MY FONDEST MEMORIES AS A JOURNALIST – FEMI AKINTUNDE-JOHNSON (FAJ)
Foremost entertainment journalist, Femi Akintunde-Johnson, was 50 on Sunday, October 30, 2011. Two of his books, Lifelines and Footprints, were also unveiled on Thursday, October 27, at the Combo Hall, LTV complex, Agidingbi, Ikeja, Lagos to commemorate that. The father of three who is widely known as FAJ had a beautiful interview session with YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine Publisher/Editor in Chief, AZUH ARINZE, at his Ogba, Lagos office days before, where he spoke on a lot of issues. Enjoy…
You worked in The Punch, Climax, Fame, Encomium and now Treasure People and Life. Where did you have the greatest fun and why?
(Laughs) Nice arrangement. I’m lucky in the fact that my work is my fun. Not only did I enjoy what I was doing, I had tremendous fun doing it and each one presented its own atmosphere for fun. I will calibrate your statement to mean which one did I enjoy most while doing it. Punch was a learning process. I mean, on reflection now, it was very hard; very harsh times. But it was so enjoyable. Because that was the first time I had exposure to ‘high life’. That was when I had the exposure of going to night clubs, high visible night clubs at ungodly hours, with freedom to enter free of charge, had drinks free of charge, to mingle with the high and mighty without having to pay and begin to build some kind of reputation, all while I was in my 20s. And it was giddy and it was great doing it. It was also great being appreciated. I get response from my colleagues, people younger than me, people in their schools, writing, wanting me as if I was four years on the job or five years on the job. Meanwhile, I was just a year or two. It was great. Punch gave me the opportunity to learn a lot of things about the job. Nobody will tell you to go home. I could be in Punch for four days, go, come, go, come, change, go, come, go, come and all the going is just to go to the assignments, go to the night club, come in the morning. There was no reason to leave. There’s AC, cushioned chairs, everything, and it was much better than my house (Laughs). So, there was no point going home. I’ve never seen that kind of life before. So, it was fun, very fun. By the time I got to starting Encomium, Fame and all that, I was already getting into business. It was more serious. I had married, I had started having children, so fun had reduced drastically. I was enjoying my work, but now it is tempered by maturity and the exigency of growing up. So, I could say my best time was between Punch and Fame.
What fond memories of your days at Fame and Encomium do you still carry with you?
Hmmm! One of the most seering, deeply touching moments of our lives happened in Fame. When there was crisis in Fame, there was hardly any difference between the employees and the employers. We were like cowboys. We were all thinking of going to do another paper as if we all owned the company together. Years after, when I was writing my story about it, I was crying. Because I don’t know if my publisher in Punch would have wanted to start a new paper and I will have that kind of camaraderie or that kind of relationship where people are resigning instantaneously and even before they finish the last dot in their resignation, they are starting a new company; started writing stories for another company and meanwhile, there’s no hope of salary, no hope of weekly allowance, no hope of anything. And here I was fighting for survival. We’ve been accused of huge malfeasance, of stealing things, of all kinds of things that people should run away from. And here are about 30 – something people, some of them married, they have wives and children, and virtually over 90% of them were transferred to start a new company. It was ennobling and humbling for me. It’s one of the greatest memories I have about those days.
Now, why exactly did you leave Encomium, because even some of us who were there at that time still can’t say categorically why?
That will take another book on its own (General laughter). But suffice to say that relationship broke down such that mentality that was built over 12 years appeared to have been broken within two months and it was too difficult to understand. When I was discussing with Gani (Fawehinmi), he said, ‘Faj, don’t do this O or else this your Christianity will clear for your face over sometime’. And I said, ‘Sir, you will see what I’m saying over some time’. Unfortunately, he’s not around again and I don’t know whether he will see anything in any case. But it’s a very interesting time of my life and it’s better done in a very calm way to write it down so that it doesn’t look as if you are bitter or you are angry or you feel cheated or you feel arrogant or you are pompous or any other sentiment. When I left to start Treasure, why I left to start Treasure, what we were supposed to do with Treasure before and what happened afterwards, it’s going to take a lot of newsprint, which is better left for another time.
Do you have any regret leaving Encomium?
I usually don’t regret things. I don’t regret generally as a rule. One, because before I do things, I pray about it, I fast about it, I discuss with my family about it, I discuss with myself about it. I am usually not a flippant person. I don’t rush into things. I might do something in quick succession that looks as if it’s rushed, but I’ve planned it over time. I like to believe I do a lot of planning; I do a lot of thinking. I might end up being wrong, but it will not be lack of planning or thinking about it.
Now, as inception, when Treasure People and Life took off, it was very vibrant and visible. Then, all of a sudden, it was like the light dimmed. What exactly happened? What exactly is happening to TPL?
