I’m a prophetess, I see angels —Christy Essien Igbokwe
Christy Uduak Essien-Igbokwe needs no introduction. A musician of note, she has a number of great hits to her credit. Some of her unforgetable tunes that have endured for three decades include Freedom; Patience; Time waits for no one; Hear the call; Omo mi seun rere among others. Even with 35 national and international awards and 10 hit songs, the Lady of Songs says the best is yet to come. In this interview with Ronke Kehinde, the songbird speaks about the lives she has touched and the lives that have touched her. She recalls how the late chairman of Punch Nigeria Limited, publishers of The Punch, Chief Olu Aboderin, stayed with her in the labour room, when she was having her first child. She also mentioned how she used to see Angels in her childhood. Excerpts:
Why did you encourage your son to sing?
I wouldn't use the word encourage, because if I use it, I'll be lying. Just one morning I was shocked when he said, “Mum, I'm going to the studio' I said to do what? He said, he was having his own recording.
At first, he was producing some of his friend's records in the house, because we have a mini studio in the house. I told him, make sure you don't charge them, so that they won't say this is where I'm eating from. He took the advise. When he now came and said he was going to have his own. I said okay.
I believe in giving people a chance and I don't believe in stopping someone from what he or she wants to do, because it's wrong. We all came into this world with different talents, you may go into Agriculture today, tomorrow God may use you as a doctor. I always tell parents that please don't disturb your child. Let him or her decide what he or she wants to do.
What are the gains and pains of music for you?
(Laughter) I'm always a positive human being. I don't want to say there's pain. Even though pain is natural. When you accept pain, pain will be there.
I will rather say I've gained a lot through music. Not financially, but looking back and looking forward, I'll say I'm happy for what I've gained through that talent that God has given to me. One, people see me as a role model. Children, youths, mothers, fathers.
That you can't quantity. Money cannot achieve that for me. Apart from the fact that people in government respect what I say, they know I'll not talk rubbish. I don't talk out of sentiment. Money cannot do that for me.
Again people hearing my name, it's like she has done her part, she has achieved a lot. When they see me, they will say “Are you the same person? Are you sure you are the one?” Then my voice will give me away, and they will say “She is the one, that is her voice?”. And they are so excited to talk with me, to hear my voice.
And when they see me outside to ask for a favour, they find it difficult to turn me down. Even if they will not be able to do it. But it's so difficult for them to say 'I can't'. rather, they will say please give me sometime let me look for a way out of it.
You started by singing and along the line you deviated into acting. How did you start?
I never deviated into acting. I started singing first when I was in Aba as a young girl and in 1976 that same year too I joined the 'New Masquerade'. Then it was called 'Masquerade'. In fact, I was in secondary school when I started singing and acting in Now Sound on NTA 10, Aba, and Masquerade. Then all these programme where coming from NTA 10, Aba. So, it was like a twin programme.
When you look back at life, are there things, you would have loved to change?
I would have loved to change that my mother is dead, and my grandmother is dead.
These are the two people I would wish God to bring back. Because these two women were my greatest inspiration in life. They inspired me so much. They were always telling me the words of life. Words of life is when you are being directed properly.
My mother and grandmother had always believed I was going to be somebody. So they saw it as a task that must be done to bring me up properly. They always told me, if you do this, this is the consequence, if you do that, this is what you are going to see. So, all these words stick into my brain.
That's why, anytime I want to deal with somebody, I will first of all put myself into that person's shoe. I will ask myself this question: What if that person should do this to me, how would I feel? So, that's the basis on which I deal with people. I don't have regrets in life, honestly. The only regret is that I don't have my mother and grand mother to enjoy me now.
How do you feel about paternal grandmother?
I never saw my father's mother, neither did I see my father's father. I only heard that they were good people.
What do you think has changed in the music industry, now and then?
A lot has changed. Now our young artistes are conquering the world. This is one thing I've predicted before in my life that I will live to see when one day, the white people will come here to start taking our boys out there. Well, there is a price for everything.
I don't care if they come here and take them away and then they pay the price, and tomorrow we'll take over. I'm really happy with the youths of today. Even though they are singing and making noise, I would say it's time for noise making. And there is time for everything, just like I sang. There is time for them to make noise, and that noise, people enjoy it, so let it be.
Who is the Christy Essien Igbokwe we don't know?
Why don't you know me. One I'm an introvert. I don't like going out a lot. I've always been like that, right from when I was a child. I think my childhood affected me. Right from when I came to stay with my mother in 1971.
