An absolute monarch of the musical stage in Nigeria at one time, Majek Fashek could command the elements without fail. Known as the rainmaker and adored by young and old, nobody, much less the elements, takes the undisputed reggae king seriously anymore, writes Michael Jimoh
To have gone to a concert where Majek Fashek performed was to have witnessed the ultimate show back in the eighties and nineties in Lagos, or anywhere in Nigeria for that matter. To have listened to any of his immortal numbers – starting with the so, so famous “Prisoner of Conscience,” the even more famous “Send Down the Rain,” his incomparable remake of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” – was to have heard the most captivating compositions ever by a Nigerian reggae artiste. It didn’t matter whether you were a reggae buff, fuji, jazz or rock aficionado. Something about Majek Fashek’s music simply got to you and it stayed forever.
A three-hundred level student in the University of Benin back in the late eighties, this reporter’s fascination with the title song of Prisoner of Conscience, his debut album, was somewhat unusual – and was told so by Diokpa, Diokpa being the proprietor of the store in the common room where students gathered to watch television, listen to news, play draught, smoke cigarette and, of course, drink beer and other beverages.
I listened to the number repeatedly such that, one day, Diokpa, a be-whiskered Anambra native with matching sideburns and a generous paunch, asked me what the problem was, requesting to hear that particular music over and over again. There was no problem, except that for me at that time, Majek Fashek, who would later be crowned Majestic Majek for his innovative and peculiar style of music, had me in his clutches completely.
I was not alone. The following year, a twohundred level female student of the same campus and in the same department absconded from school to live and tour with Majek for much of his career. It created a scandal then. We thought the girl was rather foolish, forsaking her studies and degree programme for an artiste who had started with a bang but who was yet to cut his professional teeth. She was also not alone in her love for, and adulation of, Majek, a musician who revolutionized reggae like no other artiste has done since then. Victor Essiet of the Mandators and Ras Kimono were Majek’s contemporaries.
There was Orits Wiliki, also. The period in question produced several other famous musicians like Kris Okotie, Evi Edna Ogoli, evergreen Onyeka Onwenu, a period called the golden age of Nigerian music. Majek was the golden boy of that era, riding the golden waves of Nigerian music unchallenged. He came with a different swag, a different voice and a totally different way of rending reggae or his uniquely distinct Kpangolo music. Besides, he was beautiful to look at. He had a screen face you’d like to see on television or on stage with a well-defined mouth and pointy nose. Most captivating was his flawless trunk – often exposed at concerts – which a surgeon would hesitate before applying the scalpel for an operation. In short, Majek was every inch the star he was. No wonder Nigerians loved him.
He was also a darling of the press. One of the most circulated editions of the moribund African Concord remains the May 22, 1989 issue. On the cover is Majek Fashek, dubbed by the editors “a music phenomenon,” not an undeserved praise considering the wide acceptance of Prisoner of Conscience. More than half a dozen workers in the magazine were clearly bowled over by Majek Fashek’s feat then. One of them, Sam Omatseye, a correspondent then, bought the first cassette and took it to work. It was borrowed and never returned. He bought another.
It was promptly borrowed and also not returned. Minus the ones colleagues and friends borrowed from him, Sam reckoned that some others stole one or two more cassettes – less because of their nicking habit and more because of how much everybody wanted to listen to Majek. By then, Majek was just 26 and was only a year old as a solo artiste. (He had broken away from Mcroy and Black Rice, his other partners in Jahstix.) He’d also just won four awards – best reggae artiste, best artiste, best LP and best musical track of the year – of the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria. On the night of the award at the National Theatre in Lagos, Majek was far away in Accra, Ghana, for a concert. Such was Majek’s popularity that the magazine devoted eight full pages to him, with about half that number of journalists and photographers deployed to interview him in Lagos, and his mother, sibling and a radio presenter in Benin.
In the same issue of African Concord, almighty Fela Anikulapo Kuti, abami eda himself, got a mere page. Military president, Ibrahim Babangida who went on his first state visit to the United Kingdom the previous week, also got a passing mention. For the editorial team that packaged the edition under the competent editorship of Lewis Obi, Majek was more famous than both the long-reigning Afrobeat legend and the charismatic military dictator. “Not since the late 70s when Bongos Ikwe burst on the Nigerian music scene…had any artiste mesmerized Nigerians as Majek Fashek,” Obi wrote in the covering note of the magazine. “He seems to have come from nowhere and seized the whole place, making other Nigerian stars look ordinary. He has powered a movement that introduced and consolidated a reggae renaissance, making disco appear obscene or irrelevant or both.”
