21 year old, Laila Johnson Salami has been thrust into the spotlight with her role on new show, On the Couch with Falz and Laila, but her story is not one of someone who emerged over night. The founder of the We Rise Initiative and a presenter on TV and radio, Salami has taken many by storm, but she’s only getting started. Here is the Laila Johnson Salami story.

CC: Who is Laila Johnson Salami?

Where do I start? Probably with what I want people to know of me – things I tell myself to affirm myself every day – I’m happy, peaceful, faithful and content with life. There’s not much for me to complain about in the grand scheme of things. But I know that’s not what you want to hear, so i’ll drop the “bio”!

I’m simply a young woman, humbled by life and wholly motivated to improve the socio-economic and political conditions of society. I’ve chosen to do this through the media based on my passion for journalism, and through constant perseverance, I’ve become a Broadcast Journalist. So I anchor programs on TV and Radio focused on news and current affairs, while writing for the Commonwealth Youth Council and of course, dropping a few questions On the Couch! Asides from that, I’m a lover of life. I believe in doing what works for you and more importantly, what makes you happy. So I make a conscious effort to choose happiness every day and get myself involved in anything that adds to my happiness.

I’m a huge foodie, so yeah, I spend a lot of money eating lol. Unless I’m going for Amala, my favourite, which doesn’t finish all of my money. But how much Amala can the President of the Sweet Girl Association eat? I also love reading, watching documentaries (especially on crime) and spending time on the beach (I’m a water baby, or mami water if you wanna see it that way). If I hadn’t studied Politics and International Relations, I would’ve probably chosen a course in Criminology. Don’t ask me why I love crime, I just know that in a parallel universe somewhere I’m a secret agent living a life similar to J-Lo’s in Shades of Blue; just without the mad ex-partner. I mean, I have quite a few mad ex-boyfriends, but they’re irrelevant to any of my story lines!

Asides from that, I’m a Yoruba Angel! Straight outta Ibadan! So I was born and raised in Oyo State, I moved to the UK for two years when I was seven years old, moved back to Nigeria for three years and then back to the UK for boarding school from the age of twelve. I’ve spent my life between the two countries although I’m not a huge fan of the UK. I moved back to Nigeria full time however in April 2017 having completed my degree, and jumped into the industry straight away. I guess I’d like to say I’m a go-getter. I know what I want, I’m hungry for success and I don’t stop until I get it. That’s the attitude that’s moulded me to become the young woman that I am today and honestly, I don’t know why I adapted to this attitude from such a young age but, it has certainly proven itself to me over the years.

CC: How and when did you know that you wanted to become an On Air Personality?

 I’ve always known. From a young age, I was inspired by Oprah Winfrey, Ellen Degeneres and Christiane Amanpour. In 2015 I was speaking at an event on domestic violence in London and I remember sharing my story for the first time. I too, have survived domestic violence, and it was the first opportunity I had to lift the weight off my shoulders and turn my pain into inspiration. Afua Hirsch was also on the panel with me and I saw her as a mentor from that day forward. She’s one of my more recent inspirations alongside Isha Sesay and David Letterman. I was so inspired by Afua in particular and I knew that I wanted to follow in her footsteps. We had a conversation after the event, kept in touch and I’d turn to her from time to time to discuss my dreams and how I wanted to turn my dreams in to a reality. She constantly encouraged me, introduced me to people in the industry and gave me a feel of what my life could potentially be like.

In December 2016, I was back in Nigeria for the Christmas holidays and I set up a meeting with “my mama” as I always call her, Lolade Adamson. I told her that I’d be moving back to Nigeria in four months time and I wanted to get straight in to the media. Lola told me that there was an opening at SoundCity, so I went for a screening and it went well. They asked me if I could get involved in some voice overs for them from the UK until I could secure a full time role when I was to move back four months after. Although that didn’t work out, I moved back in April 2017, went for my second screening and the company decided to allocate me to Spice TV – a fashion, beauty and lifestyle channel. I enjoyed working at Spice TV, it was a great fun and I had the opportunity to travel and cover events such as Glitz Fashion Week 2017 in Accra and South Africa Fashion Week 2017 in Johannesburg. However, fashion beauty and lifestyle was not Laila. So I took a rather impulsive but necessary decision to retire and I went jobless for two months. I needed the break though, I hadn’t had one since I started university. As a matter of fact, I remember the day I handed in my dissertation from Lagos at 11:59 am and by 2 pm I was on set covering an event for Spice TV! Yup, I was that hungry.

