Three area TV channels bring West African culture to Houston

Afrocentrik Television CEO Wole Van Olasoji sits in the studio on Friday, February 12, 2021.

Photo: Elizabeth Conley, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer

Lanre and Abiodun Omotoso’s video store in Little Nigeria was not the first of its kind in Houston. Like a few others, he specialized in hard-to-find Nollywood movies on VHS. And although their store outlived its competition, DVDs and the Internet destroyed what they had built. The couple closed shop in 2006.

But the seeds that were planted with the fleeting success and the couple’s mission to bring African film culture to the city have only grown. He also went beyond physical media and into the local television world with Millennium Broadcast Channel (MBC), a station that broadcasts a daily 12-hour block of Nollywood movies, African soap operas, Afrobeat music videos, nightly news, talk shows, and spiritual programming.

“That was my wife’s idea,” Lanre, who calls himself “Larry,” says proudly, in a voice so deep and steady that he could give James Earl Jones a run for his money.

“It’s not something that you wake up and say, ‘Oh, let’s get started (a TV station),’” Abbey said, as she likes to be called, looking up from her phone. “No, there is a reason. There’s this need in America, there’s this need in Texas. God gave us the vision, and we pursued it.

Where to look

Afrocentrik TV: live on channel 15.8. afrocentriktv.com

Afrovibes Entertainment: online at afrovibes.tv

MBC: worldwide via a streaming app and via a live TV link on the station’s website. Also available on live TV on channel 21.2. mbclivetv.com

This need is clear if you look at the numbers.

The city of Bayou has close ties with Nigeria. There is a large concentration of Nigerians here, numbering 40,000 people, according to 2018 census data analyzed by the Migration Policy Institute. Houston has become a hub and a necessary step for notable African music artists. Local cable channels have featured Nollywood movies, and award-winning film shows have been held here. With this activity comes the need for relevant news and, of course, entertainment.

And the Omotosos are certainly not alone. Other companies such as AfrocentrikTV and Afrovibes Entertainment also intervened in the diffusion breach.

In many ways, what is happening in Houston belongs to a larger trend exposing African media to the world. Netflix recently acquired several Nigerian film and television projects and launched last year Netflix Naija, its official presence in Africa.

At the recent Grammy Awards, two popular Nigerian artists in the Afrobeat genre took home trophies. Burna Boy (who is no stranger to performing in Houston) had the world’s best music album with “Twice as Tall”, and Wizkid was co-winner for Best Music Video with Beyoncé (the Houston connection cannot be stronger) for “Girl with Brown Skin. Not to mention that Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti was nominated to enter the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year.

Make people feel at home

For the Omotosos, a couple in their fifties, the journey from VHS tapes to television began with Abbey, who launched a mobile video rental business in London to tap into the growing Nollywood industry. She would take orders over the phone, then stack the tapes in her car to drop them off with people going to work every day. The rentals lasted two days, and Abbey would come back, pick up the films and drop off more.

Later, after arriving in Houston and marrying Larry, she restarted the business, this time working with her husband to post flyers for his Nigerian film delivery service. This video rental bustle caught the attention of a local African video library owner who wanted to sell.

Seeing the opportunity to go a little further, the couple bought the store in March 2000, and the aptly named Millenium African Video Center on Bissonnet was born. It has become a sort of Blockbuster for connoisseurs. For six years, customers mainly rented VHS tapes that had to be transferred manually into a format that could be played on VCRs used in the United States. Later, DVDs came on the scene and started to mess things up. “A lot of people would go to Africa and just put a lot of DVDs in their bags,” remembers Larry.

In a real estate office in the southwest of the city that also serves as the TV headquarters, the couple sit across from each other as they share the story of MBC’s origins. Larry, dressed in traditional loose Nigerian clothing with an oval hat, sits across from his 21-year-old wife. She wears a floral-colored business suit and looks at her smartphone as her husband tries to remember the year they moved to their current live TV station (the answer: 2009).

Their market is not just Nigerians but the larger black community and anyone else in Houston who can access MBC through a streaming app, live TV link on the station’s website, and live on the Channel. 21.2. After airing a block of infomercials in the morning, MBC has a women’s talk show on politics and culture called “Your View” which airs every morning, and after consecutive hours of soap operas, a news program at 22 hours. Everything is meant to “make people feel at home,” says Abbey.

When asked if his programming is aimed primarily at people from his home country, Larry said no. “The programming can be in Nigeria or West Africa, but since the majority of viewers are West Africans, 80% are in English,” he says.

Other programs may be broadcast with subtitles, such as movies or television serials where the characters speak using indigenous languages ​​such as Yoruba and Igbo in Nigeria, or Akan in Ghana.

Afrocentrik Television CEO Wole Van Olasoji stands in the studio on Friday, February 12, 2021.

Photo: Elizabeth Conley, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer

“We have no voice”

Over the years, several attempts have been made to create local television for Nigerians and African immigrants in general. Most of the stations have appeared among the litter of home shopping channels, evangelical stations, far-right programs, as well as channels in Spanish, Vietnamese and more. But few last beyond a year or two.

Besides pay-per-view cable TV, which features some African channels, like the California-based Africa Channel, MBC is one of two free-to-air broadcast stations in Houston that have been around for more than five years and are largely aimed at the Nigerian community. The other station is Afrocentrik Television, which started in 2013 and also offers entertainment, news and commentary.

“We don’t have a voice,” says Wole Van Olasoji, who runs Afrocentrik Television, of the importance of having African television in Houston.

People are recording a radio show on Saturday, February 6, 2021 at Afrovibes Entertainment studio in Houston.

Photo: Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer

What started out as Vinyard TV, which mainly broadcast spiritual programs, the channel, he says, is a bridge to communicate across the African diaspora. “My main audience is Africans and then African Americans who want to know more about their roots. “

Likewise, a local computer programmer saw a wave of Afrobeat music coming in and co-created Afrovibes. He paid around fifty DJs specializing in the genre and launched a 24-hour streaming network. It has evolved to include AfrovibesTV, which broadcasts video clips showing the depth and splendor of the Nigerian music scene. The videos are highly produced and feature superstars including DaVido, who stars in Eddie Murphy’s recent film “Coming 2 America”.

“Most of the media don’t sell us for who we are,” says Philip Balonwu, who came to Houston from Nigeria 15 years ago and launched his company in 2016.

Balonwu’s online TV network has also created an outlet for Houstonians to create programs, namely talk shows to be broadcast through the app and online, as well as on TV via Roku devices. Shows that look at fashion and politics and others that feature weekly gossip segments are staples of the channel. “I felt we needed a platform that promotes black culture around the world,” Balonwu said.

There are few mainstream media outside of BET, OWN, TV One, and Byron Allen’s TheGrio channel that promote black culture.

Yet the images on television and in movies largely ignore black people outside the United States. It’s a gap that the Omotosos are trying to bridge.

“My wife said we could do some TV, and I burst out laughing,” Larry says into his deep bass. “Do you have the money?” he responded at the time.

Between their part-time real estate job and a daycare they own, the couple bought a channel on Comcast. The cost was around $ 20,000 per month, according to Larry. This channel only lasted a year, then the government switched to live digital broadcasting and MBC rented channel 43 before moving to channel 21.2.

Representing African culture and showing the full extent of Africa is one of the reasons to continue with television, says Abbey. “No. 1 is to erase from the minds of people who haven’t been there that we don’t live in trees,” she jokes.

Also, it is supposed to be a focal point for families moving here. She says, “Everything a couple needs is out there on MBC.”

Camilo Hannibal Smith is a Houston-based writer.





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