Why I Have Not Been Featuring In Movies -Onyeka Onwenu
Onyeka Onwenu is a singer/songwriter, journalist and actress. She holds a Bachelor's degree in International Relations and Communications and a Master's Degree in Media Studies. The 'Elegant Stallion' recently veered into politics when she contested the Local Government Chairmanship of Ideato North in Imo State. Our REPORTER, Anthonia Soyingbe was at her Lagos office last week where she spoke on women in politics, war against piracy, her musical career, and on other issues. Excerpts:
You seem to have momentarily left the entertainment world for politics. What are your experiences in the new field?
I really didn't think I would have problem, because I had an advantage since my name was already known and my people knew what to expect. I encountered more problems than people whose name were not known. They knew I was someone, who would not be kept down on issues relating to women and the downtrodden. I wasn't ready to make certain compromises. The first time I ran for Local Government (LG), my party gave me the ticket and some people thought within themselves that I won't be able to play ball so they gave the ticket to someone else. They effectively kept me out and they regret it today. They also didn't bargain that I was someone who could be persistent. My consistency and my persistency have won them down. They now admire my strength and my persistence. They know I am not just going there because I want position and if that were true I won't have gone for LG because I so strongly believe that if service is provided at that level, we can change Nigeria around since that is the closest government to the people. I have raised the debate over LG since I went there; people who now have better qualifications are coming into the LG. They now see that there is something important at the LG. It is not a disadvantage to be a woman, rather an advantage; God has blessed us with intuition. Once you get into a place, a woman can size you up even before you speak and she can read between the lines when you talk. All these attributes of women are very good for the politician. Women don't have the temperament to be deceptive because it is not in the woman to be deceptive. She is interested in making the society better; she is concerned about the betterment of the society because her children are not going to grow up in isolation. If her children are doing well and her neighbour's children are not doing well she knows she is in trouble. Her inclination is to carry along the community and because we are caregivers in any family it is the woman who will take care of the aged, extended family and her environment. If you put a woman in a political situation, she will want to work so hard so as to improve the community. That is why we must make space for the woman. I know there is space because God created us all and he sent us down into this world with a purpose. I keep telling people that I am not going to go back to heaven and tell God that the men held me back. Really the terrain is difficult, but one just has to create the way because we all came into this world for a purpose. We are far behind other developing countries. If you go to places like South Africa you will see that the women have done better than the Nigerian women. I don't understand why women are pushed to the back here; they are strong and they are goal-getters. There is really strong opposition and resistance from the men. They don't want to share power because they see power differently. They see power as something you use to better your own lot and they see power as something you ride on. They don't want to share power with the women and the downtrodden.
Do you think the men would give Nigerian women the space to be at the helm of affairs?
It is not a matter of being given the space. The space is there and it does not belong to anybody. You don't have to give me anything because it is all about my people, my life and my country, hence I will take it because I deserve it. Except there is a law that bands women from seeking elective post, and I will fight that law if there is any like that. I am not a criminal and I am eligible. It is all about my acceptance by my people.
Considering the night meetings politicians often attend, do you think an average Nigerian woman can fit into the schedule?
Why should we have the meetings at night? It is one of the gimmicks employed by the men to scare women off politics. Whatever time they choose, we will participate fully. Before I endeavour on anything in life, I often look at myself and ask myself why I am in the business; am I there so as to go around and sleep with different men; to earn money and position? Or am I there because I want to serve my people? There is nowhere I will not go with a clean conscience. I hold my head up high. I am at all meetings including late night meetings. I am not there to sleep with any man and if you try it you will get your head blown off. Whatever you are discussing, in as much as it affects my people, I will be there. I tell women that they should not let anybody put a stigma on them, because they are politicians. If you are not called a prostitute that means you have not arrived. The first day they called me a prostitute in politics, I was taking congratulations from people because I know that I have arrived. Every woman is a prostitute and if any man calls me that I tell them their wives, mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters and grand daughters are also prostitutes. It doesn't pain me anymore, because it is now a badge of honour. I know who I am and God knows who I am. I chose to go into politics when my children were a bit grown up. I probably would not have be able to do politics if my children were still young and don't forget that I also had my musical career. The way I conducted my musical career was so good such that I didn't abandon my children. There is nowhere I go that I don't inform them. Even now that they are in university abroad, I call them often to inform them about my movement. I discuss things with them, they know why I am in politics and even give me ideas. If you carry your family along and they know what you are doing, they will support you. I never employed a cook even as a musician. I cooked all the meals that my family ate. I spoilt them because their standard is so high and it is difficult for someone else to cook for them. Even now that they are abroad, anytime I go there, I am always in the kitchen cooking for them. I personally go to market till date and you can't cheat me because I know the price of everything.
Many female celebrities have come up to accuse men of harassing them sexually. Have you been harassed sexually?
I tell them no, when they come.
Do you get these passes from older men or the younger men?
You get all kinds, but it depends on your personality and your carriage. Some are daring and they will come irrespective of how you position yourself. Some of these men do all these because they are insecure. I will firmly, sternly and emphatically tell you not to go there again. If you persist I will be rude.
Having been on stage for the past 28-year, yet off scandal, what is the secret?
The few ones I had were rumours by some journalists who concluded within themselves that I was a snub, and they couldn't stand me because they also felt I was too confident. Some were jealous because I came into the industry and I went straight to the top. God has given me the grace to carry myself in such a manner that I command respect anywhere I am. Music is a noble profession. It is a profession we have used to brand Nigeria. We are cultural ambassadors. Let nobody bring me down because I am dancing on stage.
Your songs must have been extra ordinary, considering the fact that you made it to the top of your career fast.
