Soundbender The Many Lives of Beautiful Nubia

His eyes are closed under the floodlights pouring over him, face tilted up in stillness as though awaiting a voice from heaven. His head begins to move—slowly, back and forth, and his long locs swing in response. He sings, we sing along. He jumps, he drums. All things pulsate to the beats, prompting; let us clap, let us merry, let us move—hands woven together. The song ends, we scream. We scream, ‘what a feeling!’

Pit Theatre is where the worlds concerned with the language of the body converge. The hall—situated at the Dramatic Arts department in Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife—hosts singers, actors, dancers, both within and outside the institution. Every year, Beautiful Nubia and the Roots Renaissance Band—the band he founded in 1998 when he made a call for young artists interested in being in his backing group—perform here or at the Amphitheatre. They tour Nigerian campuses, bringing songs of love and unity, courage and hope, joy and gracefulness to the students.

What a feeling! What a feeling!

The audience chants at the end of each song. A polysemy: on the one hand, they are proclaiming the wonderment of watching Beautiful Nubia perform and fellowshipping with other like-minds and, on the other hand, they are requesting he perform a song of the same title. Most of them are familiar with his music. But by sharing a space with him that enthralling night in 2014, everyone became awakened. ‘What A Feeling,’ a lovely ballad finally comes on, and who could resist the allure of the chorus—‘Oh, what a feeling / burning me all up / I can’t help myself / Baby I wanna love you’—especially the gentle drawl of ‘love you’? The night ends with lovers, friends and strangers holding hands in a slow, delightful dance.

I would make contact with Beautiful Nubia four years later. He had just arrived in Lagos from Ibadan, following a performance there the previous day. I suggested in an email that we should meet at EniObanke Stores, a production and marketing company he founded to provide creative support for artists engaged in music, literature and visual arts. ‘But note,’ he wrote back, ‘it is only a very small and cluttered space.’ I’d been there once to buy some of his CDs and his novel, Citadel Blues. ‘The space is totally fine by me.’ I replied, excited that I reached out on time, because that night, he would be on a flight out of the country.

His presence is tangible at the store. Three framed photographs line the wall. There are talking drums piled atop one another at a corner of a room. Award plaques from several organizations sit on a table. With three poetry recordings, seventeen studio albums, five live albums and three acoustic albums on a variety of themes, Beautiful Nubia makes music like someone at the centre of many worlds. On stage, he is a blend of tender and electric, his movements equally calm and enchanting. Close up, wearing a mixed-print blue and red àdìrẹ shirt and a pair of black trousers, he has around him an air of cheerfulness and imperturbable peace.

‘Jangbalajùgbú will make my name’: Beautiful Nubia’s Niche

Folk music is a path less travelled, making Beautiful Nubia one of Nigeria’s few niche artists. With a cult-following and a career that spans over two decades; and like the folk singer Tunji Oyelana, one of his major influences, Beautiful Nubia employs storytelling, mythologies, and cultural idiosyncrasies in his work. ‘I’ve always liked the trado-modern fusion of Tunji Oyelana’s music,’ he tells me. ‘This has been the direction of our music in Nigeria, even until today. You can always feel the traditional feel of it.’

Beautiful Nubia founded EniObanke Music Festival (EMUfest), the first folk and roots music festival in Nigeria. Created to celebrate African music, the festival is held every year and, each year, usually spans over a period of four days. It features a songwriting workshop, celebrity soccer match, performances by The Root Renaissance Band, and Talent Night (in which more than 300 young artistes have performed over the years). Iconic personalities such as the ‘Eko O Gba Gbere’ singer Chris Ajilo, Jimi Solanke and many others have been part of the festival.

In the eight months that led to the release of widely loved Jangbalajùgbú (2002), his third studio album, Beautiful Nubia thought it necessary to do some work outside the country. The first two albums were not quite what he wanted because they were made in a studio and without a full band. He worked tirelessly on this third one, and with absolute honesty of purpose. ‘It was from a deep spiritual place, because I reduced myself to nothing… went back to the child I was and worked in total surrender.’ When he finished the songs, he wrote on a piece of paper: Jangbalajùgbú will make my name. ‘I just knew,’ his face lights up at the recollection. He returned to Nigeria and the sound engineers did their job. Everything was set. The band gathered to listen to what they had made. There was so much joy in the room that everyone started dancing. ‘We just knew.’

