All he wanted was a chance to be counted among the recognisable faces in the entertainment industry. With one hit song, however, Afropop musician, Ekenedirichukwu Ijemba, better known as Humblesmith, has been catapulted to stardom, writes Nseobong Okon-Ekong

Humblesmith is speechless for a brief spell. This was not the kind of question he expected. He is a little taken aback. The meditative mode is reflected in his darting eyes. He is mouthing the key word, ‘trouble, trouble, trouble’, as he attempts to answer my first question: Have you ever been in trouble? “I would not call them trouble,” he says. “I think they were more of challenges.”

His response is taking us in a different direction from what I had in mind. I am willing to go with him for a while. Tell me about the challenges., I ask him. He says, “It used to be money; money to push my music. I am this kind of guy who is willing to do whatever it takes to push my music. Thank God, I have broken that yoke. Money is no more a challenge.”

Back to the question of trouble, I see that he needs help to understand it properly. So, I bring up that narrative in the 1972 book, ‘One Week One Trouble’ by Anezi Okoro in which the protagonist, Wilson Tagbo collides with the authorities in his secondary school almost every week. This description is a mighty help. Now, Humblesmith has a grip on where we are heading. Laughing, he says, “I have been in trouble with the police twice, once in Abakaliki where I was born and another time when I was a fresher in Lagos.”

This Sunday evening his friends are around and they decide to go to a club in Abakaliki, capital of Ebonyi. State This clique is one he enjoys being with for the simple reason that they not only keep his interest alive but take him back all the time to where he wants to be -wherever there is music. He has been to that club with his friends on a number of occasions. None of them anticipated what happened next. Things became a bit rough. He is not sure who started a fight. Or why there is a fight at all. The next thing he knows, the police arrive and arrest as many persons as they can. He is one of those apprehended.

Driving off to the station, Humblesmith remembers that he will face a worse fate if his parents, particularly his father discover he is in trouble with the police. In that moment of desperation, he does what he never imagined. Jumping out of the police vehicle when it stopped to make another arrest, he ran the race of his life, scaling high fences and escaping into an uncompleted building. He remembers the incident. “That day, I confronted my fears. I decided I must always tell my parents I was going out for my music. No need to sneak out anymore. Although they had this poor notion of people in music and entertainment as never-do-well, I made up my mind to fight for what I want.”

His second encounter with the police is unlike the first. The year is 2012, following a period of back-and-forth in Lagos, he listened to fans in Asaba who were urging him to take up permanent residence in Lagos. The only person he knows in Lagos who can make that happen for him is DJ Humility, the popular radio OAP. Humility is willing and so he moves down to Lagos; sometimes staying with his brother in-law, Emeka Peters. This day, he is at the Humility house, but he is not around. Completely unaware of what lay ahead, he goes out with Humility’s younger brother’s PA. Somewhere along Ikorodu Road they attempt to cross over to the other side, neglecting the use of the foot bridge. Men of the KAI Brigade and policemen are waiting to take them into their custody. His explanation and pleas attract hot slaps from the law enforcers, who drive them to the police station. Right before his eyes, offenders are being taken in a Black Maria to prison.

He decides then to give in to pressure from the policemen who were demanding money from him. This means surrendering the entire savings previously kept for the recording of his music. As painful as the decision is, he is left with no other choice. His wrist watch, shoes and other valuables were seized until he brought the money that was exchanged for their freedom. In the bus that takes him home, he is angry and frustrated at the loss of monies he guarded jealously, which conveys the foreboding feeling that his emerging career in music is doomed. He is in this state when the bus conductor’s screams cut through his fogged consciousness and records the chant, ‘Chiamo’. Again and again, he hears, ‘Chiamo’, ‘Chiamo’. And this inspires his first official single in Lagos and snaps him out of gloom back to happiness.

This pattern of dark hours heralding the coming of glorious sunshine reoccurs quite a bit in Humbelsmith’s life. Inspiration for his hit song, ‘Osinachi’ follows the same manner. It comes along in one of the lowest period of his life, when he had tried everything he knew in order to forge ahead with his music, but things do not fall in place. He is in Sacred Heart Catholic Church at Ogudu in Lagos to pray and runs into a reverend father who shares his baptismal name, Evaristus. He pours out his heart to the clergy who prays and assures him everything will be alright. He leaves the presence of the priest and goes into the church auditorium to pray more. While in that state of deep supplication to the Almighty, he falls asleep. He is not sure for how long he slept, but someone came to him in a dream and tells him to use what he has to praise God. He can only think of one thing that he has -music. He lays back to mediate again. That is when the words for ‘Osinachi’ come tumbling into his mind! He says the song is a blessing from God because God also made the popular musician, Davido to take a liking to the song and agree to support it. “The Davido intervention was a divine masterstroke. We did not have to lobby. He liked the song and started promoting it. He showed me so much love by offering to collaborate with me on a remix, that gives the song the necessary boost.”

Humblesmith, born Ekenedirichukwu Ijemba, 26 years ago, is the fifth child in a family of eight. He attended Urban Model Secondary School in Abakaliki, capital of Ebonyi State. Not many knew him in school until he got to JSS 3 when he organised his classmates to entertain the visiting governor of the state. So impressed was the principal that his team was made the standing drama troupe that represented the school everywhere. His likeable persona and his skills in the performing arts made him a darling of the girls in the school. Somehow, he was able to keep a few things to himself. The school community only knew so much about him. Not many knew that he was the most sought after singer and songwriter in Ebonyi. All the producers looked for him when a recording artiste was stuck and could not complete his work. Humblesmith had no problems polishing off other people’s work. He was also taking tutorials in Theatre Arts and sneaked off to work with Nollywood producers who came to Ebonyi to shoot movies. He had also made capital of the school drama troupe, taking their productions to others schools where students paid N100 each to watch them on stage; thus he was never broke.

