African China (Chinagorom Onuoha) has shared the story of his inspiring rise to fame and stardom from humble beginnings in one of Lagos' most backward and notorious slums, Amukoko.
In-a-no-holds-barred interview with Stardom, the star also spoke about how his debut effort, Crisis, turned out to be his turning point transforming his fortunes and how he celebrated when he received his first payment of N1.5 million by treating himself to two pieces of turkey and a bottle of Schweppes Tonic!
China started out as a street hawker before graduating to become a barber. The odds were against him, but born with a desire to succeed against the odds, he stuck to his guns and today, he has no doubt emerged one of the top artistes of the decade.
“I grew up on the streets. I lost my mum at the tender age of two and so, my dad raised me as a single parent. The Onuoha household was crammed and there was little food to go round and so, at a tender age, I had to hit the streets to eke out a living.”
The goings-on got so bad that at a point, he worked in various barbing salons in Orile and Ajegunle, while he was still in school, to make ends met. “I had to juggle my hustling with my education so I always worked after school hours. From the money I made, I bought text books and school uniforms. I didn't have a choice because the alternative was to go hungry and naked. When I started facing crisis as a barber, I returned to hustling at Orile bus stop where I sold pure water, chinchin, Nasco Wafers, toilet rolls and bread to mention a few. Those years were rough. We lived in a crammed apartment. I used to be Saheed Osupa's biggest fan; I even fought in his name. Then there was no Hip-hop at the time. It was just Fuji.”
According to him, the lessons he learnt from the streets have served as the framework for his success and he would be forever grateful to God.
“I learnt to be streetwise and to fend for myself at an early age. I learnt that you could only be as tall as your dreams. If you aspire to be a Mike Adenuga; a mentor, it is all within you and if you want to be a street fighter, it is up to you. It all depends on your mindset and how you perceive yourself. At an early age I said to myself, 'this and that are what I want and I worked towards it.”
Recounting the greatest challenge he faced he said: “It was hardship! Hardship was my greatest challenge. I was scrapping a living surviving from hand to mouth. I was doing my music but it just wasn't working out and my friends whom I groomed in the ghetto were releasing their albums. I ended up organizing shows in the area because I was becoming an area champion.”
However, after the release of Crisis, his debut effort in 2002, his life underwent a transformation. He recaptured that year.
“Crisis changed everything. It became a street anthem and I was invited to perform everywhere. Somebody told Oga Obi of Globedisk, my erstwhile label about me saying that I had to be on his label. That was how my breakthrough came.
“For me success hit me like a ton of bricks! It happened so fast and at a time when I least expected it. If any successful artiste tells you that he already knew where he was going from day one, that artiste would be lying through his teeth. Trust me! Music is spiritual. Some will make it before you, some will never make it but it's a spiritual thing.”
What was his reaction when he got your first royalties?
“Like the area boy I was then I was suspicious of every one when I made my first N1.5 million. Even the marketer who paid me the money became a suspect the instance he paid me. On that day I had gone to him to request for N1000 to settle radio disc jockeys for promoting Crisis. I pleaded with him to give me N1000 but rather than attend to me he was busy counting bundles of money. I eyed him angrily and thought to myself, 'If I fit tye neck this man now, I don hammer-o.' I was even doubting if he would even give me the N1000.
“He finally turned around and said, 'China, this is N1.5million. It's for you.
I am paying you half today. You will get the other half by the end of next week. Please, sign here to indicate that you're in receipt the money.'
According to China, he was shell shocked: “Initially, I thought he was joking and I said in pidgin, 'Oga Obi, you don come again-o. Which one be this.” But I noticed he was serious when he repeated himself. My heart stopped beating. My eyes strayed form the money to s face and back to the money again. I came here asking for one N1000 now I was being offered N1.5million with the promise of a further N1.5million in a week's time. I began to shake! I could not believe it. He gave me nylon and I stuffed all the money into it. Even as I was packing it I kept watching him suspiciously scared he could suddenly change his mind and pounce on me but he did not. He reminded me to sign again for the money. When I finally signed I fled from his office!”
What was the first thing he bought for himself?
“Turkey!” he screamed, “I bought two pieces of turkey because I had been eyeing this turkey for a long time. In my neighbourhood we had a restaurant where they sold fried turkey garnished with sliced onions and pepper and each day I went by I asked myself, 'which day I go chop this turkey. When I go fit afford am?' I took a bundle out and headed straight for the restaurant demolished two pieces of he turkey. Then it was going for N70 and I washed it down with a bottle of Schweppes Tonic Water. African china had arrived!”
In retrospect he said: “One thing I thank God for is that I never allowed money to control me. I started investing immediately. I already had a studio in Orile so I expanded it. I invested in my DJ business. Today I have invested seriously in music equipment.”
Marriage and fatherhood
Last year, China tied the knot with his heart throb and today they have a beautiful daughter. He opened up on marriage.
“Men, I enjoy it. Married life is so sweet! If you are not there you won't know what it tastes like. It's an institution. You need to study it so that you won't make mistakes.”
