Photo by Jordan Marc.

Sam Adegoke Is the Actor Bringing Nigerian Flair to Mainstream TV

We sit down to learn the come-up of "Dynasty's" Nigerian-American star.

It's not everyday you hear Yoruba spoken on mainstream television—you can thank Sam Adegoke for that.

The Nigerian-American actor plays Jeff Colby, who originally was played by a white man, on The CW's Dynasty—a show based on Aaron Spelling's 1980s classic soap opera that eventually rose to be America's number one show. The re-up of Dynasty shows heiress Fallon Carrington (Elizabeth Gillies) not happy to discover her billionaire father Blake (Grant Show) engaged to Cristal (Nathalie Kelley), a rival employee at the family company. When Fallon's scheme to break them up backfired, costing her a promotion, she links up with her father's nemesis and former employee Jeff (Adegoke) and strikes out on her own. And that's only a nugget of the drama that's been brewing since the show aired last fall.

Having the reboot be set in Atlanta instead of Colorado sparked an idea that Adegoke eventually pitched to the network. Acknowledging the sizable population of Nigerians in the city, he insisted his character and the Colby family hail from the most populous country on the continent. "Jeff, my character, is like this self-made tech billionaire. He's like a Mark Zuckerberg," he told them. "Could he be Nigerian? 'Cause that's realistic." Dynasty's showrunner Sally Patrick took a liking to his pitch.

Adegoke wanted to engage another audience, especially through the fashion his character dons on the show as well as the storyline. "They hadn't cast my father at the time, and they ended up casting Hakeem Kae-Kazim, who's Yoruba as well, as Cecil Colby" he explains. "Episode nine is where we first meet his character. And prior to this, I'd done six episodes without [Jeff] being Nigerian. In the first scene we did [together], part of the scene was in Yoruba—which was amazing."

He notes after doing his homework, this has never been done on a major broadcast television show—where we see this lingual and cultural interaction—versus the quintessential Boko Haram/conflict narrative seen in feature films. "The Nigerian community went crazy," he tells me. "I got all these DM's and tweets and just realizing how impactful that was. I was overwhelmed at how I got to bring my culture into this character and make it mine." At the time we spoke, the network was in the midst of shooting episode 18—and the interplay and exchange was (and is) still happening. Pulling from his experience of seeing his parents code switch between English and Yoruba, especially when they were angry, had to be woven into the heightened scenes on the show.

Photo by Jordan Marc.

It was a gloomy February day when Adegoke and I sit down to chat. He was taking a brief break from shooting Dynasty to attend New York Fashion Week—as he's a fashion aficionado who dabbles in design himself. His tall, slim stature isn't intimidating, but rather a canvas for his minimal, yet experimental, outfit of the day. Using black as a base, he rocks a burnt orange suit from Japanese designer Prospective Flow with a solid-black cap and off-white sneakers to highlight his rope belt. Once we both realize we're the youngest of our siblings (he's the last of seven), how he moves in the world makes complete sense. He's a creative bubble waiting to burst; full of nuanced stories he's ready to tell. But it took him going down a curvy path of doing everything but what he was meant—or called—to do.

"Fearlessly pursue what sets your soul on fire."

Growing up in Minnesota, Adegoke's first go at acting started in the church. His parents were ministers; he recalls being in church seven days a week. "Being the son of a minister, you're going to be involved in church one way or another," he says. "We would act out every story in the bible or plays that were biblically and spiritually inspired. And I was always the unsavory characters. I always played Barabbas, or Judas Iscariot." When asked why he was set up like that, he responds, "I'm a bit mischievous [he saved up and brought home a motorcycle against his parents' wishes at 17, but luckily his dad didn't flip out], but I just remember loving the interaction and the make-believe—and that never left me. But I really didn't have that option to do that." As many Nigerians and Africans deal with studying and pursuing skills in lucrative fields because of pressure and parents' fear of their children facing financial instability, Adegoke ran track and studied marketing and finance at the University of Minnesota.

"I was involved in everything except what my calling was," he explains. "I was president of the Black Student Union, vice-president in my fraternity, I served in student government, I did internships—I had a great GPA and had two job offers waiting for me by the time I graduated. I was living the life I thought I was supposed to and jumped into corporate."

Adegoke worked at Target's headquarters before moving to Los Angeles to work at General Mills. "I worked in multicultural marketing, which was really cool, he says. "It was as creative as I could be in a corporate environment without being an artist externally. I found out very quickly I would be miserable at this, so I cashed out my 401K and went to San Francisco to study menswear at the Academy of Art." While at the Academy, he took on a minor in theater which was unknown to anyone. "I had to be undercover with this," Adegoke says. "Menswear was also something I was really interested in doing, but it was still me lying to myself. The idea of moving to L.A. and being an actor just sounded so cliché. It sounded disgusting to me—why would you go into this rat race of a pipe dream that for so many people it doesn't work out?" Once he finished his studies, he created a biker-inspired collection and even collaborated with Chid Liberty's made-in-Africa apparel company, Liberty and Justice—but something was still holding him back.

It was fear.

Photo by Jordan Marc.

That fear was knocked out of him once he tragically lost his best friend in L.A. to suicide in 2012. "It was then I honestly asked myself, 'What the hell am I doing?' I'd never been faced with my own mortality in such a palpable way," he recalls. Adegoke then kicked the grind of acting into high gear, making his moves in silence. "I started jumping into every class I could—I was a weekend warrior," he says. Despite returning to the corporate world during the week, he made himself available to act in student projects at USC and UCLA just to learn and grow. The more Adegoke immersed himself into his true craft, the more he discovered his truth of pursuing this outside of the quintessential goal of fame. "For black men, especially as Africans, you're not really encouraged to face emotions—you're taught that's a sign of weakness," he says, referencing seeing his father express his emotions on polarizing extremes. "I found acting to be a safe space for me—to explore emotions on a spectrum."

Three years later, his first big break came to be when he won the ABC Discovers Digital Talent Competition. "Yes, 2015 is when I begin to exist [on the internet]," he jokes. "It's a phenomenal program geared towards diversity and inclusion where they search for diverse storytellers. They get 15,000 applications a year and I entered not thinking anything of it—but I kept making it to the next round." This opportunity yielded Adegoke his first talent rep and his acting career took off, landing roles on Wicked City, Murder in the First and Switched at Birth.

Although Adegoke is riding the waves of Dynasty's success and flexing on the 'gram with his dapper fashions, the silent moves continue behind the screen. "There are a lot more stories that I want to tell—more from the African perspective. So I'm writing a lot," he says. "I just want to tell that immigrant story that's not comedic and comes from a space for those who didn't come from wealth and struggled with the pressures that came with assimilating. I have a very vivid memory from my childhood with those experiences."

As we dread for our conversation to end, Adegoke leaves with some gems we can all keep in our back pockets. "Fearlessly pursue what sets your soul on fire," he says. "[Once] you do that, you're in alignment. You'll be walking with purpose. I promise you—do the work; the stars will align. There's opportunity and there's voice and there's a place for you. Don't trivialize or diminish that for anyone. Listen to your gut—it'll never steer you wrong."

Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njere, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njere. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko formed a creative and activist hub, called PAWA 254, with Mwangi, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njere represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njere's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njere, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has three cinematographers, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njere and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.

Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating. They're putting us on the same level as porn.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'

"SOFTIE" Movie Poster

Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko www.youtube.com

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