Lifestyle

Timaya: Dreadlocks don’t define me

Timaya came from the creeks of Nigeria’s Niger Delta, pushing to be heard on his own terms. He’s spent 15 years successfully chasing and spreading that originality from Lagos to Kingston. How?

By Joey Akan

“What’s up bro…” Timaya drops a dumbbell in the middle of his living room and picks up another. With his left hand gripping his right shoulder, he rhythmically lifts and drops the weights, drawing deep breaths. It’s a full house today in his citrus-scented Lagos home in November. His manager, the renowned music exec, Osagie Okunpolor walks me in, introducing everyone in the room. Timaya’s prodigy, King Perry, was seated at a large table. He says he has a video shoot the next day and was considering cancelling it to go attend a clashing Timaya video shoot. “Go for your shoot o,” Timaya advises, rejecting the help. “Go and follow your story.”

Following a story is what Timaya has been doing for the past 15 years. Elements of his life’s journey strategically litter his large home. His famous building which once went viral on social media for its opulence, is designed in his image and packed full of symbolic art. A huge bull art installation sits in a central position of the room. Timaya says owning the bull wasn’t cheap, while his hands rubbed along the metal body. “That’s my spirit animal. It gives me energy. You know the bull. When they are mentioning animals, strong animals, comparing animals. They don’t compare the bull with anything,” he tells me, pointing to other subtle bull references around the house. “I’m collecting art, trying to explore that world and invest in it. It’s one of my next big ventures, and you need a different approach to that world,” he says, lifting another dumbbell. 

Timaya is wealthy. His home speaks of opulence. His mind is packed full of acquired elder statesman wisdom, which he shares with abandon. A lengthy L-shaped swimming pool runs through his backyard. It’s a luxurious reminder of his early life in the creeks of the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. Timaya’s existence has been dedicated to a steady pursuit of wealth and artistic value. Even his weed—recently delivered in fancy wrapping—looks and smells rich. “Look at this strain,” he picks up a black pack, emptying the herbs into his palm and pushing it forward for me to catch a whiff. “This is called Purple Punch,” he says. “The other one is ‘Creative Sativa.” His assistant begins to roll some for the occasion. “Because of weed, I have to buy a house in Amsterdam,” Timaya declares. While we smoke, the dumbbells saw constant action. 

In recent months, Timaya has intensified love for fitness, and for the first time in his life, he has shed and kept off a ton of body fat. His latest photo showing his progress was criticized by fans on Instagram for his near-gaunt look. “At some point, it almost got to me a little, but I’m happy doing what I am doing,” he says pointing me in the direction of a fully stocked home gym. The expansive workout area could pass for a commercial setup. He was going in.

This obstinate self-belief and reinvention has steered him to a life of fame and artistic longevity. Born Inetimi Timaya Odon in the coastal city of Port Harcourt, Timaya’s childhood featured 14 siblings. His star shone brightly through his teenage years, when he would often break house rules to attend late-night music events. “So as a child, I’ve always wanted to have my own space to dominate. Before now I could hold a microphone, hold the remote control in the mirror. I can sing and be dancing as a child. Sometimes I’d wear my father’s suit, hold microphone dey do like pastor dey pray,” he recalls, miming in his element. 

Before young Timaya could graduate from secondary school, his mother arranged for him to travel with his older brother and older sister to Lagos. After moving to the city, he gained admission into Lagos’ Ikeja Grammar School, where he eventually obtained a certificate. Tertiary education was not in the cards. In his first-ever semester in a University, Timaya dropped out, citing a chronic disinterest in scholarly pursuits. He moved to Lagos, finding his first gig as a backup vocalist for rapper Eedris Abdulkareem. After three years working for Eedris, Timaya struck out solo. He recorded collaborations with emerging acts and made his first cameo appearance in an unreleased music video by UDX, a Lagos-based rap group

Timaya did the unthinkable when his debut album, True Story, took over the country in 2005. The classic pop LP, recorded while he was rock bottom and struggling, captured his ire and frustration with the world. True Story was effective in combining conscious messaging with dance music. He met veteran producer K-Solo in Oshodi. After falling in love with the Acappella version of ‘Dem Mama,’ the K-Solo helped developed the record, effectively giving Timaya his first hit. “‘Dem Mama’ was an account of the 1999 destruction of Odi, a riverside community in Niger Delta. Soldiers were hunting down militants that alleged killed eight policemen. The village was burnt down and numerous people killed. I bravely tackled the issue years later and won instant street credibility for my boldness,” Timaya recalls.

