Arriving back in the UK after finishing high school in Nigeria, Michael Tubi was shocked at how Africa was portrayed in the media over here: poverty, disease, violence and misery dominated the papers’ coverage of the continent, and there was little positive to speak of.
Now a globetrotting photojournalist, he’s made it his mission to challenge the stereotype and promote a different side Africa to what usually reaches the headlines. His two exhibitions ‘Sounds of Africa’ and ‘AfroBeats: Through the Eyes of the Fans’ showcased his experiences documenting one of Africa’s more inspiring exports – its music.
-“I’m not your usual fashion photographer, I’m not your usual sports or wedding photographer. What I want is to tell stories.”
Michael Tubi lives and breathes photography. It is his living and his passion. His enthusiasm for the trade is palpable, and for good reason. It’s taken him all over the globe, put him in front of some of the most influential politicians and musicians in the world. It’s not long after we meet that he’s got his phone out and is swiping through some of the trophies he’s snared in his lens: Angelique Kidjo, Theresa May, Muhamadu Buhari… and his prize catch: President Obama. “I always wanted to photograph a sitting president, and Obama, with his Kenyan ancestry… I was so happy”.
Born in the UK to Nigerian parents, Michael spent half of his early years over here, then went to secondary school in Nigeria before returning to the UK to study.
Having spent his childhood taking photos at every given opportunity, he honed his skills at university, and has been in high demand ever since. When we meet he comes hot from a stakeout outside Parliament, and our conversation is interrupted by intermittent calls from clients. Whether its photojournalism, wedding photography or portraiture, he’s reached the position where he can pick the shoots he wants to do, and tell the stories he wants to tell – and right now, that story is Africa.
“I want to use my image (sic) to tell the African story through the eyes of an African – no one can tell your story better than yourself. “
It’s one he feels he has a duty to tell. Bombarded by images of his heritage that simply didn’t correlate to his own experience, he was moved to fight back. Things have changed since he finished high school, but the same tired stereotypes of a continent with uniform misery prevail.
“I’m not saying some of the stories aren’t true, but we’re being portrayed in a very negative way. Even if you ask an African who has never been there before he’ll say “no, no I don’t want to go to Africa”.”
So he set out to change perceptions by marrying his skills behind a camera with Africa’s formidable cultural force, and bring it to the UK in pictures.
It took him five years to gather the images for his first exhibition, ‘Sounds of Africa’, travelling to gigs all over the world in an effort to represent in his photos the artists behind the diverse sounds bursting from the continent. It was possibly the first exhibition of its kind in the UK – a show exclusively dedicated to the photography of African musicians.
With his latest exhibition ‘AfroBeats: Through the Eyes of the Fans’, Michael continues on his quest to change perceptions on Africa, only this time with a focus on the audience’s experience.
Glance at the photos and first thing you notice is the emotion. Tears and screams of the fans expose an adulation verging on anguish – the images could come from a Michael Jackson gigs in his heyday, but here the fainting fans are doing it for Flavour N’Abania and Mifikizolo.
Also striking is the diversity. These fans come from all over the world, reflecting the internationalism of the music itself. No longer confined to world-music festivals and small stages, this is mainstream music, with all the superstars and devotees that accompany it.
“In the last two years, Afrobeats have become a phenomenon” Michael explains, “sold out concerts. You have Wizkid playing with Drake and Tinie Tempah, D’Banj with Snoop [Dogg]. We’ve had Beyoncé wearing African attire, Alicia Keys dancing to African songs – even David Cameron dancing to it. We’ve seen the artists performing on the big stage now”.
The message to those unaware of the scene couldn’t be clearer: this is happening – get to know and get involved. There’s a wealth of African culture out there that you’re missing out on, put away your preconceptions and jump in.
“Music has no barriers”, says Michael. Sure, it’s cliché, but hey, stereotypes are tough to break down – why not let music play its part?
‘AfroBeats: Through the Eyes of the Fans’ was at Truman Brewery, June 24 – June 27th 2016