I don't know. I attribute it all the glory to God. I have not released an album for five years and my songs are still being heard all over the place. I remember in 1999 when they asked me to write a song for President Obasanjo's inauguration, and I thought I had run out of ideas because I had just finished recording an album. God said to me, "so you are the one birthing your ideas?" I instantly asked for forgiveness, by 3a.m. that morning God gave me the song One Nation, a beautiful song.
You seem to have a strong confidence in yourself. Is this in-born or you developed the trait over the years?
We are all born with a purpose, and this is why we must respect ourselves. We all have a mission and we can learn from each other instead of being jealous. I had discovered at a very early stage that I had a mission and I keyed into it. I have a big ministry so I have big challenges, but I have God who is always by my side. When you stand on the side of principles, you don't accept mediocrity from yourself and other people and when you stand by your belief, people call you names. Life won't be worth living if we just accept anything.
When are you coming out with another album?
Can you hint us on what you are working on?
I won't tell you that now. It is going to be great because it has taken me five years to do the job.
What are the objectives of DK Onwenu's (DKO) foundation?
It is just a way of honouring my late father, an educationist. This foundation was set up to help people who have no means to educate themselves. The foundation will encourage education reform.
What will be the place of DKO amidst other existing foundations?
My father was a self-made man, and by the steps he took, he ended up going to reputable schools around the world. He was someone coming from a poor background yet had the fortitude to strive ahead to train himself, an incredible story. We have indigent students in our society and education is very important in my family. As a matter of fact I am the least educated in my family. My other siblings have gone ahead to bag additional qualifications. Education is very important and I tell people in show business to go further on their studies. It makes you better and you are exposed to more ideas.
Would you say education has given you an edge over your colleagues in the industry?
I can't compare myself with anyone, I can only talk on the impact of education on my life and career. I can't say I am better than others because I might not, but education has made me a better artiste.
At a point, we saw you on the screen and all of a sudden you were no longer seen. Have you abandoned acting for politics?
No, I will definitely come back. I left for now because I don't just want to accept any script. The script must be challenging, because the industry went through hard times when nothing was happening. Now we have to re-strategise. I recently went for a programme in Israel and the reactions to Nigerian movies were absolutely wonderful. That is to tell you that we are being appreciated in other countries. If we don't seize the day now that all the accolades are coming to us, then some other countries will take over the mantle. We must come to the next level to improve on our performance. The films I made in the past are still selling even with the limited expertise we had then. If you give me a good script and you pay me decent money I will. Don't tell me N500,000 is enough for me. Conspiracy is still selling and you can imagine how much the producer has made and how much did he pay me? It is my performance that is selling the film. Let us give artistes what they are worth. There are pirates all over the place and the Chinese have moved into this country because they have a way with the law and they get away with it. They have some Nigerians who are backing them in these evil acts. Nigeria has become an international centre for pirates. We have people who are using our music on radio and on video, yet they don't pay royalties to artiste. We want Nigeria Copyright Commission (NCC) to help us get a proper collection centre. What is the point for me to come out with an album after spending my money and someone sits and pirates my work? Nobody is paying me and I am investing. Despite all these I am paying tax because Lagos State Government won't want to hear that Onyeka Onwenu didn't pay her tax.
Do you see NCC achieving great results in the war against piracy?
If we look at issues, we can all just give up on Nigeria. We still need to strive hard because Nigeria belongs to all of us. If I were in America I know what I would be earning from royalties alone. When I challenged Ben Bruce, he banned me despite the fact that I had a programme with NTA then and we had a plan that I would be paid. After the ban I went to court and it took people like the late Gani Fawehinm to call him to order.
Music has been said to be a veritable tool in re-branding Nigeria, do you agree with this considering the rise of piracy in Nigeria?
We could achieve more than we have done if there is no piracy. Music is re-branding Nigeria but we have not earned anything despite the fact that we use our brain and our talents to produce those songs. I am very involved in the fight against piracy.
For how long have you been keeping this low cut?
For as long as I can remember. Occasionally, you will see me wear hair extensions, but don't last. When I look at women who take the pain to make their hair I appreciate them. The luxury I have every time I wake up is that I can always pour water on my hair and that is a wonderful experience. Because of my very demanding schedule, I developed a simple routine. I do walking on one spot in my bedroom in front of my mirror, so I can see all the places I need to work on. I also do stretch exercises for about twenty minutes everyday. I wear low cut, I have no hassles of going to the salon to make my hair, I just wash it and cream it. I also believe in having my inner peace at all times. Even if you're stressed, because we all are, in this environment, there should be that inner peace that what you're doing is to the glory of God.
How do you feel being a member of PDP?
I am not just a member, but also a proud member. We are more democratic than other parties. Nigeria is made up of Nigerians.
Some men have argued that some Nigerian women entrusted with power have failed and so women will no longer be entrusted with power.
(cuts-in) we have given men opportunities and they have failed woefully so let us not vote in a man any more. There are bad people and there are good people; they can be men or women. We have to make sure that we have a system that allows people to vote for their leaders. When we are talking about piracy and intellectual property, many of our lawmakers don't even know what we are talking about; they have no grasp of what is been talked about. How are they going to make laws? If we have a chance to vote in people, who have our votes to get in there, things will change for the better. Our leaders no longer care because many of them have not gotten there through the ballot box they don't owe anyone allegiance. The Late Magret Ekpo raised the bar for politics by her commitment. My late grandmother was the first woman to build an upstairs in Obosi and she was a politician of the mode of Mrs. Fumilayo Kuti. At a time they banned her because she spoke the truth accusing her of stealing, they even went ahead to instruct the whole town not to speak with her. Women will set good examples because it is the women that are holding the homes and they are the ones holding this country together. It is a pity that we don't want to acknowledge these women who have made Nigeria proud.