How did he create it? “Hunger from every angle,” Timaya says, his mouth full from eating steaming catfish pepper soup served by an assistant. “Hunger from money, hunger from wanting to be heard, hunger from wanting to pass a message. Hunger of the fact that I got this shit, I want to prove a point. I was just hungry. I could have a deeper story because of the point I am now. It was really bad.”

It was the start of a successful career, culminating in 7 albums and an EP. Timaya credits his ability to adapt and reinvent his music and style to connect with the times. “Originality over Best,” he says, pointing to me to a whiteboard, where those words were scribbled by hand. “Best is what is reigning at the moment. Originality is forever,” he says with a smirk and a glint in his eye. He really loves his personal philosophy. 

Timaya’s career progression has happened in many successful phases. In his early days, he was once stylized as a militant maverick, who never backed down from a fight. His former group, ‘Dem Mama Soldiers,’ was packed with artists from the Niger Delta, who made feel-good empowering music about ‘Cutlasses’ and ‘Upgrades.’ While in conversation, a member of that group, TJ 2solo, walks in to pay his respects and hang with Timaya.

“That (militant) image was because I was from the Niger Delta and it was all truth,” he says. “I was really crazy, no lies. Radical from the street. It did and it didn’t have an effect on my brand. Every advantage has a disadvantage. You know why? At that point, I had what I was selling which was good. But image-wise, it was making people be really afraid of me. Brands couldn’t fuck with me. All ‘em corporate brands couldn’t mess with me. I had to do a lot of rebrands,” he says. 

Timaya is a long way off from that firebrand musician with an axe to grind with the world. He is a forty-year-old father, with a track record of success, and a focus on extending his involvement into new fields. This progress is reflected in his flexible approach to making music. Where he started off with lyrics expanding themes of combatant activism, he’s eased his art into hedonistic efforts and woman-praise. The same artist who made the rallying ‘Dem Mama’ song, also made the classic dance special, ‘Bum bum.’ On Instagram, he’s a fashionista. Offline, in the back channels of the music industry, he’s a staunch mentor to his colleagues.

“Success na the little things you do everyday,” Timaya lectures, dropping free game, unprovoked. Talking to him feels like a long conversation with a weathered life coach. He works out intermittently all through our conversation, requesting for drinks to make the room lively, and offers deep advice to his people without any forethought. His has been a life of treasured experiences. In his career, he admits he’s constantly swung between hero and villain to the public. That life is far beyond him now, he says. He’s also generous about the unending gratitude in his heart and why it’s the the driving force for all his current work. His latest album, aptly titled Gratitude, comes from this feeling. The project is a reflection of that state. 

We speak for hours as I watch him work out, ceaselessly hype his artists, and share blunts with everyone in the room. It’s “Original over best,” for him. And he wants everyone to know.

The world says you’re successful. But do you feel successful?

Successful, yeah. If I’m not successful, I won’t have gratitude. 

Why are you successful? 

First of all I’m alive. Second, I’m healthy. Third, what I planned to do in life is what I’m doing. I beat every odds. I’m very happy. I have no worries. Everything is fine.

That’s why you’re grateful?

Yeah, about life. 

How do you express that gratitude?

I express it every day, my surroundings, people around, I make sure I give back. I make sure I bring people up because if you’re a successful person and you don’t have anybody you’ve brought up, that’s not a good success. So that’s why I’m feeling very successful. I can look around and say, ‘okay fine, people around me are doing good and that’s one good thing.’ 

How did you get here?

