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Roye Okupe is Championing African Representation in Animation

We spoke with Roye Okupe about his studio, Iyanu getting adapted into an animated series, and storytelling for an African audience.

Roye Okupeisn’t holding back with African representation in the stories he tells. The Nigerian graphic novelist and filmmaker is the creator of Iyanu: Child of Wonder, which recently received a greenlight by HBO Max and Cartoon Network for adaptation into a 2D animated series.

“Growing up, I was a fan of animations, cartoons, but what I felt was missing was showing these stories [I was watching] from an African perspective,” Okupe told OkayAfrica. “So when I moved to the United States in 2002, it became a dream of mine to create superhero and fantasy stories inspired by African historical culture and mythology.”

In 2015, Okupe quit his full-time job as a web developer to pursue making comics and animation. That same year, he launched YouNeek Studios, and started bringing his vivid imaginations to life. His debut graphic novel, E.X.O: The Legend of Wale Williams, Part One, is a superhero story that blends Nigerian sensibilities with sci-fi motifs. He would also direct and produce a slew of animated projects, some of them adapted from his growing stable of comics publishing.

In 2019, the animated pilot of Malika: Warrior Queen arrived, creating a cross-industry buzz, not just for Nigeria’s burgeoning animation scene but for Nollywood as well. Using A-list stars like Adesumi Etomi and Deyemi Okanlowon as voice actors and with charming executions of character designs and profiles, the project made a mark for Nigerian animation.

Malika: Warrior Queen follows the adventures of the titular Malika, a warrior-ruler who protects her kingdom from evil forces amongst other stakes. It draws from real, historical accounts of warrior women from Nigeria, namely Queen Amina. For Okupe, telling the story was about filling in the vacuum of African representation in animation.

From weaving the YouNeek YouNiverse — his own spin on the Marvel Cinematic Universe — to scoring international deals on comics publishing and animated productions, the present moment speaks to how far Okupe has come. OkayAfrica got to speak with Okupe about his studio, Iyanu getting adapted into an animated series, and storytelling for an African audience.

As an independent creator, what has been the greatest challenge in bringing animated characters on screen, especially for a local African audience?

I think one of the biggest challenges has been financing projects. I didn’t have an investor when I started to finance my projects, but I was lucky enough to be one of the first to embrace using Kickstarter. So I financed all my books through Kickstarter, and that is a reason why I am grateful to the fanbase because they’ve been the ones that have supported my career and the company YouNeek studios as a whole.

One of the animated series I produced in 2019 was Malaika warrior queen, which was funded exclusively on Kickstarter. I did it in partnership with AntHill studios, which is one of the best-animated studios in Nigeria, and we were able to create a fifteen-minute short for Malaika, which was based on one of my graphic novels. Queen Amina of Zaza inspires the story; it’s a pre-colonial story that follows Malaika, both warrior and queen, and it focuses on that. So for me, funding and finances are the hard part.

You mentioned AntHill studios, and we know of the HBO Max adaptation of Iyanu. And with the news of the adaptation, people are worried it won’t have Nigerian and African creatives on it. Can you speak on this?

That’s a valid concern. If I weren’t part of the project, I would also have these concerns. But I am an executive producer on [the adaption], born and raised in Nigeria, which makes me a Nigerian creator. And HBO Max, Cartoon Network, and LionForge studios — who are partners and financing the project — have been kind enough to make sure I have a voice as the creator and one of the show's executive producers. So Godwin Akpan, who illustrated the books, will be our Art Director. We also have Femi Angubiade, one of the music composers, who is also Nigerian.

From the very early stage, HBO Max, Cartoon Network, and LionForge wanted the adaptation to be authentic. They knew that one of the ways to have authentic stories is to have authentic creators, so they’ve done their part in bringing Nigerian creatives. There’s a bunch of other Nigerian artists that are working on character designs and environment designs too. So I’ll tell people that as much as there is a concern, I feel they can rest easy knowing that Nigerians are working on this project. Our job is to create a fantastic show and something that will resonate with a global audience while staying true to Nigerian culture.

Among the graphic novels, comics, and animation under your belt, which medium do you resonate with most and why?

It’s hard to say that I resonate with one over the other because all of them offer something different. In the graphic novel and comic book space, it’s a chance to get intimate with your reader because people are taking their time to read the books and turn the pages. To some people, it can be a more immersive experience. With graphic novels, it is less expensive, so there’s a greater chance of longevity in terms of how many books you can continue to produce moving forward.

