Sunday, March 21, 2010
I went on hunger strike when Ben Bruce barred me from being shown on NTA –Onyeka Onwenu
Onyeka Onwenu, one of Nigeria’s most accomplished entertainment personalities. She speaks with CHUX OHAI about her new music album, her family, and her early beginning as a singer.
A Punch Interview
You have just recorded a new music album. Was it meant to announce to your fans that you are back to singing?
It was not really meant for anything, except that it was time for me to record again. I had all the songs bubbling in my head and I was able to enter the studio and come out with what I consider my best work ever. It has been over eleven yuears since I last put out a CD and this one was long overdue. My fans had been asking for it. So it was the perfect time for me to have done it. It wasn‘t done to prove anything.
What were you doing in the past eleven years?
I was doing live shows. I did some recording, too. I did some collaborative work with other artistes. I was into politics and I was running a business here at the Unity Centre. I wasn‘t just sitting somewhere idling away. But I just didn‘t go into the studio to record a song and I didn‘t feel encouraged to do so. We have had the issue of copyright dues and piracy and more. The situation was discouraging, I tell you. We have worked for years and still, nothing was coming. Someone will use your works and wouldn‘t pay you. I couldn‘t rationalise investing and having a recording and not making any money out of it.
Is it right to asssume that you had taken care of that matter before recording a new music album?
I have been working at it in conjunction and together with other artistes. We formed COSON, which is a collective society made up of 99 percent of the stakeholders. We are talking of organisations like PMRS, MORAG, and many others coming together from around the country and saying that we have had enough of the situation where advertising agencies, big companies, hotels, and others are using our music and when we go to collect copyright dues, they say they don‘t know who to pay to. We want to put a stop top that. What is happening all over the world is that to avoid situations like this, many countries are consolidating and having one collective society. Even those that used to have many, especially in the United Kingdom, are consolidating to have just one in order to avoid situations where there are always legal wranglings, as to who owns what and who should collect what. Let there be a resume of collection and distribution, a resume that has integrity and that you can check; not one person running a collective society and not telling the musicians how much he has collected over the years. The MCSN that is battling us has never been able to give an account. We are calling on the EFCC to investigate MCSN. One individual has made so much money and those of us that created and performed the songs have made nothing. He is building houses here left, right and centre. He is the life MD of his company and nobody can remove him by his constitution. He owns MCSN and he is running it for himself. But how much has he distributed to musicians and who has gained what? By the way, does he have a bank account? In COSON, you can walk in and look at the books. We account to the Nigeria Copyrght Commission. At the end of the year we will file our account with the NCC.
Who is this person in MCSN that you are fighting?
He is a gentleman called Mayo Ayilara. He is not a musician, but he has made a fortune out of what we do. MCSN in his pockets and he accounts to no one.
What exactly do you have against him?
We are asking him to let us look at his books. We want to know how many years that he has operated and how much he has paid out to musicians.
Are you doing this under the aegis of the Copyright Society of Nigeria?
We are just minding our business. We just want to provide that alternative of a collective society that is properly one. We are not going after anybody. But we shall invite the EFCC to look into our books and MCSN‘s books. I believe that at some point they will have to do that. Unfortunately some musicians have allowed themselves to be used. They know the truth, yet they have been writing falsehood because they have been paid off. That is the only reason that I can deduce.
Who do you have in mind?
We have a document that is signed because we have tried to bring everybody together in this society. We have tried to work with the . I used to be a director of MCSN. So I know what I am talking about. When I called for the books they wouldn‘t show me, they wouldn‘t hold meetings, and I left. I didn‘t want my name to be associated with anything that was unbecoming. Charles Oputa and I signed a letter, which said that nobody should deal with MCSN, since they wouldn‘t toe the line, they were not paying the musicians and they wouldn‘t want to work with the musicians. He signed the document. Now he turned around and was talking about something different. He took out an advert in a newspaper and I am sure he didn‘t pay for it from his pocket. He is too shrewd to do that. But it is an orchestrated campaign to fight COSON.
Let us go back to your music. Do you think that musicians of your generation are still relevant in the present dispensation?
The more, the better. Let us go out there and do our own thing. The thing about music, about the creative process, is that it never ends. In terms of creativity, the Lord hasn‘t even started. Where this album came from there is so much more. I have had hits and I have been blessed with the talent to be able to write a song that will come out as a hit. If I were in America I would be a billionnaire.
If you look around, you will observe that Nigerian music has assumed a different dimension and now has a different appeal. Do you think your kind of music stands a chance in the market as it is now?
I think in a few days, when my new album will be in the market, people will know what stuff it is made of. But I can tell you that, judging by the reactions we got during the press preview that we just had, Nigerians believe that I will give the to younger ones a good run for their money. Some of the guests said that it took a little for the album to come, but it was worth the waiting. Others said it was the best album that they had listened to in recent time. I give God the glory because I can‘t say that I was the one who wrote the songs. I can tell you that I am a vessel. The producers that I worked with in the studios will confirm this. Each time we were in the studios, ideas came pouring in. Mnay of the siongs were written inside the studio.