Where were you before then?
I was brought to Lagos to come and stay with my eldest sister who was in police force then. Because of spiritual problems, I was taken away when I was barely two and half years,.
I was taken by my uncle so that I would survive. They said that Angels were coming to visit me physically. They would see them coming out. They said I would be talking and behaving like an old woman. I'll be advising them and telling them what they should go and do.
It became scary; people say look, if you continue allowing Angels to come and visit her, one day they will just take her away. You better take her somewhere else, so that they will not visit her again. I was about two and half years, so I heard. I was taken to my sister in the barrack. And I had another problem in the barracks.
The police woman that was in control of the barrack, said: “So my sister had given birth before, that she's telling lies that I'm her younger sister. She said I was too small. So, when the woman was coming to inspect the barracks at Obalende, I would go and hide under the bed (laughter). They would tell me, run, run, run, she's coming. And I'll run like a rat. I'll go under the bed. I'll be waiting.
When she went away, they would come and tell me that she had gone. When the trouble was much, they would take me to go and stay with this family for sometime, just to cool the temper in the barracks.
I would go to that place. I kept going like that until I was seven years. I was now allowed to stay in the barracks with other kids. That made me. It's a psychological thing that affected me.
What is the biggest sacrifice for you in your career?
As an artiste you are supposed to show some good examples. You are supposed to love people not in a lustful form. That is not a sacrifice, it's a contribution to the society. You have to give back to the society.
We are here in this world to give service. So people should not call that service or sacrifice. In my own little way so far, I've been able to think about the motherless, the helpless, the hopeless, and the homeless, even those who are able bodied but handicapped.
I have an NGO called Essential Child Care Foundation which was launched many years ago and I've used that programme to get a decree promulgated in this country during the time of Babangida to stop children from hawking on the streets till midnight. There must be a stipulated time. It is bad when you allow a child that has not eaten to hawk till 10 pm.
There are times, when coming from shows I see children hawking; my heart bleeds, that is why I created that NGO. I wrote to the government that we were not condemning children hawking, what we are condemning is the treatment behind it. Government then promulgated that decree.
Like I always say to one of my sons, that what you say doesn't matter but the way you say it. So, what you do doesn't matter but the way you do it. What you promise does not matter, it's how to fulfill it. When they come to me, I say I believe in practical. I don't believe in theory.
If you have not been a singer, what would you have been?
I would have been so many things because I like giving service. I would have been a nurse or doctor? No. I can't stand blood (laughter). It's not all nurses that encounter blood. I would have loved to be a psychologist. I'm a kind of psychologist right now, in a different way.
I counsel people and tell them what they should do. I'm already a prophetess. I'm a nurse in the sense that I love caring for people. I'm so many things. I'm a producer; I'm a nurse just in passing; I'm a psychologist; I can go on and on. My husband used to tell me that is there anything you are not? And I will say yes. He will ask what? I will tell him to make him laugh that I'm not yet president of the nation.
What is the most memorable day of your life?
The day I became a mother, I can't forget because my son tortured me very well. If not that God had already told me that I was going to have four boys I would have stopped. I spent two days in labour, I could not shout or cry because my mother and grandmother told me that if you cry in your first labour, that is how you'll be crying all through, and that shows you are lazy. I was doing, hmm, hmm for two days. Doctor did not know I was going through pain because I wasn't shouting and crying.
They left me alone, they were saying this girl is strong. It was the late Chief Aboderin, because my husband was working for The Punch then. He just came back from abroad then, and he took me to hospital when I fell into labour. He stayed with me, he laid on the bench at the military hospital on Awolowo Road.
They were begging him to go home that I'll be alright, he didn't listen. He said 'No, I want to be here.' He used to call me Iya. He said 'Iya, pele, it's paining you, you can't cry.' I said 'my mother said I should not cry.' It was like he should take over the baby and deliver him for me. I could see so much pain on his face.
He had to call Doctor Peter, 'Come here, Iya is in the hospital, Iwo n lo se party. Party wo niyen? (You went to a party, which party is that). I have a lot of memory about him that I felt so bad that I've lost him. He was like a father to us.
What was your experience like when you were PMAN president.Coping with human being is the most difficult thing for everyone in this life - human beings from different families, background. Musicians are the most difficult people you can think of in this life.
