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On Writing a Prescient Film: Kayode Jegede, Co-writer of “Gangs of Lagos” in Conversation with Afrocritik

On Writing a Prescient Film: Kayode Jegede, Co-writer of “Gangs of Lagos” in Conversation with Afrocritik

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“Our responsibility as storytellers is to present a world that’s true and authentic, and whose characters represent the visceral reality of that world, which is what I hope we’ve been able to do…

By Seyi Lasisi

Hours after Gangs of Lagos, Prime Video’s debut African original, started streaming, Nollywood-related notifications from my social media pages were preaching a parallel message: Jade Osiberu had created another masterpiece. Following the pathway of its forerunners, Kings of Boys, Shanty Town, and Brotherhood, Osiberu’s film easily won the admiration of the Nigerian audience. To my delight, these highly generous tweets left no stone unturned in their praises of the effort put into making of the film. Each department of the film (actors, editors, costume designers, and SFX artists) received rightly-deserved praise. However, on closer inspection, there was a drought of tweets targeted at one of the writers of the film. Jade Osiberu, who was inspired to create the film while shooting Gidi Up in Isale Eko, is earning the right accolade. But, how about Kayode Jegede? Who is talking about Kayode Jegede?

This curiosity, particularly, nudged me into seeking out Kayode Jegede who co-wrote the script of Gangs of Lagos’s with Jade Osiberu. Writers have a preference for an incognito lifestyle. They are barely in the spotlight when a film gains critical and mass appeal. However, do writers crave this detachment from the spotlight? Jegede has an answer: “I find that writers by nature prefer to be out of the spotlight.”

Gangs of Lagos trails the life of Oba (Tobi Bakre), Ify (Chike), and Gift (Adesua Etomi-Wellington) as they come to terms with the cruel realities of life in their immediate community, Isale Eko. In my review of Gangs of Lagos, a point I brought to the fore was that, beyond its infusion of fictitious filmmaking elements, Jade Osiberu’s Gangs of Lagos, “is a cinematic exploration of our lives as Nigeria.” Viewers of Gangs of Lagos have in different word sequences echoed the same point. When I asked Kayode Jegede about the intimate relationship the film has with Nigerian politics, he said, “we’re just showing what happens, and sure enough, the cycle repeats itself.”

In this exclusive with Afrocritik, Kayode Jegede spoke about writing the script of Gangs of Lagos, the subtle foreshadowing of the Nigerian general elections, and his response to the criticisms leveled at Gangs of Lagos from government circles.


It’s barely a week since its debut on Prime Video, and the buzz on social media is endless. Almost every notification from my Twitter handle has been about Gangs of Lagos. As a writer, how do you feel about the attention the film is receiving?

It’s been incredibly humbling.  It’s been beautiful to see how much Nigerians love this story, but the support from around Africa has been moving, too.  Even more mind-blowing has been the reception around the world. From the US to the UK, to Canada, to Kazakhstan, Bahrain, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, Australia, and everywhere in between.

Before we discuss your project, let’s take a moment to talk about you. For people who didn’t know you prior to watching Gangs of Lagos, who is Kayode Jegede?

Kayode is a writer and screenwriter who’s passionate about telling stories about colourful characters and cultures not often seen in mainstream media, i.e., ours [Nollywood.]  I was born in London but grew up in Lagos and returned to the UK at 15, and then moved to the States at 19, before doing my masters back in the UK and then working in Nigeria for several years. I’ve lived in the Netherlands and the UK since.

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Kayode Jegede
Distinct personal experiences, oftentimes, influence our life choices as humans. What personal experience set you on the path of screenwriting and writing generally? 

I’ve always written. I don’t remember a time that I didn’t obsess over being a novelist or journalist or writer of some sort.  While I was studying for my master’s, I randomly came across a blog that I thought was engaging and interesting, with the coolest narrator and supporting characters.  I started a blog on the spot (mind you it was the first time that I had ever seen/heard of a blog).  The blog was a diary of sorts and told stories about my alter ego and his colourful group of friends and family members.  It took off like wildfire, and reading the comments every day confirmed to me that writing was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.  My favourite writer contacted me and said she loved the blog and my mind was blown.  It became real.

Writing can be a solitary endeavour. In most film industries, screenwriters often don’t get immediate recognition for the story or a fair share of the “fame” when the film gets successful. Do you have a personal experience on this?

I find that writers by nature prefer to be out of the spotlight.  It’s show business, right, so the guys onscreen and the directors are front-facing and responsible for the glamour and the fame.  We’re the guys in the engine room, and what people don’t realise is that filmmaking isn’t glamorous. It’s long days and nights of dog work, but the audience sees the two hours onscreen and the red carpet pictures. That really is just the cherry on top. It’s funny that writers aren’t famous to the public but we get a lot of love and recognition from the people on set; the artists with whom we collaborate. They know how integral the screenwriter is to each project.

I Am Mary is one of the projects you had written and co-written before Gangs of Lagos. Co-writing does enrich the story but also has its drawbacks. Share with us how this has enhanced or impaired your creativity. 

