There are two things that can never, never be taken away from Sunny Neji. Number one is that one of his compositions, Oruka, till date, remains one of Nigeria’s greatest all-time hits. Number two is that you cannot mention the most talented crooners ever produced by Nigeria without his name occupying a special place. Days back at Lagos Sheraton (on Mobolaji Bank Anthony Way, Ikeja, Lagos), YES INTERNATIONALl! Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE, spent a wondrous evening with him at the pool side of the top hospitality haven. The result is what you have below.
What has been happening to Sunny Neji? We only hear very little about you these days…
Okay! There is a lot happening. We are working, we are recording. You know the atmosphere, the scene, the industry is going through dynamic changes on a regular basis, so we also need to go through changes, we need to become dynamic too, we need to keep up with the pace. We say change is the only permanent thing, so we are growing with the change, we are flowing with the change. But we are still trying to retain what has made us who we are. So, we are working, we are recording. I have a new album out there. The album is not everywhere now because we don’t have it in the economy package; we have it in premium package and the premium package is in select places. In a couple of weeks, we are going to do the economy package that will be everywhere.
Why has it been difficult for you to come out with another monster hit like Oruka or even Ikebe?
Well, I don’t think I haven’t come up with a number that can’t compete with them. I think my very current album can compete with all those songs favourably. But then again, I do not want to see it as competition. Because I do not think an artist should spend his time creating, only to compete with himself. Every work of art should stand for itself and speak for itself because they are all inspired differently. But like I said, I have a new work in the market, it’s not everywhere now, because we have not put it everywhere. So, we are going to do that in the next couple of weeks and then see what happens.
What sacrifices must one make to be able to come up with a hit number?
There is not any formula to it. To tell you the truth, there’s not a scientific formula. I don’t think there’s any one out there who can tell you that this is what you do to get a hit. Hits just come. God just gives them to you. One should make yourself available. Once you make yourself receptive, there’s a chance you will receive it and when you receive it, what do you do with it? So, there isn’t a formula. There’s nobody that can tell you that look, I can do this again and again and again. No! You just work and allow God to bless your efforts.
Why is it difficult for most musicians to release hit albums consecutively? Why must it come, stop, then come again and stop?
Because it’s art, and art is born out of inspiration. It’s not Mathematics, it is not science, where you have a ready formula. Like you know that if you add one plus one, it will always give you two. Art is not like that. Art is borne out of inspiration, and the dimension of inspiration, you cannot determine. It is God who determines it. And like they say, once the time of an idea has come, all the armies in the world cannot stop it. It’s like that with the art. When the time for that inspiration has come, there’s nothing that can fault it. It comes and a hit and it’s perfect. Then, again, you think you can re-do it. Well, if God blesses you with the ability to re-do it, you can, but do not think that it’s because of what you know or what you have put together. No! It is creativity and it’s all based on inspiration. And inspiration does not happen like that.
What makes a good music?
Yes, coming to good music, you can always make good music. Now, with good music you can be scientific about it. With a hit song, you can’t be scientific about it. You know that to make good music, especially if you are someone like me, you know the subject matters to sing about, you know your choice of words, because you already have a followership. All those you can do. You know the kind of song you want to put together that is not offensive. So, you can always make good music, but a hit song doesn’t happen like that.
What makes a good musician?
What makes a good musician is having an understanding of the gift that you have and giving it your all to improve on that gift on a regular basis. Never getting to the point you think that you have arrived, where you think you know it all, you don’t have to learn anymore. It should be a constant learning process, because the world is opening up on a daily basis. New things are happening. A long time ago we used to record with analogue, today there’s digital recording. You can get creative and blend the two, add digital and analogue. So, it’s for you to be grounded in what you have, doing it and never getting to that point where you feel, well, I know it all, I can relax. Always being humble enough to learn, opening your eyes, your ears, your mind, being receptive, because there’s a whole lot. Being receptive! Once you remain like that, you remain ever fresh, ever green and you remain timeless.
When can a musician be said to have succeeded?
Success is relative. I cannot determine that for any musician. We are all in music for various reasons. Now, for whatever reason you choose to be in music, if you are finding fulfillment, if you feel that somehow you are succeeding according to that reason, then you can say you are successful. But you cannot look at everything from a particular perspective. It is relative. Relative to me, relative to other artistes. We are all in music for different reasons.
Why do most musicians fail?
Well, again, failure is also relative (Laughs). Failure in my eyes might be success to someone. That’s one thing with art. That’s why I said the person who is in it knows the reason why they are in it. If they are in it maybe for the money, and they are not making the money, then they can say maybe they’ve failed. If they are there to get fulfillment for creativity and they are not getting that fulfillment, then you can say they’ve failed. If they are there because they feel they want to make a statement and they are unable to make that impact and statement, then you can say they’ve failed. So, for whatever reason you are in, that’s what determines whether you are a success or a failure.
What is the biggest mistake that most musicians make?
This is personal to me. I will say the biggest mistake that any musician will make is not to be able to discover themselves; to live your life being a copy, to live your life being someone else, because I believe that God has blessed each and every one of us with at least a talent. So, it will be fool hardy to abandon your God-given talent and try to be like someone else. That will be a grave mistake as far as I’m concerned.
