If one were to identify a South African equivalent to Jimi Solanke, a Nigerian culture folk hero, it would probably be Gibson Kente, fondly called “the father of black South African theater.” Kente chose a solitary path that eventually yielded the collective growth and transformation of the communities he was involved with, most notably, Soweto-based ensembles. Solanke did about the same in Nigeria. It is in this kind of light that we need to evaluate Jimi Solanke’s artistic choices and fortunes.
Figures like Kente and Solanke, who turned 80 on July 4, may not have won global acclaim but ultimately, they made life-altering impacts in educating younger generations about the artistic traditions of their people and also the kind of vocational options open to them. They sweated with budding artists in dingy, makeshift rehearsal spaces and endured pangs of deprivation, neglect, and scorn in pursuing their craft. Their success isn’t to be measured by how many awards and accolades they garnered, but by how many lives they transformed in huge and fractionally significant ways. Herein lies their rare definition of success. To employ what must now be a jaded term, they were able to picture the larger frame, which was infinitely more important than any kind of personal glory. It takes a tremendous amount of sacrifice, selflessness, and generosity to arrive at this altruistic mindset.
Solanke’s oeuvre is especially difficult to assess and appreciate. A singer, dancer, actor, narratologist, and teacher, his efforts lie scattered everywhere. He is a performance jack-of-all-trades as he is known to frequently describe himself. In Nigeria, Solanke acted in many of Ola Balogun’s films, including Wole Soyinka’s and Ola Rotimi’s dramatic productions. He performed in popular TV dramas and energetically enacted indigenous moonlit folk tales to enthusiastic children. Obviously, for the kids, such experiences are nothing short of life-transforming.
Solanke, apart from being an actor, singer and dancer, is also a writer, folklorist and painter. And even if much of his work has involved developing grassroots theater, he’s had extensive international experience as well having lived in London, New York, and Los Angeles. Aside from his seminal contributions to the arts, he is blessed with an electrifying presence and personality in addition to a lustrous baritone.
As a teenager, his father had sent him to Ibadan, away from the entertainment hub that was Lagos after composing a hit tune for Roy Chicago, a highlife artist. Little did his old man know that he had just sent Jimi on precisely the very route he loathed. At Ibadan, Solanke hooked up with musicians such as Afrobeat pioneer, Orlando Julius, and highlife maestros IK Dairo and Eddie Okonta. He was set on becoming a professional vocalist until he met Soyinka who promptly steered him onto the dramatic arts. Solanke subsequently straddled the divide between music and drama with often productive results. Ibadan and Ile-Ife, his admitted spiritual and idyllic sanctuary, and not the bustling Lagos metropolis, are the sites that paved the way for his artistic maturity.
In the early 1970s, Solanke acted in a production of Rotimi’s Ovonramven Nobaisi in Benin City. His outstanding performance led to an offer of appointment by Governor Samuel Ogbemudia at the Mid-western Region Arts Council. He subsequently spent almost four years as a cultural officer in Benin. His next major dramatic assignment was a role in Wale Ogunyemi’s Langbodo, Nigeria’s entry for FESTAC 77. In that production Solanke performed alongside Nollywood great, Sam Loco Efe. Their career paths afterwards couldn’t have been more divergent. Solanke embraced a theater of community building and relations, in other words, a performance ethic based on altruism and rusticity. Loco, on the other hand, found the bright lights of Lagos and Onitsha where commercialism and its attendant vices of hedonism ruled the roost. While Loco was a free-ranging, genre-breaking comedic genius, Solanke delved into folklore and the intricacies of submerged communal art.
Solanke’s energy is not only admirable but also infectious as he embarks on a late-life project to build an art academy in his hometown of Ipara-Remo, in southwest Nigeria. The main objective of the academy is to train and equip new generations of artists and performers in various aspects of the arts.
A week-long series of festivities were held in Solanke’s honor involving Lagos State University’s (LASU) department of theater and music, his Bariga, Lagos cultural connections, the Lagos Jazz Society, and the legendary Ori Olokun Ife theater collective. Also, there is a biography by Oluwatoyin Sutton, a fresh album launch, the premiere of a documentary by Ayo Adewumi, and storytelling comprising education and entertainment (edutainment) with Solanke as the star performer at the Crown Art Factory, Shomolu, Freedom Park, Lagos Island, and the National Arts Theatre. On July 1, Jahman Anikulapo, a culture advocate, and Niyi Coker, a professor of theater and film studies at San Diego State University, hosted a webinar graced by titans of Nigerian arts and intellectual culture. Amongst them were seasoned academics Dele Jegede, Duro Oni, Kole Ade-Odutola and Gbemi Adeoti, actress Taiwo Ajayi-Lycett, world-renowned artist Nike Okundaye and many other luminaries. All the mentioned distinguished guests lauded Solanke’s prodigious gifts for performance that have transfixed and delighted so many across the world.
Solanke’s life and career prove that there is joy, satisfaction, and emotional enlargement to be gained in selfless devotion to the arts. The sheer ebullience with which he pursues his various artistic endeavors is so endearing, that it can be perceived in the tremendous display of affection and appreciation accorded him on the occasion of his 80th birthday.