Meet the Nigerian-American Cartoonist Animating the Biggest Moments in Black Popular Culture

OkayAfrica speaks with Obi Arisukwu about his work, Nigerian parents and staying focused in the middle of virality.

In September, an Australian cartoonist drew a caricature of tennis champion Serena Williams angrily stomping on her racket at the 2018 US Open Women's finals. Immediately, the Australian newspaper was called out for the cartoon that many deemed racist.

Obi Arisukwu's inbox was flooded. The thirty-one year-old, Nigerian-American artist received message after message asking him to draw her.

"It was like I was the champion of black illustrators," he said.

After two weeks, he posted an illustration of Serena Williams leaning back mid-serve, her face a beacon of fierce determination and pride. There's a collage of women behind her.

The caption read: "Every game she plays is a fight for women's rights."

Arisukwu's light-hearted weekly comic strips tackle relatable issues like the lengths we go to in order to impress a crush, being lured into a pyramid scheme or trying to enter those ridiculously long wifi passwords. They pay homage to icons like Beyonce, Oprah and the Obamas. Within the last year, he's gotten nods from The Shade Room and this month, Will Smith.

And during a time of bleak newscycles, his work brings light and laughter to your timeline.

The self-proclaimed superhero geek, who hails from Houston, Texas, knew he wanted to be an artist since the age of 3. After graduating from Lamar University with a major in Graphic Design, he worked as the lead graphic designer at the headquarters of ConocoPhillips, a multinational gas company. But he wasn't fulfilled in corporate America. He often found himself drawing at his desk. In 2013, when Arisukwu saw other artists sharing their work on Instagram, he began to to do the same. Last year, he took the leap and began pursuing art full-time.

Arisukwu spoke with OkayAfrica about art, his Nigerian parents and staying focused in the middle of virality. Read on for our conversation.

Image via Obi Arisukwu's Instagram

How do you go about picking what you want to illustrate?

Black magic, really. I'm inspired by a lot of stuff that us as Black people do. There are some people if I had more time I would draw them. I would definitely say I've been wanting to do Lebron James, Queen Latifah... I also want to draw other cultures, as well. I would see other people drawing faces and figures but there was no meaning behind it. I thought, 'How can I be different? How can I tell a story with my art?' The Serena one tells a story. The Colin Kaepernick one tells a story. The Beyonce one tells a story.

When did you realize people were really taking notice of your art ?

The biggest hit was the Childish Gambino 'This Is America' [piece]. That went viral. Within 24 hours it went viral and had 30,000 likes in one day. It was insane to me. I didn't know what to do. When the ShadeRoom posted it, it was crazy, when Will Smith re-posted… it was one of those things that happened so fast, when it comes to my success on social media. I have to celebrate the little moments because I'll keep moving. My cousin is the one who'll tell me "Will Smith just reposted you, we gotta celebrate." It hasn't hit me yet. I have a goal in mind and until I reach that goal, I'm not worried about the rest of the stuff.

Image via Obi Arisukwu's Instagram

Where can we see the Nigerian influence in your work?

I have another cartoon concept I'm working on. The main character and the focus is really about West African culture. I been thinking about that one for years. I think it's one that will influence a lot of kids because when we were younger we didn't have many people who looked like us. We wanted a cartoon that highlights the aspects of our African heritage. The closest we had was Kwame from Captain Planet.

How did your parents react to you wanting to do art?

They were always supportive when it came to me doing art. Since I was a kid they pushed me to do art clubs, they always supported my creativity. Which is crazy because you don't always see immigrant parents doing that. So when I quit my job and I told them I wanted to do art full time, they were more on don't quit yet. Work the rest of the year and save your money. Now, they see the feedback I'm getting for my illustrations, because they kinda stalk me [laughs]. Everyday my dad says "I see the numbers they're growing." And my mom she says all her friends are calling her. They always supported me, but now they really believe what I'm doing. I owe so much of my success to my parents. When I visualize my success, I visualize doing it for my parents.

Image via Obi Arisukwu's Instagram

Since your art is becoming more and more visible, how has your life changed?

I guess I've become what people call an influencer, now? I've been invited to so many things. I tell them, "I don't turn down free food so…" but what I realized is I can easily fall into that trap where fame can take over. And I always want to be focused on my work.

For the most part, your comics are always light-hearted. Is that intentional?

Yes, absolutely. I think Boondocks was a huge hit. It paved the way. Without Boondocks I don't think I'd be getting that much attention. People are always kind of looking for that again. It was a very urban show. As people of color, we go through everyday situations just like everybody else. I want to show that side.

Image via Obi Arisukwu's Instagram

So Black people, just living life.

Exactly. I think a lot of people love my cartoons because I show just that. It's time that someone makes comics with Black people that everyone can relate to, too.

Which piece is your favorite?

When it comes to the comic strips they vary. Too many to say which is my favorite. But that Childish Gambino one made me realize, 'Okay, this is where I want to take my art,' because that was the one that really had a story to it.

Image via Obi Arisukwu's Instagram

What's the story?

