It was a typical afternoon on the OAU Ife campus sometime circa 1992. My mother had just gotten her Ph.D and we had lots of university folks around the house, eating and drinking. I appointed myself DJ and then proceeded to play Onyeka Onwenu's "Gbemileke" a million times until party guests begged me to play something else. I was home on holiday from boarding school and my music teacher, Julie Ogwuike, had let me to borrow an audio tape which was a collection of Onyeka's songs including "Turmi", "Iyogogo" and "Chibuzor". That summer, my family got very acquainted with that tape. I became obsessed with all things Onyeka, but I wasn't the only one. Boys my age had crushes on the singer. Who can forget that uniting anthem, "One Love" or "Wait for Me", Nigeria's most memorable musical collabo between the singer and juju icon King Sunny Ade.
Onyeka was sophisticated, elegant, intelligent, wrote her own songs, and had the best voice in the music industry. Fast forward to almost 20 years later, and I'm sitting outside Onyeka's Ikeja office on a Monday morning, waiting to talk to the star about her new album. In the past two decades, Onyeka has gone on to release more albums, has campaigned for artists not receiving royalties, acted in a few movies and has run unsuccesfully for political office.
As I wait, I flash back again to another time in boarding school when an English teacher invited a few students to called "Nigeria: A Squandering of Riches". The documentary was produced by the BBC and NTA and featured, to my surprise, Onyeka Onwenu as journalist/presenter. I hadn't known about this other dimension. Again, she had poise, smarts, and asked bold questions. That documentary helped to seal my decision to go into journalism. The office assistant's "She's here" jolts me back to the present. Suddenly, Onyeka appears in the doorway. Her signature cropped hair now sports a few more grays. Her skin is smooth and her carriage upright. I get a quick "Good morning" from the singer before she disappears into her office. As I wait to be called in, I wonder if reality will fall short of fantasy. I can verify at this point that she is still beautiful but the poise, the sophistication, the intelligence, the talent - 30 years on, would those all still be there?
Onyeka was born on January 31, 1952 in Obosi, Anambra State to a family that has produced a number of alpha females."My grandmother, Margaret Nwokoye, was a politician, church leader, very strong, very bold," remembers the singer, sitting behind a desk covered with files. "[She] built the first storey building in Obosi by a woman and was very outgoing, very socialistic. My grandmother on my father's side was a pipe-smoking, tell-you-in-your-face..." (Laughs).
Although the singer is from Arondizuogu, Imo State, Onyeka grew up in Port Harcourt. Her father, D.K. Onwenu, died before the singer turned five and she and four other siblings were raised by their mother. Onyeka started performing when she was three years old with her mother at churches, orphanages, and motherless babies' homes."Generally, for our own family enjoyment, we would gather and she would teach us the songs, and I didn't know she was the writer of those songs," she says. "It was when I discovered, that I began to record some of her songs. "Ochie Dike," "Sodom and Gomorrah", she wrote.
These are in my albums and fantastic songs." So did mum get any royalties?I paid her one time off," the singer laughs. "But you can say that I'm paying her royalties now because I'm taking care of her. She lives with me. She gets anything she wants so the royalties are unending. Believe me, it would have been cheaper to just be paying her for the record."
The singer went on to study journalism at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, USA, a women's liberal arts college. Other famous alumni of the school include US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, journalist Diane Sawyer, first female US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, and actress Ali MacGraw.After graduation, Onyeka got a job at the United Nations and pursued a master's degree in media studies.
Sounds of music
While finishing up school, the singer made a discovery that jumpstarted her musical career."I realized that [the late] Sonny Okosun was married to my cousin's wife's sister," she says. "I was on holiday in Chicago at my cousin's place, and Sonny Okosun called. So I spoke to him on the phone and we agreed that I should send him a demo tape and he would produce my first album. So when I came back and was now doing the youth service, I got in touch with Sonny and decided to do an album."
That album was Endless Life which was released in 1981. Her sound was fresh and unique and the singer went on to rule Nigeria's airwaves for the next 20 years.And how did that uniquely Onyeka hairstyle come about?"It happened by accident," she says. "My hair was long when I went to the US. But who to do it for me? I decided I was going to perm it so I went, got the perming stuff, didn't bother to read the thing very well, had it on for too long. As I was washing the hair, it was coming off. So I was forced to cut it. and once that happened, I loved it. When you take a shower in the morning... Once you've tried it it's difficult to go back.
And that was it."The singer says that she did not face much pressure to grow her hair except for one person: her mother."And that pressure is still on till today," she laughs. "She's 91, I'm 58 and she ain't gonna give up. (Puts on Carribean accent) This is style, man. Style is sexy. Being yourself is sexy. Being comfortable in your own skin is sexy. Self confidence is sexy."
After our interview, Onyeka treats me to a special preview of her new album fittingly titled "The Legend". On this album, the singer worked with producers Cobhams Asuquo, Wole Oni and ID Cabasa. Somehow, despite the years, her lyrics remain deep and moving; her voice retaining its richness."Sometimes I take ice cream before going in to do the lead vocals," says the mother of three sons - aged 24, 22, 18 (the 22-year-old is a nephew she raised since age 18 months) - who all live in the US."It was a day in the studio after work, and we had eaten this peppered rice that I like to bring to the studio and Cobhams decided to treat me to ice cream. So he sent for ice cream. And I hadn't done my vocals. And I ate it and I found that I was singing better. And now I stick to it.Even last night (she performed at the Jesus Ball in Lagos), I quickly called someone to give me ice cream." In her most ambitious project yet, "The Legend" offers up servings of gospel, jazz and soul.
There's a song specially written for her father and another one that is a re-recording of her 1996 "Peace" song which she has dedicated to the late Maryam Babangida."People are going to be surprised," says the singer. "Because if they're expecting (sings) "You and I will live as one" - there's a bit of that there but my jazzy self has really come to the full. If I'd been doing this kind of music at the beginning, Nigerians wouldn't have accepted me but it was the music I wanted to do, that I had to subdue and now it's coming out more."
Not a bad idea for a woman who has always been very vocal about issues affecting Nigerians. Whatever role this current chairperson of the Imo State Arts Council decides to take on, we, her fans, will be the better for it. My worries about the poise, intelligence and talent being there? I guess the legend speaks for herself. But however many hats this diva decides to wear, with this latest album, her music fans can be rest assured that she will never abandon them."Whatever else I was going to do, music was going to be number one," she says. "My family expected it. Anyone who knew me growing up, going to school, would expect it and they wouldn't be surprised I've ended up doing this."
By Lola Okusami