The Phenomenal Onyeka Onwenu
Onyeka Onwenu walks into The Guardian justifiably tired. For someone who has been stuck in Lagos’ traffic for more than four hours, Onwenu, who is not known to be late, tries to put on a smile.
Less than five minutes after she settles in, the call of a fan who grew up listening to her interrupts our conversation on if I also identify as a “Daddy’s girl.” After trying and failing at a few guesses, Onwenu takes the phone and sings, “Chukwu Gozie eee! Ochie dike mama a! Nna gozie nne m, ochie dike nne m” to the delight of the fan.
It is of no surprise that the sonorous singer’s voice still calms the spirit of a troubled heart. With a rare ability to address the issues of life in a way that makes the audience believe she understands and is a part of their struggles, Onwenu has mastered and secured a place in the hearts of many Nigerians.
Indeed, Onwenu’s life is a worthy novel. Having transcended from music, politics, and acting, she says after her makeover that she has always wanted “people to see here,” she says pointing at her head to signify her brain “and not here,” her skin.
Her absolute belief in her capability to do anything she conceives and resilience which she has become known for was gotten from her parents.
She says that having experienced love as a daddy’s girl especially as one “who is unapologetically in love with his daughter,” she has had the chance to flourish and developed at a young age, self-assurance that she can rule the world.
Having lost her father, Dickson Kanu Onwenu, at age 4 and 10 months, she says that learning from her mother, Hope Onwenu certain behavioural patterns, has made her the confident woman that she is.
“It gave me the confidence that I had a right to be myself, I had a right to speak my truth but also gave me a certain grounding in behavioural patterns, for example, you see an adult and you don’t greet? Who born you? So there were character traits that were instilled in us [her and her siblings] by this very strong woman who had lost her second husband at age 37 and didn’t marry again.
“The example of her life was a teaching tool because she showed that she could stand as a woman on her own…be a contributing member of the community.”
Despite living at a time when the art was not appreciated by the average Nigerian parent, she holds her mother responsible for the persistent encouragement to pursue her music career.
“My mum was the one who when I was in college would write, ‘remember your music.’ She knew that I had followed the family tradition by going to school, she encouraged me to not forget the artistic side of it. There was a rule in my house that when you had done your Masters, and only after that, get your education first.”
Things took a slight turn towards her, what she studied when she returned to Nigeria in 1980 and took up a job first as a National Youth Service Corps (NBS) member and earned her place as a courageous reporter with the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA).
In 1981, Onwenu became a household name after the release of her first album, Endless Life produced by Sunny Okosun.
Endless Life gave Nigerians a new perception of the reporter. [The Queen of African Pop would go on in later years to release For the Love of You, In the Morning Light, One Love, Dancing in the Sun, Onyeka, Greatest Love, My Everything God and “The Legend”.]
Three years later , Nigeria felt the empathy and the sting (for the government) of Onwenu after she released her fearless documentary for BBC/NTA, Nigeria: A Squandering of Riches. This documentary would change the course of Nigerians view on corruption and the environmental degradation of the oil-rich regions forever.
On the lining of these successes are drawbacks that she has accepted. Besides getting barred from 7 states owing to the documentary,
“For many many years, I couldn’t go to some parts of the country. For many years, people would see me and say, ‘Oh, this, that’ but it has lessened a bit because all the things we talked about 35-36 years ago are still relevant today and some of us have been vindicated what we tried to point out then if we have been listened to, things would have been different and I am very sad that that film is still relevant till today.
“In the Igbo language we say, ọkenye fu ihe ojọọ, okwuro, ọ alụ [when an elder sees something going wrong and doesn’t say anything, it is an abomination]”
Anyone who thought that the haunt will stop her is not familiar with her story. In 2000, Onwenu went on a one-man protest and a hunger strike outside the gates of the NTA Channel 5 over the station’s refusal to pay royalties on her song earning her again, the accolades from other artistes who in turn, took turns to join in. Her critically acclaimed song, Iyogogo, was used as one of the station’s idents.
Rather than pay her, she was blacklisted from the transmission.
“I intend to stay on this hunger strike until this issue is resolved because it is of enormous importance…
“We find that the entertainment industry is suffering. Many artists have no pension, they’re dying of hunger.
“These are people who are renowned, people who have made great contributions to the growth of the industry in Nigeria and we feel that this has got to come to an end,” she said at the time.
Unfortunately, the media is not only responsible for the last statement. For someone who paid her mother, Mrs Hope Onwenu, for using her song, Ochie Dike Nnem, Onwenu decried the actions of the new generation artistes to the old.
“When I recorded that song, I actually paid her for her copyright, then I took her song and moulded it into my own. My mother sang in the original song, she did some rapping and did some spoken word.”
“The younger artistes who are now enjoying the huge amounts of money that they are making from the music industry have really not said thank you to those of us who worked, protested, went on strike, spent extra hours, our own money organising our unions and even getting barred from airplay.”
“When Sony Music, CBS, Polygram, Ivory Music left Nigeria, it was people like me, Sunny Ade, Christin Igbokwe, Sunny Okosun that started music companies and began investing in the industry and that is how the music industry survived.”
Asides this, for a generation that so desperately wants to copy the western music videos, her lyrical content and videos are on the downside. Unclad girls dominate videos that do not necessarily command rave reviews while the lyrics are filled with little or no content. “Why do you think that people keep going back to old school? You weren’t just entertained, you went home with something.”
In this, Onwenu opines that women should put on some self-worth and also demand that men should strip if they must.
Onwenu is a proud human activist with an impressive profile to show for it. With the odds stacked against her, first as a woman, and then as a fighter, she opines when we talk about the argument on what achievement really means for a woman in modern-day society, that a woman should define what achievement means and live it.
“I feel sorry for those who allow themselves to be judged based on the parameters of society. You must be married at a certain age as a woman, you must have children… You have to look at yourself and say, ‘what is my life’s purpose? What are the things I need to know to make it?’ worry about those things. Society is a flux and sometimes, what societies think, is not the best.”
“For many years, Nigerians never knew that I got married and had a family because I chose not to talk about marriage, I chose not to answer Mrs so and so. My children answer their father’s name and I, my father’s name because I married a man who, thank God, understands because I would not have changed. It’s not man and marriage are not important but I don’t want to be defined by it.”
This perception has generated conversations especially because the Nigerian society perceives women who are strong-minded as difficult to live with but Onwenu begs to differ. She opines that it is the strong women that
“Actually make good wives because they have nothing to prove. If they marry a man who believes that they have their own lives trajectory. God gave her a purpose, she is coming to get her job done.”
“When I stand before God and he says, ‘what did you do with what I gave you?’ I won’t say my husband stopped me.”