Thursday, 18 April 2013

Interview: ‘The Funniest Man In Africa’ Julius “De Genius” Agwu From Humble Beginnings To Making Comedy A Success

As comedian, actor, singer, Julius “De Genius” Agwu clocks 40, it’s his moment to take the spotlight as he embarks on a fresh start, according to him. The multi-talented celebrity opens up to about life at 40, his new book “Jokes Apart: How did I get Here?” which was launched onthe 7th of April, his music, family and shows off a stylish, business – yet family oriented persona in his photos.

Ever funny Julius Agwu can make a stranger feel like a childhood friend. Ambitious, zealous and ultimately driven by the passion to always break barriers and conquer uncharted territories, he gave the concept behind the cover of his new book as being at the bus-stop and contemplating on the next move, which is what is life at this point (at 40) is about.

Julius had a very humble beginning that started in Choba, Port Harcourt, Rivers, hawking Pap (AKA Akamu) for his mother while entertaining classmates and the community not by intent but by design.The 5th child of the family of six, his father wanted him to be lawyer, while his mother wanted him to study carpentry; this was imposed on young Julius who, being very stubborn and passionate about entertainment followed his dream instead.

Like he said, he likes to see himself as a “P-kin” spending most of his childhood years in Port Harcourt. He had his secondary school education in Government Secondary School, Borokini from where he moved to the University of Port Harcourt to study Theatre Arts. He joined several Drama groups shuffling between Port Harcourt and Lagos for Auditions.

After a few roles that showcased him and gave him minimal attention such as television drama “Paradise Park,” and Nollywood Movie “Rattle Snake,” Julius who had begun deviating into stand-up comedy launched his music-comedy album “Okombo.” The attention he received was staggering and shot him to high pedestal in the entertainment industry, receiving credit for being the pioneer of the genre. Julius was also amongst the first to participate in the revolutionary comedy show “Night of a Thousand Laugh.”
He’s happily married to IbiereAgwu and has a daughter Zahra.

