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Jemiriye: Soothing Sounds Of African Queen

As she sighed deeply with her eyes flushing red, one was scared she would burst out in tears. “Music is my life, I am going to do it to the last. If not, it would feel like I am not living.”

Barely ten minutes into the conversation and it was obvious; Jemiriye Adeniji is not just a regular musician. For the Afro-fusion songstress, music is actually the oxygen that keeps her going.

On his day, she was at the National Arts Theatre, Iganmu, filming a video for her latest song dubbed, Lagos. And from the spot where we were stationed, one could see why this Nigerian-American singer is widely celebrated as an African symbol.

On that set, her male dancers were draped in the unique Eyo masquerade regalia, while the females were adorned in colourful beaded raffia dresses. Everything about the shoot, except the fast-decaying Arts Theatre, breathed of a vibrant African culture.

Jemiriye Adeniji is probably not a regular name on the dance floor stereos or radio sets just yet, but within the league of amazons in the Naija music industry, she is well positioned to easily become your favourite. The 2012 Nigerian Idol finalist, who shuttles between the US and Lagos, is a unique cultural enigma whose music is stewed in African sage, rhythm and a diverse blend of languages. With her, you will also find a lot of feminism or femme-empowering initiatives, especially within her art.

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While thinking of her, one can easily remember the likes of Salawa Abeni and other lyrical juggernauts who weaved languages together to create harmony. Jemiriye is also a heavily awarded artiste, especially in the United States and other pan-African spaces. Among many others, she is a recipient of the International Cultural Ambassadorship the US city of Miami. In 2015, she became the first Black African to perform at the anniversary of the legendary baseball player, late Jackie Robinson, in Philadelphia.

In this chat with CHINONSO IHEKIRE she tells Guardian Music about her musical journey, her Pan-Africanism movement, her undying love for Amala and building a strong network of professionals.

Your new single Lagos, What really inspired it?
Lagos has been a huge part of success; whatever trade you do. There is a saying that, ‘If you can make it in Lagos, you can make it in any part of the world.’ Lagos is that hallmark of excellence. So, I believe that there is something about Lagos that, if you hustle hard enough, Lagos has something for everybody; that is what I want the world to know. This song is just to show my love for Lagos.

Though you live abroad, most of your songs reflect Nigeria’s experiences. How do you create them?
Even when I am not in Lagos, I am in Lagos. Lagos, Nigeria, Africa, live inside of me. I don’t think being in the diaspora can take away the Africanism away from me; that is my foundation. I never give up my Fufu; it is not like when I go to Europe, I am stuck on Pizza or Burger. Of course, I eat those, but I still want my Egusi and Fufu. So, it is the same with my music. I write about my experience, my life and my roots.

What’s your inspiration behind the whole Africanist brand?
That question just wants to make me cry right now. I love Africa; I breathe Africa. Different people have told our stories as Africans. Sometimes, they have told us what they think we are. As an original African, I try to tell the story of Africa in a very beautiful way. Every country in the world has its own ghettos, but they show you want they want you to see. How about we also project the beauty of Africa? The way to project a people is in their culture.

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I am happy that Nollywood is doing a great deal. America is the biggest brand in the world. I am also proud that I am American, but I am African and I cannot ignore that. I have a foundation called EWA; it is an acronym for Ever Wonder Africa? I want to project that positive image of Africa to the world, every now and then.

In Europe and America, they see me as an African symbol and it is not by accident; it is what I bring to the table in the cities where I live. I always like to say ‘This is Africa’. They bring me to workshops on music, Adiire making, books – I also have my book coming out soon – and a lot more. It is just all about the positive image of Africa for me.

Let us go back to when you started, how was it like breaking into music?
I started singing since when I was like five years old, in the children’s choir. I knew this would be my path; it became real when in high school, I created a music group. Every Wednesday then, we had extracurricular groups, but I didn’t like any of them. So, I picked a chalk and I started to write songs on the board and I told people that it was music club. A lot of people joined in. I wrote down music I had learned from the choir.

From there, I started the Echoes of Praise right there, which later replaced the school choir. It became bigger later and I had to even streamline the members to separate those who could sing from those who couldn’t, but have the passion for it. Afterwards, the school took me to the studio to record the school anthem; I actually wrote a lot of it. I was already 14 years old thereabouts and in SS1.

When I got into the studio, I just knew that was my life; it was so real. I was like, ‘this is where I belong.’ When I was even still in Junior High, they used to rent out skirts for me to go and sing, since we only wore pinafores then. It became very real for me at that stage; it became a business from there. At that age, I met the likes of Sunny Nneji and Manny AK; they saw me in the studio and gave me a job. I was always with them when they were making music; I was already making money from Jingles from high school. I didn’t care about money, but that told me I could earn a living from it.

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Were there times you ever doubted music?
I never second-guessed music; I just knew I didn’t want to be ordinary. For me, it was more than just a passion; it was a no-brainer that I had to go to school. I went to journalism school and that helped me a lot when I started. At that time, some journalists were so lazy they would ask me to write my story and give it to them, because they knew I was a journalist. I had to do a whole lot as the artiste, the publicist and everything. If I didn’t have my background in journalism, it would have been hard for me.

