By Amaechi Agbo
Mike Okri is very much popular in the Nigerian music industry. The TIME NA MONEY corona spoke with our Editor, Amaechi Agbo, yesterday, about his passion for music and how he was called the black sheep in the family because he chose music as his career. He also spoke about Buhari’s anti-corruption crusade and the need to restructure Nigeria. Excerpts.
TNC: Tell us your background, sir.
Okri: My name is Mike Okri. Some call me Mike Okri for short which is also my stage name. I am an Uhrobo by tribe in Ugheli in Delta State. I am from a humble family, pretty large as well because the Okris are everywhere. I am number three in the number of children that are numerous to mention.
Having said that, I am also a father of five wonderful boys, they are grown men now. I am married to a beautiful wife, my helpmate who has been with me, and solidly behind me in whatever I do. And I am proud to say we have been married for over thirty-something years.
My humble beginning tells it all. My passion for music is the reason I followed music. I was labelled a black sheep of the family because of music. The reason is because back in the days, parents would say that music is a vocational thing and not something you could hold unto professionally. I remember vividly back then, anyone that is into music is regarded as someone who is not serious with his life; you are more of bar-room celebrity, a place where either brothels or prostitutes gather. Or when you go to places like Ochanja Market (in Onitsha) they play music then people selling medicine will dance.
We thank God all that has changed, we brought some sort of revolution into the music industry. In the wake of so many genre, so many talents and celebrities before us such as Fela Anikpolakuti, Sony Ade, Osadebe, Rex Loxson, Sunny Okosun, Victor Uwaifo to mention just a few. We learnt from the tutelage of those ones who have been able to put together the reason we are involved in music. It creates an ambiance of smile, beauty; call it whatever you mean. That is from the old adage that says that if music is the food of love, play on. It reminds some of us who are passionate about music that without music we are like dead beats, but we thank God. My father little understood what music was to me then; therapeutic, healing – he didn’t understand. But as time went on and I stood my ground as the black sheep, I became a revolution in the family to liberate that fact. I was no longer the black sheep but an accepted child. And my father blessed me before he passed on. I brought glory to the name Okri. I know I have brothers who are doing well in their own world. I have a brother who is doing well in the literary world, Ben Okri who is a writer. But musically, I was also able to prove myself.
The beginning was tough. To be able to elaborate on how it all happen is by the grace of God because there is nothing you could say you were able to do on your own. So as a young kid after I graduated from Television College, Jos, my intention was not to follow broadcasting; although I know I am gifted when it comes to English grammar and phonetics, yet I clamoured to be one of the best to have come from the Delta region and the Ijaw-nation at large. I was self-thought in music, I had no degrees in music. It is not like I studied music per se, it was just passion and I needed to build on that and I was fortunate. Anywhere I opened my mouth to sing, people would marvel and say ‘oh, what a beautiful voice’. In spite of what my father did say then, it never bothered me. I moved on, I pushed on. In spite of discouragement from other quarters, I was unrelenting in my pursuit of happiness.
TNC: At what stage in your life did you discover music as your passion and how?
Okri: Well, as a young kid, I was just six years when I started joining words into songs. I could sing old songs, school rhymes and do them even pretty better than a group of kids would do them. Of course, the most fascinating thing about me is my voice, my unique kind of voice. My mom, who by the grace of God will turn 90 soon, was whom I got that talent from and it is not only me, virtually all my siblings can sing. It just happened that God brought me to the fore-front and I am believing God that right from my very young age, I have never relented. I have been singing from when I was six years old.
TNC: For a while now, you have been absent from the music industry, what actually happened?
Okri: That was a kind of turning point in my life where I felt I was obviously trying to reach out to something I could not grab. Just like the situation in the country with different fields where we think that maybe we are not being supported enough, I decided I was going to the United States. Unknown to me that just few years when I left, MTV Base came to Africa and turned the music industry here around for many, however, I do not have any regrets because I observed that US is the citadel of music worldwide. Talk about technology, talk about the best of the best in the music industry globally. So, I am privileged now that I am back to believe that I am better than what I was and could do better to enhance as well as contribute my own quota to the ailing music industry.