I think it’s the hard work first of all. I’d say God first of all then hard work. I never relented. I’ve always wanted to do better than the last work. And passion is the utmost one which is knowing that I enjoy what I do. So that’s the key thing that made me get to this point.  You know, it’s character over personality.’ Character is that drive, that dream, that vision so when you get to that personality, it doesn’t mean that you should stop there. You still need character to push you. So if you put personality over character at that point…

You came from nothing. Did you envision this level of success?

You know, a lot of times people act like they got it all figured out or planned out (laughs). If I tell you I saw this, I’d be lying. ‘Cause there was nothing like this. Trust me, I’m original. There was nothing like this. I didn’t see this. I just wanted greatness. I just wanted to be heard. See, at that time when I was starting this whole thing, if you tell your parents you want to do music they’d tell you “abeg go. Musicians na Igbo smokers.” There were no good role models then like …

Musicians are still Igbo smokers…

Yeah, they’re still Igbo smokers, but we don’t smoke Igbo right now. We smoke loud (laughs). So my parents would tell me ‘musicians are igbo smokers and you want to waste your time.’ Of course, they say education is the key—they’ve always told us that. Yeah, education is still the key. But I won’t tell my child that if you don’t go to school, you can’t be great. No. You must go to school to know how to associate with people, to get the fundamentals and all. But that doesn’t mean that would make you great. So I didn’t see this, I just knew that I wanted to be heard. I wanted to be heard and this is what I love to do. 

What was inside you that you wanted the world to hear? 

I didn’t even like to watch football as a child. But I liked to play football. So whatever I wanted to do, I’d like to be the centre of attraction. So as a child, I’ve always wanted to have my own space to dominate. Before now I could hold a microphone, hold the remote control in the mirror. I can sing and be dancing as a child. Sometimes I’d wear my father’s suit, hold microphone dey do like pastor dey pray. So I’m that guy. So for me to be that guy, I con realise say I like to be like this, so what do I like to do? I like to sing. From primary school, I realised what I wanted to become. 

Were you one of those pesky kids that always disturbed with singing?

Of course, yes. I was a choir boy too. If I’m bathing ehn, whooo! My mother sef dey carry cane come flog me for bathroom. Five minutes bath, I’d be there beating my hand on my chest o, because the bathroom sounds like a studio. It has that vibe. So it makes your voice feel like say them put auto-tune. You go just dey there dey vibe dey go. 

Everybody sounds better in the bathroom.

You understand. So it’s that thing that people don’t get.

What was the first step you ever took to being a professional?

I think, now.

Why would you say so?

Because it has happened na. At this point, I’m 40. I cannot go and look for a job anywhere else. Do you understand? If I’m broke today nobody will help me. People just have the mindset that this guy is stupidly rich. So it is now that I’ve realised that, ‘okay this is what I want to do. Because when you’re doing this thing, there are a lot of people. I’ve got a lot of friends, a lot of uncles that time, they’d tell you “if this music thing no work again now, wetin you go do?” And that thing has made a lot of creative people lose their career. 

Because they sow doubts in your mind?

Yes! Do you know at some point in my career, one of my guys told me I should invest in marine equipment. I bought a couple with my music money and I was not shooting videos. The job now would be suffering. Then you’re going to invest in something that you don’t even know. Why do you think Jay-Z and Beyonce keep coming back to the music? It is now that they have realised that it is this music that has saved them. Because it is the music money that you used to invest in everything. So it has happened. If Jay-Z falls now, who would help him? The world would laugh. So that’s why I say na now I just realise say na this thing I wan do. 

My brother, even if I go and buy a big estate anywhere and do one thing..it’s still Timaya, Papi Chulo the musician. It has happened. That’s why I can smoke in public now. Oga, you can unlike me, that’s your business. It has happened, it has happened. I’m not one of those guys you want to be telling that “you’re driving this car, you’ve not paid me rent. Why are you living like this.” Or one brand would tell me “why are you drinking another brand?” Like when I was a Hennessy ambassador, I was drinking Gold Label in the club. One of the guys from Hennessey saw me. He came to meet me that “O boy, this is not nice o, why are you drinking Gold Label and you’re a Hennessy ambassador?” I looked and said ‘I’m sorry bro,’and we laughed about it and I shoved the bottle to the side and I got an XO. But I told myself I don’t want to be an ambassador. I want to live my life, I want to be free. I can’t be anybody’s brand ambassador again. Except you want to give me a percentage, then let’s talk. I can’t suffer that kind of…it has happened. 

