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Image courtesy of YouNeek Studios.

Interview: Adesua Etomi Is Set To Star in YouNeek Studios' Animated Pilot for 'Malika: Warrior Queen'

We catch up with YouNeek Studios founder and writer of the series, Roye Okupe, for an exclusive rundown on how the animated series came to be.

For the past three years, we've been following the developments behind Malika—the pre-colonial superhero queen coming out of Roye Okupe's YouNeek Universe. After the two-part comic books surrounding her story have been published, Okupe's YouNeek Studios is set to encompass the saga through a long-awaited animated pilot.

Nollywood's very own Adesua Etomi is also set to voice Malika in the animation—Okupe tells OkayAfrica in an exclusive interview.

Revisit the synopsis of Malika: Warrior Queen below:

Growing up as a prodigy, Malika inherited the crown from her father in the most unusual of circumstances, splitting the kingdom of Azzaz in half. After years of civil war, Malika was able to unite all of Azzaz, expanding it into one of the largest empires in all of West Africa. But expansion would not come without its costs. Enemies begin to rise within her council, and Azzaz grabbed the attention of one of the most feared superpowers the world has ever known: the Ming Dynasty. As Malika fights to win the clandestine war within the walls of her empire, she must now turn her attentions to an indomitable and treacherous foe with plans to vanquish her entire people.

Still courtesy of YouNeek Studios.

The animated pilot, executive produced by Niyi Akinmolayan of Anthill Studios, has been developed into a short that runs just under 15 minutes featuring three scenes. There are five speaking roles featuring Etomi, Femi Branch, from the old guard of Nollywood who voices Chief Dogbari, Deyemi Okanlowon, who you've seen in Nigerian TV series and films voicing the WindMaker and King Bass, Blossom Chukwujekwu as Abdul and Sambassa Nzeribe voicing General Ras.

YouNeek Studios has been building out a universe of superhero and fantasy characters—YouNeek Youniverse—that's inspired by African history, culture and mythology. Over the last 3 to 4 years, the hub has been able to do so through 10 books consisting of six graphic novels, three on-shot comics and one art book. Everything in the YouNeek Youniverse is connected and has roots in the continent—and we'll soon see it all come to life once again in the animated pilot.

We caught up with Okupe, who wrote, directed and produced the pilot, for a proper catch-up on the growth of YouNeek Studios, tapping Adesua Etomi to take on the lead role and more.

Read our conversation below.


This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Malika Animated Pilot - First 60 Seconds! youtu.be

Antoinette Isama for OkayAfrica: Can you give us a bit of background as to what inspired you to develop YouNeek Studios?

Roye Okupe: I was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria. I moved to the United States 2002. So I've been here for about 17 years now, but obviously I still go back home. I try to go almost every year. Growing up there weren't a lot of fantasy and superhero characters that featured stories inspired by characters that were born and raised in Nigeria or just even characters based on African history, culture and mythology. And that's something that always fascinated me and something that I always have wanted to see. I mean, don't get me wrong, I still love everything I saw like Batman, Superman, Justice League, Transformers and Ninja Turtle—I grew up on all those things.

It wasn't until I got to the United States in 2002 that I started to think, "Maybe if anyone wasn't really going to do it, I was going to take a chance to do it." And then that's kind of like where the golden age of superhero movies began with the X-Men movies and the Batman movies, Spiderman with Tobey Maguire. It eventually became an explosion of the superhero genre—at least in the theatrical sense. And it was really then that I started to think, "Okay, I need to find a way to get myself involved."

At what point did you begin to take the leap to get YouNeek Studios going and delve into animation?

In 2012, I decided to spend $30,000 that I raised thanks to friends, family and saving to create an animated pilot based on my first story. Back then, it was EXO: The Legend of Wale Williams and I shopped it around for 2 to 3 years. This was before Wakanda Forever and the Black Panther craze—so nobody paid attention to it.

I was really early to the game of trying to create African fantasy and African superhero stories, at least in the animated form for a mainstream audience. Back then, people just didn't know what to do with stuff like that. So I took a step back and decided to start a comic book and graphic novel publishing company, YouNeek Studios, in 2015 because that was the only thing that I knew that I would be able to do on my own. And comic books are a lot less expensive to produce, so I started publishing comics on a yearly basis.

When I published the first issue of Malika: Warrior Queen in 2016, it went to another level because as much as EXO is great (it's a superhero story set in a futuristic Lagos, Nigeria), Malika is really the one that really goes into the roots of African history and mythology. It literally became the flagship character over night because a lot of people gravitated towards it. Here's this strong, black, African character who is the ruler of a kingdom that also deals with a lot of issues that are personal to me and you; that are relatable. But at the same time, it's heightened because she's the queen of an empire that's expanding and threatened. She's under the threat of invasion by foreign culture and she has to decide how to fight a war both inside and outside.

