Onyeka Onwenu is a Nigerian singer/songwriter, actress, human right activist, social activist, journalist, politician, and former X Factor series judge.
She has been dubbed the “Elegant Stallion” by the Nigerian press, she is a former chairperson of the Imo State Council for Arts and Culture.
In 2013 she was appointed the Executive Director/Chief Executive Officer of the National Centre for Women Development.
ONYEKA ONWENU: BACKGROUND & ARTISTRY
Onyeka Onwenu hails from Arondizuogu, a small town in Ideato North, Imo State, and was raised in Port Harcourt.
She is the youngest daughter of Nigerian educationist and politician D. K. Onwenu, who died when she was four years old in an autocrash.
Onyeka Onwenu has a BA in International Relations and Communication from Wellesley College, Massachusetts, and an MA in Media Studies from The New School for Social Research, New York. She worked for the United Nations as a tour guide before returning to Nigeria in 1980 to complete her mandatory one-year national service with the NTA.
As an employee of the NTA, Onwenu made an impact as a newsreader and reporter. In 1984, she wrote and presented the internationally acclaimed BBC/NTA documentary Nigeria, A Squandering of Riches which became the definitive film about corruption in Nigeria as well as the intractable Niger Delta agitation for resource control and campaign against environmental degradation in the oil rich region of Nigeria.
A former member on the board of the NTA, she has also worked as a TV presenter, hosting the shows Contact (1988) and Who’s On? (1993) both on NTA Network.
Originally a secular artist, Onyeka Onwenu made the transition to gospel music in the 90s, and most of her songs are self-penned. She continues to write and sing about issues such as health (HIV/AIDS), peace and mutual coexistence, respect for women rights, and the plight of children.
She began her music career in 1981 while still working with the NTA, releasing the album For the Love of You, a pop album which featured an orchestral cover of Johnny Nash’s “Hold Me Tight”, and her second album Endless Life was produced by Sonny Okosun. Both records were released on the EMI label.
Onwenu’s first album with Polygram, In The Morning Light, was released in 1984. Recorded in London, it featured the track “Masterplan” written by close friend Tyna Onwudiwe who had previously contributed to Onwenu’s BBC documentary and subsequently sang back-up vocals on the album.
After her fourth release, 1986’s One Love which contained an updated version of the song “(In the) Morning Light, Onwenu collaborated with veteran jùjú artist Sunny Ade on the track “Madawolohun (Let Them Say)” which appeared in 1988’s Dancing In The Sun.
This was the first of three songs the pair worked on together; the other two – “Choices” and “Wait For Me” – centred on family planning, and were endorsed by the Planned Parenthood Federation of Nigeria who used “Choices” in their PSA.
Onyeka Onwenu’s final release on Polygram was dedicated to Winnie Mandela, the subject of a song of the same name which Onwenu performed live when Nelson Mandela and his wife visited Nigeria in 1990 following his release from prison.
Onwenu diverted to Benson and Hedges Music in 1992 and released the self-titled Onyeka!, her only album with the label, after which she made the transition to Christian/gospel music. Her latest collection titled, “Inspiration for Change,” focused on the need for an attitudinal change in Nigeria.
She is in partnership with Paris-based La Cave Musik, headed by a Nigerian cultural entrepreneur, Onyeka Nwelue and a UK-based Jungle Entertainment Ventures, headed by musicologist David Evans-Uhegbu.
La Cave Musik is set to release her collection titled “Rebirth of a Legend“. In recognition of her contribution to music and arts in Nigeria, she has been celebrated by professionals like Mahmood Ali-Balogun, Laolu Akins, Charles O’Tudor, and former PMAN president Tony Okoroji among others in the arts industry in Nigeria.
In 2013, Onwenu served as one of the three judges on X Factor Nigeria.
ONYEKA ONWENU: ACTIVISM
In 2000, Onwenu protested against her former employer NTA over their refusal to pay royalties on her songs (NTA 2 Channel 5 had used “Iyogogo“, a track from the Onyeka! album, in station idents without asking her permission), and after then-director general Ben Murray–Bruce blacklisted her from transmission, she embarked on a hunger strike outside the station’s premises.
When questioned, Onwenu stated: “We find that the entertainment industry is suffering. Many artists have no pension, they’re dying of hunger. These are people who are renowned, people who have made great contributions to the growth of the industry in Nigeria and we feel that this has got to come to an end.”
Onwenu’s activism attracted widespread support from various artists, including Charly Boy who lambasted Nigeria’s reluctance to pay royalties when songs are broadcast on television and radio. NTA resolved to settle the issue amicably, but denied barring Onwenu from appearing on their channels. The protest was called off after six days when Onwenu and NTA came to an arrangement regarding royalties.
ONYEKA ONWENU: ON-SCREEN APPEARANCES
Onyeka Onwenu’s first movie role was as Joke, a childless woman who adopts an abandoned baby in Zik Zulu Okafor’s Nightmare. She has since featured in numerous Nollywood movies, and in 2006 she won the African Movie Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance in the movie “Widow’s Cot”.
She was also nominated that same year for African Movie Academy Award for “Best Actress in a Leading Role” in the movie “Rising Moon” In 2014.
Her most recent movie appearance was in the Nollywood film Lion Heart, released in 2018.
By Oluwamayowa Akinyemi
Oluwamayowa Akinyemi is a digital and web content developer with experience in web content development and management as well as research and writing. He is an avid reader of random subject matters and a sucker for movies and video games. He is also passionate about youth empowerment and is a global affairs analyst and enthusiast.