Arts + Culture

Ghana's Sam Okyere Is A Korean TV Star

Ghanian actor Sam Okyere talks about becoming a Korean star, with appearances on SNL Korea and MasterChef Korea and in Vogue Korea.

Ghana's Sam Okyere is making a name for himself in South Korea's entertainment world. Based in Seoul and fluent in Korean, Okyere can be seen these days rubbing shoulders with some of K Pop's most famous stars. He already has a pretty extensive resume of Korean TV shows under his belt, including SNL Korea and Master Chef Korea Season 3. Okayafrica contributor Jacob Roberts-Mensah caught up with Okyere to talk about his experience being an African in Korea, his current work and his plans for the future. Check out the full Q&A below.


Jacob for Okayafrica: What brought you to South Korea?

Sam Okyere: I initially came to Korea as a Korean government scholar in 2009 to pursue a degree in Computer Engineering. But then again as a young guy I thought it wise to try and rack up as many experiences as I could, and this entertainment venture is one of them. Korean TV has opened doors to foreigners as a way to get them involved in Korean culture and to take what they can from the outside world. Besides, they have many awesome TV programs and the standards are very high. So once the opportunity presented itself, I couldn’t resist. I have been in Seoul for a little over five years now and counting. There is always something about Korea that makes you want to stay even longer. It’s like wine; the longer you stay here, the better your experiences get to be.

OKA: You recently modelled for Vogue Korea. How did that come about?

SO: Yes I did. The Vogue Korea magazine feature came about as a result of being cast for one of the most popular and longest running TV shows (Happy Together) in Korea. It was to highlight a group of foreigners from different cultures doing entertainment work in Korea and their experiences throughout their stay here. "The Korean dream," as it was called, showed four foreigners, including myself, who loved Korea so much, as a means to broadcast to the rest of the world the numerous possibilities despite varying cultural backgrounds. It featured Sam Hammington from Australia, Fabien from France, and me from Ghana.

OKA: When would you say you got your big break?

SO: I had done several small works prior to my big break that came about around last summer when school was over and I was in search of an internship. I have been an extra for quite a number of Korean dramas and some modelling gigs too. A friend of mine (Stanley) invited me to a show known as Hello Counsellor where we could voice out our concerns as black people living in Korea, which were basically the racial discriminations we faced because we were black and particularly from Africa. It was a chance to talk about such a sensitive issue on National TV. I actually went as a friend of the main guest. Everything else took flight after that. I am very thankful for the opportunities that came in their numbers and still keep coming.

OKA: You're also a global ambassador for a seaweed company, right?

SO: I often laugh every time I'm reminded of that, yet very proud too. I just loved to eat seaweed. It’s something I never tried in Ghana until I got to Korea and discovered it. It tasted very good even as a meal on its own so I got addicted to it. I was on a show known as Island Teachers where three other foreign TV personalities including myself had to hop from island to island teaching kids English and bonding with the people. The island seaweed, or "Kim" as it’s called in Korea, was just amazing and I couldn’t stop eating it. It earned me the title "Kim Killer." My love for it grew and on the second episode of the TV show I was awarded the Global Ambassador for Seaweed from the best seaweed capital of Korea (Wando). It's such an honour to know that liking something as simple as seaweed would get me this far.

OKA: And as for your first appearance on Korean television, could you tell us a bit about the talk show Hello Counsellor?

SO: The Hello Counsellor show is a Nationwide TV show that invites people from all walks of life with a peculiar situation to be discussed on TV. If your situation is unusual, you are invited on the show. Whoever has the most troubling issue with the most votes gets to stay on the show and eventually gets to win a grand prize.

OKA: In this era of political correctness do you feel some responsibility to represent Ghana (or Africa for that matter) in a positive light? And if so, what do you feel the response has been like?

SO: I see myself as an African ambassador every time I get the opportunity to be on TV. At the end of the day, I see it as platform to represent my people to the fullest and broadcast what we're made up of as a people. A couple of years back, blacks, and Africans especially, had little or no opportunities whatsoever in Korea. We were seen as poor and not particularly the type to get deep into Korean culture. But things have changed drastically. Koreans are now more open to Africa then they were before. I'm also promoting Ghana through our cocoa, through our gold, through our clothing and every other means possible. I'm also working to show that the black man is capable of adjusting to any culture and bonding with its people. My goal is to bridge the gap between Ghana and Korea though TV work. As I continue to expose them to Ghana, the feedback has been quite overwhelming and I hope that as time goes on, there will be more cross-cultural participation between the two countries.

OKA: How have Korean audiences received you? And how do you personally react to your new found super stardom in South Korea?

SO: The Korean audiences have been very supportive and great overall. A lot of things are changing in Korea and very rapidly too and I am very excited about that. Over the last five years the influx of foreigners to Korea has been greatly overwhelming. The country's goal to be a global frontier in entertainment is on course I must say. I'm grateful they've accepted me and showed me a lot of love and support. Because, to be honest, there are quite a number of foreigner entertainers here but because it’s almost the first for a black person like myself. I call it the revolution of Korean TV. There have been numerous times I walked around and forgot people know me. It’s almost unbelievable when people walk up to me and ask to take a picture. I feel very honoured especially when it’s my fellow black people. It tells me something is being done right. I haven’t reached super stardom yet but my goal to is to get to a level where people can get similar opportunities as I have here irrespective of their background.

OKA: Tell us a bit about your current show?

SO: The most current work I’m doing is a Korean drama with an old Korean farming setting where I play the role a Ghanaian farmer who comes to Korea to learn advanced technological farming practices. I was also featured in a soon to be released movie titled Hellmoni. I am on a new talk show with Korean hosts and foreign guests where we discuss various social matters in Korea and compare them to the respective countries of the foreign guests. We dissect many cultures and find similarities and differences among them. Another show I recently got cast for airs the lives of very old traditional Korean folks in the countryside. We shot the pilot a few weeks back so hopefully it gets a slot on the screens. The biggest show I’m excited to go on is Runningman. It’s very popular both in Korea and internationally so I am very honoured to be a part of it.

OKA: What does the future hold for Sam Okyere?

SO: The future looks bright and I'm prepared to go the extra mile to make that happen. I also have a couple of projects that I’m working on currently. They're still in the very early stages and once they kick off I'll be sure to inform everyone about it. I’m also looking to take up acting as a serious venture. I have some poems that I am looking to publish and I’m taking up the challenge of writing my poems in Korean. It will be one of the most challenging tasks for me this year but I’m very sure the outcome will be something to write home about.

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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