“Can I eat,” he asks politely, leaning into his desk chair. It was 4:30 in the evening, but it could easily have been his first meal of the day. He tugged at his short dreadlocks as we eased into the conversation. His eyes shone with a gaze that suggested that they were ready for anything. His calm aura was as striking as the urban minimalism that soaked the décor of the room.
With Director K, there is always a certain distinction that is near impossible to miss. And at the soul of that distinction is an inspiring genius that has since bootstrapped his rise as one of Africa’s most renowned music video directors.
Born Aremu Olaiwola Qudus, Director K, or The Big K, as he is fondly called, is a child of circumstances. From starting his career in 2015, with nothing but a die-hard conviction and nearly illogical bravery, the Lagos-bred filmmaker has learned to bloom under some of the toughest of situations. With only an iphone and a wide-eyed imagination, he navigated his path through the thistles of the industry, honing his craft one challenge at a time.
Now, with several awards and nominations under his belt, as well as being the brain behind the music videos for some of the world’s biggest songs such as Wizkid’s Essence, Burna Boy’s Ballon D’Or, Davido’s 1milli, among others, it is safe to say that Director K is reaping the rewards of every risk he took at the inception of his career.
From dropping out of school to shooting globally renowned videos, including TV ads, he talks to Guardian Music about his intriguing career run, delving into the stories behind his breakout, his most popular projects, his creative process, and his dream to constantly redefine the global perception of African music.
You seem very calm, is that your nature?
YEAH, I am a very calm person; I am a regular person. I don’t let things I have achieved get to me, because then, I would start acting up. I always see myself as a regular guy.
Has this always been your philosophy?
Before I got popular, I prayed to God that I don’t want to ever find myself in a position whereby I start feeling too important or full of myself; it has always been there. My friends, sometimes, would tell me that, ‘you no dey act like sey na you shoot Essence video. Why you dey too calm?’ For me, I just realise that these things can make you feel proud.
So, I just prefer to be like this, because I might wake up tomorrow and everything I have ever achieved might not be important to anybody again. What would I do then if I had messed up everywhere by being proud?
How did you become Director K, could you share your journey with us?
It started in 2015. I never had interest in filmmaking; it is more like filmmaking chose me. It is not like I wanted to do it. I used to sell recharge cards and repair phones for people. It was then that I thought about shooting videos with my iPhone. I could do crazy stuff with my iPhone. I picked up my phone and shot a video for someone; I edited the video on my phone too.
Unfortunately, I deleted the files by mistake on my phone. I was running out of phone memory and I couldn’t export the video from the app I was using on my phone, so I went back and deleted the source files not knowing that by doing so, I was going to lose my edits. When I tried exporting the video, I discovered that the video was gone. So, I cried to bed.
I had edited very late into the night and even messaged the person who was an emerging artiste that the video was spectacular. Now, imagine, having to tell him that the video was gone. I told him the truth the next day and he understood and allowed us to shoot again.
You said you sold recharge cards at some point, why?
I used to stay in Surulere with my grandmother. My uncle lived in the same house too and he sold recharge cards and phone accessories. I never used to like it, but he would always ask me to cover for him at the shop whenever he had to go out.
It was the least we could do for him, because he was paying some bills in the house. It became a thing that I was always at the shop. From there, I felt like I could also be making money from selling phones too.
What did you study?
So, prior to that time, I used to draw a lot. I never really liked academics; I see it as a waste of time for me. My parents were saying that I must go to school. I looked at the situation in Nigeria, considering the people around me who were graduates and most of them were not working with their degrees.
Again, because of ASUU strikes, a course that should take like four years to complete will end up taking seven years. I felt like it was not something I wanted to do, but my parents insisted. So, I registered with YABATECH to study something in the arts, I cannot even remember; I think it was 2014 or 2015 and I had started shooting too.
I went to school because my parents wanted me to. I would go to class and mark attendance, and then I was looking at everybody and realised that it was not where I wanted to be. I would not even write notes or do anything; I would not do assignments. There was a time that I just tried to do one assignment and then what the lecturer did was not encouraging at all. It was then that I made the decision to drop out. I knew that if school didn’t work out for me, I would be the one that would live with the regrets for the rest of my life, because it is my life.
