Seun Olowo-Ake had the privilege of talking to Odunlade Adekola, Omowunmi Dada and Deyemi
Okanlawon, fellow Nigerians, and stars of The King’s Horseman about their film. In this interview, they
discuss reclaiming culture in a Western world, the duty of actors, and celebrating diversity.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Olowo-Ake: I’m so excited for everybody to see this film when it comes on Netflix, and I wanted to start by honouring Mr. Biyi Bandele who wrote and directed the film. What was it like working with him on set?
Adekola: Biyi was a wonderful person. Personally, to me, Odunlade Adekola, he’s a wonderful director.
Every good thing about a director was in Biyi Bandele. He allowed you to think, to experiment and to
bring your own ideas on set. Sometimes, he would come over and ask, “how far? How do you see that
particular scene? Is it okay?” If I said, “I think it’s better this way,” he would say, “okay. Let’s try it.” That
was Bandele, always giving room to be an actor on set. We miss him.
Okanlawon: He was such a beautiful man. He is a director who lets you do you and then comes and
whispers in your ear, and that little insightful guidance just colours the entire scene differently. The
premiere was heavy because, watching the movie, having had these series of conversations with him, I
could literally feel his presence right behind the screen, like a conductor. I miss him. He would have
been so happy and very proud. I’m proud of him.
Dada: I had been a huge fan of his work- first his literary work because he started out as a writer- and
then when I saw Half of A Yellow Sun, I knew I wanted to work with him as an actor. I had been looking
forward to that opportunity, and when The King’s Horseman came calling, I was so excited. I first met
him at the rehearsal, and he was just so sweet! I would say first that he’s a very humble man. He’s that
director that wants to make sure you’re very comfortable. As an actor, he allows you to be. He wants to
see how you’re going to interpret a character because at the end of the day, as much as it is his film,
you- the actor- are the vessel with which this story is going to be told. It was a breath of fresh air
working with him. He was peaceful, calm, creative, jovial and such a hard worker. We truly wish he was
around for the premiere, but one thing we know for sure is that he was smiling down at us, seeing us
celebrate him, and I can’t wait for the world to see the magic we’ve created.
Olowo-Ake: A big theme in the film is ‘duty’. One of the core conflicts is that Elesin Oba hasn’t done his
duty to his people and then his son, Olunde, takes on this duty, “I will do on my father hasn’t.” As an
actor, do you feel a sense of duty when you’re approaching a film? And if you do, what is that, and how
do you bring that to your work?
Okanlawon: That’s a pretty interesting question. Yes! I think acting is one of the most honourable
professions ever. As with every other art form, but I’m an actor, so I’ll put acting above everything else
in that it really brings art to life. My job, my purpose, my mission as an actor really is to paint this picture in the most realistic form. And so, I feel a heavy burden in that, it’s not just about me. I want to be the best version of myself in my craft, and I owe it to myself, but beyond that I owe it to the audience, the story itself, for this film- our history. There’s a sense of duty from that angle then there’s to the people who are watching, to the hundreds of thousands of young actors who need an example of professionalism and craftsmanship, to my family, because film easily lend itself to legacy. So, you want to leave a legacy that your family and your friends would remember you by for generations to come. So yes, I feel a huge sense of responsibility.
Dada: For me as an actor, when I get a script, the first thing that compels me is the story: the story that needs to be told. I know that as talented as I am, it’s not just for me, it’s for the consumption of the whole world. And when a story gives me that opportunity, I take it upon myself to deliver. To not just act as that character, but to be that character so that that audience can really suspend their disbelief and it will be very easy for them to learn the things they need to from the story. I also believe that art is not just for entertainment; it’s for education, enlightenment, social emancipation and to make the world a better place. I know that I have the talent and that the onus is on me to make the world a better place, and I do that script by script, character by character.
Adekola: She has said it all [laughs]. I think as an actor, you have to be disciplined. Discipline is the key. If you’re disciplined, you’ll be able to interpret anything you want to and have total concentration on what you want to do. As an actor, that’s the first thing, no matter how talented you are. If you’re not
disciplined, if you don’t try to caution yourself, mostly when you’re on set, you’ll miss the track. So, it is a great duty for any actor. Elesin Oba [the film] speaks a lot about morale and about culture. If you
watch the film, every part of it is a great lesson for everyone.
