Akinosho… Geologist in love with the arts
There’s this popular saying that ‘if you want to hide something from a black man, put it in a book.’ However, if Toyin Akinosho, Secretary of Committee for Relevant Art (CORA), is involved, you don’t make that mistake. Akinosho is a bookworm; he reads everything.
In those days of the monthly Great Highlife Party organised by CORA in collaboration with Ojez Restaurant at the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos, he would show up at the gig clutching a book, with his finger on a preferred page.
Usually, it was the duty of Akinsho to speak at every Highlife Party before highlife musicians such as Fatai Rolling Dollar, Maliki Showman, Tunde Osofisan, Alaba Pedro and others take over the stage. But Akinosho would insist on reading a portion of a book before giving his speech that always contained some information about the good old Lagos; that’s Akinosho for you.
Therefore, it was no surprise to hear that ‘Publisher,’ as he’s fondly called, had gone to the library, when this reporter arrived his Lekki home for this interview. However, it didn’t take long before he returned. A few minutes of jokes and ‘traditional’ multiple handshakes, we headed for The Sailors, one of Akinosho’s favourite lounges on the Island.
Those who know Akinosho will easily tell you he’s a proudly Lagos boy; he wears it like a badge. Just open a conversation on Lagos and within a short period, you will get the full gist about Lagos yesterday, today and even the future. You needed to see Akinsho on this day, as he relished his growing up days in Ebute Metta; it was such a nostalgic feeling.
However, if the CNN award-winning journalist is to write his biography, it would surely start with him sitting on a pavement in front of his father’s house in Ebute Metta at 2am, on a Friday breaking into Saturday morning, talking with his cousin, with strings of highlife music wafting from Cool Cat Inn.
He recalls, “The Cool Cat Inn was not very far from my house. At 2am, my mum and dad strolled in; they had gone somewhere and nobody was anxious that somebody would be attacked or things like that. This was about just before the war broke out; that was the Lagos that I knew.”
For Akinosho, life was easier and better in those days, unlike today when people struggle to live the good life.
“My parents were able to afford virtually everything in the household and they are not necessarily rich. I was going to Baptist Academy, one of the best schools in Lagos then.
In fact, when I stumbled on some of my father’s documents on my school fees, I think there was One Pound that he paid for one particular term, and if you saw the pack of books that I brought home from school. Now, I find myself even many times richer than what my father was, but I think he was happier,” he lamented.
Akinosho was fully involved in the social life. With a vibrant economy, he went everywhere.
“The vision that I have in my head again is that at about 1977, everybody was talking culture. I was 17; I had finished school certificate, trying to make a way to get to university. We would all bunch into a taxi for the equivalent of 50k and go to the National Theatre. Shina Peters was roughly about two-three years older than us; he was a small boy, who was wearing this suit; they live in that neigbourhood.”
If Akinosho and his gang were not at the National Theatre, then they were at the cinemas.
“We went to see movies at the Metro Cinema and the rest. A lot of those things went away and people are celebrating the things that look like them today. When people talk about cinemas in Lagos, it’s as if they just came. The difference today is that, whereas you have these plush cinemas, you don’t have the alternatives; there were alternatives in those days.”
While the likes of Metro Cinema on Ikorodu Road and Roxy Cinema in Apapa were for the elites, young chaps like Akinosho had the option of going to Jebako Cinema in Mushin, Central Cinema or Kings, which was on Broad Street.
“Those ones were also likely to show both American and Chinese films; you didn’t need to sweat to enjoy those things. Surulere was the heartbeat of the city; there was nothing like the Mainland – Island; the so-called Island was empty. The Island that thrived in my growing up was where Freedom Park is today; the Island they call Victoria Island and Ikoyi didn’t have anything happening in those days.”
As a student of Federal School of Arts and Science on Adeyemo Alakija Street, Akinosho used to walk down the street with friends and their girls to enjoy ice cream at Falomo Shopping Centre.
“The place that I hung out in as a 16 years old guy, I have to struggle today as somebody, who has worked for an oil company, to even access those places and pay. So, I’m struggling to imagine what 16 years old go through if their parents were not that rich,” he said.
When it comes to clubbing and sapling restaurants, Akinosho is a devotee till date.
“Segun Sanya and myself, in our school uniforms, would got to Grill Room Leventis to have breakfast for N2.80k; serious breakfast with toast bread, baked beans, sausage, omelet and a cup of coffee. The same thing you go to have in big hotel today, which you pay N7,000 for, that thing was N2.80k. In Lagos today, if you go to any place that looks like grill room and you had breakfast, you will need N4,000 for something that is not hotel. How come you need to have a basket of money to be able to enjoy those things today?”
WITH his level of involvement in the arts, many still wondered how Akionsho, the only child of his parents, ended up studying geology at the University of Ife. Even as a staff of Chevron, he never left the arts.
