Beautiful Nubia stands out in a number of ways. Musically, his kinds of songs are difficult to classify, yet they command good followership. Quite unlike most artistes, he appears simple and there are no airs about him and surprisingly, he says it quite often that money is not his motivating factor as far as music is concerned.
Since his debut album “Seven Lifes” hit the airwaves in 1997, he has not looked back and with his latest effort, “Sun No Dey Sleep” he confirmed himself as an authority in folk, roots and African rhythms. In an interview with WOLE ADEJUMO, Beautiful Nubia, born as Segun Akinlolu shed light on how he came about the name Beautiful Nubia, his journey into music and how he started writing songs at the tender age of 9. Excerpts:
The name Beautiful Nubia, how did you come about it? What’s the story behind it?
I gave myself that stage name in 1997 just before releasing my first album ‘Seven Lifes’. The first part describes a state of spiritual perfection I thought I should seek, a beautiful spirit, one that is beyond hate, greed and selfishness. Imagine someone who can see beyond face and faith, beyond gender and colour, who sees every human as deserving of one’s total love and service. That is the kind of person I wanted to be. I want to be beautiful and pure inside out, this was a quest I set out on early in life – every new day is a challenge to see how I can become a better and improved person. I am still on that path. The second part, Nubia, is the name of a nation of African people who basically led the world about 2750 years ago. They were people like us in complexion and they laid the foundation of modern scientific and social advancements. I chose that name to remind Nigerian and African youth that people from our part of the world have not always been slaves, colonized peoples, technologically backward or second-class citizens of the world. We were once the leaders of the world in science, philosophy, social organization and the arts, and if we can learn to love ourselves, give selfless sacrifice and invest in the health and wealth of those coming after us, we can attain those heights again.
How did your journey into music start?
I started writing songs at the age of about 9 and always knew my eventual destiny lay in that field. So, even though, I landed in the sciences, eventually graduating and working as a veterinary doctor, I always knew I would end up here. I think my biggest gift is my ability to write songs, to process my thoughts through song and rhythm. And it is my ability to arrange music/melodies around these songs that has also enabled me to develop what you could call a distinct sound. I cannot explain how the gift started – all I know is that one day I started composing songs, and then when I could no longer keep them in my head, I started writing them down; and by the time I was 19, I had written about 500 songs. I was so proud of my songs, each was like a different individual and, though I have composed more than a thousand songs today, I still remember the tune to each song and the circumstances under which I wrote it. My earliest inspiration must have come from the traditional music, drama and folklore that I was exposed to early in childhood as a result of the environment in which I grew up and the brief period during which I lived with my grandmother. Perhaps I got some of the gift from my mother who is also a songwriter and my father who loved singing and had this very rich tenor. The two ran a music store in Ibadan called ‘Sounds of Joy’ in the 60s and 70s, and that was where I decided I wanted to be a musician amongst other things. I would stay glued to the turntable and the sounds coming from the records produced by artists from all over the world.
How would you classify your music? It seems to belong to an entirely different classification.
I agree it’s hard to classify. Perhaps that is a blessing as it sets us apart in a class of our own. But it could also cause problems for those who catalogue music for libraries or radio stations. All I can say is that the core of the music is traditional Yoruba/African rhythms, but the driver is the message. Every song has a distinct message; I am not shy to say what I think about the problems facing modern societies especially in Africa. But we don’t just lament, we proffer solutions, we push progressive, positive ideas rooted in ageless African thought and philosophy. We sometimes try to call it folk and roots, but even that doesn’t do justice to this music. The best thing is just to understand that it reflects the roots of modern genres of music. Yes, it is indictment music, not protest music; it is problem-solving music, it is the music of renewal and rebirth.
From Jangbalajugbu to Sun no dey sleep, how would you describe the musical journey so far?
My first album ‘Seven Lifes’ came out in 1997, followed by ‘Voice From Heaven’ in 1999. ‘Jangbalajugbu’ was actually our third album, but it was the first one that became a massive hit and sold in millions. It was our breakthrough album, the one that most people still reference when they talk about Beautiful Nubia. We followed that successful effort with Awilele in 2004, Fere (2006), Kilokilo (2007), Irinajo (2009) and recently Sun No Dey Sleep (2011). Each album is a part of the evolving Beautiful Nubia story. While they do not sound the same, the style is more distinct with each new album and the thematic thrust is the same: contributing to the development of a fair and just social system for the common peoples of the world.
The early days were quite rough, no one saw the musician in me. In fact many respected voices in the music industry at the time told me to stick to my veterinary practise and leave music to those who could deal with that rough terrain, but I persevered, my vision was strong and my focus was tight. I knew where I was going, I knew the sound I wanted, I knew the sound that had been growing in me since childhood and, though I struggled with my first two albums, with Jangbalajugbu I knew I was finally where I wanted to be, and I haven’t looked back since then.
