Orits Williki: Reggae Music Not Dead, It Has Metamorphosed

Orits Williki, the ‘Mubalamumbe’ crooner is a Nigerian reggae musician who became famous following the success of his 1989 record, Tribulation. This was followed by Conqueror, which he released in 1990. In this interview, he says he wants to be remembered as someone who fought the system without attracting violence, but  through music. According to Pupa Williki, music is more powerful than the bullet or the sword. He also argues that reggae music is not dead but has evolved over time, just as he appeals that the genre of music should be given more airplay and publicity in order to address some of the socio-economic challenges confronting the nation today. Obinna Chima and Ferdinand Ekechukwu bring the excerpts:

What’s new with Orits Wiliki and what has been happening around your career?

 What’s new? Everything is new. I don’t believe in aging. I just believe that you continue to do our best, giving the required energy to carry it along. So, I consider everything I do new because every day is a new experience. Right now I’m pushing the new job I released in December 2023. I released a 20 songs album. So, I’m pushing each of the songs on its own merit. That’s what I want to do for now and trying to shoot videos for some of them too. Yahweh is the one I’m pushing since February. Then couple with that, I have some young stars; I wish I have the kind of capital I need to push some crazy talents that I come across all the time. It hurts me that you have all these talents around you; some of them looking up to you to see what you could do for them or how much you be able to assist them. But given the situation in the country everything is really tight. Gone are the days when we have record companies that will take the bills off you, but now we have to spend the whole money and do it ourselves.

Can you take us back to the past, why did you take up music as a career?

I have always known that I was either going to be an actor or a musician. Good enough, I started by being an actor. I started as early as eight years, not professionally. As a small boy of eight years, I was already enlisted in the church choir. I was in the church choir doing the little I could as a little boy. In fact, I grew up in that choir to become the choir master (laughs), you understand. So, interestingly that was at Baptist Church in Benin. By that time, I was leaning towards music, I already knew that I was going to be either one of the two. But most interestingly, my father was also a musician. A musician in the sense that he played a couple of instruments; he was a Baptist minister. And each time he holds his campaign rallies, we have music to play. He was very fantastic with the accordion, a musical instrument. So, I think the whole thing started from that point. Until he left for Zion, because he left so early at about 48 or 49 years. And by the time he left I knew some of the places he had taken us through, some of the interiors of Edo, Delta, Ondo, Anambra, some of the places he took us to. He was always travelling and we were always moving with him. The good thing he was doing then as a pastor, which I see differently these days is that he plants a church, appoints somebody to take over from that point. He never comes back. He only goes back through monitoring to know how the brethren are doing and how the church was going. Unlike these days. He planted over 27 Baptist churches. I realise that things are not the way it was with Christianity then, otherwise, with 27 churches today’s style of churches, you will be waiting for tithes to be coming in every day Sunday and all that and then you would be bearing the big name General Overseer and General that. So, he was not interested in all of that. Sometime I look around me and I say can I find any other man that behaves like my father? Actually, Church of God Mission was started by Bishop Idahosa and himself. Yes! So when things fell apart, he refused to tell us what actually went wrong. Till he died he never told us. He just told us one day that henceforth, we will be worshipping at Baptist Church. I was very sad because I thought of how I was going to miss the equipment, the instrument and all that. So, we tried to probe him to tell us why he just took such a decision, he never told us. It started as New Life for Modern Men, as an organisation. That was the first name they had before they started going into church of God Mission and all of that. Then we used to be in a very small place in Benin. From there they moved to Iyaro and from there they moved to their permanent site. I was following him and when he left, I just believed I can actually begin where he stopped you know, using music. I reasoned that he was reaching out to fewer people through open air campaign rallies, but I believed that with music I was going to reach out to more people. That propelled me and I said having made up my mind, what platform can I really express myself doing music, so I found reggae very available. Through reggae I can express myself spiritually because reggae music is a highly spiritual music. It was a platform I believed I was going to express myself very well. So I chose that.

 But today, we don’t seem to have famous reggae artists again apart from oldies like you. What do you think is the reason?