So when I saw that, I decided to start to take a little bit of a step forward into animation again, because I hadn't done it since 2012. I wanted to take time to build a fan base for YouNeek Studios.

Still courtesy of YouNeek Studios.

What were the next steps you took after cultivating increased interest in Malika?

After a successful Kickstarter campaign, I was able to commission Nigeria-based Anthill Studios—I try to make a point to work with people that work on either the comics or the animation who are based in Africa or of African descent. That's something that we really take pride on because we want to showcase African talent to the world. Anthill has been working on the pilot ever since.

Niyi Akinmolayan, who is an executive producer on this animated short, has been amazing. He's made so many sacrifices just to make sure that this is done the right way. I would add that the animators at Anthill are one of the best, if not the best, in Nigeria.

So the idea is once the pilot is done, hopefully by the end of this month, we're to start going to film festivals and start shopping this around to producers. Hopefully with the wave of things like Black Panther and some of the recent announcements of Children Of Blood And Bone being directed by Rick Famuyiwa, we're hoping that we're in the right spot now to be able to get more attention than we did in 2012, when we first launched out to do it.

At what point did Nollywood's own Adesua Etomi get involved to be the voice of Malika?

I have to give credit again to Niyi, who's also the director of the highest grossing movie in Lagos—The Wedding Party Two. He's someone who is really, really integrated into Nollywood—one of the hottest, if one of the best directors in Nollywood right now. He's been a huge supporter of me personally and also YouNeek Studios for a very long time, which is why when I knew that he had started an animated studio, he was the person that I really wanted to work with first. So we discussed about who we would like to bring to this, and Adesua was the first person I had on my mind to voice it. Not only is she a huge star, she's super talented. After the both of us went through the proper channels to present the idea to her, she basically said it would be a dream for her to do it. It was in October when she came on board after the right terms were established.

A lot of credit also goes to the material because she was able to see some of the stuff we've done with Malika and the track record we've built with the graphic novels. And I can't wait for people to actually hear her performance because it's just so amazing what she's done with the character in this short pilot. It's an amazing 14 minutes.

Roye Okupe and the Anthill Studios team. Photo courtesy of YouNeek Studios.

Still courtesy of YouNeek Studios.

I've noticed an increased number of creatives behind the scenes in Nollywood are taking risks with the kind of stories they're telling—where being experimental can yield new sub genres and pushing what Nollywood could be an in industry. How do you forsee YouNeek Studios contributing to that?

What I envision and what I would love is to be able to come in on the animation end of things. A lot of times when you talk about animation in Africa and Nigeria specifically, it's talked about something separate from Nollywood. And that's not the narrative that I want us to drive. I think there's a lot of room for collaboration—which we've done with this Malika short—and that's what I hope it can represent is bridging of the gap between Nollywood and the very little, but fast growing, animation industry in Lagos, Nigeria. And even the comic book industry as well since the Malika animation is based on a comic book. If you look at the relationship between Nollywood and the comic book industry here in the US, it's massive.

And that's really what I'm trying to do—and at least I hope that YouNeek Studios and all the other studios in Nigeria and Africa as a whole—that we can start to begin to bridge this gap between acquisition and trying to tell our stories through Nollywood as much as we're doing it through Hollywood. And it's really great to see stories like Black Panther and Children Of Blood And Bone being adapted as well. It's awesome. I think there's also room for Nollywood to begin to start to do some things with adaptation from comic books and working with the animation industry. And again, that's really what I hope this animated short can show—we can actually come together and do something excellent.

***

Visit YouNeek Studios' Kickstarter campaign here to learn how you can get a hold of the animation pilot for 'Malika: Fallen Queen'—at the moment, it's the only way to grab the short.

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Photo still courtesy of YouNeek Studios.

The Official Trailer for 'Malika: Warrior Queen' Is Here

Malika surely means business in the clip that sets the scene for YouNeek Studios' newest animated pilot.

After much anticipation, the new trailer for Malika: Warrior Queen, starring Nollywood's own Adesua Etomi, is finally here.

In the trailer, we already see the Warrior Queen fearlessly stand up to defend her people against enemies who have set their sights on seizing her expanding empire of Azzaz. Facing threats of invasion by foreign cultures, Malika now has to decide how to fight a war both inside her kingdom and outside of it.

"War is coming," she declares.

Malika: Warrior Queen was executive produced by Niyi Akinmolayan of Anthill Studios. The series has been three years in the making, with a two-part comic series already available for reading; and even more so in line with YouNeek Studios' mission to create stories inspired by African history, culture and mythology.

