‘We Can Get There With A Commission On Arts And Culture as First Step…’ -Dr. Julius Spencer on ailing entertainment industry

Dr Julius Spencer talks to Salone Jamboree in an exclusive interview on the standpoint of the Arts and Cultural Industry in Sierra Leone: What can we learn from the Nollywood industry and what is the way forward?

Salone Jamboree (S.J): Please, tell us a bit about yourself: your education and work in relation to Art and culture?

Dr. Julius Spencer (JS): I attended the Prince of Wales Secondary School, obtained B.A. Ed majoring in English from the Njala University; and later M. A and PhD in Theatre Arts from the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. When I came back, I took up a teaching appointment at Njala University for about two and a half academic years before I transferred to Fourah Bay College where I continued as Drama and Drama practical teacher until 1996 then I became a senior lecturer and Head of Department. I went to the U.S. before the coup happened and then eventually I came back with a radio station. I was made a minister in the SLPP Government of late President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah became a Minister so on and so forth.

(S.J): In your career as a Drama teacher, an Actor and a Director of many movies to your credit in Sierra Leone, which movie do you consider your best; and why?

(JS): Well, I started off with Taboulay Theatre when I was at Njala College before I went to study in Nigeria. When I came back, I set up Spence Productions when I was at Fourah Bay College.  We did a number of productions and at a point, we were able to fill in the British Council hall at the time theatre was quite popular. I went out again in 1996 but then the coup happened.  But even before that, we had started moving into a radio drama and then eventually we went into movies and we did a number of movies in television drama.

So, it started with live theatre, then radio drama, then television and then movies. But also at some point we were involved in the music industry. We were managing some artists and we did some production and music awards. We were doing the biggest awards in Sierra Leone. We started as Premier Music Awards then we got sponsorship from Celtel. So, we changed the name to Celtel Premier Music Awards. The last award we did was in 2006. I think we were one of the very first people in the local movie industry. We produced movies with titles like ‘Hawa’, ‘Up to America’; and in more recent times, we did ‘Beauty Curse’ and in my mind ‘Beauty Curse’ is the best we have done so far. I have directed a couple of other movies as well with Calabah Productions. But since 2013 Premier Media has not done anything because there are issues of marketing, distribution and copyright.

(SJ): What do you think we are not getting right here? What do you think we can learn from the Nigerian movie industry?

(JS): Well, we are not getting many things right. Like I said I studied in Nigeria and I was there when the music and movie industries were in the infancy. But the advantage that Nigeria has over Sierra Leone in the sense is that for long ago the government had taken arts and culture seriously. They are being taught in universities and polytechnics. They have the programs at Diploma and Undergraduate up to postgraduate level across the country. I studied theatre up to PhD level at the University of Ibadan. They also have film and television schools so that tells you how they invested in training as a start.

Secondly, they have a cultural policy. They have cultural centers in each State. So, they have put in place the enabling environment for the arts to strive. In addition, they have an active copyright policy and the political will power to implement them.

As recently as under President Goodluck Johnathan, the government invested millions of dollars in the film industry because they realise that it has potential for employment and external relations etc. etc.

That has never been the case in Sierra Leone. There is virtually nothing done to promote arts and culture. This is the only country where we don’t have even a national arts centre; no performing arts center where artists can showcase their talents. When I was Chairman at ActionAid some eight years ago, they put aside some amount of money to construct a performing arts center but nothing has come out of it.

Even the Copyright Act passed since 2011 remains to be implemented; similarly with the Cultural Policy which was approved around 2007.  There is no agency to implement the policy and the Commission for Arts and Culture which was originally included in that policy was expunged by the previous government. So, I think some of these things need to be put in place. It is not a matter of providing funds for artists to do their work. It goes way beyond that. Certain things need to be in place and without a Commission for Arts and Culture, without the implementation of the Copyright Act, things will not work.

The creative industries are being used by other countries to provide employment for young people. The most important one is for the implementation of the Copyright Act. There are provisions for the Registrar of copyright, there are provisions for the establishment of a Collection Society which will be collecting royalties on behalf of artists. So there is a lot to be done.

(SJ): What has been your role and contribution as a former Minister of Information and Broadcasting to the development of the Arts and Culture industry?

 

(JS): I was first Minister of Information and Communications and then Tourism and Culture in 1998. Then after the Lomé Agreement in 1999 the Ministry was split up and I had responsibility for Information and Broadcasting. Until the time I left government, Sierra Leone was at war and even though I tried to raise issues related to arts and culture, nobody was taking me seriously. In fact, my colleagues in the cabinet would laugh at me sometimes. They would say ‘we are talking about life and death and you’re talking about culture.’

 So, at the time I was a Minister the opportunity did not exist. I also got the president Kabba government to establish the interim Council for Arts and Culture to deal with the issues relating to Cultural Policy. I was chairing that committee. I was involved in the production of the Cultural Policy. So, one has made efforts. I have written a number of papers and articles about mainstreaming culture into development. I have also written about the creative industries; how they can be used as not only employment to people, but as well as the country’s inspiration in peacebuilding.

(SJ): What do you make of the President’s recent speech promising the construction of an ultramodern entertainment complex? Past regimes were making similar promises to Arts and Culture and it seems there have been no results?

(JS): I don’t have all the information but I know that some efforts have been made taking off from the $140,000 seed money ActionAid provided for the construction of an Arts Center. These monies are still available in a fixed deposit account. I know that at some points design has been made on ‘build, operate and transfer’ agreement. I don’t know what the current status is.

(SJ): Why do you think successive governments have not taken the arts and entertainment industry very seriously and what do you think is the way forward?

(JS): In my view, two things need to happen. First is the establishment of the Commission on Arts and Culture that will lead the process of implementing the Cultural Policy. Then we need to implement the Copyright Act; we need to establish the office of the Registrar of Copyright, the Collection Society etc. Right now musicians cannot make much money out of their music because people are using their tracks for free. If we have a collection society in place, radio stations should be paying for playing music, bars, nightclubs should be paying to play music etc. People are even using music for jingles and the musicians get nothing. Lastly, we also need a space for performing arts. We can, for instance, use the Miatta Conference Centre for the time being as a theatre centre. These are some of the issues we need to address but I’ve written and spoken and am now tired of talking because it seems no one is listening.

Well, let us wait and see by his proclamation if President Bio will, at last, take the Arts and Cultural industry out of the Woods.

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