The animation medium also takes things to the next level with sound, movement, and motion; there’s much more you can do as a storyteller with animation. So I don’t necessarily have a favorite because they are two mediums I love, and they both do different things.

You created YouNeek YouNiverse to introduce audiences into a larger world of African superhero characters. How do you guide someone into this universe?

The books written in the YouNeek YouNiverse are written in a way that lets you start from any of the series. We have four graphic novels in the YouNiverse and Iyanu: Child of Wonder is arguably our most popular title. It is heavily inspired by Yoruba culture and history, and it follows the main character Iyanu as she goes on a journey when she discovers she has powers that rival the gods of her land. And it’s only with those powers that she can save her people from the corrupt; animals that have turned against humanity. Iyanu is a 13-year-old girl that wants to be normal, but she has to accept that she has an extraordinary life and step into an extraordinary journey to do what she was always meant to do, which is be the savior of Yoruba land.

So you can start from any of the graphic novels because it’s all set up in a way that doesn’t confuse you.

What’s the process behind the stories you choose to tell?

I like to center everything on character. So, as much as I like to create epic worlds and worlds that are very immersive, detailed, and deep, I always center them on character. That is, who is your character, what do they think they need versus what do they actually need, and how do you make them relatable, not just to Nigerians or black people, but to anybody that is going to be reading your book in any part of the world. Because, at the end of the day, we are all human beings, and there are certain things we all share. So to me, it’s about starting with a relatable character, fitting them into a larger-than-life world, and seeing how they deal with the struggles of those worlds and how they overcome them. It starts with that and then trying to find out from the character, where the story is, how long it would be, and what are the main arcs. Then, I try to find a villain worthy of the hero we’re creating. You want to create a villain that isn’t one-dimensional, but somebody who you can see where they are coming from and whose methods put them in the [villain] category.

Building the world with the characters comes next because once I have the story written down, I start to work with the team of artists. They also bring things to the table that I don’t see. Once we have the pages and the stories, we send them off to the publisher, Dark Horse Comics. I am fortunate to have signed a 10-book deal with them in 2020.

You mentioned signing a 10-book deal with Dark Horse Comics. What does it mean for ongoing conversation on inclusivity in comics?

Dark Horse is a fantastic company that is creator-driven. They let me do what I want with the books, and they don’t get in my way, which I am grateful for. They’re one of the companies that not just talk about diversity but put their money where their mouth is, so signing a 10-book deal with a creator is no small feat. And that goes on to show how much they believe in me, our artists, the YouNeek YouNiverse, and how much they are committed to getting stories from different voices around the world to a global audience.

It’s a partnership that has been going well, and I hope to continue to go well.

Is the freedom they give you the reason why you went with them, or are there other reasons?

Yes, the freedom to create what I want to make is one of the reasons why I went with them. Dark Horse Comics is a great company and a top publisher with a huge legacy in terms of what they’ve done in the comic books industry. Therefore, the fact they were offering a 10-book deal — which is unprecedented as they’ll usually offer a two-book deal and take it from there — showed how serious they were about the success of the YouNeek YouNiverse and YouNeek studios. And that was part of the reason I went with them.

Generally, what does your accomplishments mean for aspiring storytellers that hope to highlight their cultural backgrounds through the lens of animation?

I would say that I hope the things I have achieved open a wider door for the people that are coming after me because the accomplishments of the people that were ahead of me is why I’m here today. I’m just here to follow in their footsteps and use whatever resources I can to provide opportunities for other people — to put African creatives and creators on a global stage. I hope that is something that can spark a lightbulb in people’s heads to say that Africa is the next frontier for entertainment, not just in comics and animations, but in film and television, and video games too.


Iyanu volume 1 is out, and volume 2 will be out next month. You can grab it online, and everywhere books are sold while waiting for the animated series.

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Photo Credit: Netflix

The Stars of 'Blood Sisters' Talk About Becoming Netflix's Biggest Hit

We sat down with Ini Dima-Okojie and Nancy Isime, the actors who brought life to Sarah and Kemi, to talk about shooting Blood Sisters, acting in Nollywood, what's next, and more.

Earlier this month, Netflix's "first original series" from Nigeria was released. The limited series, Blood Sisters directed by Biyi Bandele and Kenneth Gyang, follows two friends, Sarah (Ini Dima-Okojie) and Kemi (Nancy Isime), as they go on the run after the death of Sarah's fiance, Kola (Deyemi Okanlawon).

