INTERVIEW: How Nigerian music appreciation has shrunk

Veteran Nigerian musician Sunny Neji, who was popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s, has expressed concern over a significant decline in the diversity of musical genres embraced by the country.

The Cross River State-born singer who is popular for hits like ‘Oruka’, ‘Mr. Fantastic’, ‘Ikebe go put you for Wahala’, ‘Tolotolo’, and lots more made this known in a recent exclusive interview with PREMIUM TIMES in Lagos State.

Despite the global success of Nigerian music, Sunny, 58, who is the First Vice President of the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria (PMAN), pointed out that the once-rich diversity of musical tastes in Nigerian households has been replaced by a narrow focus on Afrobeat and Amapiano.

Sunny Neji

He highlighted the current trend where Nigerians seem more inclined towards songs that facilitate dancing rather than those with profound lyrical content.



PT: What have you been doing recently?

Sunny: I have been writing and recording, of course, being the First Vice President of PMAN is very demanding, and very distracting. Then we have been designing other things, for instance, we are working on a reality show that is going to be starting very soon. So we are still there.

PT: Many people have different dreams growing up, did you always want to be a musician?

Sunny: Yes, I have always wanted to be a musician.

PT: How did your parents respond to it?

Sunny: Right from childhood, I have been singing and dancing, I grew up in the village. As a village boy, I was singing and dancing, and it was a normal thing, and our parents accepted us like that. Where I am from, it was a normal thing and I don’t think it came as a surprise to anybody.

PT: How do you feel when people refer to some of your old works?

Sunny: I feel good and proud. It makes me feel that I have done something worthwhile and I have done something that people can own and has affected life positively. So, when I hear such comments, I am even encouraged more. It makes me feel that I have not been wasting my time.

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PT: Your song ‘Oruka’ is what this generation would call a banger, so what would be your advice to young artistes when it comes to making a piece of evergreen music?

Sunny: Some people would say some songs by some young artistes would not be relevant in the next 10 years, or even the next 5 years, or even the next year, but that is not absolutely true.

You see music is art and art is very subjective; if you see two painters, one would do a portrait of you; a beautiful portrait, and the other, maybe an abstract painter, would just carry one bucket of paint and splash on the cava. Ordinarily, you would see the beautiful portrait and say that this is fantastic, and you would judge the abstract painter as nonsense, but someone else would look at what you have adjudged as nonsense, and call it a masterpiece, and that is how music is.

So, I do not like comparing then and now or comparing artistes, I just believe that people would like what they would like, and there is nothing you can do about it.

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There is an artiste you would see and say I can never listen to him, and that same artiste is another person’s favourite. So let everybody just do their art the best way that they can; develop your art, push yourself, and just leave the rest to God.

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PT: Your 2023 hit, ‘Oruka’ has remained a wedding anthem in the last decade, what inspires your lyrics?

Sunny: It is my drive to want to affect people’s lives. I would want to create something. I am not just thinking about me, yes, I am there, but I want someone else to own it and say this is my song. So those are the things that inspire me. I look around me, and how life has affected me as a person, so my inspiration is from everywhere. Moreover, the song was inspired because I felt the need to have a wedding song. I got married in 2002 and there wasn’t any wedding song for me to dance to. So the thought came into my head that it would be nice to have a wedding song.

The idea of having a wedding song, a song where wedding parties would not be complete without and Oruka became that one song.

PT: So what did Oruka do to your music career?

Sunny: It shot it; from the time it was released till this moment, it took my career further than I have ever imagined. Even to date, I still play Oruka at weddings both here in Nigeria and beyond. It is now like a wedding anthem. And I am really very thankful to God for giving me that inspiration.

PT: You mentioned you still do a lot of live performances, how do you keep fit, especially with your voice texture?

Sunny: As a person, not just as an artiste or as a person, you have to develop yourself. You have a gift is one thing, developing the gift is another thing. If you get lazy about your gift, you might not just maximise the possibilities of that gift of yours.

But if you have the gift and you recognise that you can polish the gift you commit yourself to it. You train yourself and listen to people who sing better than you. Make sacrifices; for some people, avoid, what you need to avoid, whatever itself affects the instruments that God has given you, then push yourself and train yourself.

Some artistes do not want to work hard and develop themselves but rather resort to the intake of drugs.

PT: Why do some young artistes resort to drugs?

Sunny: It is a sad thing and I do not even know why; sometimes I think about it, why do people even take drugs, what is the catch? What is that thing inside there that they like? It doesn’t make sense to me. Artistes all over the world are doing this. And I wonder what is in these drugs.

It is something that beats my imagination why people do it, sometimes it starts like something due to peer pressure, sometimes artistes get carried away by fans’ expectations, and they start living a certain kind of lifestyle but whatever is not good for your health, don’t do it.

PT: How would you observe the kind of music released in Nigeria in recent times?

Sunny: I do not know what happened to Nigerians, somehow they too got carried away, well it is a normal thing to get carried away but not to be swept off completely.