“Because there was certain outgoingness; I probably was preparing myself for a life in the arts. But to tell you the truth about geology, I had been studying those, who seemed to be making money and who weren’t making money in the Nigerian environment. And I felt that a lot of the people that I was seeing that were in the arts, unless they were in law, they didn’t seem to me like they made money.”
Right from time, Akinosho had always wanted to live in a particular way. Though he was good in both the arts and sciences, he felt science would be a sure way to wealth.
“I wanted to study either engineering or applied science or geology, which was what got people into the oil industry; it didn’t have anything to do with my liking it. You know, we didn’t have counseling; if someone had counseled me, I would just have basically been a very successful writer or whatever. I probably would write better plays than Ahmed Yerima and the others. And the country was trying to promote science then; they were encouraging people to study sciences.”
Meeting J.P Clark
AKINOSHO’S romance with the arts and culture sector gained momentum during his NYSC days, when he first met Prof. J.P Clark, who was running the Pec Repertory Theatre.
“I was 21 then; I can’t forget. I had read about the theatre and I went to tell him I would want to start coming to see his shows. He looked at me up and down because he set it up as an upscale thing for upper class people; it wasn’t necessarily meant for some funny 21-year-old boy like me.”
But along the line of their conversation, the Clark enquired about his background and that was it.
“I said, ‘I’m in my service year and I read geology. I don’t know what I would likely end up doing, but I like to write for newspapers.’ And he said, ‘ok, seriously, geologist? I’m interested in your interest.’ That’s how JP Clark took me in his wings. I mean, I would go to Pec to watch performances; he allowed me to see the rehearsals. Most importantly, there were programmes of activities; you knew all the upcoming shows,” he enthused.
To the geologist, what is actually beginning to happen again in terms of theatre production is not new.
“The things that people like Wole Oguntokun are now doing (Theatre@Terra) and claiming that it was the first time people were doing something regular, crap! I lived this experience; people should just go and read up. It’s very important not to go and say something was your own. Somehow, there was some kind of 25-year break of life, and when life came back to Lagos, it became far more expensive.”
According to Akinosho, Onikan remains a major location when it comes to arts and culture in Lagos.
“If you consider that there was Island Club down the street, there was the stadium, the Yoruba Tennis Club and Race Course, which later became TBS, you could understand that that was the heartbeat of social life in Lagos,” he said.
Meanwhile, down the street, there was the United State Information Service (USIS) that hosted exhibitions and cultural events.
“That’s where we hung out. Then, there was the Museum Kitchen in that same location. So, the culture heart of Lagos was in that same place. Now, there’s Freedom Park; you have MUSON Centre, City Hall, City Mall… it never quite changed; something is always happening within that location.”
As a freelancer, Akinosho took advantage of his relationship with Prof. Clark to expand his writing scope.
“He needed N90 for a year to subscribe and see those show, but he (Clark) said I should come and see the show free. But how our relationship developed was that I was now writing about what I saw in the newspapers,” he said.
In those days, Akinosho wrote for every paper, although The Democrat particularly helped him grow in journalism.
“I was writing for Punch, The Guardian, Concord and Daily Times, but I gravitated more towards the ones that paid me. I liked to be paid. So, The Guardian would pay, but The Concord and Punch won’t pay. It took a while for The Guardian to publish because they had everybody wanting to write for them. The Punch will publish me very quickly, which was good for me, but I needed to make some money by the side,” he noted.
It didn’t take long before Clark picked interest in Akinosho’s writings, especially reports about his productions.
“In those days, Prof. would review my reviews and people in the cast were telling me that he likes me. You know, he will never show that he likes you; he was playing both my father and a friend at the same time and I was excited,” he said.
Sometimes, the Prof. takes young Toyin for lunch. Before you knew it, it didn’t take long before the geologist caught the bug for arts.
“He would say, ‘come let’s go for lunch…’ and we would go to the Boat Club with me, small 23-24 year-old boy. He would be meeting with these judges, generals… I would just basically be hanging around, feeling so cool when they served us food. In fact, in a sense, all these CORA thing that we are doing today, that’s what determined those things,” he revealed.
Though a Lagos boy, Akinosho was in tune with trends in the social circle.
“I talk about this town as if the whole global thing was here. When Michael Jackson released an album, my generation got it the same day; I was 17 when the Thriller came; Jackson was 18. So, we were following this boy that was our age; the Jacksons Five were boys like us; that’s how we grew up,” he enthused.
“The kinds of parties that we threw were global parties; people came back from the U.K. and had an idea and we simulated the city. You don’t need to do a party from 10pm at night; you started at 2pm and you went home at 8pm. We created it and I’m still looking for anybody to tell me that it wasn’t us that first did that,” he said.
Basically, three people shaped Akionsho’s life in the arts. Apart from Prof. J.P Lark, the duo of Tunde Kuboye and Ben Tomoloju played major roles.
