By OMOTOLA OLAIFA
MTN Project Fame West Africa first winner, Iyanya Mbuk is no doubt one of the reigning princes of Hip-hop music in the country at the moment. Not only has the Cross River State-born graduate of the University of Calabar achieved fame, the singer has also bagged a slew of accolades since he released his kukere single which became a monster hit the very week it was dropped. With one studio album already released, the self-styled Kukere master who recently collaborated with D’banj on his new remix, has been dubbed the new kid on the block by music buffs.
In this fascinating encounter, the singer gave an exclusive inside-out view of his life, rise to stardom, relationship with actress Yvonne Nelson and the excruciating pains of losing his parents and brother. The page-turner story is a rare expose on the life of one of Nigeria’s sexiest singers.
Who exactly is Iyanya?
My name is Iyanya Mbuk. I am from Cross River State, a graduate of Business Management from the University of Calabar and winner Project Fame 2008. Music is my passion, I love dancing too, and I take life easy.
Tell us about where you grew up?
I grew up in Calabar and I did my nursery, primary, secondary and university education there.
When did you come to Lagos?
I came to Lagos in 2008, for the Project Fame and since then Lagos has been home.
Where did you grow up in Calabar?
It is called Palm Street in Calabar south. It is the longest street in Calabar.
How was it growing up in Palm Street Calabar?
It was fun, because I stayed in my family compound with my cousins, aunts and uncles. We played together, we played video games those days and it was fun. Cousins traveling out and buying me gifts. I had fun as a child.
What are your earliest memories?
I can’t forget the kind of hospitality I had. Calabar people are so welcoming, they are contented, whatever they see they take. They don’t go crazy over things; they don’t care about stuffs too much. They are always ready to receive visitors.
Are your parents like that too?
They were like that too.
Tell us about them?
My parents are late now. May their souls rest in peace. I grew up with them and I got 100 percent love from them. They died in 2008, before my Project Fame exploit.
How come you lost both parents?
It’s a long story; I don’t want to talk about it.
When you remember them, what comes to your mind?
I am thankful, because I know they are somewhere better and they left a whole lots of things for me. My late mum made me realize that there is nothing really in this world than just being a good person. I have been trying to live with that, even though I can’t please everybody. My Dad also taught me to be responsible for every action I take as an adult. I am just living with what they left for me. I mean, their prayers and words still linger.
What age did your parents die?
My mum died at the age of 42 and my dad died at 50.
Do you feel they were killed or was it a spiritual attack?
Yes, I know their death came too early and it happened in ways I don’t like to talk about. It’s not a thing that makes me happy. But it’s a lesson for me now. I am trying to live a good life.
When you remember the mysterious death of your parents, what comes to your mind, do you fear death?
I have no fears, if I die today; it means God allowed it and that I have done my part in this life. My parents are not the only people I have lost, I have also lost my elder brother, who died recently as well.
How did your brother die?
He had an accident as a kid and since then we had been battling with it, but he died recently. He died the same period my parents did. It’s so painful but I have to move on.
What was your mum doing before her death?
My mum was a level 14 officer. She was a Head Mistress. My dad was a forester; he is into wood and furniture.
What were the lessons you got as the child of a teacher?
You have to get stuffs done right. There is no excuse for doing something wrong. Even up till 2008, if I did anything wrong, she would jump on me, anywhere, anytime and anyday. She didn’t care if I was bigger than her, because she was quite petite and cute. At some point, I thought she was being too harsh, but as I grew she actually made life easy for me.
Did she rule the house with an iron fist?
She did because my dad was gentle. My mum was the iron lady. But my dad, he is the best dad in the world. He didn’t really talk much and he hardly made mistakes. He didn’t talk, didn’t nag, so we respected and loved him more. Unlike some places where you go and see their father making the home uncomfortable, my dad was not like that. When you do something wrong, even as young as I was then, he’d sit you down and say “I want to talk to you.” So, I guess that was where I got my maturity from. He was really cool.
Looking back now, how has that influenced your lifestyle?
I don’t think I am in the right place to say that, maybe people who work and stay with me would be in a better position to talk about that. People who know me well, know that I try to make life so easy. I take life easy, I am not in a rush and I work very hard.
What lessons did you learn from your parents’ death?
Life is short; life is not what and how you plan it. Just be thankful any day you wake up and don’t be carried away by the cars and houses you have. We the living are not better than the people who are dead, we just have to be thankful. I have to work harder realizing that I have nobody but God and my fans. This whole entertainment thing is really fake, because nothing is real. The pictures, the cars, it is just because of the rave, because of that moment. If you don’t work hard the same paparazzi, the same fans will see you and walk past you. So, I am just basically trying to stay focused, even if it is hard. I am not trying to say I am perfect, I just try. Materials things don’t move me; I appreciate gestures, kindness, love. I appreciate sincerity than all these things. It is all in God’s hands.
