From the ashes of his failed attempts to become a musician and visual artist, Sam Onyemelukwe picked up the pieces of his shattered dreams and smoothed over the cracked edges to discover a competitive edge that retained his show business vision in a managerial capacity. Nseobong Okon-Ekong and Vanessa Obioha report
Although, he has many celebrities in the entertainment business eating out of his palms, Sam Onyemelukwe can walk into a crowd-filled hall and not cause a stir. His appearance is not enhanced by the fact that he wears his father’s 1960s wrist-watch like a talisman. Of course, he is not a musician, even if he confessed that he once romanticized with the idea of playing music; becoming a session man with a few groups, his better judgement told him when to take a walk. He acknowledged that the guys around him exhibited better skills on the musical instruments. Call him a failed musician, Sam will just smile and take it in his stride. It does not matter if many do not swoon at his presence or ask for an autograph like they would from their favourite idol. Like him or not, one thing is sure, he stands out with his fair complexion and his signature smile like a slice of watermelon.
You may even confuse his provenance with that of the popular Onyemelukwes in Anambra State. However, he comes from a different specie. His father was a hardworking engineer while his mother is an American.
This does not imply that Onyemelukwe is just another ordinary guy. Not at all. Those in the media and entertainment industries recognise him as the helms man at the new popular Trace Naija music channel on DStv. The new station emerged a station with a peculiar Nigerian character that is quite distinct from Trace Urban which still airs in South Africa and the French-speaking African nations.
Onyemelukwe’s little tolerance for the glamorous lifestyle of showbiz is not sanctimonious in any way. It is an old habit he picked up from his dad who he descriped in an interview as not the flashy type. Apart from this, his inclination is towards the business of creativity. He knows better to remain with his strong point and not be bothered with the glamour that accompanies show business. In some way, he is not hot on the show because he actually stumbled upon the profession
As a young lad, Onyemelukwe set out to be an artist completely unaware that providence had charted another path for him. It was while studying Arts at the University of Southern California – a popular film school that the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg attended – that it dawned on him that he might be pursuing the wrong interest. After seeing drawings and paintings of his classmates, he knew there was no way he could compete with their artistic skills despite his unwavering flair for the arts.
However, he was discerning enough to veer into the marketing side of creativity. It wasn’t a smooth sail. First he had to beg professors to attend classes to learn graphics. He would later spend his life savings to buy a laptop with 500MB storage. At the time, Onyemelukwe felt the laptop had the biggest RAM storage. He was in his third year in university when a life changing opportunity came knocking. Someone saw his amateur graphic design and was convinced he should apply for internship. Onyemelukwe did not have the slightest idea that he was about to get a break at Disney. It was a mind-blowing experience.
“That was my first job even before I left school. In Disney, I felt what they were doing was just incredible. One guy and some friends coming up with an idea that affected the global culture of fun for children. That’s how I got into TV. I worked in a few places like ad agencies. I liked it. It was fun,” he enthused.
Having studied the showbiz landscape over the years, Onyemelukwe believes that a lot of creative people could benefit more from the business side rather than the showmanship.
“The show business community in Nigeria has not been able to get rid of the ‘now now’ mentality. ‘Now now’ is the reason traffic is so bad because everyone is in a rush. No one is willing to wait for the other. That mentality applies to music artistes. First, he doesn’t know how long his career will be, so he wants the cash now and in the easiest way possible. These artistes are making such a huge effort to be the next Jay-Z, but they forget that in a country like Nigeria, there are 100 million guys their age who would spend 1 or 2 dollars on their product in a year. They turn their back on this 200 million dollars because it’s more difficult to create an acceptable indigenous persona, which may not be as glamorous. I think it’s all about the mentality.
“It’s a glamorous industry so we all come and look at the artiste on stage or the act in front of the camera and forget that there are lawyers, accountants, publicists and other professionals who back up this business. Everyone wants to be on stage. They forget that there’s a lot more than that. A successful artiste should be selling T-shirts and other merchandise. He could sell 100,000 t-shirts across Africa. He can go to China, make 100000 of it and sell it, say, for $3. Most artistes don’t make the total amount that may be realised from merchandise sale. These are things they are not looking at. Nobody is stupid here, but instead of investing in things like this, they want to do shows, collect a few millions and run off.”
Interestingly, Onyemelukwe works for a music channel that glamourizes this kind of lifestyle to its youthful audience. So who is to blame? Modestly, he accepted the responsibility but pointed out that his company is also a reflection of the society.
“There’s no question about that. I think to an extent we are culpable. With Trace, we do more international stuff and we definitely promote the glamorous lifestyle. Personally, it’s not for me. I wear my dad’s watch from 1960 and I’m not big on champagne. I think the fact of the matter is that what we are trying to do is to keep an eye on responsibility. We are as much a reflection of the society. We take what’s happening and reflect it back to them. We try to move that angle sideways by adding something positive to it.”
He revealed that one of Trace’s strategies is to have a series of public service announcements which focuses on youth issues that are mostly discussed in the closet. The first issue Trace educated its viewers on was on bleaching of the skin. The brand educates African youths to love their skin colours and accept the fact that they come in different shades. To drive home their point, they had a photo shoot with an Ethiopian model and some beautiful members of the team. The feedback was awesome as it provoked a discourse on social media and had some artistes reposting the image.