‘How do you do? (Owuro L’Ojo),’ one of the tracks from the acclaimed album, was, and remains a household song. There was a time people in southwestern Nigeria began their day with Beautiful Nubia’s calm and earnest voice on the radio and TV. The song served as a timely reminder of the dignity in labour, and as a metaphor for the significance of living one’s youthful years with hard work as a watchword. It offered hope, comfort, and a call to rebuild the society’s confidence and faith, especially after the accidental detonation of explosives stored in Ikeja military cantonment a few months before the album was released. The explosion and ensuing chaos caused people, out of panic, to run into a concealed canal where they drowned. The incident caused national devastation, having claimed more than a thousand lives. ‘How do you do? (Owuro L’Ojo),’ offered a glimmer of light during those dark months and, to this day, remains one of Beautiful Nubia’s most popular tracks. Millions of copies of the album have since been sold.

Beautiful Nubia is not surprised ‘Seven Lifes,’ ‘What A Feeling,’ ‘Baba Mimo’ and most of the songs in the thirteen-track album went out into the world the way they did. His first two albums, Seven Lifes (1997) and Voice from Heaven (1999),didn’t garner as much attention. They did get a few people curious though, and chief among them was critic, Benson Idonije, who wrote in a full-page review about Seven Lifes for The Guardian Newspaper, ‘Beautiful Nubia and his Root Renaissance Band have helped to strengthen our belief that there is hope for genuine modern Nigerian and African music.’ 

‘He didn’t say the album was great, Beautiful Nubia says, ‘But he kept talking about the songwriting, and that meant a lot.’ Voice from Heaven got Beautiful Nubia a nomination for the Kora Awards. ‘Suddenly, people were talking and writing about me.’

‘Make your life a seed that you sow’: Beautiful Nubia’s Realization

Born November 11, 1968, Segun Akinlolu didn’t start out desiring to be great. These days, however, as Beautiful Nubia, he believes he’s on Earth to touch people in different forms. This is evident in his Schools Tour project, a roving school-based concert series organized to help highlight the path to personal and communal development among students. He hopes that someday, great leaders and achievers will emerge who will refer to one of the shows as the moment when their lives changed.

What Beautiful Nubia told his audience was his personal creed at Amphitheatre in 2016, and what he tells me now that I sit with him remains the same: Make your life a seed that you sow. Water it all the days of your life until it grows into a mighty tree that will provide shade for those coming after you. You cannot be happy if your neighbour is not happy. You cannot find peace if your neighbour does not have peace. We are only as rich as the poorest in our society. ‘And that is how I live my life.’

Beautiful Nubia’s words are his seeds. He is a writer of many genres—songs, poetry, drama, fiction. ‘Devoting myself primarily to music has meant that some of these things have been kept in the closet.’

Growing up in rural Ibadan greatly influenced his taste in art. ‘There was a lot of mystery, life and nature.’ He and his friends played football, sang, and ran on the streets, raising brown dust in their wake. One evening, he started singing a song that wouldn’t go away. He was the only one that knew it, and so he felt he must have composed it. He was nine at the time, but it was not until he was 13 that he started writing songs. He still has the notebook where he wrote his first songs. ‘They are like my identity.’ He has since written hundreds of songs, three poetry collections, a book of lyrics, a novel, and an autobiography.

Beautiful Nubia has performed around the world. But even after flashes of his song-writing talent began to emerge when he was a child, he still fantasized about becoming a boxer. Later, he started to develop an interest in football. He admired Segun Odegbami, who in his prime was considered the best player in Nigeria, having guided the country to its first Africa Cup of Nations title. ‘He was handsome, tall…my namesake. I wanted to be like him.’

The first time Akinlolu made this ambition public, he was a teenager, and his mother was hosting some family friends. At some point during the visit, the adults asked the children what they would like to become in the future. And while others dreamt of becoming doctors and engineers, Akinlolu happily announced that he wanted to pursue a career as a footballer. His mother looked at him and smiled, and he knew what was coming. ‘I’m not doing all this for you to become a useless soccer player,’ she told him when they were alone. This was a striking reality he had to embrace. Yet, decades later, he hasn’t fizzled. Though not playing professionally, he occasionally organizes and partakes in football matches with friends and fans. He maintains that if he had been raised in a different environment, he would have become a footballer. ‘Football and music thrive on rhythm and fluidity. You’re in an elevated sense of being…I was good at it, but my mother didn’t want that.’

