You are currently viewing Evangelist Ebenezer Obey: The Juju legend who defied his mother’s wishes to follow his dreams
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Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey Fabiyi, the renowned Juju music icon and Evangelist, clocked 82 recently and is still waxing strong in his chosen career. Despite his mother’s initial disapproval and wishes for him to pursue a career in law or medicine, Obey followed his passion for music, which he believed was assigned to him by God. He began playing the drums at age 12 and formed his professional band at 15. After trekking to the Decca Records office in Lagos, he convinced the MD to give him a chance, and his music career took off and he eventually became a star. Obey transitioned to gospel music after a divine call and was ordained as an evangelist. He has mentored many artists and has over 100 albums to his name. At 82, Obey still exudes the same passion and energy that propelled him to stardom over seven decades ago. In this interview with MARY NNAH, Obey reflects on his life journey from humble beginnings to international recognition, and how he overcame scandals, challenges, and temptations to become one of Africa’s most esteemed musicians and a prominent evangelist

What’s it like to have reached the milestone of 82 years?

I am so happy and grateful to have reached 82 years of age. It’s a time for reflection, to look back at my life in different phases. Every 10 years is worth celebrating, and reaching 82 is a testament to God’s faithfulness.

What’s the secret to your remarkable energy and vitality at 82?

It is still God who reigns supreme, whose works are eternal and unchanging. As Ecclesiastes 3:14 declares, ‘Whatever God does is permanent, nothing can be added or taken away.’ God’s sovereign actions are designed to inspire awe and reverence, so that we may fear and honour Him. Though enemies may rage and sicknesses may come, God’s presence guarantees our triumph. I have experienced this firsthand, having faced health challenges in 1980 that required surgery in London. Today, I rely on a walker for mobility, a humbling reminder of God’s grace and strength in my weakness. Recently, I underwent prostate surgery at Kelani Hospital in Lagos, and though complications arose, God’s mercy saw me through. Now, I use a walker or receive assistance from others to stand and move around – a far cry from the vibrant health I once enjoyed, but a testament to God’s sustaining power. These trials have deepened my gratitude and fueled my Thanksgiving celebration, a testament to God’s faithfulness and enduring power. 

At the age of 82, many would expect you to have retired from music, but are you still actively involved in the industry?

Retiring from music is unthinkable for me. If I were to stop playing music, a part of me would die. Music is my passion, my love, and my source of joy. When I sing, I derive immense happiness from seeing people’s faces light up with delight. I feed off the joy that I bring to others through my music. It’s a reciprocal relationship that sustains me and keeps me going.

What led you to choose music as your passion and profession?

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As for my music career, I believe that God has a plan for each of us. I didn’t intentionally choose music; I believe it was a calling from God. Signs of my musical inclination appeared early in life. My mother noticed my attraction to music, and the pastor even prophesied that I would become a musician. Despite my mother’s initial reluctance due to concerns about my studies, I persisted and formed my first professional band at the age of 15 in 1957. I believe that God sent me here specifically to be a musician. I trace it back to April 1942, when I was born in the church, and the signs were there. When my mother noticed that I always crawled to the choir section and was attracted by their songs, she would follow me and pick me up, but I would still crawl back there. I remember my mother telling me that the pastor took me from her one day and announced, like a prophet, “This boy is going to the choir side, especially where they are playing musical instruments; this boy is going to be a musician.” That was how it started. I was influenced by music through the choir, and as I grew up, I became a member of the choir and the school band. I started leading a band, though I was the youngest among them, at just 12 years old. But my mother didn’t like that; she preferred me to be a member of the choir. My mother asked me one day, “What’s wrong with you, Olasupo? Why do you want to be a drummer? This drumming won’t let you concentrate on your studies. I want you to face your studies rather than drumming. I want you to be a lawyer or a doctor, so people will call me the mother of a doctor or lawyer.” She would ask me, “Don’t you like to have a pleasure car?” That was what they used to call big cars then. I would tell her that I would like to have one, and she would say that I should face my book. She asked me to promise her that I wouldn’t go out to beat the drum again, and I would promise her not to join the drummers again. But the next day, when they started beating drums, she would call me and ask if I would go out, and I would tell her that I wouldn’t. I didn’t know what happened to me, but I would always run out of the house to join the musicians, and there was no electricity then. She would come with a lantern, beat me, and drag me back to the house. She would say she wanted me to study. The more difficulties I went through with my mother, the more my mind wanted music. One day, I asked her why she didn’t want me to drum, and she said that drummers smoke cigarettes and Indian hemp, and she didn’t want a child who smokes. I promised her that I wanted to beat the drum and sing, but that I would never smoke cigarettes or Indian Hemp. After that, I had my band, then, because the elderly people had lost interest in me. After all, my mother used to trouble them to leave me to study. So, I formed my professional band at the age of 15 in 1957. 

Can you share your journey into music production and how you got your start in recording albums? 

