Iconic actor, Modestus Kanayochukwu Onyekwere, popularly known as KOK, has truly come a long way. Besides being one of those who pioneered what all of us are celebrating today as Nollywood, the gifted thespian who has featured in over 200 flicks was also part of the then leading TV series like The Masquerade and so on. Idolized at home and eulogized abroad, the Federal Government of Nigeria has appreciated his good works with a national honour of Member of the Federal Republic and chairmanship of National Institute of Hospitality and Tourism Studies.
In his 50s and still looking very good, Kanayo .O. Kanayo, like he enjoys being addressed, over a drink at Jevinik Restaurant (on Isaac John, Ikeja GRA, Lagos) on Tuesday, December 2, 2014, shared his thoughts and time with YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE. It was a no holds-barred session which we know you will enjoy. Come with them…
How would you define acting?
Acting? Whaaooh! That’s a very, very tasking one. I’m gonna define acting from both the intellectual perspective and the practical experience. For me, I think acting is living a role. That’s the intellectual perspective. Then, from the practical experience, I will describe acting as the art of playing the role of a person in real life as if you were there when the action took place. For instance, an accident happened at Ojuelegba (in Lagos) and you were not there and somebody who was there wrote it down. A script writer did it; you were now called to come and re-enact the scene of what you never saw. That’s practically what acting is. Yeah!
Now, what makes a good actor?
Your ability to assume that responsibility of the character, your ability to transform from who you really are to the person who is being talked about in the script; your ability to assume a character that should not on a normal day be who you are. That’s a good actor. Your ability to convince whoever is watching you that you are just that person who you talk about. So, a good actor is a good performer.
What do you like most about being an actor?
The ability to express myself, the ability to be a voice for the voiceless, the ability to speak for those who murmur, the ability to deliver a character and the man on the street sees you and says I love you!
Alright! What don’t you like about being an actor?
I will first of all tell you that I like a whole lot of things about being an actor. But I want to situate it between the Nigerian environment as popularity is looked at or sensed or as popularity is imagined. We live in an environment where people equate how popular you are with how much cash you have (General laughter). I dont like that as being an actor. We have an economy that is cash-driven. So, the question is always: how much cash do you have? I don’t like that about being an actor. You go to a public place, you played some roles so convincingly that people begin to adapt you to that and begin to act towards that your person; I don’t like that. A whole lot of things. But I think what I like about acting far out-weighs what I don’t like. I think that is just the joy. It brings so much joy, but on the level that you must and speak within our cultural imperatives and traditions. We need to begin to re-direct some attention about those who contribute intellectually and so on.
What is the greatest thing that being an actor has done for you?
Opening doors! Being an actor has given me access to the world, being an actor has given me not just fame, it has created goodwill for me. You go to a place, your name announces you that people even give their places for you to go in. For instance, I arrive at the American Embassy for an interview, Nigerians are so excited that the white guy over the counter says who is that? They say a Nigerian actor and he goes oooh! Pleasure! So, I’m standing where I am in the line and Nigerians say no, you can’t stand, you can’t stand, come and sit down. They would even want to trade in their places. It gives you joy; it’s a sense of worth, it’s a sense of ambassadorial expression; a manifestation that you wanna carry along. Even these days, the access I talk about…Most times I arrive at the immigration of the United Kingdom and the guy who is supposed to be stamping you in says hi Kanayo; how are you? Good to see you. Why are you here? Are you passing through or staying? They smile at you and they don’t ask you questions. Because as far as they are concerned, you are the guy they watch on TV, you can do no wrong and that’s what you have to maintain as an actor. So, that’s the joy it brings and that’s the access; that’s the voice…
What has being an actor not done for you?
(Silence) – I like the structure of your questions (Thanks). Let me also answer it simply. What has being an actor not done for you? It has not given me the empowerment to help as many people as I would want, it has not given me something that I will equate the access that it has granted me to, it has not helped me to turn my contacts into contracts. Being an actor has not helped me to turn my contacts into contracts, and by that, what I mean would be to be able to empower a whole lot of people. For instance, I wanna establish say an academy and so on. I should be so bankable that I could walk into a bank and say this is what I want to do. I will not be asked to bring a collateral.
