•Speaks on why reggae music is dying in Nigeria, his dreadlocks, others •Says his best is yet to come By BENJAMIN NJOKU You have stood the test of time, having stormed the Nigerian music scene in the 80s with your hit song, “Tribulation’ . Most of your contemporaries have hung their guitars but you are still standing, what’s your driving force? I have to give thanks and praises to the most High first and foremost because He giveth life. Once you have life, the ability to sustain is where the power is. And so, that power comes from God. When you are blessed with this kind of gift you can only but give thanks to the most High. That’s why I said it is not by mighty nor by power lest any man should boast. So, it is the grace of God upon my life that has kept me going.
Looking back, what would say you have done perfectly well and you did not do that you would want to accomplish now? Probably I would have done better in terms of making the money, but unfortunately, the situation during my time was not encouraging. There was no structure in place then and that was why at a point we decided to hang the guitar for a while and really see how we can fix the problem of the industry. We realized there was no structures to sustain the abundance of talents that we have in this country. Our copyright system was a trash. We had a situation where the artiste was the performer, the composer, the manager and the publicity manager as well. So, he wouldn’t be doing well in all aspect of showbiz because he’s left to concentrate on just composing and writing his songs. That way he’s not going to give his best. So, we came from that background. Luckily for us at a point, we have record companies that were readily available. These record companies were managed by professionals at a time until they decided to sell their companies to the indigenous investors. That was when PolyGram records became Premier records, Sony records left the country, EMI became Ivory records among others.
The departure of those professional companies left a very huge vacuum in the entertainment industry in Nigeria. That was what actually affected the industry for a while. This is because those professionals, having seen the frustration in the system left the country. Their exit made a lot of us to make a change of base. I happened to be one of the few pioneer musicians who refused to relocate to a foreign land in search of greener pastures. That is, I realized I have seen it all. And I know that in so many ways one can be a king at home, not in America or Europe. You can travel to America or Europe to do your shows and then you return to the country. But some of my contemporaries relocated fully to America and Europe. So, there was a huge gap coupled with the increasing menace of piracy in the industry. In fact, piracy frustrated the record companies, forcing them to close shops in Nigeria. Then it was easier for us to come in as musicians, but harder for artistes to become stars. Many of them may be fronting music, while they are doing other things to keep body and soul together.
That’s why I said because the structures were not there to sustain the industry, you cannot actually tell no matter how big you are, as a star how many CDs you have sold because that is what you are known for. It is not about the amount of cars that you have acquired. If people want to define you, they want to define you as an artiste who have sold 10 million records, 5 million records. Those are the legacies that you would be remembered for. There is a big gap, and that way there is a big problem in the industry. If an investor wants to invest in the industry, for the fact that there is no basic statistics to work with, it would be difficult for him to go ahead and invest in the industry because he doesn’t have any figure to work with. Assuming you want to take the money from the bank, you have to see everything in details. The industry is a huge business outlet without data base. That’s how it has been for a long time. So we decided to restructure it .
Is it part of the reason you took a break from music? Yes, that’s the reason, because you have to ask yourself why you are in this business?I’m still in the business because of the passion I have for music, not because of the money. If it is because of the money I would have forgotten about doing music just like a lot of my contemporaries have done. This is what gives me joy and when I see people rejoicing over what I am doing I have a greater joy. As for the money, I know it is there, potentially I can say Orits Williki is a billionaire based on the amount of work I have put out. At such point I know the money will come so I’m not scared of that. But right now, the money is in the pocket of few individuals who are reaping where they did not sow.
What effort are you making to put the structures in place? We want to ensure that we have a copyright system that is working. What we have before now was the first monopoly in the system which means that the artiste has been short-changed in many ways because the copyright is a huge market, we have a lot of rights that are supposed to be approved for the artistes. So, if you approve only one society, it will take over the huge market serving over 170 million people. It also means that the artistes will never get their money worth. The industry is big enough to have as many collecting societies as possible so that the artistes can make their choices. In 24 years a lot has gone down the drain. So many artistes have suffered terribly and now that the irregularities in the system have been corrected, we are looking forward to a new dawn. If the copyright system is working very well, it will attract foreign investments. The investors know that coming into Nigeria before now their rights are not protected. Secondly, the pricing of the CD is cheating. So, the market has been very poor. Poor because the copyright system was not working before now, and the pricing was like you are begging people to come and buy your CDs. But now that we have structures in place, the pricing of the CDs will automatically adjust itself.
What is happening to the Musical Copyright Society of Nigeria, MCSN? We are putting our bits and pieces together again like we are resetting the buttons again. We will be coming out with a lot of things very soon. We want to go out there and do the business professionally. Don’t forget that MCSN was the premier collecting society in Nigeria. NCC regulated us out and now that we are back, we are going to teach other collecting societies how to do this business. This is because we have both the human and technical know-how to do the business professionally.
