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Nolly Babes
via Instagram (@nolly.babes)

How Nollywood’s golden era is influencing pop culture

Nolly Babes are the sisters reviving the aesthetics of the Nigerian film phenomenon through fashion, memes, and themed parties

Old Nollywood aesthetics and fashion may be considered trendy today, but the films were not always so well-regarded. In the 90s and early 2000s, when these movies were made and watched in parlours across Nigerian homes as they were shot, straight-to-video, they were considered as bad entertainment, or ‘low culture’. To watch and enjoy Nollywood films was to celebrate mediocrity. But today, nostalgic young Millennials and Gen Zers are overlooking the jarring audio, grainy pictures, and sometimes hammy acting, to appreciate not only the grooming and style of the actors, but the original and diverse stories that reflect unique Nigerian experiences.

It was for this reason that sisters Tochi and Ebele Anueyiagu started Nolly Babes, a nostalgic Instagram account dedicated to celebrating the cinematic period’s women. Started in December 2017, their first post was of Nollywood’s biggest star Genevieve Nnaji; a still taken from 2004 film Sharon Stone In Abuja, directed by Adim Williams. Nnaji plays the titular character, a sexually liberated young woman who uses her beauty and charm to ensnare unassuming men into doing her bidding.

The account is an ode to the female characters of old Nollywood who were often portrayed as warning examples. The storylines were steeped in moral principles rooted in the patriarchal culture and the dominant Christian religion of Southern Nigeria. A large number of the female characters were considered immoral because they kissed other women, challenged men, smoked and drank, or wore mini skirts. Today, Nolly Babes and similar accounts are reimagining these women, taking their scenes out of the moralistic context of the films, and turning them into iconic feminist personas. 

The first time Nollywood content seeped into the mainstream internet consciousness can be traced back to 2017 when videos of Nollywood’s favourite comedic duo Chinedu Ikedieze and Osita Iheme, better known as Aki and Pawpaw, rose to popularity due mostly to the influence of a now-defunct Twitter account @nollywoodroll ran by Nicole, a woman based in Brazil.

Their memes became the go-to reaction videos for expressing a wide range of emotions: joy, disappointment, sadness, frustration. The appeal was in seeing children making mischief or in adult situations – drinking beer and smoking cigars, wooing bigger women, or in oversized suits shouting instructions at people twice their size. Although both Ikedieze and Iheme were in their 20s in the early 2000s when most of the films were made, they mostly played children because of their body stature. By 2019, the memes had achieved such virality that brands like Rihanna’s Fenty would use them for social media clout.

Theodora Imaan Beauvais is the curator of Yung Nollywood, another archive of clips and stills from old Nollywood paying homage to its controversial female characters, after screenshotting moments from Nollywood she found “appealing or inspirational”. Yung Nollywood is remarkably distinct from Nolly Babes for its subtitling of the films’ stills from Nollywood films, something she attributes to Tumblr. While the idea to give witty captions to the actors’ facial expressions came from watching Netflix. “I thought, ‘If someone could describe Nollywood reactions in short phrases it’d be an art form on its own,’ and I became that someone.’”

In December 2019, Tochi and Ebele hosted a Nollywood-themed party in Lagos. Nollywood actor and musician Nonso Bassey attended the party dressed in a two-piece jean set and bucket hat, a signature look of the bad boy/alpha male archetype, and a role reprised multiple times by older actors such as Hanks Anuku, Emeka Ike, and Jim Iyke. Since that party, Nonso has attended social functions and premieres in outfits that make a nod to the fashion choices of that era of Nollywood. He insists, though, that he isn’t cosplaying Nollywood characters of that era. “I’ve always been attracted to the idea of merging old world charm with a new school approach,” he said.

The party caused a cultural stir amongst Nigerians and Africans both at home and in the diaspora – every other week, there seems to be a Nollywood-themed party held either in Lagos or London. Take for instance friends and business partners Imani Okunubi and Aseosa Uwagboe, two Nigerian-British kids who grew up in the UK. Nollywood was one of the ways they could connect back to their roots. That experience informs their event brand, Lasgidi to London, targeted at Nigerians living in the UK. “We wanted to create events that were reminiscent of the Naija hall parties (Owambe) we attended as kids, as we don’t want to see that culture die,” Aseosa said. Their next owambe is a Nollywood-themed party and guests are expected to come dressed in their “best nolly Y2K aesthetic”.

Below, the Nolly Babes sisters talk about creating and hosting the first Nollywood-themed party and the cultural moment it has inspired.

How did that first event come about – please take me through it, from the planning to how it turned out?

