If you, for any reason, missed the online conversations around the previous elections inspired by the online show, On the Couch,anchored by Falz and Laila Johnson-Salami, then get ready to head to YouTube for a binge. The freshness of the show – the way it bridges the gap between the Nigerian youth and political discourse – was further showcased in its co- anchor, Laila. There is, in Laila’s delivery as interviewer, a clear wealth of information – backed by credible sources – around the issues Nigeria faces on domestic and global scales. Watching her, I could not help but be proud of the command in her voice as she engaged with presidential aspirants, holding her own in a manner exemplary of the bravery of the new generation of Nigerians who are ready to challenge and change the status quo where it is flawed. For this reason, I decided to turn the tables on Laila, see if the assumptions, made from watching her, held true and take the opportunity to learn a bit more about a voice I hope will stand the test of time.
Your work dominantly relies on the use of your voice – the radio, the couch, your activism – what brought you to this professional path?
I’ve always been socially conscious with an interest in matters of sustainable development and I thought it best to use my voice to enact positive change. My career path has been a no-brainer. I’ve always had a passion for the media. I started writing from the age of 15, interning at the House of Commons at the age of 16 and founding my own NGO at the age of 17. Cutting across social development through different means from a young age helped me to understand my purpose in life and strategise towards it sooner rather than later. And then of course, I started TV at the age of 20 and radio at the age of 21, giving me a pretty well-rounded taste of the media and the opportunities available
Who were your earliest inspirations?
My mother has been the greatest inspiration. I spent a lot of time around her in the workplace growing up and learnt from her passion for helping and empowering people. Every Thursday, she shut down her office to hold free youth empowerment sessions, also targeting University students in Lagos. This action humbled me. Additionally, I’ve been very inspired by my aunties, Lola Shoneyin and Mobola Johnson, who have used their platforms in positive ways, fuelling and enacting necessary conversations and changes in politics, and society. I’ve also looked up to Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Margaret Ekpo and Oby Ezekwesili. It is clear from watching and listening to you that you have a great deal of knowledge about economic, political and social issues across a range of Nations.
What is the educational path, conventional or not, that has informed you?
I studied Politics and International Relations at the University of Essex and the University of Westminster in the UK. However, I won’t solely attribute the woman I am today to my education. At University, I dedicated time to work experience and developing my skill set. I read a lot and watch a lot of documentaries to feed my constant hunger for knowledge. I try to expand my knowledge base daily because I am aware that there is still a great deal of personal ignorance.
You are young and getting it! Do you think age can be a help or hindrance in shaping a woman’s career path?
I don’t think it has done either on my part really. I remember kicking off my career in the industry in 2017 and stating that I have the benefit of being young on my side. A colleague corrected me, saying, “Laila, never let anyone tell you that. This industry waits for no one and time is on no one’s side. Put in the work now, don’t even think about your age” – she was so right.
Whose idea was it to develop On the Couch and why did you think this was a necessary endeavour?
It was a rather impulsive decision following a sit-down conversation that Falz and I had with a presidential aspirant. We decided that it was time to normalise politics for the youth and Falz proposed that we start a show. Youths have been politically disempowered for years and we don’t have political content that is attractive to young people and Nigerians living around the world and we both see it as our duty to ensure youth engagement..
Across the last season of On the Couch, there was a clear difference of opinion between yourself and some of the presidential aspirants – how have you balanced the need to correct “wrong” views against your role as interviewer, if at all you think you have?
I am a “baby” Broadcast Journalist in interview mode on TV and radio every day. Most aspirants that have joined Falz and me on the Couch, have joined me on-air prior to our couch conversation. The intention is for the public to imagine that Falz and I were sitting down with presidential aspirants sans cameras – this is what we’d say, this is what we’d express our concern over and this is exactly how the conversation would go. I’m not on the couch as an interviewer per say, but as a concerned young Nigerian woman. I understand that it is important to also ensure a balance for the audience and of course everything is a work in progress. I am always open to constructive criticism and I always watch back my work to learn as I go forward.
Your language of discourse on the Couch is heavily founded on political terminology. How do you think that translates to an audience – a significant number of whom haven’t had the same educational accesses you have – and do you think there needs to be any adjustment with how you engage with political discourse?
