Soft power, a term popularized by the American scholar, Joseph Nye, in his 1990 book, ‘Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power’, has found its way into mainstream political and international relations discourse over the years. Nye had in his book argued that the “American popular culture, embodied in products and communications, has widespread appeal…This popular cultural appeal allowed the United States more opportunities to get its messages across and to affect the preferences of others.”
The soft power of a country has the ability to attract and co-opt other countries’ interests in the said nation rather than having to coerce. It helps to shape their preferences through appeal and attraction with the projection of the country’s popular culture. Recent history has shown that soft power can be used as a key tool for nations to expound their narratives, tilted or otherwise, to the unwitting audience in an attempt to build a certain degree of interest in the country. You cannot measure it but you cannot exert it in significant proportion.The United States, the UK, Japan, China, and India are some of the most prominent examples of countries that have used their movie industry as a soft power for cultural export, reinforcement of their relevance in the comity of nations, and increased economic gains. This has helped these countries and many like them get what they want with attraction rather than coercion.
Take the United States for example. What does America wants? The US wants to be recognized as the most desirable country on the planet; the dream land. Hence, the American government, up until Trump, hugely bankrolled Hollywood in cash financing, incentives and structural support. It wasn’t by sheer coincidence that the world looks up to America today as the dream land. It is as a direct result of Hollywood’s projection of America. A walk on Times Square, weekends on Long Islands, vacations in Miami, falls in Vermont, the ivy league colleges; many who aspires to become American citizens or migrants at the very least bought into Hollywood’s projection of the American culture. They want to live it.
In China, soft power is as important to Beijing as its military forts. In a New York Times report, Xi Juang Chang, a Professor of Chinese Culture in Haidian District’s Tsinghua University noted, that the country, “have also turned to more traditional tools of soft power, promoting Chinese language, educational exchanges, media expansion, and pop culture with Chinese movies around the world”.
The country is the second largest movie market in the world in terms of box office collections and China has been expanding its reach with Chinese movies. In 2014, President Xi Jinping was quoted to have said, “we should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative and better communicate China’s message to the world with our movies”.With this linguistic and cultural export, China’s endgame is increased trade and economic expansion and if the amount of Chinese products that exists in homes around the world – particularly in Africa which is also the biggest consumer of Chinese films outside Asia – is anything to go by, this soft power is working.
Japan is actively involved in exporting the Japanese ‘cool’ identity through pop culture. ‘Cool Japan’ is a concept coined in 2002 as an expression of Japan’s pop culture. The concept has since been adopted by the government and trade agencies willing to exploit the commercial viability of the country’s creative and cultural export with its film, fashion, anime and cuisine.
According to writer and entertainment law consultant, Chinwe Ohanele, “the manner in which the Japanese anime commercialize Japanese culture is brilliant, and has had positive economic consequences. It won over a generation of paying fans and demonstrated the value of cultural goods…The surge in consumption of Japanese creative content contributed to their economic development, growing a $20 billion industry and an increase in soft power.”
Even India, with Bollywood, has pronounced itself as the superpower in the Asian subcontinent. Its film industry which has been beautifully merged with a significant portion of its music industry is laced with messages of jingoistic nationalism and an unabashed depiction of love and romance on celluloid. This has warmed the country into the hearts of many around the world instilling an admiration for the Indian culture, tradition, religion, history and language at the same time.
Bollywood, as well as cricket, has a significant impact on India’s geopolitics and international relations. Both has been used to inflate tension and deflate tension. In the age-long altercation between India and its next door neighbor, Pakistan, the country has used its film industry to project itself as the meek and modest nation and its arch-rival as the brash and impetuous country breeding terrorists who have been attacking India since the partition that birthed both as independent countries in 1947. As much as India is as invariably complicit as Pakistan in the protracted flexion of nationalism between the two countries, as an ardent fan of Bollywood, even this writer is tripped up to believe India’s narrative of innocence through its films.
When American President, Donald Trump, had his ‘Namaste Trump’ visitation to India in February of 2020, he recognized India’s soft power with Bollywood, the Indian film industry. “This is the country that produces nearly 2,000 movies a year from the hub of genius and creativity known as Bollywood! All over the planet, people take great joy in scenes of Bhangra music, dance, romance and drama, and classic Indian films like DDLJ (Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge) and Sholay” he yelled to a crowd of 100,000 people at the Sardar Patel Gujarat Stadium in India’s Ahmedabad.
Nollywood, as well as Afrobeats, is championing the export of the Nigerian culture but none of that has been harnessed to start the accumulation of soft power for the Nigerian state with pop culture. Nods and props are coming in from every corner of the world.
In 2019, Beyonce released an album which had about five Nigerian artistes on it. Burna Boy is having a good run since late 2018 – that too, with a Grammy win. Wizkid and Davido are selling out massive venues across the globe. Through Nigerian films, pidgin English is being noticed and spoken around the world. Omotola Jalade Ekeinde was recently conferred with the Oscar Academy voting membership. The world’s biggest streamers, Amazon and Netflix have continued investment in the Nigerian film market. That’s recognition for the potential of the industry beyond the boastful number of films – substandard mostly – that we produce. And all of these suggests that Nollywood can be used a cultural export to further stamp Nigeria as the true ‘Big Brother’ of the African continent.Firstly and on a subtle note, soft power plays a huge role in diplomatic relations especially in cases where cultural and diplomatic ties solve more problems than the chest-thumping of military strength. Secondly, it is for positioning. Imagine what a nuanced story about the paraphernalia of Aso Rock just as Hollywood depicts the White House as an effective office concerned about almost the rest of mankind, will do to the perception of that office both internally and within the continent.
Thirdly is for economic gains. Movies like ‘Up North’ did an amazing job in projecting the beauty of the North but we can do better. In Scotland, after the release of the Netflix film, ‘Outlaw King’, tourist flooded the 15th century Linlithgow Palace which was featured in the movie. It wasn’t the first time. The Greek Island of Skopelos also witnessed a surge in tourist visits after the success of the movie Mamma Mia which was shot on the island. The ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy opened up New Zealand to tons of tourists, who thronged in, after seeing the movie. Imagine if we somehow weave Argungu Fishing Festival, Kano Durbar or Eyo Festival and many culturally significant places and events into so many of our movies. These will become tourists’ attraction especially as Nollywood is witnessing increased international exposure with the presence of streamers.
Successive governments have failed to recognize the increasing potential, Nollywood presents. A glimpse of that was experienced then the GDP was recalculated to reflect the contribution of the entertainment business. It blew up! It could do better if more attention is paid to it but the odds are apparently high.
According to Oluwaseun Tella, a senior researcher at the University of Johannesburg, even if the country harnesses the soft power from pop culture, the expectation should not be high. The most potent way to deploy it would have been in positioning itself as Africa’s thought leader and the face of continent’s democratic leadership.
“Nigeria’s first problem is that it has a democracy and leadership deficit. The country doesn’t score well on major indices. This damages Nigeria’s democracy credentials and undermines its moral authority to promote effective governance across the continent.”
He however noted that, “to ameliorate this situation, Abuja should take advantage of the soft power resources at the country’s disposal. West Africa’s Gulliver has abundant human and material resources. Nollywood needs to reinvent itself to shape the perception of its African audiences about the country.”
In any case, it has the cultural and historical métier to do so. And whether, it’s for image-making, positioning, deeper diplomatic ties or economic gains, in the face of dwindling prominence, Nigeria needs all the soft power it can get.