Director Meji Alabi's Expansive Worldview Informs Ads for Guinness and Toyota

Plus, his Wakanda Forever docuseries

Born in London, Nigerian/British director Meji Alabi grew up dividing his time between London and Houston, Texas. At the age of 18, he visited Lagos, Nigeria, for the first time, and eventually opened his own production company, JM Films, in the city.

As you might expect, Alabi's global upbringing informs his work. "I understand Nigerian culture fully," says the director, who is represented by Ridley Scott Creative Group's RSA Films for commercials and Black Dog Films for music videos. 

"But I also went to high school and middle school in America and played American football. I grew up in the U.K. and played soccer there, and have U.K. culture in me," he says. "So, whether I'm shooting for KFC in London, or Toyota in Los Angeles, or Guinness in Nigeria, I don't feel out of place because I've actually lived it."

One of the highlights on his reel is the anthemic Guinness spot "Black Shines Brightest." Filmed in Lagos, the commercial celebrates African culture and features Nigerian designer Adebayo Oke-Lawal, who is known for creating androgynous menswear; Nigerian inventor Kehinde Durojaye, who shows off a jet car he made from trash; and Ghanian dancer/choreographer Incredible Zigi.

Another highlight: Toyota’s "Training Wheels." Shot in Los Angeles, this inspiring spot focuses on a boy who learns to ride a bike, how to swim, and how to fly a plane with the help of his father and Black change-makers who mentor him throughout his life.

What's more, Alabi co-directed, along with Bernardo Ruiz, the docuseries Voices Rising: The Music of Wakanda Forever, which debuted on Disney+ earlier this year. And he just directed his debut feature film, Water and Garri, starring singer Tiwa Savage.

The director first made a name for himself in music videos. In addition to directing clips for Burna Boy, Wizkid and Stormzy, Alabi was one of the producers of the Nigerian footage seen in Beyoncé's Black Is King visual album. He is also credited as a co-director on the Grammy Award-winning music video for Beyoncé’s "Brown Skin Girl," (directed by Queen Bey and Jenn Nkiru).

Below, Alabi reveals how he got into filmmaking, describes the production scene in Lagos and goes behind-the-scenes of some of his recent projects.

MUSE: How did you become a director? Was anyone in your family in a creative industry?

Meji Alabi: No. My family, we're Nigerian. I grew up around athletes. Sports was our thing. That's what my dad knew about, and that's what I got into, whether it was running track or basketball, American football, tennis as well. I spent most of my childhood playing sports and skateboarding. I moved back to England because I wanted to be a professional footballer in soccer. When I eventually got injured, I decided to leave the football dream, and I focused on my other love, which was creating visuals and music videos for friends.

How did you go from making music videos for friends to becoming a professional filmmaker?

I created my own company, JM Films, in Nigeria. I started building within the Nigerian community, and I got a lot of great experience. JM got the attention of Black Dog and RSA, and that allowed me access to some of the brands that you see us working with today.

What is the production scene like in Lagos?

There's a lot of creative energy. Nigerians have a special sense of, "I have to do this, I have to win, I have to push myself to greater heights." We'll do anything to make sure that we make it. So it's a special place. It brings out the best in you. It brings out the fighter in you.

Can you talk about making the Guinness spot "Black Shines Brightest"?

I worked with AMV BBDO on that—a wonderful creative team. They gave me the brief, but they also said, "Just do your thing. You know this place better than we do. You know what connects and what makes sense and what doesn’t and how we can bring it all together in an amazing way." So the brief laid it out, but then I definitely brought my know-how, my local knowledge.

We tried to create a picture of Nigeria [showing] that anything can happen anywhere. As in, you turn a corner, and you see something that you wouldn't necessarily see elsewhere. [In the spot], you go through the hole in the fence, and you see Kehinde, an inventor—he just makes things out of rubbish, and he made this [jet car] out of scrap metal and things like that.

The spot has so much energy and moves so fast. In the beginning, you go right from that guy painting a mural to horsemen galloping down the street as people cheer.

In the north, they have a big festival, and they have these crazy street races with horses. People are lined up on the side of the roads. It doesn't necessarily happen inside of Lagos, but it's a Nigerian experience.

Were the people in Lagos curious about the horses running down the street when you shot that scene?

It was kind of a closed set. We shot in Lagos Island. It's a part of Lagos. It's a great local community. We did street casting on the day. I love doing that. We had our specific cast. But I saw some amazing people who were just walking by in great outfits. I was like, "Hey, I want that person to jump into the crowd and be part of it." Every time we shoot in Nigeria, I involve the locals as much as possible.

How much of your work do you shoot in Africa?

It's always led from the creative, but I'm noticing there's so much interest because this is a part of the world that most people haven't seen or experienced, or they have a picture of it in their head that they were given many years ago. Now that we're able to create content from there to sell to the world, they see a different side of Africa that they might not have before. So, I push for it when I can but only when it serves the creative.

Tell me about shooting Toyota's "Training Wheels" last summer.

The agency wanted a story about someone being nudged forward in life. We had a lot of fun doing the casting, finding the right people. These are actual movement makers, people who changed the community around them. We had Demetrius Harris from Fly Compton. He actually teaches young people how to fly. Then there's Paulana Lamonier, who runs Black People Will Swim, teaching Black people of all different ages how to swim. Then there's Dr. Khalid el-Hakim. He runs the Black History 101 Mobile Museum, and he takes different artifacts around to schools, almost like a museum road show.

All of these people are huge in their communities. It was just great to be able to celebrate them while telling a story about a young boy who’s being pushed by positive people in his community. These people are actually real, which is special. That was the cool part of the casting process is we actually had real impact makers in our commercial.

And the father/son story was beautiful for me because I had recently taught my son how to ride a bike. I could relate to that opening scene. Also, my dad has been a huge part of my life. Both parents, but my father, he’s really pushed me forward through life.

The casting in the Oreo spot "Grandma’s Wish for You," which has a sweet grandmother sharing all of the things she wants her granddaughter to experience in life, was also great.

A casting director in South Africa found her. We had a wonderful team down there. Her name is Lerma. In fact, she messaged me a month or two ago saying, “Hey, Meji, it’s been one year since our shoot. Just checking in to say hi.” She was so sweet. She was Filipino. On the day, she came with these spring rolls that she had made for the shoot. It actually felt like you had your grandma with you on the set. I try and find that special bit in each person and lean into that. 

Your work tends to be energetic and positive. For example, the empowering "we've got this" approach you took to making "Draw the Line," a spot you did for the "Zero Malaria Starts With Me" campaign.

We're putting the pressure on malaria. We're attacking it rather than it attacking us. That's the mindset—to move from a position of strength as we tackle this killer. It was such a pleasure working with such amazing talent—Eliud Kipchoge, the runner. And we had Faith Kipyegon, a wonderful runner, and we had David Beckham, and Yemi Alade, the singer from Nigeria.

In between those two films, I caught malaria in Ghana. I was in the hospital for days not knowing what was happening to me. I was literally near death, and it just reinforced everything for me—that what I'm doing [with these spots] makes sense. 

Outside of the ad world, you co-directed Voices Rising: The Music of Wakanda Forever docuseries, showing us how the music was made for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. It must have been amazing to witness to the creation of the music featured in the film.

Most people don't ever get an insight into how the music is made. So, for me, the experience was inspirational, everything that I could have imagined. For one of my first documentary projects to be a three-part documentary on Disney+ is pretty cool, and to be a small part of the Black Panther story is even better. 

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