called Spider Stories. The epic tale draws its plots from African mythology, features a strong female lead, and is set in a fantasy world akin to the Legend of Zelda video game series, but with a deeply African twist.

In the past decade, African entertainment has reached new heights of sophistication, and Western financiers and audiences have begun to take notice.

The Agbajes’ desire to create these cartoons is rooted in what they see as the lack of a Black superhero culture, both on the continent and abroad. “We have to recognize that culture used to flow through storytelling, and now it flows through media,” John Agbaje said. “So within the continent, we want to have images that African children can grow up with that look like them and have names like them and neighborhoods that look like theirs that they can identify with. Thirty to 40 years down the line, when they’re doctors and lawyers and presidents, the positive associations they have with the characters will be real parts of their identities,” he said.

What’s more, Blacks in the diaspora have very limited access to positive images of Africa and Africans.

“Folks in the diaspora will see that Africa is not just filled with corruption and hunger,” he continues. “They’ll have an ingrained, alternate perception of the continent. And they will feel better identifying with it, because of however many hours they spent watching Spider Stories.”

Plus, the African entertainment space is becoming increasingly profitable. The market hasn’t fully matured yet, but once it does, players with an established presence will surely reap the benefits.

Lion King was a decidedly African story, and it was one of the biggest successes in Disney’s history,” according to J. G. Ayodele, an African Media Strategist based out of Lagos, Nigeria. “It was based in Africa and featured African characters; it was wildly popular, and that success translated into big numbers,” he said.

Indeed, the African continent is home to four of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world. And as swaths of its people begin the slow climb out of poverty, there’s a desire to share their cultural experiences and stories. So the Brothers Agbaje are marching toward their goal, and if the early buzz is any indication, they’re headed toward success.

The Spider Stories pilot episode will be available in 2014; check for updates at www.centralcitytower.com.