From the street to stardom: The astonishing story of Jahman Anikukapo

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By Nehru Odeh

Though born in a middle class family with aristocratic airs, he chose to mingle with the street. Though brought up in a home that was at least comfortable, his father instilled in him a strict work ethic. Though he identified with the street as a kid, he ended up becoming not just a culture advocate but also the first culture journalist to edit a tabloid in Nigeria. Yet like the story of the six blind men and the elephant, one can hardly get a handle on him.

This, indeed is the rambunctious but astonishing story of Jahman Oladejo Anikukapo, journalist, actor, art critic, culture advocate and editor who turned 6o on Monday, 16 January.

Still, a very significant thing about this birthday, which was celebrated with pomp and pageantry at Freedom Park in Lagos, Nigeria is that the teeming number of people who went out of their way from across the globe to celebrate this legend is a testament not just of his greatness and mystique but also of his interventions in the cultural sector and the many lives he has touched, even at great sacrificial cost.

Little wonder, Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka, while paying tribute to his greatness and enigma, succinctly described him as a ghost worker.

“In just a few words, the best expression I have for him is that of a ghost worker. You hear about the expression, ghost worker in negative sense. Some of them have never been anywhere near the establishment. But someone somewhere is collecting salary. I always think of Jahman as ghost worker. By that I mean you don’t know how he achieves what he does. If you give him a task, you don’t ever see him at work on it. I think he’s an instinctive artistic facilitator. He promotes others without promoting himself. He has assisted me in theatrical productions and worked behind the scenes. He should just continue the same way as he is doing,” Soyinka said.

It was indeed an afternoon of tributes, of memories, of laughter, of poetry, music and dance. Akeem Lasisi, journalist, performance poet and former arts editor of The Punch thrilled the audience with his scintillating, lyrical poetic performance with drums accompaniment.

A cross section of the audience

However, a very significant aspect of the night was the joint rendition of Pa Ben Tomoloju’s ‘Epo Biriki’ by the composer himself, Jahman, Edaoto, and Yinka Davies.

Professor Duro Oni, a theatre scholar and former Deputy Vice Chancellor, University of Lagos who gave the keynote entitled, “The Art Man: Celebrating an Indispensable Interventionist,” led other distinguished Nigerians both virtually and on Zoom to pay tributes to Jahman. They included, Ben Tomoloju, Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, Akin Adesokan, Joke Silva, Martin’s Oloja, Molars Wood, Norbert Young, Kole Ade-Odutola, Koko Kalango, Tam Fiofori, Segun Adefila and Ayo Arigbabu.

Duro Oni set the ball rolling by describing Jahman as creative, diligent, consistent, hardworking and focused. “Jahman is quite a bundle. He is more than an octopus. He is creative. He is diligent. He is consistent. He is hardworking. He is focused. He is very confident. And let me say he is very prudent. Jahman would not be part of a wateful exercise in terms of having budgets that are just padded. He is also loyal with very high integrity,” he averred.

Oni also drew the attention of the audience to the long list of individuals that constituted the Committee of Friends that organised the event as well as the many personalities who came all out to celebrate Jahman as evidence of the sacrifices the celebrant had made to celebrate others in the past.

Oni also spoke about Jahman’s uncompromising attitude to the arts, the groundbreaking efforts he had made to bring artistes into the limelight by giving them visibility through the art pages of The Guardian, his literary and art criticism that made many artists and writers better and how he put the establishment to its toes.

“In those days, those of us that are in the theatre, until Jahman and the Ben T came, there was only one little column tucked away in one side of the newspaper that they called The Arts Review. I mean it was one quarter of a page and they put everything inside. And from nowhere we are now getting so much attention. We must thank all these people who have been involved in all of this. Of course, Jahman has also expressed himself at festivals all over the world and have mentored quite a number of things and events.” Kadaria at the event

Oni also said the fear of the critic is the beginning of wisdom, and that the celebrant does not suffer fools gladly. “Jahman can be very hard on you or anything that does not go well.

“Beyond being a critic, of course editor, culturalist, motivator, and organizer, the popular parlance these days that we get to hear is influencer. But Jahman has influenced a lot more in the direction of culture, arts in Nigeria than any one that I know of recent with his journalism and his advocacy.

“He is the person who keeps the chief executives of information and culture parastatals on their toes. I have the privilege of being the chief executive of one of the parastatals and you will not believe that the chief executives were used to organizing parties and envelopes at the end of the year for journalists and all of that and then they would get very bad reviews. Because Jahman would not be part of it.

“What Jahman wanted is that what are your activities so that his journalists can go and report them. It is not your brown envelope or your New Year and Christmas party. It is what it is that you have done for the year. What are your activities? And knowing that very well, I never ran foul of Jahman. Because he ensured that I had a whole line of activities throughout the time that I was in CBAAC.”

Oni also described Jahman as a living legend that is so knowledgeable about the things that he does. “At 60 there is no doubt that Jahman has given so much in the area of serving as an interventionists in the growth of the arts and and culture in Nigeria, In Afrivca and indeed globally. However, considering his boisterous energy, I think his best is yet to be seen and the work is just about to begin,” Oni enthused.

