Omawumi… The Art Of Being Evergreen
If you follow the Nigerian music community closely, especially on social media, you might have come across a ruckus about ‘old cats’ and ‘new cats’, after a popular musician referenced it in a viral interview. As many Nigerians focused on the fame clock of these artistes as the yardstick for measuring who deserves such veteran-fit acclaim, the situation also shone a spotlight on some singers who are not just decades-deep in their career, but have also been consistent and classical with their discographies.
“Don’t call me a veteran,” she warned. As if mocking the nearly two decades of rising profile as an award-winning singer, songwriter, Nigerian Idols music coach, media executive, actress and all-round entertainer, her humility came off as strange. However, for Omawumi Megbele, it was a lifestyle – purely driven by her ambition and her dedication to remaining evergreen. “Veteran? Stop it! Na Big name dey kill person.”
With a discography including smash hits such as “In The Music”, “If You Ask Me,” “Bottom Belle”, “Butterflies”, among others, she elevated the art of making conscious music by crafting them so tenderly with just enough humour, relatability and groove appeal. After four albums to her credit, including her recent opus, Love Deep High Life (LDHL), the Warri-bred chanteuse continues to remain intentional about her expression, and her latest duet with Yemi Alade dubbed, “Love You Well” is proof that she is really still bullish about her journey.
The 41-year-old songbird catches up with Guardian Music, peeling back her experiences with the industry, including her come-up story which interestingly involves Cobhams Asuquo; her creative processes and muses; motherhood; her other exploits with her film company co-founded with her longtime pal Waje. She also gives pointers to her next steps, and why her journey remains on an inevitable trail towards the annals of African music.
You have spent nearly two decades in this music industry. How does it feel for you in retrospect?
WELL, it’s a mixture of a lot of feelings. It’s humbling. When you know that yeah just doing the best that you can and then you now have people who tell you that “oh your music shaped me or your music helped me or, you know, so it’s very humbling in that regard.” I’m also very thankful like in a state of gratitude and e de sweet sometimes. People are like, “Oh my God. Is that Omawumi?”
Has it happened recently?
Yeah, very recently. If I go out and even where I least expect it. A while ago I was wearing a bonnet, house clothes and sleeping shoes. I just wanted to go and grab something for myself in a supermarket abroad. I walked into the supermarket and somebody just sees me and shouts “Oh my God. Is that you?” What I get is stuff like “My daddy Loves your music. Oh my mom loves you.”
Either way, it was very humbling. It was very sweet.
I mean, you started in an era where it was not just hard, but it was rare to see women rise through the ranks in the music industry. Do you actually think that it’s easier right now for women to assert themselves in the industry?
Well, let’s say I have mixed feelings about it. One of the benefits of being in this era of making music is, you know, the accountability of everything is digitized, so nobody fit steal your money. Indeed, it is easy fine independent artists to thrive now as opposed to being part of a big record label. However, they’ve come to spoil it again. Having record labels that use big budgets to influence listenership and sales and all of that. But I feel like it’s mixed. Let me give you an example. Like, there are times when good songs would just be good songs and will just fly off simply because they are amazing songs, but now you can have a good…in fact everybody has good songs. Now, you need to also have a budget for the release. You need to have a budget for promo which is somewhat more ridiculous than how it was when we started out. it was easier for people with dreams to…I don’t know. It’s mixed. It’s just a mixture of both.
As a judge in one of the biggest music discovery shows in the country, what is your experience like in mentoring new younger artists? Do you have such people who come to you with requests?
Oh yeah, definitely. All the time. And I started this from very near the beginning of my career. I’ve always been like a listening ear, I always feel like you do what you can to push everybody forward because everybody is part of the narrative. So in my own little way I’ve always, you know, like mentored or being the listening ear to most of my colleagues in the industry and vice versa. It has always been like that. As for the young ones, I am very particular when I meet like natural born musicians like the ones wey na follow come, those type them.
So those ones are the ones that I’m really particular about. Those ones, I will make sure that I’m talking to you every day, encouraging, making sure that your dreams do not die. Because sometimes there’s this sense of hopelessness that comes with doing this job that we do that no matter how successful you are, there’s always something in you saying “maybe I’m not doing this right? Maybe I’m not doing that right”. So those ones that are around me, I’m always very particular about them because the natural born musicians, they tend to have longevity with their music and I can’t help but see if I can nurture them in the right direction.