Do not forget – part of the N300 million that was set aside then by the President (Dr. Goodluck Jonathan) ran into a lot of issues with the Bank of Industry. I think so, because actors, producers were asked to bring collateral. So, this has not granted me the access to use my name as a bankable product and a bankable asset. My name should speak. I should walk into a car company here, I don’t wanna mention names, a car company in any part of Nigeria with scripts and I say this is the car I want, this is how I intend to pay and my name and my word; but most especially my name and the structure of my project makes me wanna walk away with any car I want.
What is the commonest mistake that any actor can make?
The commonest mistake is to be buried in the euphoria of popularity. And if you want me to explain it – living in the world of eldorado, where you think that you will be popular forever or you think that the streaming of the income will continue as it used to. Times have changed between 1992 of Nollywood, of Living in Bondage in 2004 and 2014 of October 1st. So, if you are an actor who has made money over the years, you have not invested, the rainy day has come. And it has come for a lot of actors! The last 3, 4, 5 years. And more will come. So, that’s the commonest mistake an actor can make – not to know that you will quit the stage. Quitting the stage does not mean leaving Nollywood. Not to invest the time you are making the money. Popularity gives you this false sense of what the Igbos will call ‘ima kwa ndi anyi bu?’ Do know who we are? But when the chips are down, you can’t go to locations, either due to one illness, ailment or problem or crisis or challenge, you will not be able to pay your children’s school fees or meet with certain challenges because you have not invested.
What role must an actor not play?
Well, I want to say that the role you talk about here is definitive of acting…
Because I could define role from different perspectives. You must endeavour not to play roles for the sake of money. It’s very, very common for people to try to do certain things for monetary gains. An actor must not act in a role because of pecuniary purposes. If you are broke, there’s a way to go about it. When people are broke, they can do a lot of things. So, an actor must endeavour not to play a role because there are bills to pay. You must play a role because there’s something to offer, you must play a role because there’s value to create, you must play a role because there’s a social relevance you are creating, you must play a role because there’s a statement that is about to be made; not because you are broke.
Which is the worst role that you have played?
I cannot remember I have ever said to myself this is the worst role I’ve played. Like the Bible will say, they (roles) are new every morning and your best role may be your next role. So, within the confines of this statement, I think I’ve had a chequered history of the career that I can beat my chest and say I’ve done my best and I dont have any regrets. But trying to move on to a higher call, which also has come and then we keep on moving.
Most people attain success in your line of business, but they are not able to sustain it. Where do you think they normally get it wrong?
The euphoria of popularity. Popularity is a very vengeful spirit. Vengeful! It’s like what happened to King Saul in the Bible. He saw the spirit of God, the evil spirit of God. God has an evil spirit o! It started tormenting him. That spirit of stardom gets into some people and destroys them. You know, just like you have some people who are walking-dead, you have some actors too who are just possessed by that evil spirit of God as it concerns the creative enterprise.
What is the best way for an actor to constantly re-invent himself? Like you; you have moved from acting to producing, and even business (Yobafa Ventures). Now, you have a Federal Government appointment and even a national award, MFR…
If you remember in agriculture, there’s what we call shifting cultivation. I mean, we all did that in secondary school. The idea of shifting cultivation is that you don’t keep on farming on a particular land. It doesn’t get manure. So, that land needs to get some nutrients. So, an actor must also learn some wisdom. Now, let me go to the Bible. Jesus, on a few occasions, would go to a quiet corner and recharge and that’s why when the woman with the issue of blood touched Jesus, He said virtue; power left me. That means everybody has to recharge. Azuh Arinze can be recharged, KOK can be recharged. So, when you go to a retreat, to a quiet corner, you get some new nutrients in you and you begin to see things from the perspective that you can, as a desert, be transformed like Dubai. This is where what we call in Philosophy transcedency comes in. You cannot achieve a purpose like that when you are in the midst of people. Remember when Jesus did 40 days and 40 nights. He came out spitting fire. So it is for an actor too. If you have to play a new role, a character, you need some recharge, you need some quiet corner you need to go to. The quiet corners could be leaving the environment, thinking how to be creative outside the box, attending conferences, training sessions. Tell me one Nigerian actor who has gone through a voice training. Even myself! Voice training, projection, transition and so on. None! I can beat my chest and tell you that none. So, if you need to re-invent yourself, we all need a quiet corner. A quiet corner doesn’t need to cost you too much money, a quiet corner could be leaving your environment, asking to be left alone for some time, going on a training session. The day you stop being trained, that becomes the day you die. So, that’s my simple answer to it.