My mum was pissed off and my dad disowned me; I still didn’t care. I continued shooting videos with my phone. I took the risk of dropping out to focus on it. At that point, I said to myself that ‘this thing has to work for you, because you are leaving school.’ I had to be so serious with it. I had to even stop repairing phones, because I had to focus on shooting. It is not that I had anything promising at that time. I was just filming with my Iphone 6. It was a very big risk, but I knew it was going to work out.
You were never scared that it would flop?
I was never scared. I had not really taken a risk of that magnitude before, but I believe that if you want something and you work and stick to it, it would definitely work out for you. From the point I dropped out, it took me just three years to get to the level of the top guys in the industry. There are other people I know that had been nursing the interest of shooting videos before, but didn’t make it through. I didn’t even have any prior interest, but I still blew up.
How did you seal your first professional video?
I think very smartly; I am very calculative. I can foresee things that can happen in the future, in the industry. At that time, I was able to grow very fast, because I saw some flaws in our music videos at that time and noticed I could do better. I noticed that people were just shooting music videos for the sake of doing it. I noticed that all those videos lacked emotions in them. So, I decided that I would solve that problem.
I was also someone that would not collect jobs for the sake of making gain. I started shooting in 2015, but I started making money from it in 2020. So, that was several years of sacrifice. I didn’t keep any profits; I was not wearing designer clothing or living in an expensive house. I invested everything I made into the projects I was working on, because I wanted people to see that our videos could be better.
When I started bringing change into the industry, people were paying attention; they started calling me. Then, I was lucky enough to meet Teni at the early stage of both our careers. She had just returned from the US; I shot her first video and we became friends. She travelled and got signed to Dr. Dolor Entertainment.
When she got signed, her label was selecting other directors to shoot for her but I was still her friend. I was focusing on getting better. When they started seeing more of my work, they felt they could trust me to do a song with a proper budget. I shot a video for Dr Dolor featuring Teni, Rambo, and Dr Dolor really liked it. People in the industry started calling them to ask who shot that video for them. It encouraged them to take another chance on me and I shot the video for Teni’s Case, and that was when everything changed for the better.
After that, I shot a video for Skiibii’s Sensima. I had even known Skiibii personally for a long time, but we hadn’t worked together. The day he posted the song, I sent him a message telling him that I had to shoot the video for the song. When I shot that video, his life as an artiste changed too. It inspired me too to stick to the path of changing artiste’s lives with my videos.
How do you approach a video when you want to work?
Basically, I try to connect with the song; I take my time to research what the artiste has done before. I take my time to develop ideas that will add value to the artiste’s brand and introduce something new to the industry that will inspire other creatives.
I am very involved in all parts of the production process. I write my treatments myself; that is why all my videos are the way they are. I always like to also challenge myself to do something better than I have done previously, whenever I am faced with a new job. That is like the discipline behind my creative process.
Tell us how you made Essence. What was the experience like?
Essence project was a very beautiful one, and I am always proud of it. For Essence, I wrote close to like seven different treatments for it. People don’t even know that there is another complete video for Essence that I can drop today. Let me not even say complete video, I would say complete edit. It looks totally different from what was released. I posted a snippet of it before and people were asking me why it was not in the main video. Shoutout to Wizkid; his process is very different. That is what makes him who he is.
Wizkid is very particular about everything he wants. When I got the song, I wrote my first treatment and Wizkid kept modifying the treatment. We got into the final treatment and then on the first day of shoot, Wizkid didn’t show up. He didn’t like the costume that he had for the shoot; that is how serious he takes all these things. He wasn’t feeling the looks he had for the shoot. I was already shooting Tems on that day. We were filming in Ghana, and I had to come to Lagos to shoot the video for Rema’s Bounce. I had to travel back again to shoot everything again, including the part for Tems. He was also particular about the whole video being centred on Tems.
When he was done with his own take, he would still come back to stay beside her while we were shooting to say, ‘I am here to ginger you. You would kill it.’ He would stick around to encourage her.
Could you tell us about how you made Davido’s 1Milli?
I had worked with Davido when we were in Senegal shooting a video for Lyta; I had his number on my phone. When he dropped the album, I was contemplating whether I should write a treatment to any of the songs. He had even been saying that he wanted us to work together before then.
After listening to the album, I felt like I didn’t want to write a treatment to any song that they wouldn’t end up shooting. I had to ask Fortune, who was his photographer and my very close friend, may his soul rest in peace, about which song they were planning on shooting. I messaged someone on Davido’s team and I was told to write a treatment for 1Milli.
