Nigerian-born, London-based MUYIWA spoke to George Luke.
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 beyond these shores, he's the hottest new worship leader to emerge from the UK. To all, he's known as Muyiwa - though he'd be the first to tell you that Muyiwa is just the "user-friendly" version of a very lengthy Nigerian name!
"They were gunning for me when I was born!" laughs Muyiwa Olarewaju (a slightly longer - but by no means complete - version of his name), leader of the worship team known as Riversongz. "But the interesting thing is - as my mum used to tell me, and my siblings reminded me many a time - that my mother wanted a son, whilst my dad was satisfied with the two girls he had. So my mum began to pray for one.and she stopped taking her contraceptives and didn't tell my dad! One day while she was asleep, she saw a hand, handing her a boy. She went to grab it, and a voice said 'No - we're taking him back. If we give him to you, you have to give him back.' Of course she says 'yes' because she wants him; she takes him - and then I come along.
"In the Nigerian tradition, eight days after a child is born, the child is named. We have a naming ceremony, where the child is introduced to all the different tastes of the world. Little bits of sugar, salt, and pepper are put on the child's tongue, and then they name the child. In our culture, the name not only tells you what the child is now, but also what it's going to be in the future. They'd already had a number of names they were going to give me; usually, you're named after your parents or grandparents. Five minutes before the start of the ceremony, my mother had another experience where she heard a loud ringing noise, and the same voice she'd heard before said, 'You can't name the child those names you've got listed down; his name has to be this.' And so I was named Oluwalomolemuyiwa, which means 'God has brought this one'; Adebayo, which means 'I've come home to find great joy; and my other middle names, which mean 'desirable one; son of an elephant who inherits great wealth'. And of course, my surname Olarewaju, which means 'Progressive God, progressive honour, progressive wealth,' and so on. "It's great to have a meaningful name. It's great to have culture and a rooting that's expressed in a name."
Muyiwa's latest album, 'Declaring His Power', is the first recording on Kingsway Music's new One Voice imprint - the label that was spawned from the "One Voice, One Heart" charity single. 'Declaring His Power' was recorded live at Liverpool's Lighthouse Centre - just up the road from Anfield football stadium - with a six-piece band, nine backing singers and a 40-voice choir.
"The musicians are amongst the best in the country," Muyiwa enthuses. "One of them was on tour with Kylie Minogue. I wanted him on the album, because he'd done the first one, too. But on my budget, I couldn't afford to take him off Kylie's tour.and then we found out that Kylie's tour couldn't continue because she was ill. So I called him up in Australia and he said he would be happy to do it. We've also got people like Andrew Smith, who's played for everyone from Lauryn Hill to Blue. They're all born-again Christians - and on the album you get not only a sense of great music and singing, but also a sense of what the Psalmist meant when he said 'How good and pleasant it is for brothers to come together in unity.' There was a unity in intention to do something - something simple, but something that gave glory to God.
"There was such a good mix of people at the venue on the night. It was amazing! You had white folks there; Indians, Chinese, Pakistanis - the black people were probably less than 20 per cent! And then you had old ladies - one even came with her Zimmer frame! The response from them was amazing! We didn't have any preaching or an altar call, but two Hindus decided they wanted to become Christians after that worship experience. And that for me was so amazing, considering that all we were trying to do was record an album!"
A former recipient of the BBC's Young Musician Award, Muyiwa's career and life have been eventful, to say the least. He spent his early childhood in Nigeria, in a home that was full of music. "I can't remember my parents buying pop records, even though we were aware of Boney M and the like," he recalls. "My sisters and I would sing about different things - mainly my sisters would sing, because they were grown-ups and they were cool. I was the young one trying to be cool, so they'd sing and I'd join them. They made up songs about everything - the weather, food, all those things.
"My father came from a Muslim family, but became a Christian after he met my mother. Of course, that was a challenge for his family, because part of their religion was that you simply did not do that. If you did, you were considered a dead son.and he was the only boy in the family. He started going to church - an Anglican church, which was where I came to faith, and also came to know about church music."
Moving to the UK as a youngster helped steep Muyiwa in music and pop culture even more. "Being thrown into the culture of pop music proper had a huge effect on my life," he says. "Kate Bush, Bob Marley.these were people I was aware of before, but there's a link between your geography and your experience of a culture that comes from somewhere, as opposed to you experiencing it remotely. Being in the UK was such a great experience for me; it was great, but also traumatic at the same time. Great in that I was exposed to a great deal of things, but traumatic in that I wasn't ready for it, and there was no parental control, because I was left with an uncle who then kicked me out. I was about nine or ten, and I ended up with another uncle.
