Meet Mr MTV Africa

What would you expect the boss of MTV Africa to look like? Like the rappers you see on his channel, I thought, as I waited to meet him in the lobby of the Michelangelo hotel in Sandton - below-ass baggy jeans, untied Timberland boots, garish 5XL baseball shirt, a physio-inducing platinum chain and roomy baseball cap pulled so low over the eyes that a guide dog is required.

But as vice-president and general manager: MTV Networks Africa, Alex Okosi comes out of the lift looking very much like any of the other guests in the reception: discreet, undoubtedly privileged, multinational, well-travelled and a man whose Blackberry tells him that if today is Friday, he must be in Jo’burg.

Dressed in a freshly pressed lounge shirt with fancy cufflinks, dark trousers and leather shoes, Okosi stands out by his height - confirming his former status as a full basketball scholarship recipient at Saint Michael’s, Vermont, where he graduated in business administration and economics.

More BEE-boy than B-boy, I thought with disappointment.

A quick scan at Okosi’s official biography confirms Mr MTV Corporate: “Okosi (30) was pursuing his MBA at UCLA before taking a leave of absence to fulfil his dream of launching a dedicated MTV channel for Africa.

“He previously spent five years with MTV Networks in the United States, debuting in the New York-based sponsorship development and integrated marketing team, where he gained experience developing multi-platform marketing opportunities for advertisers, and successfully integrating brands into marquee MTV franchises such as the Video Music Awards, Spring Break, Movie Awards and Wanna Be a VJ.”

It goes on to say: “Okosi moved from the US to London in 2003 as a key member of MTV Networks’ international strategy and business development team.”

But as he opens his mouth one of my prejudices gets knocked down. He is an African. Not some hyphenated type, but born and raised in Nigeria, the real thing with the real African accent.

“It is an exciting idea for me as an African to be part of this channel,” he says.
“We can celebrate that we have our own MTV to do what we want to do with it.”

Needless to say, not everybody agrees, but MTV couldn’t have made a smarter move than putting someone like Okosi in charge of its Africa operations. Even if it is just to counter lefties like myself accusing them of American cultural imperialism.

He has clearly heard that charge before, as he gives a slight sigh. “People ask how Africans can do hip-hop - I think that is the most ridiculous thing in the world. It started here, we should take credit for inventing hip-hop!

“If you look at youth culture across the world, whether it is in Japan, China, Sweden or wherever, people are engaged in hip-hop and how dare people say Africa can’t … it is almost like reversed imperialism telling us we can’t because ‘we’re supposed to be African’.

“Young people should be able to express themselves in whatever art form as long as it is authentic and as long as it is authentically theirs.”

MTV Africa is different from most other channels in that it has talent development as a priority.”

Okosi adds to events like this past weekend’s MTV Alert concert where his station featured a mix of South Africa’s best upcoming rock and hip-hop artists. They also have workshops with artists and producers in other parts of Africa to improve the level of videos on what is MTV’s 100th channel. The first one will be in Ghana soon.

“If we want to break African music globally, the stuff has to be of the same quality, otherwise it will be dismissed as just an African video - we hope to provide a platform for African artists internationally. There is no reason why Africa, with her immense amount of talent, can’t play on the global market.”

While MTV Africa started on DStv, it now reaches 40-million viewers across the continent with daily windows on terrestrial stations in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and soon on e.tv too.

“We are going to be executing our VJ search again, this year partnering with e.tv,” says Okosi. “The winner of the show will go on to host a South African-produced version of our World Chart Express show, which we will air a minimum 13 episodes of on e.tv.”

The rest of the network seems to have moved away from music to lifestyle programming.

“It depends on what our viewers say,” says Okosi. “We do research constantly. This is our business; we don’t manufacture cement, we do young adult entertainment.”

MTV Africa has moved its headquarters from its London base to South Africa and will be fully operational in a fortnight’s time. Next year it will do local versions of hit programmes such as the quirky car makeover show Pimp my Ride, but also continue developing African music videos.

It has to because MTV Africa has a self-imposed quota of 30% African music. Okosi wants the channel to reflect a positive view of Africa. “As a young person who has grown up on both sides of the world, there were a lot of times you weren’t proud to be an African because the only images you saw were of dying and starving people.

“Those are really issues, but there hasn’t been enough of celebrating the living, the youth, vibrancy and this is what this MTV thing is supposed to be.”

Charles Leonard

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