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Remembering Sonny Okosun: The Yaya Abatan Years By Azuka Jebose

Early weekday morning, the neighbor’s cock crowed at dawn, but a big bang on my flat's door disturbed the morning and cries of the cock...It woke up my flat mate, Rotimi Durojaiye. His room was located in the hallways of our three bedrooms flat. He opened the door and a giant six-foot bearded tall man asked after me thus: ”Is Jebose home?”. Rotimi recognized him. He was Sonny Okosuns bodyguard, Henry. Rotimi ushered him into the living room as he walked toward my door. “Bobo, Henry, Omo Sonny Okosun is here to see you o”.. Rotimi yelled at my locked door. I got up and went to the living room where Henry was waiting for me.

“Oga say make I bring you come nah nah”.

“Haba Henry, for this early morning?

“You sabi how oga dey operate oh. Him say make I carry you come house.” Few minutes later, we were riding out of Iyana Ipaja in a smooth white Range Rover with the Ozziddi logo emblem posted on the driver and passenger sides of the car doors. Residents turned to look at the vehicle as we snaked through the dusty, rugged alley of my neighbourhood.

I had been kidnapped by one of Nigeria’s greatest music superstars. We pulled into the warm and charming smiles of Nkechi by the gate. Nkechi was always solemn, caring and loving. She was the quiet quintessence queen mother, the first wife of Sonny Okosun...
Charlie, Okosun's younger brother and manager came to the vehicle as I slipped out of Henry’s captivity. Nkechi was a delight. “How nah, Azuka..” she felicitated as I began to walk in the direction of their mansion. “Madam this kain early morning kidnapping sha wey oga arrange, na wah oh.

“Hahaha…Well, na your man na, so una go solve una wahala. But this na your home nah. Make I go make you breakfast?’. Wetin you wan eat?”. “Madam, pounded yam for better this morning. Make Henry go pound the yam..Na him punishment for coming to my house, woke and arrested me.”

From the huge front balcony, the voice heard by millions of fans, interrupted my conversations, or my complaints with Nkechi:” You are a Chaka Bula Jebose. I wan show you my living room. Come upstairs; NOW.…that’s a command…”He said, his broad smile spread over his face. 

I smiled too as I walked the stairs to the balcony.

The “whispers column” inside Saturday edition of THE PUNCH, Nigeria’s lively paper for lively minds, was the hottest entertainment gossip column in Nigeria’s entertainment journalism of the 80, it was breezy, sassy, blunt, direct, bold and a prose beauty. This Saturday, The gossip column fingered musicians that had no stereo players to even play their vinyl records. Because Okosuns and Commander Ebenezer Obey would not let me into their bedrooms, I gossiped on the column that they did not own stereo turntables to even listen to their own music. Imagine a musician who didn’t own a stereo to play his vinyl then?. Okosuns’ reaction was to send Henry to find me. I got upstairs and Sonny pulled me into his bedroom where I was served my breakfast… Midweek, Commander Ebenezer Obey did the same thing. He showed me his lavish bedroom, his special bed had inbuilt stereo and speakers

Inside the EMI studios on Oregun road: 11 a.m, I visited this record company. its mega producer, Odion Iruoje, met at the doorways to the building and informed me that Sonny Okosun was in the building. Furious Frank, The P.R and A&R manager heard my conversations with Iruoje and stepped out of his office. Few minutes later, Okosuns came running from one of the studios; he screamed:” Don’t let Jebose go. He must be in my video”. Okosuns was shooting a music video to promote his new album HAPPY DAYS. The track was the mega-hit “Ziga Ozi”. Young Majek Fashek and others were inside as participants. Okosun ordered I represented SWAPO nation. A skinny reporter on his early morning beats suddenly became a character in one of the most compelling music videos of the 80s. It elevated my status as a young, free spirit reporter with no boundaries. These were before Nollywood.

Okosun decided to launch the album in a unique way. He hired my partner,  late  Jerry Agbeyegbe and I to handle the media event and requested we created a damning strategy and concept. We quickly seized the opportunity and formed our Public Relations/Artist Management outfit: NOISE UNLIMITED ( Stop that Noise with NOISE). Okosun liked it. We had the biggest music superstar in Africa as our first client. NOISE UNLIMITED organized a Water Front free concert by the Lagos Marina,  to launch HAPPY DAYS.

