Mo Abudu

Mo Abudu: ‘Fifty’ Shades of Africana [INTERVIEW]

The CEO of the Nigeria-based EbonyLife TV (Africa’s first global entertainment network) speaks directly about the channel’s goals for diaspora dominance

by Suede, December 17, 2015

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Mo Abudu

Mo Abudu

Half a yellow sun cuts through the golden haze hanging over Victoria Island like a flaming cycloptic eye. It’s a hot afternoon after the previous night’s Nigerian premiere of Fifty, and its producer, media mogul Mosunmola Abudu, is resplendent in her air conditioned, up-market apartment in the affluent Lagos neighborhood of Ikoyi.

Caressed by a low-cut, diaphanous dress, her silhouette accentuated by exotic print and popping tropical color, Abudu’s hotline blings with incessant phone calls from well-wishers and promises of new business. Today, her demanding role as the founder and chief executive of EbonyLife TV—Africa’s first global Black entertainment and lifestyle network—includes a conversation with EBONY.com over steaming dishes of Jollof rice, plantains, fish pepper soup, beef stew, Egusi and accompanying red wine.

“I’m relieved that it’s all done,” Mo Abudu offers. “I’m a perfectionist, but I have to stop sweating the small stuff. What I find amazing is that the rest of the world doesn’t know how [Nigerians] live, and that always gives me the extra stress of showcasing who we are.” With that, she continues fielding questions with the laissez-faire attitude of an oracle secure in her end game.

“I’m relieved that it’s all done,” Mo Abudu offers. “I’m a perfectionist, but I have to stop sweating the small stuff. What I find amazing is that the rest of the world doesn’t know how [Nigerians] live, and that always gives me the extra stress of showcasing who we are.” With that, she continues fielding questions with the laissez-faire attitude of an oracle secure in her end game.

Mo Abudu: I give God all glory that it’s done and it went well. It’s important for the world to see the other side of Africa. What is reported is never balanced and very one-sided.

EBONY: What is the rest of the world missing out on?

MA: What you saw [at the Fifty premiere] was not a pretend. That’s how those people live their lives. That’s how they dress. They’re used to walking on the red carpet. People outside of this environment in the diaspora don’t fully understand that. They kinda think we are still running around in loincloth.

EBONY: And that’s why you founded EbonyLife?

MA: Exactly! It was important to me to change the narrative. It’s important because it has an impact on everything you do. It doesn’t matter who you are or what business you are running. You would always be seen as some African from the bush trying to run a bank, etc. But we do these things successfully and we shouldn’t be seen as second rate. That is the message that we are putting out there.

I founded EbonyLife to change the narrative, to balance the narrative. When I interviewed Hillary Clinton many years ago and asked how we change this stereotypical view the world had of Africa, her response was that more people like me had to speak on behalf of Africa.

My point about an African from the bush trying to run a bank, fashion line, music label, PR company, etc. is that we have a very talented resource group of individuals who are well travelled, highly experienced, and whose organizational effort and brands may be discounted because of these stereotypical views the world holds.

EBONY: As a newly anointed media mogul, what are some of the challenges you face?

MA: There aren’t enough people in the media creation space. There aren’t enough people making premium quality programming. That’s how we change the narrative. There is programming out there that is not reflective of the continent, and we at EbonyLife are producing content that is Afropolitan, has the look and feel of content that can travel, and showcases and celebrates the best of our continent in a variety of genres.

EBONY: What are your thoughts on Hollywood?

MA: Whenever Hollywood makes films about us, it’s 12 Years a Slave or The Butler or The Help. That is not the sum total of who we are as a people. Don’t we live ordinary lives that can be made into stories about our pure existence? There’s a movie made in Hollywood every day about somebody who lives next door to somebody and falling in love or divorce, living their day-to-day existence, creating something, overcoming something, etc. I want to see films that are reflective of my today.

EBONY: EbonyLife TV screens in 49 African countries, the Caribbean, the U.K. on both TalkTalk TV and Lebara Play and Canada via Ethnic Channels Group. Yet America is still untouched. How are you changing perceptions of Africa in the U.S. without distribution?

MA: That’s what I’m currently working at. I can’t say too much now. But I have been in talks and have sat down with a few of the bigger international platforms and distributors. I want to make this channel grow. This is not a mom-and-pop shop. I would like it to grow. But I don’t have all the necessary resources to make that happen. We have invested substantial amounts in EbonyLife TV and EbonyLife Films, but it will require more equity investments to take our business to a truly global level.

