Sunny Neji ruled the Nigerian music scene in the 1990s and early 2000s with chart-topping hits like ‘Oruka’, ‘Mr. Fantastic’, ‘Ikebe go put you for Wahala’,‘Tolotolo’, to mention a few.
He won several awards, toured the world with his music, and then went quiet. In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, the 54-year-old singer speaks about his career, the state of the Nigerian music industry, and what he has been up to recently.
PT: You went off the spotlight at some point, what are you up to?
Sunny: You know, things are changing very fast and you are planning a whole lot of things too, that is what is going on. I am still recording and I am planning a whole lot of other things too. Hopefully, as time goes on, some of those things will begin to materialise.
PT: What was the early days of your music career?
Sunny: I started professionally in 1991 when I released my first album. Before then, I was engaged in music recording, jingles, I was a member of a band called “Call Us Band”. The band was led by Bisade Ologunde and I was a member of the band before I eventually recorded my first album in 1991. It was released under EMI then.
PT: Can you remember how many songs you’ve done since then?
Sunny: I can’t remember, I have recorded hundreds of songs.
PT: Your song ‘Oruka’ is one that everyone still remembers today. What inspired it?
Sunny: ‘Oruka’ is a song in one of my albums. It was released in 2003, I started recording the album in Nigeria and finished it up in Ghana before it was released. The song was inspired because I felt the need to have a wedding song. I had gotten married in 2002 and there wasn’t any wedding song for me to dance to. So the thought came into my head that it will be nice to have a wedding song. The thought started building in my head, the inspiration came, I wrote the song, God just blessed it and it became like a wedding anthem.
PT: Will you describe it as your biggest hit?
Sunny: Well, I will describe it as one of my biggest hits. I have quite a number of big hits, ‘Mr. Fantastic’ is a big hit, ‘Face Me’ is a big hit, ‘Tolotolo’ is a big hit. I have had a couple of big hits there.
PT: What would you describe as your biggest challenge when you started music in the days?
Sunny: in those days, the biggest challenge was to get a record deal. It wasn’t as easy as it is now. These days you can just record – walk into any studio, record, and put it on the internet and it is everywhere. It wasn’t that easy. Those days, you need to record a demo, record a master tape then you go looking for a record company that can sign you on before your music can be released and people will get to hear it.
Now, it is very easy, you can be your own recording company. You just record, you release it, you put it on the internet and promote it. Even if the radio stations do not play it, you can promote it on social media and people will still get to hear it. Things have changed now from how it used to be those days.
PT: How were you able to overcome that challenge?
Sunny: I was signed by a record company called EMI. They released my work then. Even though they didn’t give it as much promotion then because the company was more focused on promoting reggae music. You know, those days, companies have specific sounds they want to promote at every point in time. Reggae music used to be the biggest and the most popular genre at that time. My own brand of music which wasn’t reggae took a back seat but I was released all the same, at that time.
I went through all the processes I said, I recorded the demo and the master. The owner of Agos studio in Apapa then, Shoga Benson, loved me so much and he, in fact, produced that album. He took it upon himself to look for a record deal for me, went around to recording companies and eventually EMI accepted it and that was how I got released.
PT: ‘Ikebe go put you for wahala’ is another of your biggest hits. Was it borne out of a personal experience?
Sunny: Yes, it was. There comes a time in the life of a man when he begins to take another look; a more critical look at himself. He wants to do better, become more responsible as he considers finding the right person to settle down with.
PT: You have stayed true to your style of music over the years. Have you ever thought of changing to fit into current trends?
Sunny: I don’t know what the current trend is. When I was growing up, I grew up listening to different genres of music, nationally and internationally. I grew up listening to R&B, to Rock music, to country music, to Calypso, to Jazz, to Highlife music, to Juju, to Sakara, to all traditional African music. I grew up listening to every genre of music. So, when people say trends, I don’t know what it means. Music is supposed to be music.
I think people have reduced their own appreciation of music. Music is supposed to be for every situation. There should be music you listen to that inspires you to fall in love, the ones you listen to, to lift your spirit if your heart is broken, there is supposed to be music you listen to for spiritual reasons, music to challenge you and all of that.
I just make music because I love music and I believe a lot of people out there also love music. Every genre or style of music people are making just needs to be given exposure. Trend doesn’t make any sense to me, good music is good music.
When people turn on their radios today, they play what is known as oldies. People listen to those oldies all day, will you call that trendy? People listen to Ebenezer Obey that was recorded in the 80s, they listen to Sunny Ade, listen to Fela. Good music is supposed to cut across all periods, all times and that is how I see music.
PT: What birthed the concept of the song you did for the COVID-19 campaign?
Sunny: The title of the song is ‘Together we will beat this’. I did one for Ebola too in those days titled ‘Wash your hand.’ The coronavirus campaign also encourages us to wash our hands because it is part of how we can prevent contracting the virus. They are intertwined.
On what inspired it, I have been working with an NGO for the past couple of years. They are based here in Nigeria and they are called United Purpose. They have been doing a fantastic job trying to help people in Nigeria, encouraging them to develop better hygienic habits. Most times, there are very preventable diseases like cholera, diarrhoea, typhoid that we can avoid just by washing our hands frequently and at critical points, like after using the toilet, before you eat and after shaking people because you shake people but you don’t know what they have touched, where their hands have been or what they may be carrying and immediately, you may be eating akara or bread or puff puff with the same hands. We ingest all these things and we come down with all kinds of things.
