Onyeka Onwenu, Nigerian versatile artiste and celebrity speaks about her life, family, music and other related issues. She was also the immediate past Director- General of the National Centre for Women Development, NCWD. La Cave Music is set to release her collection titled “Rebirth of a Legend”. Popularly known as the “Elegant Stallion”, she exposes all you need to know about her, Nigeria, politics, people among others in this interview as never before.
People see you as a musician, songwriter, actress, social and political activist, politician, all rolled into one. But who is Onyeka onwenu in your mind’s eye?
I believe that I am just an ordinary human being, a woman trying to live her life in the best way possible; dealing with the issues of life, making contributions to the society and to leave this place better than I met it. Hopefully, I can achieve that even at a personal level, because if you look at the country as a whole, the country has deteriorated. So I probably will not leave it better than I met it, unfortunately.
So if you were not these, what would you have liked to be?
I have been asked that question in the past. I have great admiration for market women. The incredible thing that we don’t know is that they are holding up a large sector of the economy of this country. These women that sell tomatoes, pepper, onions; that is how they raise their children. That is how they train their children up to university level. That is how they hold their families together. I have a great admiration for them. So I probably would have been somewhere buying and selling like every other woman who is trying to survive. If I didn’t have education, it would still have been the same thing. I can buy and sell at all levels, considerably.
What lessons have you learnt from stardom?
You know I am one of those people who make a lot of efforts trying to run away from being perceived as a star. I don’t live like a star. When I go on stage, my reality takes nothing away from me, because I will diva you. That is my training that is my life. I will bring whatever I have to bring to the stage. I give the best performance and lift people up. When I come down from the stage, I am a mother, I am a homemaker, I am a gardener, a cleaner, I go to the market, I cook. I have never employed a cook in my life. Those are the things that rule my life. So what would I say about the lessons I learnt from stardom? I have managed to balance both sides of it. I don’t know how I have managed to do them. Maybe I didn’t understand where your question was going.
Yes, most stars find it difficult to manage stardom and the celebrity status that goes with it and keep getting into trouble here and there, losing their minds, and so on and so forth.
I have learnt to keep my privacy out of the public purview especially in discussions with journalists. But there is nothing hidden in my life. I live a very open life. But I decided from day one not to discuss my family on the pages of newspapers, because it is not fair to them. They do not have the opportunity to present themselves the way they would have liked to. And that is not fair. So we don’t do that. I learnt to keep that away. I also learnt that there are lots of mischievous journalists at events if you want to eat or make the mistake of taking a spoonful of something, they snap. Why, why, why? What do you want to do with my open mouth?
But that is one of the things that go with stardom
I have learnt not to eat in public. So you’re not going to get that. About little lessons like that, I have learnt an important lesson. It is God that gave you that stardom. And He gave it to you for a reason, so that when He wants you to serve him, the fact that you are a star should humble you to bring things to bear in the public domain and people will listen.
At what stage in your life did you notice the streaks of talents in you?
I have always noticed it as far back as I can remember. Within my family circle I was treated like a star. By virtue of the fact that I had a father who loved me and doted on me, and spoilt me, and did not apologize for it, so everything revolved around the fact of whether I was happy. If she cried, who made her cry? If you’re a father and you have a daughter, you will understand what I am talking about. I had that. But at about age three, my mum was a singer, and songwriter, things began to fall in place. She wrote the song “ Ochie dike”. I didn’t write that song ( Sings). She wrote the song for her own mother. She was an actress, woman leader, activist. I call her the original “elegant stallion”. She took notice of the fact that I could sing very early and she had to teach me songs and we began to have performances at church events, raising funds. She would put me on the table because I was so small, and then stand next to me, so that people will notice me too. So, we were a troupe, a team. She never let me forget it. In my family the rule was that you must go to school, no matter your calling. My mum, as soon as she was convinced I was in college began to drum it into my ears not to forget music. This was at a time and age when parents would not allow their daughters to go on stage. She kept on encouraging me, teaching me. I learnt a lot from her and came to the realization that no matter what I was going to do in life, music will play a big role.
As a songster, celebrity of note, I know you must have some odd moments or regrets along the line. Can you recollect any of those moments?
This is such a large question, and I am not sure that it can be answered immediately because it is so huge.
Okay, let’s take it one by one. Do you have any regrets as a celebrity? Was there any day you hissed, shook your head in frustration?
