Tony Cummings explores the turbulent life and powerful music of reggae musician and political activist BEN OKAFOR.
Ben Okafor is the kind of counter-culture renaissance man that denies lazy pigeonholing. Call him a reggae musician, an actor or a political activist and you just won't catch the whole creative sweep of this passionate, articulate communicator and musician. It was a recent exposure of Ben's music, without the Nigerian-born musician being present, when I saw a production by the Riding Lights Theatre Group of the play African Snow, which kick-started me to seek an interview with Ben. That play, a riveting depiction of the lives of John Newton and Olaudah Equiano and their lifelong fight to see the slave trade outlawed in Britain was hugely enhanced by Ben's haunting, emotive music. Understandably, my first question to Ben was about his contribution to the play now touring the UK. "Although the couple of months I spent on creating the music were pressurised and tight it was also a time of great exhilaration because somehow I was able to go back and plug into the music of drums and voice which were my first conscious connection with traditional Ibo music. This was around when I turned 6 years of age before I became influenced by Western harmonies and melodies and arrangements. Also, the script and artistic direction of the play gave me artistic freedom and inspiration to do this."
So can we hope for a Music From African Snow CD sometime in the future? "Yes," responded Ben, "I am happy to say that we are working towards releasing the show's music as a full CD album."
The intent and the achievement of the 1807 Abolition Of The Slave Trade Act is something that is very close to Ben's heart. He is about to embark on a tour of universities and colleges called The Spirit Of The Act Tour. Ben spoke about the initiative. "The Spirit Of The Act project is really an opportunity to look at the fight to abolish the transatlantic slave trade. It's about those who committed their efforts to a relentless struggle against something, which for their time was what oil and the arms trade is for us today. It's about what they dreamed of and envisioned for human beings and how they saw the need to engage with the campaign for abolition. We will also look at the various faces and names of slavery today and ask ourselves exactly how far we've actually come. Some statistics claim that at the time of abolition there were four million slaves and right now we have over 20 million people in some form of slavery. So it would be very interesting to imagine what Olaudah Equiano, William Wilberforce, John Newton, Thomas Clarkson, etc would make of our world given the chance to comment on the subject. In terms of delivery, each venue will get two or three days from us. We'll work with human rights groups, chaplaincies and unions in discussion and workshop settings to create artistic material with participants to be included in a concert on the final night and then move on to the next venue to do it all over again. We think that this should continue for as long as there are communities interested in working with us and making bookings."
In July this year the play Children Of Biafra, based on Ben's own
experiences as a boy soldier in the brutal Nigeria-Biafra war of
1967-70. Explained Ben, "Child Of Biafra is the product of
collaboration between my good friend and brother Justin Butcher and
me. Justin is a playwright and director whose works include Madness Of
George Dubya and Scaramouche Jones. It was first heard on BBC Radio 4
in the summer of 2005 when it won play of the week, etc. Since then,
Justin and I have created a stage version of the story to premiere at
the Contact Theatre in Manchester in the 40th anniversary year of the
birth of Biafra. Principally, it is the story of the Nigeria/Biafra
war as seen by a 13 year old Biafran boy who was also a child soldier
as the conflict raged in his home country. This is a true story. The
boy is now in his early 50s and recounts this story with clear
references to the complicity of the developed world in the genocide
against a fledgling nation."
Ben was one of eight children who grew up in the eastern part of Nigeria. His father was a senior policeman, but it was his mother's love of acting that gave him a taste for performing. Young Ben appeared in his mother's production of Sleeping Beauty when he was just 10 years old. Ben comes from the Iboe tribe in Nigeria. When he was barely in his teens his country erupted in civil war. He told Colin Blakely in the Church of England Newspaper, "When the eastern part of Nigeria seceded from the rest of the country, it called itself Biafra. But Nigeria said you can't do that. So a bloody war broke out. There were a lot of natural resources, including oil, in the east. I was a first year student at secondary school, a boarder. But we were suddenly sent home: there were fears that the Nigerian Air Force would bomb schools."
Ben recalls those days clearly for in an instant his childhood was stolen away. "That was when I realised that armies were not just about uniforms and marching, it was a very dangerous time. Our town fell, then I really realised that the danger was very close. All these aeroplanes were flying around, people's limbs were flying all over the place." His entire family packed themselves into a car and set off, not knowing where they were driving to. "There was no warning from the Biafran government, there was panic everywhere. What happened was that everyone ran. Imagine a city twice the size of Birmingham trying to evacuate. My father was away and we drove to his mother's village. I didn't know anything about that place. It was while we were living there that I felt the need to do something. There were all these boys my age, some even younger, who were walking around in army uniforms. They had even earned their ranks, boys as young as 12. I tried to enlist, and when people tell me you can't do something, that's what I try to do."
