Yemi Solade: “Anybody That Calls Me A Yoruba Actor Is Unserious. I’m An Actor.”
Yemi Solade is famous in the Nigerian entertainment industry, having been in the business since performing a role in Nigeria’s entry play, “Lamgbodo,” during the Festival of Black Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in 1977. With a career that spans across stage, television, and big screen productions, he has made immense contributions to the growth of Nollywood and the Nigerian entertainment industry as a whole.
This interview took a while to happen as The Nollywood Reporter (TNR) chased him to his home, tracked him on his visit to carry out his filial role in a university (name without), to a location in Ikorodu and, finally, his hotel room after midnight. In this conversation with TNR, Yemi Solade revisited his days as African King of Dancing and journeyed his path as an actor, starting from his early beginnings in the 70s, through his iconic roles in TV series and movies, and up until his most recent works. We also delved into his experiences working in both the English and Yoruba languages, and the impact of FESTAC 77 on his career and the growth of Nollywood.
TNR: I’m interested in your middle name. It’s not a Yoruba name.
Solade: It’s not really my name but a pet name given to me by my grandma, Etieme. I have Calabar blood. My mother is from Oron in Akwa Ibom state, and my grandma, that’s my father’s mother, is from Cross-River state: from Creek town, Calabar. I have ample blood from that side. Mixed with Yoruba blood and Brazilian blood.
You went to Maiduguri to school; you were in ABU, Zaria as well; Leicester for Sociology and Anthropology. You’re more or less an academician on stage and screen.
I’m more of a man seeking knowledge. That’s the way I like to be introduced. I come from a family where education and beauty are celebrated. I have three master’s degrees from three different schools because I was young. But I earned my first degree in Dramatic Arts, and that is what I practice today.
I’m a dramatist. When I was in the ivory tower teaching, that was when I started experimenting with all those post graduate degrees here and there. Just this year in March, the Federal University in Ekiti made me a professor. Wole Olanipekun (Senior Advocate of Nigeria) and I. The University setting is not a real world. I told myself that I would go to school, I would learn all those things and I would come to society and do my thing.
How was your experience up North as a lecturer in Ramat Polytechnic and Kaduna Polytechnic? What was it like for you?
The dream then was that one had to go and serve one’s fatherland, which is mandatory. This NYSC program, for fifty years now, has been the good, the bad and the ugly. I did it when it had meaning when our allowance in a month was 200 Naira. Out of the 200 Naira, we’d buy jeans, buy trainers; those of us that were bad boys, we’d smoke cigarettes and drink beer, party, we’d squander the #200 naira in a few days. The wise ones would save because 200 Naira was a lot of money when I served. That was in Maiduguri. I got to Maiduguri hoping that the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) would absorb people like me. It was never to be.
Why was that never to be?
I didn’t know that NTA would never look for actors. They’d rather look for engineers: people to man the machines, equipment. I was disappointed that NTA rejected me.
I went to this Ramat Polytechnic. It was a very small polytechnic, and I was in the department of General Studies, where I taught English and Literature. I met a French man, naturalized Nigerian, Dope Amonier. He was in his seventies when I met him. He had a theatre company called Zenith Theatre. He said he wanted somebody like me. So, I became the deputy director of his theatre group. It was fun.
At what point were you a dance champion? How does that relate to your FESTAC 77 experience?
I’d always loved dancing. Music was played every day in my home. You know, the days of LP records. I grew up listening to all forms of music and I’ll be dancing in front of the mirror. That’s how I took to dancing on my own. And every time there was an event, birthday party et al, I’ll be pushed out to dance. From there it extended to school, and I represented my school.
When Lagos State Dance Championship came, I won for three years consecutively and won the national one too. Then we moved on to Monrovia, Liberia and became the African Dance King. I went to dance in Malibu, Spain. I was number five at the World Dance Championship.
I’d always seen myself as an entertainer growing up. Then Nigeria hosted FESTAC 77, I went for the audition at the National Theatre. I strolled in myself, and I was given a role. I’d never acted in my life; it was the first experience. And it was on a big stage. The world stage. Nigeria hosted the world.
Feed us a little more on FESTAC, because it is not just a thing you can run through in one sentence
I played the role Efoiye in “Langbodo”. Efoiye was one of the stubborn hunters in the “Ògbójú Ọdẹ nínú Igbó Irúnmọlẹ̀,” which Soyinka translated in the English Literature format as “Forest of A Thousand Daemons: A Hunter’s Saga.” But the “Langbodo,” which was play entry for Nigeria for FESTAC 77, was written by the late Wale Ogunyemi, (MON). That was how, as a teenager, I became an actor against the standard when parents wanted their child to study medicine or architecture, accountancy, engineering.
