BEVERLY HILLS, May 30, (THEWILL) – He was born famous, arriving on the very day the British lowered the Union Jack and raised the Green-white-Green flag adopted by their former colonial territory called Nigeria. For that, family friends and neighbours in his native Umuahia where he was born “mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms” called him “Independence Boy.”
To be sure, hundreds of babies were born on that very day and year across Nigeria. But not one of them achieved fame as a star performer. Some may have excelled in various professions but only one of them, as far as is known, topped the music charts at one time and distinguished himself for his uniquely distinct brand of music called Zigima. That man is Bright Chimezie who, this October, will be 61 on the same day Nigeria will mark its diamond jubilee.
In an interview with Benjamin Njoku of Vanguard newspaper published on September 30, 2018, Chimezie reminisced on the importance of his shared birthday with his country. “I feel great because it’s my birthday,” Chimezie told the journalist. “I also feel excited and elated that I share the same birthday with my country.”
At the time he met and spoke with the reporter, Chimezie had just performed at a show in Itire, Lagos, after long years of absence from the concert circuit, leading many to speculate he had died or that he disappeared from the music scene completely. Of course, the rumour of his demise was not true.
But what was true was that with the crop of new generation of Rap & Hip-hop musicians mushrooming everywhere from Ajegunle to Alagomeji in Lagos, in the eastern and northern parts of Nigeria and anywhere in between, complete with their sagging pants and tattooed biceps and midriffs, fans didn’t hear much of Zigima music. It was as if Chimezie’s time on stage had elapsed, making him a footnote in an industry he once reigned supreme.
When he appeared on the musical stage in the eighties, Chimezie was something to behold: he was different in stage performance and much else. Summarising his halcyon days in the entertainment industry he would come to dominate for more than a decade, a senior Vanguard editor, the late Ogbonna Amadi, rhapsodized about the musician in a gushing intro in the newspaper’s April 23, 2010 edition.
Known by fans then across the Niger as Nna Ochie (grandfather) Amadi mused thus: “He held Nigerians spellbound with Zigima sound his genre of music. His breathtaking performance on stage also endeared him to the crowd wherever he performed. A very creative musician Bright Chimezie was able to infuse comedy into his songs. Songs like “Respect Africa,” “Okro Soup” and “Oyibo Mentality” propelled him to national stardom.”
True! Stars rise and shine, wane and die. Many thought so about the gap-toothed, ever-smiling performer; that his time was up on the musical stage. But seven years before, in 2003, the Zigima music exponent proved skeptics wrong once again by wowing Queen Elizabeth 11 and a select audience in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, where Chimezie performed. And then just two years ago at a concert in Lagos, he demonstrated to all he still had the fire in his belly as attested to by Njoku in a report days after the show.
Characteristic of overeager Nigerian entertainment reporters ever ready with superlative backslaps for their favourite artistes, Njoku wrote thusly: “When many thought he has nothing to offer anymore, having given his best in the past, the Zigima exponent bounced back recently, proving critics wrong and showcasing his undying passion for the cultures of the black man through music. This is what played out in the past three weeks when the superstar thrilled his Lagos fans with soulful songs. It’s some kind of homecoming for the Zigima king” who “left his fans asking for more with his stage performance as he still exuded the energy he was known for over 20 years ago.”
Besides, it wasn’t that Chimezie couldn’t match the younger artistes dance step for dance step, even out-sing and bedazzle them on stage. As he told the journalist, the major reason fans lost sight of him from the radar of Lagos music scene was because of his family. He had to take care of his growing family, to get them rooted in their Igbo culture and not allow them to become rootless cosmopolitans in Lagos, thereby losing their identity.
“I didn’t disappear,” Chimezie mused to the journalist. “I am a family man. There comes a time in a man’s life when you think of the future. I am married with five children. I had four boys while I was living in Lagos who never knew where I come from, who couldn’t even speak my language. I looked at myself, a cultural ambassador. In future, they will ask any of my sons in Igbo ‘how are you?’ He would answer: ‘my father said I am Igbo.’ I said I am not going to do that. I called my wife and I said, if I ask you to go to the village and get these kids indoctrinated in the culture and tradition of my people, they would say Okoro Junior abandoned his wife in the village and he is chasing small girls in Lagos. I said no. We are relocating. There is showbiz in the South-East but the only thing is that the glamour, publicity is here. We have done quite a lot in the South-East that is not publicized, that is the only thing we are missing. I do come to Lagos and I am gradually introducing those things we have done to Lagos. Now, I have got what I wanted. They (his children) speak Igbo fluently; they know where I come from. If I die today, they know where to take my corpse to and there is a home for them. And they won’t be threatened by the villagers. They are grounded now.”
