Interview: Mike Okri reveals why Nigerian musicians can’t make it in US


By Ogbonna Amadi, Entertainment Editor Before he relocated to the United States of America more than a decade ago, Mike Okri was arguably one of the best singers ever produced in the country. No concert was complete without the Omoge man, as he was better known then. Today he returns, a different Mike. He returns with a brand-new gospel album. Excerpt:

Why would a young man like you who had a thriving career suddenly abandon it and take off to another country, what really happened? .

Well, call it recycles of the times. It wasn’t as if I abandoned my career. I knew that certain things will happen in ones life that you can’t change. Apart from being a guy who follows his instincts, there were certain other spiritual issues involved that made it imperative that I moved on.

How spiritual were some of the factors? I think it was something that I believe would help my career if not now but in the future. It meant new moves to change the way I reason, become more business oriented, have deeper understanding and become more knowledgeable about my profession.

Was it a sudden decision? My movement was sudden, but it was not a sudden decision. We all know that I have been a prayerful person. I had moved around and doing things without consulting God in all I do. Three different persons saw it and revealed that I needed to change location for a period of time. But what I never bargained for, was the ten or eleven years I spent abroad. But I think the movement was worthwhile.

When you left Nigeria, where did you head straight to? I headed for New York. My intention was also to follow my career as I was recording an album before my movement. But I had to shelve the plan because my wife was expecting my son. That changed my plans to release the album. So I moved to Connecticut to live like every other man working and doing different odd jobs.

We heard different stories about the kind of jobs you were into- janitors, bouncers and all that . . .

I was not involved in any of those two. But I was on the environmental list which means, I was working with the department of environment. I was also privileged to be working in a casino and I also worked with the Black Jack as a dealer.

The job was a privilege because believe it or not, my English was impeccable. That’s why a lot of the people didn’t believe I came straight from the jungle of Africa to America. They also believed that most of us in Nigeria have heavy accent. So being able to speak fluent English and solve Mathematics helped my job as a dealer.

So what happened to your singing career? That didn’t eventually come to pass because I needed to work. I worked for two years before I move to Los Angeles California, because that was my dream. I also needed the working experience in the course of getting settled and to make a living. Back home in Nigeria, people think you pluck money on the street of America. America is sweet but if you make money, it becomes sweeter.I knew from experience that I needed to save money. I needed to save for my new baby who was born in the States. The baby made a couple of journeys to Nigeria until I decided that everybody should settle in Nigeria and go to school.

So what was life like the first two years? It made me to understand that certain opportunities should not be taken for granted. Back home in Nigeria, we could all start from being servants to becoming leaders. So it was a great opportunity to be down–to-earth. Now I know how to treat people working under me. I know that if I have to get myself back again, there will be no sentiments. I will work with professionals. And even if I have to sign a pact with a brother, he must be professional

What happened to your music after that? I can’t say that I wasn’t playing. Because in the midst of that, I played paid gigs. Gigs like playing for the Urhobo and Agbor associations and other Nigerians who believe that since Okri is around and instead of bringing an artiste or band from Nigeria, we use him.

It was adding up, though it was not the idea. If it was about playing for my people I would have just stayed back in Nigeria but that encouraged me to see that people still have value for their own and the fact remains that it was a huge opportunity for me to really put out anything that will make me look at my self as Mike Okri. Look at myself as the Okri who is working himself through the channel of knowledge, to acquire more wisdom, in the way I do things.

Why is it that most of our so-called stars hardly make it when they travel abroad? The problem is huge and nobody can really say why. But I think in my own opinion, stars could make it. I can particularly tell you that I could have made it and I still believe I can make it. It all depends on the combination of factors, one of which has to be that in the diaspora, Nigerians are so disunited. And if you go to the United States, or any part of the world and you say you are going there to unite them, you are doing yourself a disfavor.

Secondly, Nigerians in the diaspora do not control the industry. And those who are part of the success in that industry do not even identify with Nigerians as a core group because they are a failed state abroad. Also, for you as an artiste to cut it as an international artiste, you have to do so by doing collaborations and your kind of music must be a grand style. Many factors could be involved. For instance in America, age is a factor but unlike in Britain where it doesn’t matter if you are 50 or 60, you could still make it. In the music industry over there, there is a lot of politics too. If I had the kind of money like the kind of money, I controlled in Nigeria, why not I could make. I will be able to live in America and also help artistes internationally and in Nigeria. They would look up to me as somebody relevant in their country and also in Nigeria. The way we started, we did not create a platform that will make us relevant there that is why most of us suffer. Apart from Femi Kuti who has a solid base because of his late father’s influence and maybe lagbaja. There are stars from the Caribbeans and the Spanish world. They don’t need to have anything because they have the followership. With good music they are made for life and everybody will be wowed. But when Nigerians don’t have all that, how will they make it? So I’m trying to see how I can merge both sides because Nigerians accepted me back and it is possible to merge it.