Yaya Abatan Street,  to this day, remains a sprawling commercial street that snakes through the Ogba, Ikeja suburb where Sonny Okosun built his fortress. This place became my home: my last bus stop,  at the end of some days’ hustle. If I missed a day of visit,  I'd get queried:” Why I nor see you yesterday?”. I became fond of Okosun and Nkechi.  A bottle of big stout and Coca-Cola served with Nkechi’s tasty dish, waited for me every visit. The music and love feelings were powered by members of Ozziddi, Johnny Wood Nwaolisa, Moscow Egbe or Andrew, the personal assistant: the family adopted me. Evening gatherings were overwhelming; like a mini fiesta of love in the Ozziddi compound, except when he was on tour or out of the country.. DeeJay Easy, Pupa Okosun, Ozziddi Band Sound Engineer, once pleaded with me to feature him inside PUNCH centerspread, Saturday Highlife. I told him the only way he could hit the spread appearance inside Saturday Highlife was to go and slap a mobile policeman. That would be News: Easy, Okosuns Brother Slaps Policeman! “Egbon, you be real baba crase pesin. Make I go slap Mobile policeman and you go feature me for Punch?. Mba nu”.

Adesua was the baby of the family. Sonny pampered her: he never let her off his sight. She was a toddler, and her dad’s body was her temple to climb and desecrate. He loved it so. Michael was the stubborn young son and at almost six years, he was bold, articulate and our dear, “Mr. NO”. Sidney Ehimare was a teenager; the first son was cynical, comical and silly with members of Ozidi band, especially Johnny Wood. Johnny always ranted about Sydney’s disrespect of “me, Johnny Wood the son of Nwaolisa. Sonny, Sidney insult me because I dey play for you. Me, Johnny Wood Nwaolisa. Sonny, “Mba”!.  I won’t play again.” He complained to Sonny. I would sit in the corner, beside Sydney and whimsically smile at Johnny Wood’s reactions to Sydney’s silliness. 

Sonny in his own mischief just laughed it off…Oh, those were the days.
*** Late weekday morning, I walked to the gates of 10 Yaya Abatan Street. As I smashed my way through the iron gates of the compound, Iwa Okosuns, standing in front of the compound, hailed: ”Baba Azuka, you don hear say Chief M.K.O Abiola dey come?”.  I didn’t believe him. I walked straight into the living room, as wide as a Kings Palace: “ 

Jebooossssseee…” Okosun excitedly hailed. “ I dey wait for your friend, Chief Abiola. He Is on his way here”. I didn’t want to argue with my Godfather about when Chief M.K.O Abiola became my friend. The first time I visited Abiola’s splendid upscale  Ikeja residence was in the company of Chief Ebenezer Obey. Months later, I accompanied Okosun.
Sonny Okosuns was the Chairman of Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria, PMAN. Meanwhile, a scandal was raging inside PMAN that Abiola donated N50,000 to the music Union as part of his 50th birthday celebration. Rumors and rants spilled that Okosun allegedly pocketed the donation. It divided PMAN as it lasted. By 11 a.m Chief  Abiola was a guest of Okosun at his home!. He praised Okosuns;  said  that he humbly donated the money to Sonny Okosuns organization because Okosuns was the only musician that dedicated a music album to him, praised  his name.. I remembered Abiola explaining thus:’ The money I am spending here is like the fallouts from an overfull basin of garri, Azuka Oremi(my friend)”. The memories…Hmmm…
Early, September morning:  And Henry again. At my door: “Azuks, Oga say make I bring you…”. By the time we arrived Yaya Abatan, Nkechi was waiting for me with a nice plate of steamy rice with fresh fish stew, Sidney Ehimare, was hovering around my meal as I ate outside the front entrance with Baba beside me. “Jeboseeeee… we dey go, Southern Africa, next month: Zambia, Zimbabwe. Onyeka and Christie Essien dey come. You must follow me. I will get you passport. I don add you as my entourage….”. The flash of the news cleared a vexed rude awakening morning to knock on the door by Henry.