That’s interesting. Are there being some of them who actually actively use your advice enough in their careers?
Yeah, a lot of the unknown faces, but sometimes it’s always ideal. I’m somewhat of a modest human being. So, even if I want to toot my own horns, sometimes it’s always good for other people to say. Oh wow, Omawumi” Let me just dey my Dey but yeah, a lot of people in the industry. Particularly females in the industry.
Have you tried to sign any artiste?
Oh, I did sign. I have a record label. I signed a couple of artists. I did sign a couple of artists and then I realized that person wey never train himself finished, not dey carry dog Dey train. I don’t know if you understand that statement. So, I just felt like, I had to make sure that my career was where I needed it to be. Before going into that entrepreneurial stage of managing other artists because it’s a very big responsibility. I don’t know how best to do it. But it is a very difficult thing to do. You know, the life of the artist in question is in your hands and their musical career! That’s what I mean. it takes a lot from you to make sure that person does amazingly well because, sometimes or most times, talent is not enough. Then I figured it will be ideal for me to face my own.
Is it something you look forward to in future?
Yeah. So, after that I decided to work in consulting and A&R instead. So a lot of people, no need to mention names again you just need to call Omawumi “Let her sit down and listen”. So I make a few corrections, do song arrangements, make some recommendations and move on to the next one. So I can do that, that is less tedious.
You mentioned something about a natural self-doubt in artistes. What is that reality like for you even after all these years?
For the major part of my career I have been an independent artist. I’ve only licensed my work but I’ve always been in charge of my work and my career, so I always second guess, I always double check. I’m so much of a perfectionist with even the littlest things that you will not take note of. So, it happens a lot of times.
So how do you get over it?
You go just… anyway it is the “Warri-ness” in me. You just say “Odeshi, all die na die, anyhow e wan be e go be o las las”. Also, especially if you have a team of good people around you that constantly reassure you, if you have a good team of people around you who tell you, okay, you know what I’ve heard about this body of work, It’s perfect. Stop getting into your own heads up, stop self-sabotaging. It’s actually kind of nice. Ask a lot of artists when they are compiling their body of what they will tell you that this song did, not almost make the album like Made in Lagos. I heard I don’t know. Correct me if I’m wrong. Sometimes, it’s always good to have people around you who listen until you. You know what, I think that this is a very good move. Don’t worry. Stop second guessing.
Back to A&R, if you have noticed, the Afrobeats scene is evolving with more younger musicians, coming here with more authentic sound, styles, and storytelling. How do you see the soundscape now, as a veteran yourself?
Veteran? Stop it.
This veteran thing is causing a stir online, and you are reducing your acclaim?
I will reduce it. Quote me “Omawumi said na big name Dey kill small dog.”
You built your career making very relatable and conscious music. How did you put it all together to sound so different?
I was doing a lot of things but I didn’t know what I was doing, but now you can say oh it was branding. You were branding yourself. Oh, you were doing this. You were doing it.” Now I can actually put name on it, tag it like this is what I was doing but when I started out, to be fair, I just wanted to make music, I just wanted to entertain people and I’m a God kind of person gut and God that g-u-t So I’ve always moved with my God. Most times when I do stuff and it’s not my gut or I listen to peer pressure or people, if my spirit is not in agreement with it, it usually ends up annoying me down the line. So, when I go and make this music, even if anybody tells me, oh, Omawumi I have to be able to defend the art I’m putting out because that’s my art and the art is an expression of me. So you people should not worry, I will give you “gidigba” in the album for the streets. But I must be able to tell my story because that’s the only way I can interpret it on stage. Over the years, my major platform for interpretation has always been stage performances, so that’s usually the take home for people. Most of them love the music, but when they now see me live on stage, they’re like, Oh my God! So, everything just comes together, So to answer your question, I am a stubborn person. I’m setting my ways when I have a story to tell with my music, I just do it like Nike.
You really must have been stubborn!
Yeah, stubbornness, self-confidence, be sure of yourself and what you are putting out you understand. Most of the young guys that are making some sort of stuff like name and noise, now, you will see the confidence in them and the belief in whatever they are putting out, that’s one of the major components you need as a musician.
