As a kid, Alleluia Atunyota ‘Ali Baba’ Akpobome wanted to be many things. He wanted to be a soldier because his father was one, he wanted to be an F1 driver because he saw a lot of Volkswagen drivers as a kid and an athlete just because FESTAC ‘77 happened. As destiny would have it, Ali Baba found his calling as an undergraduate at the then Bendel State University (now Ambrose Alli University). From performing at a tiny undergraduate event Ali Baba went on to become a pioneer in Nigeria’s comedy industry and is considered a legendary comedian today. How did he get here and why do Nigerian comedians pay tribute to him?
It all started in 1987, when he performed at his first show as an undergraduate. By 1989, he was already earning N300, more than double the N120 he was receiving from his father as pocket money. He had even done shows at the University of Lagos, Yaba College of technology and the Lagos State University (LASU). In 1990, after securing a degree in religious studies and philosophy, Ali Baba decided to relocate to Lagos – he was already charging up to N1,500 per show in the university circuit.
“My first performance was by accident, and I got paid about N50. That was around 1987, and my allowance from home was around N100, N120. From earning N50 to N100 per show, for making people laugh, I reasoned that comedy could fetch me serious money if well packaged,” he told Vanguard in a 2012 interview.
On getting to Lagos, Ali Baba was able to secure a job at an advertising agency while he performed at corporate and social events on the side. Soon he started to appear on TV shows with Patrick Doyle, Charly Boy and Danladi Bako. He also made cameo appearances on radio shows with Bisi Olatilo, Soni Irabor and Mani Onumonmu. Each show he performed at or platform he got on, Ali Baba used it to promote himself and his services. He even started placing adverts in newspapers, billboards, car stickers, and radio jingles. No one had ever seen anything quite like it. He quit his job after a while and has not looked back since.
Over his 30-year-plus career, Ali Baba has taken a lot of aspiring comedians like Teju Babyface, Tee A and Basket mouth under his wing and supported their career in its earliest stages. Along with Mohammed Danjuma, Ibokoko, Basorge Tariah, Agoma and Alarm Blow, Ali Baba soon became one of the pioneers of stand-up comedy – with all its commercial underpinnings.
He has also accomplished quite a few other firsts: first Nigerian comedian to perform on commercial flights, to entertain over 40 heads of governments and the first comedian to ring the closing bell of the Nigerian Stock Exchange. Ali Baba is also the first comedian to be a Paul Harris Fellow, first to be inaugurated into the Johnnie Walker Hall of fame, to stage a 6-hour stand-up performance, among many other achievements.
He also recently started to feature in movies and starred in both parts of the Nollywood blockbuster The Wedding Party alongside Adesua Etomi-Wellington, Banky W, Sola Sobowale, Richard Mofe-Damijo, iretiola Doyle, among others. The first wedding party movie is the highest-grossing Nigerian film in history bringing in over N450 million in box office earnings.
He can be found on social media supporting other upcoming comedians as well as the biggest comedians of today. In several interviews, he often speaks of leaving the game for the younger acts to flourish. From AY Makun and Basketmouth to Julius Agwu and Bovi, Ali Baba has supported their careers in one way or the other. This willingness to share and support and teach, coupled with his achievements as a pioneer of stand-up comedy in Nigeria, are what make Ali Baba an OG in Nigeria’s comedy industry. It’s all because he saw a vision for space and worked hard to bring that vision to life. He also hosts Ali Baba’s Spontaneity, a creative competition to discover younger comic talents and provide them with a platform to earn a living off their gift.
Ali Baba, in a 2019 interview with Punch, said he saw comedy as a service rather than the hobby it was considered to be at the time. He explained better: “I was able to overcome the struggle because I presented my talent as a service, and not a means of enjoyment. I drew the line between a hobby and a career. If you know how to sing and decide to do so only in church, then you are not commercialising your talent. But if you want people to pay for it, you have to package it as a service and present it to those who need that service. So, from the start, I identified that I had a talent and worked so hard to make sure that it was a service that some corporate organisations and individuals needed.”
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