Musician Emma Agu celebrates the life of the Lady of Songs, Christy Essien-Igbokwe , recounting her moments of glory and honours.
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 those of us who knew her one on one fondly called her, you might see her as an Amazon. She was tough, bold, resilient and full of dynamo. Some saw her as 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 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 Apena – an aggressive Yoruba woman in Masquerade was her final bus stop. She was not the only one in the entire cast who dreamt big, but she seemed the most commercially successful of he whole cast.
When she ventured into the music scene, many saw her attempt as a joke. 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. But the woman 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 the 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 o quit, Christy went on to the Afrodisia label in 1979 where she came out with Understanding. It was same old song of promotional disaster.
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 came out with a monster hit after five failed attempts. Christy Essien-Igbokwe who was told to ‘shut up’ after she failed to make any impact came out with Ever Like My Person in 1981. In that album was ‘Omo Mi Seun Rere’ a Yoruba song that became a hit throughout Nigeria.
When she got married to an Igbo man, the gate of hell opened as her detractors said the marriage would not last. They saw her as a woman who was overly exposed. Some said she would not give her husband a baby.
She proved her enemies wrong by becoming one of the best mothers any child would 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 Punch Newspapers to become its executive director.
Seeing Christy only on Television, I never imagined that one day I would have the opportunity to shake her hands. I never knew my path would 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 at Primate Olabayo’s Evangelical Church of Yahweh, Lagos that I met one of my childhood stars. I was the organist and music director of the church and 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 Theatre.
The ‘man of God’ told me not to get 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 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 thought. When I had my first press interview with Azuka Jebose Molokwu 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 the University of Lagos in 1986, I recall visiting her at their Punch 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 chapter of the Performing Musicians Employers Association of Nigeria (PMAN). She was our national President. I recall the day after Fela Anikulapo Kuti died, she told me to accompany her to Afrika Shrine. The following day, she also requested I mobilise members for us to go on PMAN/Fela 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 PMAN. Let me say this for the very first time, Christy bruised her ego, her credibility and dignity when she became president of the association.
That time, I also fell out with her for accepting to drag musicians to Abuja to support late despot, Sani Abacha’s one million-man 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 no way in hell you would work for Nigerian musicians without getting your fingers burnt. Madam was a self-made iron lady who made a name and did well for herself.
Christy started as a social nobody and became an icon as an actor. She may not be the best female singer during her time, but she 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.
Emma Agu is a musician, recording studio owner in New York and international president of Nigerian Federation of Musicians (NFM).