I trekked because I didn’t have money for transportation to Lagos. I trekked to the office of Decca Records from Mushin. I trekked there, and I still remember all the places I passed to get to their office on Abibu Oki Street on Lagos Island. Their studio was in Abule Oja in Yaba, but their corporate office was in Lagos Island. I got there, and the gateman didn’t want me to enter, but I told him I was a future star. Reluctantly, he finally allowed me to go in, and I met the secretary, who had a barrier that people used to pass through to get to the Managing Director. She was the secretary to the Managing Director, and it was only when she lifted that thing that you could pass. I got there in the afternoon and told her I wanted to record in the company and that I was a future star. I had sweated a lot while trekking, so she looked at me like, “Who is this?” She said she was sorry that the artist manager was on leave, and I couldn’t see any other person. I explained myself to her, and the MD pressed the intercom, it sounded on her table, and he asked what the noise was about. She told the MD that there was a young man there, who said he was a future star, and that I wanted to see him. The MD, a white man, Mr. C.K. Crest, said they should let me in. I went inside, prostrated, and greeted him. I told him my name and said I came to record with the company and that they shouldn’t pay me; they should just record me. I said, “Pay me after you have sold my record. My record will sell.” He was just looking at me. He called Mr. Ogunbayo, who was the marketing manager, to come and see me. I prostrated again and started speaking Yoruba. I told him I was a future star and that I wanted to record an album with them, and they shouldn’t pay me. He was just looking at me. Ogunbayo told him what I said. Later, the MD said, “I think we should give this young man a chance.” Ogunbayo said it was okay. I told the MD that I trekked from Mushin, and he said I wouldn’t trek home. He told the secretary to call somebody from the account, and he wrote something on a paper and signed it. The next thing I saw was that they put ten shillings in an envelope for my transport. That was a lot of money then. That’s how they gave me an audition at the studio in Abule Oja. They said they wanted six songs, but they selected two out of the songs. One was “Ewa wo oun oju mi ri emo. Ara me riri mo rori ologbo lori ate.” It was about a man who went out with a plier and torchlight to go and steal somewhere. He knew they might have passed electricity through the gate, so he took those items with him. He took the pliers to cut the wire. The owner of the shop was wiser. He thought they had disconnected the thing, but he was electrocuted. In the daytime, people came to see the man before the police came. I said, “Let me sing about it.” That was at Adekunle Street, Olorunsogo, Mushin. The second song was “Makanjuola orebikan Ara mi o, lo fi pepe wowo.” When they recorded at that time, the tradition then was that when an artist recorded, there would be a listening time for distributors to listen and order the record. If they didn’t order up to 500 copies, then the person would not be signed in. After the whole thing, it remained 19 for the order to get to 500. They told the MD, “Sir, your future star didn’t make it.” They said it remained 19 to hit 500 copies. For the first time, the MD personally ordered 25 copies to make it 506. That was the break. Later, when I became a star, whenever I wanted to go to the office, it would be like a president was coming. They would prepare well to receive me, and a lot of crowds would welcome me. Later, the white man said, “Ebenezer, I congratulate you; you knew what you wanted and you spoke with confidence.”

He said he was happy that he risked ordering 25 copies, and that if he didn’t do what he did that day, they would have lost a future star.

How did you navigate the challenges of fame, and what inspired you to create your album? 

I was 21 years old in 1963 when fame knocked on my door. It was what I had always wanted to do; it was my expectation. I was convinced I would be a future star. I believed it before I even said it out loud; I was that sure. I had that confidence. Music has always been at the centre of my life, and I am a skilled composer. Adeolu Akinsanya was my mentor; I would compose songs and take them to him, and he would praise my work. God has His ways of doing things, and I believe He ordained me to come into this world and be a musician. 

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What was your experience with female fans when you rose to fame? How did you handle the attention and temptations that came with it?

As a musician, I’ve experienced the allure of female attention, and it can be overwhelming. But with God’s guidance and strength, I’ve been able to resist the temptation. While I can’t claim to be 100% blameless, I’ve been fortunate to have God’s help in achieving victory over my weaknesses. It’s a common challenge for musicians to face temptation, but I’m grateful for God’s grace and support in overcoming it.

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What’s the story behind your stage name, ‘Obey’, and how did you come to adopt it as your musical identity?

My nickname ‘Obey’ has an interesting origin. Back in my school days, I held the position of class monitor. With this role came certain privileges, such as delivering teachers’ notes to the headmaster’s house and receiving them back on Monday mornings. As a class monitor, I also had some authority over my peers. Whenever students failed English spellings, they would face punishment – six lashes of the cane. While they try to explain why they failed so as not to get caned, the teacher would sternly say, ‘Obey first and then complain later.’ I would often repeat this phrase, and it eventually became a nickname that stuck.

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As I entered the school compound, pupils would greet me with ‘Obey!’ The fame was overwhelming, and I eventually adopted it as part of my name, becoming Ebenezer Obey Fabiyi. It’s a name that has stayed with me throughout my life, a reminder of my school days and the authority and respect that came with being a class monitor.

