My conversation with Oluwaseun Babalola—”Seun” for short—was empowering. We are both women who have a passion for what we are doing, and we are both doing all that we can to make our dreams a reality. Each episode of her series, “SOJU,” zeroes in on a different niche of the African community around the world. What Seun is doing for African culture is so important, and I’m so happy I had the privilege to share her story. Learn more about SOJU here, their Kickstarter here, and watch season one here.
REBECCA MARTIN: Growing up, what inspired your passion for film, the stories you chose, and your choice to film with a documentarian lens?
OLUWASEUN BABALOLA: I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. I’m from this neighborhood called Clinton Hill. I was raised with two other sisters, along with my mom, who was born and raised in Sierra Leone, and my dad was born and raised in Nigeria. So they raised us here in New York. Growing up African was interesting because I didn’t have a concept of Africa as individual countries, in terms of them being different. I just viewed them as African. My parents were African, and we had African food at our home. On the outside, I was just this Brooklyn kid going to school and everything was fine. As I got older, I realized that a lot of the things that I heard in my house–some of the languages, the music that we listened to, and the clothes we had to wear when were going to my family events–were reflective of my culture. I began to become more aware of it and what it meant.
MARTIN: Where did you go to college?
BABALOLA: I went to Hunter College, and I was a film major. When I was starting at Hunter, I entered this contest on this Yahoo show and there were open casting calls. Somebody asked if I wanted to come inside, and said that they were casting for a Yahoo web series. So I auditioned for it, and they asked what technology equipment I’d want if I were to win it. I answered, “A camera and a laptop, because I’m tired of fighting with my sister for the computer.” Months later, they actually called me back and said I had won the show and they wanted to give me that stuff.
MARTIN: That’s awesome!
BABALOLA: Pretty incredible, right? So when I won that camera, that’s when I started shooting things on the side in Central Park over the weekend, just filming different things.
MARTIN: So what took you to SOJU?
BABALOLA: After I got the camera, I still didn’t have any film jobs. So I was just working a lot of admin jobs and retail. I knew that I always wanted to create something like “SOJU,” like “Globe Trekker” on PBS. I also liked “No Reservations” with Anthony Bourdain. I would watch those programs and I was like, ‘I love traveling, I’d really like to do something like this for Africa.’ I know Africa has a lot of cool things on the continent. A lot of the time when you see African content on TV or in the media, someone is making fun of us or we’re throwing spears at someone. I know that there is more to this, and I would just like to be the one to show that. But I didn’t know how to go about it. Then as time went on, I just figured I’d try to raise a bunch of money and do it myself.
A lot of the time when you see African content on TV or in the media, someone is making fun of us or we’re throwing spears at someone. I know that there is more to this, and I would just like to be the one to show that.Oluwaseun Babalola
MARTIN: You are a rock star. Had you been to Africa before you started the series?
BABALOLA: Not at all.
MARTIN: Oh wow.
BABALOLA: I only had the stories of my Grandma and my parents, and I had knowledge from my family back home. I asked my dad if I could stay with his family in Lagos. That’s how I just launched into it. I knew the culture, so I decided that I was just going to jump in and see what happens. So I did all that I could do in terms of making connections with people and researching about how to get around. I had some questions, but yeah, actually being there was very different.
MARTIN: So when you were out there did you just start filming stuff?
BABALOLA: The first time I went, I had a plan that I wanted to shoot a sizzle reel, because I didn’t know if I had enough money to shoot a full program. So I told myself, ‘I’m going to set up interviews, and I’m going to shoot those interviews. Then I’m going to come back and make it really nice, and try to show it to some people. After that, maybe I can turn it in to a TV show or something. So that’s what I did. I reached out to people in Nigeria, because that was the first place I went. I only reached out to a few people, like six or seven, and I said, ‘I want to interview you and this is what I want to try to do,’ and they said yes. We sat in cafes or in their offices, and I’d set up my camera. And that was that.
When I arrived and did what I had planned, I was amazed, because it was actually one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. It was incredibly difficult. I came back and edited a reel and showed it to former bosses and people who I used to know, and they were like, ‘We can show it to so-and-so people,’ but nothing ever happened. So I sat on it before deciding to raise more money myself so I could do what I want. I ended up working like three jobs . . .
MARTIN: While you were working, you had the idea for the series?
BABALOLA: I was working, and so at that point I found some work as an editor, and then I was doing freelance editing work outside of the day job editing, and I was doing something else too. I really was pulling on the different strings of income, because I really wanted to raise money to do this. I had narrowed it down to Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Botswana, to make this all encompassing full feature, because I didn’t know if I could make this series. So I was thinking about making it in to a feature documentary. I set it all up and this was like 2 years in planning, until I actually went back.
MARTIN: What was the year you went back?
BABALOLA: I ended up going back December of 2015. December was to Sierra Leone, January 2016 was to Nigeria, and May of 2016 I went to Botswana. I ended finishing it in August 2016. And then I finished editing it three to four months.
MARTIN: You are driven, I love it.
BABALOLA: Thank you, that was while I was working a day job. I must have been crazy.
MARTIN: Well you’re passionate about what you’re doing, that’s why. I feel like passion drives you to do crazy things.
When you were in these different countries, how did your subjects reveal themselves to you? Watching your series, it seems that you focus on different niche groups in Africa. So did they reveal themselves to you and then you explored?
