by Onyeka Nwelue
Naija Sings debut winner, 19 year-old JON OGAH opens up to ONYEKA NWELUE in this exclusive interview.
On August 23 this year, Jon Ogah turned 19. There are a lot of things he’s free to do now since he’s an adult – drink, smoke and have sex without the supervision of his parents or guardian. But without doing these things, he’s already acting like a full-grown man. Living in Phoenix, Arizona with an uncle (who happens to be his manager in a way) whose son, Kenwood is also a rapper; Jon is living the kind of life every young man would be permitted to envy. Yet, his humility is intimidating. He’s in the middle of doing other songs and working very hard on his album, which might be out by the end of this year. His new single, TONIGHT has a video – a very fine one – whose cinematography is charming and bright.
As soon as he got into the country, he called and we fixed a meet. You don’t always expect this courtesy and modesty from such a personality, but as a lot of people note, Jon’s “excessively nice and accommodating”. I think so too.
It’s a mild Tuesday morning and he’s already at a guest house in Apapa, where his father stays, waiting for me. “So I am in Apapa now, so I’m waiting for you,” reads his sms. I laugh and quickly respond: “LOL. So I’m close.’ My friend is driving me. She knows the way to the street, so it’s not difficult for her to locate the guesthouse. Soon enough, we arrive.
Jon comes out from the restaurant of the guesthouse to see us. He’s full of smiles, looking plump and fresh, wearing scruffy trainers, blue jeans and a green shirt beneath a black jacket. We shake hands, exchange pleasantries and he is very warm towards my friend. They’re already laughing as we walk into the restaurant. There, his uncle is sitting: dark, young and boyish. But he’s a father of a 21 year-old rapper who was persuaded (and yes, his father let him) into seriously pursuing his career in music when his young cousin moved over to live with them in the States.
He’s waiting for his breakfast. Or lunch, because it’s already 11.45 am. The waitress serves him his plate of chips, chicken and freshly fried eggs. He asks us to join in, even after asking if we needed anything. I take a bottle of water to keep myself alive during the many hours we’ll be talking. As soon as he starts eating he comes alive. His eyes brighten up too. Of course, it’s left for him to relax, as this is not the typical Q & A interview session, but rather a personal chat on ‘professionalism and career.’ He’s a bit skeptical of my recorder, though. He tries to tame some of his opinions, so as not to hurt anyone.
Is this why we’ve not been reading anything about him in Nigeria since he left for the States? “It’s all about publicity,” he says, the fork clinks on the plate musically. Then what is Storm Records doing, since it is ‘presumed’ that he’s signed to them? “Again, it’s all about publicizing the artist. They are doing their best. I’m also with 9jaRecords, as per management.” There is silence except for the plate’s clinking.
A hard worker, Jon is passionate about his songs. He’s cautious of using clichéd lines, sees himself as an innovator, and keeps his mind on setting new standards. “Tonight was a song that when I did and I performed, they all went crazy,” he adds. Doesn’t that sound like Usher’s Tonight? “No, I performed Tonight at the Celebrity Theater in July and Ushers’ song came out later on.” Just then, we talked about the recent movie, Mirror Boy (2010), written and directed by London-based Nigerian filmmaker, Obi Emelonye, which bears stark similarities with The Abyssinian Boy by Onyeka Nwelue (published in 2009 by DADA Books). “It’s funny how these things happen,” Jon says, a bit angry.
Having opened for the Head of State, comprising of Bobby Brown, Johnny Gill and Ralph Tresvant (formerly known as New Edition) at Celebrity Theater in Arizona to an audience of 3,000, Jon says his target audience is ‘the world.’ He doesn’t come clear to what he means by the world. Is it the American audience which he is struggling to appeal to? Or the Nigerian audience that has already voted him as the first Naija Singer? “I won’t tell you my primary target,” he smiles. “Yes, I won’t tell you. I’m set on the world.” Then the discussion shifts to the previous edition of The Future Awards. He was one of the many people who campaigned for votes on my behalf. He thinks The Future Awards is encouraging. “Me wey dem never nominate for any award,” he laughs. But what about Naija Sings?
So, my phone rings and I get onto it while he eats. The plates are still singing.
Back to discussion: “I heard 2Face had a concert that was explosive?” he asks. I tell him what I know. We talk about his education. He has three years to go and soon, he’ll be done with college. He says that after his first degree, he will pursue his music career with all his energy. In fact, what’s keeping him focused now on his education is his father’s concern, and the fact that he needs quality education to be the best he can be. “Education comes with a lot of stuff. Finish school, then start your career, or start your career while you are in school. Graduate and move out into the world.”
“I think I’m very impatient.” Or persistent? “Well, maybe persistent. I disturb the people I work with a lot. I pick up the phone and call and say, ‘Have you done this. Have you done that?’ and they think I’m frustrating them, but I’m the one who feel frustrated.” How does he feel to be away from his family? “I live with my uncle, so it’s not like I live alone,” he mutters.
Wasn’t he a first year student of economics at the University of Abuja? “Yes, I couldn’t school here again,” he laments. “There are things you can’t do in a Nigerian university as soon as you become famous. I wonder how those celebrities in UNILAG do it.” Of course, when you are a student celebrity, you’re expected to not do so many things: no eating in bukas, no peeing anywhere, and certainly no walking around on foot.
