There’s a high chance that you’ve seen or even used an “African boy” meme at one point over the past few years. Actor Osita Iheme, who is actually a 39-year-old actor living with dwarfism, is just one of the many Nigerian film stars who has become a mainstay in global internet culture. There’s the meme where he’s studiously counting a wad of cash, the one where he’s sat with a defeated look on his face, or the one where he and 41-year-old Chinedu Ikedieze, who also lives with dwarfism, are both resting on a couch, heads up, looking pensive.
Those memes didn’t come out of nowhere. They’re clips and stills from Nollywood, Nigeria’s lovingly nicknamed film industry. Their online ubiquity started as a budding online culture amongst Nigerians who watched the films growing up. “I just remember years ago, before Netflix and streaming services were a thing, my mum and dad would go to a Black hair shop and buy a tonne of DVDs which we would watch on a laptop or the TV,” says 22-year-old TikTok user Ehiz Ufuah of the trend. “[The resurgence of these clips is] very nostalgic.”
When online video platforms like YouTube became popular in Nigeria, Nollywood made a necessary pivot away from DVDs and VHS to embrace digital outlets like YouTube and, most recently, Netflix, meaning accessing Nollywood content became easier than ever before. Digital archivists like Nollybabes, YungNollywood and EstateFeverComedy, to name a few, seized this opportunity. Selecting clips and stills from the films that serve unique yet relatable drama to post online, these Instagram and Twitter accounts brought Nollywood into the global mainstream consciousness. And now, TikTok is taking on the trend.
Scrolling through your feed, you’ll probably find it difficult to avoid the most famous Nollywood TikTok sounds. One variation of the “Why are you running?” sound from 2014 comedy Pretty Liars, for instance, has been used in over 72,000 videos. In the clip, Nollywood actress Funke Akindele can be heard yelling, while a man she’s offended angrily asks her why she’s running away from him. Since it landed on the platform, TikTok users have repurposed the sound to depict scenes in which people dramatically run away from anything and everything, whether they’re escaping parents trying to scold them or fearing old age. And of course, the sound has also been turned into a beat that TikTokers can dance to.
More recently, the “You stink with poverty” sound has been working its way up the Nollywood TikTok ranks. Originally uploaded by Nollybabes, the viral clip is taken from the famous female-led film Girl’s Cot and is the perfect way to explain what Nollywood movies are like – particularly those from the late 2000s to early 2010s. It’s over-the-top, dramatic and practically a ready-made meme.
“We’re not surprised,” says Nollybabes’ co-founder Tochi Anueyiagu of the account’s success. The 31-year-old runs Nollybabes with her sister Ebele Anueyiagu. Their account is one of the biggest digital spaces where Nollywood clips and pictures are given a strong feminist twist, focusing on the sass, the fashion and, of course, the hyperbolic drama Nollywood is known for. “[We] have always been about not only showcasing iconic Nollywood fashion moments, but also the attitude and confidence of the women in those films. Many scenes and scripts are about badass women living life on their terms.”
In many Nollywood films, the goal is to instill a moral lesson. This often means incorporating spiritual beliefs, religious bigotry and harmful stereotypes, such as misogyny, sexism, homophobia and ableism, all of which populate much of Nigeria’s mainstream politics today. But alongside this harmful messaging, female characters from old Nollywood films are often portrayed with edge, agency and unabashed comfort in expressing their sexuality, even though they might have been crafted for cautionary tales. As such, when taken out of context and subverted for comedy, they embody many values that resonate with young Nigerians today.
“Nollywood content, specifically the era we choose to celebrate on Nollybabes, is loved across cultures because it focuses for the most part on beautiful, interesting women with entertaining stories,” Ebele tells THE FACE. “Everyone loves that! It’s aesthetically pleasing, as well as interesting and, at times, funny. That translates across boundaries and cultures.”
The Nigerian film industry is one of the biggest in the world, boasting over 1500 movie releases per year, but it’s still in its infancy in terms of world-class production, story developments, revenue generation and transition to global markets.
But more investment is coming. Nollywood’s influence on social media has meant that what was once local now has immense global merit – and the entertainment industry’s major players are listening. In early 2020, streaming giant Netflix showed a commitment to investing in Nollywood content when it rolled out plans for upcoming original Nollywood projects produced by Netflix. This is in addition to the acquisition of over 40 Nollywood films – from blockbusters to indie projects – that Netflix users around the world now have access to.
Although Netflix knocking on the doors of Nollywood is a good thing, big budgets and high production value is not what makes Nigeria’s film industry special. There’s the tenacity of the actors, who work against low budgets to provide stellar entertainment. There are the audiences, for whom Nollywood provides a great source of enjoyment, in spite of the emergence of media imported from the West. And there’s overdramatised storylines that do the unexpected work of providing a multi-layered understanding of what it means to be a Nigerian: the constant drive for success, the often-materialistic way we express love, and an unbending faith in the spiritual.
For Ufuah, it’s the global interest in these qualities that makes Nollywood’s social media popularity so exciting, as users from different cultures discover the industry for the first time. “The videos on TikTok have encouraged other people to [also] use the sound and discover the film, no matter their race or background,” he says. “It’s great to see these films being reborn and people enjoying the beauty of organic Nigerian culture and entertainment.”