Meji Alabi is the name behind some of the biggest and most memorable music videos out there. Skepta, Wizkid, Davido, Goldlink, Popcaan and Nasty C are just some of the names that the London-born, Texas-raised, Nigerian filmmaker has collaborated with over the past few years. Meji’s work is characteristically vibrant, dynamic and distinctly memorable. His pool of references is both impressive and expansive as he draws on a variety of different cultures and disciplines in order to realise his creative vision. Self-trained and self-taught, Meji — who was recently signed to Black Dog Films in the UK and US — co-founded production company JM Films in 2014, which specialises in creative visuals, music videos, commercials, movies and television. The company, like Meji, has worked with an impressive group of artists including Mr Eazi, Burna Boy and Jorja Smith.
Meji’s latest collaboration is with Afrobeat superstar Tiwa Savage on her latest song, 49-99. The video is a spectacular combination of rich visuals and sharp choreography. One particularly striking scene, for example, features the singer and a group of women dressed in blue uniforms with their hair in threaded styles as one of them counts her money bills. Tiwa sings "I got to get the dollar” while the rest of the women stare at the camera. This clip, as Meji clarifies, is inspired by Eliot Elisofon’s beautiful portraiture series of Congolese school girls taken in 1972, which the filmmaker wanted to celebrate and pay tribute to. It’s Nice That caught up with Meji below to hear more about the work that went into 49-99.
INT: Tell us a bit more about 49-99. How did the idea for the video come about?
MA: 49-99 is actually a play on words that was coined by Fela Kuti. It references the buses in Lagos where buses with a maximum capacity of 49 seated people also transport 99 standing people – overcrowded and uncomfortable. But they keep moving nonetheless. This combination of suffering and smiling is a somewhat accurate representation of the struggle of life in Nigeria.
After a conversation with Tiwa and her team I kind of knew what felt right and which way I wanted to take the video. We wanted it to be universally Black and unapologetically African. There was this image by Eliot Elisofon taken in 1972 at a Protestant Girls School in Congo that absolutely spoke to me. From there, I was able to build the video with the performance scenes that depicted Tiwa delivering her strong performances.
INT: The film feels profoundly poetic at times – the symmetry, the colour schemes, the movement direction. What did you look for in a shot?
MA: Ultimately, I wanted to represent Africa authentically to the rest of the world, while also challenging some Nigerian – and, more generally, African – norms. A female King/Queen of an underground Dambe fighting ring; the school girls counting money, sewing Ankara fabrics, having a bit of attitude as well as being fly as fuck; the all girl Okada gang which is something youʼd be hard pressed to find in Lagos (right now); and the table full of Chairmen toasting Tiwa.
We had a lot of fun playing with these ideas and seeing how far we could push them. The significance of hair in African culture canʼt be understated. In fact, we wanted to emphasise the importance of it with the ‘Medusa” scene and the team did an amazing job.
We really wanted it to be representative of Africa to the world so we kept it authentic. Not only was the video shot on location in Lagos but pretty much the entire cast and crew were local as well, like Olan Collardy who did a fantastic job as the project’s director of photography.
INT: How would you describe the collaboration between yourself and Tiwa Savage?
MA: Amazing. We have actually done a couple of videos together before and have definitely grown together over the years. She has trusted me with some important videos within her professional career from Ma Lo (ft. Wizkid) to Get It Now (ft. Omarion). I think weʼre just really scratching the surface with 49-99.
Tiwa knows where she wants her career to go and I think that we have been really aligned in terms of how her visuals have landed so far. Another thing I love about Tiwa is that sheʼs quick to tell you what she doesn’t like, which makes things easier in the early stages of production.
INT: What, if anything, do you hope viewers take from watching 49-99?
MA: Firstly, I hope that everyone who watches it feels compelled to go back and watch it again! Secondly, I hope that Africans feel pride when they watch these everyday moments from our culture be immortalised by a powerful woman like Tiwa on such a grand scale. Finally, I hope that it helps expand the narrative that Africa is beautiful – from the music to the people – and to further explore this notion.
INT: How does the video build on or inform your other work?
MA: I have generally enjoyed making films that beautifully represent Africa and Africans — from Skepta and Wizkidʼs Bad Energy to Popcaan & Davidoʼs Dun Rich. I love to show Africa, and really anywhere I shoot, in an authentic light. Whether the subject is glossy or gritty, thereʼs an air of authenticity I aim to tap into with every project I do — and I think 49-99 falls in line with that.