Why do some musicians enjoy swimming in controversies, scandals etc?
People who are in marketing, who are in PR, they will tell you that scandals sell. They will tell you that even bad press sells, you understand? So, maybe it’s working for them, maybe it’s helping them achieve their goals, their aims. I’m sure there must be something to some level that is beneficial to them. Maybe that’s why they enjoy it.
You happen to be one of the few artistes who have remained scandal free, what is your secret?
I don’t think it’s because of anything I’ve done or anything I haven’t done. I’ve just been me, as best as I can and I think the grace of God has just been upon me and I’ve been trying of course too to keep my private life private and my public life as public as possible. I believe that one should be able to separate the two. Not everybody has the grace to enjoy bad press. Some people enjoy bad press, but not everybody enjoys bad press. Some of us, we want to keep our private lives private and separate it from our public lives.
What do you like most about being a musician?
The fulfillment I get from the success of my works, from the impact that my works are making. There’s nothing like you going into the studio to record and the song becoming a household song or the song influencing people’s lives positively. I think that is the greatest fulfillment I get as an artiste. My works have become a part of other people’s lives.
What don’t you like about being a musician?
Sometimes the publicity comes with its own challenges. You are not too free anymore to do things that ordinarily you would do on a daily basis. Publicity comes with a price. You can’t just walk into anywhere and sit down and maybe eat pepper soup or amala. So, lots of harassment comes with being famous and being a star. So, some of those, sometimes, you just want to like be you, and just stay somewhere and just be you, level with everybody else.
What is the greatest thing that music has done for you?
The greatest thing it has done for me? I think music has been able to plant me, not just in people’s homes, but in some people’s lives. People are planning their lives now, they are thinking of some songs I’ve recorded. Like a few days ago, I was on my way from Calabar (Cross River State) to Lagos and I happened to be in a plane with a gentleman. When he saw me, he was so excited. He said this must be divine. That he would get married in a few days’ time and Oruka is the song that they are playing. In fact, he wanted to call the wife immediately. So, that makes me feel that I must be doing something worthwhile.
What has music not done for you?
What has music not done for me? I do not think I’ve sat down to look at what music hasn’t done for me. I’m a very optimistic, positive-minded person, so I do not look at the negative. My eye is always fixed on the positive. So, I will say music has done a whole lot for me. I don’t think music has taken anything from me.
Which of the new generation artistes do you think are on the right track and why?
(Laughs) – I don’t know if I told you that music is very subjective? So, it’s going to be very difficult for me to determine who is not on the right track. But I can readily tell you about people I love listening to; people that I believe in. Not because I believe they are on the right track and some other person is on the wrong track. No! It’s because I just like their music, I like their feel, I like and I enjoy what they are doing. That I can tell you. But I can’t say this person is on the right track and this person is on the wrong track…
(Interruption) – Go ahead and tell us their names.
There are artistes, a few of them, I won’t be able to mention all, but I will just mention one or two. Like 2Face for instance. He’s a young man I think is highly talented, gifted, takes his time to make his music, has got a message; is strong…he’s one artiste I love listening to. And of the new generation, who else readily comes to mind now? Style Plus! Yes! I love their hook lines, I love the sweetness of their melody and of course, there’s Duncan Mighty. I think he’s got it. I think I see somebody who’s got staying power and a host of others.
Have you ever regretted being a musician?
No, not at all, not at all. I love it. Do you know some people whisper to my ears that don’t you think you should consider going into politics? And I laugh. Do you know why? Because I believe that every human being is created for a purpose. The worst thing you can do is to come to this earth, lead and live without fulfilling that purpose. It’s gonna hurt God. God has created some of us to be artistes, some to be doctors, some to be lawyers, some to be engineers, some to be politicians. When you are not in your place, you are malfunctioning as far as I’m concerned. I mean, you create a car to be a car and the car wants to be a standing fan, then there’s a problem. So, I believe I’ve found my place and I’m finding fulfillment regardless of what’s happening in the entire industry; we know that the business side of it, yes, challenges here and there, but creatively, I’m getting fulfillment and I think that is what I really need.
What do you want to become that you have not become?
It is not about me personally. Because they say man proposes God disposes. I want to become that which God wants me to be before I leave. I want to do all that God will have me do before I leave. I want to do all that which God will have me do before I leave. Now, I do not know what it is, but God knows. So, everyday that I sleep and I wake up, I want to give my best to that day. So long as God is satisfied. The worst thing that can happen is if God doesn’t get fulfillment at the end of the day when I depart from this earth. Then, it means that I would have failed. But if God is fulfilled, because the Bible says that we are created here to come and give Him satisfaction, if He is not satisfied, then I have failed. It’s beyond my personal desires now.
Where do you hope to be in the next 10 years?
That again is not a personal thing. Ten years from today, I want to see an industry bigger, more vibrant with proper structures in place. An industry that will draw people in with resources, an industry that will create even bigger stars than we have today, an industry that will turn the millionaires we have today into billionaires. That’s what I’m craving for, I’m hoping for, I’m looking forward to in the next ten years. Moving from where we are now to where we ought to be. An industry that is driven by excellence, creativity, not by myopic ideas. That’s what I’m hoping for that in the next ten years we will have.
NB: First published January 2014
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