“It is the Absence of Hope that Leads to Suicide” INTERVIEW WITH TEE JAY DAN
By Yusuf B.M. (Literature Voice)
A New York Film Academy-trained screenwriter, Tee Jay Dan participated in the Ford Foundation inaugural Script4Change workshop held in partnership with Afrinolly. He has directed a few documentary films including Dancing Mask, a documentary on the largest body of writers and artists in Africa that was an Official Selection for the West African Film Festival, Houston. He is a co-founder and CEO of Box Office Studios Limited, a content generation and multimedia production company based in Lagos, Nigeria. Tee Jay is the founder and Publisher of Praxis Magazine for Arts and Literature, one of the fastest growing literary platforms on the continent of Africa. After his two-year long battle with depression and the therapy that followed, Tee Jay has used his platforms to create awareness. He was recently selected to participate in the AYADA Lab young entrepreneur incubator program, a joint program organized by Goethe Institut and Institut Français.
Yusuf BM: We have been hearing about Teejay Dan, please can we have a brief introduction of who Tee Jay Dan is?
Teejay Dan: Tee Jay Dan is a filmmaker, publisher and social entrepreneur. I am Gbagyi from Abuja but I like to simply describe myself as a lover, a learner and literal thinker. This defines my essence.
Yusuf BM: As an Art Administrator, can you give an overview of the management of Literary Art in Nigeria? There seems to be a proliferation of it, recently.
Teejay Dan: You own ‘Praxis’ and ‘Box Office’, what are the platforms about? What did you set out to achieve with them? Are you getting there? Box Office Studios Limited is a content generation and multimedia production company. The mission of the company is to document Africa through images.
Yusuf BM: Nigerians know you as a writer more than an Art Administrator and Film Maker but, we can’t lay our hands on any of your works. What is hindering its emergence? We want to read you.
Teejay Dan: Are you sure about that? I will love to see your survey o. My first book was published in 2009. I wrote it in 2003 when I used to think that I needed to have a degree before I could publish a book. Well, it eventually got published and I sold two manuscripts that same year. The printer that I used back then messed up my work. My mother was very sick around that period so I was not available to monitor the whole process; so the printer who insisted that he was a publisher, Jude – (that was his name) – didn’t do a good job but when the book came out, I took some copies to the Education Resource Centre for consideration. I met a lovely woman who was due to retire in a few months. She told me that the slots for secondary school curriculum had been filled but they will give me a letter of recommendation. Armed with that letter, we sold over 3000 copies of the book across Niger, Kogi and Kaduna states including the FCT, of course. But, after the last prints, I decided not to print any more copies. Even though readers loved the book, I was embarrassed by the subject matter. Anyway, I decided to focus on publishing and selling books. That was when I registered my first company, Debcykol Publications Limited, which was named after my childhood sweetheart. The business failed in less than a year but 10 years later, I am back in business and as a major stakeholder in the sector.
In that 10 years, I trained as a screenwriter and concentrated more on writing for film. Besides writing feature films, I have also made some short films and documentaries. So, I sacrificed my creative writing career to build Box Office Studios and Praxis Multimedia. After I have built these businesses into very profitable entities, I may return to writing novels. For now, my memoir is about to go to press. So, between now and next year you should have my book in your hands.
Yusuf BM: You are someone I know, who collaborates with different literary organizations starting with ANA and much more. How were you able to build such relationships across groups?
Teejay Dan: I believe in platform power. I also believe in collaboration over competition. So, you find that I am always open to collaborate with anyone who has a meaningful idea. Praxis Magazine, in particular, has provided platform support to individuals as well as literary organizations all over the world. We have collaborated on different projects with organizations like the Caine’s Prize, Writivism, Babishai Poetry Foundation and many others. We also provide platform support to a number of literary festivals like the Lagos Book and Arts’ Festival (LABAF). We are constantly collaborating with and supporting different organizations.
How am I able to build such relationships? Well, I am generally a likeable person. I am always about the things that I want to do, and there is a genuine interest to either learn, support a good cause or collaborate in creating something awesome. It is how I live every day.
Yusuf BM: We hear you speak about entrepreneurship and Art, was Praxis created by you to make money or to promote Arts?