Young Ben felt left out. Driven by a desire to participate he sought out ways to help. "Seeing my family run the way we did was something very difficult and very traumatic. To see my parents afraid seemed wrong, it felt like a crime was being committed against them. So I went and enlisted. My parents didn't know anything about this. The place where the camp was situated was a little village. I joined a Boy's Company, it was an intelligence operation: we weren't expected to go into battle carrying a gun. We were expected to go into the battle, pretend to be a refugee, listen to their plans, escape and take the information back."
So for a whole week Ben went to the training in the mornings and went home in the evenings. His parents knew nothing about it. But then he had to come clean. "On the day that we were told we were going to be shipped out, I told them and the shock was just weird. My father just sat there and said nothing. When I finished and got ready to go, the elders of the family came to my house, we sat outside, the moon was high. I was standing up and they were all addressing me. Eventually my father said, 'Let him go, his mind's made up.' He gave me £5 and said if I changed my mind, to come straight back. My mother went nuts: 'How can you say that? You are sending him to his death.' I had never seen my mother like this. She was inconsolable. I had never seen her like that, and I have never seen her like that since. She begged me not to go, and to see a mother beg her son is just heart-breaking. But I tried to ignore it and said I need to go. I sat there for about 90 minutes as she poured her heart out and begged me to stay. That made me late for the truck that was to collect me. When I got to the pick up point they had gone. A shopkeeper told me that they said they would be back the next morning. Later that day I found out that all the people on that truck had been captured, because a Biafran member of the government had crossed over and told them about these boys. Some of the boys were maimed, their eyes dug out, sent back. After that happened, the Biafran government disbanded the Boy's Company." After that Ben spent the rest of the war living and working in refugee camps.
In the early '70s Ben came to Christian faith. He told America's Cornerstone magazine it wasn't without a struggle. "My brother had a Christian rock band and I hated them because I thought, like a lot of Nigerians, 'We're ALL Christians, for heaven's sake. Why do you have to have a band? It's a con, a marketing gimmick!' But they were invited to play this large crusade in our hometown of Onitsha and they needed a bass player for a couple of nights. So I said I would do it on one condition - 'I don't want anybody preaching at me!' My brother just laughed at me and promised. On the second night of the crusade the evangelist preached from John 3:16. That old standby. Well, my concept of love had undergone a lot of changes since I was young. It had grown into this selfish thing. Love was what I could get from people, not what I could give. Of course I had heard John 3:16 many times. But this evangelist was saying that because God loves us he doesn't take, he gives, and that he demonstrates it all the time. I began to hear God telling me that he died for ME.
"Eventually I became a part of my brother's church, but even then I had huge problems with the way many of those church leaders treated me. They had difficulty seeing that underneath my big flared pants and deck shoes and tight shirts I was really a Christian. I still remember this big medallion I wore of a black man's face that really freaked them out. But that was one of the big problems! Everything I was offered to typify heaven or holiness was pure white. God had a white beard, Jesus had blonde hair and blue eyes. I didn't know where I fit into all that. One time I actually had someone tell me that I was part of Noah's cursed children and that's why I was black and poor and, I guess by implication, stupid. You can imagine how wonderfully affirming that experience was! In any event, I finally went to my brother and talked to him about it. I decided to use the example of the Palestinians and Israel. I said Israel was God's chosen people and they should just kick all the Palestinians out. He was horrified. He said, 'Ben, that's not true. God has no favourite children; we are all his children.' I said, 'Then look at our own country. Look at South Africa. You and I have always been told that this is the created order and we are on the bottom end of it waiting for the crumbs to fall off the table so we can eat. What kind of nonsense is that?' It reminds me of this joke I heard a Nigerian comedian tell once. This black man dreamt that he died and went to heaven. And when he told his friend about it, his friend said, 'What was it like?' And the man said, 'It was great, man! Just amazing. I can't even describe it!' And his friend pulled him aside and whispered to him excitedly, 'Did you see any black people there?' And the man said, 'Well, you have to understand, I didn't go to the kitchen.'"
Ben continued, "It's not unusual in Nigeria to see churches that have obviously had millions of dollars spent on them right next to shacks. One fairly common situation is to have priests who live in massive mansions and have access to several expensive cars, and yet they have all these people in their congregations who can't pay their rent, who don't know where their next meal is coming from. These people who are supposed to be serving the poor live like King Solomon because the Church has taught them that this will teach the congregation to respect them. But these poor congregants can't even feed their kids. I got so fed up I left the church for about a year and fell back into my old ways, touring with bands and abusing drugs. But my brother kept on me and got me to re-read my New Testament. . .four times! I started to see that the New Testament taught the exact opposite of what we had been taught. I will never forget him saying, 'Then not only do you have to change your thinking but you have to do something about it.' Nothing could have been more revolutionary to me. It was also about this time that I was introduced to the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers. Until then I had been listening to a lot of American rock and blues musicians, but here was music that talked about justice and the people. I also started realising from my Bible studies that the word in the King James version which is often translated as righteousness could be appropriately translated as justice. After I made those connections my view of music changed forever."
