A Nasty Boy celebrates otherness, friendship and self-expression in a country where homosexuality is punishable with imprisonment
A Nasty Boy is possibly Nigeria’s most controversial magazine. The webzine, which bills itself as a publication exploring otherness in fashion, people and culture, has ruffled feathers domestically while garnering international acclaim for its unflinching portrayal of Nigerian masculinity. Through provocative editorials, A Nasty Boy is forcing Nigerian youth to ask broad questions about their society. They shared a new editorial with Dazed Digital entitled “BFFs” – photographed by Wavy the Creator, it tells the story of a boy in the loving company of his best friends without judgement.
In Nigeria, where homosexuality has been criminalised and homophobia is ubiquitous, critics accuse A Nasty Boy of promoting ‘a gay agenda’, but that is the exact opposite of what it is doing – it presents not one single agenda but is creating a tolerant space for much wider discussions of sexuality, gender, race and beauty. “BFFs” in any other context would not be radical. But when the wider conversation about sexuality or anything perceived as different has been poisoned to a point where its impact extends beyond someone’s sex life to all of their other relationships and interactions, it creates the kind of toxic environment where even platonic boy-girl friendships can be polluted.
We were in Lagos to catch up with Richard Akuson, the founder, and editor, to talk about “BFFs”, courting controversy and what it means to be un-Nigerian.
Why did you start A Nasty Boy?
Richard Akuson: I used to be a fashion editor at BellaNaijia, which is a big magazine across the continent. I would write pieces about people like E. J. Johnson. I remember a time when he wore black to some event, and I felt that that was a way to speak about how people could incorporate more black into their wardrobe, you know, a really simple and straightforward article. But quickly the conversation in the comments section turned and became about how I was promoting an agenda, and how my employer, was promoting a gay agenda.
In Nigeria, things are either un-Nigerian or un-African; that’s what they use to attack people they think are not normal. I was tired of hearing comments like that. There can’t be a singular definition of what a person is. The problem with Nigeria is that for so many people there is just one definition of what things are, and there isn’t a lot of room for things that are outside of the norm. People are very willing to tell you what they think here, and one of the phrases I’m always wary of is when someone tells me they “just want to speak their mind,’ because it becomes an excuse for an invasive commentary on one’s personal choices. It is perplexing… why are you a party to my life? Why do I owe you an explanation?
There are diverse definitions of what it means to be Nigerian, despite what this society has decided to hold up as the standards of what being a Nigerian means, and of what a man is, or what a woman is. Through Nasty Boy we are looking to explore that and to expand that horizon, to broaden that definition.
How are you doing that?
Richard Akuson: Visuals. They really do tell a thousand stories. Visuals speak universally. We’ve decided to put the focus on the editorials that we are creating. In this way, our voices might be quiet, but it gives us a powerful medium to challenge cultural perceptions. For instance with “Boys”, an editorial in which we had three guys sat lounging together in their boxers, this really challenged the idea of intimacy. In Nigeria, it is fine for girls to hug and to be intimate, in that sense, but for boys, it’s really frowned upon. Even though the image is conspicuously non-sexual, just the fact that they were men together, almost naked, was incredibly subversive.
“It’s important to remember though that A Nasty Boy is not just about sexuality though, it is also a pretty forward-thinking fashion magazine, but that it’s this wider context that forces us to keep having this conversation” – Richard Akuson
What was the response to “Boys”?
Richard Akuson: Well, on a narrow level in terms of the people that I directly know, I feel there was a bit of pretentiousness in the reaction. I posted that on my personal page, as well as on A Nasty Boy because at that time I had more followers on my own page. What I noticed was that soon after posting the engagement with the photo was nearing 800 views, but the likes were only at 15. That’s obviously commensurate to how many people had seen it.
I got calls from people a few hours later being like “oh Richard that shoot is amazing”, but then I thought, this person has called me, but he didn’t leave a comment or even like the photo. When speaking with another friend about the series, I asked him directly – “if you really love it, would you like it or leave a comment?” He said no. He admitted that he had actually gone on the page and was looking at those who had liked it, going through their profiles, trying to understand why they had publicly engaged. Having said that, I think that “Boys” is part of the reason why we garnered so much international attention, and when CNN did a profile on the zine, they focused quite heavily on it.
What has been the reaction from the Nigerian press?