According to him, there's a difference between being a baby father and being a father and a husband. “As a baby father,” he explained, “you will never be there when she s pregnant? You won't be there when she gives birth? You will only hear that it's a boy or girl and it's supposed to be your child. At the end of the day you start taking care of the baby and not the mother. But being a father and a husband makes it a totally different ball game because you will be there monitoring everything. And when the baby is born, you will be he first to carry the child and look into its eyes and say, 'is this truly the continuity of me? I am enjoying every second of marriage.”
African China has had his fair share of women. How did he pick his wife out of the crowd?
“I grew up without a mother and my dad raised me as a single parent. My mum died when I was two years old. I don't recollect much of her. I grew up in a-face-me-I face-you apartment where we had a woman who was a nightmare to her husband; she was always nagging and quarreling. Even at that tender age I was like, 'Oh my God! I don't want to end up with a woman like this. So, ever since I have always wanted to pick my wife based on certain qualities; I already had an idea of what I wanted. I have dated a whole lot of women and when I met my wife I told everybody, this is my wife.”
According to him when he met his wife, his plan was to hit and run but before he could say Jackie Robinson, he was hooked!
“When I met my woman, it wasn't love at first sight-o,” he confessed laughing. “I wanted to hit and run but I got hooked. She is a wonderful woman from a loving family. I was trapped! I just realized this was a totally different experience. She's a loving woman and very protective. We have a daughter. To all my colleagues out there who have made money and are shy of getting married I have one advice-settle down and get married then you will know where you will invest your money.
One experience he wouldn't forget soon was his experience in the UK when an English gal accused him of rape.
“I was at the right place at the wrong time; that's what happened. Thanks to my manager, Ilka; she's based in the UK. She stood by me all through. She was working with the BBC and was also my manager.”
For him, though he was incarcerated briefly, he had fun while in jail: “A UK jail is like a hotel room. I had a TV and people doing my laundry. The only problem was my freedom; I was denied my freedom but I had fun because I had been in prison here in Nigeria and knew how bad it is in the country. I was like wow! I love this place. The only problem was that they distabilise you by isolating you while here in Nigeria, they torture you. They gave me food and even pampered me and always asked, 'what do you want? What could we get for you? But they deny you communication; you can't talk to anybody. And then you start talking to yourself and when they walk up to you and ask, 'what's up?' You want to talk to them; they are smart! What happened was that I was detained because my bail money was not ready. I told the judge the truth and nothing but the truth and that was what set me free. I threatened them that if they failed to find me guilty, they would have to give me automatic citizenship because my visa would have expired by the time my trial would be complete and meanwhile I was losing millions of naira back home from shows and my business was suffering.
“Consequently, the judge instructed the police to go and get evidence and if they failed, the case would be discharged. At the end of the day there was no evidence. She wasn't raped and I did not sleep with her and there was no penetration either. She slept in my room, yes. But I did not lay a finger on her. That was what I told the court. We even did a DNA swap to prove my innocence. Someone tried to set me up but to this day I don't now who it was but I understand that as a consequence of my being a critic, anything could happen.”
He also disclosed that at the height of the crisis, Nigerians in the UK advised him to jump bail and flee back home but he refused: “You see, at the height of he crisis, I was advised by Nigerians in the UK to jump bail like some prominent Nigerians had done in the past. They said, 'China, now that you have bail, run away! But I said, 'why should I run? I will stay and fight them. That was why I sang London Shiver.”
Rasta Jude Levi
One man that played a central role in his career was Rasta Jude Levi, the man who produced Crisis. What's heir relationship today? “We are like elder brother and younger brother today though we once had a misunderstanding but it was not my fault because I never really knew what happened until much later. It was my marketer who erred and Jude Levi did what he had to do which I do not blame him for. I was pissed with Globedisk. I was like, 'why would you deny him his credit if he deserves it. When I finally met him I told him the same thing. Today we are very good friends and I still go to him for advice.”
Following the release of his last album, Return of D Legend, China is back in the studio and putting finishing touches to his next joint. Meanwhile, his single, Boyfriend & Girlfriend is on rotation.
“Right now I have a new single and I am working on other songs. The new single is entitled Girl Wey U Suppose Marry. I guess the title sounds awkward so I am planning to re-title it Boyfriend and Girlfriend.”
Unlike the trend in his first and second album, which had a strong radical undertone, his last album had a couple of love songs. Is this the new trend?
“We are beginning to witness what we call a true democracy,” he explains. “We have to let it take root before we begin to discriminate. I want people to understand the fact that Nigeria is our own; this is our country. Once upon a time we lived under the military and things were really bad but today we are in a democracy. Back in 2002 when I dropped Crisis, we were still undergoing a rebirth because Obasanjo was an ex military man. It was only until Yar Adua came along that we began to develop a democratic culture and now we have Goodluck Jonathan so love is taken over and we have to sing about love and unity. Remember I got married last year as well. But I don't really think that my songs are radical. I see myself as the voice of the people and if you equate that with being radical, its okay. What I believe is that I am a socially conscious artiste.”