What is the best way for one to make money as an actor?
The best way is just simple – when you are on a set; for most actors, the world stops. Most actors go on sets, not reading newspapers, they dont read magazines, they don’t watch 9’0clock news, they don’t watch Channels news at 10. They are enveloped in their own world, no information. So, they don’t invest, because when you are making money and it’s in the bank, it’s no money. Your money in the bank is no money. But if it is in the hands of those who are investing for you, you will live long and you will not beg for bread. Then, when the rainy day comes, you will outlive it. So, this is what happens to a whole lot of actors. Why I’m saying this is that it’s time to begin to change these things, it’s time for people to know that money in the bank is no money, especially for those of us who are getting endorsements from corporate agencies and so on.
We need to plough this money back into some business, which some people are doing for you while you are supervising and so on. You need to begin to play some roles that what if? There must always be a day to ask yourself what if I’m involved in an accident and I can’t use my legs, that means I can’t act again? What if something hits me on the face; this fine face people have been looking out for and I can’t even show the face again, even with a plastic surgery? What if? So, if you think about all these what ifs, the actor will become a better person and make good investments and can then out-weather the rainy day.
How does it feel to be one of the pioneers of Nollywood?
It feels not just exciting; I see myself like an Azikwe (Zik) of Nollywood, the founding voice or father. I don’t know which one I will say I am. But to be among the first comes with challenges. You either set the wrong foundation or right foundation. So, anything that is spoken of Nollywood in the positive or negative perspective, we take all the glory. If it’s positive, you take it, if it’s negative, you take it. But the fact is that it’s a thing of joy and pride that one can sit back and now watch the television stations discuss about the progress Nollywood has made in 20 years. It now reminds me that the 20 years ago this man was talking about, I couldn’t buy a perfume for myself, it reminds me that I couldn’t walk into any shop and say that suit, I want it, bring four of it. So, it puts me under this pedestal to say okay, I haven’t made too much money, but I have intellectual contentment, I have a ground to beat my chest and say I was part of this history. It’s a team work. None of us made Nollywood single handedly. It makes me feel a high sense of worth. Even in a nation where people have decided not to give respect to those in the area of this non-oil sector of the economy; this service sector, where they are not much respected. I have this pride in me and that’s what a lot of people don’t like and I don’t even care whether you like it or not. But the fact is that I like what I’m doing and what I’m doing, to the glory of God, has given Nigeria a name. So, I should be one of the happiest Nigerians. The Minister of Agriculture is talking about agriculture; he should be happy that I’m talking about entertainment and that if there is no entertainment, the TV content will have a vacuum somewhere. We must have agricultural sector, entertainment, engineering, this, that, to make an economy. So, there must be that dignity in labour, we must respect each other’s trade. So, Nollywood is not just the pride of Nigeria, but we are proud to have been the foundation (members) of Nollywood. My pride is not with arrogance. You may see it with arrogance, but I want you to see my arrogance from the perspective that in this society, a lot of the rich guys here still look down on those who are either in journalism or entertainment industry and we must begin to tell them who we are. You may just tell the man who is in technology that you are not better than me in the entertainment industry; you need to tell the man who is the oil man that if you want to sponsor a movie, you need my talent, just like the complimetary role the producer plays with the actor. The actor and the producer, who is more important? They all compliment each other. But immediately the producer begins to see himself as a businessman of the production, I bring the money, it won’t work, because I bring the talent. Without my talent, no film, without your money, no business. So, this is the joy I enjoy as a Nollywood pacesetter. Having been by the road side watching this whole thing and playing my part. It has been with a high sense of worth and reasoning.
