July 10, 2010

Meeting Mr. Slender Himself

Somehow I managed to kick-start my research, and meet a local celebrity, before even arriving in Lagos. After arriving in Tripoli, Libya for a 3-hour layover, I watched Obama make a speech on immigration on TV for a bit before taking a tour of the waiting room: a blend of North Africans and black Africans, some women in headscarves, others in full hijab, others with perfectly straightened locks out on display. I passed a prayer room with the fives times for prayer posted on a board (I also took note of a compass application on the airplane screen that always tells you the direction of Mecca, and an audio channel offering a reading of the Quran). A massive, almost caricature-like portrait of Qaddafi was framed in the center of the room.

I spied a comfy chair, sat down, and there seated right next to me was Vocal Slender, a newly-minted international celebrity of sorts after featuring in the BBC doc “Welcome to Lagos” that just premiered. I recognized him instantly and recalled his story: living in the massive Lagos dump picking through trash for salvageable items to resell in order to fund his aspirational music career. None of his friends in the music industry, including his manager and producer, knew what his day job was, and the documentary crew had to hound him for permission to follow his story. Now that half of England has seen his story, his secret’s out at home, but his career has exploded. When I introduced myself, he told me he was flying back from London—his very first flight, and his first trip abroad—after shooting a music video and receiving $200,000 from the doc producers after the film’s success.

Vocal Slender (his real name is Eric, which he told me as if imparting a secret) is remarkably humble after his sudden rise to fame. He seemed to take his month in England completely in stride, remarking that he found the country “very safe” but “dirtier than he expected,” and he didn’t care for the food, looking forward to coming back to Lagos. Rather than telling me about his exploits and travels, he earnestly wanted to tell me his wish for my film career, and with it, his personal philosophy. And funnily enough, it’s my philosophy too: the two most important things a human can do is to love, and to create.

We continued talking the entire flight to Lagos after switching seats to sit with each other. He stared transfixed at the flight path map, reading the names of all the cities we flew over. I told him I had studied in Italy and he said, “You study a lot, don’t you?” Then he reminded me that I had an enormous responsibility to follow through on my education – to my parents, my scholarship sponsors, my government for their loans. This is someone who spent his college-age years salvaging scrap metal in a landfill, and I felt ashamed that he needed to remind me how valuable an education is.

In another twist, his manager who traveled with him works in Nollywood, in the official Lagos film office that grants shooting permits – precisely the thing I’m here to study. I got loads of names and contacts and plenty of advice. After worrying that I hadn’t prepared sufficiently to start my research when I got here, I ended up starting it in Libya, before even landing in Nigeria!

Slender made sure I met up with my host at the airport. He's a 50-something journalist for a political magazine and incredibly friendly and accommodating. After a short drive to his house (he put me in the backseat "to avoid attention") I’m safe in my rented room now—a palace, at least in my mind, that reminds me in all the best ways of my room in India. An air conditioner is roaring deafeningly, and comfortingly, and I’m about to collapse on a sheetless bed. He's promised to purchase a mosquito net tomorrow.

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