Olowo-Ake: The film is based on the play, Death and the King’s Horseman, written by Prof. Wole Soyinka and in the play, he critiques colonisation and westernisation. In the film, we even see there is a clash of two cultures, and we’re finding with the way the world is now, lots of countries are westernized. Is there an element of our culture that you see isn’t being practiced anymore but you wish was still being practiced today?
Adekola: We don’t need to shy away from the fact that we’re in a modern world. Everything has really
changed. But despite that fact, we’re still maintaining our culture. At the premiere, look at Wunmi
[Dada]; she came out in her beautiful cultural attire. Look at me with my agbada, look at Adeyemi
[Okanlawon]. We’re still maintaining that sense of belonging, that we came from somewhere and we
need to represent them positively.
Okanlawon: I think humanity was built to evolve. Like young kids, they will grow. You want to guide that
growth, not yank things out of their lives and imprison or destroy certain things. You want to nurture.
And Africa in general and Nigeria, specifically, I feel like our growth was truncated. When we say, “the
rest of the world is westernised,” that is a truncation of growth. We were forced, I mean literally forced-
at gunpoint- to accept a different culture. We were brainwashed to see our culture as being inferior.
That act of westernisation is a group of people being brainwashed for whatever agenda. And so, I don’t know that there are things that I would say that I miss, or I would like to bring back. We’ve evolved. Even the westernisation phase has sort of started to pass. We’ve come to a place where we’re beginning to rediscover ourselves, and you can see it in our art especially- it will always start with art. That’s our responsibility as artists, to observe society and to speak to that. We see that in Afrobeats now taking over the world. Now, we are the ones doing the colonisation [laughs], but it’s on fairgrounds, nobody’s putting a gun to your head to listen to music. And then with Elesin Oba [the film], we can see some elements of our traditions that we can do without. But of course, the essence of who we are and our beliefs- the belief that we are a worthy race, that we’re meant to be here and not meant to be slaves to anybody, that we’re not second-class or third-class Global citizens, depending on who’s trying to be the judge of that. We have a place; we have a voice and it’s just really important that the world – and us- starts to accept that.
Dada: Westernisation has come to stay, and while we’re happy and embracing it, let’s not lose
ourselves. And it starts from our mother tongue. The truth is an Englishman will speak English because
that is their mother tongue; a Chinese person will speak Mandarin first because that is their mother
tongue. I know that things are getting better, but there was a time that people lost touch of their culture and tradition, most especially with our languages. Growing up, in Primary Schools when you speak your mother tongue, they called it ‘vernacular’. I think that is very rude and degrading, because you’re first African before you can embrace something else. You can’t give what you don’t have. You have to be whole in yourself to be able to embrace something else and love it. So, I would love that Africans embrace African-ness more and that we appreciate our culture; Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, Swahili, whatever it is that is your mother tongue. I would love that every child that is being born to any culture first embraces who they are before embracing other things. Just be proud, basically! I love that the world is now celebrating Nigerian music as we’re producing more Afrobeats, and it’s the same for the Nigerian film industry. We’re now embracing our stories more than we used to, and the world is coming to learn about us, so it makes sense that we tell our stories how we know them and how we want the world to see them rather than the world coming to tell them however they want.
Olowo-Ake: Yes. I actually saw the play [Death and the King’s Horseman] in December at Terra Kulture, Lagos, and I heard Bolanle Austen-Peters [director and producer of the play] talking about how it was quite challenging to move it from the page to the stage. Were there any parts of the script or even if the play that you found difficult and how did you navigate that?
Adekola: It was very challenging to bring this wonderful story to life. But, like I said earlier, as an actor,
you have to be disciplined. As a disciplined actor, you sit down and think. There are a lot of actors out
there, but if you watch this movie, you’ll see how challenging the movie is for every one of us. It is not
ordinary Yoruba [laughs], the one that we speak every day, but it is a true and fantastic storyline that
you need to take the time to study very well. When I was back in my hotel room when we were filming, I would go back to my script, read it, and try to get it right. Even parts that I didn’t really understand, I
would call people, “what does this mean? I have another interpretation for this word,” and figure out
what they meant. So, there were a lot of challenges, but at the end… we killed it [laughs].