For example, when I was growing up, in our house, we had collections of albums from various artistes and genres and the list was endless. But I think what happened is that the music appreciation of Nigerians just kind of reduced, I don’t know what caused it, maybe it is the pressure of the country.

PT: When you say music appreciation reduced, what do you mean?

Sunny: I meant the kind of songs and the value in the lyrics shrunk to only a particular kind of music, Afrobeat and Amapiano, don’t get me wrong, they are good genres of music, but aside from that, Nigerians do not appreciate other genre of music.

It mustn’t be Afrobeat, if you make a very beautiful song, Nigerians now would say the song is too deep, and it’s a problem for them. They just want to dance away, they don’t even want to hear what you are saying. But I think it is a phase, and I think it is changing, I think people are now beginning to look for content in lyrics, and people are beginning to judge music beyond just the beat.

PT: There have been a lot of vulgar words in lyrics and some lyrics do not rightly represent a set of people, especially women, what would be your advice to younger artists in writing lyrics?

Sunny: To tell you the truth, there is nothing you would tell an artist that will make him change. It is when people change that an artiste will change. If people say no we don’t want his kind of music, then the artiste will naturally change, what is happening now is maybe a lot of people like these kinds of music maybe because is the pressure of the country that has affected people.

PT: Should we expect any new work from you?

Sunny: I recently dropped an album a few weeks ago, it is called ‘Pour Me Water’, and it is online on all digital platforms.

PT: Are you infusing all these recent raves and sounds into your music?

Sunny: There is nothing wrong with infusion because it is music, so that wouldn’t be in some of my tracks but not in every single track.

PT: Who do you look forward to working with?

Sunny: There is nothing wrong with collaboration, if there is something nice you see in an artiste and you feel you need it in your work of art, you can collaborate with that person. For now, there are a lot of artistes that have caught my interest that I would want to work with, not necessarily from my generation, there is Rema, Davido, and Wizkid, they are all doing fantastic and I am so proud of them.

PT: The Nigerian music industry has become a global brand, how does this make you feel?

Sunny: Like every other industry, things have changed. Imagine that people didn’t make as much money as they are making now, they are making less than we made, do you think people would want to go into music? It gives me great joy when I see Nigerian music soaring globally and it encourages me that what we are doing at PMAN would make the industry more formidable, and it would encourage some of us who our kids are into music.

I always feel great and excited when our Nigerian artistes travel to Europe and America and shut down their stadiums and sell out at their various arenas, you know that the reverse used to be the case ; they used to come here to shut down our venues, now are taking the world by storm. In fact, most of them want to collaborate with us. It tells you that it is our time, and it is our moment and we need to manage it well.

PT: How can we sustain this global spotlight?

Sunny: To sustain this spotlight on us, we must strive hard and never think that we have arrived yet. The moment we think we have arrived, we are already on our way down. We have to work really hard to stay on top.

PT: You ventured into acting, and you featured in movies like Locked (2019) and Infidelity (2000), How did you turn into an actor?

Sunny: I have always loved acting, I believe that every musician can act when given the opportunity, I mean musicians do music videos.

When I am invited and I have time, and I have read the script, and I like the story I could take up the role.

PT: You are one artiste with little or no record label saga; what would be your advice to younger artistes who are signing into record labels?

Sunny: The first thing I would tell the younger artistes is that they should be registered with a body like the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria, PMAN.

Every organised group of people in a society belongs to an association. Taxi drivers have associations, traders and even people who are not in a professional body belong to an association, so musicians should also try to belong to an association like PMAN to get the protection of the association so that when trouble comes, you can count on the association to fight for you when there is confusion, the association would come to your rescue.

Look at the issue with Mohbad, imagine that he was a member of PMAN, maybe a long time ago, PMAN would have called him and the record label concerned to a round table discussion, it wouldn’t have degenerated to that level. Artists should belong to a body, we are too unserious in this industry. This our industry is a huge money spinner, but for us just to organize it, it is a problem.

PT: You have been an executive member in the leadership of PMAN, what is PMAN doing to younger artistes to join the association?

Sunny: You know PMAN for a very long time has suffered from several fracas. It is just now that we are trying to rebrand it and so far I think we have done a great job. Now we are trying to make the association attractive to artists, and let them know the benefit of being a member of PMAN.

We have gone to the level where when you want to travel, you would go to the embassy and they would ask you are a PMAN member. Where is your Identification Card?

We are trying to put a whole lot of things in place to make them come, we have the authority to enforce embargos, like saying an artist can not perform in certain venues except if you are a PMAN member, but we won’t enforce it yet. At this point, we want to appeal to them first to join PMAN. We are trying to reposition the brand to be attractive.

PT: What would be your advice to Nigerians on the state of the nation?

Sunny: I know that we are in a not-so-good state now as a nation and a lot of people are going through a whole lot, I would like to encourage people not to give up on this country.

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I have heard people say all sorts of terrible things and negative things about the country, I still believe that there is hope, it might be dim, but there is hope there, see if we become hopeless in this nation, then we are dead.

We need to nurse our hope. In a short while, it will get brighter and brighter, where we are now is where God allowed us to get to where we are so that from here we can rise, let us keep that hope alive.

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