Ailing because, yes, there was a boom in the music industry with so many talents, yet lacking depth and meaning. That was because there was no foundation and that is why such ailment is happening in the industry. Any profession that lacks depth and foundation suffers even though it might be popular in the eyes of men. It will suffer a whole lot of situations because there was no foundation in the first place and there is no censorship about what type of music is to be produced and sold out there; there is no measure of standard. So, it becomes, in my own borrowed term, mediocritical.
TNC: Let’s go back a little beat to the yesteryears when you produced Time Na Money; what gave you the inspiration?
Okri: It is an inspiration that if I give myself the credit, I will be lying. I will give the credit to the likes of Remakwa Chukwu and Laolue Kings; these are formidable people in the music industry who thought it was good for me to use my voice to deliver a song in the best way it could be better understood. Time Na Money came into prominence and it was not a disappointment to the general public. I am proud to have produced a song that reminisces into the ages, evergreen and is seen as a song of culture to many as to how to live a true life.
TNC: How do you compare the current new generational music with the old school ones?
Okri: Well, I have no doubt in my mind that there is a revolution. Except that a revolution that has picked up to a level but like a boomerang, is coming down backward. When you look at the graphic accent of the key when it reaches to the pick, and due to improper design, it is coming downward. It is sad to say that in the eyes of so many of us, both professional and non-professionals alike, yes, it is a booming industry, millions are rolling but what do we think the music industry will be 15 years down the road when the likes of the present people are no more there?
Some of us are proud to say we are evergreen and we thank the audience who identifies good music. But what is good music? A good music is one that reminds you or teaches me about something I am proud of or something that will alter my way for good rather than alter my way to do evil or bad thing. Songs of fun, it does not mean we have to be too serious. There is variety that makes a whole lot of sense but when it is too mono in the approach of it, it becomes monotonous and turns into a cacophony which is noise.
TNC: Many Nigerians have music talents but they find it difficult to break into the music industry, what is your advice to them?
Okri: The reason why that is obvious is because there is not enough to gather the influx of so called artistes or musicians coming into the industry. Everybody wants to take the forefront. In our days, we had so many musicians too but some settled to be good instrumentalists, they don’t have to be Mike Okri to be in the forefront. We wanted to see someone who will control our destiny and make us after-sort musicians and still able to hold our own. But today, everybody wants to be a singer because of the money. So there is no true passion. That is case number one.
Secondly, if we really want to look at the industry holistically, everybody is clamouring for government, yes, but the industry is controlling billions of dollars worldwide. It makes us to forget the deep hole that we are all sinking into because we forget to say how well do we restore the industry where I know that children of my children will find career in when they come into the music industry.
That comes from the fact that we do not have a union that will be able to better censor the music industry in ways of channelling it through everybody that is a team player in the industry. For instance, when we are talking about the music industry, we are also talking about the cooperate sponsors. Like now a lot of people are doing what they like because there is no censorship from a government entity or representative like PMAN.
In all countries thriving in the world, no particular industry survives without a union. So lacking that is the reason why the most talented cannot be out there to showcase their talents because they are supressed, they do not have money. They believe in their talent but their talent alone cannot get them out there.
The ones that are least talented, they might come from rich homes, they might be able to go to Malaysia and sell their kidneys and have money to do their music and sponsor themselves. But the real talent, knowing that the business is discovery and wants to be a star, may not be able to achieve the dream.
Music has become a little easier due to the modern technology that we apply such as audio tone. With such technology, any idiot can sing. But do you know how we try who is a talent? On the stage with live instrument, having a band. I remember when we were groomed, we played with the likes of Oliver De Coque, Sunny Okosun, Onyeka Onwenu; we all did backup for them, travelling worldwide. That helped us and prepared us for our own solo careers.
Today, tell me how many of the artistes we have out there that have performed with a band and is out there making the billions, just very few of them. May be 2face, Flavour, P-Square; I would not say these people particularly performed with other established artistes before they became stars but at least they probably were somewhere watching compared to some others who just came out of the blues just because they have money or some godfathers promoting them. So talents will continue to suffer until we checkmate certain things in the industry.
TNC: Your fans are wondering when they are going to see your new album.
Okri: I tell you strangely because I know that that has been the expectations for quite some time now. I am doing my new tape with old music cult. It is like new wine in an old bottle. I am doing my old Omoge with Omawumi, that is not news except that we are still working on it to do it right.