I knew I was destined for performing arts despite the fact that people looked down on us back then.
At what point did you work as artistic director for Professor Ola Rotimi’s theatre?
That was around 1992. I came home from the north during the Zango Kataf Riot in which I almost got killed. God being my shield, I escaped and took a break from my sojourn in the north.
I was home and I was in my former department in Ife where Professor Ola Rotimi was teaching. He wasn’t there during my undergraduate studies, but he was there as head of department when I returned after my NYSC. We rubbed minds. Then he said that he would want me around. He had what he called ACT – African Cradle Theatre. He was the director, but I could deputize. However, I didn’t want to stay in Ife. So, I did that briefly. That was when he was rehearsing “Host of the Living dead.”
I’m a Lagos guy. Staying in Ife would just make me a complete academic and I had tasted academia for some years, and I was not fulfilled. As a scholar, you’re boxed in teaching the same thing year in year out. I don’t see that as development. Your students will come and go, and you remain. What you teach this year is what you’re teaching the following year. Nothing is changing, and you’re teaching your students what they don’t need.
All those things they taught us in Ife – Grecian Theatre, Medieval Theatre, Noh Theatre of Japan, Arabian Theatre – who talks about all of that in the society? Nobody! Very irrelevant.
Kole Omotosho taught me Egyptian Literature and Caribbean Theatre. All of those things I never practiced. So, it was a waste of time. That was crazy.
Egyptian Literature. I’m sure you can integrate it into theatre in Nigeria or anywhere.
We don’t have the craft for it. We can’t.
I’ve gone to represent Nigeria in the 17th International Festival of Experimental Theatre in Cairo under the aegis of the National Troupe of Nigeria. We came back with gold, and I played the lead role as Obatalá in Álámórí, which was Nigeria’s entry in 2005. We were in Cairo for twelve days representing this country very well. Those were the good days of live stage performance. Live drama, not home video.
What I’m saying is that I saw the future very quickly beyond what they were teaching us. Talking about Caribbean Theatre where people are talking of Netflix and cinemas. Why are you training students? Is it not to get them integrated into the larger society? And once they don’t fit in, there’s a problem, there’s a disconnect. I saw all of that, and I quickly took to the practical side of the profession while I was a student. I did all that very quickly.
At what point did you connect with Uncle Wale Adenuga?
It was from when he started with the business of producing “Papa Ajasco.” I was there when he created many of those things like “Odd World,” “This Life” and, of course, “Super Story.”
I have featured in many of the mini-series and anytime the production house needs me, they call me. We work together. At that point I featured in many of his productions, Wale Adenuga was a statement. He was a reference point, and “Super Story” was just fantastic. It ruled the airwaves. Everybody wanted to see what was happening.
I remember one story we worked on. I think it was in 2003. It was crazy. It was my best outing. Lilian Bach played my wife, and I played Uncle Ben. That was my high point with Wale Adenuga.
I’m a freelance actor, I move around. I don’t belong to anybody’s clique, and I’ll never belong. Anybody that wants us to work together, once there’s a deal, I go on set or stage.
Was that when you met Sola Sobowale?
No, I had known Sola before all of that. We’ve been friends for long. She has always been in theatre world too. Nollywood just cemented the friendship.
Sola did “Oh Father, Oh Daughter” for Wale Adenuga Production and it was an instant hit for her. With the late Yemi Adeyemi (Suara) who died recently.
The “Ójú Ínú” we were talking about, that was first time you spoke Yoruba on stage?
“Ójú Ínú” was a brain child of a few of us in Surulere, and it was written by Murtala Sule. He is a veteran writer and producer. He may not be popular, but we know him in the field. He wrote the script and when we came together, that we wanted to experiment, he brought the script. With “Ójú Ínú,” we wanted to do something Yoruba but very modern. We were the first to premiere a movie at MUSON Centre in 1994.
When Amaka Igwe, may her soul continue to rest in peace, said she was the first, I told her “No. I was even in your movie, “Violated” where I played a doctor. It was fun that I was in both movies.”
There’s something that goes on in this country: we’re too tribalistic. When Yorubas are doing their thing, they think they’re the only ones doing it. When it’s the non-Yorubas, they think they’re the only ones.