Dada: [laughs] We killed it. The first time I came across this piece was in secondary school, and the truth is it’s not one of Wole Soyinka’s easy plays, because it’s very poetic and colourful. Then I went ahead to study theatre arts at the University of Lagos. There were many times when I worked on this play as a literary piece. I critiqued it using many different approaches; from a Marxist point of view, socialist point of view, feminist point of view etc, so I had critiqued it many times. I also had the opportunity to play Iyaloja on stage, but of course, stage allows you to play different kinds of characters as long as your act goes out to the audience. Now, this is the film adaptation of it, and I will tell you that the experience is very different. First, Wole Soyinka wrote this in English, but our script came two ways; with the English and the Yoruba translation, so you could choose to read it in either language, although we knew we were going to do the film in Yoruba. Interestingly, the translation of this piece into Yoruba helped me understand a lot of the proverbs that Wole Soyinka had written in English that I didn’t understand.
Dada: So many things like the conversation between Elesin Oba and Iyaloja. When I read this piece in
Yoruba, I now truly understood what Elesin Oba was saying. This is why I was saying you cannot run
away from your roots, because it is who you are and there is so much knowledge when we dig deep into our roots. So, the script was totally different and enlightening. It made me see this piece from a whole different perspective. Second, the bride, my character, says no words in this film. I now had to, as an actor, birth the pain of the bride: her joys, her fears and her struggles through my expression and body language. That was all I had. It’s harder, but it was a beautiful experience and I love challenges [laughs], so I’m really happy that I could do it and I was super proud of everybody when I watched it.
Adekola: It was also good to have great actors on set. It’s one thing to have a good story, it’s another
thing to have great actors to interpret it.
Okanlawon: It’s a difficult play. First of all, kudos to everyone in the world who has ever tried to put this
on stage. I read the stage play, and I was like, “how on earth am I going to do this?” and I have a stage
background so that’s saying something. Then the script came, and I was really impressed that the
essence of the play was kept. It’s a different medium, right? So, it has to be adapted, for the screen and I think it was beautifully done. For years, I’ve been questioning our film philosophy- in Nigeria and in Africa. You watch European films; you can tell there’s a voice. There’s American films, there’s their voice too. You watch Asian films? You can sense there’s a philosophy, an ideology behind what they’re doing, and I never really found that in African films, even though we do great films. When I watched this film, it felt distinct and weird, initially. I thought, “there’s something different. It’s not like any other film I’ve seen,” and then I realised, “oh my word! Finally, I’m hearing our voice.” I was comparing it with other movies, and I stopped myself, “no, no don’t do that. This is Africa. This is us telling our story our own way.” And it was beautiful to watch. I mean the music! Oh, my word, the music and how they infused drums, and even the language- although I think we borrowed a lot of that from Wole Soyinka. The language was so poetic and rhythmic. And, of course, every time they moved the story away from us-the Africans- to the British, how they blended into the European classical sound was just beautiful.
Olowo-Ake: Yeah. That was my next question, actually. The music. I noticed that it’s a constant
throughout the film and it carried the story. What was that like listening to people sing live and the
music on set?
Dada: Yay! I’m a theatre baby [laughs] I have a video where Odunlade and I just burst into dance while
they were singing. It’s so beautiful! Our music tells who we are. It shows our pain, joys and celebration.
You cannot take an African away from their music and you cannot take music out of the African. The
music in this film helps to buttress a lot of messages, so for almost every scene, there is music that is
buttressing the mood, the tone, the message- everything is so intertwined. It’s really beautiful and I’m
happy that with this piece, so many people out there will also get to learn some Yoruba songs [laughs].
Odunlade had this surreal moment when we were watching it and when I asked him, “are you okay?” he said, “Omowunmi, you know African music gives me life.” [laughs]
Adekola: [laughs] Like our Executive Producer said, you can’t take music away from our culture. It’s part of everything we do. In this movie, as an actor, producer, filmmaker, you will learn a lot. Apart from the story, it is well shot with great actors and great music. You can understand the story from the music and dancing alone. The non-Nigerians at the premiere enjoyed the film-
Dada: Yes, they were so engrossed.