During the space of two months, I focused on myself and overcoming several hindrances in my life that I needed to eradicate in order to move on. I always believe in the laws of the universe, especially with regards to the energy that you attract. I also always believe that everything happens for a reason. I got a call one day and it was from Cool FM and they asked me to come in for an interview. I remember sitting with the Head of Stations and he went through my CV then said, “when we first saw you, we did our background checks on social media and thought you were definitely Cool FM. However, having spoken to you and seeing how politically inclined you are, I think we should put you on Nigeria Info.” – I was in shock. Was I really about to start discussing politics on radio for four hours every day? Was I really about to become a Broadcast Journalist? Was my dream really becoming my reality? I started the job straight away and about six weeks in, I was called in by my boss and she said that she’d like to put me on TV. She asked if I’d ever done live tv before and I told her I’d only done pre-recorded TV. I was frightened for live TV because the only TV experience I’d had prior to that allowed me to do several takes on my content before its distribution. This time around, my only guidance would be my talk back in my ear on set.  It’s crazy to think about the effects of fear. Fear literally stops you from believing in yourself. I decided that the only way I could make the most of this opportunity was to choose fearlessness, so I did, and I’ve been killing it! I have fallen in love with live TV and since I moved back to Nigeria last year, it is definitely the greatest opportunity I’ve had to prove myself not only in the industry, but more importantly, TO MYSELF. I realized that this was what I was born to do. It may not be my destiny, but I am definitely on the right path to fulfilling my purpose in life.

CC: What was the first job you did? Looking back now what lessons would you say you gleaned from it?

 The first official job I had was at the House of Commons. I interned for MP Chris Williamson during my summer holidays just before my first year of university. It was such an experience! I focused on a lot of research for him with regards to human rights abuse in Palestine and I learnt a lot on the job.

First of all, it taught me to wake up! I’d have to go up to Derby at times and wake up early in the morning to leave London on time in order to make it back the same day. It also taught me the ins and outs of campaigning as I was working for him during a time of re-elections so we did a lot of door-knocking in Derby and speaking to the community on the promises of MP Chris Williamson. Furthermore, it taught me how to carry out extensive research on matters and most importantly, how to be efficient in the workplace. Have you ever tried taking minutes in a meeting at the House of Commons? Let me tell you, your fingers better move quick!

It was definitely the best work experience I could have had and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It helped me to reaffirm my decision to study Politics and International Relations and gave me an upper hand starting the course in university. Looking back now though, I believe I could’ve maximised my potential there a lot more. I did a lot, but I never felt 100% fulfilled with what I gave during my time there. But that could also just be as a result of a mentality I’ve always had, which is to give 110% to everything that I do. So that also taught me to never take advantage of any experience that comes my way in life. I’ve learnt to indulge as much as possible because knowledge is power and information breeds wisdom.

CC: What project or accomplishment is most significant in your career?

 Definitely founding the We Rise Initiative. No one really understands what it means to have survived sexual violence unless they’ve been through it and it can either make or break you. I knew that the only way I could overcome my experiences was to channel my emotions into the progression of women that had been through similar experiences, ensuring that I leveraged on the privileges that I am aware that I have over many other women, to raise as many women as possible. Founding the We Rise Initiative will always be sentimental to me because I know the foundation that holds the organisation up. My partner in this, Tracy Aryee-Quao is the best friend I’ve ever had and we both needed to channel our emotions and focus on eradicating systemic oppression to ensure that young women are given the opportunity to have a good life. Tracy and I have both been through our fair share of life’s downfalls and we started We Rise at a point in time when we were both extremely low. I can’t wait to see what the organisation becomes over the next few years because its success means everything to me.

