[OPINION] Ebenezer Obey: A humble custodian of morals
This is the first report on the interview conducted with Chief Ebenezer Obey-Fabiyi on April 18, 2021. For its entire recording, see https://youtu.be/nAJbdi0nJUw
How should a man who has tasted the different flavors of fame express his gratitude for his many blessings? He could take his cue from Chief Ebenezer Obey MFR, the most recent guest at the famous Toyin Falola Interviews. During the interview, the Chief Commander was asked if he could count his blessings, and he replied that they were too numerous for him to quantify. Nevertheless, he expressed his thanks to God for his days of little beginnings and the musical talent and the grace granted him to use such talent in a way that brought him global fame. He also thanked his parents for the education, love, and sacrifice; and the mentors God placed in his life early in his career. A reflection on his music will prove the legend’s claim that his blessings are too numerous to mention.
Chief Ebenezer Obey is famous for the sweet-sounding beats of his songs and the didactic message of most of his tracks. In a world where moral decadence is on the rise, what can music do to help? Are songs for entertainment and socialization alone? For this musical maestro, songs should not serve to entertain alone; they must also serve as tools for change in society. His music records are full of morals and advice for the youth, with the songs drawn from his personal experience to educate the youth and guide them on the right path. When adults make mistakes, those mistakes should serve as a warning and guide for the young, and that is one of the common elements of Chief Ebenezer Obey’s songs. A quick mental review of his songs will show how incessantly the musician hammers the importance of virtues such as humility, hard work, and patriotism. He has often been referred to by critics and reviewers as the only musician of the Juju music order whose focus is not on singing about women, alcohol, and other themes popular among musicians in the same genre. His songs are didactic, encouraging, and good projectors of real-life issues.
Indigenous folklore has been the safe musical haven for many song composers for as long as anyone can remember. From the days of Nigeria’s earliest musicians like Fela Sowande to Ebenezer Obey and King Sunny Ade, to contemporary musicians like The Cavemen and Burna Boy, we have always had musicians who seek musical muse in the refuge of the abundance of traditional folklore. However, what happens when one sings gospel music? Can traditional folklore still be kept to? Is there a link between one’s genre of music and traditional folklore? Chief Ebenezer Obey can be regarded as a custodian of our traditions and culture through music. This same Chief Ebenezer Obey is a Christian music evangelist. In responding to questions on whether or not traditional folklore and Christianity should meet in music, Chief Ebenezer Obey said both could work hand-in-hand, as the adoption of the Christian faith is not tantamount to the abandonment of the riches of our traditional folklore and culture. According to him, “Some people have a misconception that once you’re a Christian, you have to do away with culture. But that is not and can never be possible because it’s not possible for anyone to do away with culture.” True to the Chief Commander’s assertion, culture is the way of life of a people; therefore, it cannot go into total extinction. Serving God does not hinder one from respecting and loving one’s culture. In fact, a creative cannot do without the culture because most creative endeavors are fabrics of culture.
For example, take a Juju or Fuji musician; the ability to tell compelling stories and combine them with excellent sounds differentiate the average Juju or Fuji musician from the legends. Storytelling is an important aspect of music genres like Juju and Fuji, and our culture encourages storytelling. The art of storytelling is one of the fabrics of our culture, and we constantly hear songs woven from popular folklore, both legendary and contemporary songs. The songs woven from stories are more relatable to the audience because they are hinged on a known story, and they serve as an eye-opener for the younger ones. Cultural folklores spice up the musical world, and they get us closer to nature, which in turn gets us closer to God. Obey’s “The Horse, The Man and The Son” is an example of a song based on popular folklore. Obey amplifies the message of one’s inability to please everyone with this lore. He does not rest at telling this story but draws on examples that reflect how insatiable humans are.
Chief Ebenezer Obey enjoyed the support, love and sacrifice of his mother, which served as a stepping stone to his success. His mother always shared life lessons and Yoruba maxims with him, which sharpened his knowledge of the Yoruba folklore. Beyond the life lessons that Mrs Abigail Fabiyi shared with her son, she was always there for him.
