Okosuns, Rhodes: Massive Men Mired in May (1)

Femi Akintunde-Johnson

Though the critical mode is for intellectuals and opinion writers and commentators to dwell, in these few weeks of May and June, on the serious exercise of scrutinising the activities, actions, policies and posturing of the Bola Ahmed Tinubu Presidency, in its first year (29 May, 2023 – 29 May, 2023); we have elected here to take a break, more like a detour, to attend to the equally substantial assignment of honoring our great minds in the creative vortex; who gave all of their lives in pursuit of creative excellence and eternal legacies.

  We remember the music and humanity of late musical freedom fighter and, later, soul searcher, Sonny Okosuns, who at the age of 61 took a final bow on May 24, 2008). Almost an annual obeisance, we unfurl our banner of adulation in  memorializing his life, time and music…with a tribute dug out of immortality. I suppose worthy and worthwhile people will never really die… in our memories. This is to Oziddism, and its surviving acolytes.

  “When I first read about Sonny Okosuns’ death, I was not shocked. I simply sighed in deep realisation that the older one gets, the closer the exit day from this stressful but unbelievably hopeful world.  Since I’ve not written in a long while, and had not seen Okosuns for even longer, I decided to write my fondest thoughts of the militant artiste, and produce a well-researched epistle that will honour the depth and diversity of his musical and relational influences, in African music. You see, I’ve known Okosuns, in the flesh, since I was in Ijero Baptist (Primary) School, Ebute-Meta (Lagos) as far back as the early 70’s. He was my first superstar, living in the flesh down the road.

  So, I began an elaborate pre-research process that would allow me cull very old materials and curry former sources that I had allowed to fallow since I “retired” from entertainment reporting.  Then, gbam, Elder Steve Rhodes chose that period to die.  I was upset. Then I was numbed.  And finally, I abandoned any pretension to a rational understanding of the sudden passages of people my family and I cherish without pre-conditions; people we respond warmly to regardless of circumstances, and people we regard with unfailing reverence.

 In exasperation of and submission to the cruel logic of inevitability, making mockery of my vain effort at preserving the immortality of man’s ingenuity, I decided to dump my research. I chose instead to write from the heart. Type whatever comes to my spirit based on my over two decades of professional and personal interactions.    

I lived less than 12 houses, and a road, away from the two-storied building Okosuns was living with his small family on Brickfield Road, Ebute-Meta, West Mainland, Lagos.  I was barely 12 years old, in the early-to-mid 70’s; always star-struck every evening I had to go on errands. There were two basic “tourist attractions” for me on the lower side of Brickfield Road, at the Iganmu end of my world:  the majestic multi-spouting fountain in the foreground of the “Oboyata” mansion, and the large black and white cylindrical painting of the bandana-decked bust of Okosuns’ head, zipped across with arresting moniker – “Ozziddi”… at the door of his small apartment. 

  I would spend several ‘dangerous’ minutes in front of the “Oboyata” house, killing time while watching the water-spitting aquatic figurines…with constant sideway glances to catch a glimpse of the owner of the Ozziddi head.

The ‘times’ I spent in front of Okosuns’ rented home were ‘dangerous’ to my well-being, since I would always stay out longer than anticipated, and the object of my errand would have been in a sorry or diminished state. My guardian, a notorious advocate of “spare the rod and kill the child” was always at pains to understand what could make a 15-minute errand stretch to two hours. She would beat the dark lights out of me.

On another errand, long after the cane had been forgotten; my entire world would, again, get stuck in-between Oboyata and Okosuns’ spectacle… and the ‘beat’ went on….

Yet, in spite of all my “sacrifices”, I was only fortunate to see Okosuns once. The young man (in his late 20’s) was athletic-looking, small in stature with a constant slightly swaggering bounce when walking, or talking. He didn’t appear as huge and dominating as I had dreamt. He was not tall enough, loud enough or swash-buckling enough, like the heroes of the Bonanza (western TV series) that  stole the hearts of the 70’s youth of Lagos.

He certainly did not notice me… or my ambition to hold his hands and hear him sing with his natural “high-octane” voice… until 15 years later.

  As a reporter with Punch Newspaper, just breaking into the entertainment circuit of the late 80’s, I visited Okosuns’ palatial home in Ogba, Lagos – expectedly painted mostly in black and white – for an interview appointment. Of course, I did not tell him I had been his beady-eyed fan even before I heard his music; or that I could sing most of his songs (Papa’s Land, Fire in Soweto, etc) without acoustics.

We hit it off brilliantly – like old friends who had missed each other for 15 years. I met Nkechi, his adorable matronly wife, who ‘finished’ me with her warmth and smile.

 After that first major contact, I knew we would gel as both objects of professional interest and bosom friends – a very difficult balance in the entertainment world. Several visits later, I gained more insight into the persona that is Okosuns. I saw his drive to humanize his fame and fortune by visiting me when I was ill; visiting my office to encourage our new publication in the early 90’s; attending my first daughter’s first birthday party; coming over to pray for me when my media business was under some sort of attack, about seven years before he died.

I saw beyond the man whose politics did not always sit well with me; yet, I understood he was first and foremost an entertainer; then a human being; then a crusading minstrel.  Even the best of us sometimes get our priorities mixed up – and appear less than we set out to be.”

(To Continue)

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