I had to tell people how to take my pictures, even when I was in the US. I became a total package where I could also help myself, because I didn’t have the resources. And then, my second degree in Advertising and Public Relations also helped a great deal.

How did your family take it when you started?
They have been my biggest inspiration; they recognised that was what I wanted to do. My dad and mum gave me that free hand. I would tell them that I was going to the studio and they would just say ‘bye bye,’ that was it. Sometimes, I wouldn’t even come home and they just understood. They felt that they had trained us enough and they trusted us to do well and not embarrass ourselves.

I was always travelling. I remember when in high school, one of our teachers died and we had to go perform somewhere for his funeral. We had been rehearsing for a month and on the day of the performance; I was the only one that showed up. They said that their parents did not release them. I was in the bus with all the teachers and the principal; I had to sing by myself. I ended up singing and I even cried because he was my favourite teacher. My school was Ikeja Grammer School in Lagos. No teacher flogged me afterwards from that day; I became their pet.

You seem to be having fun with your career, how did you carry on when the money wasn’t even there?
With music, it was never about the money. Money or not, I am going to do music to the last; it’s my life, that’s all. I would do something else on the side for money, but I have to do music. Otherwise, it would feel I am not living.

What changed for your music after Nigerian Idol?
I have never placed my success or career expectancies on Nigerian Idol. It was fun for me; I was never there to win. I was surprised I went that far. Actually, I was forced to even go for the show. At that time, I had even gone to perform in South Africa, even before the Idol. My godmother, Chief Mrs. Nike Okundaye-Davis of Nike Art Gallery, Yemisi Shyllon and all of them just kept nudging me to go for the show. I don’t believe in winning the show to determine what it can do for me. It was just to go there and do me; I just needed to make my mark.

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In making your mark, how would you describe your style of music?
Afro-fusion. It is a fusion of Jazz, RnB, Soul and all of that.

How involved are you in the sound production to be able to still reflect the native sounds you like to sing with?
I want to be a part of everything, because I want to be able to know what exactly is going on. I would insist on a Gan Gan (local drum) if I know that the song needs it. I play a little bit of some instruments. I would always insist on the sound I want, whether it is the flute or whatnot. I am very specific about these things. Even when I am performing or rehearsing, it is the same.

What should we expect in your new music?
I would just say I am giving a piece of me; I am about women owning their front. I am about women knowing that they can be whatever they want to be. I have seen African women struggle a lot; I am that girl who believes that African women should be given a chance to be whatever they want to be. I don’t like women being subjected to unnecessary stress. You need to listen to my song Pretty Lady.

So, who are the people you are listening to currently?
I love and listen to everybody. I am still listening to King Sunny Ade, Wizkid, Haruna Isola, Davido, everybody… I love all of them.

Have you selected any that you would work with yet?
I am going to work with a few. I love Davido, I would like to work with him. I would love to work with Burna Boy too; I was with Burna Boy recently at his grandfather’s birthday. I like to work with Tiwa Savage, Yemi Alade. I really love the likes of Salif Keita, Youssou N’dour, and Angelique Kidjo. The list is endless.

It seems you have a strong network, how did that come about?
It is just my journey in life. Honestly, this whole thing started like 20 years ago, I have just been doing what I do as an artiste, an entrepreneur, a media personnel or even a church girl. I have met so many people on the way. At some point, I ran a media outfit where we produced events and movies. Now, if I want to call one person, I can get like 10. When they say the journey of a thousand miles begins with a step, it is true. Suddenly, everybody is just there for you, because it is a family for me.

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I always tell people that I don’t work with people, but I run a family. Once I connect with your spirit, you become my family; it is just building a relationship with people. I like to treat people the way I want them to treat me; it is even in the bible. Jesus said: ‘Do unto others the way you want to be treated.’

Tell us a bit about your personal life?
I like to keep my private life private; it is very important to me. On the business front, I have a clothing line; we make African wear that are your everyday wears, we are launching in a few weeks. I have my not for profit organization; we support projects across the world. I have my record label.

Sometimes, I don’t even know what else I do; don’t blame me. Now, I have my band and the music.

It is interesting that you do live music?
I would work with the digital producers in the studio, but when I am going on stage, I want to be with my band; I love to perform. That way, I can connect with my audience. I can talk to people during my show. I am still an advocate for live music.

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What is your vision for your music career?
I want to touch as many lives as possible. As an artiste, I am a messenger. I can make you laugh, cry or whatever emotion you want to feel. I tell people that if you have the voice and you are not using it, you are wasting God’s talent for you. Not everybody can sing. So, use it. As a singer, I want to use my music to touch lives wherever I go. I have music for different reasons.

Tell us three things that people don’t really know about you.
I love food; I love good food. I eat once a day, but it has to be very good. I love Amala; I love to eat. I love to travel. I have been to a few places like the US, France, Spain, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and some parts of Africa. I want to see the world. I like to eat their food wherever I travel. That is the first thing I do, so that I can feel their spirit.

Then, I am a very reserved person. People don’t know that I am very shy. I like to be with myself. That is when I am able to meditate. I love nature a lot; like this bird singing around us, I can use that to make music. That gives me peace. I can hear the winds talking to the trees. I remember as a child, there was a chicken that came to our house and sang. Then, I love dogs.

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