"I remember distinctly one day - I must have been 12 or 13. I'd been thrown out of this aunt's house - and I wasn't a bad kid, mind you. This aunt and uncle told me, 'Listen - you have to leave.' My being in their house was a drain on their resources, and they had their own children. I remember leaving with all my belongings in a plastic bag.and as I walked 10 yards away from the house, the bag burst and all my belongings spilled onto the floor and I wept. I'd come from a middle-class family; I'd attended private schools, so this was really challenging. But a great comfort through all that was the music that I had from youth - or rather, from my baby stage until that point. Music was an integral part of me. Singing was my therapy [at this point, he informs me that as we're talking, he's singing in his head!], and it was such a great anaesthetic for the pain."
In college, Muyiwa did a Business Studies course before studying music. He had just wanted to study music - "but just like any other African kid, you want to do something artistic but you're told you have to do something professional. Even though my mum was a radio broadcaster and a singer, she insisted that I do Business Studies. So I did it and hated it - though it's come in useful now, I have to say." After completing his studies, he worked for a while on Channel 4's Big Breakfast before being offered a job with Sony Music. But while he was about to make the transition from television to music, tragedy struck back home in Nigeria.
"My father was very close to a lot of powerful people," he explains. "He was one of these 'kingmaker' types. He'd been doing some things that were really benefiting the Church in Nigeria, and was warned by the Muslims to stop, or he'd be killed. He made it clear that he wasn't going to stop the work of the Gospel; even though he wasn't a preacher as such, he was making some significant things happen.
"And so they hired an assassin - who just happened to be a gentleman my parents had picked up off the street years before, brought into their home; took him off the breadline and got him work and everything. The people who hired him felt they needed someone on the inside. Interestingly enough, on the night he shot my father, my father had been writing me a letter. I know this because I was in Trinidad on my way to see him. I hadn't seen him in over 20 years, and I'd decided this one year that I'd had enough and I was going to Nigeria to see my dad; they'd always kept saying 'don't come just yet'. And my dad hated travelling, so there was no way we were going to see each other over here in England.
"While I was on my way to Nigeria, he was writing me a letter, expressing his feelings because we'd had some challenges: I'd said some things, asking why they'd abandoned me and all that, and he was writing to me saying 'If only you knew how much I cry for you daily, wanting my son.' Bear in mind, I was the only one of his children who hadn't seen him for so long; up until a year before, all the others had. So while he's writing this letter, he gets a call from this chap, who's outside. My dad hurriedly goes outside and gets shot, and he falls right there in his front porch and dies.
"His death caused quite a stir. I remember going to get a visa to go to Nigeria. I was in Trinidad at the time; I went to the Nigerian Embassy, and they gave me such a hard time. In the end, I picked up a newspaper that had a headline story on my dad's murder. I showed it to the Embassy staff and said, 'There you go - that's my dad and I'm going for his funeral'. They said, 'Why didn't you say?' and I said, 'That's what I've been saying for the last hour!' It was quite a traumatic time.and a similar thing happened with my mum just recently. But thank God for his grace."
On his return from his dad's funeral, Muyiwa started work in Sony's International Promotions department, though he secretly harboured desires to be a pop singer. He worked in Columbia International, looking after artists like Mariah Carey, Aerosmith, Bob Dylan, David Ryan Harris, Lauryn Hill and the Fugees. "It was a great experience," he says. "Looking back, the experience has come in handy for what I'm doing now. But whilst I was there, I felt I was just biding my time, doing something before I started recording my pop records - which I did for a while; I had a deal with Warners in Germany, and made a record that wasn't successful [laughs]. But both the experiences of working in a record company and in broadcasting have come in handy with what I'm doing now."
With his dual roles as recording artist and radio DJ, Muyiwa is in an ideal position of being able to see different sides of the fence where British gospel music is concerned. And though he's happy with a lot of what he sees, he still feels that more could be done.
"There is potential," he says. "Where there's life, there's always potential. However, you need to move from potential to kinetic! I concern myself with my circle of influence. I try to do what I do the best that I can; I try and change my world. Hopefully, the next brother will change his, according to the Scriptures, and so we can all be one chorus that sings God's glory. There's so much more that can be done - but each one of us that's involved, whether as an artist, as media people, church people, or people who buy the stuff... each one of us needs to do our best to change our world. So the person who's a punter could choose to buy a record, rather than burn a copy from a friend. For the artist, record five songs that are very good, instead of 30 half-baked ones - and then recognise that it doesn't end with recording; you'll also have to promote the record and tell people its story in a way that makes sense to them. Meanwhile, the media have to do a conscious job of supporting our brothers and sisters who may not have as much resources as, say, the Americans, but have a lot of potential. If we all concentrated on changing our world, things will get better. But the potential's certainly there."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.