Special to USAfricaonline.com and CLASSmagazine, Houston
The multi-talented artiste Christy Essien Igbokwe — popularly called Nigeria’s Lady of Songs — did not allow gender stereotype and myopic views of her native folks back in the early 1970s and 1980s, who saw female singers and actresses as ‘ashawo’ (loose woman) to stop her from reaching her goals. She was devoted to her religion, her marriage and music career. Significantly, she came from a very humble background and made it to national prominence.
When you meet ‘Madam’ as she was fondly called by those of us who knew her one on one, you might see her as an amazon. She was tough, bold, resilient and full of dynamo. Some saw her as being arrogant , hot tempered and cocky. There are others who thought she was a replica of the character she portrayed in the now rested but very popular TV comedy series called ‘Masquerade .’ Her foes, friends and fans would agree with me that Christy Essien Igbokwe lived her dreams. No matter how you saw her, she was a huge success in music. Also, she was a good mother and wife.
I started watching her when I was a kid. Her fans thought her role as ‘Akpeno’ — an aggressive Yoruba woman in the tv comedy ‘Masquerade’ was her final ‘bus stop.’ She was not the only one in the entire cast who dreamt big, however; she seemed the most commercially successful of he whole cast.
When she ventured into the music scene, many saw her attempt her as a joke. Her critics saw her as a flake. Cynics lined up to laugh at her, time after time when she came out with records that never made it to the top. So many people thought she was too ambitious. The woman from the Calabar region of Nigeria soldiered on after making five unsuccessful albums!
Releasing her first album titled ‘Freedom’ on Anodisc records in 1977,she was never perturbed that her debut failed woefully. In 1978,same Anodisc released ‘patience’ which was also a promotional failure . In the same 1978 through Decca when she moved to Lagos,she came out with ‘Blackspot’, this same album met the same fate. Never the one that says ‘I quit’, Christy went on to the Afrodisia label in 1979 where she came out with ‘Understanding’. It was same old song of promotional disaster as that effort with Afrodisia became a monumental failure.
I think it was when her producers and recording label started complaining about her inability to make a hit song that in 1980, she came out with ‘Give me a chance’. In that song, she said,’Give me a chance, and watch me grow’. And so it happened, the lady who became the lady of songs came out with a monster hit after five failed attempts. Christy Essien Igbokwe who folks told to ‘shut up’ after she made records after records that failed to make any impact came out with ‘Ever like my person’ in 1981. In that song was ‘Omo mi Seun ere ‘which became a household song through out Nigeria. The song is one of the most popular tunes any Nigerian artist ever made. The song rendered in traditional Yoruba dialect became the first song done by a non-indigene of Yoruba land that was well received across Nigeria, a country of almost 100 million people, at the time. The song was her defining moment.
When she got married to an Igbo man,the gate of hell opened as her detractors said her marriage to an Igbo man will never last. They saw her as a woman who was overly exposed. Some said she will not give her husband a baby. She proved her enemies wrong by becoming one of the best mothers’ any child will ever have. Her husband Edward Igbokwe is a complete opposite of the woman he married. Edward is a very quiet man who started as a typist at the Punch Newspapers to become its executive director, at the time. Christy Essien was the powerhouse; the engine room that ran the Igbokwe’s family.
Seeing Christy Essien only on Television, I never ever imagine that one day,I would have the opportunity to shake her hands.
Poor me,I never knew my path will cross with that of powerful ‘Madam Christy. It was not long when I relocated to Lagos in 1986 from Ilorin, Kwara State that I found myself, face to face with Christy Essien Igbokwe. It was in Primate Olabayo’s Evangelical church of Yahweh, Lagos, I met one of my childhood most admired stars. I was the organist and music director of this church, Christy was a staunch member,who encouraged and supported me every Sunday morning for what God was using me to do in that church. She gave me my very first opportunity to be on the big stage when I was invited as her guest artist at the national theater.
The ‘ man of God’ in that church told me not to get myself involved in ‘worldly music’, so I naively turned the offer down. I would have made it then as one of her session men but foolishly, I thought it was wrong to play in the church and feature in ‘wordily band’ at the same time. Later that week, Madam told me I wasn’t serious when we met during the Church service.
Unlike many of us who almost wasted our lives following those ‘men of God’,Christy Essien Igbokwe knew better,she was very intelligent and smarter than most people think . When I had my first press interview with Azuka Jebose at the Punch newspapers in 1986, it was her husband who arranged it. When my choir won the ‘All Nigerian choir gospel song festival at University of Lagos in 1986, I recall visiting her at their Punch newspaper compound. ‘Madam personally cooked and served her guest,saying,it was her primary responsibility to cook for her husband despite her very tight schedule.
My relationship with her hit a sour note when I was partially in -charge of the Lagos State Chapter of the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria. She was our national President. I recall one day after Fela Kuti died, she told me to accompany her to the shrine. The following day,she also requested I mobilize members for us to go on PMAN -FELA’s march across Ikeja in honor of the late iconic Fela. Though I saw the whole thing as a publicity stunt, I followed her all the way.
She was the first female president of the powerful Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria,PMAN. Let me say this for the very first time, Christy bruised her ego ,her credibility and dignity when she became the President 0f this association. That time,I also fell out with her for accepting to drag musicians to Abuja to support Nigerian’s late despot,Abacha two million people’s march. It was really the turning point for Madam as accusing fingers started flying all around that she ate millions of naira that belonged to the union. Nigerian entertainment writers also fell out with her.
Even if you are a saint,there is is no way in hell you would work for Nigerian Musicians without getting your fingers burnt. Madam was a self made iron lady who had made a name and done well for herself. As soon as she came into office as PMAN’s President,gossip machines started spinning lies, saying that madam was broke and needed to come to PMAN to make some fast money. Though I left the country for another base, I wonder if she ever recovered from the shock, insults and name calling folks heaped on her while she was the PMAN’s president. I do not think she he was a happy woman the day she left that secretariat.
Christy was a woman who started as a social ‘nobody’ and became an icon as an actor. She may not be the best female singer during her time, Christy pushed her talent beyond every reasonable limit in her quest to succeed. She may not be the best songwriter, but she had one of the best hits ever in Nigeria and even across the African continent. She was our own Aretha Franklin. Her story will inspire millions of Nigerian youths to rise in the face of poverty and bleak future. For musicians, her story teaches us to remain positive even if we fall and tumble many times we come out with a CD.
Her death is not only a big blow to the music industry which she worked tirelessly to build,it is a colossal loss to Nigeria,Africa and the entire black race. I choose to celebrate a young woman who came from a minority tribe in Nigeria,from a poor family,she worked her way to super stardom. Adios, Christy Ud Essien Igbokwe.
•Agu, a musician, recording studio owner in New York, is the International President of Nigerian Federation of Musicians(NFM). www.iktune.com