When it’s northerners, the same thing. If I’d not featured in “Violated,” Amaka Igwe would have made that statement, and it would have been established. And so, I called her to order. I showed her the program of the command performance. After “Ójú Ínú” was when she took “Violated” there. That was in good faith.
Anybody that calls me a Yoruba actor is unserious. I’m an actor.
There’s something you’re going to tell us about Yoruba acting.
There’s nothing like Yoruba acting. Are you an Edo journalist? So why would anybody call me a Yoruba actor? It shows a level of ignorance and illiteracy. I tell people if they can’t describe a person, they shouldn’t even start. Just like the former Minister of Culture, who has gone into oblivion, Lai Mohammed opened his mouth and was saying the wrong things: that Nollywood was encouraging kidnapping and what have you.
Drama mirrors society. When I was a young lad, there was no Nollywood. We were hearing of gbómógbómó in Surulere. We saw prostitutes on Ayilara Street. I was a young boy then, but we saw armed robbers; we saw thieves that were caught. There was no Nollywood.
Was it Nollywood that taught the Nigerian political class to loot Nigeria dry? We did not create stealing in Nigeria. We never taught politicians to steal. Is it Nollywood that taught the Nigerian political class to be carrying our actresses and buying them houses in Lekki?
So, I said, sir if you don’t know what you’re saying, keep your mouth shut.
With drama, all we do is to mirror society: what we see we reenact. So, nobody should come and call anybody by tribal affiliation. Do you say he’s an Igbo soldier or he’s a Hausa doctor? What rubbish!
So, nobody should call me a Yoruba actor. Is Bola Tinubu a Yoruba president? No! He’s president of Nigeria.
You’ve been in the acting business for about forty-six years. So, you’ve virtually seen it all. In terms of ratio, what is the ratio of English movies to Yoruba movies you have done. Do you have an idea?
I don’t work based on language. I ply my trade in the languages I speak on daily basis. I speak Yoruba, I speak English and I speak pidgin.
Have you ever done a pidgin film?
No. I haven’t. But I’ve had to feature playing a role using pidgin English.
Let me tell you this. As somebody that is erudite yourself, English Literature is different from Literature in English. People don’t understand the difference.
English Literature is William Shakespeare, George Orwell. However, a Wole Soyinka text is Literature in English because he writes his literature in English Language like Chinua Achebe, Mabel Segun, and Cyprian Ekwensi. They’re not English writers!
English language is local in England like Yoruba is local in Yoruba land. It’s our own. English language is the lingua franca of Nigeria. When I was teaching in the north, I instructed people from Niger Republic who considered English as second language. They came to learn it in Nigeria as second language. However, we glamourize it in Nigeria.
Until you speak like Wole Soyinka, until I bring down the roof, nobody would say “That guy dey speak English!” What has that amounted to? Nothing. What has the collection of vocabulary done for Patrick Obahiagbon? He is like a nuisance. He just became a clown.
We need to talk about the evolution of the Yoruba film industry.
There is no Yoruba film industry.
There is, sir.
If we’re to take your analysis like the works of Shakespeare on literature, we can say that a film like “Anikulapo” is Yoruba literature.
No. You don’t get it. This is visuals. The movie is what you watch. It’s not literary. It starts from the scripts obviously. But once you introduce the camera it becomes almost like human. You give it flesh. That’s the difference from when you read.
Most times when you read these scripts and we make the movie, we go back to the scripts and say this is different. The one on paper is dead. You cannot bring an RMD and say, “You take this role,” Joke Silva and say, “You take this role,” or Pete Edochie, “Take this” and still expect the performance of the script to remain what was on paper. Dramatizing the script gives it life, and that’s what people see. It’s the screen they romance. No one goes back to the script.
If you gave the script to the journalist for a review, that journalist would be wondering if the script were for the movie because the human element there would have added a lot of curry, maggi, and it’s like waking Lazarus up from the dead.
Are you saying that the works of Ogunde don’t amount to Yoruba literature?
Ogunde did not have scripts. Most of his works were improvisational.
I do know that, but his body of films should be considered Yoruba films.
“Aiye,” “Ayomo” and others by him are Nigerian motion pictures.
Some people come as stupid as saying Kaniwood, Yorowood, Igbowood. What is all that? The biggest name in filmmaking is Hollywood, followed by Bollywood. Don’t they have tribes in America and India? They have all sorts of races in America. But they call what they do Hollywood films. However, in Nigeria, the largest, the most populous black nation in the world, we can trivialize things and ‘yeyenize’ most things.
