What’s up Ikenna? Up and close with the prince of satirical comedy
For years now, Ikenna Azuike has had thousands of fans choking with laughter, thanks to his stirringly clever, satirical comedy show, What’s Up Africa, in which he takes relatable and thought-provoking swipes on diverse issues concerning Africa – from politics, media to religion. Now the YouTube hit is going global and has even found a new high-profile home, BBC World TV. New African’s Belinda Otas caught up with a man many fans describe as an “African institution” in his own right. Photos by Anne-Clare de Breij.
It is a no-holds-barred, uproariously funny political and social satire where no-one and no subject is off limits – from African presidents to feminism; from pop culture to media sensationalism; and it would be incomplete to leave out Nigerian evangelical pastors.
In his sketches, Azuike, who is a qualified lawyer, is a master of lampooning and a fearless wit on African political affairs, which puts What’s Up Africa in a total league of its own.
Although every sketch entertainingly pokes fun at its subject matter, the show’s main premise is to evoke and shape thought-provoking conversations about Africa and its diaspora, its people and its leaders – be it presidents, pastors, even traditional rulers. He tells New African:
“As banal as it sounds, I can’t stand injustice. It annoys me. It irks me. And the themes that I talk about on the show, such as press freedom, abuses of human rights, corruption, the politicisation of religion and so on, are exactly the themes that the organisation which produces my show, RNW.org, is 100% dedicated to addressing. So there is a natural fit there too. We want to make it possible to talk about traditionally taboo subjects.”
And indeed, What’s Up Africa has become a household staple in both Africa and its diaspora, besides being an internet sensation, where the heart of the programme – you may have guessed it by now – is humour, his weapon of choice, which he describes as a very powerful tool for any satirist.
“With just a few jokes it is possible to make someone’s air of intimidation and power evaporate,” he says and perhaps DRCongo’s President Joseph Kabila would identify with that, if he discovered the episode entitled, “Joseph Kabila: The Lonely President”, in which Azuike provokes debate about how Kabila – and by extension other over-stayer African presidents – tries to hold on to power further by any means.
Challenging myopic narratives
“When you do that, people feel more comfortable with asking critical questions and demanding change,” says the ebullient funnyman and chuckles: “Plus, I get to wear false teeth, wigs, cowboy hats, dresses, school blazers, generals’ outfits and bras stuffed with t-shirts and socks, all in the name of comedy. Who wouldn’t want to dress up for a living?”
Although he draws some inspiration from America’s The Daily Show, hosted by the satirist Jon Stewart, Azuike has great admiration for Africa’s own political satirists, such as cartoonists Zapiro and Gado. “The continent has a rich history of satire and I feel honoured to now be a part of pushing that tradition forward,” he says, but emphasises how he also wants to keep challenging the never-ending myopic and monolithic, single-story narrative about Africa in mainstream Western media: “I have been frustrated with the clichéd way(s) Africa is still portrayed in Western media,” he says.
Nigerian-born, British-raised and Netherlands-based with his law practice, Azuike describes Africa’s news coverage in the Western world as still being “too focused on presenting images of war, famine and general disorder or on the other hand providing over-the-top, saccharine reports of Africa’s progress.”
He explain his point: “At one end of the scale, I am referring to the clichéd stories like that of South Sudan, Africa’s youngest nation, which collapsed within weeks of being born. But although media coverage is of lurid descriptions of violence, there is usually little analysis of the reasons why things happened [the way they did] and the role the international community played.” He adds: “At the other end of the scale, someone else is trotting out the tired ‘Africa Rising’ headlines and in some cases using the same old stories – like, that of the success of mobile phone banking in Kenya. If I had €1 for every Dutch article I have read that mentioned their ‘exclusive story’ on the success of m-pesa in Kenya, I would have, well, maybe €25.”
Hence he feels the need to throw something different about Africa into the media melee: “I had seen how effective satire could be in engaging young people on important topics, especially through incorporating comedy sketches. I have always loved satirical TV shows and cartoons, and current affairs in general. This, combined with my love of comedy and my frustration when I see people abusing their power, meant that a satirical video blog was a natural home for me.”
As for the colourful nature of the show, he is quick to point out: “I wanted something fast-paced, visual, and suitable for Africa’s digital, m-pesa using generation. You see, now I am even doing it myself! Bloody m-pesa!”
What will your parents say?
What’s Up Africa was launched in 2011, and has gone on to define a niche market for itself, garnering a loyal YouTube audience that eagerly anticipates the weekly V-logs, which now also air on RNW.
When New African asks him a classic and popular question in many African households – how challenging was it to convince your Nigerian dad that you should quit law, let alone that doing satire/comedy could pay the bills? – he explains, punctuating his answer with jokes:
“It was a battle I knew I would never win, so I set my bar low. The first challenge was just to ensure he wouldn’t change the locks and I would be let back into the house. Just kidding. I know my parents love me no matter what, and that the reason they worry is because they only want the very best for me. It was (in fact, is) still painful to know that my dad is disappointed with my decision to leave the legal profession, even though he can see how much happier and more fulfilled I feel. But I am, as they say, a grown-ass-man so it’s something I need to accept. I will. One day.
Cue violins. I know I’ve chosen a non-standard career path but I’ve loved every minute and I hope I continue to do so. Who knows, maybe in 20 years if I’m still around I will be a Hummer-driving, whiskey- drinking, tobacco-chewing, climate change denialist, Republican [laughs]. I doubt it somehow, but who knows…”
But, noticed? Azuike is getting noticed. What’s Up Africa has already now been scooped up by the BBC World Service’s flagship news programme Focus on Africa and has since January this year, been airing on the global channel once every week, to high acclaim.