Nolly Babes: From the inception of Nolly Babes, we knew we had to throw a party. Fashion is a huge part of what makes Nolly Babes different from other Nollywood-themed pages and we knew we were the only ones that could set Nolly Babes as the dress code and have people commit as they did. There are many iconic Nollywood scenes and scenarios. The daughter meeting her evil mother-in-law, the ominous visit to the Babalawo, the campus stroll – just the mere mention of these scenes evokes images that have been embedded in the minds of our fellow Nollywood enthusiasts. The party scene is probably the most iconic of them all. Whether it’s in a club, a mansion while mum and dad are out of town (but coming home early to crash the whole thing) or poolside, the Nolly Babes party scene has its staples: mad music, dancing, and sick outfits.

December in Lagos is notoriously hectic. On each day, there are day parties, beach hangouts, concerts, and we just knew we had to be a part of it. Our flyer was the first thing we made sure was done right, and that has been replicated (but never duplicated) many many times. We went through at least six drafts of that until we got the flyer to be a realistic replica of the home video covers from the golden era. The DJs Kemi Lijadu and vIVENDII Sounds understood the assignment and played music from the Nolly Babes era. We’re talking Tony Tetuila, Mo Hitz, Wande Coal, Plantation Boyz… We curated a special cocktail menu: Genny Colladas, Jim Iyke’s Hard Lemonade, MargaRita Dominic, and our Lagos Island Iced Tea, in tribute to Nollywood stars Genevieve Nnaji, Jim Iyke, and Rita Dominic respectively. We had a video projection on the famous red wall at Nok showing a mashup of emblematic scenes. We were partying while seeing images of a young Jim Iyke dressed just like many of the attendees were dressed. It was magical! We have an event we’re planning in New York for the summer – it’s going to be a madness.

Did you envisage it becoming the cultural movement it’s now become?

Nolly Babes: We really didn’t. We hosted the party because we knew people were taking inspiration from our page for styling jobs and music video treatments, and wanted to give everyone a chance to recreate some of their favourite looks. Now every week we see people planning Nollywood-themed parties and sending people to our page for references. It’s awesome. Toke Makinwa even recently attended a Nolly Babes-themed party and she was dressed as a character we have immortalised – Regina Askia in President’s Daughter. She killed it! Even though the character wasn’t referenced, it was clear as day and it was awesome to see that she pulled it off! Honestly, when we see people really pay attention to detail and execute the theme well it’s so, so dope. 

How has TikTok helped grow Nollywood's influence? You posted a scene from Girls Cot, the famous “you stink with poverty” clip on TikTok and it went viral and birthed these recreations even by non-Africans.

Nolly Babes: We’re just happy to see that another aspect of Nollywood that we champion – the iconic scenes and one-liners – is also resonating across the world. We see Nolly Babes as an archival work and as much as we focus on beauty and looks on Instagram, it’s nice to be able to point people in the direction of the scenes that are forever embedded in our brains. These are scenes we recreated in jest ourselves before there was even a Nolly Babes to begin with, so to see it catching on TikTok is exciting and a new frontier for us to fully explore. I think what distinguishes Nolly Babes from other Nollywood pages and what contributes to our TikTok success is that we really watch Nollywood movies. We grew up watching these movies and continue to do so now so we can capture those moments in films that the casual consumer or poster of Nollywood content might not. 

What are your thoughts on Nollywood’s influence on the Alté scene? Music videos of artists such as Lady Donli and Odunsi nod to the aesthetic and fashion styles of that era.

Nolly Babes: Nollywood, and specifically the aesthetic we have shone a spotlight on, is probably one of the biggest influences in terms of visuals in that scene right now. I have never seen so many Eucharia (Anunobi) eyebrows on TV and we love it! It’s awesome to see our images and scenes being used in treatments and storyboards. If we’re being candid, we think it would be great if we got the chance to step into our stylist/creative direction bag and help with the execution of the aesthetic.

“The bottom line is really that Nolly Babes has brought what was already an international cultural influence to the modern social media realm with a new lens” – Nolly Babes

How far do you see Nollywood's influence on pop culture, beyond Nigeria and Africa?

Nolly Babes: When we moved to New York we found our Dominican and South American friends had also grown up watching Nollywood films. The bottom line is really that Nolly Babes has brought what was already an international cultural influence to the modern social media realm with a new lens. Nollywood clips were online everywhere – but it was always in a comedic way. Aki and PawPaw are meme gods now, and that’s because their expressions transcend cultural boundaries. Black Twitter eats that stuff up.

Nolly Babes chooses to center the beauty, style, and iconic imagery, even the home decor with our #NollyDecor hashtag of the golden era of Nollywood. We share the makeup, accessories, fashion, iconic phrases, and scenes in a way that isn’t just comedic but inspirational and aesthetically groundbreaking. I see Nollywood being at the centre of this Y2K resurgence that is happening all over the world, from TV to runways and fashion collections. That era is coming back around and, this time, the Black experience is being revisited and centered in a way it wasn’t back in the late 90s and 2000s. (Black people) were always the originators of the trends and this time they’re tapping into the source and Nollywood, particularly the era we celebrate as Nolly Babes, is a great resource for that.

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