US based soprano and classical singer Abiodun Koya is home for a Democracy Day national assignment with her new patriotic song of uplifting Nigeria. She spoke with Nduka Nwosu on her recent crossover to pop music inspired by Sarah Brightman, explaining how she hopes to add value to the local music culture. Excerpts:
Soprano and crossover singer Abiodun Koya has effectively tried to live between two worlds and continents. She reminds you of the popular expression of having breakfast in New York, lunch in London and a party in Lagos all in a day.
That does not in any way suggest she is adept in the art of profligacy. She is not on the speedball of simply living life to the fullest. Instead her passion to fully express her creative afflatus has created two complex personalities out of one. And that’s why she wears her renown and affluence comfortably like a pair of overalls, and enjoys as scandal-free a life of glamour as any top Hollywood star. She is, if you like, the suave, cosmopolitan lady of the new millennium, who embraces life with a knowing wink that contrasts with the unknowing innocent life of the illiterate timid maiden.
And why not? When you are privileged to be a guest of the White House, territories reserved for the likes of Beyonce, to sing for Barack and Michelle Obama or for Presidents Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari, the sky becomes the limit. But not for Koya who insists there are other limitless planets such as Saturn, Jupiter and Venus.
Just last year Koya tried to do a crossover from classical and soprano to what she calls “pop, Afro classical mainstream and some light jazz.” The result? A critical acclaim that urged her to come centrestage where hopefully she could, not surprisingly, assume a long awaited breakthrough that may approximate to hitting the glass ceiling of planet Mars. On that effort titled “Flourish Me,” Koya adds: “I wrote and composed ‘Flourish Me,’ some years ago due to an inspiration from the love relationship I was in. The song is a complete expression of love and relationship bliss in a new way. I managed to successfully find a way to express the magical trance I was in through writing the song”. Koya has of course composed a series and some lyrical caller tunes she hopes to launch soonest to consolidate her base and convince her admirers of an exciting musical train ride.
She hints it will not be out of place to marry soprano to the current brand with an endless stream of possibilities. “I enjoy the process of going into the studio to work with great minds to cook music or take a journey to a music science lab to explore and experiment a musical marriage of possibilities.” She does not think being a brand in soprano will make her an outcast of the tribe going into popular culture and she has Sarah Brightman as a role model who deviated from the norm to make her presence felt in pop music culture. “I am hoping to break new grounds, usher in a different taste and change in music. The sky is just the starting zone for this. I want to be the first of an African descent to do this,” she enthuses.
Koya has always presented herself as an appealing young lady who wouldn’t upstage the female lead. That was why sometime in 2014 she was among other great American gospel singers, invited by the BET star and creator Bobby Jones to his gospel finale in Maryland US. At the end of the event and over dinner with a select mixed audience she proudly but humbly reminded all why she was particularly elated about that experience: “I was the only African and Opera singer invited to feature through the 35 years of the show. I also represented my country well as you could see at the tail end. I also designed the couture I wore. It exposed my name and talent to a different audience who wouldn’t have ordinarily had the platform to listen to me. Now it airs once a month on BET Television’ I am so grateful to Dr. Bobby Jones for inviting me on the show.”
Few traits favorably compare Koya who has gone into Hollywood training with the La Dames of the 1970s-Doris Day, Alfred Hitchcock’s heroine in the epic screenplay Man Who Knows Too Much. Or Catherine Hepburn, the blithe siren character of James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story. They are more like the three musketeers who exemplify the glamour and idealism of their time using their native illusions on global perspectives. While Day and Hepburn’s backgrounds suggest a way of life that is comfortably nestled in the native illusions of the 1970s, Koya is a product of the new millennium.
Koya no doubt lives part of her dream in native illusions of a dear and wonderful Nigeria, blessed with leaders that rule with wisdom; she is always performing for the African audience whether it is to honour a visiting head of state in the Washington area or in the church even with an all-white audience and comfortably too. Koya’s native illusion is welded in the glamour of her dear Nigeria and her hopes for a better tomorrow, a narrative that is so deep and re-assuring, touching the very fabric of unity and love. It is that Nigeria which has as her contribution to Africa, an advance away from the jaded old system, a Nigeria that radiates deep freshness and unsuspected candour. Her new album Uplift Nigeria, exemplifies all that.
Does she hope to use the message of music on the global canvas to go into politics and grab power? Not exactly even though she has partially relocated to Nigeria. A life achievement worthy of official reward is all well and good but not for her. The idea is to fully grapple more with her crossover music and convince her sponsors she’s more of the centre stage persona, not a backstage performer. On why she would be devoting enough space for her Nigerian audience Koya says it is in response to her earlier promise to spend more time here so as to connect more effectively with her roots. “I am currently making efforts to spend more time in Nigeria and Africa at large more than before so I can be close to my roots,” she explains
As a young struggling girl, Koya built her Taj Mahal out of toothpicks; though this attainable best of dad and mum fed from a silver spoon and still does but now from her own sweat with a career she admits has placed her on the threshold of fortune, explaining her closeness to her creator evolved from a home where God comes first.