Catching up with him after a meeting in Lekki, Lagos, Alex Amos,’s Entertainment and Features Editor engaged Julius in a chat, there is never a dull moment with ‘the funniest man in Africa’. 
OB: Tell us about us about your childhood, education, siblings, you know… how was growing up like?
JA: You know the truth is everything is contained in my book so I keep wondering–  do I really need to keep talking about it? So when people ask me about that I just tell them ‘buy a copy of “Jokes Apart: how did I get here” (Chuckles) but in any case I’m from a place called Choba where University of Port Harcourt, River State is. I’m the fifth child in the family of six. I was raised in Port Harcourt and that’s where I did all my schooling so I’m here now.
OB: You mentioned that hawking always made you get to class late and your teacher used to punish you by asking you to entertain the class, did you ever think entertaining people could become a source of livelihood back then?
JA: I never knew, I just felt that was punishment but with time I got used to it because in spite of the punishment, I must always come late because every morning first thing was to go help my mum sell her Pap, you know Akamu? So I was a perpetual late comer so I knew the punishment was to just sing and dance so I was always prepared for it. Initially, I will always cry out of shame and embarrassment but with time I got used to it, in fact before my teacher asks, I will already be on the stage (Chuckles).
OB: You also used it to attract customers for your mum’s Pap which you were selling, can you tell us how you did that?
JA: Yeah, during that period we had… we call them Uncle JB, they hawk medicine and in order to attract buyers, they will dance, you know, they dress funny like clowns with protruding tummy and protruding backside but while they are at it, I’ll go into their midst and steal the show from them so people will begin to hail and spray me money.
OB: So can you say that was where your desire to study Theatre Art in the university came from?
JA: No, at that point I was just doing my thing, being funny and adventurous. When it struck was when I got to secondary school and I became a member of the drama society, then with time, I also became a social prefect and formed my home theatre group which was JAMMIIN which was an acronym for Julius Agwu Must Make It In Nigeria. So with the theatre group, I went to different schools to perform. All these were premises that made me know this is my calling. Right from secondary School, I have been going to theatre to watch the likes of Ejike Asiegbu , Bob Manuel Udokwu, Hilda Dokubo and many more.
OB: So which role will you say gave you the break into the industry as an actor?
JA: It was “Rattle Snake.” But my major break was my first album because even after “Rattle Snake” I was still shuffling between school and audition but my first album “Okombo” became a household name and that was the major break. Also the NTA sit-com “Paradise Park” where I played the role of Motor Park tout alongside some other colleagues, also gave me a hedge.
OB: What made you diversify into stand-up comedy?
JA: My interest in stand-up comedy was initiated when I saw Bisi Olatilo at an end of the year party for First Aluminum in 1992 where he was the MC. It was in Port Harcourt; he was there, dressed in his white outfit and was making people laugh. Also, I got tired of auditioning for roles. I thought to myself, ‘will I continue begging people for roles? Julius you have some other side to you which is comedy, why not establish it?’ so that was how I deviated and started to harness that part of me and behold, I was part of the first “Night of a Thousand Laugh” in 1996 so from there I thought I should be doing more of comedy. I just got tired of hearing ‘cut – action – take it again – camera 1 (laughs).
OB: So will you say these are part of the challenges you faced as an actor?
JA: Yes, you can say so because we started entertainment in a period when people saw entertainers as never-do-good, dregs of the society, unserious people, dropouts and my parents never liked the idea so I had to do something drastic to convince them, also you can finish playing a role and get stipends, therefore, I had to look for other ways… yes those were the challenges, I manage to convince them to let me do what gives me joy, now the question is, how do you put food on the table with that?
OB: The teacher, who was always punishing you by telling you to entertain the class, since becoming a celebrity, have your paths ever crossed?
JA: Yes, her son just got married. She was also interviewed in my book. She was supposed to come for my fortieth birthday but her son’s wedding coincided with the birthday celebration and launch. She is in Lagos as we speak.
OB: Your decision to write your book now, does it have anything to do with what people say about 40 as the coming of age?
JA: Yes, I have already made up my mind that at 40, I was going to write about my journey so far. 40 is the old age of your youth and of course the infancy of old age. Of course, life begins at 40 so where I’m coming from and where I have gotten to needed to be documented to capture all the challenges, joy, laughter… so that’s it. As you can see from the book cover, I call the age 40 a bus station where I contemplate my next move and all I ask God is to rearrange me, reinvent me, remodel me, repackage me, all the “re”(with emphasis on the ‘R’) and also remove all the unwanted.
OB: Can you share with us some of the themes in your book?
JA: The overriding theme is that of Inspiration. You know I was almost a victim of career imposition, my father wanted me to become a lawyer so he can stop paying lawyers over land dispute while my mum wanted me to become a carpenter because she felt she lacked furniture in the kitchen but I challenged them saying ‘look, let me follow my destiny’ besides there is nothing like doing what gives you joy. My passion is entertainment and I have the innate ability so I went for it.