We don’t seem to have home-grown reggae artistes any more. Does it mean that the consciousness have left the country? If I ask you, of all that we have said in the past, have the people listened to us? We still have many reggae artistes in Nigeria. But the problem is that the publicity we used to have in those days is more expensive now. More expensive, in the sense that the radio DJs are now the gods of the industry. If you don’t go their way, they wouldn’t play your songs. Secondly, not a enough of reggae music are heard on air simply because the reggae musicians are very poor. Their songs are not played on air because they cannot afford to foot the bills. That’s where we found ourselves.
But the hip hop artistes are having their way? They are having their way because they know how to play the game. They will come to the studio begging you to record their songs for them with a token of N500,000, claiming they are being sponsored by either their uncles or cousins. But the same artiste will shoot a video of N3.5 million and you will see him on MTV Base. You begin to wonder where he’s getting all these monies from. A lot of them are into other businesses that you don’t get to know. But most reggae artistes are not.
But Bob Marley did not give up the struggle to emancipate the human race? We have not given up the fight. We are still recording songs. But it gets to a point where you begin to wonder whether the people actually have ears to listen to you or they have the eyes to see what we see and complain about. Fela spoke against corruption. And we all have been talking about corruption over the years. How many people did listen to us? Now, that corruption has become a great great grandfather in the country, it would be very difficult to stamp it out because corruption itself would fire back, having had an extended family unit and deeply rooted in the system. We would have eliminated corruption at the early stage of our nationhood but we allowed it to grow and have children. Today, the average Nigerian has a corrupt mind because of the system. We are not giving up and we will continue to spread the message.
Are you still on sabbatical because you hardly grace the stage in recent times? I perform every week. What happened is that I am used to the tradition of performing at concerts, having your band play with you on stage. The present day artistes can afford to be performing at shows because they don’t perform with their bands. The DJ will play their music and they start miming. But for those of us who have their bands we cannot do that. And so, our shows are cut short. However, if you want to invite me to perform at big shows, you have to pay the right figures. Definitely, you will see me on stage.
Would you say you have given your best as far as music is concerned? Not at all. I haven’t given my best and that’s why I’m not quitting the stage yet. Now that the structure seems to be coming alive, this is the right time to go back to work. I just released a song I did with a Jamaican Fyah Niceness titled, “Mountain of Praise.” We are planning to shoot the video soon. Now that you said you are more spiritual, as a Rastafarian, would you ever shave your dreadlocks? I won’t shave it. My dreadlocks is my symbol, I wouldn’t shave it. This is the way I am and this is the way you identify me.
Is it natural? It is natural. I have carried my dreadlocks for 17 years now. I broke my comb and threw it way. It’s expensive maintaining my dreadlocks. The last time you measured it, it was about 1.4 metres. Have you measured it again? It’s 1.7 metres plus now. Listening to the music of the past and today’s sounds, do you spot any difference? The difference is in the message. In those days, we play inspired music. We were inspired to write a song. Then I may have the melody and I may not have the words. I would keep the melody until such a time when I would be inspired to write the words and fix it with the melody. It could take us about six months to write a song because you are inspired to write those songs. But these days, they are not inspired to write songs. They storm the studio and demand for a beat and before you know it, they are already singing. That’s what they are calling music. It’s not. Something must inspired you to sing. For every song I have written, I can tell the story of how the song came about. They are inspired and they would outlive me. Even when I’m gone, those songs would continue to be appreciated because I was inspired to write them. It is quite different from saying “please give me a beat and let me put words into it.” It’s allowed but it depends on what kind of songs you want to write and release in your own lifetime. Some of the songs they are releasing these days, I can’t even play them for my kids to listen to.
What would want to be remembered for when you have left the stage? I want to be remembered as that great composer of music; a great Pan Africanist, a great activist, a great guy who used music to fight the system without attracting violence. If you listen to some of my revolutionary music, they are all creative and inspiring songs. The lyrics are very emotional. We were not asking people then to pick up the arms and fight the government. We tried to change their souls and mindsets concerning building a virile society where people live in peace and harmony.
In the course of your musical journey, did you ever face any victimization as a result of the revolutionary songs you were pushing out ? Yes, it was during the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida. I remember the song, ‘Fight the Fire”, I just released it, and it coincided with the time the people were protesting against Babangida’s Structural Adjustment Programme called, SAP. I was driving along Akoka area of Lagos, and the students of University of Lagos seized my car and used it to patrol the whole of Ebute Meta. They mounted a big speaker on top of the car and were playing my song, ‘Fight the Fire.” Two days later, SOS invited me to their office and asked me to explain what I meant by “ We got to change the system… That the system is so unreal and we got to fight and chase them away…” I replied them, saying it was only a song and that it was not saying more than what they it saying . They asked me to be reporting to their office everyday to explain more about the song. That was it.