There were many of them, and that was why I wanted to quit. How can you belong to a profession where you worked and worked and some people sat somewhere and reaped from your sweat? We sacrificed a lot as musicians and our works were pirated. Musicians deserve to be protected but that is not what is happening. We are not there yet. It is frustrating, the administration of copyright in Nigeria. Even at the moment, nothing is moving in the right direction. I wonder why government is not doing anything to protect the copyright of artistes. These are the things that affect our economy. The music industry is a large section of the economy of this country. Why is government not paying attention, not caring? These are frustrations. Your intellectual property is your wealth and somebody is sitting on it. People are making money off someone’s work. I am in court with an agency that took my music and put it on the internet without my permission; making money and refuses to account. That is why I said, if I don’t do it for me, let me do it for the younger ones, because many of them are totally unaware about their rights.
What would you regard as your best moments so far?
There are so many best moments that I wake up every day and thank God. For this life, I thank God for the opportunities that came. Whether they were opportunities or even challenges, the hardship, the issues I ran into, they were good. They all conspired to make me who I am, and I think I am not doing badly. I am very grateful to God. Do I have regrets in life? Anybody that tells you he has no regrets, look at that person twice. Mistakes make you human. But the point is, how do you look at your mistakes? What are they there for? Nobody is infallible. You are going to forge ahead based on what you have learnt from them. When you fall down, you have to get up. Learn your lessons, get up and keep going even stronger. My great moments happen at the realization of what a great country, community, family, tribe, whatever, that God has in his infinite wisdom put me in; giving me the opportunity to be able to speak, do, no matter how little I can do to make it a better place. And that is one thing no one can take away from me. On that I stand.
You are a multi-talented artiste. Your children are also artists. Do you ascribe this to genetics or the genie?
(Laughs) How do I know?
But are you happy that they are artists?
Are you kidding? Of course I am. They are very sensitive people because of it. Being an artist makes you very much aware of your environment. You have a touch of things happening around you. I am glad for that. Even if they end up not practicing the art, I think it makes them better people. I am very happy that they can express themselves. Both of them painters can draw very well. I am still at the level of appreciating their practice, and talent. They pulled from both sides of the gene- hole.
Take a look at the music of the 80’s and 90’s when you hit stardom and compare it with what we have now. Are we going up or down? For you which side of the coin enthralls more?
Why does every generation do this? In my time, my mother would look at the music of her grandmother’s era and write it off. My grandmother would look at the era of my mother and say what nonsense are they dishing out? It goes on like that. But sincerely speaking, these young artists of today will evolve. They will evolve. I am hoping that they will evolve. They cannot remain at the nonsensical level of shaking their bum-bum and exposing body parts. No. That’s not what your art is all about. You can express yourself that way, but please, to a certain extent, do not make music a pornographic thing, to the extent that our children cannot sit down and watch television. It enters from the society into the subconscious of the artists that this is what sells; this is what I have to do to make it. But at some point, you have to realize that the ability to express something that is bigger than you is a special gift and also it takes a tremendous amount of talent to bring about the good, the beautification of the world and the canvass of illusion. When we bring out our culture on the stage, it is what depicts our humanity and its richness thereof. I don’t want to be an American. No, I don’t. I‘ve got a rich culture that should swell my head.
But in terms of rendition, lyrics, melody and sales, do you think that the current crop of musicians may have out done those who were on stage in the 80’s and 90’s?
I don’t think that way. Don’t forget that some of us are still on stage. There are many factors that have been driving the trajectory. People may say, Onyeka Onwenu is so expensive. Her charges are high. But I put it back into my art. When I come on stage, you will be gripped with the realization that what you have paid for is not even enough. What you get is the professionalism that we brought to the art. When you started your question what came to my mind was this. You have to ask, what came before, was it the egg or the chicken? We started asking for greater amount of money but they took it to greater heights. They are standing on our shoulders. They are standing on the shoulders of artistes who had gone on strike to say to FRCN (Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria) that you don’t play our music until the federal government brings out a copyright law that makes it a criminal offence for one to pirate, and then you pay us for using our music. We went on strike. And some of us were stuck with you don’t play our music. It went on for a very long time. We made that sacrifice. Some of us have been in PMAN (Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria) supporting PMAN charging that it pursues the interests and welfare of musicians without let. Some of us have been supporting COSON (Copyright Society of Nigeria) Some of us laid the foundation and we used our own money to organize , to sustain the industry. I remember that there was a time during the 80s that the music industry fell flat on its face. All the foreign companies sold out. EMI became Ivory music. CBS changed, I don’t know if it changed from something else and became CBS Nig Ltd. Premier Music assumed another name and status. All the foreign companies left. The economy was down. We, people like Sunny Ade, Onyeka Onwenu, Ebenezer Obey, and so on registered our companies and began to set up studio rehearsals and support, buying equipment, releasing our albums in our corner, corner home labels in Lagos. I established my own My YELLOW productions and that sustained us. Members of my band continued to work. We sustained a whole sector of the Nigerian economy. Nobody has given us any credit for it, because, till today, nothing has changed much along this line.
