Tonjé Bakang, 33, was beautifully poisoned by Black American culture at an early age. As a teenager growing up in France during the late 1990s, he was exposed to VHS and DVD copies of The Cosby Show and Roots brought home from the US and Canada by visiting relatives. These shows had a lasting effect on his developing psychology and worldview.
The result is a career steeped in the continued sharing of the pan-African experience. Tonjé Bakang went on to become a photographer of album covers for French artists Fawkoju, Ankhre and La Nocturne; creator of France’s first urban comedy series, Comic Street Show; a producer of television and theatre; and creator of Afrostream, a company poised to change the landscape of pay per view in France and Francophone Africa.
Bakang is currently in negotiations to set up shop in Silicon Valley. As the rising CEO of Afrostream, he discusses overcoming obstacles, creating a tech startup valued at over $6 million, and the future of content.
EBONY: Your drive to bring legal African-American film and TV content to Europe is refreshing and long overdue. What was your first introduction to these shows?
Tonjé Bakang: During the summer and Christmas holidays, we would all be together as a family watching DVDs and VHSs of Def Comedy Jam and episodes of The Jamie Foxx Show, Martin, The Fresh Prince, Moesha, The Cosby Show and the Roots miniseries, all without subtitles.
It showed me that we are connected as African-Americans and Afro-Europeans and Africans. I believe that we are bound together. I believe from the bottom of my heart that we are all bound. We have this invisible connection because we share the same cultural heritage.
Watching those shows, I realized we have the same sense of humor. The way we interact in our families is kind of the same. It was so different from the TV shows we see in France. For us it was a relief. We did not see ourselves on television in France. Not like this. This was positive. This was empowering.
EBONY: Your parents are in medicine—your father is a doctor and your mother a nurse. Both are very active in the community in France and Cameroon. How did they respond to your entertainment dream?
TB: All of us, my siblings and I, are entrepreneurs. I feel that my father did not grow up to leave his country and work hard to win a scholarship and become one of the first Black doctors in France for me to grow up and do nothing. My parents developed a strong sense in us to help other people. This is not [as much] about entertainment as it is about helping everyone.
It was time for me to do something for the Afro-Europeans, for the children of Africa. The youth on the continent are about 70 percent of the population. I wanted to do something for African-Americans. There are so many stories that people don’t know about: Africa before colonization, when there were kings and queens; the stories of Africans in Europe before colonization; the African-American inventors, not the same stories of Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I want to make inspiring stories about ordinary people. Who will make these stories?
EBONY: The entertainment industry has its share of roadblocks and pitfalls. How have you dealt with failure?
TB: I was so inspired by Def Comedy Jam and Bad Boys of Comedy. I wanted do the same thing. I started Comic Street Show for urban comedians. It was the first of its kind in France. I was young. I didn’t have money. No one had my back. A famous comedian here took my project away from me and made [it] into a successful TV show. It was easy for him, because he was rich. It was a failure for me.
Based on the success of Comic Street Show, I got a development deal to do a TV show. It was a mix of Everybody Hates Chris and Seinfeld. It didn’t work. They didn’t flight it. So once again I was a failure.
My mother always told me: when you have talent, it’s not about using it one time and then you are done. It’s about failure and your ability to get up again. In the media, when you don’t have a job, no one wants to do anything with you anymore. You may be the same guy, with the same great ideas in your head, but when you don’t have a job, no one wants to work with you.
When people do well, they say, “Hey look at me. Look how smart I am. I did this because I’m so great.” But not for me. I was lucky, my parents raised us to be entrepreneurs. So I knew it was part of the game. I had to build something new from the ground up for the people I care about. After my successful stint with a good friend’s theatre company, I began working on Afrostream.
EBONY: How did the idea for Afrostream come about?
TB: I traveled a lot in Asia. Thailand, Malaysia. Every time I was there, I saw that in the middle of Asia, they watched their own content. They watch their own dramas, blockbusters, TV dramas, reality TV. They didn’t care about the rest of the world. They didn’t care about Hollywood. They preferred to watch people who looked like them, who had similarity in culture to them. I was so impressed. They were watching these shows, not only on TV, but on their smartphones and tablets. I wondered, “Why are we not able to do the same?”