He writes too. In fact, he would have been become a writer had he not succeeded at Naija Sings. “I had loads of things I wrote before I went into the Naija Sings House,” he pauses to remember the past. “I did some script I wanted to send to Disney.” Big dreams? As soon as he won Naija Sings, he ‘abandoned them.’
Uncle joins in the discussion as soon as we sweep into artistes having ‘trademarks’ or ‘branding.’ He convinces us on why most African-American musicians have a clean-cut look. “Look at El-Dee. He looks clean and corporate.” Jon adds, “Timaya and TerryG are lucky. Their lifestyles work for them, but I don’t think I want to look like them. Especially someone like me doing pop music.” He doesn’t think he’s crazy. Even as he’s cautious of what he wears, how he looks, he’s also concerned about his lyrics. And truly, there is so much maturity in them – deep, and at once, daringly unsentimental. “If you listen to Tonight,” he says and melodiously begins to sing, “Tonight/ We gonna make this last forever/Baby tonight/We perfect in world together/Like beautiful melody/We make up a harmony/.” And this isn’t the way it was before, he says, “It was: We gon make a memory/I will fulfil your fantasy/.”
I had to agree that the old line was too cliché. How come he has time to think so much about his lines and lyrics, unlike most musicians who jump into the studio and jump out with ‘swagger’, ‘pop champagne’ and ‘file!’? “I had to change it, because I’m trying to grow up with a crowd in the US,” he assures me. “A young crowd. Young people in the US.”
This is where the question of where his mind is set on lies. There he says, “My mind is set on the world.” But the US isn’t the world. “My mind is set on the world,” he repeats. And his primary target? “I don’t want to be seen as the local Nigerian artiste,” he flips open, like a book. “For goodness sake, it’s time for Nigeria to grow.” This is how we sound each time we want to change the world, isn’t it? “We have many good songs that can win a Grammy,” he says. His phone rings, and the ringtone is Iyaz’s Replay. I assume our Naija Singer loves ‘melody’ very much.
A fan of his has now tracked him to the guesthouse. A middle-aged woman, she’s gotten his number from his father, and has come to get a glimpse of him. She’s overly excited to see Jon and drives out immediately to buy a camera (or maybe borrow one) to take a photograph with him, after telling the husband on the phone, “I can’t believe it! It’s Jon. Oh my god!”
He’s young, but smart. He knows how to handle fame. It’s not getting into his head. Not anytime soon. “When I won Naija Sings, I went to the movies and a young lady ran to me, held my hand and was screaming and all of a sudden, someone snapped me,” he laughs. “Bad thing is she was very pretty.” So, is the beautiful young woman in his TONIGHT video in a relationship with him? “No, Danni is my very good friend. We are very close.”
All in all, he’s at a great point in his life. He has two elder brothers who are also passionate about music. “Mike took me to the Naija Sings audition,” he recounts vividly, standing up. Mike is his immediate elder brother who is set to release his singles too and is an emerging voice in the Abuja literary ciricle. “He has a heart of gold. We went with this friend of mine who was 25.” By now beautiful, well-dressed young lady, Pamela joins us. Jon tries to introduce everyone around, but blows it by ‘exaggerating’ the introductions, drawing in creaks of laughter. “So, when I got a message to appear for Naija Sings and Mike didn’t get, I felt bad. But I looked at Mike and he was all excited for me, urging me to go for it. He was more excited.”
Last year, Jon was in South Africa for the Channel O awards. He’s cracked jokes with A-list celebrities and dined with the big shots in the entertainment world. He reveres Obi Asika, CEO of Storm Records: “He’s amazing. I listen to him very well. I read about him before we met. He inspired me. I have heard him advise his nephew and I know he’s a good guy,” Jon says. Earlier this year, Jon’s video, GBEDU, in which he features Sasha topped the charts and was widely viewed on YouTube. If there were any survey to identify “Nigeria’s Most Influential Young People,” he would clearly make the list. He’s definitely not your average 19 year-old.
He’s spending just two weeks in Nigeria – two weeks laden with appointments. While we chat for over four hours, phone calls were made and received. He speaks with top celebrities and books appointments. He’s more excited when he speaks to eccentric personality, Denrele Edun. “He is a crazy and nice guy,” he says. Of course, we all know that. Even music maestro and flutist, Tee Mac will be meeting up with this musical prodigy. It is all set for good, as he will bounce back into the music terrain with a bang.
On the topic of religion, he states: “I took a World Religion class. I no more think there is a particular group of people that will go to heaven. In fact, Islam will become the biggest religion in few years. Before I went to the States, I used to know one thing: that only Christians will go to heaven.” This is not a surprising statement. “I have studied Hinduism, Buddhism and all religions. I understand better now.” But this one is a surprising statement, because Jon is not talkative. He speaks straight from the heart.
He’s prepared to face the media in the next few days. Tomorrow, he’ll be on SuperScreen. And lots of interview appointments have been fixed to make sure that everything falls in place. We watch the video of TONIGHT again before he sees me off, far into the outskirts of Child Avenue, and we speak off-the-record.
Onyeka Nwelue is author of The Abyssinian Boy (DADA Books, 2009)