Ikenna Azuike is the quintessential African Renaissance man. After abandoning a high-flying career as a lawyer, Ikenna followed his passion for comedy and created the highly acclaimed, hilarious video blog What’s Up Africa (proud by Radio Netherlands Worldwide). Building on the style of satirical news shows like Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, Ikenna made his international fanbase roar with laughter. Using comedy as a vehicle for social commentary, he has delighted viewers with sketches parodying everyone from priests to presidents. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng recently spoke to Ikenna about his personal journey and how his heritage influences his work.
Akinyi: It’s almost a shock to hear your British accent after some of the hilarious parodies on your show. Can you tell me a little bit about your family background and where you grew up?
Ikenna: My dad is Nigerian and my mum is half-German, half-Ukrainian. They met in the UK, but eventually decided to move to Nigeria for eleven years. I was born in Nigeria and lived there until I was seven years old when all three of us moved back to the UK. My dad is from Imo State and is Igbo.
Akinyi: How did you identify with the two aspects of your heritage growing up? Did you lean more towards one side or the other?
Ikenna: I identified not so much with the German/Ukrainian side, but with the British side. We would come on holiday to the UK from a very young age. It’s beautiful to be able to dip into different cultures and enjoy aspects of both cultures. It was never an issue for me – it just made life more fun! I got to have different holidays.
My parents always tell me that the day we were leaving to move to the UK I made them cry by saying “I don’t want to leave Nigeria. It’s my country!” That was pretty strong for an eight-year-old, but that is where I was born so I’ve always felt as though I do have Nigerian roots but I’ve been very happy to identify with the British side of my upbringing as well. When we moved to the UK, we moved to a little town called Guilford, which is super-white and doesn’t have many black people, but I’ve only ever had good memories of my school days. Many people just found it exotic that I was a kid from Nigeria, but I haven’t gotten, to be honest, the stories that many Africans might tell of people asking them if they had lions in their garden or something. I know it does happen to many people, so maybe I’ve just been super lucky.
Akinyi: What lead you to start What’s Up Africa?
Ikenna: I was a lawyer in the US and I had been unhappy for a long time. I never really felt as though it was particularly fulfilling or rewarding. I had challenging work, a good pension and a good salary, but there was a big part of me that was missing. I was just a different person at the office versus outside. I was trying to figure out what was missing then went soul-searching and realized that I wasn’t happy with my job and wanted to reconnect with the person I used to be. When I was younger, I used to enjoy making people laugh and listening to my parents talk about Nigerian politics and news. I considered studying English at university with a mind to maybe becoming a journalist or maybe having some kind of international career that would allow me to travel in and around the continent. But you know what African parents are like… you’ve got to be a lawyer, you’ve got to a doctor or some other kind of health or finance professional…
But the moment came when I decided that I was super fed up and needed to do something else and that was the opportunity to start a new career. I became a journalism intern at Radio Netherlands (rnw.org). I’ve always loved The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. It’s such a fresh way to inform people about serious issues and have a laugh at the same time. I thought: “hey, let’s do the same for the entire continent of Africa!” Sounds reasonable, right? [Laughs]
Akinyi: What are a few of your favorite topics that you’ve covered on the show?
Ikenna: I hate disingenuous, millionaire pastors, so any opportunity I get to weave my pastor character into the story, I grab it! It irritates me how religion is often used as a tool for some people to enrich themselves at the cost of entire communities of people who can barely afford to send their kids to school let alone give a big chunk of their income to millionaire pastors so they can buy new jets.
I made a trip to Angola this year which switched me on to a lot of issues surrounding freedom of expression and civil rights in Angola. I’ve enjoyed poking fun at the Angolan president, which is always rewarding.
Apart from the satirical stuff, I also enjoyed a collaboration I did with a Nigerian video blogger called Molly Balogun. We did a My Fair Lady, Nigerian-style called My Fair Naija Boy. The main character is Emeka Doolittle, who attempts to become a proper naija boy.
Akinyi: How receptive do you think Africans have been to the program? Is it mainly watched by people in the diaspora?
Ikenna: It’s crazy, you know. People have super responsive and supportive. When you look at the make-up of the Facebook fan page, it’s around 87,000 of which the biggest fan base is in Nigeria, then Kenya, then you get a bit of diaspora mainly in the US and UK, then it comes back to Africa (mostly Uganda, Ghana, and South Africa) before going back to the diaspora in the Netherlands and a few other places.
When I get trolls or people saying nasty things on the YouTube channel, sometimes I share it on the Facebook page and then the community supports me by saying “what are you doing? This guy is great!” Those kinds of things are inspirational because there was always an issue of authenticity. I’ve got a thick British accent and hadn’t been back to Nigeria until recently this year.
Akinyi: When you went back to Nigeria, did anything surprise you?
Ikenna: I’ve always said, quite conveniently because I hadn’t been in a while, that there was no need to be physically in Nigeria. I’ve always had Nigerian friends and family around me and my dad has always told me “Ikenna, don’t worry. Build your career. Nigeria is not going anywhere. Just take your time.” That being said, I was surprised at how I felt when I was visiting recently which made me realize that I do want to go back more often. There really is no substitute for experiencing people, conversations, food, and traffic first-hand. There is an authenticity about it. It’s just such a warming feeling to be greeted by other people saying “welcome home.” That’s beautiful.
Akinyi: You’ve mentioned the ways in which you think your Nigerian heritage shaped your upbringing, but how do you think that your heritage will influence the way you raise your daughter?
Ikenna: I want my daughter to be very aware of her dad’s Nigerian roots and I would like for us as a family to go back to visit in the not-too-distant future. Speaking Igbo is something that I unfortunately can’t pass on to her, but who knows how things will pan out? Maybe if I do spend more time in Nigeria in the coming decade or two, I will pick up some more Igbo and she will learn it. I want her to be aware of her grandpa’s roots, his culture and as a result, my roots and my culture as well as how intensely proud I am of being Nigerian despite the challenges Nigeria seems to face.
Akinyi: This is the Pride issue, so I just want to conclude by asking about some of your favorite aspects of African culture! What’s your favorite African meal?
Ikenna: Now we’re getting to the gritty stuff! I love jollof rice. I have one particular auntie who makes it so well. I always thought my mum was a bit uncomfortable about me saying that, but her jollof rice is not as good. She makes excellent soups, which is maybe second on my list of foods because I love okra soup, but good jollof rice is my favorite. That and maybe dried goat meat. It’s making my mouth water just to think about it.
Akinyi: Jollof rice is also one of my personal favorites. One more food-related question: pounded yam or rice?
Ikenna: That’s a tough one. It depends on how recently I’ve had it. But if I haven’t had both for four-and-a-half years (I don’t know why four-and-a-half, but let’s go with it), I would go for pounded yam.
Akinyi: Lastly, who is your favorite African author?
Ikenna: Without a doubt, it has to be Chimamanda. It’s very topical today because of the new Beyoncé release. I was interviewed recently by CNN for African Voices and they asked me about my heroes and heroines and I mentioned her. Half of A Yellow Sun had such an impact on me as well as that TED talk where she so eloquently talked about the African narrative.