Mo Abudu is one of those people that will have you mouth open in awe of what she’s achieved.
Possibly because she’s a woman, possibly because she’s an African Black woman … possibly because we live in world where black women who dare to break out of the confinements of womanhood into territories usually reserved for the men aren’t well received. However, CEO of her own hugely successful media company in her 40s, after a career that began in HR. We are not worthy.
And today? Ms Abudu’s company EbonyLife Group after signing a deal with Netflix has produced one of Netflix’s highest viewed series’ Blood Sisters. Made by Nigerians, starring Nigerians, set in Nigeria, Blood Sisters follows two friends Sarah (Ini Dima-Okojie) and Kemi (Nancy Isime). Sarah is engaged to her dream man, Kola (Deyemi Okanlawon.) However, their seemingly idyllic union has a dark side..
Bucking the connotations of Nollywood, set on world recognition of the power of African narratives, we spoke to Ms Abudu about her journey …
Please introduce yourself …
MA, Mo Abudu, UK-Nigerian National. CEO, EbonyLife Group, creating African content and content that deepens the Black experience for a global audience.
Describe your life right now in one word or a sentence …
Overwhelmed, beyond blessed and glowing from the success of our latest release, Blood Sisters.
The first thing I have to ask is where have you been all this time? You are one of those known everywhere but also unknown – do you agree?
Success often appears to be overnight however, I transitioned to the media industry almost 20 years ago with my talk show and Africa’s first syndicated Talk Show, ‘Moments with Mo.’ We then started the EbonyLife brand with the launch of EbonyLife TV in 2012, thereafter expanding to feature films. Last year Harvard Business School honoured EbonyLife media with a case study. Today, we are producing with international studios including Netflix, AMC, Sony, Will and Jada Smith’s Westbrook Studios, Will Packer Productions, Starz and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and Yetide Badaki along with Lionsgate TV and the BBC.
Being an African woman in the film industry what have you learned are the key most important things to survive and be respected?
EbonyLife has consistently reinvented and evolved itself. We’ve striven for global standards while being genuinely rooted in Africa. We’ve always remembered our audience and our vision – that of portraying Africa positively in media, creating solidly produced African stories and stories that deepen the Black experience for a global audience to enjoy. We are now global, but we embrace what is true to us – being African.
I ask this because of your extremely impressive back CV … What was the first seed planted that said – yep I want a career in media – and not just any old career at that?
The root of my interest in media was as a Nigerian living in the UK and my experience of people’s polarised views of Africa. People tended to express some stereotypical or negative perceptions of Africa, like corruption, famine, war and so on, but they were essentially repeating what has largely been perpetuated in the media. So, it creates a repetitive cycle. It was time to change that narrative. This is what inspired me to want to start a talk show. Like any continent, there is not just one story and there’s a whole progressive side of Africa for the world to see. There are several ways to change perceptions, my way as a filmmaker is to tell Nigerian and African stories, our own stories made by us, that will travel to international media and audiences.
Usually the stereotype for Africans who want to get into the creative arts is that our parents would rather we “face our books” for a career in Law, Medicine, or Engineering – what was that conversation like for you?
Like many parents I’m sure, African parents want their children to uplift their lives, get tertiary education, grow and progress to better things. I have very loving parents. My father passed when I was 11 and my mother, whom I cherish dearly, has always been my best champion, prays with me and supports my career journey. She is my rock. I did honour what my parents wanted me to do in fact and it was only later, in my 40’s, that I ventured into a career in the creative sector. Prior to that, I headed HR departments for major corporates, developed the Protea Hotel, Oakwood Park, as the first new-build hotel of its type ever in Nigeria and I also still run a recruitment company – named after my parents, Vic Lawrence and Associates.
Okay, so let’s talk Blood Sisters – how did the idea come about and why was this a production you had to get behind?
