INTERVIEW: Why I left Nigeria – Mike Okri

Veteran Nigerian musician, Mike Okri, dominated the music scene in the 80s and 1990s with hits like ‘Rhumba Dance’, ‘Time Na Money’, ‘Okpeke’, ‘Wisdom’, ‘Oghenekevwe’, ‘Burnin’ and many others. He left the country over two decades ago and recently returned to oversee some projects. In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, the singer speaks about his career and the state of the nation.

PT: You left Nigeria at the peak of your career 26 years ago. What influenced this decision?

Okri: I may not be able to give you a direct answer but I can only say that I just left because I was tired of how we do things. And frankly, I figured there was greener pasture out there. Another thing was that I was very concerned about losing ground in my kind of music. The idea that I had an idea (about the direction my music should go)and it was not possible for me to showcase it further than I had done was the reason I had to leave.

PT: Did it have anything to do with your record label?

Okri: There were so many things involved. It wasn’t just the record label or me. If you noticed, most of the record labels were dying out, especially after I had packed up and left for the U.S. I was with CBS Records (Nigeria) (now Sony Music). Sony Music in collaboration with Benson & Hedges Music (now defunct) released my award-winning album “RHUMBA DANCE’’ in the early nineties.

They had already lost their foreign partners, the whole blame was on piracy. The image that was out there was that we as black people don’t manage our businesses very well, which is not true. Come to think of it, it was just outright corruption and greed. That was the reason the partners had to leave. When they left, they left us with our own business but we couldn’t manage it properly.

I can just tell you a bit about what the problem was. The same thing that is happening in government is also happening in private businesses and organisations. Until we set the record straight on how to do business and we look at it from the perspective of my brothers and my sisters. In America, you don’t have to know anybody, it’s all by merit. That’s the situation in Nigeria.

PT: Was it a tough decision for you to make at the time? I mean moving to America.

Okri: When I left Nigeria, I toured Europe much earlier with Benson and Hedges and enjoyed the fact that I was well received in that part of the world and so I decided to try America.

My intention was just to be in the states for just two years, get myself situated, and get my music career going again. Sadly, that wasn’t the case. I had issues with how do I get situated and not defy the laws of the land. While my lawyers were working at it, I was trying to get myself a record deal. Around that time, a particular record label I wanted to get signed on to arrived in Africa and I was in the states, I could not come back. There was this backlash when you go to a foreign land, like being left-handed and you’re trying to be right-handed. That was the case with me. Would I say I have any regret about it? No. because it happened that now, after a period of time, the fact that social media has made the whole world a global village was an easy catch-up for me. I may not be the young man that I used to be but that has changed nothing because age is just a number.

PT: Were your expectations met?

Okri: Reality dawned on me that it wasn’t what I expected. I remember, first, in my hey day when I used to go to the U.S., money from the Naira was still a powerful thing then I could buy dollars and when I go back to the U.S., I even give people money to feed themselves, to look good and all that every time I travelled. When I returned, the money was no longer there. Then I had to search myself. The first shock was, even those that I helped were no longer there for me.

Another thing that has to do with the culture shock was a very tiny bit of regret that maybe it would have been better if I was in Europe. I remember back in the days when I started my tours, all my tours were in Europe and my days were fantastic, I was number one in every country. That was the beautiful thing with European countries, embracing African cultural music. Americans are highly protective of their pop culture that any foreign interference is like an issue between a cat and a rat.

I kept my cool, I went through all the pain and sufferings in silence not to get through any form of depression because I was really down. Thank God for my wife that was always saying don’t worry, we will get through this together. It’s not all the time you will find yourself with a partner that really cares. It helped me cushion it a bit. It wasn’t something that I would have survived on my own.

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I now began to say what would be my definition of an American citizen and being a musician in America, despite the fact that I was like an outcast that was striving to be accepted. I created my own kind of music. I realised that I needed to understand that once I’m not following the hip-hop or their style of music, and I stick to the ground of being able to build from scratch, then truly I can make some mark and that was exactly what happened. I was able to create what is called Afro Mystic Souls. Afro Mystic Souls became the norm of my style of music.

PT: Some of your contemporaries, Alex Zitto, Alex O, The Mandators, Dizzy K, also left the shores of the country. Are you in touch with any of them?

Okri: I’ve been close to a few. Mandators and I met a couple of times at the radio station when we were being introduced and that was around 2004/2005. We live almost in the same country. We both live in Los Angeles but you know the place is huge. We barely see, we barely talk but surprisingly people that are outside California are my comrades that I come in contact with every now and then. Even when we attended Sunny Okosun’s memorial, Alex Zitto, Felix Liberty and I met and performed together for the first time. As we speak, there is still a plan for us to go on a U.S. tour because people never thought we could come together. People were actually wowed that we could come together to perform something beautiful in honour of the Okosun family. If not for the coronavirus, we would have started our tour. We are hoping that by next year or the year after, if we are still alive, by God’s grace, we will embark on that tour.

PT: Do you and your colleagues plan to come back home and do something for your industry and younger musicians?

