Yemi Solade’s extensive career, spanning stage, television, and big screen productions, reflects his significant contributions to the growth of Nollywood and the broader Nigerian entertainment industry. His diverse experience likely brings a rich perspective to the evolution of the Nigerian entertainment landscape.
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 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.
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.
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.