And in this way, for the most part of our conversation, Beautiful Nubia’s mother hovers above his childhood memories. She was a singer and the first songwriter he ever knew. His father owned a music store and sometimes made the kids have dance competitions among themselves. ‘But he wasn’t much of a presence.’ When Akinlolu was ten, his parents separated. ‘It was an acrimonious break. He just threw her out and banned her from coming to the house… I don’t think that’s something people do now, for a man to just throw his wife out.’ Despite the separation, he remained close to his mother.

‘We’re living in a real and true revolution time’: Beautiful Nubia’s Social Conscience

In 1991, while studying to become a veterinary doctor at the University of Ibadan, Akinlolu wrote a novel. It happened during one of those breaks when many students didn’t know what to do with their time. He wrote Citadel Blues in two weeks. Set in the same school, the novel is named after the organization founded by four friends on a mission to fight corruption in the student union. It chronicles the protagonist’s faith in humanity, romantic relationships, and the fraying of his parents’ marriage. The images depicted in the novel during a riot on campus hark back to the pandemonium in the music video of his ‘The Small People’s Anthem’, a 2002 song that juxtaposes the experiences of people in different socio-economic classes—the poor and the elite, the masses and the political class. The campus is a microcosm of the Nigerian society, mirroring the state of unease and drudgery in the nation.

Beautiful Nubia regards his music as a form of social conscience. The lyrics exude introspection, insight, action, revolution. In the 80s, a collaboration between Tunji Oyelana and Wole Soyinka yielded ‘I Love My Country’. It was a song that satirized the political and economic climate in Nigeria, and, eventually, led both artists to be charged with treason and forced into exile. Similar to Oyelana and Soyinka’s collaboration, Beautiful Nubia has consistently made music that addresses societal issues. ‘Monkey Wear Shoe’ from Sun No Dey Sleep (2011), his eighth album, is a satirical piece on gluttonous and corrupt political leaders. Ọ̀rọ̀ ìfun lo máa ń forí rẹ rò… / Ọ̀sán bá ọ wí, o lóò ní gbọ́ / Alẹ́ bá ọ sọ́, o lénu rẹ̀ ń rùn… / Monkey dey wear shoe, e tink say e be fine guy. 

In the same album, ‘Someone Like Biko’ declaims iconic names like Shaka the Zulu, Kwame Nkrumah, Steve Biko. Beautiful Nubia hopes that this generation will raise more people like them. ‘Revolution Time’ from Irinajo (2009) speaks on the need to act with urgency, a reminder that history is unfolding right before our eyes and we have a chance to be a part of it. ‘We’re living in a real and true revolution time / fight the good fight.

‘We make liberation music. If I wasn’t able to use my music for social causes, I would have remained a vet doctor,’ he says, though he maintains that an artist has a right to be whatever they want without pressure to address institutional issues. ‘It’s not society’s duty to dictate what the role of an artist is. If we silence some voices because they do not fit the fake moulds we have built in our minds, the society loses.’

Akinlolu, an idealist, wanted to become an investigative journalist in his heady, youthful days. He wanted to tell the truth without bending or sugar-coating it. After he completed the mandatory one-year National Youth Service, he got certified at the Nigerian Institute of Journalism in Lagos. He made a wager with fate, that if he didn’t get a job with his veterinary medicine certificate within three months, he’d walk into The Guardian or Punch’s office and speak to the editor. ‘I wanted to become a journalist…a journalist who plays music.’ However, before the three months elapsed, he got a job. ‘I don’t think I’d have lasted as a journalist. I was so idealistic. I think I would have left in frustration. Maybe I would have been killed.’

For eight years, he worked as a veterinary doctor and, later, as a marketing executive in a major health organization. He came out of a meeting one day and tried to comb his hair yet again. Dada children, with natural, locked hair, are believed in some Nigerian societies to be descendants of gods. Akinlolu stood in front of the mirror and decided to act like his ancestors and grant his hair freedom. He was going to pursue another path where the hair could afford its ‘fundamental rights.’ He left the job and started his music career. And the hair grew and tangled and locked and grew even more. It remains one of his most distinguishing features.

