In this interview with AWAAL GATA, Tukura John Daniel, who is popularly known as Tee Jay Dan, says he is working towards becoming a billionaire leveraging on the opportunities untapped in Nigeria’s creative industry. The writer, filmmaker and photographer also talks about his formative years as an artist, why he relocated to Lagos from Abuja and other sundry issues
In the world of arts, what aspect can one correctly ascribe to you? You wrote a book at 19 and another one is about to be released, you are also a photographer and a filmmaker. What are you exactly into as an artist?
Actually, I am a filmmaker and a publisher. I take pictures but it all started as a hobby. My father also took pictures as a hobby. What I have done however is build businesses around both my professional interests and my hobby. I have always been interested in the art of storytelling and cinema since my primary school days. I used to convert my notebooks into story writing books despite the consequences that came out of doing so. Growing up, on several occasions, I would use my lunch money to pay my way into gidan film (cinema) where I’d spend hours watching Indian or Japanese films.
As an artist, I am a filmmaker, a writer and a photographer. But above all, I am that guy who is trying to build really profitable businesses around arts and literature. I am a co-founder and CEO of Box Office Studios, a content generation and multimedia production company. Apart from making movies, we provide audiovisual services to businesses, NGOs and government agencies. I am also the founder of Praxis Publishers, a mass media company and parent to Praxis Magazine and Praxis Books. So you can say that I am an artist and a business man.
Your second book is a memoir; why isn’t it poetry or novel; aren’t memoirs for people in the twilight of their lives and you are only 30?
Well, I have been through so much that I feel like I have lived through two lifetimes. I have battled with the question of the identity of God, the significance of religion. I left my family after secondary school, at the age of 16 and survived on the streets. I made some good money in 2009, the same year that my first book was published. I also registered my first publishing company in the same year. I have lost everything that I owned, twice. I have also gained so much.
As the title of my forthcoming book typifies, I have practically been a rebel all my life. I was not an average child and I am not a normal adult. I have had to question everything and chart a path for myself. I had to fight for everything that I have today, from my identity to freedom. For instance, I hate school. Yes, I was always the smartest kid in the classroom but the classroom was suffocating the life out of me. I tried to get my parents to understand that I was not averse to learning. I only didn’t want to have to go into a classroom to gain the knowledge that I needed. I was also a fast learner who did not have the patience for the school curriculum. So very early on, I resorted to different stunts to escape school, including truancy.
I came from a really dark place and now I shine light into the lives of hundreds of strangers from all over the world. I have made very many mistakes and have bounced back from each of them. The book focuses on the battles I have had to fight to get to enjoy the freedom that I have today. I believe that I have survived so much and my story will inspire a large number of Nigerian youth to fight on.
You were in Abuja before suddenly moving to Lagos; why the decision? Does Lagos offer more opportunities?
We have always had plans to establish a branch of Box Office Studios in Lagos. So my relocation did not just happen even though certain external elements moved the plans really forward. After all the things that happened in 2016, my partner and I thought that a change of environment was necessary to a complete start over. Remember I had lost everything and we had to build the business from the scratch again. We will resume operations in Abuja sometime in the future. There are opportunities everywhere and we are building our company in such a way that will enable us to provide services to our clients wherever they are in the country.
As an artist, where do you want to see yourself a few years from now?
My ultimate goal is to see that I have built a multibillion naira conglomerate within the next ten years. I used the last decade to develop myself, build a formidable team and position myself and my businesses in such a way that with the right investment we will scale through. We have achieved a lot with Praxis. We are a leading literary platform on the continent. We are constantly innovating within the literary space and we spent the last five years consciously building mutually beneficial partnerships across the globe. Nobody is doing the things we are doing. And what we are currently doing is just a piece of the bigger pie.
With Box Office Studios, we have laid out a fantastic structure for a world-class multimedia production company. We have been in conversation with some investors since late last year. In fact, a bank approached us in November and offered us a hundred million naira loan facility. We didn’t seal that deal because the terms weren’t as favourable as we’d like and we aren’t desperate. We have done the work and we are ready to scale up. When the right investors come, we will play in the big league proper.
