On Feb. 14, MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation returned with Shuga: Love, Sex & Money, the second season of the highly anticipated Kenyan TV drama series with compelling HIV prevention and education messages. With all-new twisting plots and characters, the cutting-edge series will go deeper into the lives, loves and ambitions of a group of college students whose bright lives and fabulous futures are balanced on a knife’s edge due to their love of living dangerously.
Shuga – originally launched in 2009 in Kenya and Zambia and made available rights-free to 85 third-party broadcasters in 100 countries – has earned a massive reception, reaching youth in 96 percent of the Top 50 HIV/AIDS impacted countries. According to a John Hopkins Research conducted shortly after the launch, 80 percent of those who saw Shuga believed it changed their thinking about multiple concurrent partners, HIV testing and stigma associated with HIV.
We checked in with Georgia Arnold, senior vice president of VIMN Social Responsibility and executive director of the Staying Alive Foundation, to talk about the origins of Shuga and where the show is headed.
Adrianne Andang: Could you tell us about the show?
Georgia Arnold: Shuga: Love, Sex & Money is the second series, and an “African Gossip Girl,” but with sexual health messaging weaved into the storyline. It’s very much for the MTV audience – very urban, very sexy. There’s a great soundtrack that goes with it. The title track was actually written and performed by Nigerian artists Banky W and Wizkid, South African rapper L-Tido and Bonie – such a brilliant African band collaboration. Shuga is airing not only in Africa, but because of the way Staying Alive works, everything is rights-cleared. So, it will air across Kenya with all of the five major terrestrial broadcasters airing it.
AA: Where did the idea of Shuga begin? And how did you start putting it in the works?
GA: We are always looking to be creative in how we communicate our sexual health messaging. And when you look at behavior change communication, we know that you really need to get under someone’s skin. We needed something that the audience could relate to. We also decided that instead of making global content – which Staying Alive has been doing all these years – we really need to be specific in our messaging. So, that’s why we chose a specific country – Kenya.
AA: Why do you think the show has been so successful?
GA: Because it’s funny, it’s smart and it’s very sexy! I think there isn’t one character there that is perfect. They all have their faults. Anyone that watches it identifies with one of the characters. And it doesn’t matter if you’re from Nairobi or New York City, you watch it and realize that it can happen to anybody.
AA: When producing the show, in what specific ways did you make the show culturally authentic for a Kenyan audience?
GA: We sat with our funding partners, PEPFAR and UNICEF, and had them brief us on the key issues that they wanted to see in the series. And once we did that, we outlined a storyline that we all agreed to. We had our script writers go and hang out around the area in the markets, clubs, neighborhoods – every place where teenagers were at –so they could see how they interact. Also, when the actors were rehearsing, they were at liberty to change their lines in a way that they felt was authentic to their character and culture.
AA: What supporting activities around Shuga have helped encourage people to act?
GA: Well, Shuga isn’t just a drama. It’s very much seen as 360-degree. Attached to the six episodes, there is a seventh episode wrap-up where we’ve used people in Africa, the cast and musicians, and held a panel show to really pull out those sexual health messages. We also have a radio drama. And in addition to that, we have a mentorship program, in which we choose twelve young people to be mentored by key positions in the production – from the actors to marketing and creative. That’s been really key. On the digital side, we have a site and a very strong social media component both on Facebook and Twitter – #ThatShugaMoment actually trended globally! There’s a story early on in the series around rape and gender-based violence, so we worked with our VIMN legal team and their partnership with Lawyers Without Borders to make sure that the script was correct. We also worked with the Kenyan Judiciary to make sure that if someone was raped, that they were comfortable and treated the right way.
AA: What are your plans for Shuga moving forward?
GA: Oh, I’ve got big plans! In my head, we have to find funding not just for Shuga 3, but 4 and 5. We have to extend the countries and the messaging. We would also include pregnancy storylines. One of the story lines that we touched on the second season of Shuga was a gay character. And we only touched it because across many African countries, it’s illegal to be gay. So we worked with the government, and to give them some credit, they allowed us to incorporate the gay character and the rape theme into the script. I think our part right now is pushing the boundaries, so we can continue to get these issues across in the next series and the next.