With the benefit of hind sight, what would you say is the greatest challenge facing Nollywood at the moment? And what is the way out? How can Nollywood wriggle out of it?
How can Nollywood wriggle out of it? This challenge…Em, first of all, I want to say a very big thank you to Mr. President, with the N3 billion grant. It has been a chequered history, challenges, wake up calls and so on. We have tried on our own to do things and it got to a height where people no longer moved forward. So, this is the most friendly President who has thought it wise to encourage the industry. So, it’s only natural to say thank you, Mr. President and do not stop at supporting us, and do everything possible to sustain the industry. Because sustenance is very important, and when we talk about sustenance, it has to go beyond this regime and so on. A lot of us are still young, but we have gotten to the apex of our career. It’s just like Obama leaving the presidency at 56. What is he gonna be doing? If God leaves him to live his life till about 90. Do you understand? So, some of us are young, but we have gotten to the apex. Now, having said that, Nollywood is faced with challenges. Before, we thought it was just finance. But I think the greatest challenge of Nollywood is lack of structures. Which is why the N3 billion was compartmentalised for building of infrastructure, building of facilities, distribution, production. These areas have to be sorted out one after the other. Building a structure, you must sit down, identify the immediate challenges of Nollywood and I think, for me, the greatest threat Nollywood faces is when you make a movie, where do you put it? So, the distribution has to be right. You can make a good movie, but where is the market. So, you must train. Training is very essential. So, let’s look at the gamut of the whole problems to rest on the three tripods – building a structure, mopping up of the distribution network and human capacity development. These are the three tripods on which I want to build it. But I want to give a subtle warning to the practitioners – the passion with which we started Nollywood has almost died. Everybody is now depending on government to bring in money. That is very tragic! We used, like you know, because you are one of the guys who grew up with us in this trade; people used to create, make stories and go to individuals. If there are not too many individuals now who are helping, there are corporations. If they see good stories…Example is October 1 (a film by Kunle Afolayan). I mean, Kunle Afolayan and I are friends. He told me of how he went to this car company, this costume, fashion designing company, this and that, this state government. People must begin to target not just one sponsor. Several sponsors. Let a car company give you the cars you need. That takes care of that budget. Let a fashion house sponsor this. What does it take a water making company from giving you all the water you drink when you are shooting? That takes away that. What does it take from one of the fast food companies to provide food? As long as your story is good. So, this focus on government is going to kill the industry. And secondly, I must also warn; you as Azuh Arinze, you can tell the story of Nollwyood, at least, between 1998 to year 2000. How some of our friends misappropriated the funds of would-be sponsors and so on. I want to warn that government’s grant is not Father Christmas money. I am asking my colleagues to please use this money judiciously. To whom much is given, much is expected. Government will not forgive us if we cannot at least turn around the industry 30 percent with this grant. If we don’t do that, successive regimes will say what did you do with this? If we do well with the N3 billion, I tell you, we will be able to access the next N200 billion to revive and equip the industry. This is my way forward, I think.
What singular decision did you take as an actor that turned around your career, your life, your destiny and everything about you?
