Atunyota Alleluya Akporobomerere better known by his showbiz moniker, Ali Baba, remains an idol in the fledgling humour industry. The top comedian speaks to LANRE ODUKOYA about the recently concluded music awards, The Headies co-inciding with his show, Ali Baba Spontaneity, his family, turning 50, his work with successive governments among sundry issues.
Didn’t you entertain fears that The Headies awards would reduce your guests when it clashed with Ali Baba’s January 1st Spontaneity Show?
I had no fears at all. I’m part of The Headies; I’m like a non-executive director of the awards. Ayo Animashaun, the brain behind the show, is like a younger brother as well. And we were working hard to see how he could get his equipment out from the vessel; the stage was shipped in from outside Nigeria. The unfortunate thing was that it landed when we had public holidays. The public holidays affected him because he couldn’t get his props delivered early enough through the Nigerian Customs officials and the agents to have The Headies hold at the first date it show was slated for. We were trying to avoid a situation of not holding The Headies twice in a year because we didn’t have the awards in 2015.
We had it in 2016, and it won’t be right to have the second one much later in 2016. So, Ayo, I and many other friends made calls to see if it was possible to get it sorted out. By the way, there were people’s flown in from outside the country to set up the venue, so instead of finishing the job on December 30, 2015 and go back, they had to wait till January 2. So, the only date we could settle for was January 1; by December 30, Ali Baba January 1 show was already sold out. There were two different target markets; our show was for corporate Nigeria: captains of industries, leaders of thought, families, directors, directorates, company chairmen and so on were buying tables. Our market was customer-based unlike The Headies market that was a controlled audience. People were invited for the Headies whereas we were selling tables. I worked with Animashaun; even on the day of the show I went to the hall to see how it was going for The Headies. So, there was no clash really because of our different target markets.
There was a fall-out that literally took the shine off other events that night at The Headies, what’s your take on the dramas that almost marred the show?
All I can tell you is that the matter has been resolved. And we’re working to ensure it doesn’t repeat itself. I’m not going to start taking sides. I won’t say anything that will offend people’s sensibilities. I spoke with Olamide and Don Jazzy and I know the matter has been resolved.
Would you conclude that you’re actually living your dream at this point in your life?
Well, I’m not living a nightmare on the other hand. My career has taken me to point where there’s hardly anything that I want to do that I cannot achieve with the career that I’ve had. I can say that dreams are hopes and anticipation that you want to achieve; so if I hope to drive a car, I can afford it. If I wish to go to the UK and spend a week, I can afford it. So, there are very few things that I may desire in my life that I will not be able to achieve at this point in my career.
Did you believe you would attain this height from those days when you were a hustler at the Lagos Bar Beach?
I knew that I would make it, but I didn’t know that I would make it this big. I didn’t think that the impact would be this strong. I just knew that the economic dynamics were just straight. I was in school and my allowance was between N120 and N150. And then I started doing shows and I could earn more than that.
After 27 years, you’ve helped grow an industry where players become rich and famous; so jealousy sets in with factions here and there. In nearly three decades, don’t you think the industry deserves a regulatory body?
There are no factions – all I see is like minds coming together. It happens in music, rap artistes would like to relate with rap artistes, juju musicians would like to relate with juju musicians. So, what happens is that a few comedians figure that these are the kinds of people I can relate with. For instance it’s a commonplace that if the comedians you roll with are the ones who like smoking, you guys will have a common ground and the same goes for those who like drinking. If you like clubbing, you also have a common ground. In the case of Holy Mallam for instance, he doesn’t drink and doesn’t smoke, so it would be hard for you to see him have a clique that does all those other things. Even water finds its level. It’s different characters in the business and everybody relates differently. The good thing is that we’re comedians and we relate well. I hardly think that the faction is anything other than ‘you’re not in my group- I’m not in your group’, but it’s not for words to be exchanged. Really, nearly all of them relate with me and I relate with them well and they don’t expose those supposed factions to me. I hear about them, but if I invite any of those they say are in different factions, they come to my house and they don’t exhibit any of the divisions.
Are any of your kids taking after you in the comedy industry?
None of them takes after me, except you talk about them taking after me in my love of sports, artworks, paintings – my daughter paints, sings and writes. Another daughter of mine is into fashion, another one sings and she’s into broadcasting. But one common thing with them is that they all have a great sense of humour, but none is doing anything commercially.
You were able to influence so many young Nigerians to love and accept comedy as a vocation, why is it impossible for you to win the hearts of your children to choose comedy?
Initially, they didn’t think it was worth it because they didn’t think that there was money in it. But by the time, they’d realised it, they had made individual choices in other areas. But they have a great sense of humour and that’s as far as they’re influenced. None of them is looking to becoming the next Ali Baba nonetheless.
You’ve made remarks about some comedians lifting jokes of others…
Yes, I did because it’s just like someone in the automobile trade, if you start selling cars today and somebody sees that the business is doing very well, the next day he goes ahead and open a shop. Somebody started making plantain chips and shortly after, every other person wants to make plantain chips. So, there are people who also go into fashion because they hear somebody is making so much money from it. You will see that some people don’t have sufficient talent to be in the industry and there are others who are just mentally lazy, they’re the ones who don’t have original jokes they can lay claim to. This is one of the reasons I started the Ali Baba Spontaneity show. Youtube and the other social media platforms are helping us greatly.
