Segun Akinlolu a.k.a. Beautiful Nubia, is widely believed to be based in Canada, but he says it is a wrong impression. In this interview with ADEOLA BALOGUN, he explains how the wrong impression came about. He also explains why he abandoned his job as a veterinary doctor to embrace music.
From the information on your website, I noticed that you are fully engaged till March next year. Why is it difficult for Nigeria-based artistes to enjoy such patronage?
Even here, people get booked for shows. It is just that they don’t put that on their websites. People like King Sunny Ade get booked six months ahead. The problem is that not many Nigerian artistes have websites. I don’t put shows that I consider private on my website; it is only those that showcase conferences or formal shows by corporate bodies.
I know you trained as a veterinary doctor. Is music all that you do now?
People in Nigeria always ask me this question as if it is impossible to survive doing music alone. But if your needs are very small, why not? I grew up sleeping on a mat and bare floor, so I am not a stranger to frugal living. Hence, if I make any amount of money, I know how to manage it. The problem with a lot of our people is that they cannot manage a little fund. I don’t make a lot of money from music, whether in Nigeria or abroad, but I live within my own means and manage my funds very well. That is why you cannot see me anywhere or being reported in the papers, because I don’t go anywhere. I don’t have any flashy thing to show anybody. For instance, what I used to do years ago, whenever I went abroad, the moment I could do one or two shows and was able to save enough to buy my ticket back to Nigeria, I would buy the ticket and keep it. Then the rest of the money I would bring back home. That is all. Like I said, I don’t make a lot of money because of the kind of music I play. If I want to make a lot of money, I know what to do. I could play a populist kind of music, but that doesn’t come easily to me. The music that comes easily to me is the kind of music I play now. My personality is the way I was brought up and the environment in which I grew up, and that is very difficult to change. I am always happy with the kind of response I get from my fans, which is quite different from what my other colleagues get. My fans write to me profound messages about how my music is inspiring them and making their lives better. That for me is more fulfilling than money. Naturally, at times, I wish I had more money. But such situations don’t last, because I am somebody who knows how to make myself happy. I see life as a wonderful gift to be enjoyed. And I like challenges too, because any life without challenges is not worth it.
Up till now, people find it difficult to classify the type of music you play…
Nowadays, I call it folk and roots music. People do ask me, ‘What kind of musician are you?’ I tell them I am a folk and root musician, because my music is contemporary folk music. It is message-driven. I also like to say that at the scientific level, it is a reflection of the root of a lot of the major music genres that a lot of us celebrate, such as rock, R&B, reggae, soul, jazz, etc. The problem with we Africans is that we all tend to define our music like the western people; we don’t appreciate the kind of music we play here.
Did you do any formal study or research to be able to come up with the kind of Afrocentric music you play?
No. I started writing songs when I was nine years old. That was about thirty something years ago, and I can say I have become an expert of a sort. What we are doing cannot be divorced from what has been done in the past. Anybody who says he is a music creator is not telling the truth. What we do is borne out of the things we listen to, whether we acknowledge it or not. I cannot tell you that these are my influences now, but I can tell you that what I am playing now is a reflection of the music I have heard all my life, because I grew up loving music dearly. So, I am not surprised when people say oh, your music sounds like this or that. The ones that are traditional Yoruba songs are the ones I remember my grandmother singing. Again I have had others taught me by old people, like the one from Ifa corpules, Eleko Egere. There is another one a popular movie producer wanted me to sing in a particular movie. That happens once in a while, but most of my songs are either from my past when I was growing up with my grandmother or my mother.
If you started writing songs as early as nine, why did you still go ahead to study Medicine?