But specifically about melody, and sing- along tunes, did your era fare better?
Listen, every group has its own niche. If you go back to what we did, they are all hankering back to what we did; all the highlife, Afro- pop and so on. How many artistes have performed ‘Ekwe’? Chidinma, the other girl, what’s her name again.. If you ask me who I go ask? (Omawumi) The competition that brought them out, it was ‘Ekwe’ that they rode on. Some people are re- recording ‘Iyogogo’; some are using the melody of ‘One Love.’ When I listen to some songs, I find my refrains coming out; the same thing for Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey, and most of the old artistes. So what we have is evergreen; it has endured, and if the younger ones can learn anything from them, it is the fact that good music endures. It was music that is based on sound musical judgment. Musically, and lyrically, it will always endure.
Who would you regard as the greatest musician in Nigeria today?
That is not even possible for me to talk about. You want to land me in trouble. You’re not going to do that o! So just forget it. I love everyone.
Who do you enjoy his music best?
All of them. But there is a lady that I miss. When she came out, I was crazy about her music. E-e-m.. Martha Ulaeto. In fact it would have been the greatest honour for us to do a song. There was something about her music and her operatic- cum pop combination. (Sings and rocks rhythmically on the seat) ‘ I miss you ewe, Remember ewe, please come back ewe, Ewe can fly so highhh’ Waoh! I don’t know where she is. The last time I heard she was at the Nigerian Embassy in London. I have no idea if she gets to read this. Hey girl, please come back here. We miss you, we need you..
Between secular and gospel music, which you appear to be tilting towards now, which intoxicates you more?
The interesting thing about my music is that it was music that edified. It wasn’t music that was lewd or abusive; music that joked, music that talked about our history, dancing in the sun, the history of Africa having the oldest university in the world which they cannot wipe away from our history. These songs can be played everywhere. I hardly have songs that cannot be played even in the church. When you talk about love, it is about God. I do more of secular music now and that gives me a lot of satisfaction, because everything is tied into that love of God that we are talking about. Even the love between a man and a woman in a marriage is God’s love.
People say you went into reticent oblivion
Yes. You were not as vibrant as you were before.
How long ago? As DG of the National Women Development Centre, NWDC, I was all over the place. There was no break for me. I was all over the place, I was vocal, I was active, and that cannot be true of me.
You suspended musical activities?
No. I didn’t. In fact, it was when I was the DG of NWDC that I wrote the song for the IDPS. It was while I was there that I wrote ‘Mama Peace.’ So I was active and I was holding performances.
Which of your songs is most dear to you irrespective of public acclaim and why?
They are so many. There are some obscure ones. There is a crazy fan out there who is upbeat about Ekwe. I suddenly got a call from a fan in the UK who suddenly discovered ‘Keredi… Keredi’. That is a love song in Igbo. There are many songs like that. I try not to make one special. It is difficult to pinpoint. Even when that song came, there was something that was pivotal and very important at the time, and personally at the level of the society.
Is the father of your children still alive and what is his relationship with the children like?
(Loud laughter) I knew you were going to sneak it in after a long drill. You obviously said to yourself, now she is relaxed, let me pose it here. I just told you that I do not discuss my family on the pages of newspapers. My children are wonderful children. Their father is a great guy. We are all alive. God blessed us and it is well. Thank you.
A friend who is a journalist objected to my plan to interview you, arguing that you are arrogant and snobbish.
I get that all the time. I got it from the very beginning. I do know that by now, people who have had the opportunity of interacting with me know that it is the opposite of their perception of me. I kind of keep that reputation. Don’t spoil it. Just leave it. Simply, it is not the picture of Onyeka, though it has stuck with people. This is a simple woman who goes to the market. You don’t do that with your arrogance and carrying up of shoulders. This is a woman who cooks and enjoys doing it. My life is very simple and it is intentionally so.