Okay, so let’s take back to “If you ask me.” So that song was one of the most popular songs that you put out. What inspired that song?
I see. It was something that I witnessed a long time ago. I write music from things that I witnessed, experience, other people stories. So I just saw a young girl who was being beaten by her father and then the father was shouting at her that she went to go and sleep with somebody because of GCE or JAMB form .
And then she was like “shebi you used to do it to me! Haven’t you taken me somewhere to remove pregnancy and everyone was shouting “Ah! Ah!”Trust that I don’t mind my business. I was driving past, I wound down my window glass and I observed what was going on. The event passed, but it stuck in my head. So, I called Cobahms and I was like, telling him, there’s a song in my head, but I’m going to change it! But when I sang it, he said no! You have a song! Put it out like that. And that’s how the song came. So, “If you ask me” song is about a father molesting her daughter. It was just like a way of crying out, because this is something that usually happens. The first people who molest children and young people in their homes are their relatives and their domestic staff. It was just a way of calling people’s attention to it, but you know, in a fun way and that’s what I tend to do with my music.
On Cobhams, how did you guys meet and connect?
Cobhams!!!! I was one of the products of idols West Africa. So, Cobhams was one of the guest judges on the show. And he got a brief from Malta Guinness to do a song. And he thought of me. So, he just called me and he was like, Hello, Omawumi, my name is Cobhams. Cobhams was like a demigod for us musicians. So he told me that he wanted me to come and he asked if I would be interested in voicing his song. And I said Yeah, so that time I was new in Lagos, I didn’t know the roads well. So, I lost my way on the Third mainland bridge two times because I was trying to go to Gbagada. I eventually got to the studio. Google maps was not that strong at that time. I finally got there and I did the song and he was so impressed and he took the song to the clients and they took the song. So that was my first somewhat of an endorsement deal. And then I opened for the Peace Corps. So, that was two months after I left the reality show. So you could say that Cobhams was one of the people that God used to propel my career as an artist. So, the moment we did that together, it was just, no, it was a no-brainer, we had to do. I went to him for, “In the music” and another song in my first album called, “I Missed My Baby”. So “In the music” was the song I used in winning the “next rated” for 2009.
What are you working on currently?
Hmm. Yes, I’m almost done with my body of work. Set later to be released towards the end of this quarter. But I don’t know, I’m just being a bit lazy. So, fingers crossed. I have a song with Cobhams and Timi Dakolo now. Timi Dakolo and I are products of the same reality show, he won and I was first runner up and we have never been on a song together. So, this has just been like a milestone moment like the song with Yemi Alade for instance. Yemi is somewhat of a friend and a sister. And people always say, “Oh my God! Omawumi, ‘Is she your prodigy?’ She sounds like you.” So I was like we have never really done anything together, let’s do this together. And that was the same thing with Timi Dakolo. So that’s the next single that is slated to come out. I am currently not in Nigeria right now. Also, Waje and I as you know, we have a media company Hermanes Media and we just finished the next body of work that we are about to commence. We just finished the pre-production. That is about our next project that should be ready by the first quarter of 2024.
Is it going to be a movie as well?
No, it’s a limited series. When we were developing the stories, any small thing we would just say “ye” and “ah”. So, there will be a lot of “ye and ah” moments and it’s a limited series that we’re working on.
Are you going to be starring in it?
Oh yeah, definitely. But of course, as executive producer. It is not compulsory we must be lead, we just did it to add attachments.
Yeah, we might be inside, we might not be inside. Then I have a Netflix original that I’m starring in. And then I’m going on tour as well, I’m going on tour in the UK and Europe.
You do so much and you still have a lot of things lined up your sleeve. You also don’t look like 41.
I’m old with joy.
If you were going to leave advice to younger musicians, what would it be?
There is something I used to say, but I don’t think it’s necessary in this age and time. I feel like what I have to say is be happy. Just be happy, whatever you do. Find happiness. 10 years ago, if you ask me this question, I would have given you a different answer, but now I have come to the realisation that a lot of people used times when they were supposed to be happy to find things that make them happy. They concentrated on the grind, and anxiety, depression, all these many other things come in. People forget how to be happy. So, just be happy.
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