The ever dutiful and obedient son, Humbllesmith hawked moimoi for his family through secondary school. I tried to say to him that the duty was to his mother but he insisted he did it for the family. His sense of responsibility and devotion to kith and kin is amazing. For the love of family, he has delayed his own comfort, ensuring that his brothers are settled into a thriving trade and his sisters make it through university. What happened to the family before he became financially independent was tending towards a dark family history which he is not only determined to remove himselff from, but to wipe out all-together. Before he could salvage the family from that unsavoury era, all his brothers were sent off as house-help as soon as they finished secondary school. He put a stop to that. Today, his brothers are in Dubai. And those who chose to stay in Nigeria have started a thriving trade.

Humblesmith’s is surprised at the speed which he has risen to a household name in Nigeria. Just five years ago when he came to Lagos, his biggest dream was to get a measure of popularity. His dream has become true beyond his wildest imagination. He places loads of appreciation at the door steps of two individuals for making it happen. First is DJ Humility, the Lagos-based OAP who often came to Asaba to organise shows and not only gave him a chance to perform but also gave him a place to lay his head in Lagos, while taking him around to as many events as he could. The second person he owes his success is his manager, Ovie Kelly Williams, who runs Entyce Entertainment. Humblesmith is the only artiste on the label, for now. The two men live in the same house and can be seen together most times. Kelly was there when it looked as if the Lagos market was going to be a hard nut to crack. He says, “That is exactly what I faced but thank God for today, all these challenges have passed away. I have been able to break the yoke. Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa and everybody now listen to my sound.”

One of the clear and present signals of his new found status is the number of persons who must accompany him each time he goes out. Sometimes, it is a little bit exaggerated like the amount of fee he accepts per show. But these four persons are most likely to be with him in public: Kelly, his PA, his producer and a bouncer. I ask him the role of the bouncer. He says, “He is there for security and the business; to protect you. The level I am now, when I go out, fans see and start hailing me, they want me to give them money. I spend between N70000 and N100000 on fans each time we go out. They say I am the one reigning now. Some of them become too aggressive. They forget that we are human beings as well. That is why you need a bouncer to save you from such incidents – no one will fight, beat or harass you in any form. They are made to respect that stardom.”

In his original homestead, Urualla in Ideato North Local Government Area of Imo State, it is a mighty pride to have a Catholic priest in the family. His mother very much wanted him to be a reverend father, while his father wanted him to play professional soccer. Why did his mother desire to see him become a priest? “I have always been calm and well-behaved; very quiet. For this reason, my parents take me everywhere with them. They are so very proud of me. My mother bought the form to a seminary for me, but I did not go. In order to make her happy, I became an altar boy for two years. I served three reverend fathers in that time. I got to understand the Catholic doctrines and learnt a whole lot of things that go on in the altar including how to serve mass. It helped my spiritual life.”

He sits next to me on the couch in his home in one of the estates off Chevron Drive in Lekki-Lagos. It was a Sunday afternoon. Although he still goes all the way to Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Ogudu for the sentimental reason that the miracle of ‘Osinachi’ was wrought there, he did not go to church today. He was wearing a pair of rubber slippers which looked worn and a pair of ragged black jeans on a red hooded red sweat shirt. He cut the image of the regular guy next door. What is it about priesthood that does not appeal to him? “It is a calling. You can’t go for something you are not capable of. I have checked myself in and out and I know it is something I cannot do. It is not bad for one to go for priesthood. As for me, I know that music has taken me over. I wonder how I will survive. I was the quiet person in the house among seven siblings. When we were growing up, my immediate elder brother was the one who appeared to fit the bill of becoming a reverend father. When we go to the village he normally behaved like a reverend father, blessing people, but he was very stubborn. As we were growing up, he lost it. My mother just wants one of her sons to be a reverend father. She feels I should be the one because I am quiet.”

He is also aware of the oath of celibacy among other self-disciplinary measures a priest needs to adopt. He adds, “If God wants me to be a reverend father no matter how much I try to go for music, I will still draw myself back to the church. To be a reverend father is not about choice. It is not something you like. I respect them because it is not easy. It has to do with a calling. You need to devote and dedicate yourself to God entirely. I don’t have to be a priest to do that. I can preach with my music.”

Humblesmith is lucky not to have rumours swirling around him. He looks genuinely surprised and wonders if his response will go into print when I ask him, at what age did you have sex? Looking askance, he thinks for a while, laughing. He says, “I think at 21. It was a decision I made consciously by myself. I tried to deprive myself of some things that would distract me. I was in the midst of ladies and I am a ladies man. People just like me. I also deprived myself of drinking because my father does not drink. I drank alcohol for the first time in SS3. I used to make sandals and belt in school. And fellow students patronised me a lot.”

It is a weird coincidence that one of his strongest mentors in entertainment, DJ Humility, bears a similar stage name. But the influence for Humblesmith’s moniker comes from a different source. “The word humble rings in my ears too many times from the way people comment on my meek attitudes. So when I got into the entertainment industry and I was looking for a nickname, that humble again came to my mind. At first, it was Humblesmart. That was my name for a long time. Then I went for one show and for whatever reason, the MC changed my name to Humblesmith. I liked the sound of it and I left it like that since.”