But On the Couch with Falz and Laila doesn’t fall far behind. Just two months ago I had “veteran broadcast journalists” saying that I’m just a small girl and I can’t interview presidential aspirants, but hey! The best answer to people’s criticisms is ACTION. I’m a big believer in leveraging on every negative comment or situation life has thrown your way to create greatness and let your work speak for you.

CC: What topics are you most passionate about?

 I’m passionate about a lot! But I’m greatly passionate about human rights. I have a lot of anger towards the inequality of opportunity in the world and there is nothing that pains me more than poverty. I believe in sustainable development and I am particularly focused on girl children because society has abused the girl child beyond belief and the narrative has to change. The marginalisation of women in society is a problem that I am motivated to solving and I won’t stop until my final breath.

I’m also passionate about the media of course. I’m in love with content creation and not just political content but entertaining content. I spend a lot of time drafting several synopsis’ for shows and documentaries and watching different shows to gain inspiration. Beyond that, I’m extremely passionate about mental health. I’ve suffered from poor mental health for a good amount of my life so it’s something I’m very vocal on. My experiences with depression and anxiety have had great effects on my life and living in a society that stigmatises poor mental health has made me see it as my duty to constantly fuel the conversation. I’m a stigma breaker and I don’t shy away from it.

Last but not least, I’m passionate about Christ. I only really turned to Christ wholesomely last year and it’s been the most liberating experience of my life. Although I’m a Christian, turning to Christ has opened my mind to the ridiculousness of religious divide in society. I’ve read both the Bible and the Quran and I’ve taken lessons from both. I’ve also learnt to love myself and focus on love more than anything else in life. Beyond that, I’ve decided that I also want to spend a year of my life with the monks and I’ve also gained great respect for the teachings of spirituality.

CC: If you were made President, what are the first 5 things you would change about the country?

 Haha! I remember having “Aspiring President of the FRN” in my Twitter bio for years! It only changed recently, not because I don’t aspire to presidency any more per say, but because I don’t know if that’s my purpose in life. However, if I was to become the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria one day, the first five things I would “do” rather than change are:

  • Criminalise illiteracy. If your child is under eighteen and not in school, you are going to be criminalised for that. Nigeria has the most deplorable education statistics in the world and we cannot continue like this. Everyone deserves an education, it is NOT a privilege, it is simply a fundamental human right. You cannot expect a society to thrive when citizens are not equipped to develop a skill set and contribute to the development of that particular society.
  • Economically decolonise Nigeria. I believe that our greatest problem today are the shackles placed on our development by Western Brentwood institutions. I have great respect for African leaders like Thomas Sankara that fought this system and died for this system and it is simply a system that needs to end. Africa is caught up in a vicious cycle of aid that continues to give leeway to the exploitation of our rich natural resources that are benefitting the West and not us. Yet we need aid to pump our economy because we’re THAT deteriorated. This cycle has to end in order for us to prosper and I am passionate about the enforcement of national security to protect the welfare of citizens.
  • Criminalise no birth registration. Half the children in Nigeria under the age of five today are not registered and therefore, don’t even exist in the system. It breaks my heart to know that our data collection in Nigeria is as poor as it is and every citizen under my potential administration must be registered from birth without fail. We need to get our act together and create a central database that has an account of every Nigerian citizen, it is the only way for us to know what we’re working with. As it stands, the government cannot plan efficiently until this is done because the government have absolutely no clue as to what they’re working with.
  • Revamp the primary and secondary education curriculums. The fact that there is no history, sex education and political education in our curriculum is an insult to us as citizens. It is directly affiliated with the fact that the system is set up to oppress the populace as much as possible, giving power to the same crop of individuals that have sucked Nigeria dry. Citizens deserve to be informed in order to make independent decisions and participate in the socio-economic and political activities of our society. You cannot expect a citizen to make an informed vote during the elections if they have no voters education. They will choose what is fed to them by the polity because it is all that they know.
  • Veto the senate’s “nay” on the gender and equal opportunities bill. The first thing that any society willing to function has to have, is a system that screams “for the people”. The fact that a bill proposed to the senate highlighting the importance of the equality of opportunity for all citizens in society was voted against shows how flawed our entire system is. Who in their right mind can possibly be against the equality of opportunity? It’s absolutely beyond me.