The show explores familial dysfunction, murder, the meaning of sisterhood, and how valuable friendships can be, with its central premise around domestic violence, a theme known to many.

Since its release, the four-part crime thriller has received praises, with Variety calling its first episode "explosive" and "hard-pressed to walk away." After its first week of release, the limited series sat at number nine on the list of most-watched TV shows globally, with over 11,070,000 hours of viewing, making it a first for Nigeria. This comes after Netflix’s first Nollywood film of the year —Chief Daddy — faced harsh criticisms from viewers and critics alike.

The success of Blood Sisters shows that cinematography isn’t the only selling point of Nollywood. And for Nollywood content to thrive on Netflix, there should be an investment in all areas, from the storytelling down to the marketing.

For Ini Dima-Okojie starring alongside some of Nollywood's big names — like Kate Henshaw, Ramsey Nouah, and Uche Jombo — was surreal because these are the people she watched growing up. "But when it came to filming, it didn't matter if you've been in the industry for just four years or 30 years," Dima-Okojie said. "All that mattered was everyone was ready to work."

Like Dima-Okojie, Nancy Isime also loved acting alongside them, even though it wasn't her first time working with some of them. "I was there for work and understood that it was bigger than just being Nancy Isime. It was me at work."

We sat down with Ini Dima-Okojie and Nancy Isime, the actors who brought life to Sarah and Kemi, to talk about what it was like behind the scenes, acting in Nollywood, what's next for them, and more.

Blood Sisters | Trailer | Netflix

What's one thing you learned while shooting this series?

Ini Dima-Okojie: One thing I learned for sure is that Nigeria is ready to tell its authentic stories to a global audience. We're not just prepared; we're capable of standing behind any industry. I could feel that from being on set, with the professionalism I encountered. I also learned that it is good to be kind, deliberate, and mindful of what people are going through because what we do has an impact.

Nancy Isime: For me, I learned it's possible to have good production in Nigeria. I've been blessed to be in a couple, and this was one of them. And it's a highlight so far. I also learned about the characters.

Nancy Isime,

Photo Credit: Nancy Isime,

What was it like playing your roles, and how did you get it?

Dima-Okojie: When I got the audition file for Sarah, I went on my knees and told God, "I want this." You can tell from the size alone, and I think that has happened to me only three times in my career because it doesn't often happen as an actor. A week or two after I sent in my audition tape, I got an email telling me to send another tape, but this time, it was for a different character, Timeyin. Altogether, I auditioned for Kemi, Sarah, and Timeyin.

I was so excited playing Sarah. I felt so lucky because, at the end of the day, an actor is only as good as the opportunities they are given. So playing Sarah had me go deep into the character, asking questions and putting myself into her shoes.

Isime: It was wonderful playing my role. I had gotten an email asking to read for Sarah, not for Kemi. So I made my tape and sent it in. Then, I was called in for a private audition and read through with everybody. However, I was called back and was told that Netflix wanted me to play Kemi, and I was like, "What is a Kemi?" Because I never read for her. So I was reluctant to accept because I didn't know who the character was and if she'd have the opportunity to show her acting range. But I took it, and when I read the script, I was like, "Yes, Kemi. Yes, baby, let's do this."

What was your favorite scene to film?

Dima-Okojie: My favorite scene? That's hard. I had so many unforgettable moments. However, I think one monumental period I'd like to pick on is probably when Sarah stood up to her abuser Kola and told him, "No!" because that was very big. She barely speaks up and is so used to being bullied, whether for good or bad, even in her beautiful friendship with Kemi, where she's always being told what to do. But in that scene, she had found the strength and was finally able to speak up, even though she knew what his reaction was going to be.

She spoke up for herself at that moment, and I think it was a huge moment for Sarah. It was a huge moment for people who may have experienced [domestic violence] because if there's one thing I realized from research, it didn't matter where people who are susceptible to abuse are from. Whether they were black or white, old or young, it was a triumph for Sarah and everyone going through any form of abuse.

Isime: I loved every single scene of playing Kemi because, as you noticed, there's no scene she's in that is a usual scene. In fact, no scene in Blood Sisters could have been done away with if you noticed because every scene is putting you on edge the entire time. Coming to set every day, I was like, "we're h-a-p-p-y," because yes, I was happy.

