Story: Babatunde Martins Photo: Sunmisola Olorunnisola
Abiodun Koya is one of the entertainers who claim to have developed their passion for music from singing in the church choir as a toddler. She is a member of a family of five, from Southwest Nigeria, and is a well trained vocalist, who majored in classical Soprano. Though a Nigerian, Biodun, as she is popularly called, schooled and lives in America. She started singing in church and birthday celebrations under the mentorship of her parents when she was six, and has grown to become one of the very few African women who are into opera singing. One of her stunning performances was recorded at the Ovation Red Carol, in December 2014 in Accra Ghana Abiodun is also a poet, composer, philanthropist, entrepreneur and song writer who loves recording movie soundtracks as well as writing storylines for plays.
In this encounter with Thebossnewspaper in Lagos, the Ogun State born singer from Ijebu Ode, talked about her experiences growing up in another country and how she discovered her musical talent among other issues.
When did your love for music begin
It started at a very early age, when I was two years old. I started by liking to listen to music. I just loved singing around the house, even if it was bla bla bla (general laughter).
How did you start performing at birthdays at a very young age, and how supportive were your parents
My dad was a music enthusiast; he was not a professional singer, but he just loved listening to music and singing around the house. He would sing classical music and gospel; he would not allow us listen to “worldly” music as he called it. When he goes out, my elder brothers and I would play those “worldly” music, and that was how I got introduced to Janet Jackson, Toni Braxton, Michael Jackson (king of pop), Mariah Carey and Madonna. If I was playing or doing my homework and music came up, I go into a different world and I was not satisfied with just listening to music. Luckily for me my dad being an observant person decided to buy me a student violin; a small one, and I started taking lessons from a book, a soft touch book that my dad also bought for me. I played and performed at birthdays, and did not fail to utilize any opportunity to sing. Music has always been my best friend; my very first love. I would compose about four or five lines chorus, and wished I could go to a radio station to play. I draw as well. I just loved being creative. When I got to secondary school, my parents wanted me to be in commercial class, but I never liked Mathematics and other science subjects. I used to paste animal stickers on the notebooks of the subjects I hated, and my Mathematics notebook had the sticker of a boar.
When did you leave Nigeria
I left when I was about 19 years old in 2001. I left for school, and I studied Business Management.
How often have you visited Nigeria since you left
This is the first time since then.
Why did it take you so long to visit
I have been busy doing one thing or another. I was pretty much stuck in my world. It is not like I was not fascinated about the country I left behind; it was just that I wanted to make a name for myself in the US through music. I felt that classical music would be appreciated in the U.S because that is my territory – that is where the people who are familiar with that type of music are. Nigerians are not familiar with it as it is neither Apala nor Fuji. Uncle Soni Irabor, who is one of my mentors, has always been on my case, saying I should come home and that I should bring my voice home, but I did not give it much thought. A year ago, I decided to do something creative and different from what I used to do, then I started writing songs. I released two singles and shot two videos in the U.S and here at home; that is why I am here now.
When did you start music professionally
That was 13 years ago. When I was at the University of DC, Washington DC, somehow, some of my faculty members got to know that I could sing, and so they told the Vice Chancellor about a girl that has got great voice. That was how I was invited to perform at the school’s fund raising events and other events, and from there, I got introduced to some executive politicians in the White House and a whole lot of other people in the U.S.
You must have made some of those studying music green with envy
Of course, on the day of my convocation, my School President asked me to sing in front of a 15,000-member audience, and that was like my biggest platform. I was actually sick and nervous that morning, but somehow, I was able to pull it off really nice. I hid it from my classmates because I did not want to be distracted though they knew there was something different about me, but they just couldn’t place it.
Why didn’t you just go for music from the onset
It was because I had already started the background for Business Management as a commercial student. My parents wanted me to become an Accountant, which never happened unfortunately or fortunately.
Is it true that you hold classes for choir students
It is called a master class. I get invited to speak pretty much at Schools of Music, and sometimes big churches and cathedrals. The master class is all about inviting an accomplished musician in a particular genre of music to come speak to the students, and teach them one or two things about how to get to the next level and how to be a professional singer. In other words, what we bring into the class is the experience because what you are learning in class is different from what you experience out there, and that is what I bring to the table. I get paid doing that too.
What kind of empowerment programmes do you have in place
It is pretty much a mentorship programme. I encourage my students, give them words of advice and have a one on one with them, especially with those kids who do not know what they want to become in future. I sit them down, talk to them and have a feel of what they like, what they do not like and what they are good at, and from there, I am able to pull something out of them.
Is it really restricted to just kids interested in music
No, it also includes teenagers and college students.
Where do your drive and passion to do all you do come from
I think it is from God. One other thing that drives me is encountering young people that have talents, and do not know how to use it and do not know what to do. Once I see that they are focused, serious, passionate and energetic, I get drawn to speaking to them and helping them in whichever way I can because I have been through that. I have realized that one of the worst things that can happen to young folks these days is the lack of mentorship. Instead of going through all the hardships acquainted with making mistakes and corrections, you just pick a mentor that guides you and teaches you one or two things; it makes life easier.
