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Projecting Nigeria

by Ethan Tussey

by Brian Larkin for IN MEDIA RES

In 2005 a controversy broke out on the internet over a song “I Go Chop Your Dollar” by the Nigerian comedian and film star Nkem Oweh. Taken from his hit film The Master (2005 Dir. Uzodinma Okpechi), the song, sung in pidgin English, (whose lyrics and translations can be found here) tells the story of a Nigerian 419er (conman) threatening to con an ‘oyinbo’ (white man) by selling him the national airport or an oil refinery contract. The song, described by some bloggers as “the spammers anthem” spawned a predictable outcry. Western bloggers, few of whom watched the film the song came from and wholly ignorant of its place in the story, saw it as a celebration of (and evidence for) Nigeria’s corruption. Nigerian bloggers rejected this, alternating between pointing out that Owoh is a comedian and the song a parody, and that the only people conned by 419 are Westerners attempting to steal from Nigeria anyhow. I think the controversy interesting on several levels for issues it raises about the transnational projection of Nigeria's image. 419 letters claiming to represent oil executives, or dictators sons with $50,000,000 to move out of the country might unfortunately be Nigeria’s most prominent presence in global media. The international success of Nollywood is seen by many Nigerians (and the government itself) as a correction to this and to endless stories of Nigeria’s corruption projecting a powerful ‘good news’ story about Nigeria. But as Nkem Oweh’s song suggests, the success of Nollywood comes precisely through depicting stories of sexual and economic corruption, juju and the occult, crooked politicians and pastors and many Nigerians themselves are deeply critical of these films for projecting the underside of Nigerian life. Franco-African filmmakers have argued that Westerners are only interested in Nollywood because it reaffirms exotic stereotypes of Africa and that the poor quality of the videos ends up reinforcing ideas of Africa’s poverty – ideas that the entire concept of African Cinema was designed to reject. Both Nollywood and 419 emails in their stories and in their form of circulation are sites of intense interpretive struggle over the projection of Nigeria’s image. This is an issue which haunts Nollywood particularly, forcing directors and actors to justify themselves and their work against intense criticism even as they are celebrated for their tremendous international success. It is the expectation that Nollywood stands for Nigeria, forced on unwilling filmmakers by fans and critics alike that makes these films operate as national allegories. The controversy over I Go Chop Your Money is a striking instance where Nollywood, 419, and the Nigerian image collide and where the intensity of this struggle is revealed.

Osuofia - I Go Chop Your Dollar

Osuofia - I Go Chop Your Dollar

from I Go Chop Your Dollar (2003)
Creator: Nkem Owoh
Distributor: TLC African
Posted by Ethan Tussey
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