The Woli Arole who walked into the Shawarma & co. outlet at the Ikeja City Mall (ICM) on the day of this interview, is not the hyper-active and excitable white garment prophet who makes comedy skits on Instagram. This one was calm, mindful and laid back. If not for the broad smile he wore over his bushy beards; I might not have known that it is the famous Woli Arole who was approaching me with his hand stretched forward for me to slide mine in.
Some minutes went into the exchange of pleasantries and he took some extra minutes to say hello to passers-by who had excitement written all over as they came out in growing numbers to see their fave Instagram comedian.The hello-ing could have taken all day if I didn’t hit him with my first question: Woli, is this the life you dreamt of as a kid?
After processing the question he said, “of course. My anticipation majorly was to be this guy that came into the world and people would talk about. Whichever way I have achieved it. It could have been through comedy or academics. I just wanted to be somebody to reckon with.”
The story of tall dreams and aspirations for fame is common to most young kids who get their impression from the colourful lifestyle of celebrities on social media and on TV. As kids, most adults nursed similar thoughts, before the proverbial meaning of ‘life is not a bed of roses,’ was made clear. Only few people eventually get to live the life they dreamt of as kids and Woli Arole belongs to this group of privileged ones.
During our discussion, Woli Arole repeatedly mentioned his alma mater – OAU; and how the happenings in the institution nudged him to the path of comedy. OAU students are known for their wealth of political knowledge and it was no surprise that Woli Arole’s first set of skits were largely about political happenings like the Orubebe – Jega saga of 2015; although his contribution to the then trending national topic, was served in the form of comedy which helped its acceptance by youths. His decision to make a skit out of the topic made me curious about his level of interest in politics. Why was he so passionate about the political topic? Maybe he was a politician in school, so I asked him but the answer he gave was ‘no.’ He explained that he only joined the trend for fun and amusement.
My curiosity about his time in OAU led me to ask about his academic history and it was there that my suspicion was confirmed. Woli Arole entered the school at a prime age. He entered as a Biochemistry student but like he said ‘the chemical issue were too much.’ Then he shared his struggles with Mathematics. He mentioned Further Mathematics and for the first time there was not even a grin on his face. He said “my dy/dx can never be correct. I have not done it correctly before.” When he tried to differentiate 3x and produced “x2” as the answer, I told him “thank God for comedy in your life,” and we both laughed.
He then said, “I just knew I was going to have a colossal failure if I should continue in that path. It is either they send me out of the school or I send myself. Being out of the school would be inevitable. So I had to cross to Psychology. I already had passion for comedy at that time and was already trailing that path. Blending something unserious with serious would have been a huge task for me.”
Like many other Nigerian kids, Woli Arole was influenced to tow the ‘lucrative’ line of science. He said “they wanted me to study Medicine but I always wanted to do dramatic acting.” That dramatic acting is the theme of some of his recent skits; like his skits that featured Bolanle Ninolowo or Ik Ogbonna. In deed, destiny can be delayed but can’t be denied.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
“So how did comedy start for you?”, I asked and Arole responded. “I was always funny, even at a tender age. It didn’t just start when I got to school or because I couldn’t find a way out. I participated in a lot of church dramas, been part of a lot of events that have brought out the humour part of me mostly because they involved talking to people. And I was a salesman at some point. My humour helped me market my products.
But the idea started to form when my friends in school (Obafemi Awolowo University, OAU) noticed my gift and encouraged me to make something out of it. I did some few gigs in school and I saw the response. It was good. It all started for me in 100 Level. Fine, it was my formative stage. Not that I was extremely funny but I had that love. Going back to my book was somehow. I knew I was gravitating towards another direction and I thought ‘let’s follow this comedy thing let’s see.”
His early comedy days helped him gain popularity in OAU but his prominence on social media started after his skit about the ruckus which happened during the announcement of the 2015 Presidential election result by the then INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission) chairman – Professor Jega; went viral on Instagram. I could tell from his countenance that he has fond memories of the video.
When asked about how he came about his first Instagram comedy video, Woli Arole wore his habitual smile and said,“it was very insightful. I was going to church on a Sunday. I cannot forget that day, September 20th, 2015; with my friend. I’ve been on IG and Facebook before that time but on this particular day I just recorded that video.I used to joke with it (the mannerism of Ibadan prophets). I used ‘gbo mi sir’ as the opening line, then. It had like 50 – 100 views but people liked it.”
