The elegant stallion, Onyeka Onwenu, attains the biblical age of 70. Columnist Chido Nwakanma pays a fitting tribute to a Nigerian media, arts and entertainment icon.
Congratulations to Onyeka Onwenu on attaining the Biblical three score and ten.
More than congratulations, however, I write to thank Onyeka Onwenu for happening in our lifetime. It has been 42 years since Onyeka Onwenu burst into our lives on vinyl and tube.
She is the investigative reporter at the Nigerian Television Authority that reported on “A Squandering of Riches”. It traced the paths of the wastage of Nigeria’s resources in the oil fields and boardrooms. The squandering of our riches is still the story.
Onyeka Onwenu, daughter of Nigeria and Igboland, has played excellently on the Nigerian media, arts, and entertainment stages. She has been an advocate for women’s rights and served in politics and government.
She lit up Nollywood with excellent performances in various roles and films. She valiantly lost to patriarchy and dirt as she sought grassroots political office.
One of the most poignant memories I have of Onyeka Onwenu happened in 1987. I was the young Regional Correspondent for THISWEEK magazine in Port Harcourt. Onyeka the performer dazzled at the Civic Centre. Then she performed her all-time best “One Love”.
The hall bubbled and bubbled. People left their seats. It was standing room only.
I still feel the energy and love in that hall.
All of us on social media are celebrating her ahead of her actual birth date.
Onyeka Onwenu was born on 31 January 1952. She is a singer/songwriter, actress, human rights activist, social activist, journalist, politician, and former X Factor series judge.
The Nigerian press used the oxymoron Elegant Stallion to describe her. It resonated because of her attributes of strength, elegance and seeming male qualities.
Onyeka served as chair of the Imo State Council for Arts and Culture and from 2013 as Executive Director/CEO of the National Centre for Women Development.
As an employee of the NTA, Onwenu made an impact as a newsreader and reporter. In 1984, she wrote and presented the internationally acclaimed BBC/NTA documentary Nigeria, A Squandering of Riches which became the definitive film about corruption in Nigeria as well as the intractable Niger Delta agitation for resource control and campaign against environmental degradation in the oil rich region of Nigeria.
A former member on the board of the NTA, she has also worked as a TV presenter, hosting the shows Contact (1988) and Who’s On? (1993) both on NTA Network, her Wikipedia entry notes.
Onyeka graduated BA in International Relations and Communication from the Ivy-League Wellesley College, Massachusetts, and obtained an MA in Media Studies from The New School for Social Research, New York. She worked for the United Nations as a tour guide before returning to Nigeria in 1980 to complete her mandatory one-year national service with the NTA.
Nigerians know her mostly for music. Her contributions are outstanding.
Hear Wikipedia, again: “Originally a secular artist, Onwenu made the transition to gospel music in the 90s, and most of her songs are self-penned. She continues to write and sing about issues such as health (HIV/AIDS), peace and mutual coexistence, respect for women rights, and the plight of children. She began her music career in 1981 while still working with the NTA, releasing the album For the Love of You, a pop album that featured an orchestral cover of Johnny Nash’s “Hold Me Tight”, and her second album Endless Life was produced by Sonny Okosun. Both records were released on the EMI label.
Onwenu’s first album with Polygram, In The Morning Light, was released in 1984. Recorded in London, it featured the track “Masterplan” written by close friend Tyna Onwudiwe who had previously contributed to Onwenu’s BBC documentary and subsequently sang back-up vocals on the album. After her fourth release, 1986’s One Love which contained an updated version of the song “(In the) Morning Light, Onwenu collaborated with veteran jùjú artist Sunny Ade on the track “Madawolohun (Let Them Say)” which appeared in 1988’s Dancing In The Sun. This was the first of three songs the pair worked on together; the other two – “Choices” and “Wait For Me” – centred on family planning, and were endorsed by the Planned Parenthood Federation of Nigeria who used “Choices” in their PSA.
Onwenu’s final release on Polygram was dedicated to Winnie Mandela, the subject of a song of the same name which Onwenu performed live when Nelson Mandela and his wife visited Nigeria in 1990 following his release from prison.
Onwenu diverted to Benson and Hedges Music in 1992 and released the self-titled Onyeka!, her only album with the label, after which she made the transition to Christian/gospel music. Her latest collection, “Inspiration for Change,” focused on the need for an attitudinal change in Nigeria.
She is in partnership with Paris-based La Cave Musik, headed by a Nigerian cultural entrepreneur, Onyeka Nwelue and a UK-based Jungle Entertainment Ventures, headed by musicologist David Evans-Uhegbu. La Cave Musik is set to release her collection titled “Rebirth of a Legend”. In recognition of her contribution to music and arts in Nigeria, she has been celebrated by professionals like Mahmood Ali-Balogun, Laolu Akins, Charles O’Tudor, and former PMAN president Tony Okoroji among others in the arts industry in Nigeria.
In 2013, Onwenu served as one of the three judges on X Factor Nigeria.”
As Onyeka attains the biblical age of 70, she owes no one, neither Ekwe nor any other.
A Nollywood Personality
She is also a Nollywood personality. Note that a personality has passed the level of a star! “Onwenu’s first movie role was as Joke, a childless woman who adopts an abandoned baby in Zik Zulu Okafor’s Nightmare. She has since featured in numerous Nollywood movies, and in 2006 she won the African Movie Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance in the movie “Widow’s Cot”. Then she was also nominated that same year for African Movie Academy Award for “Best Actress in a Leading Role” in the movie “Rising Moon”. She was in the movie Half of a Yellow Sun with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandiwe Newton, and Lion Heart (2018).”
A rich and variegated oeuvre
As Onyeka attains a biblical 70, we can look back at her musical corpus which is rich and variegated.
Which Onyeka Onwenu song touched you the most? Which one moves you even now? “You and 1” was the entry song for my wedding reception. I loved it that much.
Then there is Ekwe. My friend Chukwuma Nwokoh loved its insouciance yet calmness in our undergraduate days. Chukwuma says now: “My favourite Onyeka song is “You and I”. Ekwe is next. Loved and infatuated on her the first time I saw her picture because of her low cut then.”
I also consider “Bia Nulu” evergreen. Bia Nulu marked her passage into gospel music. Do you remember “Iyogogo” that reminds of village life? Or her praise song to mothers, “Ochie Dike”? Her collabo with Phyno on Ochie Dike refreshed it and made it contemporary.
Friend, which Onyeka Onwenu song or performance is your favourite? It is her 70th, so tell her.
Thank you for Onyeka Onwenu in our lifetime.
Happy Birthday, Ada Nnaya, Ada Igbo, Ada Nigeria. HBD onyeoma.
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