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Keeping It Real with Adeola Fayehun ’08

  • By Irena Choi Stern

More than a year ago, Adeola Fayehun ’08 was contacted by Yahaira Castro, assistant dean for student experience at the Newmark J-School, urging her to answer a TED Talk open call.

Several auditions later, including one before TED curator Chris Anderson, Fayehun was selected as one of 11 people, from more than 2,700 entries, to deliver her TED Talk: “Africa is a sleeping giant — I’m trying to wake it up.” Originally slated as an on-stage event in Vancouver, Canada in May, it went virtual due to COVID-19, broadcasting on July 6, 2020.

Initially, she was reluctant to throw her hat in the ring.

“I wanted to apply, but at the same time I was wondering, will they take me? So I sent it to quite a number of people that I thought should be on TED Talk because I believed they had strong stories,” Fayehun said. “It’s funny, because that is probably how Yahaira felt about me. I finally applied and made a one-minute video about why I should be on TED Talk. I basically told them, ‘Listen, I’m your girl when it comes to African news.’”

The TED Talk showcased the Nigerian-born Fayehun’s news satire program on YouTube, “Keeping It Real With Adeola,” which she launched after leaving SaharaTV in 2017. The show, which she produces, writes, and edits, focuses on African political news, with a twist.

Several of her stories have gone viral, exceeding 4 million views, including one about a Nigerian pastor allegedly involved in a sex scandal. (YouTube has since removed the episode following legal action by the pastor, which Fayehun is contesting.)

“Africans are really in love with their pastors, so when you talk about them, they watch,” Fayehun said. “Especially when I talk about Men of God who are not Men of God.” (Fayehun uses air quotes.) “I am a pastor’s child, I have nothing against real Men of God, just people who enrich themselves at the expense of their congregation.”

Another one of her viral stories was “Thomas Sankara: Africa’s Best President,” which profiled the former president of Burkina Faso. She talks about how he transformed the country and was killed by his best friend, who was sponsored by France. Because of the topics tackled on her show, Fayehun must keep a low profile and cannot reveal her current location nor the village in Nigeria where she grew up and met her husband of 11 years.

Since 2018, Fayehun has successfully applied for grants from the National Endowment for Democracy and the MacArthur Foundation, which have funded video editors and equipment for her home studio.

As for the name of her show? “When at J-School, I would say, ‘it’s been real’ or ‘it’s been a real pleasure’ to my classmates when I was heading home,” Fayehun said. “So I gave the show that name.”

Fayehun says her star turn on TED Talk might never have happened without Newmark J-School, which she attended on a generous scholarship. “I am glad I could make the J-School proud. It is because of the people there and the program that I could be on TED Talk.”

A lesson she takes away from her TED Talk experience is to believe in yourself. “We underrate ourselves,” she said. “Whatever opportunities there are, you should just always apply. The worst you will hear is no. But if you don’t apply at all, you have zero chance.”