Stella Monye: My Regret is Not Commercialising My Music

Stella Monye, the “Oko Mi ye” crooner, was a popular name in the 80s when she released her hit album, “Mr. Right.” She dominated the national scene and participated in several tours, both at home and abroad, representing Nigeria. However, the accident her son, Ibrahim, had while she was on one of the international tours seriously affected her career and slowed her down. She speaks with Ferdinand  Ekechukwu about her life,  career,  son as well as advises the present crop of female artistes about how to remain focused. excerpts

Can you bring  us up to date about your life and music career at the moment?

Not much has been done. I’ve been away because of my son’s medical condition. We’ve been away in the United States trying to undergo treatment for him. I’m sure a lot of persons know about my son’s incident and are aware of the accident he had some years back when I was on a national engagement. I had to put a stop to my career because I felt if I hadn’t gone away on career work and national engagement my son wouldn’t have had the accident because I would have kept an eye on him. So, because I felt guilty that I was not there for him as a mother, that’s why what happened to him, happened to him, I had to take time off. I had to go on break from my career to attend to him. The surgery has taken a toll on him as he has had so many surgeries. We have been to India and back. Then we left for the US after going to many hospitals in Lagos. It’s been a very long, tormenting journey. But we thank God he’s almost there. He’s still undergoing systematic medical procedure at NYU Langdon Health, New York. So, that’s where we are now. Recently, I recorded a single that will be released by an American producer who wrote me a song out of inspiration and sent it to me. I have done the song and I have sent it back to him, I don’t know what the outcome of that will be. But I look forward to something good from that.    

But 40yrs after you made your debut as an artiste, can you take us back a bit to your early beginning and what sparked your interest in music?

I was in school; I was in University of Ife studying drama and I know I did a lot of things that have to do with entertainment. I was into drama, I was into music, I sang with Nelly Uchendu (late). Music was not really a focus for me until I wrote that song ‘Oko mi Ye’ that became a mega hit because of that African theme. Even before people like Chaka Chaka, and late South African girl that was as well popular in Nigeria (Brenda Fassie), I started that African beat with ‘Oko mi Ye’. It was just a joke because I was just messing around with somebody on a piano and I came up with the song. Somebody heard the song and said “the song is fantastic you know you have to do something with it, you can’t just leave it. You can take it to EMI Records.” So, I took it to EMI the next thing a message came to my father’s house that my song came first at the panel. You know the whole thing started from there and smashed everywhere. That was it and I just said, “So, I’m a musician now, ok good, it’s all good,” and I continued from there.

You were in your teen when you started music. Was there any opposition to it, maybe from your parents or peers?

Yes, definitely. My dad wanted me to be a lawyer. And then he used to call me an orator. So, he felt that would be a good field for me because my father felt that I do good argument. But unfortunately like I said when the music came out and it was all over the place, I just said “ok bye, bye to law,” But I came back later to do an online course on law. But I was not focused because I was travelling all over the place taking my son around. So, I couldn’t really settle down and go through with it. But I did start the law programme just to please my father. But my father eventually died anyway.

You were known popularly during your reign as the ‘Samba Queen,’ How did that come about?

It was you people (the media) that gave me the name. I came out with a song called ‘Arigo Samba,’ and it was quite popular, people loved it and then from there the media just tagged me ‘Samba Queen,’ and that’s how the name came about.

Has there been any regret or event that gave you reason or cause to want to think otherwise taking up music?