How did the death of your parents help your music career?
This is what happened. The first time I ever performed (and my dad heard I performed), the man got to know when I was trying to close the gate after he came in and somebody who was passing shouted “Yo men I just saw your performance at the stadium on TV, you did well”. Then my dad said to me ‘God will help you’. When I was also going to Project Fame, my mum told me to kneel down so she would pray for me. These are the memories I can never forget. These memories always tell me, wherever these people are, they are not looking at your flaws, there are praying for you. So, it is my part now to work hard.
How did music start for you?
My grandfather was a Reverend, so we were quite musical. When I say musical, I mean hymns in the house, family prayers and stuffs like that. I will always want to sing in the church. I would always want to do solo. That is how the passion came about. My immediate parents were not into music but they were music lovers. They both loved Don Williams, Kenny Rogers, they were fun-loving people, they could dance also. My whole family was really happy.
Tell us about your journey to Lagos
I was in Calabar and I heard that there was Project Fame coming up. I was the first person to arrive there and I was the only person picked from Calabar. They brought me here to Lagos. I did like two, three auditions and I was picked for the finals. So, I stayed in the academy for three months and I won by God’s grace. Then, I realized that going back to Calabar would destroy my dreams, because there is nothing in Calabar. The DJs are here, the TVs, the reality TV shows, the radio stations that you need to reach out to the world; I am not saying that we don’t have these things in other places, but Lagos is like New York. It is where you have to be to make it happen, so since then I have being here.
What were you doing before Project Fame?
I just finished school and I was working in a hotel. I was managing a bar and singing karaoke there for about two years.
Tell us, how was it like singing karaoke in the bar?
First of all, it prepared me for Project Fame, because it was there I got bolder, my voice got stronger, I wasn’t just singing songs, I was singing classical songs. I was singing these old songs so it made my voice bolder. So by the time I came to Project Fame, if I had sang like 20 songs in Project Fame, I had been singing like 18 in the bar before. So, all I had to do was just to perfect it. Definitely people will look down on you doing jobs like that, but this is the same people when I get back there, they have to beg to take pictures with me. The place is now a club, so when I go there, I don’t go as a staff, I go as a star. These days before I go there, I have this chair waiting for me in the VIP section. Sometimes you are just somewhere and you know the job is crap; people come there and laugh at you. When I was there, some boys will come with their girlfriends and spend money, they will tell me, “My girl wants you to sing.” Sometimes, if I say I can’t sing, they will be insulting me, “Are you mad? You are just a karaoke guy, what is wrong with you”, and I would start crying. Whatever negative thing people told me, I never really took it to heart. I just channeled all my energy into hard work. So, whatever anybody told me that was bad, I just want to make good out of it. That is what I do. I am very thankful to everybody who had looked down on me, because they are the reason why I am here today.
Aside these ones you just mentioned, what other humiliation did you pass through at the karaoke stand?
I was browbeaten; some people would say I am singing to steal their girlfriends. I have a scar on my head, I got that when somebody used a chair on me. I slept at the bar basically everyday, where people smoked I slept there and I always came out reeking of cigarette.
How were you coping at that time?
My parents loved me so I lacked nothing. It was my personal decision to break away from the norm. I wanted to be a man of my own. I wanted to hustle to see life the way it was. My family was not happy with the job: “What the hell are you doing there?” they asked. My decision was to see life, create my own history.
Did you know you were going to become a professional singer?
I wanted to be an engineer, a contractor, to be somewhere I could make money.
What kind of students were you back in school?
I had a good time in school. The best time of my life was my school days. I was okay academically. I read for my exam and I did everything a student had to do.
Tell us about Project Fame?
It was challenging, most times it was interesting but the end justified everything.
How has life been after Project Fame?
It has being a long journey, you can see that five years on and it seems like I am a new artiste right now. Some people think I came from nowhere: This Iyanya guy, where is he from? I have being around for five years, doing R&B but I was not making money. I was just singing. I had an album but nobody gave a sh*t about.
What is the title of that album?
The title was My Story. It didn’t sell, it is now people are going back to it and saying “this guy was making sense, he is not making sense again.” This is just a transition. I have been singing for five years, but now it is time to do another thing, get my money and leave. I have being doing my music before, so now it is time to do the music that people want. It is heartbreaking that people will be sad about that. I have an album coming out by next year April. I have R&B songs in it, I have reality music in it, but for now what I am doing basically is to please people. You have no idea, where I am lined up to do show. The weirdest of places, where you don’t even expect; the elite does not only know me; everybody now knows me. Market women, bus drivers, kids on the road know who I am. Even Abokis know me, and what it means is that I have been able to reach out to everybody, which is what makes you an artiste.
