As you’re probably aware, February is Black History Month. Most of the month’s observances will naturally focus on the long history of black African-Americans, most of whose ancestors were brought to the US during the centuries-long slave trade. While I certainly don’t want to take anything away from that, I thought that given the current political climate, it might be nice to focus on more recent (and voluntary) immigration from Africa to the US. Since Nigerians are the most numerous of recent African immigrants, I’m starting with them for this episode of the No Enclave series.
Although Nigerians are the most numerous of African-American immigrants, I’ve only personally known a few. When I was young, my mother had a Nigerian colleague whose name was, I believe, Alex Ogedegbe. In order to relieve non-Nigerians from saying his actual name, he instructed people to simply refer to him as “Alex OK Baby.” Around the same time, there was a Nigerian guy on my soccer team, Miebaka Adouye. He was exceedingly good-natured albeit intellectually disabled and one of his quirks was that he’d call me on the phone whenever he heard Bobby McFerrin’s song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” on the radio, which in 1989 was quite often. Thankfully cell phones were much rarer then. In Los Angeles, I only count two Nigerians among my acquaintances, two brothers in fact, both of whom work security.
Although by far the most populous country in Africa and home to the most populous African city (Lagos), I reckon most Americans have few notions about the country. Practically all of us have heard or been the targets of advance fee email scams originating from there (and elsewhere). Most of us are probably aware of the radical right wing terrorist group, Boko Haram. I reckon that the reasonably engaged American is also familiar with Nigeria’s Nollywood, Afrobeat, and oil-rich/conflict-ravaged Niger Delta. Nonetheless, few Americans have experienced Nigeria firsthand. Most American tourists to Africa go to see ancient ruins and “exotic” animals, not bustling metropolises or people.
Even if you’ve never met a Nigerian-American, chances are you’ve met someone with ancestors from what’s now that country. In school you hopefully learned that most African-Americans’ African ancestors were Hausa, Igbo, and/or Yoruba, three nationalities indigenous to what’s now Nigeria (and neighboring countries). Calabar was a major point of the export of slaves. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, roughly 12.5 million Africans were abducted from their homelands. An estimated 10.7 million survived the Middle Passage, and about 10 percent of those ended up in the American Colonies and US. As of the 2010 census, 38,929,319 (12.6% of the population) identified as African-American, the vast majority of whom were descended from slaves. A small minority, including our last president, has more recent connections to Africa.
Most recent African-American immigrants arrived in the US following the 1968 enactment of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished the National Origins Formula that had until then given preferential status to certain European peoples. After the passage of the immigration act, large numbers of immigrants from Asia and Latin America came to the US; however, Africa has provided relatively few. Between 1968 and 2007, only an estimated total of 0.8 to 0.9 million Africans immigrated to the US, accounting for just 3.3% of total immigration. 75% of African immigrants came from just twelve of the continent’s more than 50 countries.
African immigrants to the US have largely eschewed forming urban ethnic enclaves and have generally shown a preference for the suburbs. From what I’ve seen, there are only two African enclaves in the entire US, New York City’s Little Senegal and Los Angeles’s Little Ethiopia. There is, in other words, no Little Lagos nor Nigeriatown. Instead, there are large but diffuse Nigerian populations located mostly in the states of Texas, New York, Georgia, Maryland, and California. There are an estimated 264,550 Americans of Nigerian origin. California is home to roughly 20,000 Nigerian-Americans but how many live in Los Angeles is unknown. While the last census counted 68,000 African-born Angelenos, no distinction was made among African countries of origin. Nigerians nationally comprise about 14% of the African-born American population so assuming that that figure is roughly the same within Los Angeles, that would suggest a population of about 9,520.
A VERY BRIEF NIGERIAN HISTORY
The human history of Nigeria begins at least as early as 11,000 BCE. The oldest human fossil remains yet discovered in West Africa were found in the Iwo-Eleru cave in Nigeria. By the 4th millennium BCE, what’s now Nigeria was home to several populations including savannah pastoralists, hunter-gatherers, and farming cultures. Metalworking was developed by 600 BCE. Islam arrived between the 9th and 11th centuries and was the religion of the majority by the reign of Mai Idris Alooma (1571–1603).
Pre-Colonial Nigeria was home to several kingdoms and empires, including the Benin, Borgu, Fulani, Hausa, Ibibio, Kanem Bornu, Kwararafa, Nri, Nupe, Oyo, Songhai, and Warri. The British captured Lagos in 1851, formally annexed it in 1861, and occupied Nigeria for 99 years afterward. Nigeria became a republic in 1963 but democracy was short-lived, with the military taking control in 1966. In 1967, separatists formed the Republic of Biafra which ignited the three-year Nigerian Civil War. Another short-lived republic was established in 1979 but again ended with a military coup. A third republic was created in 1993 and yet again replaced by military rule. Lasting democracy seems to have arrived with the creation of the fourth republic in 1998.
