Filmed over two days in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2018, LA-based artist and director Justice Nnanna's film Okada Man explores the style of three 'okada men', an okada being a motorcycle taxi and a common phenomenon in Nigeria. The three film subjects, Chimatex, Daja and M-Prince, all have a strong sense of style, exploring their personalities, image and social power through what they wear.
Below, Nnanna explains his approach to filmmaking, and how making this film helped him and his collaborators expand their view of what masculinity might be.
Bella Gladman: How would you describe what you do?
Justice Nnanna: I describe myself as a multidisciplinary artist. I have a theatre background–over the last ten years, I've studied drama and theatre, including at RADA in London–as well as having studied political science at NYU. I'm interested in social humanitarian stories, as well as storytelling. My practice is figuring out ways to reimagine telling non-fiction stories, so that they're not clinical or coming from a place of spectatorship, but can be understood emotionally. I was an internet kid growing up, and I, myself, meet at the intersection of multiple identities, such as being a Nigerian-American dual citizen. The part of LA that I grew up in–it wasn't the glamorous part!–meant I got to know a lot of different types of people, including Latinx and Korean communities, which has led me to get to know the world, and people, more.
BG: How did the film concept of Okada Man come about?
JN: I was in Nigeria for like an extended period of time working on a larger video piece about contemporary Nigerian identity. I met so many friends and collaborators, including my producer, Bai. We had a week left in Lagos, and I had been fascinated with these okada men. The okada drivers are low wage earners, they're the fastest drivers in Nigeria and they weave in and out of traffic. It's actually illegal to have an okada motorcycle taxi service in Nigeria, because it's so dangerous, but these guys take the risk of maybe being pulled over. They rarely are! Everyone is always taking okada rides. My producer Bai has close relationships with a lot of okada drivers personally, because they're his neighbours or friends, so through him, I met a lot of them naturally.
I work in fashion sometimes, and Bai is a stylist as well, and I was inspired by how the okada men articulated their style and personality with such little amounts of money. I was really into how many off-brand things that they would wear, and how they'd embrace that, rather than being ashamed: they'd freak the whole look, and were able to see past whether it was authentic or not, turning that brand reference into something else entirely.
BG: How important is style in Nigerian culture?
JN: What's so unique to Nigeria is how entrepreneurial and dynamic the average Nigerian is. Living in Lagos, or in Port Harcourt where my dad grew up, you have to be a mover and shaker. Nigerian life is an ecosystem that doesn't steer you as much as life in the West, where there are expected life paths: everyone in Nigeria is forced to be an individual, in a way.
Added to that, in Nigeria, everyone makes their own clothes through their tailor: they pick out the fabric, they say like how they want it to be cut. The relationship with clothes and style and fashion in Nigeria is very much ingrained in the everyday social fabric. It's very customary to be like, 'I made the shirt I'm wearing.'
When I was hanging out with the okada guys, I'd be asking about their style and they actually all had explanations of how they got dressed every morning, but they were also timid about stepping into thinking that they are fashionable. And they are very fashionable!
BG: Could you explain a bit more about how okada men fit into Nigerian society?
I love seeing these Nigerian men that are very working class defining themselves not by the gender norms that one could expect of them, but instead busting out of the typical image of African masculinity. There's a presumption in Nigeria–and it's not just Nigeria, it's just, like, being a man–that your expression has to be muted in a lot of ways. Traditionally, men wear like earth tones, black, avoiding loud colours. Especially in a very patriarchal society, like Nigeria is, it was really sweet and hopeful to meet so many of these guys [who explore style in this way]. Through the making of the film, I, and my collaborators in Nigeria, really unpacked a lot of assumptions we had made ourselves about life as a man, whether in Nigeria or in the West. We were able to talk with one another about things we'd observed.
The okada men seem inspired by the act or ability of defiance in what they wear. So take [one of the okada men in the film] Chimatex wearing pink and wearing this hat with a London boyband [Union J] on it. I love that hat! He was really aware of the fact that it might seem weird for him to be wearing that hat. It's a credit to the ingenuity and flexibility of Nigerians, and the okada men, to understand their place in the world and then reclaim how they present themselves. When they get dressed in the morning, they're going to be on the streets all day. Typically, there'll be like 30 okada men parked on a corner, and you just walk up and ask for a ride. So all day, they're with other okada riders, interacting, judging one another, almost like going to school, in a way.
BG: What would you like the audience to take away from the film?
JN: In 2020, the rest of the world is just meeting Nigeria, but Nigeria has already met the rest of the world, through the internet and ease of travel. Nigeria and West Africa is a developing region, and the rest of the world is realising now that there's an incubator of really creative people that have a different way of living. I'm trying to make as much work in West Africa as possible in general, because it's so interesting working with these people who I have this thing [Nigerian heritage] in common with, but also we're different from one another in certain ways.
I really want Okada Man to help expand our sense of self. I want Nigerians, West Africans and people of the African Diaspora to see this. The image of Nigeria to most is often danger, chaos, mess and an underdeveloped place, but the reality is that Nigeria is a very dynamic, defiant place that's rich in the resource of people. Nigerian people's ingenuity is what makes it such a powerhouse for creativity. That creativity isn't limited to those who work in the arts. You can walk anywhere in Nigeria and people like Chima, Daja, or M-Prince [the okada men in the film] will be riding by you and they have a really strong sense of self-expression. I hope Okada Man helps people have a view of these men in Nigeria, that goes beyond maybe what they initially thought.