There’s no Yoruba or Igbo film industry. We have Nollywood. That’s it. That nomenclature has come. Whoever gave that name, we don’t know.
When Nollywood came, I kicked against it. I felt it was a mimicry of Hollywood and Bollywood. But then journalists had begun to throw the name everywhere and it stuck. Let’s just give in and call it Nollywood. Every movie that comes out of Nigeria is Nollywood. Whether it’s in Gboko language, Kanuri language, Ogoja language, they’re all Nollywood films.
You can say Nigerian movie in English Language. It’s not English film. People need education and it’s so simple to understand. I can act in English Language because I speak flawless and impeccable English. I can act in Yoruba, but it is Lagos Yoruba I can handle very well. When I act and I have to move to this Oyo, Ibadan Yoruba, I struggle. But I try. I’m not as fluent as some guys I see – Dele Braimoh, Iya Abidemi. I admire them when they speak Yoruba.
I was born in Lagos. I grew up in Surulere. I don’t speak the village Yoruba. I learned the little I speak, which I play around with, like I did in “Ìjògbòn” for Kunle Afolayan lately. I have done those Oyo, the standard Yoruba in Nigeria as well. Every other Yoruba is acculturated. They’re diluted.
How would you measure the aesthetics of a film like “Aiye” with a film like “The Figurine” and “Ije”? How do you see the transition? The movement of one to the other. How do you see it?
To start with, “Aiye” was made in 1980 by the great doyen of Nigerian theatre, Chief Hubert Adedeji Ogunde. At the time of his death, he was the assistant director of the National Troupe of Nigeria. He left us thirty-three years ago: 1990.
In his time, ninety-five percent of his works were recorded by expatriates, let me use that word, oyibo people. His was to provide stories and he had a human element. He had everybody – his wife, children, troupers, and other theatre groups all over Nigeria plying their trade in Yoruba language would all assemble when he was filming because he was the greatest of his time.
That was his era, and he did celluloid films. After recording, the producer will not see anything. Nobody will see anything. The raw stuff will go to the laboratory in England. But now, everything is digital. As they’re recording or clicking, if you don’t like it, you can click hundred, delete the ones you don’t want. Everything has been so advanced. Simplified.
In the days of Ogunde, Adelove – Tunde Afolayan’s father who started filming before Ogunde – shot a movie and everything went to England. That was where they could stock those things. There was no laboratory in Nigeria where they could stock them. Even if you ask Kunle, he will tell you what he had to go through to secure a little of his father’s works from a laboratory in England because there is no storage here. The film corporation in Jos is almost useless. Till today, they have never shot a movie. They can’t produce one movie at the film corporation in Jos. Yet they hold seminars here and there paying estacode to civil servants there.
The eras of the Ogundes of this world, Moses Olaiya – Babasala – Eddie Ogboma, Dr. Ola Balogun, all of them worked with celluloid. Great men. But now, what do we have? Videography, digital world. So, I can’t compare.
You can compare them at least with Tunde Kilani, Tade Ogidan.
No, we can talk about them. We can only tell you this was what was obtained in that era, and this is what obtains now. You can’t compare Pelé and Lionel Messi. No, they don’t belong to the same generation. It will be a disservice to compare Mohammed Ali and Mike Tyson. You can compare Mohammed Ali and George Foreman or Joe Frazier. Yes, that is the thing.
You can’t compare me with Mike Ezuruonye or Lateef Adedimeji, no. We don’t belong to the same generation. You can compare me with RMD or Yinka Quadri. These are my contemporaries. So no, it’s wrong.
Ogunde came at that point and did all he could do. The technology that obtained in his time, he worked with at the highest level. The funding is still not right. Fine. It’s not there but trust Nigerians, we will make it happen. Why do you think that thing is called Africa Magic on cable station? That is magic. You don’t find it anywhere. Nigerians will make a movie. Serial movie in three days. It’s magical.
One more question. What is the place of films like “Áníkúlápò” and “Thunderbolt” where you were in the cast: what is their place in the preservation of Yoruba culture? I know you don’t like that word, but they do preserve a particular culture.
I will embrace Yoruba culture. Every society has their culture, but what I will not admit is the Yoruba film industry. We can assemble a team of actors who are not Yoruba that would make good Yoruba movies for you. For instance, are Fathia Balogun, Kelvin Ikeduba, Rykardo Agbor, and Ngozi Nwosu Yoruba people? No. Many of them like that have all won awards featuring in movies done in Yoruba language. So, it’s not about that. We have seen Caucasians speak Yoruba in our movies. That does not make them Yoruba people now, but they speak the language.