You find out that once a comedian has done a joke and uploaded it, everybody knows that the comedian is the owner of the joke, so not many people will like to pick the joke anymore. Before now, because there was nothing that recorded the jokes, comedians just picked anybody’s jokes and used them. So, if the guy is in Port Harcourt and the owner of the jokes had performed them in Lagos, he will tell the jokes there till he gets other fresh ones and continues to tell them. So, if the owner of the joke goes to Port Harcourt to perform, the audience will say ‘but I’ve heard these jokes before’. But if the person tells the joke in Lagos with the network TVs that we have, Youtube, Instagram, Facebook and the rest, a lot of people will already have the jokes and therefore know the original owner.
You’ve been patronised by successive governmentsfrom Olusegun Obasanjo to late Umar Musa Yar’adua, Goodluck Jonathan and to the current president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, who many believe is not favourably disposed to entertainment. Do you have fears of austere times for entertainers because of the economic doom predicted by many?
It’s totally wrong for anyone to think President Muhammadu Buhari is not favourably disposed to entertainment. The man had called us for about three meetings actually and in the meetings, he said he wanted the entertainment industry to produce at least 20 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). We opened his eyes to it. We opened the eyes of those who led the past administrations and they didn’t take any concrete decision. We gave him (Buhari) just a few; one of the reasons the fashion industry is growing hugely is Instagram and celebrities. Why is it growing? If a celebrity wears an outfit once and it’s posted on Istagram, he or she cannot repeat it. And what it means is that the fashion industry will continue to sell. People don’t look at that dynamics. So, a lot more people are designing clothes for celebrities and even those who are not celebrities; as you make clothes and wear them and the pictures are shown on the social media, you don’t want to repeat the clothes. So, you make more clothes. This means that there are more platforms for all these things to happen. It grows the fashion industry. Then there’s a lot of money in fashion. Look at Mudi, Yomi Casual, Zizi Cardow, Mai Atafo and so on. You find out that a lot of these people are beneficiaries of showbiz because the more clothes they make for artistes, the more profits they make.
Coming to entertainment- when we spoke to the president, he asked what is it that the entertainment industry needs to make a lot of money? We told him for instance, look at AY’s movie, 30 Days in Atlanta, it’s grossing nearly N300m now because as at the last check it was about N260m. And that’s just one movie. What it means is that if every other movie gets that kind of support the industry will make more money. If Buhari is even running for election, AY can say, ‘take N20m’ instead of expecting Buhari to give him money. That’s just creating an enabling environment for people to make it. The good thing is that automobile business is another one that favours the entertainment industry. Celebrities live well – they have a very high lifestyle. It means that the industry can as well drive the automobile industry. So, all you just need is to ensure that the cars are available.
We need platforms- I mean places where talents can exhibit their creativities. So we need a lot more TV stations, more airtime and be paid for our creativity. So, if royalties are being paid, a lot of musicians won’t be depending on concerts. So, if they’re getting royalties, it means that they will be paying their taxes and there won’t be an informal sector anymore. It will be sector that is well structured and that is what Mr. President is working towards. The need to put proper structures in place was the reasons we were talking to past governments. We were talking to past governments to make sure that there are structures that protect the artistes and provide them enabling environments to grow so that we can make a lot of money.
In your 27 years in standup comedy, what was the most tempestuous time that almost led to your giving up your career?
For me as a comedian, there’s none really. I performed even at the time when Sani Abacha was in power, Ibrahim Babangida, Ernest Shonekan, Olusegun Obasanjo and so on. I think the thing is that as comedians we have a longer lifespan than musicians. Some musicians will break even say, three to seven years maximum except in the case of 2face who is a Metuselah. He continues to ‘blow’. When they get married things tend to change, what happens to a lot of musicians is that fans are crazy about them but when they find out that the person has got married, then it means he’s out of their market. So back to the question there were no tempestuous seasons for me. But I’d say that we flourished during the Obasanjo era because he is someone who has a great sense of humour and because of that the governors of different states appreciated humour as well. As they say if it’s good at the top, it trickles down to the bottom. It wasn’t so rosy in Yar’adua’s time before he took ill and when Jonathan came, it was not any different but some of our colleagues still benefitted. What that says is that comedians and masters of ceremonies will benefit anyway whether it is a very tough regime or a liberal one because our services are needed by everybody. Everybody wants to laugh because laughter is the best medicine. Did any of your jokes land you in trouble? None that I know of has put me in trouble.
You turned 50 last year; how did it feel hitting the golden age?
And what major regrets do you have in your life sojourn so far? The only regret I have is that I didn’t start early enough or that it took me too long to break even in the standup comedy industry. Unlike now that a comedian can hit the scene in a year and become a big fish; in my case it took from from 1987 to 2007 before people really recognised that comedy was something that should be appreciated. It took a long while but we’re there now. It’s just the same thing like when someone says when Stephen Keshi was the coach of the Super Eagles and earning 20,000USD and we were shouting ‘one man collects that whopping sum?’ But now footballers are getting that as just a bonus for a match- but that was what someone was collecting for a whole season. We’ve got to a point where we can say it is worth it because comedians are now benefitting from the labour that we put in, where Muhammed Danjuma played a great role when we started. In my turning 50, nothing changed, it’s just that so many things are yet to be done and must be achieved quickly.