True Story classic. How does owning that album that make you feel?

Great. And that’s the reason why I’m bringing out this Gratitude. I tried to want to beat the first album.

Did you know it was going to be a classic?

I didn’t know.

What mindset created the album?

Hunger. Hunger from every angle. Hunger from money, hunger from wanting to be heard, hunger from wanting to pass a message. Hunger for the fact that I got this shit, I want to prove a point. I was just hungry. I could have a deeper story because of my current situation. It was really bad.

I felt it in the music…

Yes, so when I tell my friends about this my album right now beating that album, they tell me “No, you didn’t feel the same way you felt that time.” But I tell them that that’s why it’’s Gratitude. It’s not True Story, right? True Story was me trying to tell a story. I’m done telling the story. I am grateful.

You want to celebrate?

Yes. That’s why I’m telling “me I no dey do gra gra do gra gra…” it’s a story. It’s gratitude. That’s why I don’t have nobody on the album. It’s my gratitude. It’s deeper than what people think.

Why did you delay making videos for your first project?

I didn’t believe in videos. I was just like a Jamaican artist. I started as a reggae artist. Every artist that’s really a reggae musician can never wither. See 2face, that’s culture. That’s root. I started that way, so I still have the mentality of not making videos. Once they bring out that song, they are bringing out another song every night. That’s how they are. That’s the mentality I came out with in the industry. I didn’t have a face, but I have a voice. And remember I told you I just wanted to be heard. So everything was really intentional though. And the fact that I’m a ruthless ugly boy, I didn’t like my face then. I didn’t have all the swagger I wanted to put out, so I didn’t need to show my face. That time ehn, if you like my song. If you see my video, you might dislike the song.  So no need to shoot video. If you tell me video, I say no. 

You sang ‘Dem Mama.’ How does it feel, seeing that the country has even gotten worse?

I feel bad. I feel worse when there’s nothing you can do. You know all the time they were doing their protests, I didn’t go outside not because I didn’t love the country. I’ve been speaking about it. Most times, salutation is not love.  I don’t have to be there. They don’t know what I did underground. I don’t have to speak to IG and put it on Instagram and say I spoke to IG. But I spoke to IG on the phone. I’m not going to come out and start shouting. There are things that are better than shouting. So when I say, ‘we need God to intervene, people say ‘no, it’s not God. We’re going to take it by force.’ No. At this point it is God o.

I think people are realising it now. And it took a lot for them to realise it. 

God abi? You cannot…see, no gra gra. The only thing I realise in this 2020 is that just do the right thing. It’s a year that just came to prove that, if you’re bad this year you’d go, if you’re good you’d grow. You would be exposed. So why don’t you just do the right thing? We had a better fight, and we still do. Let’s do the right thing. Let’s pray. Let’s work. The only thing I saw about the protest is that we are all waking up now. That’s good. I saw people sweeping, people doing the right thing. That broke my heart. Because we complain about Nigeria, we are Nigerians.

How did you spend the lockdown?

I spent the lockdown with my lover.

Did you focus on love?

It’s lockdown period na. 

Did you record? Did you do anything?

Nah. Everything was locked down. I was just having fun. Being with my kids, locking down my lover.

Why did you move to Lagos?

Because it was the right thing to do. It was the best thing, it was the greatest decision in my life. 

Why?

This is where my work is. You can’t be working on the mainland and you’re staying on the island. That doesn’t make sense. So there are no offices on the mainland, which is Port Harcourt. 

So you’d advise every artist to come to Lagos?