Teejay Dan: Praxis was created to operate as a nucleus for the creative. Our mission is to apply the arts towards solving social issues. It is a lofty ambition for which my team and I are willing to work hard to actualize. So, Praxis was created to promote arts. But, hey, who say art administrators cannot be rich? Aha, let us agree that it was also created to make money. Plenty money. (Laughter)
Yusuf BM: I have heard writers complain about non-profitability of online journals in Nigeria. Is it profitable to run online literary journals in Nigeria?
Teejay Dan: Everything is difficult, especially in the early years. However, I believe that there is a peculiar system to creating profit for every business. Not so many journals are designed and operated as a business. So first, the journals need to decide whether they wish to make profit or rely on personal funds and grants. Once you have an answer to that then the hard work can begin.
We are currently building a system that will guarantee profitability for Praxis Magazine. We have run the platform on personal funds for five years, it is time to start cashing out and that we shall do. We’ve been talking with investors about putting down some money, I believe that after we’ve recovered from the Covid-19 shock, some checks will come through.
Yusuf BM: You are obviously young and I know that many serious young Nigerian writers do not patronize ANA. In fact, many of them have disdain for ANA. They seem to see her as an old woman. Why is it so? Why would they love to patronize Praxis and others instead of ANA? Is ANA meeting the challenges of modern-day literary artist and access?
Teejay Dan: It is a shame that ANA is not as powerful as it was designed to be. In the course of producing a documentary about ANA, I studied its history and interacted with the major players. In fact, I am disappointed to see ANA reduced to a political party with all the drama that writers often criticize in mainstream political parties.
I have had conversations with different leaders of the association about making the association appealing to young writers. Since 2015, the Denja-led administration prepared a strategic document to rebrand the association. Sadly, that document has been jettisoned because of politics, add to the fact that for some decades now, there’s been a steady decline in membership of religious and professional organizations. The world has changed and certain formats are gradually being eased out. The advent of digital platforms has worsened the fate of ANA in particular. This is why the young writer would rather hustle to be published in Praxis than worry about acquiring ANA membership. That is not to say that we do not need ANA. We actually need it now more than ever; it only needs to evolve with time.
I believe that in the nearest future, after we resolve the current impasse, ANA will get things right and take its rightful place in the scheme of things.
Yusuf BM: This brings me to my next question. ANA appears to be factionalized now; where does the current impasse take Nigerian writers? What is the way out? Will ANA ever be the same again? Seeing that there are more potent, modern and active alternatives in Praxis, Hill-Top Creative Arts Foundation, PIN, Poetic Wednesday, APNET, Aunty Talatu Reads and many others, any prospect for ANA again?
Teejay Dan: It is unfortunate that the ANA wahala is happening at a time of global uncertainties and uprising. A lot of people, especially writers, are struggling with existential challenges to focus solely on the drama going on with the Association of Nigerian Authors. I have spoken with Denja Abdullahi and Ahmed Maiwada about the standstill, they are both my friends and I have no other choice than to mediate. I am also aware that there are other stakeholders who are working behind the scene to resolve the salient issues that this major disagreement has brought to limelight. If ANA makes it through this trial, it will emerge stronger and better.
As for alternatives, let’s be clear, none of these organizations can replace ANA. ANA is more central and more grounded than any of them, and if things were as they ought to be, the organizations that you mentioned should complement ANA and not even dream of replacing the association. Apart from Praxis, the other organizations mentioned have limited scope of operation – teen authors, poetry, children’s literature and empowerment, etc.
Yusuf BM: Ben Okri recently declared in Brittle Papers that the future of World Literature is in African Literature. Why do you think he said so? How can that future come about, if you believe him? And how shall we know that the future he talks about has come?
Teejay Dan: The future is fluid. She belongs to whoever work the hardest to own or bend her. Is there potential for African literature, sure? Wait, we have to first define what you or Ben Okri define as African Literature. I probably need to read what he said and the context in which he said it before I can comment further.
Yusuf BM: Not many African writers have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, why? Do Africans need the Nobel Prize for the world to validate their potency and value in world literature? Any potential of Africa wining world prizes?
Teejay Dan: I honestly do not care about awards or prizes. They are subjective and I am not one to debate over such matter. I love coffee though, and I just sipped a cup here. Now that’s a subject we can talk about.