Through music, acting, social and political activism, journalism, politics, and many others, are you not feeling fulfilled?
Before I answer that question let me say that is a lovely question. It is a loaded question. I really appreciate your asking it. Let me go back a bit and explain why this image of arrogance sticks. It is usually for people who are insecure about their professionalism. I am a kind of person who is deliberately conscious. If I have appointment with you, I will keep to time, and if I can’t make it or will come late, I will let you know in good time. That is how I was raised. If you make a commitment to something, your word should be your bond. Anyone can take it to the bank; this is how I was raised. This is how I insist on living my life and I do my best to coast along on that. I am also raising my children that way. But people are not comfortable with that, because we would rather settle with our mediocrity. But when somebody is not ready to accept that mediocrity, then you’re so full of yourself. You’re a snob. Who the hell does she think she is? I am not a snob. I just believe in doing a good job. Small minds, narrow minds can’t comprehend a great spirit when they see it. When they insist in stereotyping you, even when the evidence is there, look at them carefully, they are lacking some sort of professionalism.
In a way you are saying you’re fulfilled?
I am fulfilled as a woman, as a child of God. Of course as a Nigerian, that is another matter. When people ask me, ‘what is it that you have,’ I tell them it is contentment. My spirit as a Christian fills me in with contentment. We are here for a purpose. Find that purpose and work towards realizing it. The challenges will come. I mean you can’t run away from them. In life there must be issues. It is only when you’re six feet deep that you don’t get them anymore. If you can put all that together and put your faith and trust in God who sent you here, you’re fulfilled.
Have you ever been insulted before?
Have I ever been insulted before? I get insulted all the time. That is the burden of being a woman.
Can you recollect one insult on you that hurt badly?
They are so many. These are things I want to deal with in my book. I don’t want to deal with them here. I deal with the whole issue of being a woman who stands on her own. When people are not seeing a man by your side 24/7, you’re open game. I know that because I have friends who go through the same thing. You will see a young person, just because you’re a woman, he thinks he has a right to abuse you. Women are saying no, that is not right. It is not right whether it comes from your husband, or another member of your family. It is not right when it comes from any man, who thinks because he is physically stronger than you, and perhaps you’re a star, he can provoke you and put you on social media, so that he can use you as claim to fame. This is what we go through, and I keep talking about it, even in politics. When we say there should be more women in politics, this violence is what is used against us. It doesn’t matter who you are, so long as you are a woman, the first thing a man does, insecure man does is to put you in your place. They said Onyeka Onwenu is this and that, she is so full of herself, I will deal with her and put her down. And they make sure it is in the public domain so that they will, see you, I have dealt with her. I think I am going to go and learn karate or other martial arts and encourage every Nigerian woman to also do so for self defense.
Would you like this attitude to your daughter, your wife, your sister? Just because she is a woman and weaker, somebody comes to look for her trouble, drives her out, beats her up. They put us on social media and humiliate us, because they think there is nothing we can do. Even in politics they do that. Women, don’t take physical abuse from anybody. No. Defend yourselves. And the police must also be aware of this violence against women in this society. It is becoming epidemic. Even a few months old babies are being raped. You people report it in your papers. The girl child in the streets is under attack; in school, she is under attack, in the community she is under attack. Even there was a school here in Lagos where the young ones went out in the streets and began to accost the girls and raped them. That has been buried. This country continues to subjugate women, who constitute 50% of the population. You have their hands tied behind their backs and you want to develop. One thing I have always known is that God created me a woman and did not make a mistake. My father did not discriminate against me because I am a woman, my mother did not, and my family did not. Nobody can do it.
As a woman activist, it is an irony that you don’t have a girl child. How do you feel about it?
I think God has a sense of humour. There is a way God works out His things. I have many daughters.
But they are not biological daughters
Hopefully, when my boys get married, then I will have daughters. (Laughs)
Often times some of your colleagues criticize you. Why is it always so?
Can you be more specific? You have to be more specific because I am hearing it for the first time. I want to know the particular person or people so that I will know how to address the issue. People criticize for many reasons and sometimes the context of the criticism is skewed. But whatever you do in life keep your hands clean. Stay by your convictions. Stand firm on what you believe and be able to live it out. Never buckle under. When you see anything evil, stand firm, say it, be steadfast. If that is what they have against me, then they have to look deeper for more. Don’t accept to do things the way others have been doing it. Don’t follow the crowd. If everyone is accepting mediocrity, the day you begin to accept mediocrity, you’re finished.