There is this”Africanist” trait in your dressing. How did it evolve? One hardly catches you in English outfits.
I do wear all sorts of clothing. I tend to wear whatever is comfortable for each occasion. There is a lot of beauty in our traditional clothing, so much life and bounce. I like the sense of freedom you get wearing that. But I also wear other things including Western clothing; everything has its own place, time and season.
Off stage, who is Beautiful Nubia?
In my private life I am a boring sort of fellow. I read a lot; I write poems and stories or just sit around thinking of writing them. I do a lot of sport too – biking, table tennis, football, long walks, and so on. I like quietude, I like that opportunity to recede into myself and commune with my spirit, I could spend days all alone in the house but could also have the place swarming with artist types having a good time. I enjoy going out too, especially to places where I am unlikely to be recognized. I am a pretty normal person, or so I think.
Jangbalajugbu won a Kora nomination, Kilo Kilo was number 1 on the Canadian chart for some time, how did these feats make you feel when they were achieved?
No, it was ‘Baba Eledumare’, a song from the 1999 album ‘Voice from Heaven’ that got us that first KORA nomination. At that time the KORAs were a big deal and to be nominated was like winning a lottery. I was the only artist from Nigeria nominated for awards at the KORAs for two consecutive years – 2000 and 2001. That was a great thing for an artist who was a virtual unknown at the time, I think it gave us a boost and created the platform for the fame and achievements which were to come later.
Awilele was Number 1 on the Canadian World Music Charts in 2004 and Kilokilo achieved the same feat in 2008. Of course it was good to know the music was getting good airplay and reception. Our albums have always charted well on the grassroots and community radio stations in Canada and the USA. The first comment I received on the 2009 album ‘Irinajo’ was from someone in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA. He or she had heard the song titled “Kurunmi Is On The Way” on his local station and sent me one of the most moving messages. Such positive feedback is invaluable and that shows that, despite all the difficulties one faces as an independent musician, somehow the music is still reaching all kinds of people in different parts of the word. That definitely makes me happy.
You chose to leave Veterinary Medicine for music, when you took the decision, were there any objections?
I have never left Veterinary Medicine. I just decided to give more time to the artistic side of me and downplay the vet side of things. I was already a working adult when I made that choice, and it was all my decision, I consulted no one. It was my call. I had been working as a Vet for about 8 years and decided in 2000 that I needed to pay more attention to the artistic side of me, that it was time to give full rein to that childhood dream, that now I had enough funds to go into this business as an independent after years of being told by people that I might not have the goods. I believe in that old idea that to make a success of something you have to give it your full attention. My achievements in music since that time speak for themselves; it was a good and timely decision.
There’s a story behind every song, what’s the story behind the “Sun no dey sleep” album?
Our latest album is a product of the evolution of Beautiful Nubia, there are many sides to me, my music gifts and capabilities. SNDS represents another yard in that tapestry of sound we’ve been creating since 1997. As usual it contains songs done in a mix of Yoruba, English and pidgin English, the three languages I speak. These songs address various issues including social justice and the need for equitable distribution of common wealth; they also celebrate the traditional and ageless values of honesty, uprightness, personal integrity, selflessness and good neighbourliness. In SNDS, ancient African wisdom is swathed in a cloak of traditional and neo-traditional rhythms and emotive melodies.
You have said it over time that you are not in music for money, kindly shed light on this. Secondly, you won’t say the music isn’t paying would you?
I think if anyone’s basic focus is the making of money, such a person might find it difficult to find satisfaction and happiness. My main purpose of coming into music was to exploit the immense artistic potential kindly bestowed upon me by nature and to express the way I feel about life and how people can find happiness in their daily search for fulfilment. Music has been good to me. It opens doors and takes you places others can only dream of. Whatever money I make I re-invest in my music company EniObanke, so personally I am not that materially wealthy, but I didn’t come into this for money in the first place. Nothing beats that joy of being able to do what you enjoy doing, making people happy and being paid for it. And it’s getting better by the day; we are still on the path.
You started wearing locks a few years ago. What was behind that decision?
I left my hair to its own devices in 2000, that’s eleven years ago. I decided to give it what I call fundamental hair rights after many years of fighting it with all sorts of combs and barbing implements. Turns out I was born with locks but they were cut off before I turned a year old. Well, that’s the story my mother just told me about 6 years ago! I always knew I should give the hair its freedom. I never twisted or locked it with anything. I just left it and it grew like this, naturally.
Lastly, you seem to have also veered into teachings and seminars on music writing and the like, what’s the driving force? And are we to expect a music school soon?
Definitely there is an EniObanke music school and studio coming somewhere in the near future. I enjoy being able to share my experiences and artistic practises with others especially the younger ones. Hopefully one can influence a new generation of artists who can see their roles as going beyond making money or just entertaining people. We need more artists who understand the rudiments of their craft and equally possess a social conscience.