Who are the producers of the album?
They are Cobhams Asuquo, I.D. Kabasa, Wale Oni, Yomi Omidiran, and David Chukwumere.
Do you still sing love songs?
I sing love, I sing inspiration, I sing everything. They are all in the album.
Have you made any effort to adapt to the kind of music that people listen to these days?
I don‘t have to adapt to anything. I have to be myself, play my own music, and write the songs that God has given me.
Most people think that you are an intelligent, energetic and versatile woman. But they also think that you are one person who doesn‘t seem to put her fingers in one thing at a time. What do you say to this?
I put my finger in everything at a time. Over the years I learned that God gave me so many talents and I am very grateful to Him for this. When I realised that He had a purpose for it was that most of the things I find myself doing are the things that would require virtually all those talents that He gave me. When I went into politics, and I am still in politics; I discovered that I could bring my talent as a good communicator, a singer, a designer, a mother, an adminstratot, a writer, and as an actrss together in one spot and talk to the people about what is going on in this country and what we can do about it, and they will listen to me.
Why did you settle first for a career in music and show business?
You know that if you depend on one thing in this country, you will just die. If is not music that is putting food on my table, it will be the movies. If it is not the movies, then it will be an engagement as a master of ceremony in some social event or it will be running the Unity Centre, which is a multipurpose hall. I used to run a rehearsal studio. You have got to be able to have these ways of earning a living. I must go out there and work. I have both my immediate family and the extended family to take care of. I have huge responsibilities. Even people in my community are looking up to me. So I have to go out there and earn money in order to take care of, not just myself, but all the people around me. I don‘t live for myself. So I have no regrets nor apologies.
Are you saying that you are driven by your need for subsistence, rather than your passion for the arts, to do what you are doing?
I am driven by both of them. You have to be driven by both of them, otherwise your children would starve. Even prostitution is work. So I am driven by the need to earn money the honest way in order to put food on my table. But I am also driven by the passion to serve. The actual truth is that ove 80 percent of what you do is service. Maybe it is less than 20 percent that puts food on the table.
Why didn‘t you launch yourself into other things from the onset?
How would I have known? Music was the one that God put before me. He gave me an opportunity when Sunny Okosuns produced my first album. Music has laways been with me. Nobody that knew me when I was growing up would be surprised at what I am doing. But in my family, the standard is education. Before anything, you are expected to get a first and second degrees. Then if you want to work as a cook, the choice is yours. When I came back to this country and worked for the NTA, the opportunity presented itself.
What kind of family do you come from?
I come from a wonderful family. My father was Honourable Dickson Kalu Onwenu. He was a politician representing Port Harcourt in the federal house. At the same time, he was Principal of a secondary school in Port Harcourt. He served as a deputy Mayor and he was principal secretary of the Igbo State Union. He was a very charismatic man and Mbonu Ojike was his best friend. My father is from Arondizuogu, while my mother is from a well known family in Obosi. My grandmother, Margaret Nwokoye, was the first woman to build a one-storey house in Obosi. She was best friend to Alvan Ikoku. She was also a politician. My mother started as a school teacher, married my father, became a business woman and very often, my father would borrow from her and never pay back. Mine was family of integrity where not everythng goes. When I was growing up, if you came back to the house with a pencil that my mother did not buy, you would have to exlplain where you got it. The earliest experience I had in music was my mother taking me around to sing to raise money for charity homes. That was my first experience of performing. We were encouraged not to think about ourselves, but to carry everybody along. In other words, you have to help somebody else. You didn‘t go out to do anything that would bring down the family name because of money. We love money, but then it is not the priority. I learned to read the Holy Bible in Igbo becaue my grandmother would insist that you do. When we went back to Obosi, which was where we spent the holidays, you would go to church and read the Bible. At home in the morning we did Bible reading and prayers before we dispersed. I was loved by all.
Were you the first child of your parents?
No, I was the last child.but he died early. But I wasn‘t treated with kid gloves. My fatther was the one that loved me to distraction, but he died very early in my life. I was only five years when he died.
What is your relationship with your older siblings?
After my father died I was in trouble with my older siblings because I was his favourite. There was nothing that anybody could do about it. My family went through a very traumatic experience because of my father‘s death. Everybody deserted us. Even those he had trained and his political colleagues abandoned us. The only person that stood by us was Mrs. Nzimiro, she is now dead. Mrs. Nzimiro took my family in and loved us and helped to see us through life. I will never forget that woman. There were other people who stood by us. But the majority of the people abandoned us. At 36, my mother was left with five children and numerous otther cousins to raise. We would gather together and we would sing and pray. My mother didn‘t even know how she was going to pay school fees.