Molars Wood, journalist, writer and former Arts and Culture Editor, Next Newspapers praised Jahman for giving her wings to fly. Molars recalled how Jahman made her not only to have a full grasp of the cultural sector in Nigeria on arriving in the country after having spent over a decade in the United Kingdom but also mentored and gave her content and context. She also described herself as one of Jahman’s girls (a group of female journalists mentored by Jahman). “There was a talk of so many people being Jahman’s boys. Well, you’re looking at one of Jahman’s girls,” she said and the hall erupted with laughter.

She continued: “He gave me the column to write on the broad range of arts. He shipped off all The Guardian Literary Series to me in London. He would always give me context. From there, I was able to build readership. He did a lot to encourage me,” Molars maintained.

For Taiwo Ajai- Lycett , Jahman “represents all that is lacking in our society. He doesn’t care much about himself, and when you get to that stage, it means you have attained freedom. He is the epitome of the true strong society that I want.

“We are all here to pay tributes to virtues, qualities and values that are lacking in our society at the moment. And he represents all those virtues of dedication, selflessness, respect, civility and focus above all else,” Ajai-Lycett said. She also used the opportunity to enjoin everyone to cultivate those virtues as well as have a sense of camaraderie, which Jahman represents.

Joke Silva was full of praise for Jahman for his incredible facility and mind in the cultural space and for his amazing understanding and mentoring of young people. She also thanked Jahman for mentoring her two sons.

“What I want to mention is your amazing understanding of young people. How you understand their wanting to navigate this space that is so difficult for adults, not to talk of young people. And how you then take on the young people and expand their minds. And I have seen it even closer with what you’ve done with my son, Soji. Whenever he comes to you, you are so open, so ready to help him,” she said.

Akin Adesokan, who spoke from the United States via Zoom, While narrating how Jahman coped and forged ahead after the poscription of The Guardian by the them military dictator, General Sami Abacha, said Jahman has the ability to make Herculean tasks appear easy.

“But I also know that beautiful minds have talents for outwitting bullies like Abacha and Saleh, and among these is the nurturing of identities that defy routine categories, the ability to make Herculean tasks appear easy, the aptitude for love, loyalty and liberty. No wonder he thrives where others founder,” he said. A cross section of the audience at the event

Tam Forfiori, on his part, praised Jahman for his humility and for encouraging him to write. “Jahman as Arts Editor of The Sunday Guardian encouraged me to write fo The Guardian. And I would say that some of my best stuff on the arts were written for The Sunday Guardian. I gave to thank Jahman a lot for encouraging me.Jahman has been a very humble friend.”

Lookman Sanusi, who spoke from the United Kingdom, described Jahman as an institution and praised him for his sense of professionalism.

Kole Ade-Odutola said he was enamoured of Jahman’s writing skills, adding that the celebrant makes writing easy. He was also full of praise for him and Ben Tomoloju both of whom he described as extremely brilliant and people who would write what he needed a dictionary to read at the time. “All those who are around Jahman are very fortunate to be around him,” he said.

“The thing about Jahman is in his other life before this one, he was a king. And kings don’t speak much. He has so much in him that he doesn’t say in the public sphere. And for very good reasons,” Ade-Odutola maintained.

Nobert Young described Jahman as a hard worker, while speaking about the times they spent as students at the University of Ibadan. He also recalled what it was like working with Jahman in theatre productions, attesting to his workaholic nature.

“Jahman was a stage manager for two plays. Jahman would be the last to sleep and the first to wake up. The natural flair for arts energises him,’’ he said.

Young was also full of praise for Jahman, describing him as a spontaneous actor, and that his area of specialization was criticism. He also spoke about how Jahman learnt from his former teacher Professor Dapo Adelugba that writers who do their jobs well are not normally liked.

Ben Tomoloju, Jahman’s former teacher in secondary school and later boss at the Guardian spoke about Jahman’s early contact with the street even though he came from a middle class family and how an encounter with him while he was his teacher introduced Jahman to acting and changed the course of his life.

Jahman himself had attested to it in an interview. “If I had not encountesed Ben Tomoloju, I probably would have ended like people where we learnt boxing, how to use knife, bottles to attack other people and how to disarm an opponent having a weapon in Agege. We used to go from one part of the town to another, to go and do area boy fight and use weapons,” he recalled.

Kadaria Ahmed spoke about how delighted her mother, who is a writer and knew Jahman was, when she learnt that he was celebrating his 60th birthday, adding that she sent her greetings and wished she was there to celebrate with Jahman.

Segun Adefila, the artistic director of Crown Troupe of Africa, praised Jahman’s devotion to intellectualism even at leisure and the sacrices he has made for other artists.

“With Jahman, you can’t be an artist and be relaxed. One day, we went to eat amala. And we were supposed to eat and take inspirational drinks and go. But not with Jahman. The topic of one book must come up,’’ he said.

Martins Oloja described Jahman as a good man who has made himself to be more significant than most prominent men who are not significant before God and man.

“He is a good man who can also be described as a good tree that has produced good fruits for The Guardian. That is why the three title Editors at The Guardian today, Alabi Williams (Editor, Daily), Kabir Alabi (Editor, Sunday), Chuks Nwanne (Editor, Saturday) are coincidentally journalists who have worked well with the same Jahman as Editor…”

Ayo Arigbabu spoke about how Jahman encouraged him to write for The Guardian and how he kept a column trying to let readers know the connections between architecture and the arts. He also said those intellectual efforts proved helpful in later years in the sense that when he was researching materials in that area, it was only what he had written for the Guardian at the time that he found on the internet.

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