You went back to school? I needed that knowledge to be able to form some other aspects of my life. I have always wanted to be a writer and broaden my horizon. I also believe that knowledge is power and to help modify the way I reason, the way I do things. How easy was it for you, a man who is not an American to get a job after graduation? It can be tough because after September 9/11, the face of America changed. America that used to be a good forum to succeed whether you have one form of education or not changed. The event of 9/11 forced them to redirect their steps. I think part of it was to cut off the life wire which is opportunity for all and say no, we have to concentrate on our people. When 9/11 happened it was an opportunity for the people to say, ‘you know what, even if jobs come back, it will be more for our own people’. It became difficult and right now, it’s not very easy for Obama. But I can tell you that as a human, if you have the potential to make your own business, now is an opportunity because if you are a resident, citizen, or a foreigner, it will do you good to be your own business man because the government is willing to give you money, to set up and employ people. So there are opportunities on ground.

So how did you survive after you graduated with the first degree? It was tough but I survived. I could say I wasn’t having a steady job because I already had in mind that I did not want a job that will tie me down. Because America is built in such a way that if you get a job, then consider yourself working with them for a life time. It didn’t matter if you are earning 15 dollars per hour, the benefits and all will make you stay. They will ask, ‘are you going to be with us for a long time’. You have to tell them the truth because you will go through all manners of training, so that you can be in that job for life and enjoy the greatest benefits. But I wasn’t called out for that. And because I didn’t want to commit myself, I went for part_time jobs, so that I can always prepare for my coming home.

We heard you’ve changed your genre of music too? Yes, I did. I have always been a born again though I may not have been so serious with the things of God. But I think to be born again is not making you look weak, people shouldn’t see you as one. You are called out for many things as long as you are doing it right. I’m not saying I’m channeling my words by doing only gospel albums or Christmas carols, but I will do so using inspirational songs and words of wisdom. This is an album for all whether Christian or non Christian. It will contain songs like Wisdom, Time Na Money, elements of songs that will make people wonder why they are in this life. Songs that will make you take the right decisions in life. It is still in the likes of gospel, but in a manner that is educative, not just singing everything about booties or about how beautiful a woman is. Of course, there are artistes who are being called out for that, but that is not what our society is made of now. Crime rates in America are still high inspite of the billion of dollars spent. This is because family values have been totally eroded and they have discovered now that the music and the movies are the major ways through which a society could be redirected or be totally destroyed. It now depends on individual conscience, food for thought. What is your direction? Do you just want to follow because everybody is following the in crowd?

You are home with an album? Yes. I‘m home with a solid gospel album. I have Femi Ojetunde and another white guy who worked on this album as my producers. There are possibilities that I might do collaborations with some of the big stars here but it depends on how it works out, but I ‘m open to all and to tell them that I ‘m still thick.

The industry today is bigger than the industry you left behind . . . I’m aware of that. But if I’m coming from an industry that is way bigger than this industry, a couple of things may not matter. For instance, I worked on a cruise ship for years. I was on a tour to the Caribbean and I played on the ship. I know the kind of bill you sign there. But nothing is exposed, because of the celebrities that come there. Even the videos, cannot be put out. Its part of the pact you sign. So you just sign to work and perform for the ship. And that’s why many people didn’t know the extent, I went in trying to break into America. I’m saying this because it’s the truth. I could not perform as a big star because of a lot of issues. I’m assuring myself and I believe strongly that my time is yet to come and so I’m not afraid of competition.

I’m not sure you are home exactly because of music, are there other things you wish to do and how do you plan to do it? . Yes. All that will eventually unfold. Right now we are looking at the possibility of setting up a record studio. We don’t want to build a studio or a record studio that will just be digital. We want to build a studio that when people can come from far and wide to record. Hopefully before we start, we are getting investors involved. It is not like we are going to wait for investors before we start, we want to get them to actually widen our scope of what we want to do. But if it doesn’t happen, we could start in our own little way.

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