CC: Who are you voting for in the upcoming presidential elections?

I’ll let you know on election day! But I am voting for the candidate that I believe has the potential to sort out our dire economic problems as in my opinion, that is our greatest problem today.

CC: Talk to us about your NGO, the We Rise Initiative

My baby! I mentioned how she was founded earlier on but let’s go in to the details. The We Rise Initiative is an NGO focused on reducing the prevalence of systemic oppression towards women and girls while eradicating the stigmatisation of feminism. We are focused on sustainable initiatives and the empowerment of women socio-economically and politically. We’re still extremely small in capacity but we’re growing day by day and we have some extremely exciting projects coming up. We haven’t been able to do much over the past three years based on limited access to funding, but we always do the most that we can. We’ve held successful conferences and roundtable discussions, donated books and we’ve been working silently to create some really valuable mental health journals that we’ll be releasing soon.

I see We Rise as the future for African women. I see We Rise lifting millions of women out of poverty and ensuring the success of many. To get there, I have to keep on doing what I’m doing, which is building the organisation up bit by bit and focusing on a lot of research. We have a phenomenal research team that work on quarterly reports on matters that are of great concern to our organisation and eventually, we will use our research as a foundation to enact the greatest change in society for women.

CC: Over the last couple of weeks, you’ve become more prominent in our consciousness for “On The Couch”. How did that come about and what has your experience been? What’s it like working with Falz?

 I’d like to start off with this by expressing how much respect I have for Falz. He literally put me on and his belief in my abilities has been everything and more. He’s my favourite person without a doubt and someone that I will always appreciate. We’re both extremely passionate about the development of our society and we often have long conversations about it. He’s extremely intelligent so whenever I have questions with regards to Nigeria’s justice system in particular, he’s my first call. Our constant progressive conversations led to him inviting me to meet an aspiring presidential candidate with him. We ended up interrogating the candidate for hours after which Falz looked at me and said “let’s make this a thing”, so we did.

I knew that this would take my career to another height and I was frightened for that. I remember speaking to Falz and telling him that I don’t want fame, I never wanted to become famous for doing what I love to do more than anything and I’m not ready to be in the public eye. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even want my name attached to the show to begin with! I told him to leave it as “On the Couch with Falz” but he has nothing but my greatest interest at heart. I was extremely anxious one day and he said “Laila, you will never be ready for fame. But it’s going to come and you have to mentally prepare yourself for it.” – He was right. It wasn’t about what I wanted anymore, it was about my calling in life. I have to do what I am here to do and if that comes with fame, I have to take it on. He published the show as “On the Couch with Falz and Laila” and gave me an opportunity that no one else would have given me. I can say a lot about him, but all in all, he’s become a great strength in my life along with his entire team. I can’t not thank Sydney aka Aboki too, Falz’s business manager. He has had the most powerful conversations with me and he has really put me on track. And of course, Femisoro! That’s Falz’s manager too. He’s always looking out for me, they all are, and I’m just grateful to their entire team.

The experience has been great though! We shoot most episodes back to back which is a bit tiring but it’s given me an opportunity to do something for the Nigerian youth. I am deeply concerned about the fact that 110 million Nigerian’s today are aged 30 and under yet a great number won’t register to vote. Falz and I are doing this for just one reason – we want the youth to get involved in civic engagement by normalizing politics as much as possible. It’s been fun, informative, stressful but INSANE! I don’t want the first season to end but even when it does, we’ve decided to continue the show (I think) and we’ll probably be coming back with something quite different for season two.

CC: What kind of impact are you looking to make with Falz ‘On the Couch’?

The aim is simple. We live in a generation that struggles to relate to a lot of serious subjects in our society. I blame the system quite frankly, for not providing us with adequate civic engagement from a young age. The aim is to produce content on serious matters in a way that is attractive to the youth and that’s exactly what we’ve done. I’ve had several people message me saying that after watching ‘On the Couch’ there is no way they aren’t going to get their PVC and it makes me extremely fulfilled. The more content there is for the youth to get engaged, the more inclusive our society becomes. This is an impact that I’m looking to make beyond the couch and generally in every sphere of my career. I am passionate about ensuring that people are informed and not ignorant to current affairs and I have chosen to spend my life focusing on that.

