For his hit singles such as Achikolo, Ogene, Ekolac, and most recently, Iheanacho, Owoh Chimaobi Chrismathner aka Zoro passes as the poster boy of Nigerian indigenous music. His lyrics and word play has gotten a lot of recognition in the African music industry. Zoro is one of the few indigenous musicians shining as a beacon of light to a non-indigenous fan base with the likes of Wizboy, Flavour and Phyno. The talented indigenous rapper who boldly represents both elements of pop and culture, tells Ferdinand Ekechukwu his inspiring story
Little is known about your early years. Can you tell us more about it?
I would not say I started like every other person because I feel like my story is different. I was one of those kids that never thought I would end up being an artiste. I have always had the dream of being an engineer you know because that’s a dream my parents sold to me. Then my uncle would come and say ‘you are good in mathematics you should be an engineer’. So, like I never for once thought that I would end up here (music). So, and then coming from a family where, like typical Igbo family where the dad is a businessman, mum is a businesswoman too, there is nobody playing them songs that would maybe trigger anything that I have got inside of me as a child. I have no clue about music and stuff. But then on the long run, JAMB frustrated me. And then I feel like it gave me time to put things together from my secondary school days till I left CIC Enugu, that’s College of Immaculate Conception. That’s where it all started from. I had like two of my friends – Okiti and OZ. Okiti was the drummer, OZ was the hype man. We just brought cardboard together and make beat from it. So I had to now go back because when I started, I didn’t have a mentor or someone to guide and put me through on how to write songs. So I learnt everything the hard way.
You made mention of your parents being business people. Can you tell us about that?
My mum had a restaurant where she sells food in Onitsha, my dad used to be a butcher where they sell meat in a place called Slaughter Market in Onitsha too. Both of them are still alive. I used to help my dad back then there to wash the meat.
From how you started and where you are now, tell one memorable incident or event of your music career?
I feel like the most memorable one I usually would feed of from is the day I went to church because my friends were like ‘you are good’, you should continue. But I had doubt at the early stage, I didn’t want to be on the wrong path. So I went to church and knelt down and said ‘God, if this is my calling, give me a sign’. I was about 18. And then I made the prayers, I think it was in September, the next month I got featured in ‘Owusagi’, Wizboy’s monster hit. I did a verse in the song that people could rap word for word. And it was the second time I was entering a studio in my life and I got featured on a song that big. So that’s been my stepping stone; that has kept me strong till today. Anytime it feels like things are not working out how I wanted, I go back to remember that I did not put myself here because I want to be here. It just happened.
Did you actually start as a rap artiste?
Yes. I started as a rapper, like I used to rap in English back in the days until I did a song with two verses; one was in Igbo, the second was in English. I noticed that people were vibing more to the one I did in Igbo and that was like the first song I ever recorded. Then the second one was the ‘Owusagi’. So I left the other one and just focused on rapping in Ibo language.
How did you come about the name Zoro?
During my secondary school days, I used to be very stubborn. In the process, I wanted to turn a new leaf and my dad would always, because he doesn’t talk too much, tell you ‘nwata zelu onwunwa rapu okwunauka’ (child stay away from temptation and leave trouble). So you know when you do Confirmation as a Catholic, there are sayings that you have to make promises to God. Mine I just decided to stop being a bad kid because I know I stressed my parents a lot as a child. I can still remember everything. I don’t even want to go there. And then I decided to carve the acronym of what my dad would always tell me ‘…zelu onwunwa rapu okwunauka’ at the back of my shirt. You know in boarding house, you have to put name on your shirt so people don’t steal them. So I carved it at the back of my shirt ZORO instead of my real name. And it made sense and sounded like a reminder not to misbehave, even though I still misbehaved. So for a period of time I had that on my shirt, people started calling me Zoro.
What project are you working on at the moment because you have released a couple of singles?
No just one, I released ‘Iheanacho’.
But you have featured in a couple of other songs this year.
Yeah I have featured in a couple of songs really; there is Terry Apala’s ‘Bread ati Ewa’ . . . Just that I have not been really working lately because I lost my voice late last year. But I have been able to bounce back now but not completely, like last year I did a lot of work. I featured in over 25 to 30 songs. This year I’m just taking it easy, and trying to get myself together and then maybe put out an EP. Last year the plan was to do like two albums this year. You know when you have the fire. So if I had my voice, I feel like this year, I would have dropped my first album. I wanted it to be like a rap album, second one would be where I would do all the singing for the girls and for the street.
Doing two albums in a year, could it be that you are going to record these songs for the album fresh or you have materials already?
No I have materials even if I don’t record throughout till next year I have songs to put out. But that’s never enough. There’s no amount of songs that you have got that is enough for you. Now I don’t have confidence in the number of songs I have got to be able to say I can put out an album yet, because I haven’t been recording properly. All things being equal, if I had my voice, I can say ‘okay this month I’m going to record an album fresh, that’s how it works you know. Sometimes you might just bring songs that you have recorded like two years and you do some finishing touches, cue it into what’s happening. It all depends on how it works for you.
A little more about your recent single Iheanacho, what’s the inspiration behind that single?