They are everywhere. But they are not pronounced. It’s tougher this time compared to the past. Let me put it like this, in our days you need to just have a demo and you begin to look for record companies that can sign you on and if you are lucky you got signed on, they take responsibility of every other thing. Many succeeded with that, many didn’t succeed. But there was a platform. By the time we saw the platform also going the other way, we realised that piracy was everywhere, so the record companies all started checking out. Sony Music checked out, Polygram checked out, EMI checked out, Tabansi was neither here nor there at that time. Majek released his first album on Tabansi Records. When all these started falling down and we started to see that those that took over, for example, Premiere, we realised that there was a big difference between the way they were handling the artists and the way hardcore professionals who would got signed on to were doing. Under Polygram, you are forwarded every 90 days a statement of how your job was doing.  Even if you don’t have any money to collect, you have continuous and consistent supply of how your job was doing. But when Polygram left, for like nearly nine to 10 years, Premiere Music for example couldn’t account for sales of our works to the artists until I started fighting them. When I started fighting them, they sent an apology, and then sent me a cheque which was very laughable and I disagreed because I didn’t agree with their accounting system and I didn’t believe that what they were giving me was actually what it was and because of that I said I was going to terminate the contract. Hitherto, you see that most of our artists signed blind contract. We realised that there was slavery mentality in some of the contracts or most of the contracts that were signed. So, in some of those contracts you found out that the artist would continue to owe the company like forever. For example, if they spend about N2 million that time to put your job out, they will have to make that N2 million back first before you are entitled to anything through your own royalty which would be maybe 30 kobo. You need to set 30 kobo to be able to make up N2 million before you now start getting your own royalty. So, you would realise that all the artists were owing the company like forever and nobody was making money from them in terms of royalty. What was available was just you going on live shows and all that and it pained me that some of us signed those contracts. But then you see when you think you are smart, you will be smarter. We looked through the clauses and everything in the contract, I saw some of the boggle-traps I told them I do not agree with some. There was an addendum to my own contract. So by the time I told them we should leave or we should cancel the contract they told me I should realise they own and control my works for the next 25years and until its 25 years, I can’t do any business with my business. So I was patience until it was 27 years and I told them I want my job returned back to me since they couldn’t give account. They said no they owe it for life that there’s a clause in the contract that talks about perpetuity. Eventually we went to court and I won them and I was awarded damages. They also have sent us an appeal which we are not afraid to follow because we know they are going to end up with the same result because of the inconsistency in the contract. So, some of us do all of these things you can imagine the story I’m telling you now. When you now see younger ones who are so blessed and talented where do they go to? Nowhere. Our own label that we also have here how much capital do we have to actually push? In our days with N1.5 million, to N2 million you can cover the whole Nigeria with promo. But now I can assure you that N10 million it’s not enough for Lagos State alone. So it’s a tough time for upcoming ones. But thank God for the internet. The internet helps you to express yourself. It is when you have proven yourself online that somebody will be interested in you. All these are the things I’m doing. And like I said I just released two artists and I’m also helping to push. That’s why I said everything is new.

 On the issue of the court judgment, certain amount of money was awarded to you?

 I asked for a N100 million, the court awarded me N50 million.

In a way, you were not satisfied with the N50 million?

I am not satisfied. The reason I’m not satisfied was because they went above what our agreements were. They knowingly or unknowingly started acting as my publisher. They were publishing my music at different companies abroad and making money. I didn’t know until one of them contacted me directly and said they want to sign me on a particular two tracks, but that Premiere is claiming the ownership of those songs. I said they cannot claim ownership. My contract with them had expired. That’s how I told my contact abroad to go on a research and discover different companies they were selling my products to in hard currency and I’m here, you are not telling me anything. When I put all that together, more facts came, otherwise I would have been asking for N500 million. But then again can they pay N500 million? I don’t think so. The most important thing is to prove a point even if they didn’t award me any money. But to prove to them that yes cannot be a slave master forever. Sometime the slave will also grow up.

Each of your songs comes with a story. Where do you draw inspiration from and you said you have 20 songs in your latest album, can you tell us about some of them?

They are all religious songs actually; they are all gospel, a double album. The primary reason why I went into it was to also continue the message where my father stopped and in doing that, I continue to rely on the word of God. My inspiration comes from two major points: God the creator of the Heavens and of the Earth and everything therein and secondly, I hate oppression. I hate poverty. Anytime I see anybody oppressed it is like you put my spirit in the mood of writing, especially when it comes to Nigeria where we are experiencing injustice every day; police brutality, political robbery, political looting and all that. And then you begin to wonder. Some time I just said, ok if we bring Americans, if we can strike a deal with us and say ok Joe Biden, we want you guys to come and take over Nigeria, while we move to America. I’m sure they will be happy for it; they will be happy because they know that in 10 years if they are here they would do better with what we have here and if we go there in two years, we will be worse because the level of greed and corruption in our system is something else. So, you begin to look for a better tomorrow. You are looking to a better tomorrow because you have indices to ascertain that. But when there are no indices to even check and project that this country would be better than it is now then we have a problem because every time a new government comes in, people clap their hands and say yes, now we got it. In three months, you begin to miss the previous one you thought was bad. That’s the way I grew up in this country knowing. That’s why I wrote that song, ‘Is it when I’m dead?’ When are those better days coming? So my head is filled with writing all the time because I see things and it hurt badly because I cannot do much. This generation has their eyes but they don’t see; they have their ears but they can’t hear. So, were they that crucified Jesus not knowing what they were doing. When I look at everything around me it put my mind in the state of writing all the time because we are really passing through hard times.