Since its inception, the show has evolved in style, content and approach, and as Azuike explains, the “focus is now almost exclusively on political satire of African news events.” However, he still puts Western media on full blast when there are news stories that “portray glaring inaccuracies, obvious journalistic laziness and/or lack of curiosity.”
Ideally, wear your big boy or big girl pants when you go online for a dose of What’s Up Africa. Azuike’s ability to impersonate diverse characters and personalities, and make caricatures of otherwise serious news and current affairs topics could offend if you are easily irked. Nevertheless, it is all in good faith as the show’s success has also left the young satirist “amazed by the response and level of engagement” from the audience.
“The comments I receive across social media are still overwhelmingly positive. Though it may sound cheesy, that sort of feedback inspires me to continue trying to make my show better, more provocative and more relevant.”
As part of Europe’s African diaspora community, Azuike admits to being “incredibly concerned” when the show started because “I didn’t know how I would be received as a commentator on African affairs, having lived outside the continent for so many years and with my British accent. Nevertheless, I think and hope that people see that I care passionately about the subjects I talk about.” Well, he does not have to wait too long for further confirmation about the impact he is having. If you need any further proof that satirists and comedy shows really do have the ability to rattle those in power, then What’s Up Africa is where to look.
You have to generate reaction
The show’s recent episode, Whose Side are Kenya’s Police On (about the Kenyan police’s handling of the Langata Road primary school children fiasco, where tear-gas was used on pupils protesting the loss of their playground to a property developer) touched some raw and sensitive nerves in Kenya’s echelons of power. They came calling.
“One purpose of satire is to generate a reaction and we seem to be doing that, though of course it’s not always positive! The Kenyan police didn’t like the episode I made about them and they contacted the BBC’s local office for a right of reply – that’s incredible,” says Azuike.
Since, as Azuike admits, he has editorial freedom with the show’s content, one of its hallmarks is because nothing is off-limits, no-one is untouchable – presidents or revered African pastors.
However, he is also attuned to the need for pragmatism in order to ensure the message does not get lost. “How I deal with certain stories may of course require differing levels of sensitivity. Unlike some, I do feel there are certain limits to satire. Aside from obvious legal limitations, I don’t believe in senseless provocation just to get a few laughs. I have learned that it’s fairly easy to get a laugh, but it’s supremely difficult to make witty satire. That’s the challenge I set myself every time I start making a new episode.”
One factor that has played a critical role since the inception of What’s Up Africa is social media. It is a tool Azuike recognises has aided his brand. “There were plenty of satirists and comedians talking about provocative issues in Africa, but no one, as far as I was aware, was doing it online in the form of a video blog,” he says.
By going down the route of new media, Azuike was able to connect with Africa’s young demographic; a group he felt was marginalised by traditional news media. With over 200,000 Facebook subscribers and counting, Azuike said:
“Social media has allowed my content to be shared, talked about, liked, disliked, and discussed. It gave me the opportunity to connect with my audience, get their feedback and see that there was an appetite for what I was doing. Crucially, it also gave me the opportunity to start with a very small budget.”
The way Africa’s story is being told within the global media landscape is “definitely changing and a big reason for the change is the internet,” he asserts, adding: “There are lots more bloggers and satirists, and more money is being invested in the Africa desks of Western media houses and local media entrepreneurs in Africa are seeing commercial opportunities for their own media platforms.
“But the continent still needs a billionaire or two to stand up and back a truly pan-African-focussed media house. The impact of that would be tremendous.”
Responsibility and editorial freedom
The question remains, have Azuike and What’s Up Africa succeeded in telling their own version of the African story?
“I once gave a talk in Angola in which I had some slides that made some irreverent remarks about the Angolan president and the organisers asked me to remove them because they feared others would get into trouble with the government. I realised at that moment the level of responsibility I have with what I am doing. I feel a responsibility to try and tell stories and share opinions that some people are unable to tell or share locally because of the fear of being arrested or beaten.
“Sure, I want to entertain people and make people laugh, but knowing that my work plays a part (albeit small) in providing a critical, not patronising or disingenuous, narrative about African news is rewarding.
“Overall, I’m happy with what the show has achieved so far, but I still have a long way to go. In the future I would love to have a longer show, which allows me to interview guests doing exciting things, young charismatic entrepreneurial Africans from the political scene, as well as the scientific and creative world.
On this dream show, I would be the presenter working with “correspondents” from East, West, South and North Africa. Does this format sound familiar? Why not have a sub-Saharan-focussed TV hit like The Daily Show? It’s nice to dream, right? A truly pan-African satirical show would definitely be worth the effort!”
But what does it take to come up with and execute such topical and hard-hitting sketches?
“Editorial freedom helps and that means I am able to cover stories that I care about, [and] stories that frustrate me and trigger an urge in me, a need to talk. Sometimes an idea of how I can make a particular news story funny will pop straight into my head, other times it will require me to puzzle for hours, or days. For the first 3 years I made the show together with just my cameraman, a colleague and friend, Sandesh Bhugaloo, but now I am blessed to be able to work with an extremely talented BBC news producer, Kathy Harcombe, and two wonderful writers, Mollie Balogun (who also performs) and Okechukwu Ofili. Every episode is now most definitely a team effort,” he explains.
Azuike cannot help himself but be humorous at every chance he gets. And his natural laugh is as infectious as it is hearty. As we conclude our interview there is no doubt left as to why Azuike made the list of New African’s Most Influential Africans of 2014.
If you have an appetite for great African satire and it is insatiable, What’s Up Africa has all the ingredients to help you satisfy that – all you need is a good stomach to hold the serious message that the show is all about.
Tune in and get your dose because the Prince of African Satire has truly arrived.