Ben went to England to attend college. What he found there disturbed him. "The only place I could find black people was working as janitors in hospitals or driving buses. On the day Rhodesia became Zimbabwe I got into trouble because I argued with the college chaplain. He had stood up in chapel, and mind you there were one or two other Africans there besides myself, and he said, 'Let's pray that God sends judgment to Rhodesia for kicking out the people that built up the country.' We went up to talk to him and walked away realising he was a racist. He didn't see anything wrong with the horrible oppressive system that was being reversed. The idea of these people governing their own country was incomprehensible to him."
Settling in the Midlands Ben formed a band and effectively became one of the very first exponents of Christian reggae music. While in its Jamaican homeland the lazy, sinuous rhythms of reggae were being denounced by most churches as worldly and inseparably linked to the Rastafarian cult, in Britain Ben Okafor made his first appearance at the Greenbelt Festival in the early '80s playing a credible version of Marley-inspired reggae. Some years later he told Cross Rhythms magazine, "I was heavily influenced by reggae artists and I would say that my first love is always reggae music. I was also influenced by a lot of African musicians but when I write songs they always tend to come out as reggae songs. There isn't any real difference in the roots of African music and reggae music - it's all very basic rhythm-determined types of music. If you broke reggae music down you'd end up with African folk rock. I grew up with these two styles in front of me and it was inevitable that I would embrace both."
It wasn't until 1985 that a record company was adventurous enough to record Ben's powerful music. Then the Leeds-based Christian independent Ears & Eyes released 'Children Of The World', produced by Bob Lamb (best known for his work with the white boy reggae popularisers UB40). As it turned out Ben's album debut was years ahead of its time and he had to wait until 1990 for his next release. In that year Kingsway Music's contemporary music subsidiary Edge Records released 'Nkiru' which had Folk Roots magazine enthusing, "Brummie Ben Okafor reveals his Nigerian roots with a splash of reggae, jive and Nigerian folk."
Ben toured extensively, taking in dates as diverse as the Cambridge Folk Festival, Christian fests like Holland's Flevo, USA's Cornerstone and his beloved Greenbelt who whole heartedly embraced Ben's earthy music and socio-political militancy. In 1992 Plankton Records released Ben's best album so far, 'Generation' (which was released in the USA by REX Music in a somewhat different version). Also in 1992 Ben recorded the album 'Blood Brothers' with another Greenbelt favourite, Garth Hewitt. And in December of that year Ben spent a month living and working in Soweto appearing on national South African TV and radio.
In 1993 Ben embarked on a new venture when he joined the Riding Lights Theatre Company to act in Walkout!, a dramatic retelling of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. As the years moved on Ben toured tirelessly, occasionally interspersed with EPs 'Born To Be Free' and 'See Me Now' being released in 1994 and 1998. In 2000 Ben was featured heavily in the mass media for his startling role of Christ in the controversial passion play King Of Fools. In 2001 Plankton released Ben's superlative album 'Coffee With Lazarus' and the following year 'Shadows' appeared on Ben's own Roadsweeper Records. In 2003 his powerful anti-war single "Thing With War" was released. Ben told the Church Of England Newspaper, "The idea behind the song is to say that the human race is still using a primitive means to solve problems."
Having built his own home studio, the first product of the facility was Ben's 'Acoustic Close-Up' album released last year. I asked Ben whether the stripped-down organic approach to this album was a pointer to Ben's future releases. He responded, "Not really. This album is just a part of the jigsaw that is my work. 90 per cent of material on 'Acoustic Close-Up' are songs that have been on my live solo song lists for ever but never found their way onto an album. I always felt a need to record them especially when, at the end of a gig, people ask how or where they can be purchased. I also wanted to document them somehow because they show a different side to who I am professionally and what I do as that person. What my producer, Mark Stevens, and I wanted to do with this record was something as close to just playing the songs as possible. As they'd be done live."
Ben went on to speak about his next album which has the working title of 'Diverted Traffic'. "Harvey Jones produced 'Coffee With Lazarus' and I embrace every opportunity to work with him. This album, though, is more in line with my previous ones - not at all like 'Acoustic Close-Up'. As usual, I try to be exploratory with reggae music and try to bring every musical influence I have had into everything. It's a great sounding album with more of a live feel than 'Coffee With Lazarus' which is working very well for us."
In a church age where many evangelical/charismatic Christians seem content to keep their faith as primarily a matter of personal pietism it is refreshing and challenging to listen to the words and music of this Nigerian prophet musician. I concluded our interview by asking Ben whether he was comfortable with the phrase "political activist". He replied, "I have always believed that God likes people and seeks ways of bettering our lives. The problem I find is that some of us feel that we know exactly what God will do and probably how these actions must be taken. Whereas, and with my limited understanding, who you like, you support and try to reinstate at every given opportunity. If focusing upon this with my music is being a political activist then so be it! I also know people who would say that they don't have a faith and some with a different spiritual upbringing to me with the same concerns and commitment - people who constantly display compassion and godliness in relating to those around them. Having said all of that, because I know that God likes people - otherwise Jesus' sacrifice would be weird - I try to tell their stories through my work."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.