Barely three months ago, entertainment loving Nigerians were gingered and making plans to attend a series of line-up events. The cultural calendar was rich with activities that, as usual - help Nigeria stands out.
Regrettably, events ranging from stage plays and festivals to live concerts have produced nothing but cancellation notices due to the coronavirus.
Still, Nigeria was on a rising trend of being a big name on the world cultural stage.
If you take your minds back to late last year, music lovers were blessed with Beyonce’s Lion King inspired album, which featured at least five Nigerian music acts.
Then you had Burna Boy; the country’s most popular act over the last 12 months, who had also gained more prominence on the world stage via affiliations with Apple and YouTube, as well as collaborations with Future, Dave and Jorja Smith. And of course, there was the Grammy nomination.
Both then and even now, we could say the entertainment industry had encountered the type of moment that transcends geography and language. And that’s no hyperbole.
But it's not just music that Nigeria has made a name for. Nollywood- Nigeria’s film industry is regarded as the third-largest in the world. Its popularity is best embodied by the recent entry of Netflix into Nigerian shores, suggesting that the film market could form a value proposition, as ongoing streaming wars has increased competition.
The creative growth has stood the test of time. As the influences and greatness of Nigeria’s literary creatives like Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe continue to boost the industry’s growing strength; the new generation consisting of people such as Chimamanda Adichie, Chigozie Obioma and Oyinkan Braithwaite keep the fire burning.
These achievements have made Nigeria emerge as one of the world’s culture capitals right before our eyes. Thus raising an important question: how can Nigeria curate and market this focus into something of solid substance?
Using popular culture as soft power
Throughout history, we have seen soft power used as a key tool for countries to tell their stories to an unwitting audience, building a degree of interest in the country.
Joseph Nye, a popular American political scientist highlighted popular culture’s importance as an avenue in international relations.
He argued that “American [U.S.] popular culture, embodied in products and communications, has widespread appeal. For instance, Soviet teenagers wear blue jeans and seek American recordings, and Chinese students used a symbol modelled on the Statue of Liberty during the 1989 uprisings.”
This popular cultural “appeal” allowed the United States “more opportunities to get its messages across and to affect the preferences of others”.
Another example of popular culture used as a tool for nation branding was Tony Blair’s ‘Cool Britannia’ campaign. It “invoked 1960s popular culture, including Britpop and 1960s fashion, to signify Britain’s, and specifically London’s, centrality to modern global culture in order, among other things, to increase inward economic investment”.
The Nigerian creative story right now is one of resilience and creative excellence. We find Nigerian music playing in places as obscure as Beijing night clubs and Oxford street shops. The movie industry with little or no government support trudged on, despite distribution challenges, to the current status of one of the world's best.
Feats like these portray invaluable marketing brownie points and the opportunity to weave narratives that help to showcase the Nigerian spirit positively.
These acts sell Nigerians, their excellence and love for fun in a more effective fashion than any marketing campaign could. Remember the attention we got when we released the last World Cup football jersey? Creativity.
The selling points of soft power
Popularity and influence are good, but converting these features to relevant economic indices, requires deeper thinking.
The 2014 recalculation of the Nigerian Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which made the country's economy the largest on the continent overnight was primarily due to factoring in booming industries like telecommunications and film.
Outside of Agriculture, Nollywood is Nigeria’s second-largest employer, and it generates $600 million annually.
Although hindered by the "Nigerian factor", and issues like piracy and access to funding, these achievements were made.
If the continent and the larger world is dancing to Nigerian music, sharing Aki and Paw Paw memes and getting in the jollof wars, it speaks to reason that this interest must be engaged.
Our culture and tourism ministry should be engaging the Foreign Affairs ministry and coordinating the country's embassies towards selling these Nigerian stories and narratives that the larger world is already vaguely familiar with.
A great example can be made of Edo state, which is pitching a royal museum to showcase the rich and much-vaunted Benin art spread across the world.
The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has also recognised the importance of the industry. It collaborated with banks in the country to set up a Creative Industry Financing Initiative (CIFI). The initiative caters to all creatives. A film distributor can, for instance, get a loan of up to ₦500 million from his bank, through the scheme.
Asides the CIFI, the Bank of Industry (BOI) also has the “nollyfund”- which are loans channelled to the Nollywood industry alone.
Why does soft power matter?
Not to undermine the importance of hard power- like the military or economic significance. After all, they protect our land territories and partly earned us the nickname “Big brother” and “Giant of Africa.”
However, the most obvious reason to boost soft power is for economic benefit. On a more subtle front, soft power has a role to play in diplomatic relations. This is particularly valuable in conversations where cultural and diplomatic affinity carries more weight than coercion and sheer heft.
A leaf could be taken from pre World War II Japan which presented itself as the “liberator” of Asia, owing to its status as the only modernised Asian state to have escaped Western colonialism. This act of national branding won it the 1940 Olympics before they were later abandoned.
Nigeria's voice is being heard. Examples like the Oscar academy voting membership recently conferred on Omotola Jalade Ekeinde, shows that global attention has turned our way.
The next step is to incorporate these significant levels of influence in our branding. Leveraging it will not only allow Nigeria, to truly position itself as the leader of the continent, but it will also help the country take the place of increased prominence on the global stage, and in high powered conversations.
Follow this writer on Twitter @MayowaIdowu.