See excerpts of Gospel icon Esther Igbekele’s recent chat with Sunday Spice reporter Tofarati Ige
You recently celebrated your birthday. What is going to change about you?
If anything is going to change, it will be inside me. With the age I’ve attained, I don’t think there is anything I want to change.
What are some of the greatest lessons you’ve learnt over the years?
I don’t think it is good enough for someone to leave his or her children to live with someone else. It is always a bitter experience. No one prays for his or her parents to die young. If one’s parents die at a young age, the child would have to live with a relative or friend. If you are able to raise your children whether you’re rich or poor, I think that’s better.
Where I lived when I was young was a lesson to me. But somehow, there is a clause to it but I don’t want to go beyond that. Those that are familiar with my story will know what I’m talking about.
At what point in your life did you know you wanted to become a singer?
I was born a musician; my parents and siblings are all musicians. It wasn’t something I coveted. My father was a choir master for 25 years before he became a pastor. He always took me to choir practice and I joined the choir at the age of four. People thought I was too young but the gift God gave me was beyond my age. In the Christ Apostolic Church, you cannot become a member of the senior choir before the age of 12 but I joined when I was six-year-old because I was too versatile to stay with my peers at the time.
Did other choristers support or victimise you at that young age when you joined the senior choir?
They did not support me; rather they beat me a lot. Then, we didn’t take interludes with the piano; we did it with our mouth. In those days, we only used to rent pianos when we had special programmes; it wasn’t something that was common. In the course of doing that, my voice was singled out and I was chosen as part of the people that took the interlude. The older ones were usually annoyed because they felt I was too small to take the interlude. I thought they hated me but now I know that they were threatened because of my gift.
Nigeria is a very religious country yet secular music is more popular than gospel music. Why do you think that is so?
The Bible says that ‘my people perish because of lack of knowledge’; Evangelist Ebenezer Obey also sang that people prefer darkness to light. There is always a bitter truth in gospel music and people will not patronise something that makes them sad. If a gospel song tells people to stop fornication and adultery and a secular song tells them that there is nothing wrong with exposing sensitive parts of their bodies and drunkenness, they will definitely go for the latter.
Do you think churches are doing enough to support gospel music?
There are two sides to it. There are some churches that embrace their artistes and there are some churches that believe that if they groom an artiste to become successful, the artiste would no longer have their time. As a result of this, they wouldn’t want to give any platform that can expose the artiste.
I wouldn’t totally blame the churches that act this way because some people who were given such opportunities in the past misused them. Some artistes were picked from the trash and they later turned around to bite the fingers that fed them.
On the other hand, there are also some people in Christendom who want to help you so that they can keep using you. In my own case, I give all glory to God. I have never placed my hope in any man. I have struggled on my own and if I want to give credit to anybody, it goes to my dad and a pastor I lived with, Apostle J. A. Bankole, who sponsored my education. Whenever I grant interviews, I always acknowledge him.
You have often said that it was Apostle Bankole who discovered your talent. How exactly did you meet him?
A river cannot flow without a source and after God and my parents, Apostle Bankole is the next person I give credit to. I can say that it was my gift that connected me with him. He came for an interdenominational crusade in an open space in front of our house. At a point, his interpreter went to ease herself and with the kind of background I had, I don’t like to see God’s work unattended to. I picked up the microphone and I started interpreting in English. People were actually surprised because my mum was a food seller and many looked down on us, thinking that her children would be illiterates. The man was impressed and he said he would always take me wherever he went. He asked my parents to allow me follow him and that was how I started living with him.
Your childhood ambition was to be a banker or nurse. Why didn’t you follow that path anymore?
I don’t have any interest in that again. Right now, I have plans to become a lawyer and I would be going back to school soon.
Can you recall your experience when you released your first album?
My first album was titled, Baba mi ju won lo, and it was released in 2000. It was a horrible experience because I didn’t have money and I didn’t know anyone. I was working as a back-up singer for other artistes and any money I made, I gave it to my producer until the studio fee was complete.
However, the master tape was damaged when my then house was flooded. Unless I find someone who has the tape, I cannot replicate the album again and that saddens me.
Which album gave you your breakthrough?
All my albums are special to me. It’s like asking a parent to choose a favourite child. All my albums were well accepted by the public. I have never sold up to one million copies of any of my albums but I’m a known artiste. My albums always promote themselves. However, the album, Oluwa lo ni glory, was widely accepted.
Some artistes have complained about sharp practices by marketers. What is your experience in that regard?
One cannot do music alone so you have to work with people. A lot of marketers will claim that the album is not selling well, yet you would hear the music being played everywhere. One has to closely monitor them to avoid being cheated. I have an ongoing case where someone replicated my works without informing me.
Piracy is also another aspect and it is difficult to fight them because they are richer. A lot of people in the music business who have money are not clean; they reap from where they did not sow. However, I know that there will be repercussions for them some day.
Above all, it is the grace of God that makes one successful.
Some people believe that gospel music artistes should not charge fees to minister in churches. What’s your take on that?
Jesus told his followers to go into the river and take any fish they find. Jesus could have commanded the fishes into the hands of the people but he sent them to go and work and earn their sustenance. The way we interpret the Bible is different. You have to work to make a living. Gospel music is a calling and it is also a means of livelihood. If I go about singing for free, then I would die of hunger. Charging for ministrations doesn’t mean we are selling the word of God. We have to take care of logistics and the people who work for us. For example, if you want to preach the gospel on social media, you need to buy data before you can do that.
How do you handle advances from male fans?
It is normal for one to be admired. If anybody, whether male or female, tells me that I’m beautiful, the first thing to do is to thank the person. The way you comport yourself determines the way people would approach you. I am not a saint and I have never said I want to be one but I know what I’m carrying. One has to be wise in dealing with admirers; you don’t have to abuse them. Some people would even use the Bible to woo you, so if you are not grounded in the scriptures, you may fall into their trap. However, I don’t have problems with anybody.
Some people believe that you are arrogant. What’s your reaction to that?
If everybody loves Jesus, then all human beings will be Christians. Even if you try to please everybody, some people would still call you a snob. I can boldly say that of all the gospel music artistes that are making waves, I am the closest to people. There are some artistes that you cannot even go near. But whenever I go to minister, I always oblige people who want to take pictures with me.
What advice do you have for young artistes?
They should always be original as that is the only thing that can make them stand out. If you don’t have your unique signature, you may as well be promoting other people. More importantly, do not covet anybody’s success because we all have different times (to shine).
What fond memories can you recall of your childhood?
I was the only girl in my father’s house and I am a very reserved person. As the first child of my parents, I was always concerned about the welfare of my siblings and I usually shared my things with them.
What schools did you attend?
For my elementary education, I went to Central Primary School, Orile Iganmu, Lagos State. I attended African Church Grammar School, Ifako-Ijaiye, Lagos, for my secondary education.
What are your hobbies?
Sleeping is my hobby and I hate to be disturbed when I’m doing that. I also love playing games.