Films like “Jágún Jágún and Áníkúlápò try to preserve Yoruba culture, tradition, norms, values and beliefs. But when you look at the general language, the body of work, you’ll be seeing entrepreneurship there. Somebody is making business happen.
You want to sell your product. How do you sell your product? You don’t make it completely in the interest of a particular tribe. You want to make a sensation. You want to glamourize because, when you watch some of these works you have mentioned, for me, apart from the language, maybe songs, I saw beyond Yoruba culture. For instance, some of the costumes, especially what Femi Adebayo (Ómídíjí) wore, they won’t pass for Yoruba costumes. But the young man was just making a statement. He was looking like the emperor, he had dreads and all those things that would sweep the floor. That is not Yoruba. But this is filmmaking. You just created the character. He should be appealing. That is what filmmaking is all about. Arrest your audience. Arrest them. So, it’s a blend.
Àníkúlàpò had more of the Yoruba culture, the costuming, the language but a little bit of some anglicized … what you would want to call romanticism in literature because you see an actor who stands upon sand and, when the editor finishes, the guy could be flying in the clouds. That’s the work of an editor and that is technology. All those things Ogunde could not afford in his time.
Can we look at the moral compass? Would you say that our movies form an appropriate moral compass or that they’ve lost that essence because of commercialism?
I will not subscribe to the school of thought that says morality has been thrown to dogs. As much as producers want to fantasize and crave sensationalism all in the name of attracting huge returns, because there must be ROI (return on investment) and you want to do things that will make you stay in the game, I will not say morals have been wished away; I’ll just say there is a lot of glamorization, a lot of cosmetics, a lot of anglicization. You want to do oyibo things.
In African drama, we’re not supposed to shake hands or even kiss. It is not customary, it is not. The act of shaking hands is not our own. The act of kissing is not ours. But the avalanche of avant-gardist producers who have watched too many Hollywood movies and tried to transpose them on African soil don’t understand our culture. A lot has gone wrong.
For morals, movies especially is not really about morals. It’s purely about entertainment. Arrest your viewers. Like this BBN. What does it really teach? Some young adults are locked in one house for three months and they’re having sex, eating, drinking and doing all sorts of things there. And they give them money. But the best Math’s student in Nigeria gets two hundred thousand naira. So, society itself is warped.
Leadership in Nigeria does not understand a lot, or they have chosen to denigrate certain things. They’ll say this is the best overall student in Nigeria and they’ll just give the person five hundred thousand naira, and everybody will be clapping. But some idle lads for three months will get SUV, a whole building, detached house and millions of naira just to be having sex, drinking alcohol and dancing before the whole world. So, it’s not for the filmmakers to tell you that you have to prostrate when you see an elder or kneel. No, it’s not the duty of a filmmaker. A filmmaker is just making pictures.
Fine, he wants to make money so that he can stay in business. And what he sees around, how he gets his stories, some can be true life, some can be just fictional. And if he’s not making returns, he’s out of business.
Let’s talk about your films? Which would you say is your favorite in your very long filmography?
I hope you will take that from me. I really don’t know because I’m as good as I was at my last job.
So, what’s your last job?
As I speak with you, I’m on location. So, I won’t say this is the last one because I’m still recording. I really don’t go back on what I’ve done. I’ve done it, I move away. Sometimes I watch some movies and say when did we do this! You know in Nigeria, the rate at which we work is alarming. You don’t even remember everything. Someone calls you to work for two or three days, you won’t remember.
I may say which movie is this? I don’t even remember but you see there are some big ones really that you can’t forget. Like “Ìjògbòn” now is trending. It’s been number one movie; this is the third week we’re running now. It’s still number one on Netflix, and that’s great. I enjoyed my role there. Kunle Afolayan provided, for now, the biggest platform to play such a role. I’ve done it on regular home videos but for Netflix, you know, Netflix is huge, and the movie is all over the world and is making a statement. Well, I’ll say for now, let’s enjoy “Ìjògbòn.” I’ve played very challenging roles in the past, many of them. You know I’m an unsung hero.
Finally, what’s the meaning of Ágbàákín?
Àgbàákín means the high warrior. I’m Àgbàákín ìgbèyìn Abeokuta
So, it’s actually a chieftaincy title?
Yes. It’s not honorary. It’s my family title. Every first son in my family is Àgbàákín. If I die, my son becomes Àgbàákín. It’s not ceremonial.