Who are your mentors
I do have mentors in the music and business industries. I have about four or five mentors, but that is going to be my own little secret. If I did not have a talent, I would have been in the military. I have great mentors; let us just put it that way because I am not comfortable mentioning them. I can tell you one of them is Soni Irabor, but the others remain my secret.
Who are those people that you look up to in the music industry
In the music industry for example I adore Sarah Bradman, and Luciano Pavarotti before he died. I also like what Jessica Simpson is doing – she is a singer, actress and an entrepreneur. Her fortune is worth over half a billion dollars.
What areas are you focusing on
I would like to launch my own fashion line that deals in clothing, wrist watches, sunglasses, perfumes and more, but the foremost will be my T-shirt line which is going to be comedic, motivational and beautiful, and I already have that going on underground.
You performed at the Black History Month at the White House, and also at the National Democratic Convention, North Carolina. Which of these performances do you regard as the height of your career, and what were both experiences like
Even before then, I had a chance to sing the National Anthem at the Madison Square Garden in New York. It was a privilege to sing there as that is where all the big artistes sing. It is not really about the big names; it is just about the joy of performing for the underprivileged and sick kids. You have to be observant as a singer to study how the atmosphere is like before you sing, and how the atmosphere is like after you are done singing. I have been thankful to God for giving me the ability to affect moods and feelings through my songs because even doctors cannot fix you up when you have a bad day. So, I feel blessed.
What was the feeling like at the National Democratic Convention
I was really terrified; my heart won’t stop beating, and I was trying to control my legs. Usually, I am not nervous when I perform but when I looked to my right I saw the President of the National Democratic Convention staring right at me like what can this dark little kid say. To the left was the U.S Attorney General, Eric Holder, who is also a pleasant man. It was amazing and really humbling. In my heart, I was like God just gave me this opportunity to not only make my parents proud but also my country.
How did that come about in the first place
It was someone that knows someone that knows someone. It is connection; it is who you know. It was people who were committee members and planners.
How did you feel when you were informed that you were going to perform on stage
I called my parents, and told them to thank God for me. My mum just said, “I am going to church right now.” That is my mum for you. The next day, she called, and said, “I was at the altar for seven hours lying down flat thanking God.” That is how best she knows how to do it. Everybody just prays for me personally. I was proud of myself, and I shared the moment with very few friends.
After the performance, how did you feel
The Washington DC Mayor came to me and said he had heard me once or twice. He shook my hand and congratulated me. Some DC Council members also came and congratulated me. Before then, the National Democratic Convention had organized a party. It was like a Democratic dinner in DC at the Hilton Washington Hotel. It was called Kennedy King Democratic Dinner, and I was privileged to sing the American Anthem.
Can you still sing the Nigerian Anthem
Of course I can. What is so funny is that within the first two weeks of my stay in the US, I made myself learn the American Anthem. The first things I accomplished were to listen to it over and over again; wrote it down, studied the music, and I said two weeks would not pass without me blazing hot fire with this song. I assumed that all Americans would know the anthem, but no, many Americans do not even know it. I did not even know it was a hard song. Some Americans will come to me and say that that was one of the hardest songs, and I never knew.
You are one of the very few female artistes into opera, are there any other African women who do this that you are fascinated about
None that I know of yet, but I know that there are about two or three somewhere. I have seen one on YouTube. There is this lady from South African whom I have heard once, and there is another called Omo Bello from Nigeria. Uncle Soni told me about her, but I really do not know too many, but we have black Americans who do.
At what stage will you regard yourself as having reached the peak of your career
Wow, I do not know if I would ever consider myself as having reached the peak; I will keep singing until I am a great grandmother.
What dreams do you have for yourself regarding your music career
I want to write songs for my solo and for other artistes. I have some materials now but it is not suitable for my voice type, but I could hear other musicians singing it. I want to do epic movie soundtracks like The Lord of the Rings as well as James Bond movies. I want to have the privilege to do that for my favourite genre of movie which is epic, like Gladiator, In the Name Of the King, 300, Game of Thrones, Once Upon a Time and Spartacus. Those are my favorite movies; I am obsessed with them.
What was it like to have been featured in the American Opera Alliance
It was exhausting; it was like hard core opera where you are telling a story of the only black male from Haiti, who was in the Titanic ship. It was filled with rehearsals and personal full time studying, after which your personal coach puts you through your notes, and then they bring everybody together again.
Was it the first of its kind experience for you
No, it was not, but it was just different. It was more demanding because of the story. It was different from other operas.
What did that add to you
It added another level of experience. I found out I was also a little bit more dynamic than before.
We have a Musical Society of Nigeria MUSON, have you interacted with them before
I will be giving them a master class next month; the music students. My plan is to hold a musical concert like an Independence concert.
