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Kanayo O Kanayo is Nollywood's most iconic ritualist — the actor hates it

Kanayo O. Kanayo first played the character of a ritualist 31 years ago, and he's found it impossible to shake the reputation.

Kanayo O. Kanayo wants to be remembered for more than his ritualist roles [Instagram/@kanayookanayo]

He made his ritualist debut in Nollywood's first blockbuster success, 1992's Living in Bondage, playing Chief Omego, a megarich motor spare parts dealer who sacrifices his mother for wealth.

The film's mainstream success and the actor's magnetic performance in a supporting role launched a trend of ritualist films that populated the market in the 1990s and much of the 2000s.

Kanayo O. Kanayo went on to play Gabriel, who unintentionally sacrifices his son for wealth, in Executive Billionaires; Edward, who sacrifices two sons and blocks his wife's womb, in The Diamond Secrets; Amobi, who, as a 30-year-old man, pledges to an occult group to die at the age of 42 in exchange for wealth, in Nothing for Nothing; and Nobert, who sacrifices his father, twin sister and wife to enjoy 10 maximum years of wealth, in Standing Order (Thou Shall Be Rich).

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The actor was prolific with his ritualist roles and quickly became the face of Nollywood's potent era of ritual films, but he wasn't alone.

Clem Ohameze was quite prolific with the ritualist roles, too, and often co-starred with Kanayo O. Kanayo, including in Nothing for Nothing and Standing Order (Thou Shall Be Rich).

To some degree, other actors like Enebeli Enebuwa, Zach Orji, Prince Emeka Ani, Alex Usifo, Bob-Manuel Udokwu, and Ejike Asiegbu developed quite a reputation for ritualist roles.

But none of Kanayo O. Kanayo's peers has retained the shine quite like he has decades later, and now he's the Nigerian pop culture avatar of the ritualist.

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By the mid-2000s, he already had street recognition as the actor to beat when playing characters who would do anything to live a life of wealth, no matter the cost — father, mother, children, friends, or enemies. He wore his characters' evils on his sleeve and delivered on many of these roles with smooth execution.

This reputation was enhanced by the public's fascination with the activities of people exposed for supposed ritual crimes in real life — life imitating art made the most prominent fictional ritualist characters, played by actors like Kanayo O. Kanayo, larger than life. The Nigerian public's obsession with wealth also made his characters somewhat attractive and desirable, no matter how terribly their stories ended.

The gradual mainstream death of ritual films in the 2010s tempered some of the attention, but the internet gradually bloomed in the same period, and meme culture started to take root.

When the nostalgia for classic Nollywood films started to reach a fever pitch around the mid-2010s, Kanayo O. Kanayo's ritual profile started to build again. But the real pop culture explosion didn't happen until he reprised his role as Chief Omego in the Living in Bondage sequel released in 2019; the new generation of the internet saw him in action, and the rest of it has been history.

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The actor regularly features in conversations about fictional and real-life ritual murder and, just like recently, even dominates trends as a source of comic relief.

Some of these conversations happen in the comment sections of his social media accounts, where he isn't allowed to say ritual buzzwords like "sacrifice" and "fraternise" in completely innocent contexts without being assaulted with countless jokes about ritual murder.

With the growing resurgence, the actor has earned himself a social media moniker and is regularly addressed as "Nnayi Sacrifice" or "Father of Sacrifice."

Since the internet is built to go overboard with everything compulsively, Kanayo O. Kanayo's display of his wealth has fuelled jokes that he must be a ritualist offscreen, a narrative the actor has pushed back against online.

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When he shared a photo of himself at the 100th birthday party of Ezinne Anyanwu, a colleague's mother, in 2021, a follower commented that he was surprised the actor had not sacrificed the celebrant for blood money.

In response, Kanayo O. Kanayo said, "It is most unfortunate that even when one plays certain roles, some youths cannot distinguish between one and the character. Just because one acted as a criminal on TV, some people see the actor as a criminal. Meanwhile, an actor has to be flexible. Acting as a 'ritualist' does not mean one is a ritualist in real life.

"Anyway, I see those who think that way as uneducated, uninformed, and having complex problems. We need to redefine the word 'youth' in Nigeria. Being a youth does not mean one has to be irresponsible."

He's made similar statements of rebuke over the years and reinforced the point that he doesn't sacrifice people for money when the camera goes off.

The 61-year-old would prefer he is equally acknowledged for the non-ritualist roles he's played in his successful career, including as recently as in Lionheart, Professor Johnbull, and Up North.

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But even if this acknowledgement remains elusive, he hasn't allowed himself to become too bothered by the ritualist reputation, and because it's impossible to beat the internet, he has also played into the joke on numerous occasions, as long as it's all good-natured.

It's been 31 years since Kanayo O. Kanayo first played Chief Omego, and the ripple effect of that role on his career has created an unshakeable reputation that has become social media's favourite punchline.

How much of it is harmless fun and how much ruins the actor's day, and where the line should be drawn will remain impossible to measure.

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