With "This Is America" when I did more research on the music video, I saw that it was really a metaphor saying we keep tap dancing in front of the camera and it's a distraction from what's going on in the back which is really police brutality and violence. That took me two days to draw because I did so many revisions. I changed the background art so many times. Putting that kind of work in and taking that risk, was worth it. My style really started transforming outside the comic strip art.

I saw that you always have your headphones in when you draw. What music do you listen to as you create?

I listen to rap. I listen to Drake a lot, Kendrick, Run The Jewels, LE$, Tobe Nwigwe, Chloe and Halle, Childish Gambino, Solange, Biggie, Jay, classical music, it depends on what zone I'm in. Lately, I've been listening to Travis Scott's Astro World. It has a melody that keeps me going. I like to listen to music by artists who are very creative as well. I can hear that creativity in the music.

You talked about staying focused on your goal. What is your goal?

I want to have my own animated series and inspire other people of color to do the same thing. I tell people I want to be like Steve Harvey. He has so many things going on. The book, the show, the movies... when it comes to cartoons, animated movies, video games, YouTube streams… I want to be that person.

Still from "Kasala!"

Meet The Nigerian New Wave Director Behind the Film 'Kasala!'

One of Naija cinema's new wave, Ema Edosio talks about what it took to film her exciting new film in the streets of Lagos.

Ema Edosio is the director of "Kasala", a comedy set in present day Lagos and centers on the lives of four young men who go on a joyride to a party in a Honda Accord one of them has taken from his boss Taju without permission. Their evening is ruined when one of them crashes Taju's Honda breaking the windscreen and denting the car's body. With just four hours before Taju returns home, all four boys hustle around Lagos to raise money for the car repair.

Taju, who is a struggling butcher, is faced with a big problem of his own: his debtor has just given him an ultimatum to pay back money he's long owed. Bitter and frustrated, Taju's retribution will be double-fold, if he returns home to find his Honda is damaged. The four friends do not need more another reason to expect the worse from Taju if they're not able to fix his Honda before gets home in the next four hours.

"Kasala" is a vivid portrayal of contemporary Lagos and a riotous combination of physical comedy, inventive turns of phrases combined with fluid camera work and committed performances from some of the young and bright African acting talents.

Written by Temi Sodipo and directed by Ema Edosio—who is also the cinematographer and editor—"Kasala" was chosen for the closing gala of the 2018 edition of Film Africa in London this November, out of a total of 39 films from 15 countries.

Edosio flew into London for the film's UK premier at the Rich Mix cinema to a largely pan-African crowd who lapped up the rollicking comedy. Ahead of her trip to the UK, Okay Africa spoke to Edosio about her debut feature, the joys and challenges of shooting on location in Lagos and the rise of Nigeria's so called "Naija New Wave" cinema.

Photo courtesy of Ema Edosio

The fast pace and energy in Kasala is constant all through the film. Was this a deliberate injection or did it come as a result of the writing?

I worked as a video journalist for the BBC and I would go into the streets of Lagos to film, and I would see everything that made Lagos what it is: the traffic, the smell, the dirt, the vibe, the energy, the people. And I wanted to make a story that is authentic and that is the reason why I decided to make Kasala this way.

All the four friends and main characters jell naturally it would seem. How did you get them to work well together?

When I conceived of the film, I knew that I didn't want to work with any "known" faces. I knew that I wanted unknown actors. So I put out an audition call and these boys worked into the room and I told them to read together. And immediately it was like magic.

Why do you think they're largely unknown to the majority of Nigerian movie watching audience?

I think one of the reasons is there's not a lot of movies written about young people. Most of the scripts are for a certain kind of male character: the superhero who goes to save the damsel in distress, and the hunk and a lot of roles are not written for these amazing actors and that's why they're largely unknown.

Tomiwa Tegbe who plays "Effiong" is a good comic actor and has been in "On The Real (Ebony Life TV)" and "Shuga (MTV)". What does Kasala bring out in Tomiwa Tegbe that these other directors and film material that do not?

The thing that made Tomiwa Tegbe and the rest stand out in Kasala is that I gave them freedom to act and I wasn't micromanaging them. They became very comfortable in order to do their best to the film.

The cast as a whole is largely new and young with Jide Kosoko easily the most experienced. Why did you cast him for the role and not yet another "unknown" face?

The reason is I couldn't afford to hire known faces to work in the film and I honestly didn't have the budget. I [also] wanted to bring in a sense of familiarity and that is why I got Jide Kosoko. Even though they're guys are unknown, and they're are fantastic "here is someone you know who is in this movie playing with these amazing actors" which is why I worked with Jide Kosoko.

The different locations in the film are those of back corners, mechanic garages, meat market, communal flats most of which have the red and brown of rust and decay gives the cinematography a visual harmony. How much attention did you give to finding the right locations?