I'm a singer, I don't know if I'm difficult but I've tried to make myself to be very simply and approachable; and to live with people in peace. That doesn't make me a saint or make me perfect. But, when you can deal with musicians and you come out of it, you must thank God. When I was PMAN president, it's one thing I don't want to remember.
There's nothing they didn't want to push me into, so that they can have excuse that when she was president o, she was not approachable, she was doing this o, or that o. Sometime, they will just come with their wahala, (trouble) from nowhere. Because of the grace of God, I was able to sail through despite all odds.
.What were your achievements when you were PMAN president?
I made efforts to bring about positive changes. And through me God brought programmes that would have made the union solid today, out of envy or whatever, they didn't allow the programme succeed. In the first place, it was me that God used to form PMAN.
And then when they came and say I should come and serve them I had to go. They said “your baby is suffering and you are keeping quiet. You found this union, and then look at what is going on. If you meant well for the industry you should come and run it. Bring out the idea for which you found the union.
Bring it to play now. I tried to put in things that should be in place. I called in some people, that committee to take care of this aspect and that aspect. In everything in life, you must have some machinery in place, that will be a guiding light for you to execute whatever you want to execute.
When Charles Agoro was abroad; when this debt cancellation thing was reigning then and the Paris Club wanted to come to Nigerian do discuss it, a committee was set up to come to Nigeria; they needed a musical union, to co-ordinate the musical aspect of it in Nigeria.
So, when they were asking for who they could contact to organise it Charles said “Thank God, the woman that most Nigerians respect is the president of PMAN. We don't have to get an individual to do it. Let's do it through her, because she has integrity.”
They came to Nigeria, and we discussed about three times at Kuramo Lodge in Victoria Island. Then, they went to President (Olusegun) Obasanjo to tell him that PMAN would handle everything. The president said “Yes, it's alright”, he endorsed it that we should be used.
We even went to visit him over it. He told us he agreed to the programme to help our country. But you know right there and then, musicians started holding meetings against me in their different rooms. A programme that everyone would benefit from, and prove a point that the music industry could make Nigerians richer than how oil could make it. Of course, we've seen it in advanced countries. That was a very serious breakthrough for us.
I said God, why can we be our own enemies? The next thing was that I started hearing this and that. When Charles Agoro heard that there was going to be election and I was not going to be there again.
He told them he had his own name to protect too, he told the people that they should forget about that programme with PMAN. They didn't know that it was the personality involved that made the programme to be endorsed in the first place. All of us cannot be the same. Some people God has sent to this world and make things possible for them So far it's for the good of everyone.
What is your future plan for this industry?
I want to help the youth by guiding them - through counselling; through doing duet with them; through promoting them; through also producing them. Anything I can do to see that the industry continues to go higher and higher, I'll do and then achieve that dream which I always wanted - that the music industry in Nigeria will yield us lot of dividends that will take care of people. In few words, can you describe yourself.I am simple, I don't like deceiving myself. I advise myself a lot. I'm peaceful, I tell myself the truth. I love people.
Among your songs which one would you consider your favourite and which is your hit?My hit is yet to come. Somebody came from England and asked me if I get royalty for my music, she said they play my music everywhere abroad. Their favourite is Rumours, they play my music in night clubs; they play in their own radio stations.
They say they are thinking of putting my name in the Guinness Book of Records, being the only artiste all over the world that is sincerely married, with no scandals; that they are waiting till when I'm 50 to come and interview me for that.
I asked Rumour of all songs? They asked why did I sing that song, and I said I don't know why, it came from heaven. All my life I've never written a song, I don't sit down and say I want to write. It just comes naturally, and then I'll go and tape it. From taping, I will start writing it.
It just comes. In Liberia before the war came, their hit was Keep appointment and Owun and they didn't know what Owun is all about. Owun is about death, and Owun was number one in Liberia for one good year. Keep appointment was number two, followed by Thy kingdom come.
So every country has it's own. I went to Ghana when Rawlings was the president in 1984, their best was Don't let me down and Lonely road. When we got there somebody told us that make sure you sing Don't let me down and Lonely road.
We didn't rehearse it before. We started rehearsing it fast. In AIT, presenter (Steve) Kadiri, his own was Akwa Ibom, that is the one he was playing every time. He made others to join him to like his song. Anytime he's having his programme on Ray Power, people will be making request for Akwa Ibom'. I just thank God.
So, when are we expecting your new release?
When my son's album is out. We've finished it, it's just the video we are doing. Before the end of next month we'll finish it. We can now launch him into the market. My own album is coming next year.