For a Woli Arole who at the time of the interview, could boast of over 600 thousand followers and tens of thousands of views for his videos; it needed extra thought to accept that his numbers were once at that level of unpopularity. But then, it was his first skit and he barely had a thousand followers at the time. It goes to so how much of growth his craft had experienced in a matter of years.
Ordinarily, you would expect that for a new job, one would take a life time to prepare but Woli Arole never prepared for what would later become his job. He said that he never had the intention of making a viral video. He defined the happening of that video as “divine,” explaining that he did it for the sake of fun and never knew it would blow up. He said “I did the first video, I like it myself.It was funny. I did the second one, people liked it and then the third one. Then I said ‘really?’, so I continued.”
These days, two years is hardly ever enough to build the dream but Woli Arole used this length of time to grow his following from 1000 followers to his current profile of about 700,000+ followers. His skits are now viewed over a hundred thousand times, averagely. I was curious to know which of his skits he considers the best ever. ‘The prophet’ responded with a shocking narrative. His story went thus, “Instagram videos was at the time, limited to 15 seconds which conditioned my skits to be mostly 15 seconds long. A lady named Funmi or so, compiled my 15-15 seconds video to make a 1 minute video and sent it to people in America. They liked it and sent it to people in London before the rave reached Nigeria. I just discovered that people were talking about it, both the young and the old. They were saying ‘who is this prophet.’People shared the video from phone to phone; even on WhatsApp. People started sending my videos to me. That was how I got my fame. Some still have that video till today, a compilation of my first 20 skits.I would say it is my biggest video so far.”
His story sounded like something that has been heard before: the story of Wizkid and Davido; and how their music eased through the border of the International market. Western societies like the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States are welcoming an increasing number of Africans, such that there are densely populated African communities in the West. Even though they are abroad, a lot of Africans in the west long for touch base experiences with their roots, which leads them to Afrobeat music and African arts like Woli Arole’s skit.
And there is the internet which is believed to be a global village that allows you connect with people on distant part of the pole in quick time, one gets to reach people in China or Australia faster than it would take you to use the ATM in Nigeria, sometimes. Leveraging on the internet and the divine move made by “Ms Fumi”, Woli Arole laid the foundation of his success story. The prophet has now found his way into the league of stand-up comedians and he recalled that his first mainstream stand-up comedy experience was the Alibaba’s show which was about four months before his first skit. He must have thought it would be his big break. Although he made it to the final, he missed out on the prize but his own day was coming.
THE LIFE OF FAME & IMPACT
Life is such a twisted tale where regular people aspire to fame while famous ones strive to stay in the spotlight. I wouldn’t know what being a celebrity feels like but Woli Arole lives the life of a famous comedian in one of the world most populous communities. And although it is well known that fame comes with its own blessings and burden; the peculiarity of experiences is also common knowledge. So I asked the prophet, “is it the Woli Arole of Instagram your character in real life?.” “Oh no. Woli Arole is an act. I get to switch between characters. People see you online and see you offline doing different things. I mean you’ve been interviewing me for how long now and you’ve heard me speak good English. Some people get stunned by this switch. There’s an Arole guy that does ‘gbo mi sir’ and there’s the cool guy that’s Master of Ceremony at corporate events. The switch of personality amazes people,”he said.
His statement led me to remember how different from the Instagram prophet I perceived him just some minutes ago. I was only starting to know Bayagun Oluwatoyin but I have known WoliArole since 2016 when I started to watch his skits.There’s usually more to life than just joke and happy faces. So I asked if there’s more to Woli Arole’s skits than amusement. He said, “it is more than jokes. I am a messenger. At times I don’t do jokes I just talk about truth. I see myself as a model. I see myself as force, an enigma. I’m beyond the guy that does the selfie stuff. I use that to convey message to people. At time I might just rant and talk about ills of the society. It’s beyond ‘oro jade ase tele’.”