What will you say is the secret of this success?
It is just God.
How rich is Iyanya?
I am comfortable.
There was a time it was in the news that you bought a mansion, how true is this?
I am just grateful for what God has done for me. This is just the beginning. Mansion is just one thing. I have houses, if I start naming my properties, you won’t believe. But I am not one of those people that make noise about what they do. It is just that I am one of those people that make the news a lot.
Tell us about your relationship with Yvonne Nelson?
She is just a friend. She is a friend. I am not dating her. I met her in Ghana, before my hit songs even came out. We hang out, we do things friends do, nothing else.
What are the ‘things friends do?’
You should know what friends do. We hold hands and talk. We just have fun. We go out together too and that’s why you see all the pictures you see. She is a cool lady anytime.
Can you marry Yvonne Nelson?
If it is God’s will, why not, is she not fine? Ghanaian girls are cool and she’s definitely one of them.
When are you planning to settle down?
I don’t know; there is still a lot of money to make, so that is not my focus now. Too much money is not bad, you don’t want to marry a woman and you will not be in charge of your home because there is no money. Everything I missed in my life, my children must get them 20 times. If I tell my wife sit down, she must obey.
What are the qualities you like in a woman?
These days, it’s like I don’t even know. You will say I want a beautiful girl, then you get her, then you want something else. Maybe because of her attitude or maybe because you both don’t click, then later you will say I want another one. These days I don’t know, I just pray that God will give me somebody.
Tell us about your relationship with women before you became big?
When I was just struggling, I had a few girls that would do anything for me then, even when I was not a good guy. I had a few girls that would die for me back then, right now I don’t even know.
Were you in a serious relationship back then?
Yes, I was. Right now it is hard for me, I will just be lying down on my bed and I will just receive a call that I will have to be somewhere. That can happen for one month straight. I can count how many times I have slept on my bed since I bought it. You know women always like attention they expect you to always be there. So it will take your soul mate to actually understand that this is who you are and she will love you for who you are.
Have you broken anyone’s heart?
Yes, but not deliberately.
How did it happen?
My work makes me break hearts because I am always busy.
Have you been heart broken?
It was my first girl that I loved so much. She broke my heart.
She made me bad actually. She gave me the idea that you don’t need to be so nice. She is a Calabar girl and the most painful part is that she married my friend. So I live with that stuff everyday.
Has it changed your opinion about Calabar girls?
I still love Calabar girls, I respect them; they are sweet kind and very cool. But I am not particular about tribe.
There is this belief that Calabar girls are good in bed. From your experience, how true is that?
You are a man yourself so you should be able to answer that question. I am sure you have one or two experiences.
Was your experience a good one?
I don’t know what you want me to say about that. But it was a good experience.
How do you handle your fans?
I try. I just try, even when I get tempted.
How do you get tempted?
It is just the normal thing of you liking your female friends.
How did the Kukere song come about?
I went to Calabar and the Etigi dance was out, so I said, I could do a song for this dance and make it official, and that is how it came.
At the time you were doing it, did you know it was going to be a hit?
I didn’t know.
What has that song done for you?
It has done a lot it actually took my career from zero to where it is today. I headline shows now.
What is the meaning of Kukere?
It means “don’t worry, don’t think.” It is our dance. I put it on the map.
Tell us about the business side of Iyanya.
In the next five years, I want to own so much business and by that time music will just be on the side. That is what I want to do. I love business, real estate, oil, furniture, whatever, as far there is money coming in. Five years from now, I should be able to look back and people will say “Iyanya owns that business, he owns that transport business” and all that.
What other business do you do for now?
Right now, I am just trying to get properties.
How did you team up with D’banj for the Kukere remix?
I met him. I respect him. I think he stands out. He is my role model. D’banj is a true star and I didn’t have to follow protocols to do that song with him, which I thought I would. We saw, we just talked about it and that was it. I told him, “Baba, you have to jump on it” and he did.
Tell about scandals people have written or said about you?
They have written and said many things, but I don’t read anything about me. There is already too much pressure on this thing, and they make you want to just faint. So reading what people write about you again, is just digging your own grave.
How would you define your music now?
Right now I am doing Pop, Afro pop and Afro beat. And so far in my music career, Kukere is the biggest thing that has happened to my career. When I met the guy that produced it, I told him, we were going to make history together and that is exactly what happened.
How much can you say Kukere has made?
I don’t know, but it has made a lot and still counting.
Why the recent body building?
I just love dressing very well. It is packaging. I was doing it for myself before but I discovered that people noticed it and made it look extraordinary. So, since it’s selling, I just have to keep doing it. You know, this whole showbiz thing is fake and crazy.