EBONY: Your background as a creative was not tech based. How did you bridge the gap from content creator to content platform developer?
TB: Now, every time I do a project, I want to own the tool. In this instance, the tool is the platform. I don’t do business if I can’t control the content and platform.
I was broke. I used my 10K euro savings to invest in creating Afrostream. It is easier now than five years ago to stream content, and I needed to find my alter ego in the technology sector.
I was without money but I had this idea. So I went on the Internet and googled. That’s how I found a group of people sharing their experience on a forum connected to LinkedIn. I subscribed to their forum and filed a post that I was looking for a cofounder to be my CTO.
Two hours later, I received an email from Ludovic Borstral. I told him that I didn’t have money, but I had a vision. I used my last euros to travel outside of Paris to meet him. An hour after meeting him, Ludovic was onboard. Now he is my partner. It wasn’t about money. It was about building the best team.
EBONY: What exactly is it that Afrostream proposes to do?
TB: Afrostream offers exposure and access to numerous African, African-American, Afro-Caribbean movies produced around the world through legal, transactional video on demand. For now we have a pay per view platform in France, and in a few months we will launch the subscription element: Afro films, TV series, documentaries and kids shows.
It’s not a niche market. We are not afraid that tomorrow Netflix will make a show with a Black cast. If they do, it’s a great thing for everybody. There’s a huge market. In the future, it will be easier for Black films to deal directly with us as distributors. We know the European markets.
Many filmmakers go to festivals and they may not be picked up. We want those films. Connect with us. There is no middleman. There is so much content out there. We are open to talk to everyone. We are also interested in web series. We are talking to Black and Sexy TV and are open to more.
EBONY: Now you have your dream team. You’ve proven demand. Afrostream is valued at over six million. What’s next?
TB: We are partnering with MyTF1 VOD. They are the largest network in Europe based in France. We will curate the Afro content on their video on demand service. The service began about a week ago and has already surpassed expectations for Black content here in Europe. Afrostream itself has a preexisting community of around 60,000 people. These are incredible numbers for this content in Europe.
EBONY: MyTF1 VOD is France’s most widely-distributed VOD catalogue, with multi-screen viewing and access to top American content. How did their partnership with Afrostream come about?
TB: MyTF1 VOD approached us. We are the experts in the Black market and able to give these films the attention and direction they need to do well. It is great, because they recognize us a partner and not an employee of their much larger company. We are also very excited to work with Chris Rock and offer his film, Top Five. It would ordinarily have gone directly to video on demand in France without any major marketing push without our involvement. This is a great opportunity to show African-American filmmakers that there is a market for them here.
EBONY: Are you concerned with the Internet bandwidth in Africa for your services?
TB: The bandwidth in Africa is changing so fast. There are so many companies investing in Africa and I’m very confident. In the US and Europe, mobile is the second screen. But in Africa, we will approach mobile as the first screen.
EBONY: Can positive social change be accomplished through the use of media platforms?
TB: When you drive this idea that “with content you can create change,” you change the way the world sees your people and the way your people see themselves. With that, you can change the world. By building a platform where a little Black girl can see a Black princess and begin to like her own hair, or when a little Black boy can see Black superheroes, it is huge. To inspire people, and not just Black people, it can inspire the world, it can change the world, because this generation will be inspired by that.
EBONY: What’s the endgame for Afrostream?
TB: My goal is not to become profitable too soon. My goal is to be the number one globally. We will invest a lot to have subscribers and to make content. Sixty million subscribers is our endgame.
Our first year, in the French-speaking countries in Europe and Africa, we see 100,000 subscribers. In year two, 300,000 and much more once we launch in the US. Since we are moving to the US now, we hope to begin the service before the end of the year.
I’m inspired by the entrepreneurship of Diddy, Jay Z, Oprah Winfrey, Tristan Walker, Charles King, Tyler Perry and his ability to build a studio. It’s important for me to thank them for inspiring me and in some way being a part of my energy.
Suede has spent a decade between the America, 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.