What many music lovers can say uncompromisingly for Chimezie himself is his rootedness in his own culture, a deliberate attempt to preach or propagate the culture and ideas he grew up with rather than the imported Western values imposed on most Africans during colonial rule. Not only does he reflect this in his music but also sartorially. It is on record he has never appeared in any of his musical videos or on stage, for that matter, dressed in a tie and jacket: he is almost always to be found in native attires, complete with beads and matching caps. Even his culinary bias is strictly African, a point he made much of in many of his musical videos demonstrating his love for local cuisine by actually eating gumbo (okra) soup in one of them. Translation? Practice what you preach.
Another entertainment journalist, Sam Anokam, working with The Nation corroborated this point through a WhatsApp message recently. “Bright Chimezie’s style,” he wrote, “never changed after two decades of his kind of music. Even his latest effort attests to it. He remains a professional to the core on and off stage. Though based in Umuahia, he has remained constant as the northern star in his originality, lyrics and his story telling songs…he remains an enigma in the music industry today as he was in yesteryears.”
For Punch journalist, Ademola Olonilua, who has followed Chimezie’s career trajectory closely, he wrote in the Saturday Beats of the newspaper published on October 1, 2016, the difference made by a musician who proudly described himself once as an 18-carat Igboman. “Chimezie creates his sounds from a mix of traditional Nigerian music and Igbo highlife fused with chanted words,” Olonilua wrote. “He used it to revolutionise the musical structure in Nigeria with lyrics that focus on social issues of the country in a rather funny way.”
Chimezie had always expressed his love for anything traditional or local and not foreign long before he took up music as a profession. In fact, that was what lead to another soubriquet, apart from Independence Boy, which he is known by – Okoro Junior.
In his telling, he was at a disco party sometime in the 70s back in Umuahia. Incensed to no end about the foreign music the DJ played continuously, he requested for any African music. The Disc Jockey obliged him and promptly put on the turntable a number by any one of the Igbo highlife musicians ruling the airwaves then: Sir Warrior, Oliver de Coque or Osita Osadebe. In his teens, Chimezie took to the floor and demonstrated to all what would become his signature steps in later years. That was when “they started calling me Okoro Junior.” Evidently, the name stuck, up until he became recognized as an exponent of Zigima music.
Chimezie’s discography has followed that pattern, of promoting traditional values at the expense of foreign culture. Most of his popular numbers have been named correspondingly: “Respect Africa,” 1984 and “Ogbono Soup,” for instance.
Nigerians of a certain generation can still recall, if prodded, the opening lines of “Ogbono Soup.” “I travel to Oyibo man country, Ala beke…” What is most remarkable about “Ogbono Soup” and subsequent releases is Chimezie’s deliberate use of “humour to get his message across to the people.”
These days, however, he is more concerned with serious issues affecting the country, especially politically. Which was why, on his last visit to Lagos, he availed himself the opportunity to promote his latest album, “Truth and Justice.”
In the same interview with the Vanguard reporter, Chimezie declared somewhat dramatically and like most artistes of that revolutionary stripe that “If there is truth and justice all over the federation, nobody will be demanding for Biafra or engage in any other agitation.” His new album, he went on, “has to do with marginalization and wickedness of man against man. Truth and justice must not only come from the leaders but also the led…Truth is supposed to be painful even to the person that speaks it. With truth and justice, we would have a stable society, a society where you can keep your phone and nobody will steal it.”
He also intimated that he was going to start a political party very soon, to be called, as you would have guessed, Truth and Justice Party.
If Chimezie had not taken up music as a métier, he would have fitted perfectly as an actor playing lead roles in Nollywood. He has the height and a screen face, coupled with a flawless skin. Most female film buffs would have swooned with delight to just behold him lean towards a breathtakingly beautiful actress and cover her luscious lips with his. His charisma and self-possession on stage would have drawn the attention of dozens of producers – of English or Igbo genre – to star or even make cameo appearances in their films because he speaks English and his native Igbo language fluently.
But at some point in his life, it became clear he was cut out for music, not just any kind of music but one he invented all by himself and made popular through the eighties and early nineties.
There is the common knowledge that if you want to be an achiever, do things differently, never follow the trodden path. Thus, Fela Anikulapo Kuti not only spawned Afrobeat but also excelled in the musical genre associated with him to this day. So did Chimezie when he emerged, somewhat with a bang, with his uniquely distinct music and dance steps. Thus was Zigima sound born and has been known till date.
Chimezie first came to prominence in the eighties with his chart-busting “Respect Africa.” He was only 24, handsome like a first rate movie star, a voice like a nightingale and a choreography worthy of an Atilogwu dancer, all of which he would combine to perfect and propagate his inimitable Zigima style of music.
For all his prolific output, Chimezie never really got any award from the body representing musicians in Nigeria – Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria (PMAN.) But last year, on May 29 precisely, he was unanimously elected to the Board of Copyright Society of Nigeria (COSON) helmed by fellow Igboman, Chris Okorojie, onetime president of PMAN.
In acknowledging the honour, Chimezie said: “I would love to appreciate the general members for this great responsibility…This will avail me the opportunity of harnessing and infusing all skills and experience gained over the years into the general good of the COSON at large. The legacy of COSON is of paramount importance, and this I promise to uphold. Let the music pay!”