He ruled the airwaves in the 1980s and 90s, alongside his contemporaries Ras Kimono and others who dominated the then pulsating reggae music scene, after he stormed the industry with the release of his ‘Tribulation’ album in 1989. With everlasting songs like ‘Tribulation’, ‘Heart of Stone’, ‘Fight The Fire’, ‘Mubalamumbe’, ‘Judgment A Come’, ‘Ten Commandments’, ‘Wha Dis Wha Dat’, and numerous others, Orits Wiliki endeared himself to lovers of good music. CHUKS OLUIGBO, assistant editor, traced Orits Wiliki, who celebrated his 30 years on stage in 2014, to his office/studio at Dopemu, Lagos, and the legend speaks on several issues, from the musical to the political. He insists the fortunes of reggae are not dwindling, just that the media has refused to the right thing.
We lost Ras Kimono not long ago and from August 17 his final burial rites will begin. Who was Kimono to you and what can you say about him?
Straight up, I will tell you that Kimono was my 5 and 6. Some called us the Siamese twins, some called us brothers, some called us all sorts, but between me and you, he was half of me actually. His passing, as I told somebody, is like half of my energy has just left me.
The reggae scene used to be very vibrant in the 1980s and 90s, but it’s no longer waxing as strong as it used to. What really happened?
I think what people do not understand is that if Bob Marley were alive today, he probably wouldn’t be playing the same roots rock reggae – that is, traditional reggae – that we all know, that we all played. Reggae has also evolved to some other forms and styles – for example, you have hip hop, you have the ragga, you have the dancehall, and other branches of reggae. So, you may say, yes, we don’t hear enough of the traditional roots rock reggae as you knew it or as you heard it in Bob Marley days and all that, but reggae is still very much what you listen to. Even what the younger ones are all doing is reggae because hip hop is an offshoot of reggae music, in the conceptuality of it. Reggae is spiritual music, and when you feel it, you know it, either with the bass, the drums, the ‘chom, chom’ keyboard, the ‘cham, cham’, and all of that. What has actually happened is that Bob Marley, while alive, said he was looking forward to such time when reggae music would take over the world. You remember that Bob didn’t actually conquer the Americas with reggae music, but after his demise, some group of people decided to work on reggae music, which saw the emergence of hip hop, and so it was when reggae turned to hip hop that it tore America apart. And it is what you still listen to today.
But the difference is clear. Reggae is deep, or spiritual as you said, but when you listen to the lyrics of most of the hip hop songs, they are shallow, empty.
You remember I mentioned America. Before America could accept reggae, they had to water it down, which saw the emergence of hip hop. Hip hop deviated in terms of culture; they created their own culture which looks like the Natty, the Rastaman and all that, but their own version is like the Rude Boy, gangsterism and all that – that’s what they came up with. Hip hop was popularised by that culture, not just the music. And so when you see a hip hop artiste, you will notice from the way he’s dressed, in the first place, and you know that this guy plays hip hop. Same thing with reggae. When reggae came out you would identify a reggae musician by his lifestyle, dress sense, the way he talked, his dreadlocks and all of that. But when hip hop came, it appealed to the youths a lot more than the older, traditional, strong-minded, deep people. On hip hop they can sing all their trash, but you can’t sing trash on reggae. The traditional roots reggae is mystical, and you cannot sing trash on that rhythm. You can do some other things with hip hop and with dancehall, but not with hardcore, traditional reggae music. The music has got to be spiritual if it’s reggae; there has to be a message.
But the number of those who are preserving the traditional reggae is going down. Do we even have them?
We have. What is actually happening is that there is a gang-up in the media. You see, the reggae man is not a rich man. You have a lot of youths who want to play the hardcore, traditional reggae, but they are not given the desired publicity. The hip hop guys have a whole lot of money because that is what is in vogue, so there is the shine, there is the show. Most of the DJs or presenters today don’t play music for nothing, so the reggae man will want to sit back and say, ‘I will not bribe anyone to play my music. If you like you play my music, if you don’t like you forget it.’ But the hip hop guys, they are desperate, they can spend anything to be on air. That’s why hip hop is overplayed far more than reggae.
So you’re saying that there are actually young and upcoming reggae artistes in the country?