The only way it can grow is if someone believes that an African programming needs to travel. I currently own a larger percentage but I’m happy to let part of that go, because it’s not about how much I own, but the value that other parties will bring to the table. There are many African brands that want a global presence, that want to engage with Africans in the diaspora and even non-Africans. We want to help African brands engage in this space.

EBONY: This is your passion project and yet you’re not afraid of losing that much of a percentage?

MA: So long as it says that I remain in management control, so that the vision is not lost. I’m 52. Do I want to be working when I’m 60? Sign me to a 10-year contract, and when the time is up, let me go.

EBONY: Many criticized Bob Johnson for selling BET and selling out the Black community. Do you feel like you could invest so much time in creating a platform for the liberation of the African image and just walk away?

MA: BET must have a strategy and a target market, right? We have to give Viacom that credit. It may not appeal to some, but there is a demographic. Otherwise they’d be out of business.

EBONY: But what is your strategy?

MA: We can change the narrative about Africa with content. We have about 30 different programs on the channel: drama, reality, music, health, wellness, talk, factual and more. Check the schedule. We even did our own Desperate Housewives Africa.

EBONY: How did buying the license for Desperate Housewives help to change the old African narrative?

MA: Because we Africanized it. Africa has great writers, but limited great writers. So it’s easier to Africanize something that already works. A number of our local scriptwriters are giving me James Bond budget scenes that I can’t afford to produce. I don’t have a James Bond budget!

When we purchased Desperate Housewives, we thought: we can do this. Same storyline, but with slight adjustments to fit Nigerian society. The script basically remained the same. That made me realize that those challenges that we face as a people are always the same. Even if it’s in a subliminal way, it is about producing programming on the platform that changes the African narrative.

EBONY: You had a successful human resources company and booming real estate interests. Why go into television?

MA: I don’t know. I guess somewhere deep down in my soul, I’ve always wanted to change that narrative. When you think long and hard about it, I’ve been a brand ambassador for Nigeria since I was age 11. Born in England, came back to Nigeria at age 7 and went back age 11, and then growing up in the U.K., I’ve had to defend Nigeria. And when I was 40, I finally woke up and decided to do something, and that’s how the talk show came about.

We cover and discuss a variety of topics, from celebrating our stars and leaders to day-to-day topics that deal with relationships, abuse, divorce and more. In our society, women have no outlet for these things. The only outlet is often the church, but by dealing with a number of sensitive issues, we engage with NGOs, civil society and more, and this provides an outlet. The church can’t handle everything. I saw a gap.

EBONY: So you fill gaps.

MA: I look at Nigeria and say, “Do you see opportunity or do you see challenge?” I see an opportunity in every challenge. I wake and say, “why didn’t somebody do this?” or “why isn’t somebody doing that?” Why isn’t there a cool channel talking to the 18 to 34-year-olds? The biggest advertising brands have the biggest advertising budgets, and no one is talking to them. Why isn’t anybody doing that? It didn’t make sense to me that no one was doing that except the music channels. And you can’t watch music all day.

EBONY: Do you think African Americans are missing out?

MA: I think anyone who isn’t investing in Nigeria is missing out. If you look at Nigeria today, literally all of the business class cabins are full of foreigners, because these guys see opportunity. But I think anyone that comes to Nigeria has to offer value. What value are you bringing? There are Black Americans here. I think we’ve moved beyond that Africans vs. African Americans. They may have more issues with us than we do with them.

EBONY: What does intention mean for you?

MA: I am very driven. I do believe in what I call “the G factor.” I must be spirit-led. We had for weeks expected the minister of information and culture, Mr. Lai Mohammed, at our Fifty premiere, and last minute he cancelled. Of course I was concerned about this. Equally I understood his reasons. But I did what I do best: I got on my knees and handed it over to God and said, “God, if Fifty is your making, he must come.” I got a call the next day, the day of the premiere, that he was on his way to Lagos from Abuja. I call that the hand of God, I call that divine, I call that God’s love. Those are the kind of things that give the necessary backing to know you’re on the right track.

EBONY: What is the next step?

MA: Could be more films. Could be more channels. Sometimes you don’t know what it is. Sometimes it comes to you when you pray.

EBONY: Are you keeping your cards close to your chest?

MA: Well, I’d like to serve my country in the future. I love Nigeria and I look forward to the future.

EBONY: So your show, The Governor—about the first female governor in Nigeria—could be subliminal propaganda for your political career?

MA: The Governor has been on our drawing board for the last three year. The Governor will give many women the courage to take the right steps in their chosen fields. The Governor could be the catalyst for many women!

Suede has spent a decade between the Americas, South Africa and Tanzania creating content for print, TV, radio and digital media. His interests include photography, pop culture, social media and travel. Follow him on Twitter @iamsuede.

 
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