Joining Etomi in the cast are Femi Branch, voicing Chief Dogbari, Deyemi Okanlowon, voicing the WindMaker and King Bass, Blossom Chukwujekwu as Abdul and Sambassa Nzeribe, voicing General Ras.

Check it out below.

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All photos courtesy of Remi Dada

Afropreneurs: Meet the Designer Reinventing Nigerian Workspaces

Remi Dada's Spacefinish is shaking up design to create futuristic work environments for African companies

In the digital age when a fancy rectangle in our pockets can find us whatever we want, customize it and deliver it to our door, it's odd that the same thought process isn't also applied to physical space. Why does every parking lot feel exactly the same? Can waiting rooms be designed to make time pass more quickly? How can we bring these new standards of personalization into the areas where we live our lives?

Nigerian designer, Remi Dada, is doing just that. With both architecture and business degrees, Dada started his career in tech working in user experience and product marketing–eventually ending up at Google Nigeria. Once he started working in the office however, Dada didn't find it to be an environment that sparked inspiration or productivity. It felt more like rooms with tables and chairs rather than a place that nurtured new, progressive ideas. Luckily, the perfect project presented itself: redesign the office. Dada jumped at the opportunity to meld his practical knowledge in user experience with his love of design and architecture–and the result turned some heads.

Thus Spacefinish was born, a pioneering design company based in Nigeria that works with companies to transform ordinary office space into beautiful and functional environments that increase productivity and employee satisfaction. I spoke with Dada about the purpose of Spacefinish, the importance of design in the workspace and the unique properties of designing in Nigeria for Nigerians. Read on for insights from the design entrepreneur on the impact of spaces and what the future holds for the company.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Nereya Otieno for OkayAfrica: In your experience, how important is workspace environment in Lagos? How is it viewed?

It hasn't been prioritized. A lot of employers do not invest heavily in their employees and you can see that in work spaces all over the world. Now, people are also beginning to understand that high-performing employees–especially millennials–want to work in a space that inspires them and with people who inspire them. Right now in Nigeria it is still very new.

We've been able to measure how companies have been performing prior to us renovating their space and afterwards. What we've seen consistently is that our spaces help with employee retention, they help with collaboration and they help with inspiration. One important thing that we always measure and that we try and add to our design is what we call 'PIC.' PIC is the measure of productivity, innovation and collaboration–now we can track that within a workspace. These three key things are the pillars of how we create better work spaces.


A sketch showing plans for a space in the PwC Experience Centre, Lagos.

With that data, it's probably pretty simple to pitch Spacefinish to a company. But what was it like in the beginning to try and sell the first Spacefinish idea outside of Google? You're essentially coming into a stranger's space and saying 'you're doing this wrong.'

True. We were very lucky in that the first space we did was a Google office. It's Google. Everyone aspires to have a workplace like Google and people visiting the office were curious about how a space like that could exist in Nigeria. So there was a lot of interest but no commitments. Our first real commitment came from a company called Andela, a tech startup aspiring to be like the spaces you see in Silicon Valley. But they were looking to create a space just to meet their capacity and meet their head count, that was all. They thought they wouldn't be able to afford what we'd done for Google.

I went and pitched for them to do something different instead of creating the standard, generic workspace that we've all seen. Then I took our approach: connect the expense and cost of that project to the potential output of the team working there and how that could affect the company's bottom line. When we do that, it becomes an easier conversation to have. Once we are able to connect with the key decision makers and give them metrics they actually care about—like it's not about having a pretty space but about having a space that will allow people to achieve their short and long-term goals—they tend to be more receptive.

A meeting room at the Google offices in Lagos.

Do you feel like a bit of a disruptor or trouble maker?

I would say when we started we didn't feel like a disruptor. For me, it felt very natural because it was in line with what I was hired for and the world I was coming from. When you work at Google, you tend to live in an innovation bubble. So we didn't feel like disruptors while it was happening, but when we got people's reactions—the industry's reaction—then we realized that what we were doing was actually groundbreaking and very new to that part of the world.

Okay. And then what do you do after that? You just keep poking at that nerve?

Yeah. [Laughs] So what happens after that is the floodgates open up and we start to see a lot more demand than we can handle as a company. That gave me the confidence to quit my job at Google and do this full time. We are now starting to figure out how to do it to the best of our capacity at the same level, and sometimes surpassing, what our peers are doing across the world.

What do you find is the most important element within the workspace? How does Spacefinish highlight that?

