The name Atunyota Alleluya Akpobome may not ring a bell to some, however, professionally known as Ali Baba, the humour merchant fondly known as the godfather of modern day stand-up comedy in Nigeria, master of ceremonies and actor, shares some of his experiences in this interview.
Alibaba, you are considered as the godfather of comedy in Nigeria. When you started out, did you ever imagine you would get to this stage?
In hindsight, no, I did not. But you see, I did not think that the comedy industry would be this big but the indices at the time pointed that it would be big but not this big. Why I say this is because I was in school and became popular because I am a comedian.
I began to benefit from favours, relationships, goodwill just because I was in school. Beyond that, I then noticed that I was making a lot of money. My allowance from my dad then was about N100 but I started charging as much as N50 per show then I moved up to N100, N200, N300 while I was in school. It meant that the ‘salary’ my father gives me monthly which is N100, I could earn more per show. It meant that if I could get into the larger society, I could make more money.
If the school society could pay for that knowing fully well that the educational institution is a micro unit of the major society so brands that came to our school for events were paying a lot more. It dawned on me that if they were paying a lot more, I could get more money if I scaled up and it happened.
It actually happened because whenever I went to perform for these brands outside school, I got more money than I did in school. If I perform in school, I could earn N100 but if I perform outside school, I could get as much as N700. So, I figured that it was a reflection of what would happen if I invested in the business.
You are prince from a royal family in Delta State; Warri to be precise. What was your parents’ reaction when you decided to make comedy a career at the time?
The occupational dynamics always change from time. Every generation would have a shift or change when it comes to occupational relevance. That dynamics change for a lot of people. Back in the days, you are either a forest guard, civil servant, worked in the missionary service or a teacher. Moreso, a house servant for any of the white men. However, gradually my great grandfather was a king but he was deported to Calabar.
My grandfather was a forest guard who was very enlightened about the trees. He was very relevant because he was able to write. My father became a teacher. Back in the days, teaching was a very premium job because only educated people were employed for the role. Also, jobs like nursing, clergy men etc, were seen as premium jobs.
However, people that were in these roles realised that they were struggling too much and they did not want their children to go through the same phase because they wanted them to have a better life. So, they wanted their children to either be a lawyer, doctor, accountant, engineer.
Back in the days, if you told anyone that you wanted to be a newspaper reporter or a make-up artiste, it would be weird. There were no jobs like that. If you told someone that you wanted to be a dancer, it would seem absurd. They would reason that how would you feed your family. At the time, tailors were seen as people who never went to school.
I was in that boat in the sense that my dad was an educationist. He joined the Army education corps when he transferred his service from the ministry of education to the military. My father wanted me to become either a lawyer or a military man. As I grew, my father realised that I am a better writer and communicated well. He also observed that I comprehend well and he believed that the ability I had to understand English and literature would make me a better lawyer. Most times, the strength you have helps to inform your parent’s choice of who you become.
It was very difficult for my dad when I told him that I wanted to be a comedian. You cannot blame him; he looks around and tries to find parallels and correlations. He looked around and asked about who was practicing comedy at the time. All my dad could see then was bleak. He saw the likes of Zebrudaya, Papiluwe, Baba Sala and the likes. He felt that they were not the people that fits into the dream he has for his first son. Back then, our parents wanted to raise children that would make them retire early. It was a tough pill for my dad to swallow when I said I wanted to become a comedian.
But many would say that a prince is meant to be entertained and not entertain…
The role of our traditional families and houses has been usurped by government policies and politicians. Back in the days, all cases were brought to the palace. The king was a man that makes pronouncements that cannot be faulted.
Whoever faulted the king’s pronouncement left the community to set up another community. Over the time, a lot of things that were the prerogative of princes – having pieces of land and property, changed because the authority had been taken from the traditional rulers and given to local councils, then it was moved to the state governments. It then eroded the powers that traditional rulers had. Now, most traditional rulers are ceremonial. They are respected as the custodian of our culture. Even at that, the power of a commissioner for culture and tourism is more than that of a traditional ruler.
When people say as a prince, I should not do certain things, I tell them that the British prince was in the army. If you look at the British royals, all of them have what they do. The pot that held all the money that the royals benefited from is no more there. The authority and power that has been given to the royal family has either been eroded or watered down.
Someone once asked why I do not add prince to my name and I replied that how does that change anything or relate with me or the business I do? Would it make anybody pay me more money? No. It is about the service you can deliver, the character and respect you have built over time. The value proposition built over time as well. That said, you always have to carry your tradition along – that is why most times I tie my wrapper and wear my beads. It is more of the way I want to dress. I am a prince, it is not a title given, I was born into it. The palace does not feed you, so you have to take care of yourself.
What are some of the challenges you faced building your career?
I think the first challenge I faced was that of acceptance, not from my family but people in the industry that did not understand that what I was doing was a service.
I live by the rule that if people believe what you are doing is not a service, they would not want to pay for it. Until what you are doing is converted by your value proposition to become a service, nobody wants to pay you for it.
Ordinarily, they feel like what is he doing? People don’t think that the traffic controller is doing anything till the day the traffic light is not working. When they want us for their services, they trivialise our fee, forgetting that we help them keep the mood, we help leave a memory/ impact in the minds of the guests, we make your event flow smoothly from beginning to the end, among other things. I make sure that my sense of humour is relatable with everyone in attendance. As a master of ceremony, every aspect of the event I tie it up and knit it properly. It is lot of work because I am like an orchestra, a conductor that makes sure everything about the event syncs and with that, your show comes out very well.
You made jokes about President Obasanjo at events during his tenure. Were you not scared?
Obasanjo was a democratic president during his time. I hit at Abacha and Babangida during their time and I was not scared despite the fact that they were military presidents. However, over the years, I have studied knowing the thin line between being funny and offensive. If you walk that path, nothing matters.
What people do not know is that what I would say in public is something I would have shared with him. Most people don’t know that. Also, your jokes get better if you have a relationship with the person.
About a month ago I was invited to be the MC at General Diya’s funeral ceremony. I heard someone had a reservation that I used to diss their father when he was alive so how come I am allowed to host the ceremony? Unknown to them, when Diya was alive, at an event he would call me to perform certain jokes before I call him on stage. You cannot just hear a joke and know that it was thoroughly researched.
So, when you hear a refined joke, you may take offense but you do not even know the relationship the comedian has with the person.
It is like the joke I always have with the Oba of Lagos who always invites me to the palace. I always reply saying, “Kabiyesi, I cannot come to the palace because you are a retired policeman. If a retired policeman comes to your house, you will give him something. If you go to their house, you will give them something. Not to mention that you are a king. Sir, I will see you at events.” Anytime I say it, he would laugh.
There was a time I flew with him and he we had a turbulence. We were sitting close to each other and I looked at him saying, “kabiyesi”, he responded in Yoruba saying, “What kabiyesi, we are close to meeting God and you are saying kabiyesi. When we land, then you can continue saying kabiyesi. For now, God is the Kabiyesi.”
Everyone in the business class laughed, then when we landed, they all hailed him. Then he turned to me and said, “this is how they greet people.” When I make the joke, some people would think I am picking on the king but they don’t know the relationship we share.