It’s money that chases ideas, not ideas chasing money
Bridge between creativity and other professionals lacking in Nigeria
By Anote Ajeluorou
Chief Kayode Aderinokun bestrides the seemingly opposing worlds of banking and writing, as former banker and poet, and he understands the peculiar languages both sectors speak. Aderinokun, who chairs the board of Committee for Relevant Art (CORA), organiser of Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF 2022) that ended its 24th edition on November 20, 2022, made a telling presentation at the Association of Nigerian Authors’ (ANA) session during the festival. A former chairman of ANA Lagos, Aderinokun charged his writer colleagues to change their mindsets and learn the language of commerce as well as collaborate to push forward their crafts. He spoke extensively on the intersection of art and business and how writers and artists of various shades can harness the language of business and its associated professionals to advance their art, further insisting that art need not be aimless activism that is always confrontational and in collusion with the establishment
Experience as ANA Lagos chairman
WE had to struggle in every occasion to even provide chairs, and the membership was not particularly good. But I was coming from the corporate sector where everything was in abundance. I was a vice chairman of a bank; so you can imagine me coming to an environment that was threadbare and lacking in every respect; that was the Association of Nigerian Authors, Lagos chapter I met. I want to go further by saying that even the members, they looked like they were not living life, considering the circumstances they found themselves. It wasn’t any fault of theirs. Some of them even had doctorate and masters degrees, quite accomplished, and they would tell you that it’s not necessary to live a good life, that they just like the way they were, because a writer should be poor. They said that’s where inspiration comes from. That you have to be an activist if you’re a writer, that you have to be conflictive with the establishment, you have to tell truth to power and you have to make yourself a friend to hunger.
You can imagine how pathetic it was. And here was I coming from an environment of plenty where the same people who went to the same universities with writers were living in Ikoyi. They had two cars and they were going on holidays abroad every year, all paid for, and their children were going to the best schools and they travelled with their families. That was the picture that I saw; it made me very sad. Why are writers where writers are? The first problem is that the philosophy of writing itself is peculiar, usually a solitary exercise that pushes you to isolation, both physically, spiritually and materially. You have to go to one quiet place to be inspired (to write). You need quiet; you need solitude. And all these things give us the wrong impression that a writer has to be weird. We know that in the Western world, and to some people here, there is abundance even in creativity, writing inclusive, but then our environment itself is threadbare. And it starts with the policies, which give us the impression that certain things are normal even when they are abnormal.
I remember writing a poem years ago to capture Oshodi bus stop in Lagos, and I did this to the best of my ability. I remember when I brought the poem for a reading, a number of my friends who were writers contested it. They said the picture I had painted of Oshodi was that of a man who was being driven and sitting at the back of a limousine. I had captured the chaos, the noise, the pandemonium in the bus stop. I captured the policemen, I captured those who were selling wares; I captured everything. But they still said that is the story of Oshodi from a man enjoying the air conditioner in a chauffer-driven limousine. This is to tell you that we can get the perspective wrong even from the beginning.
At the risk of sounding immodest, I was one of three people who had cars in the Association of Nigerian Authors at the time. That is how bad the condition of writers in Nigeria are, but what bothers me more is the poverty of the mind. The mind is very polluted. Some of our writers didn’t have what you can call a decent shelter. If you asked them today where they lived, they would give you one address. They will give you a different address every time you asked them. That used to stick a dagger in my heart. I mean, see where I was coming from…
Changing writers’ mindset
WE did a few fundamental things to at least do some rudimentary improvement, and one of the things we did then was that we thought writing should not be a remote court, but should be part of the centre court activities. It took me a lot of efforts to even get writers to come to events in Victoria Island and Ikoyi, where the policymakers, where the real money is. It’s because of the lack of confidence related to what they were, what they did. I mean, I’m not trying to put down anybody. But seriously speaking, if you don’t take care of yourself, how will you present yourself in certain communities? Yes, it’s good to look like an activist or a socialist, and don’t forget that the history of writing in Nigeria has something to do with activism and protests, but the people who largely did it were in the academia. They were part of those who got us our independence, but they were certainly not hungry. They wrote machine gun narratives but they lived normal lives. They might have made some sacrifices, been harassed by the colonial masters, but that’s not the nature of writing.
Yes, you don’t have the same opportunities as those in the diaspora or the wider world, but you can still do better for yourself. Because I was in the banking profession, I always mention the case of Chuk Mike, the African-American writer. One day he came to see me in my office in Victoria Island. He had on a suit and a tie. I couldn’t believe it was him. So, I asked him what had come over him and he said he knew what to wear and how to appear when he wants to talk to people who were going to give him money. He was always wearing our tye-and-die since arriving in Nigeria; he’d sit on the floor, but when it mattered, he knew how to transform when he needed to. That’s what they mean when they talk about positioning.
