By Ayo Onikoyi, Jemi Ekunkubor, Florence Amagiya and Kehinde Ajose
S i nce going solo after her musical group, KUSH, broke up, Lara George has proved her mettle as a talented singer. With many hits to her credit, she has become a diva sought after both at home and abroad.
But things have not always been rosy for the easy-going, ever-smiling mother of two who stormed Vanguard’s corporate office on Monday, accompanied by her husband, Gbenga.
In a riveting chat session, she told her story; took us through her journey and what she had to go through as a gospel artiste to have her name stamped on the music landscape of the country:
What really inspired the song Dansaki?
The song came at a moment in my life when I was pregnant with my second baby. I was also working on my second album. I was just thankful to God. One day I put pen to paper and said “I am acknowledging you for who you are in my life” and the words just kept coming. I wrote half of the song and I left it.
When I started to record, the other half of the song came. It was one of those songs you never thought would turn out to be a hit. I was just trying to express myself to God .So it’s just such a beautiful thing that people would pick from the album and love it.
What were you thankful for at that point in time?
I was pregnant. It wasn’t that I had any issues getting pregnant but you know the life of a woman, time and chance just come to make it come together. We had put off having a baby for about six years. Each year came and I wasn’t ready.
So for everything to be smooth when I wanted to have the baby, I was grateful for that. I was grateful for family. I looked around me and found that there was nobody missing. Everybody was intact .I could call on family and friends around me.
I looked at my work and I was grateful. Sometimes, I just get on the internet and somebody sends me a message from Malaysia thanking me, for a song that I did that ministered to them. Someone saying their marriage is still together just because I wrote a song. I thought about all these things and I was thankful.
You said you put off having a child for six years and your husband allowed that?
Absolutely, for me and my career making babies has to be something I would be ready for. We (my husband and I) couldn’t deny the fact it would have an effect on my career, no matter how you wanted to look at it. My husband knew the effect the first child had on me so we decided to space it. Just when he was getting impatient, God made it happen.
Why did you opt for Gospel music? I have always loved to call my style of music inspirational. When I started out with Kush, that was the plan and the vision. I believe music is a responsibility. I have always said so and I just grew up believing that. I think that music is something that can influence generations.
I can’t imagine myself singing songs that will engender negativity in any form. I have children and I want them to listen to songs that will spur them to greater things, not songs that will encourage them to do wrong.
What is the difference between gospel music and inspirational music?
I gave you a background of the group I was coming from, which was Kush. Kush was inspirational . Kush was the only group in Nigeria that was described as inspirational. So, that definition of inspirational music literally came from there.
It was a vision we had as a team, and it was a vision each of us had. You will hear it in Ty Bello’s songs and in my songs as well. We had songs that were hard core gospel, songs that were directed to God and also songs about values that were off God. For me, those are the songs that I describe as being inspirational, as opposed to being just hardcore gospel.
What is your opinion about the Afro hip-hop music that seems to be the rave of the moment now?
Honestly, I feel Nigerian music is beautiful in terms of the sound. Unfortunately, much of it seems to be lacking in depth and in content. We are the ones who push the mundane kind of music; we are also the ones who complain that this is what fills the airwaves. This happens because this is what we promote.
When you go to a radio station for an example, they would tell you, “Sorry, we cannot play your song because you are gospel”. They would tell you that even on Sundays they have one hour for all the gospel songs. There’s high level marginalization in music too. Meanwhile, it costs a gospel artiste the same amount of money that it costs your highest paid secular artiste to produce a song and to shoot a video.
It is not cheaper for me because I am a gospel artiste; as a matter of fact they will charge me more because they believe you are Lara George. They believe one has made so much money stacked somewhere.
We cannot deny the fact that you will have a lot of people not doing gospel music because nobody wants to put their money on it. Nobody wants to open up the media to gospel music. A lot of people are running from promoting gospel music because they will tell them “Sorry we don’t do religion”. That is the reality. That is what is going on.
It’s the reason why we have a lot of young people starting off who don’t want to have anything to do with inspirational music.