Adds Koya: “I have an endearing and unbreakable love and bond for God the Father and Son. I still hold my Christian values really tightly and it has helped me conquer career and life’s adversities while gaining new heights. I read my Bible daily and I fast three days a week. I’ve read the Bible through once and I’m on the path to a second round. The angels are always near me, they give me creative inspiration and ideas and I get my music from them, lyrics and melody, that is.”
She will not hesitate to tell you she believes in doing good deeds with resources “the Almighty God has entrusted you with. I believe in helping and serving the poor and the helpless. It is also my belief that as long as you are living, you should exist for others and not for yourself alone.”
Koya remembers her early beginnings with fond memories. She grew up to know her father was a classical musician, an awesome father who always played classical music on the organ. She says watching and finding great fun in the act brought about her early initiation into classical music at the age of five, wanting to be dressed up and ready to dance to the tune of the song played by dad, responding to what she describes as a huge bright smile that would come on her face when it played. “After being dressed up by my parents, I always felt there was one more major thing to do since I was neatly dressed. I would then dance for everyone around. In retrospect, I think that one thing that did not happen was just to step onto a stage and perform.” Our La Dame was already writing songs at the age of six, designing dress patterns for her dolls and at eight she told her parents she wanted to be a singer. Much later in life she was pummeled into a commercial rather than an art class, preparatory for a degree in accountancy even when her mathematics was a nightmare.
Expectedly Koya rebelled against this re-write of a destiny in her chosen and natural calling. She knew she wanted to be a singer representing professionally a family where everyone was embedded in classical music as a pastime, explaining why the rest of the family frowned at the idea of her embracing music as a lifelong career. “I hated Mathematics so much that I pasted on my Math notebook a cartoon sticker of a smiling boa with two fangs and a gap in between. I went on to study Business Administration at the University of Lagos and after one year, I travelled to the United States to complete the programme. Now that background is interwoven with my music and serves as the holding spine for the business aspect of my career.”
Looking back she realises her only addiction has been music going for days without food as long as she was occupied writing, listening to or co-producing music. “Growing up,” she says, “was fun. I had an amazing childhood. Being the last child, I was showered with so much love. I was also a radio-head because I knew almost all the songs and commercials on radio.”
Beyond family values in music, Koya drew strength from such composers as Andrea Bocelli, David Foster, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Luciano Pavarotti, Sarah Brightman, Leontyne Price and Kathleen Battle “I was also influenced by pop artistes like Celine Dion and Whitney Houston. I work with angels for inspiration. Sometimes they give me just a melody and I have to write the lyrics but most times they give me the songs readymade whether as music or lyrics already prepared. I think that is awesome.”
The new generation of Nigerian musicians except for a few is in the habit of releasing singles and Koya seems to have fallen for this, which she explains is a trend that works for the environment they relate with. Besides, she adds, “this is my first album outside my trained genre, hence a sampler so to speak. I have at least five more singles to release after this. At the end, I will compile all the singles together to make one “Soprandella” album.”
What value does she hope to add n her new musical quest? “Great and quality music 360 degrees. I believe in soul stirring lyrics and melody so I am very involved in the process of making my music. I write, compose and co-produce my songs. I am not the type of artiste that has no direction or does not know what to do and be handed a finished song at the end of the day.”
Koya agrees she has a reputation for running a very tight ship with herself, her back up musicians and team giving her the appellation of a military woman with a high operational standard and demand for outstanding work ethics and this extends to her service providers. “You must be on time, arrive 15 minutes before call time, rehearse your music, phones on silence or vibrate and have all your tools intact and ready with you. You cannot forget anything at home or assume I or someone else in the group will bring an item that you need so you can borrow from them. I expect A-class professionalism or go home,” an attitude that connects with her American experience, which fulfillment she labels as partial but great describing it as a journey whose gains will be counted at the end of the day. She adds: “I have also recently embarked on a Hollywood acting career and I had to start from the realms of a minor with non-speaking roles and going for tons of grueling auditions.
Koya, who spends her spare time relaxing by watching movies, getting a spa treatment and doing charity works, looks back to her White House and the Democratic Convention performances as one of her greatest moments in her music career, overwhelmed with gratitude and amazement. “I couldn’t sleep for nights. I would toss and turn in bed and rehearse my songs in my head. And being a perfectionist was part of the burden.
“I remember going grocery shopping, pushing the cart and rehearsing the songs I was to sing. The atmosphere was very presidential; I had my heart in my mouth and was delicately nervous until when I mounted the stage but I managed to give a glass shattering performance”
Koya, a fashionista who is in the process of launching her clothing, shoes and T-shirt lines says she has an eclectic taste and a signature in fashion with a career that has given her a great privilege to stand before Kings and Queens, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Congress members, Lawmakers and Prime Ministers to share her talents. “I have also used these platforms to help orphans, the weak, the poor and the underprivileged. We must remember and care for them too, we just have to because God demands it,” Koya stresses, with the hope of “giving birth to more weird music inside of me.”