We are doing more injustice to ourselves than what the government and its policies and corporate world are doing to us. And the general perception that a writer should be poor; I don’t know who started it. I don’t know where that came from, that living in a dingy place is what inspires. Writers abroad could buy a Rolls Royce and paint on it, or buy a house in a place like Victoria Island; you might enter their apartment and find that they only have a mattress and a pillow. They won’t stay in Ajegunle. That was some of the concepts of minimalism that we see in all the concepts of art. They would, either for security or status or image, stay in the right address.
Understanding the language of business as writers
Some of the shackles we think other people put on us are put on us by ourselves. Writers don’t know how to speak the language of commerce, and it’s not only here. In the western world, writers or creative people don’t know the language of commerce or business. Most of the writers in the Western world don’t sell their books themselves; there are so many intermediaries. If you hear that some of the artistes today like the Beetles have become exceedingly successful, it’s not their own brainwork. It’s actually the professionalism that intercedes between talent and business. Most talented people don’t know how to manage themselves before and after success; that’s why you hear some of them go broke. It’s very difficult to make money but it’s more difficult to keep money. There are so many areas we need to intervene in creative thinking; there needs to be workshops, several workshops tailored towards changing the outlook (of writers and creative people).
We did something when I was chairman of ANA, Lagos chapter. We had a lot of talented writers and all their writings were going to waste. Nollywood was gaining ground then, and if you look at the products of Nollywood, they were so pedestrian, because they did not have good scripts. Majority of them just improvised. At a certain point, we decided we needed to do a marriage between the writers’ community and the emerging arts community. One of the workshops that the writers’ community had was with (the late) Amaka Igwe at Gabosky’s (Gabriel Okoye), a location somewhere in Satellite town. That workshop gave birth to some of the improved products of Nollywood today.
We thought we also needed to improve the self-esteem of writers. There was this invisible divide which was affecting our writers. If there was something happening outside abegi at the National Theatre, they could not function. We wanted to celebrate the birthday of a certain big figure who, of course, would not come to abegi at the National Theatre. So, we had to look for a place in Victoria Island. It was some efforts to change the mindset of creative people. These are the people who determine the policy, who own the money, and you’re keeping yourself away from them out of inadequacy.
First and foremost, we need to start to tinkering with the minds, the outlook and the philosophy of the writer. If you get the writer to write the right stuff, then there’s the other aspect. I’m an optimist. It’s money that chases ideas, not ideas that chase money. If you have the money and your idea is poor, you need to go back to refurbish it. Money chases ideas. In the banking sector, if you bring a hotshot idea, the manager will find out where you live and come and beg you with money. I have the benefit of being on both sides. If you want to get money to chase you as a writer, please write a bestseller, and a bestseller comes out of research, good skills and hard work. It doesn’t just happen. If you’re fortunate and you write the bestseller and it didn’t sell, maybe you’re with the wrong publisher or you haven’t done enough homework. Certainly, something is wrong somewhere, even our environment.
There is actually a bridge between creativity and other professionals. A sculptor is supposed to be sculpting and not going out to look for those to buy his sculpture; no. There is some bridge in-between. This is where professionals like lawyers and accountants and agents come in. We need to look at all these things. Then there’s a place for what we call collaboration. You’re a writer and you want to go for fundraising, except the person is your brother or father, you need to acquaint yourself with the language that they speak. As a writer, you don’t have time for all these. Apart from sourcing for professional assistance, we can do some of these things through collaboration which is generally known as cooperatives. If you don’t have strength in one area, you might find people who have strength in another area. An organization like ANA should be able to facilitate some of these in conjunction with other people. If you’re going to pay anything, it will be very minimal, and they go for marginally all aspects of writing, publishing, and even the arts. That’s the way it works in other environments. We cannot think that the same people are experts in all areas. There are experts in their own areas. Stick to your talent or do you think you can compete with me, who knows the language of commerce and money? I know where the money is, and I speak the language. And then we talk about presentation. See, there is marketing in everything.
Application is a formal way of telling your stories, and if you don’t know how to package your story, then you have not started. You need accountants to do audits; there are people who do applications at a different level. I invited a friend who is a specialist in that area, and we wanted him to inspire us and he said if all we were looking for was anything less than £1m (one million pounds), then he was not interested. All we were looking for was £50,000. I have encountered people that whose starting point is from £2-5 million. If you want to get serious money, you need people to write success-rated application for you, and most times they know how to write it and they take their own commission. I always tell people that you cannot make a first impression a second time.
Positioning for power as writers
WE need to discard the philosophy that we just have to fight the system all the time. Why can’t we take advantage of the system? Why can’t we twist policies to help writers? After all, there are all kinds of taxes that are coming out of the corporate world for one item or the other. Why can’t we pull together our resources to tackle the system? There’s corporate social responsibility that we can engage and get things for the creative sector. We keep hearing about endowment this, endowment that. But is there any endowment for the arts? These are the things we should focus on instead of thinking that we have to fight the establishment all the time. Let’s look at positioning. We need to find a way to position the creative sector, so we don’t have to be in the dudgeon. What is wrong with us being in power? I don’t know why we cannot find ourselves in power. These are the things we should look at.