He has remained on top of his game for decades and has wined and dined with kings and queens, presidents and business leaders from across the world. But Ali Baba, who is rated as Nigeria’s number one comedian, proves he is more than just an entertainer in this interview with SEGUN ADEBAYO.
From the look of things, comedy does not pay the bills for you again. You have diversified. You have also taken the Ali Baba brand to a new level as you now speak at seminars, deliver lectures and nurture the young minds. What prompted this new chapter in your life or can I call it a new calling?
It is not a new calling. I have been doing this ever since I came into Lagos in 1990. What is happening now is that there is a more visible platform that allows a lot more people to see what I have been doing and also allows them to share in my experience. I live by one of many mantras. If your success doesn’t make others succeed, you have failed. Regarding my brand, building a brand takes a lot of work. You have to keep it a recognised, engaged and relevant brand. So, it has to be dynamic. That’s what I have been doing with the Ali Baba brand.
You also starred in a movie recently. Are we going to be seeing more of Ali Baba in movies now or it was just a one-off thing?
You may not see me in many as it would make me a regular actor. I acted on television back in the days with Honourbales in the 1990s. I also acted in my first movie role with Rita Dominic in My Guy. There were different issues at play then. And one was that I needed to find a good way to find money. Acting at the time was and still is a labour of love. We shot My Guy for about three weeks. The Wedding that I just featured in was about the same time.
How would you compare the fees you got to star in the movie to what you receive being an MC?
The fees you get for the roles are not even up to what you get when you mcee an event.
What made you to take the role? Could it have been the money?
I accepted the role because Mo’ Abudu has been a benefactor from the days of ESSO petroleum in the 90s when she used my services as MC and comedian for the firm’s events. We also have been friends. So when she asked me to come and be in the movie, I said yes! She said she told her person I was the person who could pull the role through. It was never about the money. We shot the movie for three weeks. The actors are really trying.
A lot of celebrities have complained about the biting economic condition and how its effect has left them with limited jobs. In fact, it was reported that some of them now prefer to do shows abroad because of the exchange rate. What do you think about this development?
The lifestyle of all and sundry gets affected by economic dictates. The liquidity of every society defines the amount spent on entertainment. However, certain artistes have managed to build a career that can absorb the effect of economic downturns, either because they invested well, had multiple streams of incomes, created a lot of opportunities for themselves in the face of the hard times or kept something aside for rainy days. The things also have to do with the intelligence of the financial intelligence of the artiste. You should know what sells, no matter the economy. Know who buys and the prices to charge. Experience comes in and helps to manage the financial downturn. The problem usually is when an artiste fails to see the handwriting on the wall and doesn’t create a formula that helps to see him through the highs and the lows.
How has this economic downturn affected your trade personally?
Yes, it has affected my job but not significantly because the people some of the A list artistes play to are not usually and easily affected by economic storms. They live above those. That’s why those people still fly first class or buy cars in the multiple. We play to different clientele.
You don’t appear to be giving up your number one status. You have managed to sustain it for many years. It seems your colleagues in the comedy business may have to try hard to knock you out of the game. Do you see this happening?
I am not in a contest to be number one. I also do not go out each day thinking I must be number one. That will be a recipe for disaster. Instead, I continuously maintain my creativity in the dynamic straits while making sure every event I do speaks for itself. By the way, there was a time a lot of people thought I had quit comedy, which was when Bunmi Davies came up with my performing for six hours and not repeating a joke. Sometimes, things like that help to shore up your confidence. I don’t see anything happening because like they say, what does a cheetah have to prove in a race? That said, if the cheetah stops running, it will get rustic and then drop form. So, the golden rule is to be constantly funny because you are as good as your last joke. Usain Bolt is the fastest man alive. Given and accepted. But if he stops running, whoever is breasting the tape is the fastest. So the work is in staying ahead for as long as you are ahead.
You usually give shows to some of your colleagues, especially the junior ones. How do you strike a balance in order not to be perceived as being partial?
