With a checkered music career but lovely vocals that defined her, refined gospel singer Uwale ‘Essence’ Okoro, seems to be grateful with new age, future and songs to celebrate. Ferdinand Ekechukwu reports

“Music chose me.” Singer/songwriter Uwale Okoro, popularly known as Essence, said some years back during a chat. True to that in a sense, she was apt. For someone who started singing at a very tender age, it couldn’t have taken some other person to capture it better than in her own words, “I have been singing since I was five. I didn’t go into music just to make money or achieve fame. For me, it’s the passion that guides me. Music chose me.”

The singer turned 40 on Wednesday July 11. In an Instagram post, the former protégé of gospel singer, Kenny St. Brown expressed how happy she is to be alive, adding that the world will soon hear from her. “Hurray! It’s your day Essence… Happy 40th to you…you made it…alive…and triumphant…Heaven knows your story and soon the world too will know… The shift is here”, she wrote.

On this occasion of her birthday, the number of messages that trolled her social media handles and stories on blog sites about her age and single status say much about her persona. Although she has had her share of negative publicity, she seemed unscathed.  A report about her being broke and trekking around the city of Lagos, hopping on bikes (okada) made the rounds just months after she parted ways with her record label. The singer however denied it, saying she’s not broke, with a spin that she’s dating a Nigerian-based man hence her non frequent trips abroad. Though at some point in her music career she hibernated, not much was heard of her; this paved way to rumours that she had quit music for blogging and ushering business.

The last of seven children, with siblings much older than her, growing up, she was, most of the times left to take her own decisions; watching television, singing and listening to diverse kind of music. “The TV kept me company and I grew up listening to different genre of music. I listened to country music, jazz and I loved Michael Jackson a lot.

“In fact, as at then, I fantasised getting married to Michael. Somehow, I trained myself unconsciously – singing other people’s songs. When I was in secondary school and I didn’t know what I wanted to do, my uncle reminded me of how I used to disturb the whole house with my songs and suggested that I give music a shot. At that point, I didn’t really believe in myself.

“And when I got into the University, I chose a course that would be all encompassing, so I went in for Theatre Arts.” Talented and undoubtedly blessed with captivating vocals that melt hearts, Essence, sang her way to the top from church choir after her secondary school education. At 18, her career had attained professional status. Upon graduating in 2004, she launched into music with the album ‘Truly Essence’ which has hit songs such as ‘Like Dat’ and ‘African Prince’, a remix of 2face’s ‘African Queen’.

She spoke further on her journey into the world of music: “I started from the church, Bethel Ministry of late Rev. Oduyemi. Kingsley Ike of the ‘Wamilele’ fame was my choir master. He was with Kennis Music and tried to get the Kennis to hear me sing because he said I had a promising career in music. But I told him that I was scared because I was very young.

“When I was in the University, I went for a talent hunt and surprisingly, I came second. Kenny Saint Brown was one of the judges. She told me that I came first on her list and asked me to call her. She gave me her number but it took me almost a week to call her.

“And eventually when I called her, she gave an address to come and see her. When I got there, she made me feel at home and I became her backup singer.”

She would later release her sophomore album titled, ‘Essential’. Her most popular song being ‘Facebook Love’ featuring former record label mate, Jaywon. The song was released in 2010, under Kennis Music, Essence had a thriving career. She then left in 2014 to work as an independent artiste. She is the voice behind the soundtrack of the widely watched TV series, Super Story. She made debut in her first feature film in 2016, alongside known Nigerian actors like Kate Henshaw, Lanre Hassan, Ronke Ojo and Yemi Solade in ‘Kumbaya’ the musical.

About Facebook Love, which brought her much acclaim, she had doubted that the music was going to be a success and had confessed thus: “Truly, it was the last song that was recorded on the album. I was tired and didn’t feel like recording it, my producers insisted I did. In fact, I’d recorded lots of songs that didn’t make the album but they insisted I included the song.

“So when the song hit the airwave, I started getting calls from people who informed me that they love the song and wanted to know who sang it. Suddenly, it blew out of proportion and I was told that I was going to shoot the video. We shot the video and God’s hand was really on it because people love the video. And I feel blessed.

”And I’m grateful to God. I’m the kind of person that doesn’t like to take credit for what I didn’t do. I didn’t come up with the concept of the song. And if you asked me a million times, I’d still tell you that it was Jaywon who conceived the idea of the song. He’s a bundle of talents and I thank God for his life. God used him to bless me and I’m grateful.”

She further declared: “I think an artiste feel more fulfilled when people sing his/her song. But you know that when you are on stage and you don’t get a feedback from the audience, you’d get discouraged. So when you sing on stage and people acknowledge you, it gets you intoxicated, more than cocaine.” Apart from ‘Facebook Love’, she had other songs like ‘Giving It All’, ‘See Love’, ‘Give Me More’, followed by her other songs like ‘Sexy’, and ‘Se jeje’ which she released in 2015 after she underwent surgery. Recently, she came out with a new gospel track titled ‘Living Water’. The piece which truly depicts her vocal strength is believed to be her come back song.

The Itsekiri, Delta State-born singer, graduated from Delta State University (DELSU), Abraka. Before she released her debut album, she had backed up artistes such as Kingsley Ike, Paul Play Dairo, Kenny St. Brown and a host of other Nigerian artistes. On doing gospel and secular music during an interview, her response appeared way too opinionated when asked if the two can work together. “I know pastors who are bankers, even MDs of banks. I don’t think there is a double standard there if you ask me. Anybody who listens to my song knows that my songs are always edifying. My songs are always educating. As long as we have Christian schools, there is no Christian mathematics, Christian English and there is no Christian physics.

“It’s about the lyrics. It is the message you are passing across as a Christian that counts. I am telling you how to do things and I am putting the God factor in it. If I am singing about life, the bible says we are in the world but we are not of this world, we can’t exist outside the world but it is the ways you exist that differentiate.

“It’s not about it working together; it is my conviction. I am answerable only to God, not to man and if I want to sing a love song, I don’t see anybody when getting married or you are in courtship who doesn’t sing it.

“Christianity has gone past all these things we call taboos. We need to talk about it because it doesn’t work. We are Christians. We make babies. Where do babies come from? Definitely they are not dropped on the footsteps of your door in the middle of the night.

“You know biology comes to play. If you sing about biology, if you sing about life, that is why some Christians just love each other with the love of the Lord and they don’t truly love themselves. We need to talk and sing about love but it is pure love and I sing about the love of God.

“Jesus was always with the secular people. If you ask me that was why the Pharisees and the Sadducees were always against Him; He was always with the taxpayers, with the prostitutes. So if they talked about Jesus like that, I will just do what Jesus did because we are called to the world, we are not called to ourselves.”