Well, only God can say. But I think like life, publications too have seasons and time. Those who are strong, brands that are strong, like Tell, Newswatch and all that, they find a way to survive during those trying periods and then they hold on. They’ve been next to a shell of what they used to be. But a period will come again, they will fly again. We did not have the financial muscle to withstand those period. Because we chose to do an interview magazine; that news can be driven by the people themselves; what they say and reflect it. We call it felicity of thought. What they are saying, we hold to it clearly so that there’s no misrepresentation. We can now create news from it and all that, but it’s what they have said. That’s what we have tried to do. But at a point, it was going straight jacketed into being religious or into being political or into this and that and we couldn’t sustain it on that level.
Which of your stories as a journalist will you describe as your greatest?
Hmmm! Greatest? I can’t even remember them. It was when I was gathering materials for my books I saw some stories I wrote and I said, so I wrote this one (Laughing). I can’t even remember them. But you see, one of my greatest works, I always believe, is when I write from my own perspective. They are not stories, they are commentaries I made about works of arts. I’ve written stories that now I may not be proud to showcase; that I may not want my children to see, because they will say ah!, daddy wrote this. But when you are talking about entertainment, I am proud that some of the stories I wrote that won awards, they are not really reports that others will enjoy. Like when I did ‘Creative Rogues’. The people were so embarrassed themselves, but they could not talk because it was a work of research. It took me like four weeks and I ran it for three weeks. I think it was in Fame, the early part of Fame. I won NMMA (Nigerian Media Merit Awards) in ’93. So, it was in Fame. So, that fulfils me because others read it. Those who were bigger than me read it and they liked it and it won the award. But you see, more important than not, it changed the mentality of those that I wrote about, because I abused them thoroughly and I have the right to abuse them because I saw where they stole from. They stole from somewhere and we were dancing and they are national, hot item albums. But when you go down the line, 14 years, 15 years, somebody did it before. They just took it without any attribution. So, when we lampooned them, things changed. They grumbled, they cried, they ‘boned’ for me and all that stuff, but they changed and they started putting attribution; they started doing, okay, this thing was taken from so, so person. And that’s the essence. That’s why I feel fulfilled.
Who is the closest entertainer to you, having reported showbiz for a long time?
I have a number of artistes as friends and creators of arts are very jealous people. If I mention one name now, another one will feel like a wife scorned. But above all, I was close to a lot of them. I was close to Sonny Okosuns. He’s late now. I was close to…I don’t know. You know, while I was working; I don’t want a situation where I cannot write about you. I was close to Shina Peters. But we met in a very awkward way. They almost beat me at his tigba, tigba, but I wrote what I had to write and he came to the office to come and apologize because he was shocked that somebody that was disgraced at his party still wrote good things about him. But I explained to him that no, it was work. And if I came to your house, I drank and I ate and while I was going out, I saw your wife washing the napkins inside the swimming pool, I’m gonna write about it (Laughs) and I will greet you the following day; did you read my story? And it made them to know that you can’t say because we are friends, I can’t write about you or else don’t be. So, I don’t want to be too yummy with such people such that I could not write about you again because we are friends. And I try not to collect money from people so that I will not be influenced in the way I write and all that. So, there are some that are close that can come to my house when we are having events or I go to their own when they are having events. I don’t make it a rule to visit as if we are family friends and all that. But at my own time when I was reporting, virtually all of them. Even some unknown ones that people don’t know about, I will just take interest in them and we meet regularly.
As one of those who gave entertainment reporting a new breath of life, what is your take on the current state of entertainment reporting in Nigeria?
It’s better you leave my comments till after our event (General laughter). Because you know the way I talk, I don’t hide under one finger. So, it’s better as a teacher; if I’m a teacher and you have given me some titles, I should not fool myself by sugar-coating some things.
You also happen to be one of those who pioneered awards in this country, what is your take on the current state of award ceremonies?
That one, they don’t work with me. I can talk about them. When we started the NMA (Nigerian Music Awards) in ’89 or thereabout, we saw first hand the power of awards, if it is well handled. At a point in time, I believed that they derailed, which brought us to having FMA (Fame Music Awards). FMA was designed to be a monthly awards; then at the end of the year, we will do a general awards. But it will still be a paper tiger, not a physical thing. But we realized that, why not? We are chroniclers of the industry. If we can write about what is good and what is not good, who is doing what, who is not doing what in the industry, why can’t we say which one is good and which one is not right, and do it properly, like they do in Globe Awards. That projected the reason for FMA in ’92. But over time, I realized that, because of what I went through, I made sure that integrity is important in awards. Integrity is important, a sense of occasion is important. You must take the issues that you are dealing with very seriously. People who work and spend their lives producing works of arts, they don’t know anything else, that’s where they put their lives. So, you don’t come out from one jungle and begin to tell people, this is what you should watch and this is what you should not watch without any sense of fairness, any sense of importance about that work. So, if you do awards, you do awards at the highest level, with issues that are debatable, that you can come and stand up for. Therefore, the process of awards must be above board. Nobody should be able to impugn your character, nobody should be able to say may be you collected money from Mr. A to give to Mr. B. No! They can say it, but you will come out and defend yourself and say these are the books, come and check. Ask this person, ask that person. You should be able to speak completely, honestly and fairly about the processes such that your name cannot be soiled. Not because of you; because of the legacy you are setting for yourself. So, when I see that what we have tried to do for six years consistently and I see and hear stories, I’m disheartened. Yes, people have rights to do awards. I have a book that I always quote for people. And The Winner Is…Yes, you can choose your awards, you can give it any name, but there are quotients that are consistently universal. But these criteria cannot change; integrity, respect, vision and focus. You must be consistent. The essence of awards is integrity. It can be a very small awards, it can be a very tiny awards, which is why ISO, among those who know, is revered. Even when you don’t make a ceremony out of it. It might be an industry awards, it might be a trade awards, it might be a minute awards in your office, it must have integrity in its process. That is what makes the interest of the person who has received it to do more because he does not want to fail the…So, why do we go to the extent of setting up academy, bringing up reputable people? I want those who are bigger than me to come and work with me, to do an event so that they can challenge me when I go wrong. You don’t bring your small, small boys that you can shout on and then you knock names together. The things I hear now, it’s disheartening. But I’m happy that the advice we have been giving since the 90’s; that indeed the truest awards can only be done by the people in the industry, using the format they have in the industry is taking shape. So, I can’t judge, but from what I read and see, it’s not a happy status.