‘I’ve always been a magnet for languages’: Beautiful Nubia’s Literature

Akinlolu was only a child when he got inducted into the habit of reading. He found himself immersed in books on oceanography, philosophy, history, literature; celebrity news; magazines; all manner of texts. His hunger for books has since stayed with him. He loves reading nonfiction, mostly biographies. ‘If I read something that is touching, or listen to some music, I cry.’ His love for literature is evident in the poetry of his music. He reads Funso Aiyejina and Niyi Osundare—the latter especially, because Osundare employs rhythm and repetition in his work.

Beautiful Nubia is a conduit of culture. He flows with ease between English and Yoruba in his music. ‘I’ve always been a magnet for languages.’ Born to parents from Abeokuta and Ile-Ife, and a childhood in Ibadan—a city with active literary communities—greatly contributed to his affinity for language. While his mother wanted him preened and polished in deeds and in spoken English, his father was going to make a strong man of him. His father took him to farm and, often, he returned home with blisters. It was his maternal grandmother who immersed him in Yorùbá culture.

His music is Ciceronian: filled with adages, folklores, and conveyed with tangible eloquence. ‘It’s a kind of music that is timeless and I cannot take all the credit for it. It’s a gift.’ A major factor in the universality of Beautiful Nubia’s work is that good music transcends tongue. Ibadan has, in many ways, bred literary giants. These include, among many more, Wole Soyinka, Flora Nwapa, Chinua Achebe, Molara Ogundipe, Tade Ipadeola, whose works help us understand the impact of colonialism and our shared humanity. Beautiful Nubia’s music is a significant addition to Nigerian literature. In the years to come, he hopes to publish some of his stories and plays.

‘I believe he’s the closest to what we have to Bob Dylan in terms of mindfulness to the mores of his times and of his place in history,’ says Ipadeola of Beautiful Nubia. Beautiful Nubia remains one of the few Nigerian artistes who make an effort to collect the experiences of others and add to our national historical record. Dolly Parton, Joni Haastrup, The Wailers, Lijadu Sisters, Bob Marley, The Mighty Diamonds, Mutabaruka are some of the artistes whose work he reveres. Despite the varying genres of his influences, integrating elements of African music as thematic material has been his major way of offering his work to the world.

He does not share the popular sentiments about the Beatles. ‘I find their music bubble-gummish… But I’ve always loved Rex Lawson. He’s perhaps the most talented songwriter ever to come from Nigeria,’ he says, beaming with admiration. ‘My head is a fertile ground for sound, that’s why they call me sound bender.’ His eleventh album Soundbender (2015) is an incredible fusion of skilfully crafted songs.

‘Eyes Always Open’ from Sun No Dey Sleep (2011), is a medley of the guitar, trumpet, drums, tambourine and agogo. It can be categorized as classical music, with a few words repeated in a solemn voice as the song fades out. Some of his works are philosophical, dwelling on ways of being in the world, of journeys and passage of time. It reflects, for instance, in his deliberate spelling of ‘Seven Lifes’- one life in seven manifestations. Listening to him feels like being with someone who has been in tune with themselves all their life. ‘The universe continues to churn along in its deep mystery, and we are just a momentary blip. We are all merely passing through, aren’t we? We take ourselves way too seriously.’

‘Young man standing laughing’: Beautiful Nubia’s Induction 

Married with two children, Beautiful Nubia considers himself a father of many, as he’s open to young artists who might need his assistance or guidance. He has always had a large familial community; of the 12 children his father had, three of them were by his mother. Due to the large family, there were prolonged financial constraints. At university, for instance, his monthly allowance was meagre, prompting him to engage in other activities for additional income. From designing posters to providing courier service, he was able to make extra cash to get by and help his friends. ‘I learnt to rise in all situations.’

In school, Akinlolu was nicknamed O’Hezzy, a contraction of Olusegun and Hezekiah, his baptismal name, which he never liked because what even was the purpose of religion? As a child, he attended church services because his mother made him. But adulthood comes with becoming deliberate about choosing one’s way of life, including religion. He decided he didn’t believe in any god. ‘I have no religion. But I welcome everyone. I understand some people need social gathering; they need religion to find their way through life. I’m able to fight my own soul. But some people don’t understand this.’ His holy grail is spiritual perfection and beauty. ‘That’s why I’m Beautiful Nubia,’ he laughs.