Do you do as many shows as mainstream hip-hop artistes do? How do you survive as a gospel artiste?
I have had a lot of support from my husband over the years. When I started my solo career I was literally robbing Peter to pay Paul and the music was not paying for itself. I got to a point where I had to start saying no to everybody who approached me for free events because people always expect that once you are gospel, you should do free events. Churches will call you for free events or give you next to nothing .
The radio stations will call you for free shows, even people who organize non- church events will call you for free shows when they have charity events. They expect you to do the charity event for free, though they are the ones who have put up the charity event.
I had to start putting my foot down. I started charging for what I did. I made a lot of enemies in the process because a lot of people started saying: “Now she is acting like a diva”. The truth is that the music needed to pay for itself, which is what I am doing now; trying to make sure that the music actually funds itself.
We are gradually getting to the point where some gospel musicians are going mainstream .Do you think its as a result of the content of their music or the more promotion they get?
When you are looking for music that has true content and true value you will find it in gospel. Promotion has always been a problem.
Even when you have the funds to promote the song, there is a glass ceiling that is placed on top of those who are labeled inspirational. For example, I released a song recently titled Love Nwantintin which is a love song. I released it to celebrate my 10th year wedding anniversary and I took that to a very popular TV station.
They said to me: “We are going to play it only on Sundays and I asked them, why only on Sundays? I was told it’s because its gospel”. I told them it’s a love song and asked them if they listened to it. There is an assumption that because one is mostly known for gospel songs, all you do are gospel songs.
There are those in the industry who have always supported good music. It’s because of people like you that people like me have been able to stay relevant. There is no denying that when those people help to promote good music, then it gets heard and then there is a platform for other people to actually appreciate what is being done.
From idols West Africa to the present, what have you learnt from that experience which has helped your career so far?
I love stage; it is the crowning point of a music performance. I was told years back that I could not do music in a certain way, that I could only do music that is quiet. I believed that for many years.
So for many years, I didn’t try to do anything different. It’s been an experience and I am still learning even now. Every time that I attend a concert and I watch other people, I try to take something away and I hope that when I get on stage next time that I will be a better artiste as a result of what I have learnt.
What is an inspirational singer doing with a love song?
Inspirational music is a melody that talks about any topic, but sees it from the God perspective. When Lara George chooses to sing about love, she isn’t singing about it from the perspective of cynicism , I am singing about it from God’s perspective that says ‘ One man one wife’ and hanging in there when you are married.
My husband and I celebrated ten years of marriage, I wanted to sing a different kind of love song that is unlike all of the cynicism that you have out there.
What is responsible for your staying power?
To be honest, I don’t know. There have been times when I wanted to throw in the towel and I am saying that it happens all the time. Some days back, somebody said to me: “Lara, your songs are not popular, so we cannot have you on our show”.
We get that kind of disrespect. I can’t imagine them having the guts to talk to a secular artiste that way. As a result of the fact that you are a gospel artiste, they feel that it’s okay to talk to you that way. They are trying to negotiate and they believe that it’s a good negotiation tactic.
When you come across attitudes like that, it makes you want to throw in the towel. It’s such a big deal that the publisher of Vanguard likes my song even when I haven’t met him. It’s an affirmation that one is doing something laudable when some people want to talk you down.
Every day, I just say to God that if you want to keep the work going, you literally have to make a way and he has made a way constantly. Every time that I had wanted to walk away from the music, some doors would open. God keeps me going.
How is your music doing outside of the country?
It’s doing really well. I had a concert in San Francisco and was amazed how many people who knew my song. Before then, we had done shows in Maryland, Houston and Los Angeles. The one that was most memorable was the song I did in Cotonou with over 10,000 French-speaking people singing my song.
When they invited me, I was worried about what to say to the people. Immediately I started the first song, they joined me in singing it word for word. They had done the remix of Kolebaje in French. Everybody knows the song there; even the remix isn’t as popular as the original version. The reception from outside of the country has just been amazing.