I think it depends on the project.  I do prefer to write on my own but have co-written and also been in writers’ rooms for TV series. Some of those have been bad, to be honest. When you’re collaborating with the right people, though, it can be beautiful. Co-writers present scenarios and characters that you might never have previously thought about, and that synergy can be magical. You also learn to trust other people. There were things that Jade suggested in the Gangs of Lagos‘s script that I disagreed with initially, but when I saw the finished product I understood why she had such strong convictions about them; because they really worked.  That’s the benefit of working with the right collaborators.

Gangs of Lagos is Prime Video’s first African Original, and working on this project must have been a trailblazing experience. How do you see this shaping your career from here?

The reception has been incredible, but I think my career is a small factor in the big picture.  Personally, my dream is pretty simple; to get to tell these stories and share them with the world.  The big picture however, is that the reception has shown that people all over the world will sit and watch a story unfold for two hours if it’s good; whether it’s in Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, or Efik.  That’s the beauty of good storytelling; a guy in South Korea can watch and enjoy it and be entertained by it because ultimately people are the same everywhere.  That’s what I’m most excited about; the idea that more storytellers from our side of the world will get to share great films with the world.

Jade Osiberu, one of the outstanding filmmakers in the industry, first teased the idea that morphed into Gangs of Lagos while filming Gidi Up in Isale Eko. How did you get on board this project? What was your experience working with her? 

Jade and I have known each other for five, maybe six years, and had always talked about working together at some point.  She got in touch about Gangs of Lagos a couple of years ago, and it was an exciting conversation. I got the sense that Jade got it and had the right sense of the world and story that she was trying to tell. I’m a big fan of the world and genre so I think we both got off the call feeling that this would be the right fit for both of us. Working with Jade was special as she’s a really pragmatic producer with a good sense of what she wants to see onscreen, but also really respectful of your talent, so she listens a lot. We work brilliantly together; each of us really just lets the other get on with it and you just always feel that some magic will come out of it. I’m really proud of her.

In a recent interview, Osiberu said Gangs of Lagos is a character study of Isale Eko. How reflective is the film in its portrayal of these characters, especially Oba, in representing Isale Eko?

Like Jade said, the film just reflects reality. I never want to write a story that moralises or pontificates; I don’t know the good nor bad guy. I just present the world; you decide who’s who. Our responsibility as storytellers is to present a world that’s true and authentic, and whose characters represent the visceral reality of that world, which is what I hope we’ve been able to do.

The characters Oba, Ify, and Gift share a deep bond. The trio’s relationship is one of the most interesting arcs in the plot. What about their childhood experience were you trying to capture?

The innocence of childhood, I think. You’re born into a world and you just accept that it’s your world. You have dreams that are based off of films you watch or pictures you see in the paper, or flashy personalities you come across in the street. But ultimately you are bound by the pressures of your environment. This was an interesting thing for me, and thematically, Jade loved the idea of ‘destiny.’  What destiny are you presented with if you come from this world? What are the options? Kids don’t know this, though, so they dream anyway.

There seems to be no backstory for Gift’s character. Was this a deliberate choice?

When you’re telling a 120-minute story, you’re bound by the constraints of time, so you don’t necessarily get to dig deep into every character’s origin story. The back story is what the audience deduces from the screen; this is a kid who’s born into a certain world, and these are her friends.  Sometimes that’s enough.

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The film’s uncanny representation of the just-concluded Nigerian general elections has been the subject of discussions. Was this premeditated while writing the script? How did the script become that “prophetic”?

I think it’s interesting when people call the film prophetic.  It’s the same way Fela Kuti’s music is often deemed prescient, but it’s just an accurate reflection of our world.  These events aren’t new, and in fact, are probably as consistent here as death and taxes, so we’re not predicting anything. We’re just showing what happens, and sure enough, the cycle repeats itself.

The Lagos State government and two organisations came out to criticise Gangs of Lagos for “the cultural misrepresentation in the film.” How do you view these criticisms?

I think if people watched the film and looked critically at the story, they’d see that there was no disrespect intended to the Yoruba culture or the people of Lagos. I’m an obsessive student of our culture, mythology, and traditions so why would we disrespect it? We present the people in the film who denigrate the Eyo costume and customs as despicable criminals, and the narrator even describes Eyo as “our most beloved Orisha.” I think a key gripe with the wording is that he also refers to them as ‘our first gang.’  The word here is not negative; it could well be ‘our first army,’ or ‘our first group.’ Context is important, and I hope that our critics will realise that we love Lagos, and that telling a story that’s a reflection of the world does not equate to disrespecting your people.

Nollywood seems to have found a gold mine in crime thrillers with films and series like Brotherhood, Shanty Town, The Trade, and now Gangs of Lagos gaining traction and positive reception from audiences. As a writer, do you feel pressured to follow this trend?  

Not at all.  It’s my favourite genre to watch and also to write, but trends aren’t my thing. I have several projects on slate over the next couple of years, as does Jade, and you can expect a mix of different titles, genres, and subgenres. The common denominator would be the telling of stories that reflect our colourful cultures and people in mainstream media.

(Gangs of Lagos is currently streaming on Prime Video)

 

Seyi Lasisi is a Nigerian student with an obsessive interest in Nigerian and African films as an art form. His film criticism aspires to engage the subtle and obvious politics, sentiments, and opinions of the filmmaker to see how it aligns with reality. He tweets @SeyiVortex. Email: seyi.lasisi@afrocritik.com.

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