However, those years as a church boy were not a total waste as they yielded some fruits. The church has always employed music as a means of worship and inducing desired moods. Several Nigerian composers in history and many people who sing or play instruments today usually credit the church as the place they received their initial musical training. Beautiful Nubia developed an interest in musical instruments and began to learn, starting with the agogo. He moved on to the ṣẹ̀kẹ̀rẹ̀, and then drums. He started learning to play the guitar at twenty-six, after visiting a friend who taught him three chords: c, f, and g. He continued to teach himself, inventing and re-inventing. ‘Music isn’t what is written in any book.’ He also took piano lessons but he’s not as skilled as in other instruments. ‘I’m an excellent percussionist. I play the guitar like a percussion instrument.’

At a concert in Lagos last year, he wondered when the tide of awakening would finally flood the nation. ‘We must speak up,’ he said. Then he drank from the palm-wine gourd on a platform beside him, adjusted the guitar on his arm and started to sing, face sober.

‘Young man standing laughing / but he knows where the shoe dey pain am so / e no fit do anything today / but one day, tables will turn.’

Then he sat, clasped a small wooden drum between his thighs. He beat the drum and sang, beat it with a Bí Kidude-esque vigour, as sweat streamed down his face. He stood and clapped and jumped, threw his hands up in exuberance, exuding energy one wouldn’t expect from a fifty-year-old man. His back-up singers responded in earnest. His audience laughed and danced and forgot about time.

Even songs of admonition, when thrown into the mix of drums, guitar, ṣẹ̀kẹ̀rẹ̀, trumpet and agogo, begin to sound like party songs. Beautiful Nubia made the soundtrack for The Narrow Path, a 2006 film directed by Tunde Kelani. The track would later be released as ‘Ikoko Akufo.’ One might easily get carried away by its melody, forgetting it’s a sad tale about a woman. Beautiful Nubia’s music can also be intoxicating, and when you’re intoxicated on it, you can return to his poetry to quicken your way back to sobriety. Some dances, you’ll perform better wearing ìró and bùbá as a woman, and bùbá and òkòtò with a dog-eared cap as a man, raising your shoulders and legs in rhythmic motion.

‘Does he still sing? Where is he?’: Beautiful Nubia Today

Throughout history, generations have passed down stories and have found use for oral poetry during wars and in artistic representation. Though vulnerable to modifications, the Yorùbás have, for a long time, preserved their stories through oral history. Its reputation as the transmitter of cultural, political and social creations remains valid. For so long, Africans were regarded as a people without history because there weren’t sufficient textual archives. Of course, this is a Eurocentric narrative.

Beautiful Nubia conserves and upholds Yorùbá language with a sacred devotion. As a musician, his work has contributed immensely to helping us trace our way back through time. It is reminiscent of a period when children sat together at nights, listening to moonlight tales. ‘Some folks, through music and other forms, directly or indirectly, facilitate the preservation of the best of what used to be.’

In a society where western standards are often used as a yardstick in music production and art consumption, the importance of owning one’s narrative cannot be overemphasized. More artistes are emerging and centring African cultures with style, creativity, and authenticity. Indeed, one of Nigeria’s most exported products today is music. The likes of Asa, Burna Boy, Yinka Davies, Falana, Wizkid, Brymo, Tiwa Savage, Bez Idakula continually receive recognition on the global scale. Tastes may differ, but their works depict ways in which the past intersects with the present, history with the contemporary. ‘It’s knowing that people actually want to listen to where they came from, the stories and knowledge of our fathers, as much as we claim to be an urban generation,’ says Mo’believe, a young folk singer on drawing influence from Beautiful Nubia.

I’ve heard people talk about Beautiful Nubia with nostalgia, and then ask, ‘Does he still sing? Where is he?’ I often stop myself, though I sometimes fail, from asking if their search has been limited to under their beds. Folk music is perhaps too recherché for a lot of people and reaching new listeners might be a challenge for folk singers. Especially since traditional media prefers mainstream music. But it’s the digital age, after all. Many folk songs, like other niche music, are available on streaming platforms.

After 17 albums, Beautiful Nubia is grateful. ‘It’s such a beautiful thing to know that people want more.’ Wholly committed to continuing his craft, yet aware that the floodlights of history are upon him, he tells me: ‘I think I’ll keep recording until I die.’⎈