The Nigerian Governments, especially in this era, do not support Artists and Writers. How far have the Nigerian Art Administrators gone in ensuring that Government invest and institutionalized Art Administration and writing in Nigeria?
First of all, I do not agree that the Nigerian government does not support artists and writers. If you’re talking about the general failure of government to deliver growth across all sectors in Nigeria, then we can discuss that. But if you are particularly talking about support for writers then I see things differently.
Just recently, a committee was put in place to seek Covid19 relief for creative people. The writer was not included in the initial plan. Dzukogi made some noise and he was drafted into the plan. Shortly after, we read about how he was booted out and Nollywood owned the committee. The Goodluck Jonathan administration put down some good money for the creative industry. Nollywood owned the fund. The Nigerian writer was not represented in the consideration or the actual disbursement of the fund and I will tell you why. The Nigerian writer is not visible enough and he does not participate enough. His voice is rarely heard during electioneering, he remains locked up in his ivory tower while his peers lobby for representation in government. He avoids politics and political permutations like Muslims avoid pork. As a consequence, you find that the writer makes no tangible contribution to policies and the process of governance. I am talking about the writer as a collective. How much social capital do we control? Even this complain about government’s lack of interest in us, do we have a channel to communicate our protest? The country is at a crossroad with the ongoing #EndSARS protest; how many writers or writers’ bodies are at the forefront of this important moment in our national history? If ANA were to issue a statement with respect to what is happening, how much weight will it bear? But, look at the musician, look at the actor, they are all out there representing their constituency with a loud voice. That is social capital at work, my brother.
We exist in isolation, in the outskirt of participation. We like to brag that we are the conscience of society but in reality, our society does not know that we exist. So, rather than focus on government’s refusal to support us, I’d say we fix our house, rebrand the image of the writer in society and acquire some serious social capital so we can negotiate for a nice seat at the table.
Yusuf BM: Are you satisfied with the current Government of Niger State in promoting writing and art in general? I ask this because there is quiet in Niger State about writing unlike the previous administration of Chief Servant that was evidently engaging writers and artists; even the Niger State Council for Arts and Culture and the Niger State Book Development Agency, are all dead now?
Teejay Dan: The Niger State Government is not serious about anything and the governor certainly does not give a shit about literature or literacy in general. When Talba was governor, we witnessed a surge in literary activities and creativity, but we must be fair to the current governor – comparing Lolo’s intellectual interests to those of Muazu is like comparing Nigeria’s economy to China’s.
I worked very closely with BM Dzukogi in the weeks leading to the creating of the now defunct Niger State Book Development Agency. We worked together better 2012 and 2013 when he was DG there. We had great plans for that place, for literature and a few experiments to get books into the hands of more people.
We do have our share of blame though. While the going was good, we could have structured the colloquium to run independent of government funding. We probably would’ve still had that today, even after losing the agency. I also think that the writers in Niger State complain too much when they should be doing more to bring about the resurgence of the book. There is too much talk about past glory but little effort to regain it, so much complain about the lack of government’s support; yet, nothing is done to remedy it. No effort to find alternative ways to get things done. Just talk and complain. If you must rely on government funding to revive literary activities then go and lobby for it or get into government. Period.
Yusuf BM: You are Gbagyi from Niger State, I have noticed that there are more Nupe people writing than other ethnic groups in Niger State and North-Central states. Have you taken time to find out why this is so? What are you doing to promote Gbagyi Orthography and Creative Writing?
Teejay Dan: I am actually from three states: Niger, Kogi and the FCT. Gbagyi people are predominantly in five states: FCT, Kaduna, Kogi, Niger and Nassarawa. We are also in Plateau and Kwara states, but in lesser number. My family is a large one and I have ancestry that can be traced to the three states I mentioned earlier. So, do not be surprised to find some of my siblings as indigenes of Niger while others identify with the Kogi part of the family. I chose the FCT faction even though I was born in Niger.