My problem had to do with the fact that I was good in school. Right from my first year in primary school, I had always came first. I was always like the best student throughout school. When I finished secondary school, I was the best student in science and arts, so people started saying that I must either be a doctor or an engineer so that I would not waste the talent. But when I said I wanted to study Music, they said well, you couldn’t even study Music because you didn’t do it in secondary school. Then I said maybe I would go for Theatre Arts, and they said you want to go and waste all this intelligence on Theatre Arts? I had an uncle who seemed to understand me better. He said, ‘Come and read Veterinary Medicine, which is all about nature and animals. There is a lot of creativity there. You will enjoy it.’ So he talked me into opting for Vet Medicine. The man said, ‘Don’t worry, you are still a young lad. After doing vet, you can still play music.’ I had an uncle who worked as an engineer in Decca studio in Lagos, and I used to run to him to tell him that I wanted to record music. He would say go and get a degree first and then come and record music. I was also told that I could play music even while studying in the university. So that was how I ended up in school and became a vet doctor. But there is no regret in reading that course because it taught me a lot.
It enabled me to learn perseverance and how to overcome adversity. Vet Medicine is a difficult course, and in learning it, I learnt how to take up challenges to face life and music, which is full of obstacles. Vet Medicine too has made me a more well-rounded person. I have both scientific and artistic view to the way I see the world. I practised it for eight years and worked at the highest level managing human resources, and that is helping me now in music. I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now if I had not studied Medicine.
And working as a vet doctor for eight years was not enough to lure you away from music?
Oh, all the years I was working, I was playing music. The moment I left the university, I did my demo and started taking it round recording studios. Unfortunately, that was when we had the political problem: the June 12 crisis, when everything went into decline. The music industry was suffering and the recording companies that had been pushing artistes like Majek Fashek were folding up. So, when I started taking my demo around, there was little response from them. Some of them even said they would take my music if I could sing gospel or fuji, which were selling then. They said the kind of music I was playing could not sell. But I kept struggling and by 1997, I set up my own company and released my first album. My first two albums were released while I was working as a vet doctor and I used to play with my band. From childhood, I knew I wanted to play music or act. It is my purpose, all other things like vet medicine were just diversions. Even while working, everybody knew that I was a musician first and foremost. And when I decided to leave, they wished me well because they knew I would make it.
So, how was it like when you decided to quit medicine for music?
Ha, it was very rough. At that time, there was a new radio station that was then the rave of the moment. Any music played on it became an instant hit. I put everything I had in my first album and even owed to push the work out. And when we released the album, the hit we expected didn’t happen. It was very difficult. When you had a dream all your life and I was pretty sure that the album was going to be a hit and it didn’t happen like that. I went through depression at that time and a lot of self doubt crept in. But then I would ask myself that if I gave up all this, my life would be meaningless. I said it would be meaningless making money as a vet doctor without playing music. And as a person, money has never been anything to me. Over time, when I was out of debt, I gathered what I had again and made my second album in 1999, which gave us some recognition. And since then, things have been looking up. I feel so successful already playing music. My life now has a meaning. Some days when I don’t have money and somebody comes to me to ask for assistance, I feel bad that I cannot help, except that I feel satisfied with my life. It has been a rough road and I have made a lot of sacrifice.
Was it the difficulty in breaking into the Nigerian music scene that made you to relocate abroad?
I didn’t really relocate to Canada. It was my friends in the media who started writing that. What happened was that I used to travel a lot to places like Ghana, South Africa and Zimbabwe because of my involvement in performance poetry at a time. But when I went to Canada in 2001, I spent eight months. Then I came back and released Jangbalajugbu, and when it became a hit, everybody started saying I was Canada-based. I tried to tell them I only spent eight months in Canada. But I think people love this idea of being described as living abroad. So, when people started writing Canada-based, it stuck. But I am not based in Canada; I only travel there and spend one, two three months in a year. I am in Nigeria most of the time, but you will not know because I live very quietly. When I went to Canada the first time, it was actually like an accident. That was the time I was very unhappy when recording companies were rejecting my works. I was so down then and suddenly, I saw an advert in the papers that Canada needed vet doctors, and on the spur of the moment, I applied for it and forgot about it. Two years later, they wrote me and said can you send us so and so documents for your immigration visa? I was confused, because I didn’t remember that I did anything like that. I didn’t take them serious and didn’t do anything about it until one day when a brother of mine saw the document and urged me to fill the form since it would not cost me anything. I told him I was not going abroad for anything. So, I filled the form and forgot about it for a whole year until they wrote me again to come for an interview in Ghana. Incidentally, I was already preparing to attend an international trade fair in Ghana. I went there, they interviewed me and said I was going to get the citizenship of the country. I said okay without any excitement, because I knew there was no big deal, because it was not as if they would give us money. We were actually expected to spend some money and I knew that the country was very cold. So I left and a whole year went by before I got the papers. Then I started considering the possibility of doing something on my songs and albums while there. So I went there with the hope of releasing my albums there properly. But when I got there, I realised that I was a novice regarding how things were done. I was there to experience one of the worst winters in Canada. I went through hell. That was when I started developing the songs for Jangbalajugbu, and when I was through, I came back home and recorded the album. All my albums have been recorded in Nigeria. My band is in Nigeria. So, when people say I am based in Canada, they don’t understand. How can I be based abroad and my band is here in Nigeria? We are here at times for eight months and four months abroad or six months here and six months abroad. But most of the time, I am in Nigeria.
