Hakeem Kae-Kazim bristles playfully when I express my surprise at his desire to eventually settle down in Nigeria.
“He likes us,” I joke to the camerawoman who is setting up.
“What do you mean ‘he likes us’?” Hakeem asks. “I am one of ‘us’!”
This is no lip service. This Nigerian-born, United Kingdom-trained actor has certainly represented ‘us’ on the big screen big time. The actor’s breakout role was his portrayal of villain, George Rutaganda, in 2004’s Oscar-nominated Hotel Rwanda. Hakeem has since played, among others, characters with names like Awolowa Odusami in the movie The Fourth Kind (directed by Nigerian-American filmmaker, Olatunde Osunsanmi) and Emeka, in television series, Lost. In 2008, he had a recurring role as Colonel Ike Dubaku in TV hit series 24. In the past year, he has made a couple of trips back to Nigeria, first, to film Inale, a story set in Idomaland, and now he’s back to make another movie.
“I’m proudly African,” he says with a British accent. “I want us to be able to tell our story from our perspective, which is one of the reasons why I’ve come back, as well as to help boost our industry in a different way.
“Nollywood is a fantastic industry. And so my contribution to it would be to help raise the bar, help raise the way that these films are made and therefore, help raise the way they’re viewed overseas so that we are regarded as equal partners on the world stage in terms of filmmaking.”
Although the actor has spent most of his life in other parts of the world, he remembers his short childhood in Nigeria.
“I used to live around the corner here,” says the actor who was born in Lagos on October 1, 1962, but comes from a family with roots in Abeokuta, Ogun State.
“I used to live in Victoria Island, when Victoria Island was one big beach, and it was beautiful. And now it’s a parking lot.”
When he was still very young, his parents moved to England to study and took little Hakeem with them. When it was time to move back to Nigeria, a teenage Hakeem was left behind, which helped make the decision to pursue acting an easier one.
“I was lucky,” he says. “I was in school in England on my own and they were here (Nigeria), and I made that decision surreptitiously without them.”
His parents, like many Nigerian parents of that period, were not crazy about their son’s career choice.
“They weren’t pleased at all initially,” he says. “But it was something that I was passionate about and wanted to do, and I was lucky enough to have the space to be able to do that.”
Hakeem went on to study at the highly-regarded Old Victorian Theatre School in Bristol, United Kingdom in 1987. After he graduated, he was invited to join the UK’s Royal Shakespeare Company, probably the most famous classical theatre company in the world. A visit to South Africa for a friend’s wedding led to a role in a TV commercial there. Based on the success of his first commercial, Hakeem was invited back from England to do more work.
“I left for South Africa intending to stay for two to three weeks but ended up staying there for 10 years,” he told a NEXT reporter last year.
Becoming a star
After settling in South Africa, Hakeem became a household name, thanks to his work in film and television. He appeared in numerous South African television productions and a large number of feature films, including Secret Laughter of Women (1999), which also featured Joke Silva and actors, Colin Firth and Nia Long. Now that he is back in Nigeria, the actor has found that working on set in Nigeria could be a unique experience.
“There are a lot of challenges with being on a set in Nigeria but it’s fun,” he says. “Timekeeping is a humongous issue. And it’s very important when you’re filming because time is money in the film industry. I think the camaderie is fantastic. The main issue is time and understanding that time is money. And that you have to be there. Everybody has to know exactly what they’re doing at exactly the right time.”
Work, work, work
Hakeem is keeping busy in Nigeria before he returns to Los Angeles where he lives with his South African wife, Bronwyn and two daughters, Ayesha Adedamola, 10; and Shadha Iyabo, 6. He is very excited to talk about Inale, the movie which he stars in, directed by Jeta Amata, director of 2006’s The Amazing Grace.
“It’s done now,” he says. “We’re just editing. And [it’s] based on the music of Bongos Ikwue (popular Idoma musician in the seventies). I didn’t know Bongos Ikwue until I met him during this movie. And he’s an amazing man, and it was a real joy doing this movie using his music, which is celebrated all over Nigeria. I had no idea until I met him and then spoke to my brother who said, ‘Oh, yeah, [he did] Cockcrow at Dawn’. So, that’s fantastic to be able to showcase him, his music, the community, and Nigeria at large.”
This time around, Hakeem is here to film another movie whose working title is Black Gold. He won’t say much about this one except that it will involve an international cast including American actor, Billy Zane, whom he shares screen time with in Darfur (2009), where Hakeem plays a Nigerian peacekeeper.
“I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they don’t get scared and run away,” he says. “It’s a question of raising the bar and encouraging internationals to come shoot in Nigeria so Nigerian filmmaking can be viewed on an equal level as the rest of the world.”
During the interview, Storm 360 CEO Obi Asika, who met Hakeem through his brother Muyi (a third brother lives in France) and has known the actor for over a decade, comes in with a starstruck Teju Babyface (comedian) who wants a photo with the actor.
“I think he is extremely emotive as an actor with the depth and intelligence to play any type of role,” says Mr. Asika. “His voice is also something else and has had him as the global voice for brands such as Guinness and MTN, something many in Nigeria do not know.”
And as our conversation winds to an end, that is not all that Hakeem, who shares a birthday with his country, wants folks to know.
“A lot of people, for some reason, didn’t know that I was Nigerian,” he says. “And that is really important for people to know, that I am Nigerian, and I’m flying the flag as well as everybody. [Switches to Nigerian accent] Yes, I am Naija. You know, I am Naija o. Mm-hmm!”
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