OB: Having launched your book “Joke Apart: How did I get Here?” What’s in stock for Julius Agwu in the near future?
JA: First of all is my TV Show “Jokes Apart.” Also my team and I are building a lot of content, I started from TV, one of the things that helped me as a comedian was a programme I used to anchor far back in the days on NTA’s “Laugh Line,” so I need to come back on TV, I want to be the voice of the voiceless because there are so many things going on in our nation and the only way to bring them out and trash it is through TV and that’s what “Jokes Apart” is about. It’s about giving back to the society.
OB: In the spirit of giving back to the society, is there a chance that you will consider a political ambition in the near future? 
JA: The truth is, the way politics is being played in Nigeria is deadly. It’s not my area and I’m not a politician. I just want to be at the background and handle issues, that’s not to say if I get appointed, I’ll turn it down but there is no way I’m going to use my money to pick a form.
OB: Highlight some of the challenges of stand-up comedy in Nigeria
JA: We have an influx of young talents in the industry now and that’s a good thing but the issue is that some of them are not working. They need to be creative, not to be tapping on other people’s joke and go somewhere and use it like it’s theirs. Majority of them are lazy, they don’t work hard.
That’s by the way; another thing is getting corporate organisations to realise that they need to really support this business called Entertainment. The government is yet torealise that the major tool to rebranding the nation is Entertainment. Every society has a bad part but unfortunately the bad image of Nigeria has been over celebrated, the entertainment industry can be use to project the country’s good image by deliberating telling entertainers, Nollywood, bloggers to do so. These are the little ways government can improve the country’s image not by limiting everything to oil, when the oil finishes, what next?
OB: You organize several shows, “Laff for Christ’s Sake,” “Crack Ya Ribs” and “Festival of Love,” how do you get sponsorship?
JA: It’s sad, those shows are self sponsored. There was a time we were getting support from I.E.I –  International Energy Insurance Company but when they recapitalised insurance companies and banks, they had to drop. You know, these organisations provide services to the people, they should also consider that we enhance their services by giving the people joy and laughter but some of the organisations in Nigeria do not understand the essence of Corporate Social Responsibility and it’s sad.
OB: If you look back from where you are right now at 40, is there anything you would have done differently?
JA: Considering the short comings of government and corporate organisations in the Entertainment industry – if I could do anything different, by now I should have been a multi-millionaire. That’s if things worked out well and we have more support.
OB: Being the pioneer of Music-Comedy in Nigeria, how does that make you feel?
JA: Well, when I was doing it, I wasn’t trying to be competitive; I just did my thing and it so happened. I give God the glory.
OB: How do you manage your multi-faceted career and your family?
JA: Family is the most important thing. They are the reason for the hustle and everything that happens, they motivate me.
OB: How has being married changed you?
JA: It humbled me. I was very rascally and made spontaneous decisions but now, I need to bounce it off my wife. Also no matter how time consuming my meetings may be, I try as much as possible to make out time for my daughter every day before she goes to bed so that she does not ask her mother one day that who is this strange looking man? (Laughs).
OB: Your wife is so beautiful, is she a model?
JA: She models for me (Laughs)
OB: What’s your Philosophy for raising your daughter?
JA: You see, I don’t want to misdirect or confuse her, I mean, whatever she wants to do, she can do. My job is just to guide; I was almost a victim of career imposition so I wouldn’t want the same thing happening to my kid.
OB: You are a very stylish person, what informs your style?
JA: Well, comfort… convenience. Right from the time I started entertainment, I said to myself that I was going to stand out and you know for you to stand out you must be outstanding and vice versa. Also, seeing that people used to consider entertainers as lay-about, I said to myself, I must look good and be the kind of person everyone wants to emulate. I see every event as an opportunity to add value and I do not know who is watching, so I make it as a point of duty to look good.
OB: Do you wear Nigeria fashion labels?
JA: Of course I do.
OB: So who are your favourite Nigerian designers?
JA: I have a guy called Charles Anthony; he designs some of my stuff and I also have a few friends that I buy from like Korede Roberts, Message Ifeanyi, Yemi Formula, Phenomenon. I also pick my things when I travel.
OB: Any last word?
JA: It’s 2013, but for Julius Agwu, it’s “20restarting” because as I turn 40, I’ve already stopped all the foolish things – a fool at 40 is a fool forever. It’s a new beginning for me and as I refresh, restart, rearrange, remodel, also know that this is a renewed Julius Agwu because I just got “Rejuvenated” which is one of the title of my new singles (Laughs). I’ll also like to say thank you to everyone who has supported this brand in one way or the other. I’ll like you to know I need your prayers and God will continue to favour us.It’s a new start for us all.

Get Your Copy Of Julius Agwu's Book: “JOKES APART How Did I Get Here?” from the Hub Media Store at The Palms, Lekki Lagos.
Julius Agwu's Book Signing Event: Today Wednesday 17th April 2013 at The Hub Media Store.
For more information call: 08033188985 | 08063330055
Follow on Twitter: @JuliusAgwu1

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