Last year, I was selected along with other 24 young entrepreneurs from across West Africa to participate in the Ayada Lab Incubation and Acceleration Program. Besides the seed grant, we have been travelling to study the startup ecosystem of some countries. My mentorship hub is the Afrinolly Creative Hub. We will be wrapping up the program in April, in Senegal. And by then I would have gained a better understanding of the creative sector in the region. So my ultimate goal as an artist and a businessman is to become a billionaire owner of platforms that sell arts and literature. This shall come to pass.
Why did you come into the artistic world, in view of the fact that it does not pay monetarily, especially in Nigeria
Oh you’re wrong! There is money in the creative sector. I am not just talking about the movie industry. There is so much money that can be made selling literature. Have you wondered why publishers struggle to sell as little as a thousand copies of their books in a country of about 200 million people? Publishers would tell you that books do not sell because Nigerians do not read. I disagree with that line of argument. It makes no sense that you will claim that there is no one thousand people who will find your book interesting enough to pay for it. Meanwhile, booksellers on the streets of Lagos, Abuja and other major cities are making money on a daily basis selling books. We recognise what the problem is, we appreciate the limitations of publishers as well as their frustrations.
And we have designed solutions to help them sell their products. Some few years back, people thought that poetry cannot sell in Nigeria. But see what Dike Chukwumerije has done with spoken word poetry in Nigeria. My company, Box Office Studios provided video and photography services for his shows, we even toured the country with him until 2018. So there is money to be made in the creative industry. You only need to be bold and innovative. Take Afrinolly for instance, see the wonderful things they have been doing over the years.
It is not easy what they have achieved but these people have proven that with boldness and innovation, there is so much that could be done.
Are there any books or movies that inspired you into doing what you are into now?
Oh yes. Actually, I have always wanted to make movies and tell stories. I used to stay up late to watch NTA when I was a child. I found the documentary series that were aired back then rather captivating. By the time I got into JSS one I was already creating stories. My childhood friends still remember the fake movie stories that I used to regal them with. My early inspiration came from watching Indian and Japanese movies, these were films I was allowed to watch in gidan film. Then as I grew older I saw Isakaba and it sealed my fate. The Indians showcased their culture and I wanted to do the same.
I read so many books as a child that it is impossible to say which book inspired me the most. I was somewhat of a paradox – hater of school, lover of knowledge. Ha ha. I still read a lot.
Who are your role models?
50 cent is one of my role models. We are alike in so many ways. I have survived death, was a street boy and now I am in the corporate world learning the ropes and climbing up the ladder. There is something that I am writing which I hope would morph into my autobiography many years from now. I titled it From Street to Boardroom. It is a book that I will publish after I become a billionaire. With every new successful venture of his, 50 cent reaffirms my belief that everything is extremely possible and that with dedication, dreams do become reality.
My other three role models are Jane Maduegbuna, Linda Ikeji and Funke Opeke. I met Jane in 2014 and she’s been my godmother since then. She is the co-founder of Afrinolly. I admire what Funke has achieved with her company, MainOne. And I have great respect for Linda. Some really smart people like to insult her and say that she has no depth. But I respect what she has done. I look at what she has done with her business and her brand and I get motivated to achieve a better level of success with Praxis and Box Office Studios. I love her and I look forward to doing business with her someday.
Are you at home with the nature of the Nigerian creative industry? How would you want the government to come in
First, I will like to see the government show genuine interest in the creative industry beyond occasional headline-grabbing promises by the minister. There should be funding for entrepreneurs working to take this sector to a higher pedestal. The Nollyfund is a fugazi as far as I am concerned. We hear that there is money for filmmakers but only very few people can access the fund. The few who do always have funny stories to tell including how they had to give kickbacks.
I will also love to see the government prioritise the power problem and solve it. Second to that would be to make the ecosystem friendlier to startups. This government has made some efforts in that direction. There is a lot more to be done.