What do you like most about being a journalist?
The fact that I can exercise the gift God gave me; that I could write; that I could influence opinion; that if I really surrender myself to God, that I could change my generation. That God has placed me in a position that is like…what God loves more about us is for us to evangelize and that’s what journalism does. If you handle it right, you can change lives, you can save people. That’s the essence of working with God.
What don’t you like about being a journalist?
I’ve told my daughter…all my children love to write. One of my daughters, we are still praying and fasting for her. She has still not removed her mind from being a journalist and she doesn’t want to do all this journalism. She wants to do investigative journalism. And I’ve been praying for her for God to remove that spirit from her. The bad thing about journalism, if you do it well, you cannot be economically comfortable. If you do it right, you cannot succeed, except by divine grace. If you have one million journalists, out of 10%, only 0.0001% will make it by being a true journalist. So, traverse that one to one million. It is infinitesimal. And it’s not because the journalist does not want to be a journalist, the environment, the circumstance and the situation of his reality have conditioned him to fail as a true journalist. Because even if you are truly, truly great and truly born as a journalist, the man that has employed you has his own agenda. If he runs out of money or he runs out of friendship, you will become jobless. Meanwhile, it’s not because you cannot write well or you are not doing your work right. Your ambition, your future is circumscribed by circumstances you cannot control. And it’s not business you say okay, today, I’m not doing journalism; you can go into something else. It is in your blood. You feel compelled. In fact, you are condemned to continue until God opens your eyes that you can even be selling cigarettes or beer or anything whatsoever that it takes labour to do at the bus stop and you will still generate your money.
What would you describe as the greatest lesson that life has taught you at 50?
That’s what I like talking about most. It’s not just about 50. Since I’ve become wiser a little bit, few years ago, 10 or 12 years ago, I’ve learnt that in life what you need are life lines; what will make you survive, what will increase you. And those life lines, if you create them yourself, if you manipulate them, if you maneuver them, if you mesmerize them, if you mesmerize them, if you cushion them, if you try to impress them or bootlick them, they will become deadlines. Lifelines will remain life lines, because they are created for you by God. Your wife, your children, angels in business, angels in friendship. They are not friends, they are not colleagues. They are angles as colleagues. Angels as friends. Angels as business partners. Only God can create them. They will do it for you because of God, not because of what you can give back to them. It’s because God has inspired them to do so. They are the life lines. They are the ones that will last you forever. They are the ones that will change your forever.
You are going to be 50 on October 30, what hasn’t God done for you. What do you still want God to do for you?
Ah! Plenty. God has not even started (Laughter). God has done so much for me. Incredibly much. If you have the grace of God and you have the spirit of God at that age, you don’t do resolutions at that age. You are totally given. You just follow what God does, because your plan for tomorrow can be cancelled within the next one hour. Remember the story of the man that wanted to build a bigger barn, he blew up his barn. He didn’t plan for God, and that night, he didn’t wake up the following day. That was the end. So, what is there for tomorrow? I look forward to God. You can’t understand it. As a young man trying to do business, how should I do it? I have not planned for tomorrow. So, you live a plan less life, so to speak. But God is not a confusing person. God is a master planner. He plans for your life. As you yield to Him, He begins to reveal what you should do. What you can do, what you must do. And then you know what you should not do. So, in all these, when I look back, I cannot think of what God has not done for me. I am just looking at what God should do for me. I want to do this, I want to do that. It’s because I desire it. What if God does not want it for me? So, I just ask God, you know my vision. It is to be the best at everything I do. So, that position that will make me the best, take me there, lead me there. I want to use my life to generate a lot of money that I would not be able to spend on myself lavishly, but to help people who are in need. Who by no other means could have survived, if not by sending angels of hope to them. So, I want to be an angel of hope in any dimension and I want others to join me.
NB: First published October 2011
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