If you want to be a big time politician, you go go Abuja na. Abi? Abuja is the centre of politics. Some people for this Lagos, they go say ‘he’s a local politician.’ True or false? When you never go Abuja, them go say ‘no, your level never reach.’ So I had to take that step. Of course there must be a starting point, that was Port Harcourt. And what I needed that time, I needed to collaborate with other artists. Even in America it’s the same thing. You have to go to LA, you have to go to New York, Atlanta. But it’s so unfortunate that when it has to do with music, it’s just Lagos. That’s why I moved to Lagos. 

You did sing a lot about God and ‘bad belle people.’ Why was that a central theme in your music?

Because it was my mind at that time. It was what I was facing.

It was your reality.

Yeah. When I used to live on the mainland, I used to think that people die a lot. So when I came to the Island, I didn’t see people’s obituary pictures. So I used to think people don’t die on the island, just because they don’t post obituary pictures. At that point in my life it’s the environment, the things I see, which is my daily struggle. I’ve never seen where a man dreams at night, come knock for my house con say ‘I see you dey pursue me with machete for night. Leave me o.’ In the yard, that thing happens. In yards, those kinds of things happen. So that’s why “see bad belle bad belle” at that time. Those are the kinds of things I saw and that’s why it was affecting my music. But at some point, people started complaining that it was beginning to sound the same. 

How did that make you feel?

Very bad. Of course.

Was there any truth in what they were saying?

Big truth. And that was why I had to switch up. I rebranded myself and for that singular reason, that reason made me the man today. Because I was able to be versatile with my music. 

So you could say, constructive criticism…

…is good. But some people don’t want to take it. They don’t know what constructive criticism is, they just think a critic is a critic. There might be truth in these critics. So why don’t you just filter it? You might not like the person, but the word can be good. Look into the word not the person. Because if you look at the person, you can be biased and generalize the whole truth and box the truth into hate.

And then you won’t get the message.

Exactly. So get the message. 

You also had the image of a…

Militant. 

Militant, rascal…

It was deliberate.

Why?

Because I was from the Niger Delta and it was all truth. I was really crazy, no lies. Radical from the street. 

What did you think that image gave to you? Did it affect you in any way? 

It did and it didn’t. Every advantage has a disadvantage. You know why? At that point, I had what I was selling, which was good. But image wise, it was making people to be really afraid of me. 

Was there an episode that showed people were afraid of you?

Brands couldn’t fuck with me. All ‘em corporate brands couldn’t mess with me. I had to do a lot of rebranding. 

During rebranding, what guided your thoughts after being militant for so long?

Yeaah. I’m looking at life. Okay, I’ve been with my Dem Mama soldiers boys. I did the LLNP album, I shared the money to them and let everybody go. Now, I want to face life from another angle, which is me doing different styles of music. Which is: From the ‘bad belle bad belle people’ to the normal sexy ladies, bum bum. I started talking about human parts. I had never sang about girls, so I wanted to do that. And I realised, my daughter’s mum was pregnant with the first child. I needed to rebrand.

You were becoming a father too.

Yeah and it’s all in the plan, it’s all in the making. I even took off my dreadlocks at that time.

That was shocking for everybody. You were your dreadlocks.

Exactly. But that helped me too, because I had to break that off early in my career. These things don’t define me. What defines Timaya is Timaya. That originality. I can tint this hair gold, nobody would have a problem with me. That’s the brand I always wanted to sell. Expect anything from this nigga. 

Was the fan love instant when you switched?

Love? I never ever felt like anyone was in love with me, even from fans or whatsoever. Because I’ve always looked at myself. I’ve always been bashed by the media, do you understand? The people that are my fans love me for who I am. And I was not at that point in my life, looking at who loves me or who dont love me. 

What was your focus?

Where I’m going, bro. Now I can see love because I want to love. 

How was the reception? Did it achieve everything you wanted it to achieve?