No other Nigerian musician before that time had made the cover of a national magazine. Since then, none has had that privilege. For all their fame and wealth today, it is hard to imagine any contemporary musician – Davido, Whizkid, Banky W, Phyno or Terry G – making the cover of serious publications like TELL or TheNews. Indeed, some of these so-called super stars of hip-hop and rap in Nigeria now had not been born when Majek reigned supreme on the Nigerian musical stage. From Aba to Warri, Lagos to Benin (where he was born), Ibadan to Onitsha, Owerri and Port Harcourt, Enugu and Makurdi, Majek was the rave of the moment, the name on everybody’s lips.
Children and adults everywhere mouthed “Send Down the Rain,” as soon as the sky darkened. The musician himself was said to possess mystical powers over the elements, demonstrated severally at concerts across the country. One such occasion was a show at Tafawa Balewa Square in early 1989 where Majek performed. No sooner had he climbed the stage and belted the first two lines of his immortal “Send Down the Rain”: “The sky is cloudy and misty/ It looks like the rain is gonna fall today” than thunder pealed across the sky and the rains poured generously on the revelers. Though the downpour might be more as a result of weather conditions, nobody wanted to believe it was not Majek commanding the rains to fall. Writing like an enthusiastic entertainment reporter ever ready with superlative backslaps, Sam, now the chairman of the Editorial Board of The Nation, crowed thus about the TBS show: “The whole place became a joyful tumult of earth and sky.
The prophet had said it, sang it and it had come to pass…Who does not know that it was because he sang the song that the rains fell, that he had communion with the spirits, the angels in heaven and with Jah himself?” Tracked to his residence on Allen Avenue for an interview, Ohi Alegbe, now a management staff of NNPC, met a homely Majek at home, a Peugeot 505 packed in the compound, a Bob Marley video showing on television, Rita, Majek’s ex-wife, minding the kitchen while Majek had a slice of watermelon. Marley had died eight years before.
There was talk about what killed the international reggae superstar. “He took too much of smoke. I think that’s what killed him,” Majek had said then. Asked whether he indulged himself, Majek replied thus: “Only palm wine, sometimes. No grass. Power of the Holy Spirit is my grass. I don’t use it for performance because the kind of message I have to preach is spiritual. To carry that kind of message, you have to be pure.” For his career, it helped a lot that Majek’s voice sounded several shades like Bob Marley’s and David Hinds, lead vocalist of Steele Pulse. (After he had become famous, Majek confessed to an interviewer that the Jamaican legend and his London counterpart were his most influence in music.)
One day several years ago back in The Sun where I worked for some time, I slipped in a CD of Steele Pulse playing “Chant a Psalm.” Louis Odion, now Commissioner of Information and Strategy in Edo State, was Editor of the Sunday title then. Passing by my desk and hearing the CD, he asked pointedly: “Is that Majek Fashek?” So did many ask whether Marley was the one singing when Majek came out with a unique rendition of the former’s “Redemption Song.” The voice was unmistakably Marley’s, not rough and coarse as if polished by years of swigging whiskey. It was clear like a cloudless African sky, a voice you wanted to listen to again and again. To many of Majek’s more enthusiastic fans, he was simply the reincarnation of the Jamaican reggae star. They were born in the same month – February – only a day or two apart, have the same rugged good looks and gifted musically. Again, theirs was not singing for singing sake for they had a message to share with the rest of the world.
His stage shows were something else, too. Reggae artistes before him performed to expectation on stage, dreadlocks a-swirl, hand pointed far and above the audience, skanking here and there and then mouthing the usual Jah I and Babylonian brothers. In the beginning, Majek would appear on stage bell in hand, decked in a majestic red robe of the Aladura Church where he had his tutelage, and then play the prophet he claimed to be by telling the audience to “repent for the kingdom of God is at hand” or “you are all prisoners of conscience.”
Later, older and more matured, he was savvy enough to co-opt a dwarf – the late King Pago – as a dancer. The spectacle made you laugh but you also got the message. Who can forget the sight of the midget skittering between Majek’s legs in the video? Who cannot remember Majek’s home truth in “Majek Fashek Ina New York?” Going to America “If you desert home, home deserts you,” a line in Helon Habila’s poem, “Another Age” best sums up what sometimes become of selfimposed exiles like the reggae wunderkind who proved not to be a flash in the pan after all. Other well-received albums followed after Prisoner of Conscience. There was Spirit of Love Interscope Records 1991, Rainmaker Lightyear Entertainment 1997.
Little Little Patience was released in 2005 by Coral Group. Majek was literally at the peak of his career when he suddenly faded out of public view in Nigeria. Before then, he had played in scores of clubs and arenas – public and private – corralled by the federal government to help propagate the three key points of Mass Mobilization for Self Reliance and Social Justice (MAMSER) through shows in selected cities and towns in Nigeria and often attended by top government functionaries. One such show had the very number two man to IBB in the house, the late Rear Admiral Augustus Aikhomu.