“We are not solving problems, but at least we are lending a voice,” he added. “Same thing we do with our videos. Yes, we do play a lot of videos with nudity and extravagant lifestyle but we try to play those videos at night when the younger ones are not watching. I know they can watch it on Youtube, Instagram and they have access to these channels on their phones. There’s a programme that we plan to have next year. It might be called Trace Academy or we might choose to remove the Trace brand. We will be telling our African youths that the entertainment industry is exciting and that there are loads of other jobs in it. You don’t have to change your course of study. Some young people like Mathematics. They want to be an accountant. You can work for a record label as an accountant. You don’t have to be a musician.”
Despite his apparent anguish over the short-sightedness of creative talents, he, however, expressed great optimism in African youths, particularly Nigerians, often to the chagrin of his colleagues from French-speaking African nations. The glaring scenario supports his thinking as Nigeria is arguably known today as the hub of entertainment in Africa.
He described the average Nigerian and African youth as resilient and very creative. Onyemelukwe is very optimistic that they can do better if given the right resources and environment to showcase their creative abilities.
Looking at him today, many would not believe that he once wore his hair in dreadlocks as part of the expression of his artistic self. For all his love for music, all he did was have short stints in some bands and was even part of the management of the defunct KUSH group. All that changed when he joined the Trace family. The music channel is popular for playing the latest music videos from the US and Europe alongside with celebrity news and gossips.
One of the good and postive things that Trace may have unwittingly done in Nigeria is location of its office. By choosing Makoko, Trace brings a shine to an environment that is frequently mentioned for all the wrong reasons.w
Since he joined the music channel in 2011, Onyemelukwe has been instrumental in projecting Nigerian music to the world. A good pointer to this is the launch of Trace Naija channel which has since replaced Trace Urban on DStv channel 325.
“I started working with Trace in 2011 and at the time, we might have played just one or two P-Square videos. Trace was a complete different country at the time. Our headquarters is still in France. When I first got there, it was full of Africans. Mostly French Africans. Over the years, I have delivered the message and they have seen the proof that Nigeria is the hub of entertainment. They themselves have fallen in love with the likes of Davido and Wizkid, Olamide, Mr Eazi. Our songs were being played in clubs in Paris and London. We knew the movement was there and we wanted a platform to honour that crusade and engage with the industry more.”
Could it be that no one else would have taken up the initiative if a Nigerian like him was not on the payroll of Trace?
“I think it still would have been launched someday. We also have a history of success for launching local channels. We have eight channel brands in 52 countries across Africa. We have Trace Naija, Trace Mziki is more East Africa focused. The original Trace Urban is still active in South Africa and French Africa. There’s another one called Trace Africa which is more popular than Trace Urban and is in South Africa and French Africa. We have just one for Angola and Mozambique which is known as Trace Toca. We have Trace Gospel. Unfortunately, DStv isn’t launching so we have it on Kwese and we are launching a channel called Trace Vanilla Islands for Madagascar and places around there. We are launching one for Congo called Trace Kitoko. In fact, recently, the principal agreed to launch a channel for Ethiopia. We will be having some meetings to see how we can make this work. We know that more localised channels do very well.”
More plans are still in the pipeline for the brand in the coming years. For 2018, Trace plans to launch a digital app TracePlay which will focus on Africans in the Diaspora. The app will boast of 10 of its popular channels. There is also Trace Mobile, a mobile virtual network operator which hopefully will get the green light next year.
In addition to this, Onyemelukwe has struck good deals for the brand in recent times. Trace Naija was one of the lead sponsors of Felabration, the annual week-long festivity to commemorate the posthumous birthday of the Afrobeat legend. The brand also threw its weight behind the pan-African award show, All Africa Music Awards (AFRIMA), and more recently, collaborated with one of the top e-commerce platforms, Jumia for a first-of-its-kind Music and Deals Festival.
It is interesting to know that with all the experience garnered in the field of multi-media production, Onyemelukwe is yet to take the bold step to launch his own media production company.
Without mincing words, he laid the cards on the table.
“The fact is I have seen a number of people trying to start animation company in Nigeria or media companies trying to build an ecosystem around what they are doing, be it kids or pre-teens or youth-oriented. I think the reality is that our market – I don’t want to sound negative – is really not quite there yet. When I hear people say well they have it abroad. My argument is that everything is not just cut and paste.
“Moreover I think that the media is a struggle. Think about the biggest media company in Nigeria. We are talking about the traditional side of things – print, radio and terrestrial television because that is what people can afford and access easily. The question is how many subscribers does DStv have? I don’t want to be negative like I said but the same thing applies to digital. Why do you think right now Youtube is spending at least two and four million dollars advertising Youtube in Nigeria and rest of Africa? Youtube does not advertise, they don’t need to, but the reason they are advertising is that they are trying to get people to move to Youtube. You would think that they should be generating more views in a country like ours with a large population. Nevertheless, I have this permanent optimism that things will change for good.”