No, not at all. Like you said, I was in my teenage age when I started. And I tell you a lot of things happened to me in my teenage age. As a teenager, so many things happened to me that I didn’t expect. Like I went on a lot of tour; I went to Oraton world Festival of Arts in Berlin through University of Lagos Drama department. I travelled extensively. We went to Bourne, Sabricane, Frankfurt, West Berlin, it was an extensive tour. And then we went to Switzerland and then we went to Netherlands. It was a first eye opening break for me to know that a teenage girl like me could go and represent Nigeria. Though it was through a drama presentation, eventually after that tour another tour came up. Several other tours came up. We went to Yamoussoukro in Abidjan to represent University of Lagos (Unilag) at the All University Games; we went to sing the Nigerian national anthem; that was another eye opening tour. It was fantastic and then I came back and we went on another tour to the Caribbean. Late Tony Momoh was leading the delegation with General Yakubu Gowon and his wife. Senator Chris Anyanwu was on that tour. It was something else and you know I was still young; I mean I was still in my 20s when that came up, we went to Caribbean from there they took us to New York. One of the ambassadors from Nigeria welcomed us in New York. The next day in Caribbean I was tagged “Bombshell from Nigeria”. It was a good thing because General Gowon was proud of me because I came and I had this line up of band behind me; all the henchmen like Phil Onyia was playing the horn for me; Peter King was on the saxophone; Lagbaja was on bass, late Willie Bestman was on drum; Remy Kabaka too was on drum a whole lot of them. All these big men were just behind a tiny me and we did so well in Caribbean because everybody came from all over the world. It was the 150th anniversary of slave trade in diaspora. I was the only band. I have done so much for Nigeria and everything happened in my early life. I tell you the truth, the reason I don’t really have many albums to my name was because national work kept falling on my laps. I was there at the 30th anniversary of corporate world in Abuja; I was on the band stand when the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) was formed; I was the one who played at the opening of the EFCC. Then I branched into human rights with late Gani Fawehinmi, late Enahoro, late Beko, Mrs. Odumakin, we were all always on the road doing all kinds of human rights thing; we did road shows, that part of my life too came up. Then I went to work for a Foundation where we were serving food in school. So many things also distracted me from my career. But I know a lot of people don’t know all these things. While all my colleagues were enjoying fame, money and making money, I was busy working for Nigeria.

That would have been an interesting experience, not something somebody can buy with money?

Not, I didn’t make money from it but I enjoyed every minute of all those things that I did because it was for my country and I was really, really satisfied.  

A lot of girls are now into music. How different was this during your time?

In our own time, I don’t think girls were even going into music right now. There are not many girls today. Like in our era a lot of girls came up – Uche Ibeto, Funmi Adams, Christy Essien, Onyeka Onwenu, Stella yama – name it. There were a lot of people in our era. And of course, you know the reason is different now. Today, it is always about beat and sex. In our own time, its content you know its serious content. You are either singing love songs or you are singing songs to correct the ills in the society. So, it’s a bit different from what they are doing now and not a lot of girls. Yes, of course people demand for sex from women when they want to do things for you. But in this era it’s even worse. They are not even allowing them to surface. You can see its only Yemi Alade, Simi and Tiwa that have only been able to bring their heads from the water. Okay, there is Ayra Starr, which I think is very talented. She’s going to go places. There’s also Teni. These girls are great talents, they are really, really talented. But the girls are not coming up enough. I don’t know but that’s how I feel.

What do you think can be done to encourage more girls to take to music?

We were lucky we had record companies that were rooted. You can just go to the record company. But in this case, have to go to individuals to produce who knows all kinds of harassment they will be getting. So, that could be part of it. And these girls are stronger than us in our era. When I mean stronger, they are able to put their foot down than when we were coming up. I’m not saying we were not tough too, we were tough. But this era, these girls are exposed, they are wise, they are strong and they are better placed. Some of them have done a lot for their lives before coming into music. I just hope that they get better and that they come up more. I hope the producers will help them come up more and don’t harass them so that they can be free to come up. I know we have a lot of talent. I just pray that things get better for the women.

At some point, some of your contemporaries stopped recording and left the scene. Some went abroad, some into oblivion. Why did that happen?