It depends on the strength of the comedian. There are certain audiences that inform the kind of comedian that is needed or even the MC for that matter. An A event requires an A class MC, you can even get away with a B class MC but he will have to be on his A game to let people know he’s A class lower. If you have a C class event and you want an A class MC, that will be at the discretion of the person requested because the C class event may not want to give A fees. I consider language, experience, sense of humour and spontaneity. There is also the issue of who needs it most. Some may need a lifeline than others. Also, the contact may have mentioned who they are looking for and ask who do I think will be best for their event. The other aspect of the recommendations is integrity and growth of the industry. If I charge N100, 000 and a client is begging for N40, 000, the truth is I sure have things N40, 000 will do for me. But the harm it will do for the younger generation is worse. If Ali Baba charges N40, 000, then it automatically means younger colleagues can take N10, 000 or N20, 000. The other angle is that I am in a better place and more comfortable to take that amount since I am not under pressure to meet some needs like the younger ones would do. I don’t need clothes to impress. I don’t pay rent. You know I live with my wife; she feeds and clothes me, so what else do I need? These guys have dependants, so that N40, 000 will make a huge difference to him.
At this point of your career, what else could you possibly wish for?
I wish that piracy laws were tougher. I wish that television stations will go into partnerships with comedians and flood our late nights with talk shows. I wish that the government will make policies to grow the entertainment sector. I wish that National Theatre, the only hub of arts still standing, can become a platform for all practitioners. I wish it can become like the National Stadium of the arts.
What about your industry, a lot of your colleagues have been accused of copying jokes, what do you have to say about the continuos rise of social media comedians?
Comedians should begin to stop copying jokes already told. Let’s leave that for the social media comedians. They should get spontaneous and keep kicking out at least three new jokes a day. And this can only come from having an open mind and a creative filter to suck in all that happens around them, milk out the humour in them and throw in more punch lines.
You are always airing your views about government policies-the good and bad ones. You have been very blunt in your attack of some of these policies. What can you say about Nigerian government and do you think there is light at the end of the tunnel?
This government can’t do more than the oil price dictates. Is President Buhari going to force the oil of price to $150 per barrel? If the price remains as it is and the whole economy is driven by that single catalyst called oil, is Buhari going to print money to make up the shortfall? We were in a terrible state long ago! Remember, when a former Minister of State for Finance, Remi Babalola, said Nigeria was broke in 2010, we had six years to do something about it but the ostrich mentality kicked in and we kicked him out. Was he not right? Your economy will hit the rocks if you do not grow SMEs, invest in infrastructure, create enabling environment, strengthen your laws, punish corrupt people and have policies that shore up the value of naira. Instead, what did we do? We were sharing money that should have been invested in the Niger Delta to a few. Over N700 billion was wasted on amnesty. If you go to the Niger Delta and spend that amount, will you not see remarkable change in the lives of the people? Instead, the money was given to some militants’ lords to become mega billionaires. Today, the people they told us they were fighting for are still in the creeks. To answer you directly, this government cannot do anything magical with the way oil prices are. It’s like having an overhead in your house that comes to N250,000 every month and your salary is N350, 000. You manage well and can save something for a rainy day. Now, your salary gets slashed to 100,000 and you are still maintaining the N250,000 monthly running costs and you have outstanding salaries of domestic staff. You have school fees to pay, plus people who are diverting the small thing that you make. The light at the end of the tunnel is not even there! When you can’t generate 5000 megawatts of power? When countries not as populated as ours are doing 25,000 megawatts from nuclear power plants and another 10,000 from solar… If the oil runs dry right now, how many states can survive on their IGR? Lagos State can. But there lies the biggest problem. All the night buses will come into Lagos filled to the brim with people seeking to survive on that Lagos’ IGR.
What should we be expecting from Ali Baba’s spontaneity this year?
Spontaneity filters into January 1st. As usual, we will be chronicling the highlights of the year, celebrating the New Year of course; we also wish to give 10 lucky people whose birthday is on January 1st. N100,000 each. Last year, we celebrated the best pick among the male musicians. This year, we will select the best female voices. If you want to know who they are, be there on January 1st. Then the winner of spontaneity gets a brand new car and the runners up will get cash prizes. And as usual, we will give one person who graduated with First Class N1 million. This year’s edition will be different.