Do you have a foundation
Yes, the Elizabeth Foundation. It is a non-profit organization. I found it to help African women and kids. Over the years, I have put together fund raising benefit concerts to raise money, and I have worked with some African ambassadors and board of trustees, and somehow they have been able to get sponsorships and scholarships in African countries. We have done that in Nigeria, but I still hope to do more for Nigeria.
America has had the best of you, what plans do you have for your motherland Nigeria
I have worked for other African countries too, not just America. I have worked for the likes of Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Benin Republic and more. I am coming back home to do a whole lot of things.
How do you see the Nigerian Music industry
I have had the chance to listen to great artistes like Asa, and I am friends with Seyi Shodimu although he is not very much heard about nowadays. I think he is a legend in his own rights. We talked about doing a collaboration the last time we met. I also respect Adewale Ayuba; we are also just waiting for the right time to do a collaboration. I respect Femi Kuti a lot; when he goes out to perform in the U.S, non-Nigerians break their necks just to see and hear him. He gets a lot of attention than he gets at home.
What do you think is the reason for receiving more attention abroad than at home
I feel people do not appreciate what they have sometimes. I think in a way we need to adore our legends. Look at Fela Kut; he was adored abroad too. Whenever he came, my friends would ask if I am from Nigeria, and ask me to go and see him.
Do you think the over-commercialization of music in Nigeria has affected the quality of music
It has. I, as a person, I appreciate substance and good lyrics. Repetition is not it. The Nigerian market appreciates the beats more than the lyrics. The beat has to be catchy too, and the melody should be balanced.
Are you looking forward to breaking into the Nigerian music market
Yes, I believe there is a class that would appreciate my genre of music. I am not going to be pushed this way or that; I write my songs and most times write my lyrics, and so I have materials and that is why I am going to be bringing substance.
We also have some artistes who came back from abroad like Banky W, Tiwa Savage and more. Have you come across them
I know Tiwa savage, I have come across her.
Do you have any relationship with any of them
No, I do not. Not yet, let us pray about it.
What kind of family did you grow up in
A Christian, traditional, conservative, God fearing and middle class family. My parents taught us how to be homemakers; wash dishes, cook and how to keep the house clean with the mentality that cleanliness is next to Godliness. I believe that if you live in a one bedroom apartment under the bridge and it is dirty, God will not come. If you have rats and cockroaches in there, He will not come; just keep the environment clean.
Are your parents in America
No, they are in Nigeria. They visit the U.S though; but they are in Nigeria.
What about your siblings
I have some of my siblings in America, in the U.K and here in Nigeria.
Tell us about the two singles you have
They are gospel songs. One of them is The Lord’s Prayer and the other is Kabiyesi o. I just turned that song into dance, techno music, and then I re-arranged it and added some verses, hooks, and lines, and even rapped in it. I was supposed to have a gospel rapper who would rap just the intro, but he never showed up. My team members just said that I should just show them how I want it to go, and they would find someone else, but I told them I could not do it that I was not a rapper and they just told me to do it since I had it in my head and I said okay, they finally got it out of me. The work had to go on and they told me I could do it so I just had to do it. I like to try new things, and I just told them I would do it, and that was how I did it.
Where and how will you be in five years
In five years, I will have seven children, two each year (twins) and then I will adopt either Japanese or French. I have never changed my stand for the last five years. I can adopt from any part of the world, if the kid is an orphan and needs love, after all God, created them. It is an opportunity to show someone how it is done; to show love, receive love and help God’s creation.
I like your hair, what inspired this particular style
Thank you, I like it too. Sometimes I can be very Diana Ross-like even with my costumes. I love her.
Does it mean you are a fashion person
Yes, I am a fashionista; I love fashion. I have different sides of fashion too.
Who are your favourite designers
I love Chanel, Christian Dior, Oscar De La Renta, Alexander McQueen and a host of other Italian designers. Versace is also good.
What is your favorite fashion item
I love a very nice, lovely, elegant evening gown and shoes.
What do you do before you go on stage
Sometimes, I just shut down; I do not talk. I just pray and focus, do vocal exercises and drink water. While some others go on ecstasy, I go on Holy Ghost.
What is your favorite color
What is your best food
Ikokore. I also love vegetables and fruits. I love good food.
Who is your favorite actor
Jim Caviezel. He acted Passion of the Christ. I have a huge crush on him, I also have a crush on Antonio Banderas.
What is your best outfit
I love sport tracks a lot. When I want to perform, I am over the top. It could be anything like a Diana Ross inspired costume to Maria Antoinette inspired costume or like a Greek goddess. I love wristwatches, sunglasses and perfumes. I have ten million bottles of perfume from different designers. I have the one that is strong for my strong days and I have the very romantic ones for the man, and also the very soft ones.
Can you tell us the names of the perfumes
No oh, it is a secret. I like my perfumes; I just want people to wonder where I get them from and all that.
What about handbags and all
I am also a shoe person. I love out of the world shoes, and I also love handbags too. But I love my stuffs to be out of the world designs; a design that you would really need deep inspiration to come up with. I love that.