How did you pick up with your life after that trying period?
I can remember that there was a difference in my life. I could remember missing my Dad. Also I remember that no one explained about death to me. But I knew that my father was no longer around and that things were different. But I had the exmmple of my mothers‘s strength to go by. I knew that I had to be strong and do well in order to honour my father‘s name. So I grew up missing my dad, but having to be strong and knowing that I didn‘t have a choice except to succeed in life; that I couldn‘t fail or I would be letting down this man who gave me so much love. These were the things that pushed me.
I understand that you had a stint with the British Broadcasting Corporation
It was not a stint, really. What happened was that I did a documentary titled ‘Nigeria: a squandering of riches‘, which is still relevant. In that documentary, we talked about corruption; we talked about the Nger Delta when it wasn‘t politically correct. The things I said about the Niger Delta were the things that have happened. I am not happy about that. If voices like mine had been heard and those voices that spoke out before mine had listened to, the Niger Delta would not be what it is today and N igeria would not be what it is today.
When did you make the documentary film?
The film was shown in 1984. It was done in 1983 and then, the Buhari-Idiagbon military coup took place.The film was essentially a justification of why the event occurred. We were predicting that the situation was that bad. So we quickly brought it out to make it topical. It was shown in the UK to rave reviews and after much prodding from Idiagbon, it was shown in Nigeria. They removed part of it and it was shown a second time. The reason why some people didn‘t like it was because they said it was anti-North. But it was not. They said it was anti-North because all the people that criticised Nigeria were from the southern part of the country. But it was because the people that we had contacted to speak I didn‘t have the chance to speak because the coup happened. Some of them didn‘t want to speak anymore when we contacted them.
So you never worked with the BBC at any point in time?
I was not employed by the BBC. I worked with the United Nations before I came back to Nigeria.
In what capacity?
I worked with the United Nations for three and half years. I started as a tour guide. It wasn‘t a permament thing. About 400 of us were invited for the interview and twenty of us were employed. The job was highly contested. As a tour guide, you must speak two languages and you must know your onions. We were the first line of contact that the UN had with the public. We explained the fucntions of the organisation; we take you into the Security Council and tell you the issues going on there. Every morning we are briefed by UN officials on what is happening around the world. I did that for two years, then Kofi Annan, who was our boss, put my name down to go to Namibia as an electoral officer when the UN was negotiating with South Africa for Namibia‘s independence. One day, someone challenged me and said they couldn‘t be criticising Nigeria, while I was there and I would not say anything. So I quit my job and came back here. Many of my friends could not understand it, but I didn‘t look back. I quit.
If you look back now, how would you describe your experience at the United Nations?
It was incredible.
Why did you quit the UN job?
I quit because I wanted to come back to Nigeria and contribute my quota to the development of the country. I was having an argument with some Nigerians and my mentor, Ambassador Aminu Wali said to me‘Onyeka you can‘t talk. You live on the east side of New York and you work at the UN. You are paid and you take your six weeks vacation. You have a good life. Have you tried living in Nigeria, among your people, with your education and exposure and see what you can do to correct these things you are complaining about?‘ I was stunned. I couldn‘t say anything because he was right. And I take on challenges.
Were you attracted by anything in Nigeria?
I knew that I had to work in television, to begin with. First, I got posted on national youth service to NTA through my mentor.
What year was this?
It was in 1980.
So you actually presented programmes on NTA?
I read the news and we started Newsweek. I went to the ECOWAS countries to do reports for NTA.
At what point did you get into music?
Right after my national youth service year.
What was the attraction?
Nothing. I knew that was what I was going to do.
Did you make money from your albums?
I didn‘t make a kobo from any of my recordings. Not even from the ‘One Love‘ album. NTA used ‘Iyi Ogogo‘ to open and close their station for eight years, but they didn‘t pay me a kobo. They didn‘t even ask my permission. When I asked, they barred me from being shown on NTA and I went on hunger strike. They felt they were doing me a favour by using my music. Ben Bruce said ‘Don‘t touch that lady. I don‘t want to see her face, I don‘t want to hear her music on my station‘. And I said no, it wasn‘t his station, that NTA belonged to the nation. This was in 2000.
A woman like you must have had men milling around her and seeking her attention. Was this what happened in your case?
I don‘t find it important enough to even discuss. If they were, I wasn‘t even paying attention. My focus was on where I was going.
But you had a relationship at that time, didn‘t you?
I don‘t answer such questions.
At a point, you left music and people started seeing you in the movies. What led to this?
I think the person to blame is Zulu Okafor. He came and told me that he was shooting a film and that it was about abandoned children. He said he knew that I could handle it. He won‘t let me rest. So I decided to give in to him. It turned out to be a hit and people saw it and they persuaded me to do other films. Now I am on the side of film production. I am trying to raise money to do the ‘Omenuko‘ film, which is to really explore our tradition and the fact that Nigeria is a great country.