No Redemption Song for Majek By Simbo Olorunfemi

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So, the Rainmaker  this week rode the rain onto sunset in his sleep in New York. It was an ending many had crafted the headline for many times over. He had died in the rumour mill a few times. He had died in the imagination of many, before now.

Yet, it still came as a shock. Sad to see the Prisoner of Conscience pass away, far away from the land which gave him the song, far from the reach of the people who first loved and adored him.

He had become a past even while he was still present as the struggle to make him reclaim a present from his past was on and off in an almost antithetical struggle between life and livelihood for the man. The last years of his life was a long, lonely walk in search of redemption.

Sad to see that the reportage of his death  was as hollow and shallow as we are getting accustomed to. His death was taken as just another gathering of vultures by ‘newsmen’, eager to feast on anything just to drive traffic, neglecting or ignoring the more important task of digging deep or pursuing different angles to a story. As usual, there was confusion about his age.

Lost on the essence of the moment, many of the blogs filled their spaces with the less flattering pictures of the man they should have been celebrating. At least, many  were agreed about his talent, musicianship and the rain. Little in dispute over that.

For me, what is most telling with the death of Majek is the fact that an era has indeed ended. The post-Marley era which led to the wide acceptance of Reggae in Nigeria, becoming almost the de facto national music, even if some say our musicians, who hardly knew how to read notes took to it by default, because it was an easier genre to play.

But the 80s and 90s can safely be regarded as the Reggae era. By my recollection, one of the first breakthroughs was Tera Kota (Gboyega Femi) with Lamentation for Sodom, before others came on the scene – Mandators, Evi-Edna Ogholi, Ras Kimono, Oritz Wiliki, Majek Fashek and many others, stamping their feet to the rhythm from Jamaica with Rastafarianism going mainstream.

There was enough to protest about. Injustice here and everywhere. Apartheid in South Africa. Mandela was in prison. There was Fela who had become a legend, fighting against injustice.  Sonny Okosun had sung about Fire in Soweto and he still kept the fire burning. There was enough fire in the system to make many musicians to grow dreadlocks, join the Reggae train, feeling irie and skanking to the beats of protest

That was also the last two decades of a properly structured music industry, an industry in the real sense of it, not what we have now. We had the 3 musketeers – Sony, Premier, EMI, companies with international affiliation, issuing out international releases on their labels. They recruited local Artistes, having put them through a rigorous process, grooming them, after which they launched them with all the funfare you can imagine.

The music companies had Artiste & Repertoire Department. We had Dayo Olomu, Morgan Okunnuga, Tope Akinyele, Chris Nwandu at that time. We had big name in-house Producers who had made names in music, apart from the great Producers outside such as Lemmy Jackson. The legend, Odion Iruoje was still in the industry, I think, in an executive position.

A lot went into planning the release of albums back then, especially with distribution leg of it, as albums somehow managed to reach different parts of the country, with a simultaneous release on a date that had been pre-announced. Posters would have been out at the different music shops announcing some of these releases. Advanced copies of the music also went to these music shops and radio stations with the musicians going round towns and radio stations on a promotional tour prior to the release. There was always so much anticipation for new releases.

I think it was at Rock Steady, my DJ’s shop at Ikeja that I first heard the music of Majek Fashek, playing an advance copy of the work. I don’t recall which single was first released. It was surreal. It was Reggae, but not that heavy. The feel of the music heavenly. I think it was released by Tabansi Records, an indigenous music company which was at Oregun road, Ikeja. There were other recording companies apart from the big three already mentioned – indigenous and even some with foreign interest, like Decca (Afrodisia) which was owned by MKO Abiola till he died. (MKO loved music. He also loved to sing and supported many of the musicians).

So, Majek Fashek came on the scene and that came with rain. There was no-one like him. There was something almost mystical about him. He had almost everything. Fine boy. He talked about ghetto, but you could not see the ghetto in him. He had the song, the talent, the lyrics, the melody, the charisma. He was a showman, with that mystique, yet with the conscience, singing about injustice, with his hands cuffed.

There was enough controversy around him to mine from. Questions were many – Who is he? Is he Edo or Yoruba? What is this about him singing and rain tumbling down? Does he have some magical powers? He had everything needed to catapult him into international stardom. Bob Marley had left his shoes and there was no-one to fill it. There was the talk about Alpha Blondy of Ivory Coast and if he might be the one. Until Majek Fashek came on the scene.

There was no way Majek could stay with Tabansi. He had outgrown the company it would seem. He made the move to Sony music, a controversial one. Sony Music, affiliated to the Sony Music in US was owned by the Okunowos, managed by Chief (Mrs) Keji Okunowo.The company had an intimidating repertoire at the time – Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, etc. and locally – Shina Peters, Funmi Aragbaiye, Adewale Ayuba. Then under some arrangement with Rothmans, Onyeka Onwenu and Mike Okri were also in. Laolu Akins was  Producer. This was the company which Majek Fashek was a part of.

But I doubt that much came out of that relationship. I think, only one album was eventually released here – So Long, Too Long before Majek left for US. I think songs from that album were either re-arranged or formed a part of the ‘Spirit of Love’ album released in the US, upon signing with Interscope Records. I remember seeing that beautiful black poster at Sony on one of my visits there.

Mysteriously, just as hope was beginning to rise – rave reviews coming in – opening for Tracy Chapman, his song used as soundtrack in the film – Poetic Justice(?), appearance on TV Show, so did the clouds begin to gather. A rain of negative reports began to come. No-one really knew for sure what was going on. The journey through nowhere and everywhere had begun for Majek. A star so bright had begun to dim.

Efforts at recovery kept being made. Charles Novia, at a point. That led to the release of the album – Little Patience. I think in 2005. Nothing for a long time after that. It was an unending battle to keep his feet on the ground. He had made a detour at the most critical point of the journey. There was not going to be a redemption, it seems. In spite of him having done of the best versions of the “Redemption song”, there was no redemption song for Majek.

The legends of that era are either gone or now off the scene. Surely, the end of an era. The Rainmaker is gone. He goes home with the rain. He leaves us with his Pangolo with which we can call up the rain. He left us music to sing to the rain. So long.

Bimbo Olorunfemi is a Public Policy Analyst.