Richard Akuson: The Nigerian press is interested but unsure. I got an interview request not long ago from a major publication here that I won’t name. This was a publication I thought was quite responsive to what I was doing, considering the types of questions they asked, so I took my time and wrote long answers to the questions. But when they released the story they ended with “we might not be clear about what A Nasty Boy is right now, aside from a website for people who drive at night” (a thinly guarded epithet for homosexuals). That is a really reductive portrayal of what we do.
Another publication called us unnecessary, but two weeks after the CNN story came out, the publisher started tweeting me, saying that what I was doing was absolutely ‘necessary’ and that they’d love to do a story. Nigerian youth though, who we obviously target as our main readership, have been far more receptive.
What prompted you to shoot “BFFs”?
Richard Akuson: Where I went to university, I was accused of being too polite. People would say, why are you so sweet? Why are you so kind? Boys are not like that. I stopped being friends with guys because there were so many expectations that I couldn’t live up to. So I just stopped and started being friends with girls. I had really important experiences having friends who were girls at uni. Other boys would find it weird. Like when a guy would ask one of the girls out they would always ask about me, like who is he, why does he act that way?
My support system growing up came from my female cousins. I was completely different from my brothers. It has always been girls who have been my moral support and closest confidantes. It shouldn’t be so abnormal to have these kinds of platonic friendships. I have these friends who are girls, and when we are together, it is like bulbs coming on at night. We just light up.
Has being controversial helped you?
Richard Akuson: Holding an opinion, in Nigeria, can always see you labelled as controversial. As much as I think that controversy creates conversations, we try to strike a balance where it creates conversations but doesn’t take away from the actual content. Generally, A Nasty Boy is about the human story, and if that draws controversy so be it.
Why do you think A Nasty Boy has caused such a stir?
Richard Akuson: You have to understand the political context here. Nigeria is a really religious country. Even things that in other contexts would be common sense, we find ways to make it religious. In 2014 the government criminalised homosexuality. You can get up to a 14-year prison sentence for being in a gay relationship. That policy came at a time when the government needed more political capital. We had the kidnapping of the Chibok Girls, the economy tanked because of oil, and we were dealing with constant attacks from Boko Haram. The entire country was struggling. And like sheep, the shepherd diverted everyone’s attention.
When homosexuality became a topic it took over. The clerics, the preachers, everyday Nigerians, they didn’t want to have an intellectual conversation, they didn’t want to talk, all they wanted to hammer home was this is bad, bad, bad. The government needed to find something to unify people and it really worked. Every once in a while when there is a subject like this on the news, there is so much passion. It is really toxic.
When I used to write for BellaNaija, I wore a pair of shorts around Abuja for a day, and there were nearly 80 comments, and they kept saying that I was trying to sell market (to solicit male suitors). The only comments disputing that were the ones saying I’m too ugly for that. So in that comments section, you could see how bitter Nigerians are and unwilling to have a proper conversation.
It is hard going against the flow in Nigeria. It’s important to remember though that A Nasty Boy is not just about sexuality though, it is also a pretty forward-thinking fashion magazine, but that it’s this wider context that forces us to keep having this conversation.
“Holding an opinion, in Nigeria, can always see you labelled as controversial. As much as I think that controversy creates conversations, we try to strike a balance where it creates conversations but doesn’t take away from the actual content” – Richard Akuson
What do you think of the Nigerian fashion industry?
Richard Akuson: I’m very positive. I am encouraged by the industry. There is a sense of direction which is very important. There are designers championing the Nigerian story, and exporting it beyond the shores of the country. Young designers such as Lisa Folawiyo, Orange Culture, Tokyo James, Style Temple, and Meena, these are all forward thinking, high-class Nigerian brands that are worth watching.
There is a pride that comes naturally to Nigerians. Nigerian buyers will wear a Nigerian dress with an Hermès handbag and Manolo Blahnik or Dior shoes. It’s all mixed.
The author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a great example of that kind of pride and willingness to wear Nigerian. She has challenged herself to wear Nigerian brands for every public appearance she is getting small brands exposure in places like Vogue that they could never have had otherwise. What’s amazing is that she searches and finds brands I haven’t even heard of, so I often go through her Instagram to find stuff.
So I am positive. The industry has grown a lot in the past few years and we are getting a lot of international interest. Social media is also helping Nigerian brands to break internationally, which is great. Still, sometimes I see celebrities wearing a Nigerian brand and I always wonder whether or not they are wearing it to make a political statement? Or because they really like it? It’s also the case for A Nasty Boy. I’m excited for a time when people just take it for what it is. The true moment of acceptance comes when the fact that it is Nigerian is irrelevant, and people are just responding because of the content.