Although Nigerian cuisine is relatively obscure in the US, some of the origins of Southern cuisine/soul food can be traced back to West African cuisine, which Nigerian cuisine is a subset of. The cuisine of the Southern US largely arose from West Africans using both African and Native American ingredients and applying West African cooking techniques to suit the tastes of European-American slaveowners. Cloves, collards, cumin, mint, mustard, okra, parsley, rice, sorghum, turmeric, and turnips were all common in African cooking. Cassava, maize, tomatoes, and potatoes all came from the New World.
The all-American sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is actually neither a potato (Solanum tuberosum) nor a yam (Dioscorea). The word “yam” is related to the name of both a staple food and verbs relating to eating in several West African cultures. Amongst Nigeria’s Fulani people, the verb “nyami” means “to eat.” Bearing its superficial resemblance to the yam, the American sweet potato became known as a “yam” despite the fact that it is more closely related to the morning glory than it is to either the yam (more closely related to lilies) or the potato. The confusion persists to this day, with one variety of sweet potato usually labeled “sweet potato” and another labeled “yam” although actual yams are almost unknown outside of African and Asian markets.
Although Nigerian cuisine encompasses the variations of hundreds of ethnic groups present in there, it also resembles strongly the broader cuisine of West Africa. Deeply seasoned and sometimes spicy sauces, soups, and sauces predominate. Most dishes are either bean-based (e.g. akara, ekuru, ewa agoyin, gbegeri, and kiyara batonu) or rice based (e.g. coconut rice, fried rice, jollof rice, pate, tuwo masara, and tuwo shinkafa). Maize, millet, and plantains are common ingredients as well. Yams and cassava are used in the preparation of pastes and porridges. Popular beverages include fura da nono (made from milk and millet or sorghum), isapa/zobo (made of roselle juice), kunu (made from maize, millet, or sorghum), palm wine, and soy milk.
Aside from Ethiopian cuisine, African cuisines are not especially common in Los Angeles. However, the South Bay suburb of Inglewood is home to nine African restaurants representing five African cuisines making it, (as I wrote in “African Restaurants of Los Angeles“) to African cuisine what Alhambra is to Asian. Amongst Inglewood’s African restaurants, three are Nigerian: Nkechi African Café, Sumptuous African Restaurant, and Veronica’s Kitchen. Rivaling Inglewood is the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Van Nuys, home to three restaurants representing three different African cuisines, one of them being Nigerian, Toto’s African Cuisine. Over in San Diego, there’s a Nigerian market and restaurant called Lizy Gidy African Market & Lagos Kitchen.
Inglewood’s Bamboo Café and Van Nuys’s Veronica’s Kitchen have closed.
Globally, only India’s Bollywood film industry produces more films than Nigeria’s Nollywood. Despite this fact — and the fact that I studied African Cinema in college — I’ve only watched one Nollywood film — and I can’t remember the name. I’ve also only watched one Bollywood film, well, the first three hours of one. Prolificacy isn’t exactly a selling point for me.
Nigeria’s film history is almost as old as cinema itself. The first films exhibited in Nigeria were shown there in the late 19th century. The first films actually produced in Nigeria were made in the 1920s, by British colonials. In the 1950s, mobile cinema vans began exhibiting films produced by the Nigerian Film Unit (NFU) to millions of Nigerians. The NFU was established under the aegis of the British Ministry of Information and the films’ purpose was primarily one of propaganda, such as encouraging support for Britain’s war efforts. After independence, Nigerians themselves played a much larger role in the creation of Nigerian Cinema, often film adaptations of Yoruba Theater productions. Low-budget, home video productions, often sold as VCDs, became enormously popular in the 1990s. In the 2000s, the New Nigerian Cinema was driven by the rejection of celebrity-driven popular cinema in favor of filmmaking with artistic aspirations.
Although Nollywood productions have largely been shunned by international film festivals, Los Angeles’s Pan-African Film Festival has exhibited several, including The Figurine (2009), Confusion Na Wa (2013), Dry (2014). In 2012, the Los Angeles Nollywood Film Awards was launched. It’s hard to determine if it’s still an annual occurrence, especially given the broken state of its website.
Los Angeles has also, at one time or another, been home for several Nigerian actors, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Oyelowo, Dayo Okeniyi, and Tony Okungbowa. It’s also home Nigerian-American filmmakers Olatunde Osunsanmi and Rick Famuyiwa.
NIGERIAN MUSIC IN LOS ANGELES
Nigeria, despite being amongst Africa’s most musically rich nations, has made a relatively minor impact within the US. However, after the death of Jamaican reggae star Bob Marley in 1981, there were a couple attempts to break Nigerian music to the worldbeat crowd.
On the suggestion of Robert Palmer, Chris Blackwell signed Oshogbo-born “King” Sunny Adé to Island Records and marketed him as the “African Bob Marley.” Island’s Mango imprint released Adé’s Juju Music in 1982, the artist’s first international release. It reached a respectable #111 on Billboard‘s Pop Albums chart and a writer at the New York Times described it as that year’s “freshest dance-album.” Although not exactly a household name in the US, 35 years later Adé still commands a sizable following and last August he and his band played the Regent Theater.