Okri: One of the beautiful things about America is that once you enjoy dual citizenship, you are a world citizen in the sense that you can leave as much as you can. When it comes to music, you are a world citizen. It is much easier now than when I left for the US and there was no means of communication except letters or they see you once in a while on TV. But now, with a click of a button, I can decide to set up a zoom conference and you’ll see me right away, it’s different now. What we hope to do, by God’s grace, is to see that our U.S. tour can be successful, and just like I’m working on my new releases now, I’m sure they too are doing that individually, which means they will want to bring it home.

I have set up my new company, a music entertainment enterprise. It is just a springboard for other artistes to join again. I have a number of artistes on my stable but I am going to use this as a springboard to get more artistes on board in Nigeria.

PT: Do you plan to work with any young Nigerian artiste?

Okri: I may not be able to say I know any of them in person but I know their music, I know my children and I have some of them as friends. I have a manager now, a very young and vibrant man. That puts me in a position to be able to intermingle with the younger artistes and actors also. It helps to modify and pave way for collaborations. Not just artiste to artiste but also artistes to musicians to producers.

PT: Which artiste’s music are you feeling at the moment?

Okri: I think I listen to a couple of guys. We talk about the likes of Phyno, Phyno is quite more of a rapper, I give him kudos for that. Talk about Davido, I mean, he’s cut from the back ends. People talk about him that he’s his father’s spoilt brat, but he seems to be more, he seems to have that spirit of learning which is the ultimate. I give it to him also.

We need more authenticity, we need more originality but we can get away from the cliché of just recycling old songs to the point where we don’t even give credit to the original singers. We need that because why the music industry is so huge and people are living on their estates is because people worked for their values. In America where there are laws, in the UK where there are laws, you cannot infringe on copyright just like that. Those are some of the things I’d love to promote that artistes must pay for using another musician’s original work. Promoting that will help the industry last longer.

PT: Are you back home fully?

Okri: The whole idea is not for me to be permanently in one place. If I decide I want to stay here, it is fine but as soon as my business picks up and I’m more involved in leading live shows, I’ll spend more time here and travel to Europe with my band. So, I’ll be going back and forth like every other musician.

PT: Any plans to remix your classics?

Okri: We have three songs in the works as we speak. I’m even doing collaborations with some artistes on ‘Omoge’ and ‘Time na Money’. I’m working with Omawumi on ‘Omoge’ and Seyi Shay on ‘Rumba dance’.

PT: If you had an opportunity to change something about your career, what would you do differently?

Okri: I have never thought about that because I always believed that life is a pack of worms, ultimately and it’s full of ups and downs and at a point, you’re able to sustain it. I think that experience is the best teacher. Even though life in itself is still a learning process, we are not all flawless. Based on that, I have no regret and I have the best family I can think of. I am happy with them and they are happy with me, that’s my joy.

PT: Any advice for younger artistes?

Okri: Well, I’ll first of all have them realise that they must first have a structure called education. So if you are able to use that as a stepping stone, your house will stand firm. This is also applicable to our creative industry members. Why? Because we have terrible structure. I could say this authoritatively because I have seen how the system works in the U.S. where I live.

Talking about advising, once you’re able to balance your home, whatever that home represents to you, you and your spouse, I will tell that they should hold on to that. Today, everybody wants to be in entertainment because it’s a free fall and at the end of the day, it’s garbage in, garbage out. If I know that my strength is being a songwriter, I will put my energy into being a songwriter. If I know that I’m better off being a producer, I’ll not force myself to be on stage. So that’s that.

PT: Do you receive royalties for your songs here in Nigeria?

Okri: Sadly, that’s not the case for a while now and that is why the conflict is so extreme and has gotten a little confusing. I’ll try to make you understand one thing that there is a game-changer here and if only all of us as musicians, whether young or old, can think of 10years, 20years, or 15years from now, and we do not get it right; there will be no legacy, there will be no landmark print in the sand of time for the music industry. What we need, obviously, is to let PMAN, as a government agency and association work again. If all musicians can agree and make the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria (PMAN) work again, then we can regulate every other organisation. The difference between the Copyright Society of Nigeria (COSON), Musical Copyright Society of Nigeria (MCSN), and PMAN is that PMAN is the head of them all. Until we begin to understand that we are just shortchanging ourselves for allowing some people, and I say this categorically because the people in these other groups are very greedy and they are not even thinking about the lives of the people, all they want is how to whip in money to do their own private businesses.

PT: What do you do in the states aside from music

Okri: By the grace of God, I’m a counsellor, I do my own businesses and I thank God for that.

PT: Were you in the country when the Endsars protests held? What are your thoughts on the state of the nation?

Okri: Some of us were not privileged to be on the ground that day, because who knows what would have happened, and yet, lives were lost. It’s painful that in every protest of this sort, there are bound to be casualties.

Let’s recap a little more on the sensitivity of why all of these is happening. We should know that this didn’t start today and there are so many things that have gone wrong and I will categorically say that today, Nigeria is a failed state. I will say it anytime and I will say it to anyone that will care to listen. Why I am not really surprised that our leaders are not concerned about how to reshape and restructure the government, and it starts with our constitution and how things need to be done. I remember when I was growing up, Nigeria used to be the model of every African Nation. I remember we used to be something to be proud of them but we can’t be proud of the Giant of Africa anymore. That is to tell you that we are going from bad to worse.

Today, it is a thing of concern for every Nigerian to come together and say, how do we turn this situation around?