So, the new album?

This album is actually gospel afro. And when six years ago I decided to just go gospel, but still reggae, some people were like gospel? I said yes, I have been playing gospel all the time but because its reggae, some of you are biased. You don’t care to listen to what I’m saying. Yes, I’m a pan-Africanist, I’m a revolutionist, I am also a gospel artist. So, if you listen to all my songs: From Conqueror to Tribulation, they are all gospel. So, I read the bible very well. And that is my power. This album is like emphasising that all you have been hearing me play was reggae music but gospel. Spiritually motivated songs and sometimes when I perform them I do ministration and move from church to church. When I perform you see people are moved spiritually.      

What do you think about the quality of music we have today and can you do a comparison between Afrobeats and reggae?

You cannot compare them because both of them have different blood, but one soul. It’s like comparing your own children. Reggae did so much for the youth when it was given the adequate publicity. What you have at the moment is a systemic problem because they don’t get to play enough of the reggae music. We have so many good reggae music around because when we go on tour, they play and they perform you would wonder how you wish these children could have some of the opportunities that we artist had. That’s the reggae artists. They are so many lying down in radio houses and TV houses.

Some of have even argued that reggae music is dead?

No! Reggae cannot die. Reggae has also evolved too. Reggae music as you knew it as the traditional root-rock reggae music has metamorphosed into a different style and pattern which is hip-pop. If you listened to Bob Marley, you would see that in his late days, his tempo had fastened up. It was changing with time as well and was no longer the slow groove music that he used to play. It had to move with the time. And so reggae music has also metamorphosed into hip-pop. They have a very close culture. The only different is that where one is highly spiritual, the other one is highly protesting. Hip-pop is for protest; it’s protest music. So, our way of life might seem the same but they are not actually the same. When you say reggae is dead, no, reggae is not dead. It is existing in another new life; in another new body. But afrobeats, when they continue to say afrobeat and afrobeats I laugh. I laugh because afrobeat is one. Afrobeats is afrobeat as produced by Fela Anikulapo-kuti. He is the originator of that music, you understand. Yes, kudos to our children who have been able to research into that kind of music and came up with new beat. I give kudos to them for being able to do that. But you now look at the contents. The contents are not contents that you may think would stand the test of time. And that is why if you go and play ‘Tribulation’, my song I released over 30 years ago, its talking about now. And some of the youths I asked one the other day, how will you explain to your grandchild when you are age 90 years, when your grandchildren are flocking around you and they say ‘daddy, what were you saying in this your song then? Will you be able to feel comfortably to talk about boobs, pants, you know booty, drugs and dollars to your children? Whatever you are doing now is just for the time. It’s not something I think will last till such moment. People like Davido are a little different. If you listen to Davido’s music it’s more of culture, heritage. From the percussions to what he will sing about he is a little more philosophical than a lot of the others. A lot of the others are just talking anything once the beat is there, it’s okay. And I also project that he (Davido) will last longer than all of them because he has originality.

What about your assessment of the likes of Burna Boy, Wizkid and the quality of their music?

 Burna Boy is very creative. He can make something out of nothing. I will give it to him he’s versatile. It takes a creative mind to do some of the things he’s doing. You will see that he takes a little flip from here and he will turn it to something else. For me, I would not see much originality like I would see in Davido for example. So that’s how I differentiate them. Wizkid he’s also very good in his own style you know. But you see Wizkid is more like wanting to be in the eyes of the global media. So he’s pushing himself more to the international audience and in doing that, he loses some of the values of the traditional thing that we have here, you understand, because he’s working towards the projection and acceptability of these people.  By doing that, you will forget the ingredients, the elements that reflect in the music. All in all, they are all brilliant. I love them all.

Considering the perception that reggae is dead. What kind of support do you think should be given to reggae?

