I relocated from Lagos because my children were losing touch with tradition –Bright Chimezie
Highlife musician Bright Chimezie, a.k.a. Okoro Junior, who used to be quite visible on the Nigerian entertainment scene, speaks with NONYE BEN-NWANKWO about his career and private life. Where have you been all this while? I have been out of Lagos for about seven years. I have been in Abia State; Umuahia to be precise. I lived in Lagos in the 1980s. I even got married here.
Why did you decide to go back home?
It got to a point where my children didn't know where they came from. My music distracted me. I was more interested in it than anything else. But I later realised that my children couldn't even speak their language fluently. It used to prick my conscience that my kids couldn't speak their language.
So you decided to take them home?
Oh, yes. By 2003, when they were old enough to attend secondary school, I decided to take them home. If I hadn't done so, they would have thought that Lagos was their home. They would have found it difficult to get used to our own culture. I had to relocate to eastern Nigeria in 2003 with my wife, my kids and my band. Since that time, I have been shuttling between Umuahia and other parts of the world.
And have you achieved your aim with your kids?
Yes. I thank God that the kids now understand their language. They know where they come from and they know their environment. They can also come back to Lagos if they wish.
Don't you think that people should still have known about your activities even in Umuahia?
I still play music. I was just being mindful of the press at the time. I have a 16-piece band. It is live music that has sustained me up until this point. I am not involved in any other kind of business. If I were, the gossip mill would have mentioned it.
We learnt that you have recorded a new album.
Oh, yes. It is titled 'Because of English'.
Does the title revolve around any true life experience of yours?
Oh yes. Most times, I use personal experience to get my message across to the people. 'Because of English' is another story. My teacher in primary school punished me because of English language. The teacher got up one morning and said nobody should speak vernacular on that day. He said he was going to whip us if he caught us speaking vernacular. You know I was born and brought up in the village. It is not easy to divorce vernacular from me. So my classmate, Chinyere, took my pencil. She was always taking my pencil without returning it when I needed it. I told her, 'Chinyere, nyem pensul mu,' which means Chinyere, give me my pencil. My teacher heard me and screamed. He shouted, 'Who said that? Who spoke vernacular in this class?' The whole class pointed at me. He asked why I disobeyed him. I said, 'Nna anyi ukwu' (my boss), I didn't even realise that by calling him nna anyi ukwu, I was still committing the same offence. Before I could finish explaining to him, he asked me to kneel down and he punished me. Why should my teacher punish me because I didn't speak English? We should not allow our language to die. Those days, when we were growing up, the Igbo had their own alphabet. The Yorubas have their own as well. But these days, we have defaulted. Kids now find it very difficult to speak their language.
Is that why some of your songs are rendered in Igbo?
Yes. Apart from some songs I recorded in English and Pidgin, the bulk of my songs were recorded in Igbo. I speak the proverb. I thank God for my language. But the younger generation have not inculcated this aspect of our culture. I am afraid that in the next 25 years, many young people will suffer from what I call cultural amputation. I had to come out with this album to get the attention of the people.
One of your songs tells how a white man once said you were commiting suicide because he saw you eating pounded yam. Is that a true story?
People keep asking me if that story is true. That was creativity. I wanted to pass a message across to the people. The best way to do that was to get a story line. To answer your question, part of that song was a true life experience. We have Ogbono soup, Egusi soup and other kinds of soup, and we should wash our hands and eat them with pride. If the Chinese eat with chop-sticks and take pride in that, why shouldn't we do ours?
We should be proud of who we are and what we stand for.
You are always dressed in traditional clothes. Does it mean you can't wear English attires?
I am afraid, for the past 30 years, I have worn traditional attires. I am used to them. If I wear a suit now, I may look awkward. This is my style, and it has been so for many years
What really got you into playing highlife music?
I am a cultural person. Like I said, I grew up in the village. With that kind of background, what do you expect? I was not born in a town. I only started going to town after my secondary school days. My father was a church minister before he passed on. He had a wonderful voice. My mother is still alive and she is a powerful dancer. I have a natural flare for music. I make small moves and people will start clapping for me. That was how it got to this level. I used to sneak out of school and perform at television programmes. I was appearing on NTA, Aba in those days. It was a big deal. People would shout and scream that they saw me on TV. From there, I picked it up and started sharpening my skills until I formed my own brand of music known as Zigima Sound. I have held on to it till date.
If you weren't born in the rural area, would you have had a different mindset?
