Vanessa Obioha encountered Ibejii, an enigmatic artiste who is keen on retelling the African narrative through his music
Ibejii carries an air of mystery. It wraps around him like a cloak, shielding him from the curious minds of beings. He projects this mystique in his appearance which he describes his look as an ode to black power. A wig of kinky afro hair sits beautifully on his head. His eyes are shrouded in mystery, constantly masked by a pair of dark shades. He considers himself a spirit, one without the pair of dark pupils that give humans the sense of sight. Rather, he sees with his heart. A heart that is passionately immersed in the arts. Music, movies, paintings, books; any form that expresses the art of humanity.
His creative space in the Lekki environs is a haven of arts. The white walls are decorated with paintings, sculptures. The décor speaks volumes of an artistic mind. That mind is also philosophical. It sees life in different shades, and with each view, steers Ibejii to produce words that are rich in knowledge and culture.
Ibejii further concertise his veneer by being tight-lipped about his real name or his place of birth. He knows he is a Nigerian, that much his fans know as most of his songs are interpreted in Yoruba language. You may read somewhere that he was born in London or perhaps raised there, he wouldn’t confirm or deny this assertion. What he wants you to remember is his name: Ibejii, the Yoruba word for twins. A twin himself, the artiste believes that he is a scientific wonder and carries a responsibility to enlighten the world that twins are not evil through his music. This much he achieves with his Ibejii Day concert, a special music concert dedicated to twins.
While he is not willing to divulge information about his family, he would however tell you that he was born to a musical family. His father is a huge lover of music, and his mother a lover of theatre and music as well. His life he admits is built around the creative space.
Of all his artistic talents, music gives him the utmost satisfaction. It is an art form that manifests in different places for him. Today, he is recognised as an alternative singer whose sounds are folkloric. In his two years of joining the music industry, he has released three albums and more recently, an experimental project. In 2017, he released two albums simultaneously GreenWhiteDope 001&002. He dropped his third album ‘Tribal Marks’ the following year. MSML (Music Saved My Life) is his latest project released few months ago. Apart from his albums, Ibejii has also held live concerts ‘The Ibejii Live Experience’ every Democracy Day. Here are excerpts from an interview where he talked about his mysterious identity, the beauty of African culture and his music.
Why are artists drawn to mystery?
I think mystery works for people. We have a need to discover. I know we live in an age of exposition. Everyone talks about their social activities, heartbreaks and what have you.The world is mystified by mystery. Mystery is why the movie industry continues to exist, why our great actors and thespians continue to thrive because we have a need to know and if we tell all in one goal, then there is nothing to discover. We like to discover. Take for instance, Africa is a mysterious place. There is a continent of seven billion people, less than a billion live in Africa. So there is 6.5 billion people to tell our story.
Up until recently, there’s been very little said about us. We don’t tell our stories so well and the world has been only inquisitive about our natural resources, it is only recently that they began to ask about us. Who are they? What drives them? What makes them tick? Why do they smile in the middle of adversity? Why do they soldier on in the middle of a war? We are getting to a point where people want to know about us because when they engage with us, they find us compelling. We don’t break in the face of pain. We soldier on and conquer. Whether we are in Africa or in the diaspora. The African is a conqueror, stoical, strong, unbendable, he keeps going. Yes our politicians may have failed us, there could be many things about us that could deal with some boost.
But we are unbending and the world wants to know why. They want to understand it. Far less is happening in other parts of the world. The fact is that when they finally discover us, they find a rich, robust deep-spirited people and place. There is so much to tell. We love the fact that we are part of the storytellers.
How do you incorporate this storytelling in your music?
My music is really tonal storytelling. It is using sound to tell stories about love, hope; we talk to community, family, the workplace. It is reaching out to the world that has so much to learn about who we are and how deep and meaningful our stories are.
What draws you to your roots?
It is simple yet complex. You know what is happening in the political space globally where the white people want the people of colour to return to their roots whereas the people of colour were pulled in by the white people to come and build railways and factories. Now they don’t want them to leave their borders. If this had happened a generation ago, our people would have crumbled, wilted, they would go back to the genie bottle, go back and hide in their boxes but they are not. The culture of the black man is rich, it is deep. Our culture is the predominant culture in fashion today, in music, in the sciences. People don’t realise that. We are a free people. We are not going back to the genie bottle or to the box. That culture has roots. It is African. It is not abstract or alien. It is real.