Others were Olu Falae, SGF, Tony Momoh, Minister of Information and gaggle of senior civil servants. Though Nigerians packed such shows, it was clear from the start who they had come to watch. In one instance, bored with the soporific speeches made by government officials, they started chanting: “We want Majek,” “We want Majek, “We want Majek.” Majek they got in the end. Captains of industries also came after the maverick musician, bankers, •The original Jahstix members, Majek in the middle too. He also made money, lots of it by the standard of the day. For such a well-positioned star, acknowledged and admired by his compatriots – think of a prophet with honour in his country – why Majek chose to relocate to the United States of America is still a mystery to many today. Things took a different turn once he got the U.S. He was rumoured to have played with leading American musicians such as Tracy Chapman, or introduced her before she appeared on stage. Majek also had working and social relations with dozens of American artistes. Untainted by hard drugs in his admission to Alegbe in Lagos in 1989, Majek literally plunged into substance abuse when he got to America years later. That, some of his critics insist, was the beginning of his downfall.
Signs of trouble
Away in the U.S for years, not much was heard of Majke by his countrymen and women, apart from those who saw and met him there. Reports about him were not too pleasant – of a formerly collected man now going adrift. A senior journalist in Nigeria who knew Majek up close described him as a typical Home boy, a Mama’s boy, of which his mother, Grace Igodan, admitted that her son was “very quiet and very studious.”
Though the Big Apple was the muse for one of Majek’s songs, it was after his return from the U.S that he started manifesting signs of trouble, as if all was not well. Wherever he was, on the streets of Lagos or in clubs, a public or private gathering, Majek was sure to commit a faux pas, embarrass his friends or even relations and admirers. Entertainment journalists were only too delighted to publish any of his blunders, make fun of him and treat him like royalty that has fallen on bad times.
True, the Majek of today is a far cry from the wonder boy of yesteryears. Frail and scruffy, almost always wearing the same up and down jeans with his ubiquitous tan Timberland boots, Majek has become the subject of public ridicule. Nigerians of a certain generation who knew what he did for music shake their head in disbelief anywhere they see him. Younger ones tend to make fun of him and dismiss him as somebody not to be taken seriously. Only last month, news of his begging at Anthony Bus stop in Lagos went viral on the social media. At social gatherings and clubs, the man who once commanded the heavens to open commands no respect from his compatriots at all, except to be pointed at as a joker of some sort.
What went wrong with this otherwise talented musician who could not only sing but play the guitar and drums well? Is it fate like the ancient Greeks believed that you can’t question what is already predestined? Is it lack of discipline on the part of the artiste? The entertainment industry is one in which drugs are part of the business. There have been fatalities, too. Jimi Hendrix, the left-handed guitarist and African American rock star, collapsed and died on stage after a drug overdose.
Elvis Priestly drowned in his soup after succumbing to substance abuse. Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, was no different. Unable to cope with fame, he finally succeeded in killing himself after failing in a Rome hotel. More recently, American diva, Whitney Houston, died in her tub owing to drug abuse. Brenda Facie, the South African wonder girl, preceded her by literally expiring in a puff of smoke. These days, Majek has become some sort of peregrinator, moving from one place to the other, his guitar in tow. Once, he was guest of honour at a Rastafarian Colony somewhere in Isheri.
(It was there that a co-musician and pal stole a leaflet from Majek’s cheque book, forged his signature and coolly collected N100, 000 from his bank. As punishment, his Rasta brothers sat the thief down and then calmly shaved off his dreadlocks that had taken many years to grow.) Majek has since moved on, finding succour again at Airforce Base in PWD in Lagos to live with a certain Alhaja who has taken it upon herself to stabilize the man.
Now, we hear he lives in Magodo with a kind-hearted, fellow artiste. Whether he would soon be on the go is hard to predict. But those who know him intimately say he is ever on the move, “a restless spirit,” one actually called him what psychiatrists may describe as a hyperactive chap. For a guy who once attracted the young and old, men and women, dazzled hardcore career civil servants and reggae fans all over the world – he ranked far higher than two notable African reggae artistes – Alpha Blondie and Lucky Dube – it is something of real tragedy if you were to consider his present condition.
Nobody who has seen Majek recently will not be moved to pity. For him, though, as one of his friends suggested, he might just not give a damn about his state. As far as he is concerned, he is living it up. And so, it is the ancient Greeks we will return for a befitting verdict. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the chorus has the final word about a once great man: “Call no man happy until the day he carries his happiness down to his grave in peace.”