The fact that the only form of distribution for the show is digital, limits our target audience. Additionally, the fact that our episodes are 35 minutes long and data is an issue in Nigeria, [means] our target audience is even more limited. So who is our target audience? Firstly, the diaspora. We want to build a bridge between Nigerians living at home and abroad and it is easy for Nigerians in the diaspora to become more politically aware through our content. Secondly, recent data shows that the states with the highest number of abandoned PVCs are all in the most formal and informal working environments of Nigeria. Therefore, we’re looking at a situation where people with privilege are not voting, making them a target audience. Of course we want the show to reach the masses and as time progresses, we will develop means to ensure that it does. That’s a promise! But with regards to my lingua, that’s also another part of the show! People should be informed with regards to political terminology and On the Couch is simply a platform to motivate young people to dig deeper and gain more political knowledge. Therefore, I hope that a viewer who may not have understood a term of mine would independently find out what that word means and learn something new!
How do you think – with this predominantly male pool of political candidates – that we can we include, and educate, men about sexual violence and harassment?
Firstly, we need to keep the conversation going. Nigeria has some of the most heinous sexual violence statistics in the world and unfortunately, we may not have the best laws to protect citizens. For example, until more recently, the constitution, with regards to sexual violence, only regarded women as potential victims and not men. That in itself, excludes men and says that men cannot experience sexual violence, which isn’t true. There needs to be an overhaul of flawed structures. Every state needs a Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team like Lagos State and it is something that we have to pressure governments to enact. I believe that a good number of men are extremely naive about sexual violence and Nigeria’s rape culture. It is important for aspirants to hear first-hand accounts of survivors and become more sensitised to the topic.
In what ways, within your industry, do you come across discrimination based on gender and how are you navigating this?
I remember being told that I couldn’t head to the streets and create vox pops because I was a woman and my male co- host was sent instead. There is a constant pressure for women in the industry to also keep up their physical image, which I’ve always found quite frustrating. There are days where I don’t want to wear make-up and I have to because of societal beauty standards, for example. However, you always have to rise above and I am navigating this by constantly maintaining the truest version of myself. A lot of things in life will come and go but you have to stay true to yourself. I also believe in proactiveness rather than reactiveness so I always do what I can to educate my colleagues on gender-based discrimination when necessary. It is okay if you are uninformed about certain matters, but it is also my duty to use the information that I have to broaden your horizons and vice versa. Collective efforts are extremely important in order for any society to develop!
Globally, we have seen the media continue to be a powerful tool for sharing ideologies and shaping public opinion and discourse, where do you think this avenue has been harmful? And how do you think we should be building regulation around this in Nigeria, if at all?
I see the media as one of the most important sectors of society, but we have to learn to follow its function, which is to provide nothing but the truth. Fake news has led to people being killed, people being detained and fuelled unnecessary fear in society. I am definitely in support of regulations around fake news but I also believe that, currently, the media is far too controlled by the government in Nigeria. For example, the NBC regulate everything on air and that is okay to an extent and with reason. But when the NBC come out to ban Falz’s ‘This is Nigeria’ from airplay claiming that [the lyrics] everybody be criminal is vulgar language, we have a problem. I’d like to see sensible policies developed by think tanks around this matter and enacted into government.
What do you hope the discourses you’re pushing for will do for Nigeria in five years and how do you see yourself continuing to facilitate this?
I hope to see more young Nigerians running for office, discussing politics normally and taking part in the political processes of our country. I also hope that in five years time, the narrative would have changed and women and youths will no longer be left out of the political realm because they’ve received enough empowerment to stand their ground. I will never stop using the media as a tool for change, I will continue to look for the truth and enlighten people. Looking in to the future, I definitely see myself staying in the media, but I may also aspire for political office given I feel established and competent enough to do so. But politics is not the only way to publicly and effectively serve a society so it is certainly not my only option. I just want to see the narrative changing and see people holding conversations that are often shied away from based on taboos.
Catch Laila sounding off on her podcast, Broken Record, on Midas Radio.
Photo Credit: Seye Kehinde