We go on tours, and when we do you see a whole lot of them, and when they open shows for us you will be amazed the number of people. Most of them are doing it for the satisfaction they get, not just for the money they are expecting, but they are not given the desired airplay. You realise that in our time, we were lucky that the DJs and presenters were never this greedy. In our time you had Orits Wiliki maintaining his own space; you had Ras Kimono maintaining his own space; you had the Mandators maintaining their own space; you had Evi Edna Ogholi maintaining her space; you had Mike Okri, and you had the likes of Onyeka Onwenu, Shina Peters, KWAM 1, Pasuma each maintaining their space and everybody was heard. There was no one that was played more than the other. Everyone was given the desired airplay, equal airplay to push their works because the works were good and the message was right. But right now you see some intentions to overplay some style of music over and above all others, no matter how good others are. That’s why I say it’s a media problem.
Reggae also used to have a large audience; what is it like today?
Oh my! Have you been following us on tours? You need to go with us on tour. Before Ras Kimono passed on we did what we called ‘City Concert Tour’ last year. It was massive. If you are coming to my shows, you see those people who have been dying to hear reggae; they are so many. Are you not surprised that some stations (I don’t want to mention names) who are playing those songs of old are gaining more adverts as well as more listenership? There are even some stations that will not play these new artistes because of the kind of songs they hear. And so it is with concerts. If they know that Orits Wiliki is coming to a city, you will have a full house, people who have been hungry for this music.
But this audience tends to still be the same older people who are familiar with reggae. Is that not so?
Yes, I agree with you. That’s why I said the sky is big enough. The youths don’t necessarily have to like reggae. After all, that’s why you have Jazz music; how many youths like Jazz? That’s why you have highlife; how many youths play highlife? Except now you have a fusion of highlife and reggae, that’s what they now call hip hop. The likes of Davido and the rest, what they are playing is actually highlife when you listen to them, but it’s played in a different style with a different attitude and a different culture. So, if you expect to see so many youngsters in our concerts, you may not have them in numbers; you have only the mature minds, though you still have some youths too who are really reggae freaks.
Overall, what’s your view on the Nigerian music scene as it is today?
First of all, you have to give kudos to the younger ones. When we were so hot on the scene – and I have mentioned a list of some of those who were popular at that time – we used to argue, because it was actually difficult to say “Nigerian music” in that distinctive sense. There was not a defined sound that you could call Nigerian music. You cannot, for instance, say Akpala is Nigerian music because it is sectional. But today, the youths have been able to create the kind of sound that if you play it in Italy, someone can identify it as Nigerian sound. If you play it in America, they know this must be coming from Nigeria because the younger musicians have been able to create a unique style. The only problem I have with them is the content. If only they could do some good content on some of these rhythms, it would be nice because it means that’s the only way they can be remembered. When you sing trash on this rhythm, sooner or later you’re forgotten because that song may not be played for too long. We are still making money from royalties coming in from some of the songs released 30 years ago; people still love them like they were released yesterday. And that’s what every musician or creative person should strive towards – to be able to create something that will outlive you and for which you’ll be remembered.
On the contrary, what seems to be happening now is that musicians assemble sounds here and there and release into the market, and by the time the song is played for two months it loses taste. Do you think this has to with what is on demand?
Perhaps so. The youths just want to dance, and it’s their time, whether we like it or not. Music comes in circles, just like fashion. There was a time we were wearing tight-fitting trousers, and at a time it was ‘obey the wind’. And so is music. They cannot stay there forever. If you listen closely, even the sound is changing now, it’s evolving and so it cannot be for too long. By the time the media decides to really do what is right, you’ll have a lot of popular music all over the place, and good music too.
Elsewhere we have seen some younger musicians doing a cover for songs of older musicians. For instance, Rihanna covered some Bob Marley songs, like ‘Is This Love’ and ‘Redemption Song’. We don’t see much of this happening in Nigeria yet. Why is this so?
That is because people do not understand the copyright laws here, so they are afraid and they don’t want to go and touch a song that they would sue them over. They don’t know that to do a cover, all you need to do is take permission from the original. There is no law that says you cannot do a rehash of anybody’s song because music is like a pool where you donate songs into, just as you donate blood. If you want to do Orits Wiliki’s song, all you need to do is to approach me for the authority. If you don’t even take authority and you love it and you do it, just inscribe the credit, ‘Original song by Orits Wiliki’; that’s all you need to do. It’s when you fail to do all this that you go on the wrong side of the law. But most people are scared; they don’t want to fall into trouble with others.
When an artiste does a cover for the song of another artiste, what does this do for the original owner of the song?
Beyond bringing relevance, the original owner of the song is the one that makes the money. If you do a cover of my song now, let’s say you do ‘Tribulation’ and it is written there, ‘Original song by Orits Wiliki’, the royalties come to me. You will take the royalties for performance, but for the authorship, the money still comes back to Orits Wiliki. That’s why it is criminal if you don’t give such credit.