We are also doing Rumber Dance with Sheyi She. I am also doing another song, a charitable song meant for charitable event and for humanity, and I featured the likes of Yinka Davies, Christiana – the Ozigizaga coroner. I also featured Benita Okoje and some of my children. It is a song I had to bring new and old together. We have such event coming back.
I am also looking at the possibility that from next year, there will be a different Mike Okri going on road tour with my own band. We want to turn things around and also use me as a platform to develop new arts. Create for them a future, call it an academy of sound on the road.
TNC: Music has been your life, apart from music, what else do you do?
Okri; I am a businessman. I am a jack of all trade, master of all. I am involved in resource management, advisory committee on any new idea because God has blessed me in being able to share ideas. I also do research, write proposals for events for companies both home and abroad. I am also a psychologist, a counsellor. I am involved in counselling.
TNC: What exactly was you course of study back then in the university?
OKri: Here in Nigeria, I went to tertiary institution, TV College, Jos, where I earned my diploma in journalism. When I went to the States, I followed a new line; music was not necessary so I did not need to pursue it because by my own standard, I was equal to none. Knowing that one of the greatest problems facing humanity is the fear of God and the inability to care for others, was what brought me into the counselling business. But I needed to study and earn my degree and Masters in Psychology, Drug and Alcohol because it was a big problem in the United States and I aimed to pursue that by writing books.
TNC: Let us go into politics. Buhari government and the fight against corruption, what is your take?
Okri: My take is that the present government should not take the cat before the horse. Buhari’s effort is nothing new to Nigerians. Fighting corruption, you have to fight it from the root and the only way that could make sense is to put together a conference or special body to look into Nigerian constitution because it is faulty.
What that means is reinstating the status quo on how we are designed to exist. What I mean is true federalism. There are countries like USA and I am not saying we should measure up to them but they passed through a lot – they had their own civil strife and a lot of challenges over 200 years.
Nigeria, much as we are young, we should start looking at a way for restructuring the states to make them autonomous and bear responsibilities. And not making it in a way where the centre is too bogus and yet achieving little. If our states are giving that autonomy, it allows them to source for their own revenue both at local and state levels, to be able to give back to the centre which is the federal government and that will also make us individually as a state to reach out to our extreme goals because all fingers are not equal.
In the past, we had a system of government where agriculture was thriving like so many other ventures but today the norm is monotony. Mono-economy in direction. When oil came, it became the norm and nobody looked at something else. Other countries are then benefiting from other resources that Nigeria don’t even know about that Corrupt leaders and citizens are busy milking behind. We should keep good record, stopping corruption is a good way to start but there should be structured agenda from the beginning not just starting from the middle. Such that when a government goes, none of the structures changes. If any government comes in they are forced to deal with the structures on ground but today, we can never grow if a new government comes in and it is all about changing structures it ought to maintain.
TNC: Use of drugs in Nigerian music industry; is this really true and why do musicians engage in such?
Okri: Well, it is foolhardiness. Secondly, they have no clue about the dangers, thirdly, myopism. If you look at the structures of some of the artistes today, you will see that some of them probably by accident hit the limelight. So they have so much money that they do not know what to do with money. You and I who are from humble homes and know what we have suffered, if we make money, we will know how to handle it with good advisers around us. But some of these boys are wayward, arrogant, and disrespectful; no man with such character can do anything good with his millions.
TNC: Is Mike Okri a Christian?
Okri: Mike Okri is a Christian. I believe strongly in that aspect of me as a Christian. My entire family is a Christian even though we may not have had a Christian background but there was a turnaround in my life when God touched me.
TNC: At what time?
Okri: It was at a time that already Mike Okri has made name. You know how it is when you are in the music industry, challenged by the pleasures of the world and women flouting, money there and different kinds of things. I thank God that it got to a point where I took a step backward to review my life because some of us are not around to tell their story today due to these pleasures and over assumption of what the human race entails. But you know that you cannot separate that human race from its likeness and who is its likeness? God – the creator of heaven and earth. You cannot separate them. When we intend to follow our own will, things begin to go wrong. It is like a child, a toddler, learning how to walk; God will sit back and watch just like our earthly fathers such that when we fall he will pick you up. But it gets to a time you are wise to know that this is a pitfall, your father will not be there any more to be able to direct you. So that is what it is.
TNC: thank for you time.
Okri: it is a pleasure. God bless you.