That’s why I’m here bro. I don’t think they should accept me. I’m not a pitiable case. I would show them where I want to go. They should just follow me. They can’t accept me. I’m not here for them. They are following me, they are here for me. That’s the brand I want to sell. I’m not for everybody to steal. My fans know me. If you see me come down from a keke napep today, it’s my way. I don’t have your time. I don’t need to impress you. That’s the kind of brand I want. So when you sask, ‘how did they receive it?’ Of course the reception was good. That’s why I’m here. Even, I was fat. You know most of the time when people say “I prefer that your former look,” I’m always forced to go and click on that person’s picture. And I hate the person’s look that is talking o. So what am I going to do about it? I go come follow somebody wey I no like him look dey complain about my own look? 

What’s the difference between Egberi Papa and Papai Chulo?

Big difference. 

Who was Egberi Papa?

Egberi Papa is like the mouthpiece of the people. Papi Chulo is a chilled daddy. Big difference. It’s King Perry that gave me Papi Chulo. He sang it in one of his own songs: “Papi Chulo coming for the girls…’ I say, “nna, this song bad o.’ I asked what is the meaning of Papi Chulo. He said “Cool Papi.’ I said this thing is too big for you o (laughs). I say let me take this name na. “Oga, it would even fit you sef,” so he started calling me Papi. It’s all God’s plan. Like I always tell you, if you get to a point in your career or in your life, you cannot be able to see far anymore. In the sense that you cannot go to the streets. But you must have people that go to the streets to come and give you what is happening on the streets. Information. So the only way to give back is to just show love. That is what me and this King Perry, Runtown, Patoranking, all these people they’ve been doing. But they have been giving back to me too. Because they’ve been giving me, me I’ve just been giving back.

People say you are an oracle. That if Timaya says your song is a hit, it’s a hit. 

Oh really? I hear that a lot. Sometimes you go feel say people dey whine you.

But e dey work for them.

Hmm okay. How am I supposed to feel? But it’s not like I know it, it’s just an idea that you just know that this one go work, this one no go work. 

You also became one of the most fashionable people in music.

Yeah. That was deliberate. 

Why did you add fashion?

I’ve always been that way. I’ve always liked fashion. But at that point like, I said, I was struggling. Clothes were not my problem. Building that life, achieving that thing was my problem. I couldn’t have the money to buy the original things and I like original things. So I just had to focus on the music and invest in it. 

You mention focus a lot. How important is focus to you?

Focus is everything o. 

Were there points in your career that your focus was ever threatened? What was happening then?

The government. I was close to my governor. I was trying to really go into helping one or two situations in Bayelsa then. It’s just like the music. It’s a jealous guy. Whatever you give your time, takes over you.  I wasn’t paying attention.

And your career suffered for it?

Of course, yes. That was, I think in 2010. But in 2011, I promised myself that would never happen again.

What did you do to get back on track?

I stopped giving space for studio sessions. I always never even had a studio session. Before now, I was just living in the studio.

And then you began to record?

Yeah, more. The business is jealous. And I don’t know how to handle the music business and other business. You can’t handle any business. You can invest in another business and get people to run that business, unless you’ll fall behind in the music business. But some people want to do a lot.  

And then they lose everything

Everything. So you just have to know the one you can do.

Is it a smart decision for musicians to put their money in other things as an investor?

Um-hum. But be smart.

How?

It depends on what you want to put your money in. Do you understand? ‘Cause whatever you put your money in will make you better tomorrow. It’s what would make you or break you. If it’s a woman you want to put your money in as an investment, even if it’s a chair, even if it’s real estate, whatever, just do it right.

Apart from your rebranding, what’s the one change that you did over the years that you’re very proud of? That has been very instrumental in your success?

My thinking. How I used to see things. And the way I use to see things can equally play in the way I approach things. So I had to work on myself. If you have that mindset of saying this thing is like this. I’m not saying it’s bad, but it’s not good for me. I don’t want it. It doesn’t mean the next man won’t want it. Exactly. Before now I can say this thing is totally bad no no. So once you begin to have that, you begin to see reasons to give people some credit or some slacks. That helped me in trying to reason differently and act different and made me want to live differently.

Your longevity is something that is inspiring. You’ve been around for how many years now?

15.

For people who aspire to have a long career by these standards, what should they know?

If you want to be rich, be consistent.

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