Falling into depression in the UK
A serial entrepreneur, Mr. Tobi Mohammed is the founder, the Mainland Block Party and Managing Partner of an entertainment company, The Plug. He discussed the influence of his mother on his career, among other issues. SEGUN KASALI brings the excerpts.
What was your experience like growing up?
I come from a humble background. Though I went abroad, my parents only started getting comfortable when I was around seven or eight years old. But, one thing we also had was discipline. My mum was very disciplined. She was a teacher. My mum used to coach me to the extent that I passed out of secondary school at age 13. I was a very disciplined one.
She must have been the disciplinarian then?
Alhaja! In fact, till now, my mum is still a lioness. She is the strongest person I know. She is the biggest influence in my life. She is the only person who has taught me that there is no mountain too high to climb. I have seen her unseat people. When she was a deputy, I have seen her compete and won against two men. My mum used to sell kerosene. When she is done with teaching in the afternoon, she would go to the North to get kerosene and come back the next night. She would sit in the front seat with the truck driver throughout the trip and she had the biggest tank in the area then. Perhaps two years after, she started a salon called Elegant T Salon because, my siblings and I are all Ts- I am Tobi, my brother is Tosin, my sister is Tomi and my other brother is Tolu. And it was the most elegant salon in the whole of the area.
You must be brilliant as a teacher’s son then
I am a straight A student. I had my GCE at 12 because one thing my mum would do is to give you a structure. I remember I always had nannies- Aunt Kudi, and Aunt Titi. I remember I did this WAEC thing in a school around Ojuelegba. So, they would have people wait for me downstairs. So, for me, I am a straight A student. My Master’s dregree was a First Class. And it was my dad who chose what I studied in the university at undergraduate level.
Yes, it was my dad. My dad is cool. He is a stockbroker. My dad used to be a banker when we were young. He is a Financial Analyst, working with the Nigerian Stock Exchange. My dad was someone who didn’t talk so much. I am religious like my dad. I am also an Alhaji. So, he was the one who picked Engineering but I hated it. While I was in secondary school, I was best in social studies and anything that has to do with cramming. I can put the whole subject in my head. I finished best in Chemistry, Biology but I hated Mathematics. Somehow, I always passed Mathematics, perhaps because I did not know it and so I gave it more attention. I wanted to be a lawyer at first, but my dad did not believe in that because parents naturally felt science courses were the hot ones then. Because I knew I could memorize, I agreed. I wanted to be a doctor. My dad went out one day and came back telling me ‘I have filled out a remedial form for Engineering at the University of Ilorin.’ He said he filled the first option to be Electronics Engineering and the second was Agricultural Engineering. From an African point of view, you can only get angry but must do what they (parents) want. So, I gained admission to read Engineering.
How did you settle in?
At different times of my life, my mum’s input supported my dad’s part. I was studying Engineering; I didn’t like it, but I had to stick with it. One of the things I am scared of doing, is disappointing my mum. So, I just needed to do it because that was what my dad wanted and I did it well.
You left for England thereafter?
I think England made me. A lot of things that I have learnt like being able to question things, think out-of-the-box, become your local government, and the quality of people I met who have influenced the kind of person I am now and my fashion style, were developed in the UK. And you know, in England, everything is fast and expensive. You pay through your nose. It is just like whenever you breathe in clean air, five pounds are gone. It is like you have to be running every day, and for me, I like the good things about life.
How did you find your feet in the UK?
I had very good friends. Some of my friends I knew from Nigeria were already there. I had Indian friends too and a lot of London uncles really helped me understand the place. I remember when one of my uncles took me to the bus station. He told me ‘If you see a bus going this way, don’t take it. But, if you see the bus going that way, you can take it.’ I think it was like a year that I kind of understood it with the aid of City Map that was rampant then because Google Maps was not there then. Uncle Perry Gentry helped me a lot because a lot of times, I was not financially buoyant, but he would help me by sending money and helping with a lot of stuff. People really helped me. I always say a lot of times that I am a community child. A lot of people brought me up; my aunties- Rasheedat, Bola. There was a year I did not have accommodation in England. I have hustled. I have washed pots. I have been a kitchen potter. That is why I resonate more with people with humble beginnings, because I feel they are nicer people. I believe people who were brought up with silver spoons don’t really understand how it feels to be hungry. I am a very homely person. I always try to look out for people.