I recorded ‘Iheanacho’ last year. It was a song that I heard the beat and I liked it. I had like love choruses; I had like two to three choruses on the same beat so I had to choose the best one. Iheanocho made more sense to me. I had another concept that was going to say ‘okay I’m from the east falling in love with a girl from the west’ you know that kind of thing. But I wasn’t able to put it together the way I liked.
What do you think the future holds for indigenous rap music or the rappers in Nigeria?
I think the way music is headed to now, it will favour some people and not favour some other people. Now there has to be balance because a lot of people view the indigenous rap and would always want to tag it razz because its razz for street people. But where music is headed to now, it needs complete, like someone that wants to do the show business completely. And a lot of times, I feel like we don’t have the resources as people that come from the street to get these things to work and how it is supposed to work. Gone are the days I think it’s harder now as much as it is easier because you have like Instagram to do your thing but it does not end there. There is more to the business rather than just having to rap on Instagram. You would be popular but to make the main money, the swag has to be complete. You have to have that certain type of personality, it has to be complete. And then the sound, there are some languages that work for a certain type of beats. Just like people from the east, rapping in Igbo sells or I feel like it goes stronger when there’s a little of highlife in it, then rapping in Yoruba goes stronger when there’s little of afro more than it does with highlife one. And now we are in an era where afro-beat is like number one. Because it is not about what you see, it’s about the boom of the language. That’s what makes Yoruba very good on afro because the tone and everything works. And when you are rapping in Igbo and there’s highlife, it works. There’s never been like that proper transition but hopefully it will happen.
Your songs and features with Flavour and the rest of them have given you the mileage you have gotten since your emergence in the industry not really like your personality. On the personality side now what influences you?
You know I said it from onset that I never planned to be here. You know sometimes things come to people that are not prepared for it. Like people that are not artistes, they know how to put themselves out there. I don’t ever live a lie. I try to be myself as much as possible. I’m very reserved and that does not go well with the business that I’m in because in showbiz you have to be out there. So this other side I feel like I need to learn how to put myself out there so I can balance the name and the face. Because for now the name is bigger than the face I know that part. Knowing that I’m an introvert, I don’t like going out, just want to be on stage, record my song, put an album out there, shoot my video, go to shows when I have to go to shows, come back, stay indoors. I just don’t want to associate or like to mix up, it just happens on a default not like I don’t want to associate.
How has the shows been coming?
Very good, if the shows are not coming I would not be in Lagos. So, God has been good irrespective or in as much as we don’t have everything in place where we want them to be. There is a lot coming from the little work we have done, which is bringing back returns. So with the shows, it’s been good at least with the whole Ogene sound I have performed at One Africa in Houston. I have performed at AFRIMA in Dallas, I performed at One Africa London, I performed at Davido’s concert in London earlier this year, I performed at the Big Brother house last year. So it’s been good.
You seem to be pretty much accepted or let’s say you have much fan base in the Southeast than in the Southwest. How much are you doing to balance it?
Right, I have always been lucky with things coming on their own. But you cannot be lucky all the time. Sometimes you need to mix luck up with conscious effort. And then I have wanted to come naturally. I wouldn’t want to force it in as much as I want to make conscious effort, you don’t want to force yourself into someone else space. And I’m not going to come out and say I would start speaking Yoruba. And then if you are lucky, you just get a song that would blow somewhere in Africa. And if you are able to blow in Africa, everybody in Nigeria would be like ‘that’s our person’. So if that happens, then it’s cool. And then I’m trying to take the whole cultural thing outside Nigeria. So I was trying to brim into the west, get their own combination of our local drums and maybe talking drums, do my thing then move, maybe go to Ghana and get their own local music and mix it up with pop and see what happens. So we keep moving with the work.
Before you even started playing it, we know the Ogene sound. Compared to the other artistes that also play such sound, how much of impact do you think that has on your music and how did you get to connect with it?
What I do, I did not limit the sound to only ‘Ogene’ because there was Achikolo and what I have in ‘Achikolo’ is ‘Uboh’ as much as the ‘Igba’ and the drum and stuff. So the idea has been to put a balance to it all, like there is culture here and there is pop here and I’m in the middle. So everything that I do there will always be element of both and that’s what I represent. Even in the Iheanacho song that I did, I still had a dance in the part where I did the Atilogu dance which is cultural. So there are always these two factors. The dream is to make it bigger. And to me, it’s a place where people don’t want to go into because it is called razz or dirty. So my whole idea or the mission is to make people understand or see how beautiful our culture is and putting it in a way that it would be easy for them to accept.
You started music without even much concern that you were going to do music and now you are doing cultural music, singing in core Ibo language. How rooted are you culturally?
I’m not rooted anything. I don’t even know how to. If you say you give me chairman of your occasion, maybe traditional wedding that has to do with culture, I will fail you. I don’t even know what to say and who is going to give kolanut and other things that follow.
And then as an artiste do you engage in any form of ritual?
Yes, I fast; when I do fast and then I pray if that’s a ritual. I just focus on praying and fasting sometimes and it works.
Zoro is not married right?
I’m not even thinking about it at the moment but my career.
But at least you have a relationship. What’s your relationship like?
I’m in a very good relationship with God. I also have good relationship with women