It got to that point in Nigeria where the record companies started folding; EMI folded, sold it to a Nigerian company who didn’t really do well with it. Premier too went through the same thing; they folded when all the white people left these companies. And then don’t forget the pirates didn’t really help matters. Pirates really worried us in our time. It’s not like now that people live on corporate endorsement and streaming. We didn’t have social media in our time. So, it was difficult. The Alaba boys were just feeding on our works and we never got money back. And the record companies they use all their monies to promote and never got money back. And then don’t forget corruption aspect of it, we were not getting paid. There were just so many issues and the record companies became afraid of the Alaba people and that kind of killed the industry. And don’t forget that in our era we didn’t really make a lot of money. That’s the truth. I remember Onyeka Onwenu borrowed money to do ‘One Love’. And it took time for her to pay back that money. And ‘One Love’ was a mega hit! But people didn’t know what she was going through. So, we had those challenges unlike the children of today. They open their own record label and they all have studios in their houses. We didn’t have that kind of opportunity. So, people started travelling out, some just travel out and go and do something or become a nurse or something. Some got married and never looked at music again.

Going by what you just mentioned now how piracy affected the industry, and in a way affected your colleagues and made some of them to leave the industry. By recorded account, your debut album, ‘Mr. Right’ sold out. How much did it bring you in return?

I must say that I never earned a penny from that album. It was just a hit that I rode on. Like I said, when it came out, they started inviting me for government functions. I was able to do a lot of government functions. I was able to represent Nigeria outside the country. But earning, no I didn’t.  By the time I got back and went to EMI Records, they said the book of account was lost (laughs). Can you imagine that? And that they couldn’t find the book of account. That’s how I lost out of that I never made a penny. They never paid me a penny royalty. But Tabansi Records eventually bought me from EMI. EMI said I owed them and that they are not the ones owing me. So, Tabansi had to pay EMI to take me over even though Tabansi didn’t do much for my career. When I got to Tabansi I did ‘Ife’, ‘Ife’ moved a little, ‘Arigo Samba’ moved a little, and then like I said, so many other things came up. I was distracted, I was just doing national work I was there at “Nigeria 99” I was part of the theme song, “Peace for Nigeria” I was part of the theme song. I just went into a lot of Nigerian thing.  

How  many other albums do you have and which of them comes close to the success of your debut?

It was ‘Ife’; ‘Ife’ was my second album and it moved. I mean a lot of people at least can point to that, and then ‘Kilode’ was another good song. They didn’t give me the kind of push that I expected. But like I said, it’s all too part of my fault I was not really focused anymore on my album I was just doing national work and I was okay. I liked the live show so my band was always active even the One Lagos they do every year in December I’m on it. We were in Cross River for Calabar Carnival. We were just all over the place. Benson and Hedges Loud in Kano, Loud in Lagos, I was on band stand. So many other things that I went into that I didn’t really focus on albums. I was engaged on my daily lives than album.

If you could turn back the hands of time in terms of your career and some aspect of your life which  you may recall, for what could that be?

I must tell you the truth I have no, no single regrets because the little fame that I got in Nigeria opened a lot of doors for me. I did a lot of national things. At least I can knock on any door now and they would say “okay you are Stella Monye, come in.” It’s joyful. We made a lot of mistakes along the line. Some things that we thought we could have done we didn’t do. And God sometimes uses our needs to correct or to lead us to our destination. If my son didn’t have accident I’m sure by now, career wise I would be riding very high. Because just when I was thinking “okay, I didn’t do well when I started out, I had a lot of distraction, now I want to start my career,” then my son had an accident. And that was it. There’s no way I would have left my son to go and say I’m doing career because it was a very tragic accident that would have claimed his life, but fortunately I got help from here and there in Nigeria. I hope very soon we would be through with it by the grace of God. And I will start the phase two of my career (laughing).

What is your take about the music industry and the kind of music being churned out today, compared to what you had in your time?