There is this artiste called Aramide who said about you and I quote “ I lost respect for Onyeka the day she snubbed me” What do you say to that?
(Shrieks) You know, it can happen. You can get into a place, and there are so many people milling around, some come round to mob you, there are so many people to greet, and you can be lost in the things happening around you. It can happen to any star. I may not be able to acknowledge everybody, particularly people you do not know. It doesn’t make the person a snub. It makes them human. And when they begin to harp on it on and on and on, you begin to wonder why. I heard about it. I think she is a young lady, right? I told somebody that I don’t know her. I don’t remember. When they go on about it, they are not considering other factors. I know it was not intentional. They are now riding on the cocktails of Onyeka snubbed me. Young lady dropped it. Drop it entirely and proceed on your career. Your fame is based on your good voice and good music. Go out there and teach Onyeka Onwenu a lesson. Don’t make this issue supersede your talent. Pursue your career. One cannot see everybody. One cannot reach everybody. When you meet someone like me you have seen on television, there is a temptation to come round and feel the presence and perhaps touch her. I understand all that. That teaches us a lot about personal space. I plead that she looks towards her career and forget the thing that happened. It belongs to the past.
What is your worth?
Ah! Who tells their worth? I am worth…. My worth is Aku chukwu ( God’s wealth) I was wealth given to my parents, my family, by God. Everything about me is wealth. If you’re asking me what my financial standing is, you know I am not going to be able to tell you that. But I can tell you that I live a very private life; I carry many responsibilities on my shoulders. I have done incredible things from the day I stepped into this country from the United States of America, even when I was serving as a youth corps member. I feel I can make so much money in this country than I can know what to do with. The people will tell you what I am worth. But you know what? My children are also my wealth. The fact that what was bequeathed to me has also been bequeathed to them is interesting. They have good educational background. The rest is up to them. If you want me to tell you how much I have, I want to tell you that serving in government was a big loss in the sense that the salary was so little. I am not even going to mention it here, but it is very easy to find out what the DGs of parastatals earn. I was put in an agency where there was no money. I just told you that. Actually, there was a period of 10 months when not a kobo came in. If I wasn’t managing the place well, we would have been in serious trouble.
You have worn a trademark low haircut for a long time. Why do you prefer low haircut?
I had situations where I had grown my hair, and my mother would always chide me to prune my hair. It was convenient to carry my hair low. First of all, as a schoolgirl in Nigeria, secondary school, you were not allowed to plait your hair. We always cut our hair. But when we left secondary school, I decided growing my hair. We went to the USA to continue my education and I decided to perm my hair. I bought a hair cream; I didn’t read the label very well before using it and parts of my hair were coming out. I felt I should just keep it low instead of all the troubles. In fact, I had to cut my hair myself with a scissors. I never remembered going to the salon to fix my hair in the USA and I saved myself a lot of money as a student. The convenience of wearing it low still works for me till this day.
What would you like to be remembered for?
I don’t know. I truly don’t know. I think the most important thing is leaving a good legacy for my children.
That is how you want to be remembered?
Yes. Together with my family, we are going to come out with the DK Onwenu foundation. We are going to go into scholarships, skills acquisition centre in the village that he loved so much. There is so much work to be done. Now, that I have finished raising my children, this is what I want to do to be remembered.
You hinted that you’re doing a book on your experiences in life. Can you give us snippets of it?
Actually, when I started the book, I thought it was going to be about music, this and that. But it has transcended to a huge thing. The fact is that you don’t quite know what you’ve done until you sit back in tranquil recollections. We are always moving. I realize that this book is important for my children and also all the young people out there to know where we came from, what we passed through, some of the mistakes that we made, and the lessons we learnt from them so that they can learn something from us. It will explain a lot of things about me. I think people are going to be shocked. Let there be shock. Let there be surprise, and people are going to marvel at some of the things I talk about I have gone through, and God put me through. It is going to be an uncommon book. I am asking Nigerians to still be patient. Those who have some inkling about my thoughts on the book can’t wait for it to come out. I promise that it is a book you will learn a lot from. I thank God for giving me the strength and memory. I am writing about great men and women, reconnecting with so many things and people. God played a role in my life one way or the other.
When do we expect it in actual terms?
Very soon, and I mean very soon. I don’t want to disappoint and I want to make sure I give out my best on this book.