Were you born with natural dreadlocks or you cultivated it?
I was born like this, but I didn’t know until two years ago. All the while I was growing up, my hair had been very thick and difficult to comb. When I was working as a vet doctor in the corporate world, attending meetings upon meetings, I used to have comb in my pocket to touch my hair from time to time. If I left my hair for one hour, it would just be thick and it used to give me a lot of headache. That was when I made up my mind that I would let my hair be the very day I stopped working under anybody. I didn’t treat my hair, I didn’t add anything; I just left it to grow naturally. When I quit working and left my hair without combing for a day, it coiled on its own. That that was in Year 2000. I have had this for eight years, but two years ago, I was talking with my mother and she said, ‘You this boy, you went to reclaim your hair.’ And I said what are you talking about? She said, ‘You were born with it but we cut it off.’ That was the first time she ever told me.
She didn’t tell you why she did that?
She said all of us were born like this, but because she didn’t want dada (dreadlocks), she had to quickly cut it off. I still see a lot of parents who cut off their children’s dreadlocks. They don’t think it is difficult. I think what has happened to Africans is colonisation. What we think is beautiful is what we see oyinbos (whitemen) do. Some women would write to me and say, ‘I love you, your songs and everything but this your hair.’ I laugh.
How sociable is Beautiful Nubia?
I am outgoing. I like to mingle and mix with people, but I don’t like noise. I am not a nightclub kind of person. My own enjoyment of life is where is quiet. I can’t stand loud music. Unless there is something so important, you don’t find me in noisy places. I am involved in social reengineering, especially among the youth.
How did you come about the name Beautiful Nubia?
I started thinking when I started playing music, that I had to find a name that would arouse curiosity. I used to talk to people then about Africa and history. Look at civilization: the oyinbos paint everything as if we Africans don’t have any civilization. But remember that modern civilization started in Egypt. In my research, I found that at a point in history, the whole world was ruled by Nubians, the black people. Even though the white historians tried to muddle things up, they never denied that the Nubians ruled Egypt for more than a hundred years, and at that time, the Nubians were the masters of what we now call physics, alchemy, astronomy, astrology, modern sciences. And I came up with the idea that people like us once ruled the world, hence Beautiful Nubia. I see beyond skin colour, but I know that history has not been fair to blacks.
Are you married?
Well, I don’t want to talk about my personal life with a reason. As an artiste, I made a decision to put myself up out there for people, but those people around me, they have their own right to privacy. My mother for example. People have seen me with her and students have come to her with school buses to come and sing and play for her as an artiste’s mother. Sometimes she enjoys it, sometimes she feels insecure. I should be the one to get all that. I don’t think it is fair to have them exposed. What I always say is that as an artiste, if my children one day decide to come out and say they are Beautiful Nubia’s children, that is their business.
When you travel abroad to perform, do you go with your band?
That is a good question. I have never used my band for any of my shows abroad. What I have done over the years is that I hire local musicians to back me. But by March next year, we are going out to perform together in Canada for the first time. I think we are mature enough and ready to do that. We have been together for ten, eleven years and understand one another perfectly.
You are fond of infusing core Yoruba tradition in your music, how did you come about that?
My grandmother has a great influence on me. She would not say every proverb exactly how every other person would say it. She used to compare things, and I am taking after her.