Hmmm! I think you thought about your questions very well (Thanks). This particular question is…(Laughs). Okay! 5,6,7 years ago, I sat back, I think in Enugu or Asaba, when I saw the way the industry was going, with the part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 (movies). I also listened to comments and I observed the shooting pattern of some people who were the new kids on the block. I observed the treatment of some Executive Producers, those who you know double as sponsors. I saw some treatment of those who had made money in the industry in 199-something; when they came back. I’m tempted to mention names here, but I will not. When they came back, the way they were apportioning money and so on, was with so much care and I knew something was going wrong. Some of them who would do certain things for the people will not do it again. I said to myself, it’s time to tighten the belt (General laughter). Even though I couldn’t find the belt. So, I started looking at this thing. Then, I said, sit up. And you saw that when some of our colleagues were suspended. What were they accused of? The attitude I said I saw in those guys, how powerful they were getting and so on. So, I believe it worked out well for me. It was then I knew that this job can better be done as charity work, this job will favour me well if I have one or two investments somewhere, this job will serve the better interest of my children so that ‘our daddy used to be a popular actor in those days’ won’t be my portion. These are the things. If you have a cool head, you will get to sit down, ask yourself questions. Because, I get am before no be property (Laughter). Like Nigerians will say. So, I looked at it and I think I’m better off. I haven’t made too much money, but I think by my study of Philosophy, I can predict, I can look at the situation and I can predict and I can advise and say gentlemen, I think it’s time to go.
You just said something now about your kids. How much of a family man is KOK?
Very much of a family man. I pray for my kids. I mean, I’m in Abuja. They wake up by 6, I wait till quarter to 7, when they would have taken their bath, had their breakfast, to set out for school. I still sing from Abuja the ‘Good Morning Jesus’, ‘I Will Enter His Gate’. That’s the popular songs I sing for my kids. Even for my 14 year old. And I will say hold your hands; they will still hold their hands as if I’m there. These days, with added responsibilities, anybody who wishes that we go back to 1940, it will not work. But within the responsibility we have now, you can play your part from outside the country, from within the country. But when you are in town, you try to take your kids out for games. Like my kids; lawn tennis. And I take them out for skating. These are the things they will remember…
Can we meet your family? Tell us about them, your wife, your kids…
Okay, my wife’s name is Nneka. We have four lovely children – three boys, one girl. The first is a girl, her name is Valerie Onyekwere. She’s the one that is popularly called Uloaku. Uloaku means bank (Laughter). Followed immediately by Clinton. Clinton is popularly called Onyeze Mbaise. Followed by Montell Kosisochukwu Onyekwere. Then, the last one, who is very, very active. He’s called Albert Einstine. He’s the left-handed man of the house. Very active! The family name, of course, you know is Onyekwere. So, I address them as Valerie Onyekwere, Clinton Onyekwere and so on and so forth. But as an actor, if you remember, 1999, when I wedded, I gave a subtle warning to my friends, the gentlemen of the fourth estate of the realm, when I said no interviews. If you see my wife in the market place, don’t interview her, if we come for a show at Eko Hotel, interview us (Laughter). It’s okay! You know, most of my colleagues, I’ve also advised them. It is you, Azuh Arinze, who is the publisher; not your wife. A lot of my colleagues miss these things. You are the star, not your wife. Keep your wife out of the press. Why is she talking to the press? No, that’s my own style. Do you understand me? (Yes!) Journalism is about what sells. You are looking for what to sell; so you are gonna ask her a question and out of excitement she will say ah, we make love every night o and so on. That’s it; that’s what you will capitalize on (General laughter). So, I try to keep my family out of the press and it has worked for me. So, I’m the man, I’m the TV personality and all questions should go to me.
Your names are Modestus Kanayochukwu Onyekwere. How did you come about combining the KOK initials which are now so popular? It has also become a household name…
Yeah! Of course, you know that I started my career as an actor in Enugu. I’m from Oboama Ezinihite Mbaise, Imo State, grew up in the streets of New Haven, Enugu. My surname is Onyekwere, but of course, in Anambra, they call Onyekwelu. So, most times, some people can’t pronounce Onyekwelu. Some will even prefer to call me Onyekwelu instead of Onyekwere, some people will say that your surname and so on. But if you look at the end credits of what I started with in Enugu, you will just see Kanayo Onyekwere. So, a time came when we were to form the Actors Guild in Enugu in 1983/84. I think that was when I now said okay, let’s get done with this mistaking or spelling my name wrongly and I added the next Kanayo and that’s it! And the thing, like wild fire, caught on. So, since then, that’s it.
There’s no arguing the fact that the Almighty God has been extra-ordinarily nice to you. What more do you want from God? What has He not done for you yet?