 Give them airplay. Because when we had good airplay, there was not much cultism in the system and they were not going into drugs like you see now. It was not so in our days because we had healthy contents. If you preach violence on our airwaves now if all the radio stations decide to play violence-motivating songs for three months you will see what will happen. It is the media that controls what the youth react to. Today, if you don’t have money they are not going to play your songs.

With what you see in the industry today, do you have any regret taking up music as a career?

 No. I will do it over again and over again because we went into the profession not because of money. First is the calling. When you have a calling that makes you happy, a calling that you know if you are doing this thing you are doing it with joy, you are passionate about it, then money becomes secondary. But one good thing about music is that if you don’t make the money now, don’t cry, the money is somewhere, don’t stop, continue to work. Bob Marley died with over four million pounds in his account and one year after, it rose significantly to over $750 million. Fela, when he was alive some were mocking him. But the day Fela died, the following year, you saw what happened? Did you see the millions that rolled in? That is the life of musicians and music. So, you never really die. When you stop working, the works that you had, people like Rex Lawson, IK Dairo, they are still making good money today through their foreign repertoire. For you to get discouraged because you are not making the money now, then you didn’t have the calling. If you have the calling, you will continue to work. You met working in the studio. I’m still working. Bob Marley did something that I really love and I emulate him and I’m copying that. Bob Marley, 10 years after he died they were still releasing his jobs as if he was still alive. I want to beat that record. I want to be able to lease my job even 20 years after, like I’m still here. So, just keep recording.

 So in a way you have so many songs recorded but unreleased?

Oh! If you go to my archive you will be shocked.

 Like how many songs at the moment?

As I’m sitting down here I have not less than 100 songs I have not even constructed the lyrics. I have 150 and I have released over 160 songs (the new album inclusive). So I will continue to pile my archive.

You did mention of Bob Marley earning more after death. That has to do with royalties. Compared to what we have here in our country do artists really get royalties because a couple of times we see some of them here struggling to make ends meet?

 Yes, they do get. Don’t forget I’m also the chairman of the Musical Copyright Society of Nigeria (MCSN), that was why I never relegate fighting for this particular structure to begotten. It took us nearly over 20 years fighting, going to court and that, getting intimidated at a time by the regulatory body. But we said no. this is our lives, this is our right. It is called intellectual property. It’s my right. I can decide to give it to a dog to manage. I can decide to give it to a monkey to manage. The government doesn’t have any role. It’s just like when I build my estate. If build my estates, the government mustn’t come to me to decide who to give it to manage. No, they have no right. It’s me that would decide. And that’s why we told them they should liberalise the industry. Just having one society doesn’t give us a choice. And they thought otherwise. This was a battle we fought. But thank God, it’s all over now. Structures are falling place and I know that given what we are putting on ground now, in the next five years, artist should be getting their cheques like you get abroad every quarter. Last year we distributed not less than N5.7 million among all the artists, even though its small. Like this year we want to be able to do more. If we have the structures working well and everybody getting his cheque quarterly, why will you have a problem of taking care of yourself? And we are not talking of just Nigeria. Anywhere your job is played outside the shores of this country, MCSN is there to pick up your money for you.

 Which among your contemporaries are you closed to and how do you draw inspiration from each other?

My contemporaries, some of them are dead. From Majek, I worked in Majek’s album, the very first one. I worked in Ras Kimono’s album. I worked in Alex O’s album. I worked in Isaac Black’s album. I worked with almost all of them; Chris Mba and the rest. Every one of them has had a bit of me in their music, either co-producing or co-arranging or arranging the percussions and all of that. So, I am very close to almost all of them. And that’s why they call me Pupa. But I was closest to Ras Kimono than the rest. So that’s why they call us Siamese twins. So we really were very close and his death affected me a lot.

 What would you like to be remembered for?

 I want to be remembered for somebody who fought the system without attracting violence through music. Music is more powerful than the bullet. Music is more powerful than the sword. You can use music for whichever way you want to use it; positively or negatively. Today, music is used as a therapy for healing in the civilised word. You don’t use needle because music is played in a particular realm. The chords, interpretation, are in particular different realms. If I want to sing about love, I need to employ those chords to express the words. When you marry them together, it must touch your heart. I can make you cry. I can make you so emotionally that you begin to wonder. You will be so neck deep in listening to what I’m saying. There are some dangerous songs you can write and put in the perfect words people will hear it and they would want to pick up. In the bible when there was Canaan war in Jericho you realized there was no gunshot, no sword, it was just music. Just trumpet and the walls of Jericho came down and the people ran away and then Israel took over. So music can be used for a lot of other things. I want to be remembered as one who used music to attack the system without employing violence.   

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