Hmmm… sometimes it’s difficult to want to compare. Remember, music is evolving, things are changing. The era is changing. So we cannot compare what we were doing to what they are doing now. Everybody doesn’t have to be doing human rights songs. Yes, they sing a lot about sex these days, they use life incident, daily incident, nobody is talking about human rights again, nobody. Like Fela, Okosun, and other people who really fought for freedom. Sometimes I really don’t expect kids to start fighting for freedom having known that their predecessors a whole lot of them suffered fighting for freedom. They jailed some, some died in the process. And then these children of nowadays, like I said they are exposed, they are wise, they have a lot of wisdom, they just want to come enjoy their lives play music they don’t want to go through that phase of going to jail like Fela whose house they even burnt down. These children don’t want to do that. They just want to entertain us. And then they want to say the things that they want to say to entertain us and the beat is there. This day it’s about beats. It’s okay we are enjoying it; it’s cool. People like 2face are still on the right track singing the right things, singing love songs, singing all the good things that you want to hear. They are all trying. They all can’t be singing human rights, no. It’s a trend. If a trend goes, other people will come and maybe those ones will choose another subject matter. The single I did in recent time is called ‘He was Preparing Me’. It’s an inspirational song that will inspire others. It’s about what I went through in my life; God was preparing me for greater seat in front of me because he has taught me a lot of things. I’m experienced now. I know a lot of things. I know that I cannot make the mistakes I made in the past and I know I will only sing inspirational songs these days. And please don’t condemn them. They have to come with something.

 What advise  do you have for this set of musicians and you have mentioned mistakes you made in the past can you share some of these mistakes so they can learn from it?

You see they (present musicians) are more focused. Let me put it that way. We had a lot of work to do in our era. They are not really practicing politics like we did. I mean we joined politics at that time. We even campaigned for people and there was a lot of digression. I went into human rights I enjoyed it o! You know because I have always wanted to do human right work which the opportunity just came and fell on my laps and I enjoyed every road leading to that human rights. 

But the mistakes are not really much to say. They are lucky; they have the social media now to fall back on we didn’t have anything like that. If I had opportunity, I would say I would have wished we had social media to fall back on like now we would have made money.  People make a lot of money from streaming these days. Streaming alone give them thousands and thousands of dollars you know. So maybe I would have been a business woman, that’s the mistake I want to talk about. I would have loved to do business with music. You know that somebody like Bongos Ikwe and Chris Okotie they made their hits and then they digressed into something else. Chris Okotie is big in real estate that’s what he’s using his law to do. He’s into big estate management. People think he’s just a pastor. He’s not just a pastor, nobody is giving him money to run that church he runs it from the money he makes from his real estate business people don’t know that. Bongos Ikwe got a lot of contract he was lucky he built that 5-star hotel in Benue and he’s into a lot of business. Maybe if I was smart like I am now I would have gone into a business too, but I would be doing music. Of course I wouldn’t stop music. We were professionals to the core. People like Fela never sold rice or anything, he was a musician. Sunny Okosun was a musician, all of them just focused on music they never opened any office anywhere for anything he was a musician to the core. He was making all his money from music. So a lot of us like that made that mistake of not knowing that this environment is not like America; we can’t compare ourselves to America or other places like that. But these children now they are lucky they are even on international stage they are making money. We never pushed to go to the international stage like that except we go to small-small show. Maybe you go to America then there’s one Nigeria that has a buka somewhere they invite you to come and sing. But these children they are actually on international stage right now making the money of their life. So we would have had the opportunity to combine music with business but we never did. We thought we were where our work will give us money. But don’t forget the juju musicians were making money because they go to parties every weekend and they spray them a lot of money. So, those ones were making money but those of us that don’t have that kind of outlets, it was just concerts which comes once in three or four months, how do you survive on that? So, it’s a mistake.

 Which of these new artists are you endeared to and which would you like to have collaboration with if you want to?

At first I really had my eyes on Olamide; I wanted to do ‘Oko mi Ye’ with Olamide rapping inside. I wanted to do that and then at a point 2face and I started talking. But somehow I got distracted I didn’t really follow suit. But right now the artist I would really, really like to collaborate with is Asake. There’s something artistic about him. He’s very artistic his stagecraft is very dynamic, and his songs are unique. He came with something. And because I’m a vocalist I like the fact that he plays around with a lot of chorus, large chorus you know. So, that’s endeared him. And that he uses a lot of vocals I like his song arrangement.  

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