Clive Davis‘s Arista Records signed Nigerian afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. Whereas Adé’s accessible take on jùjú music is cheerful and poppy, Kuti’s music was hard-edged, political, funky, and with songs occasionally exceeding thirty minutes, not exactly radio-friendly. Kuti was radicalized in Los Angeles in 1969, when he encountered members of the Black Power movement. That year he performed six nights a week at Bernie Hamilton‘s nightclub-art gallery Citadel d’Haiti on Sunset Boulevard (now the parking lot of Cherokee Plaza) and recorded The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions. Kuti’s American popularity came posthumously, after his death from AIDS in 1997. In 2000 The Best Best of Fela Kuti was released in the US and for about a decade afterward, it seemed impossible to get a drink at the Short Stop without hearing “Water No Get Enemy” on the jukebox. The resurgence of interest in Fela Kuti opened doors for other Nigerian musicians like Tony Allen. Several compilations of Nigerian music introduced more Nigerian recordings (invariably from the 1970s) to the broader music-listening population.
Los Angeles is home to at least two Afrobeat groups. One is Najite & The Olokun Prophecy. The group is led by Nigeria-born, Fela-mentored Najite Agindotan, who later moved to Los Angeles and formed “NOP” around 1997. The group’s first album, Africa Before Invasion, was released on Plug Research/SoFa Disk Songs in 2003. Their most recent collection is Afrobeat L’Ayeraye.
Another is Ron Meza‘s Planet Afrobeat. The Mexican-American musician was mentored by Donald Byrd and previously led his own jazz combo. After moving to Paris he toured with Malian musical giant Salif Keita for seven years. Meza has led several of his own groups, including Planet Afrobeat for at least the last seven years.
Afrobeat performances have also graced several Los Angeles stages. In 2013, the musical FELA! (inspired by Fela Kuti) appeared at the Ahmanson Theater. Musical acts like Rich Medina‘s Jump N Funk (a Fela Kuti tribute party), Chop and Quench (a band made up of performers of the musical, FELA!), and Fela Kuti’s son Femi Kuti (whose music is really too eclectic to be characterized simply as Afrobeat) have all also performed in Los Angeles. There have also been one-off and occasional one-off Afrobeat nights like Afrika Fifty6‘s Afrobeat LA, the Afrobeat & Soca Labor Day Explosion in View Park, and Afrobeat night at the Federal Bar in North Hollywood.
It should be noted that there are also several Nigerian musicians with strong ties to Los Angeles who make music that isn’t Afrobeat. Drummer Francis Awe received a Master of Arts degree in African Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Nigerian-American musician Jidenna formerly lived in Los Angeles; and Patrice Wilson, Princess Vitarah, and Tyler, The Creator apparently all still do.
Finally, Los Angeles is also home to Nnamdi Moweta, host of Pacifica Radio‘s excellent African music program, Radio Afrodicia, which has aired on KPFK since 1995. Moweta was born in Nigeria’s Jos Plateau state and moved to Los Angeles in 1982.
Other Nigerian Angeleno musicians include Ai Bendr.
As with most of the world, football (soccer) is Nigeria’s most popular sport. The Nigeria Football Federation is the country’s governing football organization. Most of Nigeria’s top footballers play internationally and on the current national squad, only Ikechukwu Ezenwa plays for a Nigerian team (Ifeanyi Ubah). The rest play in European, Asian, and other African leagues. As far as I know, only Enugu-born Ugochukwu “Ugo” Ihemelu ever played for the Los Angeles Galaxy but is now with FC Dallas.
Other Nigerian-Americans who’ve at least at one time called Los Angeles home include basketball players Alon Abisola Arisicate Ajoke “Abi” Olajuwon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ekenechukwu Brian “Ekene” Ibekwe, Ekpedeme Friday “Ekpe” Udo, Ikechukwu Somtochukwu “Ike” Diogu, Ime Sunday Udoka, and Nnemkadi “Nneka” Ogwumike; and American football players Adebola Olurotimi “Ade” Jimoh, Chidi Iwuoma, Christian Okoye, and Nnamdi Asomugha.
OTHER PROMINENT NIGERIAN-ANGELENOS
Other prominent Nigerian-Angelenos include Adaora Udoji (journalist), Chinedu Unaka (comedian), John Dabiri (biophysicist), Bisi Ezerioha (automotive engineer), Kola Aluko (oil baron), and Nneka Ibeabuchi (model).
NIGERIAN ORGANIZATIONS IN LOS ANGELES
There a handful of organizations serving the Nigerian-American community of Los Angeles. They include the Nigerian American Foundation (Baldwin Hills), The Nigerian American Lawyers Association (Koreatown), the Los Angeles Nigerian-American Christian Meetup, the Nigerian Muslim Association Of Southern California (Gramercy Park), and the Nigerian Chamber Of Commerce (Baldwin Hills).