So what draws me to my roots is the strength of it, the palpability. It is strong and real. It is a root that is founded in the notion of certainty, self-awareness, pride. We don’t defend it. We are never known to do that and that is why Africa has never taken wars to other people. It is self-sufficient. It is quite happy the way it is. Unfortunately, the influence that we get whether from the outside or from bad leadership has impugned, debased our everyday reality but it hasn’t altered our pride.
Does that in any way put pressure on creatives to present us in a positive light?
Absolutely. We certainly have no excuse not to tell our stories. We have to tell people that the millions of people who live in that continent called Africa is an amazing lot that needs to be discovered and we need to tell them in our own little ways what makes them feel special. Whether it is our values, our mores, music, our tales, there is so much of us to be told in the world. When you think Shakespearean for instance, the popular Seven Deadly Sins, we have it here. We are telling stories that morph all those sins, values and the greats.
Your name Ibejii means twins in Yoruba but does it in anyway suggests a duality to your personality as an artiste?
There is a duality to every human being. Take away the mirror and you will see how much lesser beings we are. We look to the mirror almost to confirm who we are.. The mirror is a reflection of a person but the truth about the same person. So the mirror says to you how beautiful you look. We need to see ourselves in other people. So there is a duality to all our characters. Ibejii is a truth about the artiste, about the alter ego but also a truth about himself so that the artiste allows the man to feed off and to push the values that he considers worthy, values that may not be able to push as a person but through a passion point that will appreciate music.
Can you recall the audience reception when you first came into the music scene?
When we stepped out, we stepped into a world where alternative music is still trying to find its footing. The population was small but we told our friends and families who told their friends about us, so we built our audience organically. People like great storytelling. The truth of Ibejii is stories that are reflected in the mirror that are his friends. So when they come to watch him play, they reinforce the message that they like his storytelling. So Ibejii is telling a story to them and they are also telling Ibejii stories. So between us, we are building a community of stories. We are all appreciating the storytelling because you know the story of love, the hardships in the workplace, of the pains in relationships.
Who were the people that helped in bringing Ibejii out?
First and foremost I encountered professionals who were willing to support me. This is one of the interesting things about the creative space. People are really helpful. I met a young man Reinhard who is a music producer and was the first I worked with. He believed in me and was willing to work with me to achieve my goals. For him it wasn’t about my technical prowess but the heart to do music. He worked with me to ensure that I caught the bus at 5am. I met people along the way just like that and then I met people in the industry who are tall giants, who encountered Ibejii, loved Ibejii and threw their weight behind him. People like Brymo. He is family to me. It’s been an amazing journey.
In two years you have released four projects which is quite unusual. Are you driven by a hunger to do more or under pressure to meet the demands of your audience?
We are persistent in the studio. At the moment we are working on two or three projects at the same time. Each of them has different directions and we are working with different producers. There is a lot to be said and we wish to say and there is a lot of formats to say them. Because as alternative musicians, we are creating all the time, through the mind to the celluloid. We have heard that said a few times that we are pushing too much but it is not that we are punishing our audience but because we want to share with the audience. So it is a hunger to share. We released ‘MSML’ (Music Saved My Life). We released it on June 12. We always made it clear right from the release that it is an experimental project. In other words, it’s like test it and give us feedback.
We’ve been preparing in the last seven months for ‘Scattered Elements’ which is our next project. We try to give titles that speak to the direction of the album. For instance ‘GreenWhiteDope 001&002’ is patriotic. ‘Tribal Marks’ is about roots. When you think of tribal marks as a metaphor for stoicism, we are saying that not only are we dope but we are clear on who we are and what our values and traditions stand for. We are not shaken. ‘MSML’ is a personal journey. It is an appreciation of the form, personifying music and saying ‘thank you for reaching out to me’, in that short period where I was taken to the darkness. ‘Scattered Elements’ is about saying that music is more than just one genre. It is about pulling the earth and the people in one form. It is about holding firm and strong which is the truth about African people because right at the core of us is our culture whether you find us in India, China or Belarus. There is something about Africa that is not shaken. We are scattered everywhere but we are together.
What’s the story behind The Ibejii Live Experience held on Democracy Day?
Freedom is the greatest gift a nation can give its people, that a governor can offer its people, that a father can afford his children, that the workplace can afford its creatives. June 12 for me is a seminal date for Nigerians. All we do as an Ibejii is share that experience in an environment where we tell little history. It helps to dialogue what it has taken to get us to democracy.