I don't know. God has a way of balancing equations. Any environment you live in influences you. If I was born in Lagos, I don't think I would have been transmitting on the same wave length.
Some people see your nickname, Okoro, as derogatory. How come you take so much pride in bearing it?
It was quite derogatory. Without sounding immodest, I kind of gave 'Okoro' some prestige. When I came into Lagos in the 1970s, people were always calling me Okoro boy. Well, I said there was no problem with that. Okoro is not my name. But because of my afrocentric ideas, because of my trying to protect where I come from, I was dubbed Okoro. I even affixed the name to my real name. I take so much pride in answering it. I don't see it as being derogatory.
As a young man back then, most people would have expected you to flow with the tide instead of behaving like a traditional man. Weren't you criticised?
All of us cannot be there. I derive a lot of joy from what I have become. I find it difficult not to be myself. I was born in the village. I cannot push aside that aspect of my life so that women would love me.
So there is nothing Western that you miss?
Like what? Is there anything African that oyinbo man misses? I don't miss anything! Let me tell you, the fact that I am traditional does not mean that I am archaic. I am a young African man in a modern sense. I still mingle with people. It is just that the uniqueness is there. Once you look at me, it will strike you that I am a serious African man.
Your wife didn't mind marrying an 'okoro' man?
No. She didn't mind. There are some women who love men that are very deep and men that vibrate. My wife falls into that category. I proposed and she accepted. That was in 1990.
Before you met your wife, would you have been tempted to marry a white woman during one of your trips abroad?
I wouldn't have done that. It would have been cross breeding. I am not trying to go against people that married white women. Love is a universal thing. But with my kind of philosophy, it would have been difficult for me to marry a foreigner. The white woman can not make Ugba and stockfish for me. Would she have been able to rap with me in Igbo language? One thing that gives me joy is sitting down with my wife and speaking Igbo language without putting a word of English.
Regarding your kids, don't you think their friends could see them as 'bush' people?
No way. Their formative years were superb. They went to the best schools in Lagos before we moved to the East. Even now, their English is impeccable. They speak very well. It was just that I had to balance that. I got married here and I had to take them home when I noticed that something was lacking. I couldn't allow my wife to go home and do it alone. If I had done so, I'm sure you would have written that Okoro Junior has dumped his wife in the village and is rocking life and frolicking with young girls in Lagos.
How were they able to adapt to the environment at home?
Remember their father is an okoro man. Their papa was there and their mama was there. They were even happy. Kids love nature. They love the natural things in the environment at home. I thank God they were not too old when we moved. They were able to acclimatise very well. I have done my bit. My conscience is now clear.
What if your son wants to become a hip hop artiste?
While I was growing up, we had reggae. James Brown and Tony Wilson's kind of music was the in thing. Those days, to appear fashionable to pretty young women, we pretended as if we were oyinbo. But after some time, I had to navigate. Coming back to your question, Highlife music, Zigima music, Apala and Fuji belong to us. I will tell him to take these music to another level. The kind of highlife that people before me played was not the same I play. The kids should take what we are doing now to another level. If you check out what these kids sing now, the lyrical content is completely zero. Their attention is on Hummer jeeps. They work with computers and programme their beats and they take it to a DJ to play for them on the radio. We didn't grow like that.
Is there any chance of leaving your village for the city again?
I wouldn't say. It depends on the gravitational pull. Right now, I am comfortable. I am focusing on my career. I still maintain my 16-piece band. What would I have used to feed my family? But everywhere is urbanised. There is telephone and there is the Internet. Things are still working well in the village. I have accomplished what I wanted.
Do you still get the attention that you used to enjoy from the public in the past?
It is even higher. Without sounding immodest, I am very unique. I drove into Lagos less than 48 hours ago, I tried walking down the streets, and the people almost mobbed me. The admiration is still there.
Even as traditional as you may be, you still add swag and style, especially in the way you walk and your dance steps...
I am traditional but that does not mean I should behave like an old man. For God's sake, I am a young man. I am bubbling with life and enthusiasm. I have body movements. I didn't need to go to any school of dance.
You said you got your royalties from COSON?
I got money! I will not tell you how much they paid me. I was zigimatised! It was in December, 2009. Tony said I should send my bank account number and he wired money into my account, saying it was my royalty. I was dazed. I just decided to identify with them. It has not been happening. I have a lot of CDs in the market. I recorded for Rogers All Stars and I am still recording for him. He still pays me my royalties. I need to identify with bodies that transmit on such wave length so that we go to the next level together.