But could Woli Arole be a real prophet? Is his calling just disguised in comedy? To that, he said, “I have the gift of prophetic from childhood, heavily. It is not a talent but a gift from God. Some have the gift of word of wisdom, for some it was management but for me it was prophecy. Even in school if I tell you something, go and check it o.” He continued, “it was just my gift clicking with my talent. I sometimes do real prayers for people and I have shared a lot of testimonies on my platform of people I prayed for.” At that point I took my professional garb and asked the prophet to bless me and he did to the Glory of God.
“Do you ever think some people do not find you funny?,” I quizzed him. He responded by saying, “of course. Definitely. I am a Christian. I read the Bible. Jesus said he is called for a set of people. Jesus had critics. The great prophet Muhammad had critics how much more me a comedian. I know my people and my people know me. Even Trevor Noah, Kevin Hart have critics. Some people would say what his he saying while some others are dying and willing to pay to see you. It’s about knowing your target audience.”
I mean, spending days to perfect an article and seeing that it did not get a good number of readers, can be disappointing. But I think it’d be even more disappointing if I try to crack a joke and I turn out to be the joke instead. I asked Woli Arole to tell me how he reacts in such situations and he said, “I don’t think I have in a gathering where people do not like me. I am graced to that point. You might not like my craft but my person is different. Like I said there is a difference between the Arole craft and Bayagun Oluwatoyin in person. I know where my craft would not be appreciated and you won’t find me there .”
Like me, have you ever wondered if people like Woli Arole struggle with stage fright? When I asked him, he admitted that he did initially, especially during his OAU days when he would struggle with the thought of how he would be received by his audience. He revealed that even the most experienced public speaker takes time to think about the performance to be delivered before stepping on stage, even if he/she is sure of the content. However, people who handle public talks well, learnt to convert their fears into the hunger to satisfy their audience, according to Woli Arole. He referred to it as the secret of top entertainers.
Woli Arole had other meanings to his craft: new media comedy. He thinks helps people lighten the burden of social inadequacies like unemployment. He said, “unemployment is thriving in our economy. Look at the chunk of graduates leaving schools with no provision for them in the labour force. Online comedy has created a place of solace to reduce the level of suicide, depression and crime rate in the society. Imagine you’re thinking and you see a video of Arole, Maraji or Ema Oh My God and you laugh off your sad thoughts. Or you see on my platform that there is a job opportunity somewhere. A lot of people have gotten jobs from what we advertise. Online comedy is really changing lives.”
It is said that the past is the mirror to the future. Some years ago, medicine, law and engineering were the popular professions. Today, new media offers options to the teeming population of youths – options including digital marketing, promotional service expert and online comedy like Woli Arole’s. With this hindsight of how the world evolves,Woli Arole spoke on his future plans and the futuristic prospects of his craft. He talked about setting his sights on Nollywood and that’s not surprising considering his early interest in dramatic acting. He has played interesting roles in movies like Alakada Reloaded and Mentally. He revealed that his first movie production project is titled My Call and it is already in the post-production stage. About the theme of the movie he said, “It is about calling, about gift and what one should be doing in life. We have a fine blend of new media comedians and industry legends on the project. We have the likes of Saka, Segun Arinze, Yinka Quadri, Myself and Spiff of The Johnsons on it.”
“Whose idea was it?”, I asked him and he said, “it was my idea. I wanted to do something beyond the skits that I have been known for. I have a message and 1-1 minute would not be enough to pass it. So I decided a movie is a good way to pass it. Although we had script-writers to develop a great story.” The news of the movie from another comedian sounded good, especially because of the success history of comedy movies in the country, which the likes of AY and Funke Akindele are vanguards.The thought of an extended version of social media comedy with a brilliant story line delivered by professional actors sounded exciting to me.
I would later realise that Woli Arole can be an Oliver Twist when it comes to his craft. He told me he has tall dreams. Insatiable hunger to create and he mentioned that he is aiming to make an impact on a global scale. “This is just a means to an end. I want to move from a brand to a passion. I want it such that when you mention Arole, so many things should run through your mind. I want to make a world where people can interconnect and share opportunities. I want to build a system that allows for a mentor and a mentee relationship. It’s more than just comedy and the movie. Nevertheless, influence is very key. If people do not know you they can’t buy for you. Knowing is key to buying. We’d do a lot of academies and get young people to rub ideas. The dream is big. Bigger than Nigeria. The world is the target,” he said.
This article was written by Ibironke Oluwatobi. He tweets via: @ibironketweets