Adekola: The music really kept them engaged.
Dada: Yes. That’s why I say film and art are not just for entertainment, but to educate. If a Western
person who has never had any experience of the Yoruba culture watches this film, they will be a quarter Yoruba. You experience the culture in this film, from our music, chants, instrumentation, food, lifestyle, communal living, marriage customs, burial customs- everything ‘Yoruba’ was represented in this film. It is an expose of the Yoruba culture and tradition.
Okanlawon: The music was so beautiful. It really immersed us in our culture and reminded us of who we are and why we’re here. At some point, I wasn’t acting. Those words [referring to his character, Olunde, confronting British ideology], I was just speaking the truth. It’s not my truth or our truth, it’s the truth and I felt it needed to be said. Then Biyi whispered in my ear. He said, “They’ve not won, so don’t be angry,” and it elevated all my work.
Olowo-Ake: I was thinking about the idea of the Oriki [a praise song or poem recited amongst Yoruba
speakers] and how people who aren’t Nigerian would imagine it would give you an ego, but they also
remind you of who you are. If you’re about to make a stupid decision, I think an Oriki can say,
“remember where you’re from, remember who you’re supposed to be,” and that can actually guide you.
Okanlawon: That’s why names are so important to us. Our names have meaning, they are constant
reminder of who we are. My name is Adeyemi Okanlawon. That’s a sentence. That means something.
And I wake up every morning knowing this is who I am. “I am worthy of the crown, because I am one in a million.” That’s kind of how that translates. As a kid you do need that confidence boost, you know, and I grew into that and here I am. And I’m worthy of where I am. Orikis take that a step higher, singing your praise, reminding you of your achievements, where you’re from, where you’re going, your purpose. That’s what an Oriki really is. I think every African should have one. As a matter of fact, now that you mentioned it, I’m going to go back home, I’m going to get somebody to write me an Oriki and sing it and I’ll listen to that every morning [laughs]. Whatever happens happens. If my head explodes from ego, that’s my head’s problem [laughs].
Olowo-Ake: I like history and I wish all of us knew more about our history, but I’m glad that art is helping us find out who we are again. What is one thing you hope audiences- especially Nigerian audiences- take away from this film when they see it?
Adekola: That we’ve retained our culture and are trying to speak about what we do. We’re trying to
project our culture to the world. All the non-Nigerians who saw this film now know more about us.
Someone said of all the Nollywood films they’ve seen; this one is exceptional. This movie is fully
packaged and everyone watching can learn something from it.
Dada: I would love for people to learn that we need to celebrate our uniqueness and diversity. I am an
African woman; I will never be an American woman. I have my culture, tradition and ways of life and I
respect myself with it. We need to respect each other’s culture and tradition. If someone else says this is how they do their thing, if it doesn’t hurt us, let’s respect it. I’ve learned that people belittle what they do not understand. Everyone is important and unique, celebrate people with their uniqueness. There’s no point trying to change them to being like you. I’m a black woman, I can never be white. A white person can never be black, but we’re all beautiful. God never makes mistakes. If He wanted everyone to be the same, He would create everyone to be the same, and God can never be mocked. So, I believe that this film will open people’s eyes to accept people more and to celebrate other people’s cultures.
Okanlawon: I know what it’s going to do. What it did to me and what it has done to a lot of people who
have seen it so far, and it’s in two parts. First of all, it’s a reminder to ourselves, who we are. And in
remembering, we start to question everything. I’ve been so fortunate to have grown up in an
environment that allowed me to question everything. I question everything, so, everything I believe in
now, I believe. It wasn’t stuff that was fed to me. I think it would help us ask these questions and regain
faith in who we are, in our tradition, in our culture, our religions and start to celebrate those things. The
second thing is it will be a signal to the world: that we’re here, and we’ve remembered. And they should be aware that we are now enlightened. There’s a warning in that too.
Olowo-Ake: Hm. Thank you so much.