According to the Chief Commander, his mother lived for her children; that was her purpose. Mrs Fabiyi dedicated her time and resources to ensuring that her children become great in life, which made her reluctant about Ebenezer Obey becoming a musician. Obey’s prodigious journey in the world of music started from his earliest years on earth. His mother always discouraged him from moving about with musical troupes, claiming that she would love to become a popular and influential person, not a riff-raff musician. She wanted him to become a doctor or a lawyer, as those were the professions she considered responsible.
Mrs Fabiyi’s fears were born out of motherly love and a genuine wish that her children succeed. She thought that music would not bring her son the desired success she envisioned for him. She believed that stereotypical societally-stamped professions were the only means through which Obey could become successful and ride “bless your car.” Obey’s mother deployed all the motherly negotiation skills in her arsenal, but the Chief Commander was passionately resolute about surviving and thriving in the music world. The biggest, yet unspoken, fear of Mrs Fabiyi was that her son would indulge in the vices popular among musicians–drug abuse, alcoholism, smoking, and the likes. When she eventually disclosed this fear to the young Obey, he vowed and promised his mom that he would not indulge in these vices, and true to his vows, he was neither a smoker nor a drunkard, no a drug abuser as a musician. The windows to indulge in these vices were truly thrown open, but the Chief Commander kept the promises he made to his mother.
What defines a legend? Is it their contributions or their legacies? The life of Chief Ebenezer Obey proves that a legend is not defined by what they have achieved in their field alone but also by their contributions and legacies, and the Chief Commander is a legend in every sense of the word. A celebrated Juju musician, composer, and pioneer of the Juju Miliki sub-genre, Ebenezer Obey took his legendary status some steps further by setting up a foundation and the Ebenezer Obey Music and Skills Acquisition Institute. The institute offers young talents the opportunity to learn the ropes of a musical career while also learning valuable skills to empower them, make them employable and relevant in today’s world. The idea of a skills acquisition program was spun from the belief that skills can never become too saturated and skills can never be irrelevant.
The Ebenezer Obey Foundation also supports young talents who do not have the financial capability to enroll at the institute. It is a rare privilege that the likes of Ebenezer Obey could learn the ropes of music through non-formal education and still create the fantastic music they created during their prime time. However, the world has evolved, and one excellent way developed countries have stayed true to bringing up and molding musical talents is through musical schools and institutes. It is a joy to see that Ebenezer Obey is a pioneer in total music education in Nigeria.
There are claims that Juju music went into inexistence following Chief Ebenezer Obey and King Sunny Ade’s bowing out from the genre of music. Juju is a music genre whose complexities and fusions require brilliance and talent. It was Nigeria’s most popular music genre during the prime of Obey and KSA, but it is believed that the music genre lost its elevated position when both musicians switched to gospel music. What then is the fate of Juju music? Will it return to its elevated position? Will it enjoy patronage? Will rising musicians explore the Juju genre? Nonetheless, the Chief Commander said he has come across musicians whose brilliance and style of play prove that the future of Juju music is bright. He mentioned his collaboration with popular contemporary musician Simi, in her cover of “Aimasiko” as a sign that the new generation of music artists enjoy Juju, and quite a number of them infuse the genre into their music.
One of the interview highlights was the suggestion to immortalize Obey’s name by connecting his fame to solving poverty and the possibility of opening a museum to keep various objects, photographs, and records. The Toyin Falola Interview with Chief Ebenezer Obey was a moment of truth, discovery, and revelations that aptly defines Obey as a charismatic, patriotic, accommodating, religiously tolerant, and talented musician. His responses to the questions at the interview portray him as a national asset with a wealth of experience who is ready to contribute as much as he can to the advancement and development of Nigeria. Obey’s songs are relevant to the generation of older people, his contemporaries and agemates, and the later generation also find the evergreen songs enjoyable.
Toyin Falola is The Frances and Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities, The University of Texas at Austin
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