Michael Ajakwe Jr. is a first-generation Nigerian-American who has worked with renowned performers in the movie, television, theater and music industries. His worked on shows from Martin, The Parkers, Soul Food to Entertainment Tonight, Steve Harvey’s Big Time, Sister Sister. A winner of the NAACP awards for Trump, Company Policy, Ted Lange’s Four Queens; and the Emmy awards for E! Network’s Talk Soup, Michael continues to push the boundaries of creativity. He talked to AfroStyle Magazine about his passion for what he does; what it takes to build and retain longevity in such a complicated business; and his thoughts about Africa’s ability to leave an unforgettable mark in the film and television industry.

ASM: How do you define and identify artistic authenticity with different world cultures interacting and influencing one another?
MA: I cannot speak for the rest of the world or any other culture but I believe that art is universal and no matter where you go, you will find artistic expression in every culture and language. Even if we do not understand each other, we understand what it means to express ourselves artistically. When we look back on ancient civilizations, we did not look at what they spoke but what they wrote, painted or drew; and that is what reveals a culture to us- the art plays a huge role. In the different places I have worked in from Nigeria to Brazil, we understand and can relate to each other on artistic levels despite our differences.

ASM: You were born and raised in Los Angeles, but are of African descent. Has that influenced your creativity in any way?
MA: My parents are from Nigeria and I lived there for two years as a teenager; so there’s definitely an influence. My parents were not initially supportive of me being a writer because they did not know of any writers. As you know, Nigerians are more into practical jobs such as banking, law, medicine-- basically practical, secure successful professions. They did not know of any writers that were working and eating from this line of work. So I was kind of a test monkey of sort (lol). But over time, both of my parents came to appreciate what I was doing and were extremely supportive. They even backed my first play. It was all about understanding. Once they understood, they were cool. Now that Nollywood has emerged in Nigeria, I look like I was ahead of my time in their eyes (lol).

ASM: What negotiations have you made, if any, to maintain the balance between having American and African sensibilities?
MA: When your parents are from a Third World country like Nigeria and you grow up in a First World country like America, you can be kind of torn. You know how to be an American and Nigerian and understand both expectations—but you can still get caught in the middle. I just resign to just be myself and try to put a little bit of my Nigerian culture in what I do when I can. For example, on an episode of Martin, we wanted to do something dealing with Africa but could not afford to shoot the episode there. So I came up with a storyline where Martin saved the life of an African prince. We were able to bring the culture to the show. My brother did the Ibo translation; we had a Nigerian band play on set; and got the clothes from a friend that had a clothing shop just to bring an authentic feel to the episode. That is something I try to do in my work when I can.

ASM: What values drive you to write, direct and produce the body of work you’ve done thus far?
MA: I thought I was going to be a lawyer because I love to fight for what is right, but I love to write more than I love to fight (lol). It took me a long time—eight years—to make a living as a writer. I have always viewed the opportunity to write for a living as a privilege and a huge part of my drive since most people don’t get to do what they love for a living. I keep that in mind-- especially during the tough times.

ASM: What has changed or transformed your expectations over the years?
MA: Television has changed. I would say that you do not see a lot of black shows. In the eighties and nineties, during the times of The Cosby Show, every network had a couple of shows with people of color. So there was a rise of black television writers, executive producers and creators. That has changed now for whatever reason so now it is pay cable. Tyler Perry, Bentley Evans, Ice Cube and others have managed to find another way to create and bring shows to viewers. To me this shows that even if you feel choked creatively, creativity—like water-- will find a way out. In some ways it is better because you have more control over the product. I do hope to see it change though and give more people of different backgrounds a chance to showcase their creativity through mainstream media as was the case back in the 70s, 80s, 90s and first decade of the millennium.

“….Even if we do not understand each other, we understand what it means to express ourselves artistically….

ASM: Do you think the African theater, television and movie industries are ready to tackle sensitive topics like homosexuality and female sexuality?
MA: Homosexuality is a tough subject to tackle and get theatrical distribution in a liberal society like America, so what more Africa where it’s not widely accepted and, in many case, dismissed altogether. In America, most films dealing with homosexuality are independently-made such as “Milk” which I thought was a fantastic film about an openly-gay politician in the 70s named Harvey Milk. I am not really familiar with how homosexuality is being tackled in African cinema because I haven’t really watched any films that deal with the subject matter or even spoken to any African filmmakers about it. As for the portrayal female sexuality in African films, I don’t anticipate to be any different than how female sexuality is portrayed in American films. Men run the business so female sexuality will be through the lens of men. Just look at how nudity is portrayed. You can show frontal nudity of women all day long, but if you show male frontal nudity you have an X-rated film. Women are also portrayed as more forgiving when it comes to infidelity probably because a lot of men cheat and want forgiveness. But when a woman cheats in a film, she normally meets a bad fate, like destitution or death (lol). Again, who’s running the business? Men. But I think it’s changing because more women are making films and defining their own sexuality, which is a good thing.

ASM: How about the portrayal of women and subject of homosexuality in the African television and movie industries?
MA: It is the same thing. In a lot of societies, women are suppressed; homosexuality is not acceptable in a lot of countries. Sexuality is at the expense of men. In countries such as mine, our cultures are conservative. However, I think that is cool to let that be explored. That is the power of being independent. There is control and thus the ability to explore areas that are deemed untouchable. Hopefully with more control, African filmmakers will take a chance and explore more of the female’s point of view.

ASM: What was your objective in creating the world’s first Web Series Festival?
MA: I thought the idea was fun. There is a community of web shows online that most people are not aware of. It is a growing underground movement. Back in 2009, I kept saying that someone should bring it together and screen them for the public like a film festival. At first, I did not want to do it because it is a lot of work. At the end of the year, I decided to be that somebody. In 2010, with no budget but a lot of favor, I organized a festival in eight weeks and received nearly 100 submissions. We screened 50 web series from six different states and Canada and held workshops on various aspects of how to make a web series and honored creators who are advancing the genre. The response was great. In 2011, we had over two hundred submissions coming from 19 different states and eight countries—England, France, Italy, India, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the U.S. It is a creativity that most people don’t know about. The web series gives people who want to get into the industry or who studied film and tv but weren’t able to land jobs in the industry a second chance. Contrary to what some people think, there are a lot of good shows on the web. What I find is that most people who criticize web series don’t really watch them—because they think they all suck. How can you make a judgment about something you haven’t thoroughly studied or observed? Anything that allows you to express yourself creatively without going through gatekeepers is a good thing. A producer from France (Jean-Michel Albert) who was interested in starting a web series festival reached out to me through a mutual friend because he could not find any other such festival in Europe. I spent 18 months consulting with Jean-Michel and he successfully launched The Marseille Webfest—Europe’s first—in October 2011. I was a guest of honor of the festival and Jean-Michel presented me with an award for lending my support, then Marseille Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin himself presented me with a medal to the city. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

ASM: Do you see a web series festival being successful in Africa?
MA: Very much so. Over the last two years, we’ve gotten submissions from every continent except Asia and Africa. We are used to making things independently and guerilla style in Africa so I know the talent and determination are there. I expect Africa to be on the map in submissions to the festival. For me, our web series festival will not be complete if Africans and Asians aren’t a part of this entertainment revolution.