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Our feature for the week is Bolaji kekere Ekun, the creative visionary who straddles the media production and entrepreneurial world. His is definitely an interesting story, with one of the highlights being his collaboration with Sean Combs aka P. Diddy earlier this year. We hope you enjoy it!
Let’s begin with introductions. Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Bolaji Kekere Ekun and I’m a film maker who also runs a media production company.
Did you always live outside Nigeria?
I was born in the UK but attended primary and secondary school in Nigeria and then returned to the UK for my A levels. I subsequently attended the University of Leicester where I graduated with a degree in English Literature. I worked in London for a year at an oil trading company and whilst working, I began exploring what I wanted to do my Masters degree in. I narrowed down my choices to the three things that I enjoyed, which were watching movies, making music and writing. The course that married all three passions together was film and so I headed to the University of South Carolina in LA, for a Master’s degree in Film & Television Production.
To be honest I really wanted to study Law but my grades from A levels were not good enough. However, I actually scored the highest in English Literature in my school for that year (making me very attractive to the Universities I applied to) and so I decided to study English Literature. I do believe that studying English literature was the best thing that happened to me because with the course, you learn a lot of history as well, you learn the history of religion, the history of human interaction, it really trains your mindset and I think that was an invaluable asset for me.
I certainly agree seeing as that was also what I studied as an undergraduate. So, what does a Master’s in film entail?
Considering that only about 50-60 are admitted per year at USC, I was very fortunate to get in. We are currently the number 1 film school in the world and so it is a very competitive school/field. Admittedly, it was a little rough for me in the beginning but I eventually found my footing. You learn everything from directing to editing, cinematography, sound design etc and get taught by working professionals in the industry. And you make a lot of films.
Alright! So what came next after your Master’s degree?
I moved back to Nigeria. While in graduate school, I had written a script for my thesis and I felt a bit incomplete because I didn’t make a thesis film like the rest of my colleagues were doing, so when I got back to Nigeria I immediately wanted to make a film. I quickly wrote a script, got a crew together and shot my first film. I then noticed that the cultural scene in Nigeria was experiencing a little renaissance. The music scene was massive, the fashion and art scenes were growing, there were so many events happening and no one was documenting any of it, so I decided to start attending events with my camera, documenting them, and posting online. A few people got interested and I started getting calls to shoot several events and make documentaries or films for people’s brands, which eventually gave birth to the production company. I knew when moving back to Nigeria that I needed something other than making films as a steady source of income and with that in mind I worked my around to building 37thstate.
Interesting…Considering that you could have gone anywhere else what made you decide to move back to Nigeria?
For me, I was never really away from Nigeria. I never saw myself as someone who ever left Nigeria because whilst in school abroad, I always came back, I was always in touch with Nigeria and I never really wanted to stay abroad and so it was always my plan to come back and try to make a difference at home. Also, while I was in LA, I realized that to tell Nigerian stories authentically, I had to come back to Nigeria.
Having always been in touch with Nigeria, what was your experience starting a business? Did you find it an advantage?
My first short film in Nigeria was really my introduction to the hurdles of starting a business here. We were shooting on a beach, there was no power; we had to take a generator out there with us at extra costs and we did this daily. I also had to deal with people being unprofessional with regards to work ethic, punctuality etcetera but I learned down the road that when you work with the right people in the industry, things are much better. This was my first go around and I didn’t have the right crew. With more experience in the industry, you learn how to adapt to whatever challenges arise. With 37th state, everything sort of grows organically. The more clients I get the more I expand the business. People tell me that’s a good way to go. I’m not really a business person so I’m learning on the job.
Ok. Tell us about your production company.
37th state is a media production company and it’s a collection of filmmakers who create online, TV, documentary and film content. We also promote urban and African culture and lifestyle through our blog. We showcase empowering images of Africa and Africans in fashion, music and more; It’s an image based blog and we feature a lot of photography and art. Africans can come to our site and be proud of their heritage and as a non- African, you can see a more global, relatable side of Africa, so we can begin to create a bridge between us and the rest of the world.
That’s certainly niche! Why did you feel the need to present a different dimension to the African story or image?
While abroad as an African, you get the sense that people don’t really respect your opinions in different fields. You get pigeon-holed into African affairs. As Africans, we have very unique perspectives that I think are very valuable and can impact the world if our voices are heard. Several contemporary fashion designers get their inspiration from Africa. Picasso for instance, got some of his inspiration from African art and there were a lot of things such as these that happened but no longer do, so I am just trying to balance the playing field. Consider that in the 70’s, Paul McCartney and the Beatles came and recorded an album in Lagos. Imagine Jay-Z coming to record an album in Lagos today because he respects it as a music capital? We should be trying to get back to the golden age where everyone’s opinions were respected.
Fascinating Stuff! How has the response been home and abroad?
It’s been very positive and has led to more opportunities for growth. With the blog, our audience is very engaged and they like our content. We will be recruiting contributors soon so keep an eye out! The production company is also doing well.
On a very exciting note, you were recently involved with the Sean John Campaign, can you tell us how that came to be?
I received an email from Sean John’s PR Company as they had seen my work online while searching for young individuals who were making an impact across the world in various fields to represent their brand. They already had three Americans and needed someone international. When I first received the email, I immediately thought it was a scam so I did all my research and was still apprehensive until my ticket worked at the airport, which was when I knew it was the real deal!
How was that whole experience for you? I can imagine it would have been quite exciting!
It certainly was! The reason my work is online is because I followed an instinct I had. When I made my first short film, everyone wanted me to sell it or do something else with it, but when I was making it, my idea was to have it online so it could reach a global audience. The idea behind 37th state is to represent African culture and lifestyle in an accessible way so that Africans and non-Africans can enjoy it as well. That film didn’t get that many views online but it got Sean John’s attention. Working through the campaign I felt a little strange because I’m not one to be in front of the camera, but it was an offer I wouldn’t have turned down for anything and in the end, everything turned out beautifully. All of us that participated donated the money we got paid to a charity of our choice; mine was the Bake For Change charity in Lagos who do fantastic work for the young and old, renovating schools and facilities as well as their famous Christmas drive where they distribute gifts to the kids in these facilites to spread some Christmas cheer.
That must have been some validation of your work. On a slightly different note, do you look for particular traits in who you work with, and how you go about recruiting the ‘right’ people?
In my personal life, I am very particular about the people that I spend time with and that has also gone into my work. The most important thing I look for is people who take pride in their work. This is important because these people will never deliver a sub standard product because they feel it will reflect badly on them. You have to take your work personal. So whatever obstacles come their way, their main focus is to do the best work they can first, and then worry about the problems (mostly money in Lagos) later. This is how I work and this is definitely what I look for in the people I work with and I am fortunate to have found a few people who share the same principles as I do in that regard.
Finally, what advice would you have for others who may be reading your story and are inspired by it to?
I would say, take time to think about what it is you want to do when you move back. Don’t just move back blindly, have a plan and when you come with your plan you are going to have to learn how to adapt because there will several obstacles. However, with hard work and staying true to your instincts, you would succeed. I find that when you are on a well thought out path, other opportunities always present themselves to you don’t necessarily plan but that wouldn’t otherwise have come your way if you didn’t have the courage to take the first step.
Many thanks for your time and best wishes moving forward.