When she was a young girl growing up in the U.K., where she was born and spent most of her early life, classmates would struggle with Mosunmola Abudu’s name. One took to calling her “Monsoon.” Another called her “Mozambique.” In Yoruba, the name Mosunmola roughly translates as someone who is close to wealth, but the elegant appellation so flummoxed friends and neighbors that they eventually settled on a pared-down, characteristically British shorthand. “I got stuck with Mo,” Abudu tells Variety.
As the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, who moved to the U.K. to pursue their higher education, Abudu was frequently ostracized in school. “The students were not kind,” she says flatly. Racism was a fact of her everyday life in Britain, and by necessity, she developed a thick skin. “I had to fight for myself a lot, to be respected. I had to fight for recognition. I had to fight just to be acknowledged as…good at what I’m doing and who I am,” she says. “I’ve always had to explain, pretty much all my life, who I was.”
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Abudu—who, both personally and professionally, continues to go by Mo—has had to do less explaining in recent years. Now at the helm of a media empire, EbonyLife Media, which includes a production arm, a film and TV studio, a creative academy, and even an upmarket “lifestyle and entertainment resort” on Lagos’ fashionable Victoria Island, Abudu—the recipient of Variety’s Intl. Women’s Leadership Award—is witnessing the fulfillment of a dream two decades in the making. “It’s about seeing into the future and really understanding that Africa—we are going to have our day,” she says.
It’s a vision that couldn’t have come at a more fortuitous time, as the global conversation around race, diversity, and inclusion—driven by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements—has brought with it an unprecedented reckoning in Hollywood, and an appetite for stories that reflect the realities of long-marginalized lives. Africa, and Nigeria in particular, is becoming an increasingly vocal part of that conversation, with EbonyLife leading the way.
In the past three years, Abudu has inked deals with the likes of Netflix, Sony Pictures Television, AMC Networks, and Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s Westbrook Studios, with EbonyLife currently developing and producing an ambitious slate of roughly 20 feature films and series across a range of genres. The significance of this moment is not lost on the Nigerian mogul. “We had to fight really hard to be heard, and to be in the room. And I’m glad that we’re at the forefront of that,” she says. “The opportunities that we have, no one else on this continent has them.”
After completing her studies in the U.K., Abudu returned to Nigeria in 1993, and spent more than a decade in the corporate world, before taking a leap of faith to pursue a lifelong dream of working in media. In the early 2000s, she approached the South African pay-TV broadcaster MultiChoice with a pitch for a talk show called “Moments With Mo,” a homegrown answer to the Oprahs and Ellens of the world that she felt Nigerian and African audiences could more closely relate to.
MultiChoice greenlit the show, which Abudu had to finance and produce herself. She took a crash course in TV presenting in the U.K. and bought a DVD box set of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” “I sat and watched all her episodes back-to-back,” she says. As the host of “Moments With Mo,” Abudu would eventually sit across from statesmen, celebrities, and trendsetters from across the globe, for what would become the first syndicated daily talk show on the continent. Along the way, she earned a nickname that paid homage to her American idol and inspiration: “Africa’s Oprah.”
In 2013, she decided to follow in Winfrey’s footsteps with the launch of her own network, EbonyLife TV, a lifestyle channel whose roots could be traced back to Abudu’s youth in the U.K. “There wasn’t much to see on television that was representative of Black people when I was growing up,” she says, recalling how, after getting hooked on the iconic ‘80s TV series “Fame,” she wanted to become a dancer. “That was the only thing I could see that was a role model to me as a young Black person, that was showing another Black person that wasn’t a maid, that wasn’t a prostitute, that wasn’t a criminal.”
EbonyLife resonated with Black audiences both in Africa and the diaspora, its inspirational and aspirational brand an extension of Abudu’s desire to reshape the narrative about the continent. In 2015, the company moved into the production of feature films with the romantic drama “Fifty,” and followed that with the breakout hit “The Wedding Party,” a glitzy romcom featuring an all-star cast that shattered box-office records. Netflix swooped in to acquire the rights to both films—and subsequent EbonyLife releases—bringing Abudu’s signature vision into households across the globe.
Dorothy Ghettuba, head of African originals at the Los Gatos-based streaming service, which struck a multi-title deal with EbonyLife last year, says Abudu has long been “at the forefront of creative storytelling in African television.” “As a woman, it fills me with pride to see women like Mo occupy the creative industry spaces that were previously lacking in female representation,” she says. “We believe more people deserve to see their lives represented on screen—and that can only happen when we have more leading women like Mo in our creative industries.”
Earlier this year, EbonyLife and Sony Pictures Television signed a two-year exclusive first-look deal for scripted content, following a three-series co-production and development deal the companies struck in 2018. Nina Lederman, SPT’s executive vice president of global scripted development and programming, says Abudu “takes a real love and interest in everything” and describes their working relationship as “very much a back and forth, very much a partnership and collaboration.” She adds: “She’s funny, she’s personable, but she also has a deep commitment to telling the right stories.”
The first project to come out of the partnership will be a series inspired by the female warriors of the ancient West African kingdom of Dahomey, which is currently in development. Other projects on the EbonyLife slate include a film adaptation of Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka’s play “Death and the King’s Horseman” for Netflix, an Afrofuturistic series “Nigeria 2099” for AMC, and a U.S.-set comedy feature, “Are We Getting Married?”, for Westbrook.
The multi-faceted slate reflects Abudu’s ongoing effort to unpack the richness and complexity of African life, and to do so in tandem with global partners who can bring her singular vision onto movie screens, TVs, tablets, and mobile phones around the world. This is likely the first time so many Hollywood executives have opened the doors of their C-suites—and their checkbooks—to court an African creator. But while Abudu may no longer have to explain herself or fight so hard to be heard, she knows the next leg of her journey is just beginning.
“We’re going to be creating global stars from this incredible work that we’re going to be rolling out in the next two to three years,” she says. “We’re going to be able to empower an entire generation of creatives from the continent with what we’re doing.”
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