Well, we have a good number of Gbagyi people who write. Most of them are in the academics. Like my big cousin, Solomon Dauda Yakwo, author of ‘All-Inclusive Calculations in Physics.’ We have the late Prof. Filaba with many publications to his credit. Theophilus Chigudu is an up and coming scholar. We have Gbagyi people who write for the screen and theatre, you don’t know them because you are not looking for them. Of course, you know Muhibb Aslu (Sheikh Umar Dada) and others in the literary space. Just like the Nupes, there are young writers who are Gbagyi on the social media space trying to cut their teeth. So, I wonder what metrics you used to arrive at the verdict that Nupe people write more than any other ethnic group in the North central.
In 2016, I initiated a project to get the Gbagyi Orthography in order. Unfortunately, my health challenge disrupted that and we lost Prof. Filaba who was working with me on that front. It is a project that I intend to come back to someday. As for what I am doing to promote creative writing, boy, I founded Praxis! (Laughter).
Yusuf BM: Explain to us what Praxis Hangout is all about?
Teejay Dan: Praxis Hangout is a part of the Praxis brands. It is a platform that enables multidisciplinary conversations between creative people and experts from different fields. It was created out of the belief that for writers to truly take their place as the conscience of the society they need to fully understand how a society functions. This means understanding finance, governance, advocacy – you know, the whole gamut of nation building. We also care for the mental well-being of creative people in general.
It is really a global community starting out from Nigeria. We have hosted physical events in different cities across Nigeria and in Durban, South Africa. We recently created state chapters to intensify community participation. It is volunteer-driven and we have some really awesome people on the team.
Yusuf BM: We have seen recently that you are also venturing into publishing physical books (Hard copies). Why are you doing this, at a time that there is heavy migration to ebooks? Why are you going back to a tradition that is fading?
Teejay Dan: The Paperback is still here with us, Yusuf. It is not giving way to the ebooks just yet. Even though I read tons of ebooks, I honestly prefer physical books. In fact, when I read an electronic version of a book and I love it, I always find and purchase the physical copy. It is the smell of new books, the joy of returning to them and witnessing them age; it is the way they sit pretty on shelves or scattered on the office desk; it is the many positions that you sit in to devour them. There are a thousand reasons why the physical book will be around for a long time.
The goal for me is to build Praxis into a one-stop solution hub for the creative. We inform, empower, and support the creative person through the processes of creating and promoting their craft. Here is how we function: Praxis Magazine publish literature online and provide platform support to literary organizations the world over. Praxis Books publishes quality literature strictly based on merit while Praxis Multimedia help authors and publishers make more sales by delivering top of the mind PR services at affordable rates. We are building a mass media company across board. You will see.
Yusuf BM: You talk about mental health a lot, what’s happening to you? What’s the problem? I fear suicide. Many young writers do so these days. What’s wrong sir?
Teejay Dan: All my life I have lived with certain problems, like a constant fluctuation of energy levels and difficulty with sleeping. It affects my work and health. Until recently, I did not know what it was. However, I know now that I have been living with bipolar disorder all along.
This is why I talk about mental health a lot. We need to amplify conversation around the subject. Over the years, we lost some very talented writers and poets to suicide because no one paid attention to their cry for help. This is why we’ve included mental health awareness campaign to the things that we do with Praxis Hangout. In partnership with the Mariacutty Foundation, we help creative people battling with mental health to get the help that they need. In some cases, we foot the bill for those who cannot afford it.
When you understand what is happening with your brain, you learn to manage it better. For instance, I have not slept for two days now but I am not as frustrated about it like I used to before I got diagnosed with the disorder. There is a treatment plan for me now and behavioural therapy to help me live a successful life. It is the absence of hope that leads to suicide.
Yusuf BM: Thank you.
Teejay Dan: Thanks.
Yusuf BM is a writer, poet, graphic designer, passionate photographer, motivational speaker and prolific blogger. He is the author of a Poetry Collection “Brittle Songs”. He is the Administrative Secretary of the Hill-Top Creative Arts Foundation, P.R.O II of the Association of Nigerian Authors (Niger state chapter), member of the SEVHAGE Publishers, Raising New Voices, Northern Writers Forum, as well as the CEO of a growing media platform known as Mammoth Spectrum Media. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Instagram: @Official_Yusufbm, Twitter: @Official_YBM1, Facebook Account: Yusuf BM, Facebook page: Yusuf BM Official
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