There is also the other thing that we have seen on the Nigerian music scene, where a musician from an older generation collaborates with a younger one to do a remix of the older musician’s song.
Victor Olaiya and 2face, for instance, did ‘Baby Mi Da’. Is there such a thing among the reggae stars as well?
There is; you’ll rather say they are not given the desired airplay. I know at least two or three who have done that. Even I have featured some younger ones. But whether they are given the desired airplay is a different thing, and it costs you a fortune now to shoot a video.
So the real issue, according to you, is that the traditional reggae is still there and is still waxing strong, just that the media is not being fair to the reggae artistes…
Yes, the media is the problem.
In the face of this, what do you think is the way out?
It is for the media to be professional and readdress their minds towards giving fair airplay to everyone. Don’t begin to play one genre of music over and above all others because there are lots of good music out there that are never heard on the stations. If you give it to them, they don’t even play it except, of course, you have the money to back it up. There’s a lot of good music out there.
Are you working on anything right now? If so, can you give us a peek preview into it?
Yes, I am. You know we fought the battle of copyright for 24 years, until last year when eventually God gave us victory, and I said it’s like starting all over again. So, after the celebration of the departure of my dear brother, Ras Kimono, we are going to start coming out with singles. In fact, there is one that is going to be released about a week or so after Kimono’s burial. That one is actually my contribution to the electorate. The song speaks directly to the electorate. It is a song that is going to awaken the consciousness of every voter. It is a song that I expect will open the eyes of the electorate to the fact that they have been fooling away. Somebody who collects N4,000 and goes to vote against his conscience, you have no reason to cry after one year because you have collected N4,000 for the next four years. That’s what the song is going to address.
Well, some Nigerians may argue that they have been voting according to their conscience and nothing has changed, so why not just collect money and vote whoever?
No, Nigerians have not been voting their conscience. It is one thing to vote, it is another thing to defend it. Those who probably fulfil their civic responsibility by voting just go out there and vote, then go home and sit down. No. When who you vote for is not doing what he promised to do, you have to stand up and call such person to account and say, ‘We voted for A, B, C.’ It is high time Nigerians began to understand what voting means. Voting means I am giving you the power to do A, B, C as you told me in your manifesto. It’s a mandate. So when you are no longer doing those things, it is up to the people to stand up and say, ‘Listen, enough is enough. You told us you were going to do this, how come this is happening?’ When you begin to defend your votes like that, then the person coming next will realise that it is no longer business as usual.
That’s part of what seems to have been missing. In yonder days we listened to musicians condemn societal ills. Today, things are bad but we don’t hear musicians talk about it in songs. Where are the musicians?
In another way you would ask, where are the civil society organisations? Where are the human rights voices that we used to hear? None. Everybody is silent. So, it’s not just the musicians.
Yes, because people are frustrated.
But one would think that it is when people are frustrated that they should cry out more…
If you are frustrated and you have been speaking out and nobody is listening, you get tired as well.
Looking at Nigeria today, where we are, what kind of future do you see for the country?
I see greater Nigeria. I see a Nigeria that people would be running to. I am not discouraged by what I see. What I see I consider them as dues. In anything you’re doing in life, if you don’t pay the dues at the beginning, you pay them at the end. We have an America that is over 200 years old, and we are comparing ourselves to those countries that are already developed, and so we want to run before even we crawl. So we want everything in a hurry. The stealing of billions will certainly pass. There will be a time it will no longer be the culture of the people to go into the Senate and begin to steal public funds or to go in as governor and begin to loot the treasury. The people who are going to fix this country are going to be in the right places at the right time. We are at a time where we are going to do our wrongs, make our mistakes and correct ourselves. There was a time in this country that it was not possible to publicly condemn the attitude of a public officeholder, but now we are calling them to account. And so, steadily like that, we are growing, whether people like it or not.
A lot of people from the older generation like to talk about the good old days. Did Nigeria really experience the so-called good old days?
I will say yes and no. While we were thinking that we were suffering, we were actually enjoying. A packet of Omo was selling for N15, a cup of rice was selling for 10k that time and we were crying blue murder.
But the money was also hard to come by, wasn’t it?
The money was hard to come by but our total budget then is what one person is stealing today. And so you ask yourself, what sense does it make? It’s really crazy. How much can you eat as a human being till you die? Why stash away so much money in the toilet and other places? Who is going to spend it? And when you die, how much are you taking away? Nothing. It’s ignorance. So I believe that with time, as long as the awareness that we are seeing today continues, and as we continue to call people to account, people will begin to discourage themselves from really looting the treasury.