The ballroom in Newark, New Jersey has about 400 people present. There’s excitement in the air as the DJ runs through a set filled with Nigerian hit songs. It’s probably the first place I’ve been where I heard nothing but African music in a LONG time. Why’s everyone here you’re probably wondering? Well, it’s the premiere of High School Chronicles, an upcoming short film which multidisciplinary artist, Justin UG stars in. As the event is about to launch, Papi Ojo, the dancer and multifaceted creative who has become popular for his performance in Beyonce’s Black is King, calls on Justin UG to give the opening remarks. Dressed in a purple suit, the first of three outfits on the night, he opens with an impassioned plea to the audience, asking everyone to do what they can to join the calls to #EndSARS, the rogue unit of the Nigerian Police Force synonymous with police brutality and the killing of Nigerians. Opening like this on one of the biggest nights of his life is symbolic for Justin UG. He’s a Nigerian creative currently based in the States, with eyes set on conquering the world but with his mind rooted at home.
Growing up in Abuja as Justin Ugonna before developing the humorous character the world knows today, he read about Ben Carson, anticipating eventually going on to pursue a career in the Sciences. The typical Nigerian story you probably thought to yourself for a second there, right? Well, you’re not wrong. He started off like most Nigerians, seeking a professional path his parents could acknowledge and take comfort from, culminating in his current enrollment studying Information Systems at Georgia Southern University. Keeping his parents happy and getting a bankable education is top of mind. Speaking of parents, he shares a story about hiding his internet fame from them until an infamous Whatsapp video removed the cloak of invisibility. You’re probably asking yourself, what’s different about Justin UG and why should I keep reading this? It’s not any one thing. It’s more of a combination of things and on a much bigger level, what his story represents. His commitment to infecting the world with a smile is admirable. His drive and readiness to set lofty goals for himself and go after them is another thing everyone can learn from. The most interesting thing about him, for me, is that while he’s a star with an understanding of how to make people laugh, he’s ultimately a 22-year-old with an enormous platform figuring life out, willing to take risks and grow from them. Instead of migrating to Canada and missing Nigeria from abroad, this is what the Nigerian dream should look like. A nation of people, smiling, persevering, and taking risks- Justin UG fits the mold perfectly and shows what you can be.
I believe that becoming someone people look to has come with a degree of difficulty for Justin UG who mentions his introverted nature within the first five minutes of our conversation. In three or so months, I’ve seen some signs of it. He’s taken a number of social media breaks that could suggest a need to recharge and distance oneself. Against the backdrop of the Nigerian government’s disregard for human life, there is a clear vacuum of accountable leadership and this often causes the Nigerian people to look to celebrities for guidance and to act as a voice for the voiceless. This is something that factored into the criticism of Burna Boy and his perceived silence in the early days of the protests. I wholeheartedly subscribe to the notion that people with platforms should use them, however, I also understand how there is no regard for the mental wellbeing of public figures and while Justin has stepped up and used his platform, who he is may not necessarily be in unison with who fans want him to be. With the context of our two in-person experiences, I’m not sure I’d describe him as introverted. When we speak for the first time, he suggests he has learned how to turn on a switch when he’s in situations that require him to step out of his shell. Sometimes though, he takes the backseat in a manner you won’t typically expect from the most popular person in a group. The bottom line though is that Justin UG, like every celebrity and even more, young celebrities, is human and the stories of who they really are is so much more than meets the eye.
Justin UG’s motivation has always been intrinsic but as he has grown, he’s taken a lot of solace in understanding that each piece of content he puts out has a positive impact on its consumer. When he started sharing videos many years ago on Vine, he says it was a different world driven by a desire to simply create today though, the goal is to make people crack a smile. He references getting messages from people that credit his work for helping them through tough times and you can see the happiness on his face when he talks about the satisfaction being able to create those moments gives him. On where his inspiration comes from, I gather his experiences are instrumental. Justin UG has made a number of videos about secondary schools in Nigeria and now his sophomore project High School Chronicles is about everything the name suggests. He speaks of being the first boy in his year to get beaten because he walked in the middle of two seniors and how that slap, many years ago, still sits with him as it taught him right from wrong and reminded him of the importance of respect. Keeping to time is another big takeaway from his six years in high school but his biggest lesson lies in resilience. Justin UG’s time in secondary school in his words “above all taught me to be able to survive and maneuver through any situation I find myself.”
Resilience ties in completely with being an artist and operating in a world where perfection is impossible. Art is ultimately subjective for a reason. My experience watching Justin UG’s debut short film Requital was the latter is a case in point. When I watched the movie earlier in the year I acknowledged the importance of the jump for him but simultaneously felt it was riddled with technical difficulties. Justin UG also acknowledges that while he is proud of Requital, it fell short of the mark he had intended on meeting but felt it was important to put the work out there to put his name on the board. This is important to who Justin UG is, an artist who instead of waiting for the perfect moment, sees opportunities, and orchestrates his entrance without fear of having to grow in the public eye. As we touch base on his new project, High School Chronicles it’s clear there is growth from Requital. I innocently ask “how long did High School Chronicles take to create,” to which Justin UG corrects me, asking “what part of HSC? You know it’s a big project- there’s a comic book and movie.” That response alone highlights one of the most important things to Justin UG is identifying how much more has gone into this by trying to emphasize the importance of that added component.
High School Chronicles was born from a desire to create something different. Initially, Justin UG had an animated series in mind but soon backtracked. Some additional time mulling his options guided his thoughts towards Supa Strikas, the remarkable comic book that had many of us of a certain generation charging through the doors of Mr. Biggs. It was not until much later that the short film became an option as Justin UG thought of ways to utilize his talents to drive conversations towards his new ventures. Speaking on where his sights are set as an actor, Justin UG does not mince words speaking of his desire to crack Hollywood. He’s open about it and thinks breaking Nollywood will allow him to build the base he needs to get noticed and become successful in his quest for the world’s biggest film industry. Seeing the unofficial trailer for HSC earlier this week should be no surprise to anyone with this additional context. The one minute cut inspires nostalgia about classic Nollywood and sets up the humorous movie the world will get to see on December 7th perfectly. The movie, a story of and for dreamers is metaphorical of Justin UG’s life in my opinion. He’s got big dreams and regardless of the odds, has belief in himself that everyone can learn from.
Photos by Lloyd Mack