I am very proud to say that my daughter, Temidayo Makanjuola, was the originator of this sensational idea. She’s a naturally gifted creative. We have signed one of the biggest multi-title deals with Netflix on the African continent, so we presented this idea originally as a series. Netflix then suggested it be a limited series and the workshopping began to produce the success that Blood Sisters is today. We are in Netflix’s top 10 across approximately 30 countries including the US, UK (a tough market to crack) Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and the Middle East. My goodness, we didn’t quite expect Blood Sisters to travel like this – but why not? It is a universal story – made in Africa.
Can you tell us about getting the series made – how did you set about it and who were the key people on your team who helped you bring it to life?
I am very proud to say that 95% of the production team is Nigerian. It is a home-grown story, originated by us, produced by Nigerians and shot in Nigeria. EbonyLife Studios of course worked with our streaming partner, Netflix, who have been the greatest support, and we collaborated with teams in South Africa and the UK on Post-production. All else was done in Nigeria.
Biyi Bandele who gained more noticeable notoriety for Half of a Yellow Sun, starring a young John Boyega and Thandiwe Newton at a peak high moment in her career – why was he the right director for the job?
Blood Sisters is a four-part series. The first two episodes were directed by Biyi Bandele and episodes three and four were directed by Kenneth Gyang, long-time collaborator of EbonyLife. I consider both directors to have immense talent, passion and expertise in their craft. They were very supportive with the cast and listened to the actor’s suggestions on how best to bring their characters to life. Both being Nigerian – their in-depth understanding of Nigerian idiosyncrasies enabled a genuinely Nigerian and African story to life to come to life, with excellent production values.
This is a co-pro with Netflix which is also huge. This means an African story has the potential to reach an even wider audience – what does the partnership with Netflix mean to you?
The Netflix partnership has been a game-changer and we value Netflix immensely. For any film industry to evolve, particularly in Africa where our industry is still steadily growing, partnerships with streaming giants, networks and broadcasters are the bloodline. Their commissions largely feed the industry, expand filmmakers’ experience and enable African stories a distribution channel to global markets.
The relationship between us and Nollywood … Some hold it dear; some dismiss it as pantomime possibly embarrassing – Personally I’m proud being a Ghanaian and having an African industry operating of its own accord – though yes through a western lens I want more elevation of some of the stories … how do you feel?
The term Nollywood was coined by an international journalist decades ago and while I appreciate the fact that there is ‘Nollywood’ and a burgeoning Nigerian film industry I however, choose not to live by a term created by an outsider or someone who is not Nigerian. I’m a Nigerian living in Nigeria and we are Africans living in Africa, so I consider the work we do to be called ‘African TV and Film.’
What are you most excited for the world to see now that Blood Sisters is available on Netflix?
Blood Sisters has been unbelievably well-received all over the world. We’ve trended globally. Nigerians are proud to call it their own. I’ve overheard my own staff members flexing to others that they ‘work for the company that created Blood Sisters’ and this really made me smile. It’s a Nigerian story, with a human truth, that has literally travelled worldwide and cut across all countries and cultures. Raising the bar in African filmmaking and getting Nigerian and African stories out there, to an international audience, is really what drives me. The world is a global village, why not embrace African cinema?
When it’s all said and done – what will make you say yes I’ve achieved what I set out to do?
Blood Sisters is EbonyLife’s best work yet and now we have a lot to live up to! We’ve barely scratched the surface on what is possible to achieve and now we must continue to strive to create excellently produced stories – genuinely African stories produced by us – for the world to enjoy.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
- A book you have to have in your collection? The Bible
- A song / album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? Afrobeats as a whole runs in my veins, particularly Fela Kuti’s Sorrow, Tears and Blood.
- A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? Blood Sisters (wink).
- The first stage production you saw? Fela on Broadway.
- What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? Sad – The Johnny Depp and Amber Heard court case. A couple who were once in love are now tearing each other apart on TV. It’s bizarre and sad. Mad – Honestly, I’m glowing from the success of Blood Sisters, nothing can make me mad right now! Glad – we’re trending in over 30 countries with Blood Sisters.
Blood Sisters is available to watch now on Netflix.