Tiwa Savage? 5 of the greatest female singers in Nigerian music history

From Onyeka Onwenu to Salawa Abeni, Nigerian women have contributed immensely in the export of our music to the world. We present 5 of these women who over the years have flown our colours and sound from Nigeria to the world.

Onyeka Onwenu

The elegant stallion. Onyeka Onwenu (born 17 May 1952) is a Nigerian singer, songwriter, actress, journalist, politician, and X Factor series judge. She is the youngest daughter of the Nigerian educationist and politician D.K Onwenu. Dubbed the “Elegant Stallion” by the Nigerian press, she is a former chairperson of the Imo State Council for Arts and Culture, and currently the Executive Director/chief executive officer of the National Center for Women Development.

Onwenu began her music career in 1981 while still working with the NTA, releasing the album “For the Love of You”. Originally a secular artist, she now sings mainly gospel music, and 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. Her latest effort titled, “Inspiration for Change,” focuses on the need for an attitudinal turn around in Nigeria.

She is in partnership with Paris-based La Cave Musik, headed by Nigerian cultural entrepreneur Onyeka Nwelue, and 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 November.

In 2013, she was named as one of the three judges on the Nigerian version of The X Factor. 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.

Christy Essien-Igbokwe

Christy Uduak Essien-Igbokwe MFR (11 November 1960 – 30 June 2011) was a Nigerian musician and actress. Sometimes called Nigeria’s Lady of Songs, she was known for her song “Seun Rere”. She was the first female president of the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria (PMAN). She was also the chairwoman and managing director of Soul Train entertainment limited.

Essien-Igbokwe sang her songs in Igbo, Ibibio, Efik, Hausa and Yoruba, and as well as in English. Essien’s fluency in Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, English and her native Ibibio earned her an appeal which cut across tribal lines. Always at the forefront of issues affecting women and children, she played remarkable roles in some of the early Nollywood flicks such as ‘Flesh and Blood’ and ‘Scars of Womanhood’, both of which addressed issues of child abuse and female circumcision.

With a desire to make life better for Nigerian artists, she is credited as having initiated the first meeting that brought about the formation of the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria, PMAN in 1981.

A year later, PMAN was founded and King Sunny Adé became the president with the late Sonny Okosun serving as his vice, while she was the National Treasurer. Between 1996 and 1999, she was the first female PMAN president.

The Akwa Ibom born performer also had the honour of composing and performing what would later be known as her state’s informal anthem, “Akwa Ibom Mmi (My Akwa Ibom)” in 1987, its year of creation. The singer, who featured in many national and international shows, operated a shop in Etinan, her native town in Akwa Ibom State where she sold printing machines.

Evi Edna Ogholi

Evi Edna Ogholi (born 6 July 1965) is a Nigerian female reggae musician popular for her song ‘Happy birthday.’ Evi released her debut album “My Kind of Music” in 1987. Immediately she was done with high school in 1985, she relocated to Lagos where she hoped to have a big break in music. She entered Lagos with a demo tape of her songs.

It was while in Lagos, popularly called “Ilu Aromisalegbelegbe” that she met Emma Oghosi who was at that time a divorcee musician in the pop genre. They later got married but was initially her manager and producer. Her debut album was dropped in 1987 and it was titled ‘My Kind of Music’.

This boldly signified her place as Nigeria’s first real female reggae artiste. Thereafter, she released three more albums: “On The Move,” “Happy Birthday” and “Step by Step.” These three albums were very popular, with each going platinum, and she even toured the West African region dazzling audiences with her performances in 1989. She was just about 23 then.

‘Happy Birthday’ was released under Polygram Records (later Premier Records) in 1988. Her songs were socially relevant and were of great benefit to the community at large. For example, in the late 1980s and early 1990s when she reigned on the Nigerian music scene, one of her songs was “Look before you cross” which lectured youngsters on basic road safety principles.

A master guitarist, her fans nicknamed her ‘Njoku Reggae’ as she made ‘njoku, njoku’ sounds as she struck the chords, and she sang mainly in vernacular and her native Isoko language. In addition to the ones mentioned above, these are some of her other classics:

Ririovara’ (Wipe Your Tears), ‘Oghene Me’ (My God), ‘Message to the Youths’, ‘Jealousy’, -‘Okioghne’ (God’s Time), ‘One Kilometre’

‘Happy Birthday’ is without a doubt, the most popular of her songs, and was played all over Nigeria (it actually became more of a national anthem) and in other West African nations during birthday parties. Till today, people still rock her songs at birthday celebrations. She got sponsorship deals from various companies like Pepsi and toured the length and breadth of Nigeria performing to millions.

Salawa Abeni

Salawa Abeni Alidu (born May 5, 1961) is a popular Nigerian singer. An Ijebu Yoruba from Ijebu Waterside, in Ogun State, she began her professional career in waka music when she released her debut album, “Late General Murtala Ramat Mohammed,” in 1976, on Leader Records. It became the first recording by a female artist to sell over a million copies in Nigeria.

Abeni continued recording for Leader until 1986, when she ended a relationship with the record label’s owner, Lateef Adepoju. She married Kollington Ayinla and joined his record label instead, staying with him until 1994.

She was crowned “Queen of Waka Music” by the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi in 1992. Waka is an Islamic-influenced, traditional Yoruba music style, popularized by Batile Alake; it is a much older genre than Jùjú and Fuji.

Oby Onyioha

Oby Onyioha is a Nigerian singer and songwriter best known for her smash debut single, I Want To Feel Your Love which was widely successful in the 1980s in Nigeria. Years after the release of her debut and long hiatus, Onyioha announced her return to the music scene and plans for the release of her 3rd album, ‘Break-It’ being the second.

Onyioha first burst onto the Nigerian music scene with the album ‘I Want To Feel Your Love’ which was named after her hugely successful single of the same title. The single, ‘I Want To Feel Your Love’ is regarded as one of the greatest songs of her era in Nigeria.

The album was a huge success and took the Nigerian music scene by storm in the 1980s and 90s, all this at a time when disco break-dance music was considered the exclusive domain of western artists. Onyioha played a big part in helping to break the perception that music was a vocation for academically challenged women. Oby Onyioha’s ‘I Want To Feel Your Love’ album was so successful that at an auction in Europe, the vinyl record sold for $700.

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