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Muyiwa: 'I’m proud to assert my African roots'

SPREADING THE GOSPEL: Muyiwa

TO THOUSANDS of Londoners, he's the owner of the warm, ‘gentle giant’ voice, holding the tunes together on Premier Radio's late night gospel show.

To an increasing number of people within and beyond these shores, he's the award-winning gospel singer with an exceptionally long name, who sold out both Hammersmith Apollo and the Indigo2 – the first gospel act to ever do so.

One of the best known names in UK gospel, Muyiwa – full name Oluwaleomueleyiwa Adebayo Olarewaju Ishola Omu Erin Ti Jogan Ola – has announced his first all-African album.

Èko Ilé is a return to his roots. Translating to ‘Lagos my home’ – which harks to a Nigerian folk song of the same name – the album sees the British-Nigerian star channel a myriad of African music styles via gospel.

Predominantly recorded in Ghana, Èko Ilé frequently features his native Nigerian tongue of Yoruba and is peppered with Swahili, Zulu and Pidgin English.

“It’s written in my perspective as a Nigerian,” Muyiwa says of his seventh album. “It has lots of references to my social experience, my economic experience and how Nigeria is represented in the media.

“For someone who is listening, it might sound like a political statement, but actually it’s not. I’m just describing my life. So it’s quite different to the other albums.”

With six successful albums under his belt, what made him go for an all-African record?

“For me, it’s a statement of who I am. People are used to my full Nigerian name, seeing me in my African scarves, and I always take every opportunity to showcase and assert my African-ness. So that was one of the reasons I wanted to do this. It’s also the place where I’m at in my own journey.”

A former recipient of the BBC's Young Musician Award, Muyiwa's ode to Africa sidesteps the tried and tested formula of ‘all-big, all-bright’ gospel and instead takes the listener on an emotional journey of highs and lows that are rooted in Christian faith, but relatable to all audiences.

“It’s not about agreeing with my religion,” he says. “If you just lost your job, there’s hope; if your child has lost his way, there’s hope. That’s what I sell.”

Muyiwa’s songs and spoken word stories recount his search for freedom, identity and hints at his own loss. Nigeria – and Africa as a whole – is often painted as a land of civil wars, corruption and crime. And for Muyiwa, Nigeria is the country in which his father was tragically assassinated and where his mother passed away six years later.

Despite this, his faith overrides and his music features themes of hope, gratitude, solidarity and colourful celebration.

Explaining his personal journey, he says: “There was a time when I hated being African. When I was at school, I was teased and bullied. They used to call me all sorts of names, so at that point, I wanted to be a West Indian.

“And then I eventually came to my senses as I grew older. So now I’m in a place in my life where I’m like: ‘You know what? It’s not a bad thing to be Nigerian.’ So I want to big up my chest and put people straight.”

Still, it wasn’t easy for the singer to come to that conclusion. There was a point in his teens when he seriously considered changing his name so the bullies would stop their taunts.

“The turning point for me I have to say, was after I’d finished school, and I ideally wanted to be someone else. But then something made me remember my mother, and my first thought was that if she ever found out that I was trying to change my name, she’d kill me – and I was afraid,” Muyiwa laughs.

“I also remembered some of the words she told me – which I capture in one of my songs, Mama Africa. She said: ‘You are a Prince, never forget’.”

The performer has come a long way from the Forest Gate council flat in east London, where he taught himself the piano. Growing up in the UK, while his parents remained in Nigeria, he was “shoved from pillar to post” as he was forced to stay with one family member after another.

After studying music at Westminster University, he landed himself positions at Channel 4 and subsequently Sony's International Promotions, where he ultimately fell into voiceover work.

In 2003, he began his recording career with the album Restoration, which gave him a focus for the “unspeakable grief and pain” of his parents’ passing, and established him as a force to be reckoned with in the UK gospel scene.

He has since sold upwards of 200,000 albums, including his last studio album with his Afro-gospel band Riversongz, Declaring His Name All Around the World.

Additionally, in 2010, Muyiwa became the first UK Gospel act to sell out the Indigo O2 London, while in 2012 he performed to a sold out crowd at London’s Hammersmith Apollo.

He boasts a number of successes, and through it all, he remains proud that he stays true to his roots.

“I’m known on the radio for coming strong with my African-ness,” he says.

“After hearing my mother’s words all those years ago, it’s like I woke up and came to my senses and said ‘stop trying to be somebody else – be you, be authentic’. And that’s been my journey ever since.”

Èko Ilé is out now

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