People are the most important element in the workspace. One CEO said that his team was very unruly—weren't well composed. There is a mentality that we all subscribe to, especially coming from Nigeria where you see people at the local airports not obeying the rules. But those same people, as soon as they land in Heathrow, they're suddenly very compliant. They're the same people. The only thing that changed is their environment. New spaces can cause people to change their behavior—they morph into the space. For that client, the leadership was very happy that their team members began acting in the way they wanted them to act when we changed the space. The psychology of the whole thing is very interesting. That's why we take a human-centered approach to design, with a lot of qualitative and quantitative research before we begin.

View of the Vibranium Valley warehouse workspace in Lagos.

I'm originally from California and I grew up in Silicon Valley–it's a very peculiar place simply because of the concentration of resources. There are surely different challenges for a developer in Nigeria versus one in Silicon Valley. What is the most unique thing for you, after all your travels and experience, that makes designing for Nigeria special?

That's a really good question. You rarely find imagery of inland Africa that is progressive and modern. The first time in recent times was the Black Panther movie and that's why it was so huge. Kids could see a different version of what Africa could be in their collective imagination. I'm making this correlation because that is what I think is different for us, from a design standpoint. For example, the Google office in Nigeria looks very Nigerian. It has a lot of cultural nuances and it is locally relevant to the region, however it is a very sophisticated and modern space with all the right technology. There's videoconferencing, micro-efficiency, access control and security but with the backdrop of an African space. When people see that, it feels very fresh and new and there is so much content that we can use to inspire–from artwork to traditions–and we infuse all those things in to the spaces we're creating.

Do you have a favorite space you've done?

All the spaces we've done have been fantastic. But I think my favorite to date is the PwC office, it is an innovation hub and a huge cultural departure for PwC. They are more or less known as a rigid, stoic brand and they wanted a space that defied all of those things. So we created an innovation hub that was super, super, super futuristic and the first of its kind in West Africa. Anyone who knows interior fitouts understands that lines are straightforward but curves are complicated. This space has a lot of curves. That's difficult to do anywhere in the world but 10 times more complicated in Nigeria because we just don't have access to the right tools and technology that you will find elsewhere. But it came out very well and that has been my most exciting space so far.

A look at the PwC Experience Centre, Lagos

Was it also the most challenging?

It was, yes, because of the design ideas we wanted to achieve. We have things like revolving doors that were inspired by the hobbits' shire in Lord of the Rings and a single workstation that extends across the entire space. There are a lot of lights, floating elements and Nsibidi—an ancient African writing system that we used to create a new language. The artwork is very deep and gives a timeline of different instances in Africa where technology has inspired innovation. It was a very involved and challenging project. But we do the challenging things because we feel it allows us to move forward and push boundaries.

Sure. It's exciting for you and everyone you work with but also, I'd say, for the local contractors and artists doing the artwork.

You know, that is something that we do differently. Most architecture firms just design but we design and build. We do that because, when we started, no one in the market really understood what we were doing. We were asking for materials that didn't exist so we had to create our own. Also, everything we do is local, we don't import anything–which can be an even bigger challenge. But we want to know that we are helping to build industries here in Nigeria, we want to help fix the lack of resources in this part of the world. We could import but it doesn't help the community and economic infrastructure in the long run.

A meeting room in Vibranium Valley

I think the first time our impact hit me was when we were building a place called Vibranium Valley. That's been our biggest project so far: a 2,000 square meter office that was built in a massive warehouse. I went there on a Wednesday one day and we had over 200 people working in the space. And for the first time I was like, "Wow, we really have the ability to create jobs as well." It put things in context for me.

Are there any plans to venture outside of offices and corporate workspaces with your human-centered approach? Classrooms, waiting rooms, etc.?

We are actually about to embark on our first non-office project. We are designing and building the interior of two international airports in Nigeria: Lagos and Port Harcourt. Two very massive projects that we couldn't say no to because...no one says no to international airports [Laughs]. So it's a good way to toss us into things outside of the workspace. So everyone should come fly to Nigeria and check it out when we're finished.

Catch Nereya on her Instagram here.

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Still from 'Harriet' trailer.

Watch Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman In the Moving New Trailer for 'Harriet'

The highly-anticipated biopic about the life of the iconic freedom fighter is due out on November 1.

Back in 2017, it was announced that Tony-winning actor and singer Cynthia Erivo would be taking on the role of the iconic freedom fighter Harriet Tubman in the upcoming biopic Harriet. We've been anticipating its release ever since, and today, the trailer for the buzzed about film has finally arrived.

The moving and climactic trailer sees Erivo delivering a convincing performance as Tubman. The film follows the hero's journey from escaping slavery to becoming a legendary abolitionist and freedom fighter. Here's the official description of the film via Shadow & Act:

Based on the thrilling and inspirational life of an iconic American freedom fighter, Harriet tells the extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman's escape from slavery and transformation into one of America's greatest heroes. Her courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.
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