I did it and the reply was very slow; it felt like nothing was going to happen. So, I had to send the treatment directly to Davido, and he just sent a message back saying that he loved it and was ready to shoot it immediately.
What are your most challenging moments on set so far?
There was a time I was filming a video for Skiibii’s Big Engine, and we got to the location at Lagos Island by 7pm and we were about to shoot. We had poured water on the ground to make everything look glossy; we rented a water tanker. Everyone was ready and then the generator stopped working. We were stuck for five hours and it didn’t work. It was already past midnight when we moved to another location. We still hadn’t been able to fix the generator. It was already close to 4am and we were still not ready to film. People had started coming out to go about their daily activities; we could not even block the road again.
Then, some of the dancers had to leave to go and write their exams that day. Some of them had even been reading their notes on set that night. When we eventually had to hire another gen, the whole floor had dried up and there was no water again. When the generator came on we had only a few hours to shoot everything, and it still came out well.
Does it mean you work well under pressure?
I always tell my crew that when we get to a certain point, I would press my survival button. Clients are paying for the job; we have to deliver on what we promise. You won’t get the chance to explain to your clients and their fans on why the video flopped. I always have it in my head that regardless of whatever I am going through, I have to deliver. Even if I would get shot by a gun on set, as long as I would still make it out alive, I have to deliver. I cannot explain to people why I failed. I have learned to put myself in a position whereby I have to always deliver. All the issues I have had in my past projects have taught me how to survive certain difficulties.
For instance, when we were shooting Ladipoe’s Know You featuring Simi, we had another major issue. You would notice that at the beginning of the video, it was raining. It started with him leaving the house and going to stand at a bus stop with rain falling; that is not what I wrote for my treatment. On the shoot day, it started raining at 2am. I already made up my mind that we were not shooting that day. My producer called me and insisted that we had to shoot the video like that on that day. I had to go to the location on the Island and it was still raining crazily. Our call time was for 6 am and it was still raining till 10am. We were already on set and could not postpone the shoot. I just decided to change the concept for the video on the spot.
We had to shoot at Rufus and Bee. Ladipoe’s character in the video was originally meant to be on the street just taking random pictures on his camera and noticed that his viewfinder on his camera had gone black. Then, when he checks his camera, he would just stumble on the model in front of him. That was what was planned to start the video. So, we had to improvise and look for a spot that looks like a bus stop at Rufus and Bee. We just basically improvised everything. I have learned to adapt and deliver regardless of the situation.
On an industry level, how do you think we can continue to improve our music videos?
I think I would say that I am very proud of where the industry is currently. Before I came into the space, most artistes used to travel out of the country to shoot their music videos, because they felt there was no way they could shoot a clean video in Lagos. They said we don’t have blue skies or clean atmospheres. I came and started shooting sweet videos in Lagos; people thought I was shooting my videos in South Africa. Meji Alabi started shooting videos like that too, actually, but he was not based in Nigeria. I saw what he was doing and started working on myself.
I started making Lagos look like a foreign country; everybody’s video started changing too. Everyone started using the proper cinematic technique to shoot. I am really proud that everyone is doing amazing stuff. The only thing I think we should improve upon is just challenging ourselves individually to be better.
Our videos are all starting to look the same; we have to challenge ourselves individually to stand out. If our videos are looking the same, then there is no way that we are pushing for growth. If someone is doing something extraordinary, then I would be inspired to do something amazing as well. I think we should push ourselves more. Attention is on us; the music is growing and blowing. The visuals should also blow even more. I also think the visuals should be more about adding value to the artiste’s brand.
Finally, what’s next for Director K?
Like I said, I started doing this without planning to go into filmmaking. I don’t know what God’s plan is for me right now; I don’t know if this is just a prelude to something bigger that I am meant to do. I just know that I am pushing for more challenges. I have worked with almost everybody in the industry. There is something that I know; it is that you should not feel too relaxed about your accomplishments. You need to keep looking for more challenges. That is what is going to bring more growth to you.
You need to look beyond working with the same set of people; look for more experiences and challenges. That is what brings growth, you would be proud of yourself. So, I am basically looking for more challenges. I also have more exciting projects that I am working on. I am going into a new phase that I am excited for people who understand and appreciate my work. This is a phase that when I announce those works, they would be really proud to be a fan of my work.