I think I made Kasala with a vengeance. I've had the privilege to work with Ebonylife tv which was beautiful but Kasala kept pulling me in: the people I met in the streets, the things I'd done on the streets of Lagos, the visual aesthetic kept pulling and I decided to make that. I wanted to see Lagos, I wanted to see barbwires. I wanted to see gutters, I wanted to see the people. I knew that the location was a character on its own. And I wanted to be able to find the right location that would be able to represent that boys and the lives they live in Lagos. I'm forever grateful for the people there who let us film there.

Your camera adopts the often frenetic pace of the film and is rarely still for long. Why this visual approach?

I'm very influenced by Guy Ritchie, Edgar Wright, Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese. And I would always say to myself that "these characters in their films can be Nigerians". I think that the camera should be fluid, breathe, move with the audience showing us "oh yeah this is a wide, oh yeah this is a close up". My influence by these directors was what I put into Kasala. And this is what made the film dynamic.

Are there any interesting, unplanned events during shooting which you could share with our readers?

Shooting in Lagos is one of the hardest thing to do. You have these agberos [louts] who come to you and literally want to take your equipment. I went with a very small crew and I'm very petite and they would see me and say "who is this small girl? She doesn't have money. Leave her alone, let her shoot". I started bringing them into the film to act and it was very beautiful seeing them react to it. One of the most interesting things is the children in the estates [on location] who act in the film, the joy and the playfulness. In some ways we brought back some joy and some fun into the neighbourhood.

Still from "Kasala!"

Did you worry much about what may be lost to foreign audiences who may not be clued up the pidgin English and "Nigerianisms" used in the film?

You can't come to Lagos and make a film about the slum in English. I felt like the pidgin English was as important as the location. My mind was not about where the foreign audience would accept it or whatever. My mind was "how do I make a film that is authentic to Nigeria? How do I make a film that would show of Lagos?" It would do no justice to use English.

Who are the other key players in Nigeria's "nu wave" film and tv you would like to highlight?

When you talk about new wave key players you're talking about Abba Makama whose film "Green White Green" inspired me to make "Kasala". CJ SeriObasi, ImoEmoren, Jade Sholat Siberi, Kemi Adetiba. So many new directors are springing out nollywood. And they're new directors making amazing stuff. I'm really really excited about the future.

How did you raise the funding needed to make "Kasala"?

When I wanted to make Kasala, it was not the kind of story people would fund. I decided in order to bring this story to live, to use the skills I'd gained over the years—to produce, direct, shoot and edit. Not because I wanted to be in control, because I didn't have the budget. That is the sport of new director coming in now. We're fighting against all odds and it is now beginning to be clear that it's way beyond nollywood. Kasala has been to over 20 international festivals and counting. And there an audience for our films, there's an audience for our voices.

What are you expectations for it at the festival?

I really don't know what to expect. I just hope that they love the film. For the Nigerians in the diaspora,I hope that it brings back memories of Lagos. For black people I hope it gives them a sense of how we are back home to help them connect with us as Africans. For the foreign audience I hope that they see a Nigeria of passion, of community, of tenacity, of brotherhood of love.

"Kasala" will be released worldwide on December 7th


Indomie: Unpacking a Nigerian Tradition

What does Nigeria's way of preparing this beloved brand of instant noodles say about the country as a whole?

Before I came to Lagos in September to begin a collaborative performance project, I imagined all the ways the place would challenge all I had read and heard about it, and all the ways it might remind me of my home, Trinidad and Tobago. Of all the kernels of similarities I've encountered so far, Indomie is perhaps the most intriguing.

Indomie, a brand of instant noodles originating in Indonesia, has become the household name for all instant ramen noodles in Nigeria.

As a child, I would make Top Ramen, but ours was far less intentionally adorned. I had never seen anyone add anything but Golden Ray. I would try to be fancy with my own and add eggs, but they never quite attained Naruto ramen standards.

Indomie was my first meal in Nigeria. I had arrived in Lagos about two hours earlier. In those two hours I had seen something of the character of the city. In the midst of the clouds of dust and engine exhaust fumes I saw a woman almost fall out the car she was getting into, I saw men sitting atop a truck, like wrinkles in the night sky fabric, I saw selling, so much selling and buying and haggling. It seemed to me that everything was happening here.

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Fela Kuti's 'Zombie' Is Coming Out On Limited Edition 8-Track

"Zombie" and "Mr. Follow Follow" are available in the nostalgic 8-track cartridge.

"Zombie," Fela Kuti's 1976 protest anthem and scathing attack on the Nigerian military, is getting an 8-track re-release.

Knitting Factory Records, Kalakuta Sunrise and Partisan Records have made 300 limited editions copies of Zombie/Mr. Follow Follow which you can pre-order now ahead of its December 7 release.

Fela Kuti's classic song uses zombies as a metaphor for soldiers mindlessly following orders. The song is thought to have triggered the Nigerian government's horrific assault on the Kalakuta Republic, in which the compound burned to the ground, Fela was brutally beaten and his mother, Nigerian feminist icon Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, was murdered.

You can pre-order Zombie/Mister Follow Follow on 8-track now and read more about each song from Mabinuori Kayode Idowu's text accompanying the release below.

Purchase Fela Kuti's Zombie/Mr Follow Follow on 8-Track

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