Buchi Atuonwu is a gospel reggae legend who once combined his singing career with a lecturing job. In this interview with Showtime Celebrity , he shares his experiences as a gospel artiste and some of the challenges he has faced in the past.
You said you have been in the music industry for over 29 years. Was there any formal training before you delved into music?
I did some informal training. Training in the sense that, before I became a Christian, I was already playing reggae music and that served as a training for me. So, when I became a Christian, there arose a need for me to sing and I was already equipped with enough exposure to reggae music. I was a night club DJ at ‘Floating Buka’ in Victoria Island, Lagos, a club that was in a ship along Marina.
Then, I used to play with Ras Kimono who was a DJ there too at that time. In fact, it was he ( Ras Kimono) who invited me over to come and play there with him. That was precisely between 1987 and 1988. Then, I was a postgraduate student at University of Lagos. Thereafter, I went for my doctorate degree in English Language in the same institution. I was also teaching in the Department.
While I was doing all that, I continued with my DJ work. You can see, it was an odd combination. Yet, I continued until Jesus found me in 1992, when I moved over to the church from the club.
Would you say that the DJ work was borne out of passion or a source of livelihood for you?
No, it has nothing to do with pay. I was not paid then for the DJ work. It was borne out of passion. I was doing it for the passion I had for reggae music.
What do you mean by ‘when you became a Christian?’ What kind of formal training did you have before going into gospel reggae music?
The informal training I meant was my time as a DJ in that club and the club was a reggae club. I was not a born-again Christian then. And I am of the opinion that you are not a Christian until you are born again.
Why did you choose to sing gospel reggae?
I didn’t choose gospel muisc, gospel music chose me. I didn’t choose reggae as well; reggae did. Reggae chose me when I was young, it appealed to me greatly and I began to listen to reggae music. I had a wonderful romance with reggae music as a child and listened mostly to Jamaican music, and that shaped my sense of music. When Terracotta, Ras Kimono and Majek were making their album and I was a DJ in the club, I had already fallen in love with reggae music.
So, as you can see, reggae chose me very early. And then as I said, gospel chose me in the sense that Jesus found me and put a message in my mouth. My style of music is not gospel, there is no type of music called gospel. Gospel is the message of the music. But in terms of style, you can have reggae, pop, rock R n B among others. In terms of message, you can use your medium or style to speak of whatever you believe. I believe in gospel, so my message is strictly gospel. That’s how the combination came about.
Most reggae artistes we know in Nigeria speak Patois. Would you say that is one of the criteria for being a reggae musician?
Reggae is a culture; it has a language, history and style and when you practice reggae music, you cannot totally divest its culture. You cannot totally alienate the sound from its surrounding culture. That’s why you see most reggae artistes speaking Patois. Reggae was born in Africa but was raised in the Caribbeans. And so, the Jamaican and Caribbean Patois came with the language of the reggae music.
So, as you can see, you cannot totally move away from the language. I tried as much as possible to do that because I found a need to communicate my message to my people, knowing the importance of my message and that is the reason I have cut down the use of that language. It has a style. Most reggae artistes wear dreadlocks but I don’t wear dreadlocks – even when I was much younger.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge you have ever had while on stage?
I have relayed this story several times on how I was asked to leave the stage publicly because it was a crusade. It was a Christian crusade and when I began to play my music, the organizers began to complain, ‘who brought this person to this stage?’ And they told me to get off the stage but people were enjoying my music. They didn’t seem to listen to my music, they were listening to the beat. They were watching my dance steps; they were looking at the outward not the wordings.
Are you the cap wearing type?
I am a cap wearing fellow. It is something I love to do. I love the way it makes me feel. I feel unclad without the cap. It is something I love doing, it brings me close to the people I want to reach. To me, what becomes of the ordinary man in the street matters and not necessarily that of the high and mighty in the society.
I feel I am the man so I dress in the way they can freely relate to me without fear. I don’t want to look different for them to confide in me. I want to dress in a way they can access me and find me approachable.
Was music on your mind while growing up?
Yes, music was on my mind but being a musician was certainly not on my mind. I recalled that my greatest moments were the times I enjoyed this romance with music, when I would sit alone and sing to myself. I didn’t sing to entertain people. I only sang for myself most often as a child.
Were you a smoker before now and how were you able to overcome the habit?
I don’t want to give you a cheap headline. But what I know is that, to stop any habit is very difficult especially when you allow that habit to eat deep into you. The easiest way to leave a habit is to receive Christ. I walked clean away from smoking. The last time I smoked was on 30th of December 1992. I never smoked again since then.
Aside music, what else do you do for a living?
I write. I recently published a book titled, “Ceasefire,” The book is a story of campus cultism because I was involved in it. It tells the story, not to indict anybody but it tells you everything that you need to know about campus cultism.I wrote the book not with the intention of exposing anybody, but with the intention of exposing the system. The greatest tragedy about cultism is that, the members and the initiates do not really understand the meaning and implications of the system.
People find themselves in trenches of war before they know what the war is all about. I also published a book called, “Behind the Songs” which is an anthology, a collection of poems and song lyrics. It also tells the inspiration behind the songs. Something inspired me to sing “It is Well” and other soul-lifting songs.
How many albums do you have so far?
I have about five audio albums and two video albums. My sixth album is due to be released soon. I just came out of the studio last month. It is titled, “Over the years”. It’s a collection of songs that I have released and re-worked for today’s audience. There are some songs I have released some 15 to 20 years ago and I know they are evergreen. So, I need to do something on them because, some of them, I didn’t express myself the way I had wanted to. I need to rework them.