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.