When did it start getting better?
I think that was when I got this nice job with TFL, a government agency that takes care of the transport network in the country. I did some jobs there and worked with Amazon as well. I did better but I also lost sleep. I have to be at work at 7:30 am, in very cold weather. Oh my! You know when it is cold, you want to sleep more. I think that was when I could stop the kitchen potter job. But, I liked the food; it was nice.
What was your indelible experience in the UK?
That was when I was washing pots and those pots were not the normal ones. I am being honest with you. I cried and called my mum. Those pots were very heavy. I don’t know why. Perhaps because they cook at the industrial level at the restaurant. I usually feel for myself washing those pots. But, I realised that it is not a big deal in England. It is here that people look down on you for doing a menial job. Another memorable event is that the train makes the journey faster. So, I think I was trying to meet up a train and the last was around 11pm or something. So, I ran but I could not meet it. I saw the train leaving. I walked and took a bus which would take two and a half hours for a 25 minutes journey. That day I suffered. But, one thing about me is that I am a cry baby. The moment I cry, I move on to the next thing thereafter.
What led you into what you are doing currently?
Depression. I would not lie to you. Ask anybody abroad, it is not easy. It was not even depression about money. I was okay in England, but there are a lot of people and not many people over there in England. If you hop on the train, the person next to you is weird if you say ‘hi’ to him. During rush hour time, people are literally squeezed together. So, the solitary state in the UK got into my head and my mum wanted me to stay back. But, one day, I just packed my bag and decided that I was coming to Nigeria. But that was after my second short course in the United States.
Why did you come back to Nigeria?
I came back to Nigeria because I thought there was more here. I just wanted to see what Nigeria had for me. When I came back, the journey was long. SoftCom was the only tech company I worked with and my roles were moved till I landed in Marketing. It was just like I started and entertainment was by the side. I have been in entertainment since I was a teenager. It is one thing I have always been sure of that was for me. But I did not know how I was going to do it. I always think I am a lazy genius. One thing about me is that I am business-inclined. I have sold things for my mum since I was a kid. Till now, I still sell things. I do general contract and I supply stuff. Entertainment is pretty much selling. It is more or less like I see value here and I think this is the market and take the value there. So, I think that is how the transaction is done.
Will you be delving into the entertainment industry fully?
I have to be honest with you, there is nothing like going into it fully. I started working with Ayo Jay when I was 19 or 20. But I left him for a while due to my Youth Service. So, there was one day we were having a conversation and he said one American-based record label just signed him. But I was still off that for a while till I met Sess the Problem, multi award-winning producer. He produced a lot of Simi and Falz’s songs, including Adekunle Gold and he was in Ilorin at a time. But, I brought him to Lagos and he became a success story because that was when he got his big break. God made him. I am instrumental in a lot of people’s careers. I introduced him to Falz and he did Karishika. Shout out to Falz, he is one of my best friends. I think that was where my career kind of started from. So, Sess puts me in the spotlight. The first time I was on an award stage was for Sess. It was Headies Awards. The fact is, everything I have learnt from my mum has become a part of me. Wherever people don’t see a silver lining, I see it. I am not afraid to start. I am a serial entrepreneur. I have lost so many things and I have won so many things as well. But, one thing I have always done is to stay true to myself. I don’t work with an artiste I am not connected to. I have to be your biggest fan because that is the only way I can sleep and dream of you. I must be ready to sacrifices.
How did you start Mainland Block Party?
I live in Ikeja GRA when I just came back from the United Kingdom and said to myself ‘you know what this island people always shout like this what the hell’. And you know people on the island always feel they have money but the mainland money is strong. So, I thought I would start something for the mainland and it was going to have the DNA of everything I believed in which is being considered in the eyes of those that do not have much on them. This is where I stand and that is what I have done in my own festival. My team is made up of about 75 per cent of women.
Women have built everything that I have done. Shout out to all the amazing women in my life. Feyi, Becca, Tola and so many others. What Feyi has done for me, I don’t think any man in the world has done it. Feyi has been working with me for the past four and a half years now. They would be there to protect me.
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