Directing the African screen aesthetic
Meji Alabi is the director behind some of the biggest & most remarkable Afrobeats music videos, including for artists such as Tiwa Savage, Burna Boy, Jorga Smith, Davido and Nasty C, amongst many others. In doing so, the London-born, Texas and Lagos-raised, Nigerian filmmaker has directed & created work that is characteristically vibrant and dynamic as well as strikingly definitive of the modern African aesthetic.
More recently, with a nod to the indomitable Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti’s Shuffering and Shmiling, Meji shot Tiwa Savage’s 49-99 with an all African crew over one day in Lagos.
The Wire speaks with Meji about the future of the African aesthetic & the process of creating unforgettable visual work
The Wire: As a director, what is the single most important element that you are conscious of when portraying Africa to the world?
Meji: To me the single most important element would be honesty. By displaying the culture in its true light and beauty, showing off our amazing landscapes and locations andour traditions as honestly and authentically as possible is something I cherish. It’s our responsibility as directors to deliver our culture through our own focused lens.
T.W: Why do you think African culture has seen such global appeal over the last couple of years?
Meji: I think the blinders have come off in terms of the entertainment industry. With the invention of the digital camera and the Internet we can show you Africa now! It doesn’t need to be shown to us through “their” focused lens. You can easily hear our music – your uncle doesn’t have to play you an obscure CD he carried back with him. Everything is at the touch of your finger-tips.
T.W: You’ve done incredible videos for many of Africa’s major artists. Let’s take Tiwa’s 49-99 – which is a visual masterpiece. How did the concept come about?
Meji: After conversation with Tiwa and receiving a mood-board from her team I knew we had to make a huge statement. After reviewing some retro Nigerian album covers and photography, I knew I needed to have Nigerian elements embedded throughout the video but with a modern touch. Another huge inspiration was Eliot Elisofons 1972 Portraits of Congolese school girls. It felt nice to bring that reference to life with some 2020 energy!
T.W: What’s your take on Afro Futurism and how do you feel it fits into the current popular African culture paradigm?
Meji: You know I love the idea/ideas around it and I’m always bouncing concepts back and forth in my brain on how I can take on some of the more visual elements of Afro Futurism into my work. I feel like African culture is so rich as a base that when you infuse these otherworldly ideas into it, it can really transform and grow into something even more mystical. As I delve further towards narrative-driven content production, I find myself playing in that headspace more and more.
T.W: Culture is always evolving. What excites you about the longer term possibilities of African popular culture in terms of the visual medium (be it video, visual art, photography or film)?
Meji: I’m just so excited that I and so many other filmmakers with powerful stories to tell are getting the opportunities and the funding to have their voices heard. That is the most exciting thing to me. A few years ago, these worlds weren’t accessible for us. This is such an incredible time. I want us to get our voices out there so we can open more doors for more young African voices to do their thing too. It’s more about the ability to change lives. Filmmaking and Photography changed my life – I’d love to see creativity change other’s lives too.
T.W: What’s your favourite movie ever?
Meji: I just thought about this the other day. And I have to say it’s Gladiator. It really did change my life when I watched it as a boy. I loved it. I love director Ridley Scott’s versatility.
T.W: Where would you like to go from here career-wise?
Meji: I want to make movies now! The music video and commercial hustle is fun. But an hour or two of my work on screens worldwide is what I want to work on next. But…baby steps. Maybe.
C.S.A.’s monthly cultural portal, The WIRE connects the dots of culture. With concise stories, many with video content, take a premium dive into the world of African entertainment & cultural fluidity. It’s one thing to be hip to what’s happening but it is another to know why.