CC: Did you think the interview with Olasubomi Okeowo would go viral? What was going through your mind when he went “Laila Laila Laila Laila”?

I’d be lying if I said I was surprised that it did, I knew it would, but definitely not to the extent that it did! During the interview, Falz and I were actually trying to help the candidate to redeem himself by simplifying things as much as possible but it just wasn’t working. It was amusing, I have to say, but that’s the job! You see, people are different. Olasubomi Okeowo is not the only person that thinks the way in which he does today and it is directly affiliated with the society that we are living in. I don’t care if I don’t agree with your views, just have a foundation to stand on.

As he was calling my name, I knew something was coming but I needed him to understand. He didn’t let me finish and I actually wanted to highlight our population growth against our economic growth to him to show him the problem, but apparently I’m too stressful. I wasn’t really offended, I’ve learnt to remove sentiment from my line of work, but I was gobsmacked! Being a woman in Nigeria isn’t easy, being a young woman is certainly even harder and being a young woman that has a certain level of intelligence that threatens a number of men is even harder!! But I’m used to it. His body language from the start of the interview already dismissed me. I was actually happy with that because I enjoy letting my work speak for itself. You can dismiss me, but you cannot dismiss my questions and if you do, it’ll still fall back on you. I wish him the best though and I just think it’s quite a shame that this is what Nigeria has come to. I hope that this serves as a learning experience for all of us, as even though it was quite comical to the public, this is what we are faced with in Nigeria today. The more aware we are, the greater the motivation to enact a change.

CC: What advice do you have for the other Presidential Aspirants?

Quite frankly, stop running away from the media. Stop avoiding interrogation and stop avoiding young people. It is unhealthy for our society and if you want to serve in public office, you have to be willing and ready to be a person that is for the people. “On the Couch” has proven to serve as a strong outlet for the Nigerian youth and if you would like to appeal to the youth, have a conversation with us. It upsets me that as we approach elections in Nigeria, we NEVER see debates! My aim is to organize a debate before the elections as we won’t be able to interview all candidates running before the primaries start and finish so it’ll be great to continue this by hosting debates with the ticket winners of each party.

CC: How do you stay so persistent when those in power are so tone deaf to protests and the people’s desires?

 Silence doesn’t get you anywhere. Many young people are angry at the system because they are unfortunately naive to the system. We need to understand that the system is set up to frustrate us and the more frustrated we get, the greater the power we give to the same oppressive system. You cannot shy away from what affects your day to day and if you want to see a societal change, you have to infiltrate the system. Strategy has more value than emotion when it comes to politics and we all need to understand that. Channel your anger and your frustration in to the very system that is set up against you and watch the system change.

I am also too passionate about humanity to ever give up. The primary essence of governance is security and welfare of your people and good governance is also 80% of every citizens welfare. Therefore, we cannot prosper with failed governance and the more of us who give up, the greater Nigeria’s failure becomes. I love Nigeria more than I love myself and that is the primary essence for my persistence. I am not angry at Nigeria, I am angry at those who have abused Nigeria. I don’t want to live based on hope for greater days, I want to act to ensure greater days. I want to act to make sure that my children are born in to a better Nigeria than the one I have experienced.

I blame the citizens (partly) for the tone deafness of the government. We don’t demand our rights enough and therefore those in power take advantage. When we do demand, we see changes, no matter how little or large. Look at the Edo Sweepers Protest for example. Look at the 112 Owerri Women as another example. We need to continuously remind the government that we are the employers here and therefore, we are the decision-makers. The more of us who make this collective effort, the greater Nigeria becomes. But the more room that we give to those in power to walk all over us, the more Nigeria deteriorates. I know there are much better days ahead for this great nation and I’m patient, yet active. We need to see more action from young people because after all, this is our nation, and we cannot change the blood in our veins.

Photography: Isabella Agbaje

Creative Direction: Eniafe Momodu

Outfit: 14ZeroSeven