What sparks your creativity when writing songs, and what is your total album count to date? 

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We have done uncountable albums, well over 100 albums. Inspiration is my profession, it is my gift. Composition is the easiest thing for me to do.

What qualities or actions make someone worthy of being celebrated in your songs, and does financial backing play a role in that decision? 

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Praise singing is an integral part of Yoruba culture. In our tradition, when a baby is born, the naming ceremony takes place on the eighth day, and drummers spontaneously gather to celebrate, even if they’re not explicitly invited. Similarly, when an elderly person passes away, drummers come to pay their respects. In the past, apart from monetary gifts, people would also offer beautiful clothes to the drummers as a gesture of appreciation. This practice is deeply rooted in our culture.

Currently, there’s a debate about the appropriateness of spraying money during celebrations, with some labelling it as naira abuse. While I agree that mishandling the currency is wrong, I believe that spraying musicians is a harmless tradition. The real issue lies with those who misuse the naira, not with those who show appreciation to musicians through monetary gestures. For many of us, this practice is a means of livelihood, and it’s essential to our daily bread. Instead of discouraging the practice entirely, we should focus on promoting responsible ways of showing appreciation, such as placing the money in an envelope. Let’s preserve our cultural heritage while maintaining respect for our currency. 

What inspired your transition from Juju music to gospel music, and how did you navigate that creative shift? 

My transition to gospel music wasn’t about feeling fulfilled in my Juju music career, but rather a divine calling. After years of success in the music industry, God began speaking to me, but I resisted the call for 11 years. It wasn’t until the late Archbishop Benson Idahosa, who had just returned from a crusade tour in the USA, sought me out and delivered a message from God that I began to listen. He told me, ‘Ebenezer, God wants you to work for Him.’ He instructed me to prepare myself, citing the example of Moses in the Bible, who became a legendary figure by obeying God’s call. Archbishop Idahosa prophesied that if I heeded the call, I would surpass Moses’ fame. He emphasized that while my music popularity was fleeting, spiritual popularity was eternal. Without knowing my internal struggles, he prayed for me and later ordained me as an evangelist in 1992, on my 50th birthday. I began attending his church programs in Edo State in 1988, travelling from Lagos for the annual conferences. It’s important to note that my music didn’t change to gospel; instead, God’s impact has always been the driving force behind my songs. I still perform at weddings and events, but now with a deeper purpose. 

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Besides singing, what other ventures or projects are you involved in? 

In the past, recording was a lucrative venture. However, we now live in an era where technology has made music more accessible, and piracy has become a significant challenge. Nevertheless, I own a studio in Abeokuta and a record label, which I founded in partnership with Decca Records. Initially, Decca held 60% of the shares, while Nigerian investors, including my late friend Adekunle Akinbolu and I, held 40%. We later approached Chief MKO Abiola, who became the Chairman and majority shareholder. After his passing, I acquired the remaining shares and became the Chairman. I am grateful to God for His blessings and guidance throughout my career. To remain relevant in the industry, one must adapt and innovate. If the public no longer accepts you, you have no choice but to accept retirement. In my case, I am thankful to still be relevant. Even the late Dr. Victor Olaiya continued performing until his advanced age made it difficult. Eventually, we all reach a point where our physical limitations force us to retire, but until then, I will continue to do what I love.

Do any of your children share your passion for music and follow in your footsteps as singers or musicians?

My children, including Tolu Obey, have inherited my passion for music and have become talented singers in their own right. My entire family is musically inclined, and my grandchildren are already showing tremendous potential. They have a natural flair for music, and it’s a joy to see them develop their skills. Music has become a family tradition, and I couldn’t be prouder of the next generations’ talent and enthusiasm. It’s wonderful to see my legacy continue through my children and grandchildren, and I’m grateful to God for the gift of music that has brought so much joy to our family. 

Why has Juju Music’s appeal diminished over time, with audiences increasingly gravitating towards hip-hop and other styles of music?

Well, there’s a time for everything, as the Bible confirms. This is what’s happening now – they can reach their generation and respond to it positively. We must encourage them for what they’re doing. Whenever I meet any of them, I tell them to add meaningful songs to their music. I advise them to continue doing what they’re doing but to ensure their compositions are good. Many of them are already doing that.

Are you receiving royalties from your music compositions?

At one point, we were denied our rightful royalties. Music pirates hijacked our work, profiting from it instead of the legitimate music companies. These companies have agreements in place to pay artists a certain amount once their music is sold. However, the pirates’ illegal activities deprived both the companies and artists of their rightful income. Fortunately, there have been significant improvements in recent times. Music is now licensed to authorized parties who collect royalties on behalf of the artists. Nevertheless, piracy persists, with pirated songs being sold on flash drives, denying artists their due royalties. Despite this, progress is being made gradually. I acknowledge the government’s efforts to combat piracy through the Nigerian Copyright Commission (NCC) and existing laws. The government is working to address this issue and protect our rights.

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