The Southern African tour was a music promotion by Zimbabwean young promoter, Steve Chigorimbo. The music was part of the continents rebel against South Africa’s apartheid policies.   Music became part of the protest vehicle to drive our passion toward securing majority rule for South Africa and a call to end Apartheid. We arrived Zimbabwe early night, after about nine hours flight from Nigeria, delayed for about one hour in Angola. Zimbabwe was immaculate at night.  It felt line springtime there; every tree had fresh leaves and flowers bloomed along its major streets and highways. The roads and streets were cleaned, organized, tarred and manicured. Wow! This was an African country in 1987? The bread basket of Africa! Henry and, I alongside other members of the band checked into the hotel. My bed had a built-in radio. I turned the radio on and I liked the station. It was already the hottest radio station in Harare. I called the deejay from the hotel. He was aware of the huge Anti-Apartheid Concert that would feature us and BUWA, a South African music group that was based in London. The deejay advised me to call in the morning during its hot morning program. I called the next morning and presenters were excited. They asked if I could bring Sonny Okosun and Onyeka Onwenu. I didn’t know how it happened, but I was able to move these stars to Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, ZBC.  Every infrastructure in Harare bested the most valuable ones in Nigeria then. I was in shock and awe moment to see how Zimbabwe was more organized, structured and civilized than Nigeria. In 1987, Zimbabwe was seven years old as an independent nation while Nigeria was cruising to its 27 years. Na wa o.

I returned from Zimbabwe with an infection: It was a combo of malaria and strange illness. I also had a dislocated right arm from infection. My arm was swollen like an elephant’s tusk. I couldn’t go anywhere. Musicians heard about my illness and came by my tiny flat to pray and visit: Segun Adewale, Ras Kimono, Chief Ebenezer Obey, Felix Lebarty. Sonny Okosun sent Henry after me. I had a cast from the doctor. “Jebose, I wan carry you go America. Make you go rest.”  The illness was fuelled by my first major heartbreak. Girlfriend, first love left me. I was in pains: emotional and psychological. Life had no meaning to me. I lost my first true love. Okosun sensed the right time to give me the desired break. I didn’t hesitate to accept a summer vacation to the US.

Summer 1990, Okosun invited me to accompany him to the Apollo Theater where Fela Anikulapo Kuti was performing.  We walked straight to the backstage before the show, to meet with Fela. Fehintola lead us through the backstage alley to the "Change Room" of Fela. He was sitting on a couch, attending to other visitors when we walked in. That concert was smoking. Fela asked we followed him as he was ushered onto the stage. He signaled that I sit in the front beside the big bass drum he had introduced to his instrument repertoire after his release from prison. Sonny Okosun remained at a very privileged spot by the stage, watching the performance of a great fellow musician and a superbly respected artist. I was lucky. Only me, at the famous Apollo Theater with two of Nigeria’s greatest musicians: One performing to an enchanting audience; the other, watching from the side of the stage with love and proud of his friend.  I was livid and loving it.
“Jebose, how now. I wan go visit Adesua for New York. I go call you when I return”. That was early May 2008. I was scared. I had seen Okosun few years before in Nigeria. He had lost weight and felt weak. I asked what suddenly changed. He smiled and told me to look up to the ceiling in his studio room. “Jebose, you see your name?.” “Oga yes. I see am”. That’s true love. You and other names wey dey dia are the people I respect and love”. He found a neat way to redirect my question. I knew he didn’t want to talk about whatever it was. I respected that. I must accept him for whom he had become.

Few years earlier, he called from Maryland to inform me he was in the country and wanted to check on my family. My daughter, Amaka was sick that night. I was nursing her and we both sat in the living room, hoping her medication would ease her hot temperature when Okosun called. He heard my voice and asked what was wrong: ”Oga, Amaka dey sick. Since morning, she dey run temperature.”

“Jebose, shut up. Don’t you trust the Lord?. Oya put your right hand on her head, close your eyes and let us pray”:  The prayers were magical and the healer. The echoes of the prayers still ring in my ear.
On this day 2008,  I got a call from Ras Kimono. He was in Atlanta, Georgia: ”Nwaba, you don hear wetin happen?’
“Kimo baba, I beg wetin happen.”

“So you never hear? Sorry to tell you, your papa, Sonny Okosun don die…”

“What? I just spoke with him last week. He said he was going to visit Adesua in New York, and he would call me when he returned... I think he was attending her graduation… Stop playing, Nwa ba… I beg, stop playing. I cant take this shock. If na joke, I beg to tell who send you; you no see me.”

“Jebose, our man is gone. Call DeeJayEasy now for Maryland. Sonny is gone, Nwa ba”… That was eight years today… “ Lift me up so I can stand, not to fall… teach me a song so I live a life of fun…”. Sonny Okosun Lives. “Its gonna be alright..”.