Hmmm! Heeeei! (Laughs). God has been faithful. That’s the first thing I will say. God has been very faithful. God has been Godly to me. He has blessed me more than every other actor. But God is yet to give me the capacity to influence those who believe in me as fans, my immediate environment, build institutions for the faith I believe in. My retirement plans are to build a facility where I will teach the world what entertainment business and the practical views and the things I’ve gotten from the industry. I want to retire to a background where I will teach, go outside, be a resource person, bring back knowledge here. So, the capacity, I’m waiting for God to give me; to be able to within a short time make my name bankable. Go to bank, say this is what I want, we draw a plan. You see, when you have grants from foundations abroad and so on, these are the things you solve. But everything here, you must have a collateral and so on. Even when you want to employ your country men, even when you want to empower people, even when you want to be a face. You know somebody like my good friends, Kanu Nwankwo or Jay Jay Okocha, to have a football academy for instance. It shouldn’t be a big deal, because what people saw on television is what they want to re-enact through an academy. People want to come and be better than Jay Jay Okocha. This is what I want to do. Sit back at a corner, it may be a tourist garden that will encompass the hospitality sector, theatre and so on and begin to impact knowledge. We will conquer not just the West African sub region, we will be a resource centre for Africa and that’s what I want and wish God will do for me.
Away from work, what does KOK do for relaxation? What makes you happy when you are not working? How do you while away your time?
Oh, I play tennis. I’ve just formed a new habit – and that habit is to read one book every 2 weeks. So, that’s the new habit I’ve just formed. Because I believe that there is a whole lot, if God gives me life, that I’m gonna do between now and the next 10 years and they are all intellectually-positioned. So, I must be in the best element to provide such resource.
So far and based on the fact that you’ve been reading one book every fornight, of all the books that you have read, and other than the Bible, which one has impacted your life the most?
Yeah, you can say it again and again and again that the Bible is one book that gives you a new meaning any time; a new fresh meaning. Not just as a Christian, but as a student. If you become a student of the Bible, you will find out that either you started late to read it or that you should have been reading it a long time. If you read Proverbs over and over again, you will know whether you are a wise man. If people say you are a powerful man, you will know whether you are a powerful man. You will now find out whether a powerful man is the one who uses power or the one who applies wisdom. So, apart from the Bible, From Third To First World, the Singapore story by Lee Kuan Yew. I have read it like a Bible, 3, 4 times. After reading it, I begin to ask myself questions about our country, Nigeria. I begin to ask myself: is it that there are people who are destined or blessed with doing bad to their society or doing bad to their country and I haven’t found answers? But I believe there are people who become part of government, who have no reason to be. Because the promise of service delivery has never been what they are out to give. And I begin to ask myself, our children are gonna wake up in the next 50 years and say I think some stupid guys were here 50 years ago. And that’s us they are talking about! Because there are certain things we quarrel about, we politicise that are not working. So, we are not building the right values. We must as an entity begin to build the right values. The present book I’m reading now is My Vision, by Rashid Maktoum, the founder of Dubai. There are certain indices of development which are embedded in the kind of education you have. Azuh, I still tell you, we need to revise the curriculum in our schools to begin to situate itself within modern challenges. In this era where we are trying to have less attention paid to the oil sector, are we encouraging studies in hospitality and tourism management? Are we encouraging studies in the entertainment sector? Are we encouraging studies in other sectors that are the non-oil sectors? No, we are not! And it’s very serious. Our curricula should begin to embed certain things that will keep Nigeria ahead of, at least, certain African countries. Technology, for instance; what have we done to the Computer Village here in Ikeja? Have you asked yourself? We leave it to some of our Igbo brothers, and say they are Igbo traders. Meanwhile, these are people you can pick just 300 of them and send them to China, monitor them, bring them back here and our economy cannot be the same again. You know, leadership is not cast on concrete, but there are certain people who assume positions of leadership in the country who become the most intelligent and dont take any other advise and I think that’s the bane of where we are coming from.
NB: First published February 2015