Ini Dima-Okojie wearing white sneakers

Photo Credit: Ini Dima-Okojie

What was the most challenging scene?

Dima-Okojie: For the challenging scene, I'll like to break it into physical and emotional parts. It was very physically challenging for Sarah. From when they decided to go on the run, physically, we were in Makoko, running all over the community, jumping from canoe to canoe. We also went to Epe, where we were barefooted. It was grueling as an actor and a character because this wasn't a fit character. Emotionally, I had to understand everything that Sarah was going through. I had to chip away from who I am as Ini to connect with what she was going through, which can be draining. But thank God I was surrounded by amazing people and directors who eased the process and were there to pick me up anytime I was down.

The series is a global hit on Netflix; how does that make you feel?

Dima-Okojie: Honestly, it's surreal. It makes me emotional half the time because, as a performer, all you want is for people to watch your work and for it to resonate. Being an actor, people see the glitz and the glam, but it's a lot of work. You chip away part of yourself to give a character life, but it's worth it.

Isime: Floating. Floating in a bubble, floating in gratitude. It feels so good. Imagine having 11 million hours of watch time in five days? It's no easy feat. I don't think any African show has been able to do that. So for that to come from Nigeria, and for me to be lead? I don't think I'll ever come down from this high that I'm on.

You are both a part of a new generation of Nollywood actors doing amazing if I say so myself. What is that like?

Dima-Okojie: Generally, I think being an actor in the world today is incredible. Nollywood has gone through much because we were in a time where we didn't have financing and institutionally there's no backing. So being able to be in a world today where everything is global, and I can do something here in Lagos, while people from Japan, Belgium, and Qatar, are sending texts telling me they watched me and loved it, I don't think there's a better time to act than now. It's a fantastic time to be a Nigerian actor.

Isime: It feels good to be recognized for something I'm passionate about and love. I feel blessed because Nollywood is bigger than I am. It goes beyond ego and wanting to be the best because we're all part of something way bigger than us. And I'm so happy to be able to contribute to this industry, leave my prints in the sand of time, and say that yes, there was a time I was not just a Nollywood actor, but every single person can confirm. I mean, it's one thing to say you're an actor, and people start asking, "which film you act?" "this one too na actress?" but you can't say that when it comes to me. And it also feels good to be recognized by the AMVCA, which is a huge organization.

Netflix

Photo Credit: Netflix

Now, let's go behind the scenes: did anything funny, sad, or surprising happen while filming?

Dima-Okojie: There were so many exciting moments, not necessarily sad moments. We filmed for over two months at the height of COVID-19, so you can imagine all the craziness that must have happened.

I remember while filming the dinner scene after we had our COVID-19 test, they told us a cast member had the virus, causing us to reschedule. Another moment was when Ramsey Nouah brought a crocodile for us to eat while filming in Epe, and it was delicious. I honestly had lots of happy moments.

Isime: I feel like all these emotions happen naturally because I was happy every day I was on set. But something interesting that happened was the fact that Ini and I got so into the characters that we took it just beyond acting. We felt every emotion that the characters went through. We had one crying scene together, and I promise you that they cleared the room for us because we had to cry to get it out for a while. Because in reality, when something happens to you and you cry, you don't just cry for a bit. You have to let it out, and that was us. We were Kemi and Sarah and needed time to grieve. To let it out. It was an interesting event, and I had so many times I was tired, mentally and physically.

What's next for you? Any upcoming projects?

Dima-Okojie: There are so many exciting things in the works. First of all, I am getting married. Immediately after that, in June, I am going right back to set for the second season of Smart Money Woman. There are a couple more projects in the work that I'm not allowed to speak about yet, but there are exciting times ahead.

Isime: I love that question, and I also don't love that question because I don't know what's next. I'm just living my purpose, taking one day at a time, and grateful for every part of my journey. If you had told me five years ago that I'd be here, I would say it's a lie because I was probably sure that I knew where I was going. So what's next for me is a beautiful life, more projects, and more fantastic performances.

My show, The Nancy Isime Show,is also doing very well and happens to be one of the most-watched talk shows in the country, so I'm hoping that expands better. I'm also hoping to bring about a few more creations to life.

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These Sisters Are Reimagining Nollywood For A Younger Audience

Neptune3 Studios, founded by the Damina Sisters, is breathing new life into the teen drama, embracing subjects the Nigerian entertainment industry usually shies away from, like body autonomy and women's sexuality.

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