PT: How would you advise young artistes to do better in the industry?
Sunny: Music is art. It is creativity. You can’t advise anybody how to sing, people sing the way they are inspired. I sing the way I am inspired. I sing about the things that matter to me and that is what I think everyone does. They sing about the things that inspire them and matter to them. It is left to the listeners to decide what they want and what they do not want.
Telling people to sing about this or that or telling them what to do is not going to work. Creativity is a very personal thing. Music is very subjective.
PT: What would you say has changed in the music industry between now and when you started?
Sunny: Things are different. Today, we have computers, today we have the internet, we have twitter, we have Instagram, we have Facebook, and we have more Radio and television stations. We have more of everything now but it is the same appeal, the same love, and the same desire. As the world is changing, the world is growing, new things are coming but the fundamentals are still the same. People are still making music to make people dance, help you fall in love, to arm you with something to protest with and people are still making music for the sake of arts while some people are making music just for the business that comes from it.
What I would like to see more of is a larger variety of creativity than we have currently. I think we used to have more diverse music in those days than now. I would like to hear more diverse forms of musical interpretations that we had in those days in our airways.
PT: Do you think your time has passed?
Sunny: Who am I to determine time? Time is in God’s hands. Music is a calling to me and I’m still making music to affect lives and influence people’s thinking, give hope, enlighten and challenge the abnormalities that are gradually becoming acceptable in society. Even recently, I recorded a song to enlighten and educate people about the COVID-19 pandemic. The song is available on iTunes and you can also watch the video on YouTube. It’s titled “Together we will beat CoronaVirus”
PT: The issue of royalties remain a big deal in Nigeria with the COSON & MSCN war. Have you ever gotten royalties?
Sunny: I don’t like dwelling in the past. I’m really very happy that MCSN is deploying the latest technology to collect and distribute royalties. This is a very welcome development; now artistes will get their proper due. My eyes are on MCSN right now, expecting bigger things for our industry.
PT: Do you plan to do a collection CD of all your works?
Sunny: Absolutely, especially now that I know MCSN is poised to make sure I don’t lose any of my royalties.
PT: Talking about the increase in rape cases that we are currently battling, people tend to believe that entertainers are more prone to committing these acts. Do you think it has anything to do with being an entertainer?
Sunny: I don’t think it is a peculiar situation. Bad behaviour has always been with mankind, just like every other vice. It is not about the profession, I think we have people that do this in all walks of life but that doesn’t mean it is the right thing. I think the reason we are hearing about these things more is that artistes and celebrities are in the eye of the public. These are things that we just hope will not be happening again. We just hope that they don’t happen but it is just the reality that these things tend to happen but it is not an artiste thing. It doesn’t make it right anyways.
PT: What do you do aside from music?
Sunny: I do only music and everything music-related.
PT: And your foray into acting?
Sunny: I act every now and then. When a producer calls me and says they want me to appear in his movie, if I like the story and I have the time, I do it. Acting is a lot of work o, I doff my hat for all the actors out there, they are doing a fantastic job. I do act but it is a very challenging job. If you are working with a good director, it makes it easier for you.
I have been acting since 2000 but not often, just once in a while. I am still a professional musician. The movie I did lately which is ‘LOCKED’, I played two roles as twin brothers. It is talking about mental health, a very interesting storyline.
I see the entertainment industry as a creative industry, anything that is creative, I like to get myself involved. Right now, we are planning a TV musical game show. Hopefully, it should be out soon.
PT: How do you manage to stay fit despite your age?
Sunny: Old age is in the heart. You are as old as you believe. I don’t do anything to look this way, I do the regular things. I eat everything that everybody eats, I eat all the starch and carbohydrate like a proper Nigerian man and I am not on any diet program. What I try to do is, I don’t eat too much. Too much of everything is bad. I just eat what is necessary to keep my body together.
PT: If you were to start your career all over again, what would you do differently?
Sunny: I don’t think like that. Everyone is created for a purpose. Accept, celebrate, love and be thankful for yours. That is how to be happy, to always appreciate who you are and the gift of God to you.
PT: Where do you believe younger musicians in Nigeria are getting it wrong these days?
Sunny: It’s not for me to determine who got it right or wrong. Music is art and that means it is subjective. People will like what they like and you don’t have to like what everybody likes. It is your right. Take what you like and leave what you don’t like alone for someone who likes it.
PT: Who are your favourites among the younger artistes?
Sunny: I like 2face. Then there is Duncan Mighty, Simi, and Timi Dakolo.
PT: Have you considered remixing ‘Tolo Tolo’ with Olamide or ‘Oruka’ with Tiwa Savage?
Sunny: It is really something to think about. A few people have actually mentioned it to me. Oruka is one song I don’t want to demystify though.
5 fun facts about Sunny Neji
1. Sunny Neji composed and sang ‘On the March Again’, the official campaign song for MKO Abiola during the June 12, 1993, presidential elections. He also sang the First Bank Centenary Anniversary jingle in 1994.
2. He sang ‘Oruka’ because there was no wedding song to dance to at his wedding in 2001.
3. The seasoned musician is a graduate of Fashion Designing.
4. He almost became a military man like his father but failed entrance exams into military school.
5. He is a traditional title holder of King of Music in his village, Ogoja, Cross-Rivers State