“I believe that this fun that I had in Lagos growing up led me to feel that this whole culture thing was natural for me. Tunde Kuboye was the kind of Lagos big boy that some of us wanted to be like; he was the one running the Museum Kitchen. He would bring a jazz band from Chicago to perform and he would invite us to come. You can imagine that you are just 22 and somebody is inviting you to such event. Ordinarily, those kinds of things are for big guys.”
He continued: “The Italian Cultural Institute would have this choral concert, with all these oyimbo orchestra… I mean, I didn’t know then that we would have a MUSON Centre, and Nigerians would be handling those instruments. In my early 20s, everybody who performed in those kinds of concerts were whites. But I’m happy that MUSON Centre has changed all that; you can invite people from abroad, but you see that Nigerians are doing those things.”
Upon his graduation from university, young Toyin returned to Lagos for his NYSC and served with Elf (now Total). But instead of securing a job with the oil company, he opted for The Guardian.
“My first paid job was at The Guardian. In elf, I was serving and I asked them if they were going to hire me, and they said, ‘look, we are going to hire next in 1986.’ But as somebody who understands the industry, I realised that, at that time, they were not stable. Around that time, I had been writing for The Guardian. Ted Iwere, the then features editor of The Guardian, called me and said, ‘would you like to join us?’ and I said, ‘are you sure you can take a geologist?’ and he said, ‘we take everybody,’ and that was The Guardian for you. So, I came and Femi Kusa said, ‘oh, you are the one who has been writing for us?’ I learnt later that people did tests, but I never did. In fact, I was the first person to be described as energy reporter. So, in the sense, the company wanted me to do something for them,” he said.
Recalling how Ben Tomolu, a former deputy editor of The Guardian influenced his life, Akinsho explained that he was the guy who promoted his writing most.
“Ben came to meet me at The Guardian; he was with The Democrat, where he created this brand of culture journalism that we are all doing today. This whole business of saying Fine Art page, Music page… it wasn’t there before. You know Tunde Kuboye and JP Clerk were doing things that I would like to do, but in Tomoloju’s case, I didn’t even know he was doing those stage things; I just knew that this was somebody if I gave him my work, he would make the best out of it.”
In terms of his craft, Tomoloju was the man that put Akionsho through. While the other media collected and published what he wrote, Tomoloju’s case was different.
“He has always had a unique way of writing, but I didn’t want to write like him; he was too heavy for me. If you noticed the way I write, I’ve always wanted to say heavy things in a way that it will look like we are having fun,” he enthused.
Meanwhile, going to work for Nduka Obaegbena’s ThisWeek remains Akinosho’s horrible mistake in his journalism career. In fact, that misadventure actually forced him back to oil and gas.
“I might not have returned to geology,” he recalled. “What happened was that I made one horrible mistake of going to work for Obaegbena. We were nine of us and it was going to be a generational statement; that’s what we called it. The proprietor basically had other ideas for the magazine; he practically wanted to use it to make gains into government, that’s what I thought. So, I was kind of got tired. We were not paid salaries, it was bad,” he lamented.
Luckily, there were openings at Gulf Oil (now Chevron) and he went for it.
“I joined Gulf Oil on July 1, 1988. So, when I say I spent 20 years, I left in February 2008,” he said.
But all through those years, Akionsho was active with CORA, while still publishing Festac News and Africa Oil & Gas magazine.
“I was doing everything art,” he noted. “I remember I was having a conversation with one Oyinbo journalist and telling him what I do and he asked, ‘what exactly do you get to do for Chevron?’ He was like, ‘this guy, if he genuinely does the thing he claimed to be doing, he can’t be working for Chevron.”
How he you manage the situation?
“The good thing is that Chevron is a well-structured organization,” he said. “It’s not something they jump on you. Once you have target, you face it. I mean, people jump into the bus at 4.30pm. If you are someone, who is energetic like me, there’s still a lot of time. People do enough at work and feel that they have to go home at 4.30pm. But for someone like me, that’s another six hours.”
However, Akinosho’s voluntary resignation from Chevron was a huge shock for many. But for the Lagos boy, there’s no exact time to quit.
“I’ve always been this free spirit guy. That Chevron thing was a long period and I wish that it wasn’t like that. I wish I had worked for Shell, moved around, done some things in other places. I wanted to publish; I was very keen on that particular space. My challenge was that I was beginning to publish that thing and I wanted to put my name on it.”
Though there were other people in Chevron, who are doing businesses, Akinosho’s case was different.
“The kind of business they were doing is not public, they didn’t need to leave. And there was a time an MD of one company came up to me and said I was writing rubbish about his company. If that man wasn’t a good hearted man, he could have reported me to my boss.”
For him, leaving the oil job was an opportunity to do more for the arts.
“The shame is that eight years after, I haven’t exactly expanded whatever that I was doing in the art. But basically, I wanted to feel free to do things. I didn’t have an oil company in mind; what I actually wanted to do is something culture. I wanted to expand the Africa oil and gas, which we haven’t exactly done in the way that I would like it to be. Otherwise, there were all these other things that I felt I could take on in the culture space.”
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