BABALOLA: When I first set out to do it, I just wanted to show these stories. I knew there were surfers in Sierra Leone, death metal fashion in Botswana, etc. I realize after editing it, I was like, hey there’s a theme here, these are young entrepreneurial Africans who find their identity in what they do to contribute to society. And that wasn’t something I planned, but I thought that’s actually really amazing, and I’m going to stick with that theme. I’m going to keep doing this. This is really important. I think a lot of people don’t realize that there are a lot of Africans doing the groundwork, they’re living their lives, they are not sitting around and waiting for aide, or waiting for some nonprofit to save them, they are there to save themselves.
This is really important. I think a lot of people don’t realize that there are a lot of Africans doing the groundwork, they’re living their lives, they are not sitting around and waiting for aide, or waiting for some nonprofit to save them, they are there to save themselves.Oluwaseun Babalola
MARTIN: I think that’s great, any filmmaker that can take you to a place you’ve never been, and create a connection, I think that’s so important. Now excuse my ignorance, are all of these countries nearby each other? I’m going to have to look at a map.
BABALOLA: No, this is great. I love that you are like, “I’ve never been there before, let me look this up.” This brings an awareness.
MARTIN: Is YouTube the main platform for the series? Or do you have it on anything else?
BABALOLA: It’s on YouTube; it’s also on the website SOJUAfrica.com
MARTIN: When you were doing the filmmaking, what was something you learned about yourself and the process?
BABALOLA: I think I learned about how much I am a product of my parent’s upbringing. And how much I am also a byproduct of being raised in Brooklyn. That really stands out to me because I think we’re just in our normal environments thinking this is the way I am. People don’t put much thought in to how their surroundings really inform who they are as people. Whether it being in Kenya or Nigeria, or Libya or something, I was surprised in myself about how comfortable I was in being within these cultures because of my parents’ exposure and because of their influence.
MARTIN: That’s so great, traveling and reconnecting to your roots as a first generation. I love what you’re doing, and how you are taking Africa in to the modern day. It’s not just about the past, it’s about now. And I love how you’re taking Africa out of the tragedy and putting a positive spin on it.
BABALOLA: That’s great to hear because you never know how things are going to be perceived. You’re just putting it out there. I think the goal is to get people to look into what they don’t know, more. Also, to get Africans, whether you are in England or New York, or Brazil or something, to get them to know what’s going on in their neighboring countries.
MARTIN: What are your plans on where to take SOJU?
BABALOLA: So far I’ve documented some stories in different countries and I would like to continue. What I’m really trying to do is develop it into a format that’s more, that allows me to dive deeper into some issues. Because the thing with a web series you don’t really have a lot of time to get in to context, and nuance in to history. I’d really love to do that, and combine that with current events, what is actually happening now in our political and social spectrum.
That would be really awesome, and I’d love to combine that with art and music and really have it fully fleshed out rounded series. And have it be used as a learning and teaching tool. That’s my goal for that. And to not only create this new kind of media, but hold events where after we can have a discussion about it. We can then talk about the issues, we can talk about gender rights, and African women behind the camera. Like we can have this discussion in Ghana, or other countries in Africa. It’s about the virtual and media space, but also on the ground community. So those are the goals.
MARTIN: That’s great about the events. So you’ve been at festivals with the series? How were those experiences?
BABALOLA: Festivals are my favorite thing to do. Like I was saying before, you never know how people are going to react to it. And I love the instant feedback. I think on the internet it’s good to spread and share. But you don’t know who’s watching. You don’t know who’s behind what screen. But to sit in front of people, to sit by people in theatres to see what people laugh at, grumble at, you know, and what annoyed people afterwards. Yeah that’s the type of thing I really enjoy. The festival response has been really good, because people are excited about it. Which excites me, because I’m like okay, I’m on the right track.
MARTIN: Thoughts about the landscape of being a womxn in film, and a womxn of color?
BABALOLA: I told myself that I was going to start working with intention, in terms of who I work with, and I really wanted to work with more womxn and that thankfully that has been the case for a lot of the stuff I worked on this year. I think I had forgotten about what it’s like to be the only womxn on a team, except the past summer I was on a shoot and it was just men. They were discussing things, and one of them said oh it’s so unfortunate that the Me Too movement made thousands of people lose their jobs. This brought to my attention that there is still a bubble within the industry, especially when you get to people who have been working for a very long time, have reached a certain success level. And they just are really not aware of anything around them that doesn’t affect them. And it can sometimes go the same way in terms of doing content more focused towards audiences of color, then to mainstream audiences, which is usually white audiences. When I work on productions where they have white audiences, they are often a bigger budget. There’s often more access. There’s still not really that many womxn.
MARTIN: I know, we’re not there yet, that’s for sure. I think the conversation is there, but we still have a long way to go, which is unfortunate.
BABALOLA: I guess all I have to say is that I’m really happy that conversations are being had, because we have to constantly bring it up in order for change to actually happen. We have to keep pounding people over the head with it.
I guess all I have to say is that I’m really happy that conversations are being had, because we have to constantly bring it up in order for change to actually happen. We have to keep pounding people over the head with it.Oluwaseun Babalola
BABALOLA: We all need to individually do our part, and bring womxn on board. Because they’re some people that are like we don’t care who we work with. And I’m like, you have to.
MARTIN: Yes, it’s important! Final thoughts?
BABALOLA: Hopefully whoever sees the series, the platform, the website, and the kickstarter that they know that my mission is to support and grow and establish African creativity. Not only that, give us the agencies to really tell our stories and hire each other, and just really collaborate with one another, because seeing is important. You can’t be what you can’t see. And it can really open up new worlds for younger generations to see these accurate and positive representations of Africans.
You can’t be what you can’t see. And it can really open up new worlds for younger generations to see these accurate and positive representations of Africans.Oluwaseun Babalola