Chocolate City boss.
Ben-Nwankwo how he built the record company and sundry issues
You read Law in school, is that aspect of your life now dormant?
I grew up doing so many things at a time. I am a restless person. I am not happy when I’m not doing anything. But I learnt over the years to work hard and do so many things. The truth is that every typical Nigerian is a hustler. When you don’t have a job that can take care of your life, you will not just depend on your salary, you must do other things.
Were you not doing a ‘serious’ job when you started your record company?
I had a very comfortable job as a legal consultant and I was earning good money at that time. When I quit my job to face music squarely, I realised that the fate of many other people and their careers might depend on the decision I took. So for me, it was another call to duty. It wasn’t enough to sit and complain about the industry. I told myself that I had to get up and show how it could be done better. It has always been the driving force behind most of the things I get involved in. I always ask myself if there is an opportunity to make a difference, if we can change something to better the lot of many people.
But didn’t some people think you were being ridiculous when you left your job for music?
They laughed at me especially when I signed my first artiste, Jeremiah Gyang. A friend of mine actually asked me how I could leave my job as a legal consultant and be following artistes and not even a very big artiste but a Hausa singer. They laughed and laughed at me. But all that has changed and God has been good to all of us. I had faith that God would do what He said He would do. The more people said it wasn’t going to happen the more determined I was to make it happen. I just felt people were not seeing what I was seeing and I persevered.
But wouldn’t you have loved to be like the artistes you are managing as they are so popular?
Maybe. When I was 11, we had a music teacher. I could play the basic keyboard. I come from a very exposed background. My father is a lawyer and he gave us all that was necessary to develop. I used to paint. I was a graphic artiste and I wrote poetry. We were encouraged to explore our creativity. When I was 12, I had already done my first demo. I used to rap and sing. But when I was at Kings College, Lagos, I used to do freestyle rap. Even when I was in the university, I used to fool around and call my friends and we would record a demo CD. We had fun. That background helped me understand music and to know when something is right. Technically speaking, I would go to the studio, I may not know what to press but I would know what is wrong with the sound and I would proffer suggestions. It is that creativity that brings out the best.
Since your father is a lawyer, wasn’t he angry when you quit your job?
My father was a choirmaster and my mother was a chorister as well. Everybody in my family is a music freak and I think I am the least. My mum used to make us dub songs on cassettes for her. We used to have morning devotions and my father would teach us how to sing the alto, tenor and soprano. We all know how to sing. I remember when I called my father to inform him that we had started our company, he asked for its name and what we intended to do. When we released our first album, I took it to him and he said it was nice but suggested that we go into movies as well and we informed him about our intention to do that.
Did you study law because your father is a lawyer?
No. My elder brother is a lawyer as well. My elder sister had diploma in Law and went ahead to study Criminology in the US. But when I was four years old, I was the first person to tell my father that I wanted to be a judge. My brother studied Law because he finished his English degree and my father told him that he ought to get something on top and he went back and read Law as a second degree. My sister started off here but later went to study abroad. I was the one that had always wanted to be a lawyer. I don’t know if my father could have been able to influence me at four. It may be because I used to see him wear his wig and gown but I always knew I wanted to be a judge.
How does your wife cope with your kind of job knowing that you may not be home always?
One of the greatest blessings I have is my wife. There is no doubt about it, without my wife, I wouldn’t be here. When I made the decision to quit my job and start this, I was just about to get married. I called her and told her I wanted to quit my job; I told her I didn’t want to continue working for people. I told her I needed her support and in fact, the decision was hers to make. She said I should go ahead and start my business. She assured me of her support if things didn’t work out well. She is a medical doctor. And when I eventually started, she was very supportive; she understood everything. She has seen the growth and she has been part of it. She has had to put in money at the beginning and she knows what I do. She understands what I do. I have tried to make sure my family is carried along at all times in all the decisions I make. At the end of it all, what I have is my family. It is not easy. People will call your phone all the time. But that is where trust comes in. But trust has to be earned.
So she trusts you that much in the entertainment industry where stories fly around?
The stories will be there. But at the end of the day, I don’t think we are put in this world to be regular people. We are here to be kind of a bit irregular. Typically, there will be those worries here and there but it has been a great journey so far.
For somebody who is into entertainment, how did you marry a doctor because it is generally believed that they are ‘boring’ and conservative?
The old school doctors are boring. But this thing is about compatibility. It doesn’t matter what you do. I have seen lawyers marry lawyers. If you are not compatible, no matter how much you like each other, the incompatibility will clash.
Your wife is Igbo and you are Hausa, didn’t you consider her tribe before you got married?
If somebody had told me I would marry an Igbo girl, I wouldn’t have believed it. I grew up in Lagos and all my babes were Yoruba girls. I thought I would likely marry a Yoruba girl. But you grow up and you become detribalised. I don’t care where you are from. I was trained like that. Some members of my family expressed their reservations. They asked me if I considered the huge amount of money I would pay as dowry. But when I went and met her family for the first time, I was at total peace. She comes from a prominent family and they are very simple and unassuming. People also told her stuff about marrying a Hausa man. But when she and her people met us, they also made up their minds.
How did you meet?
We went to school together, like you said, medical students could be boring. I just knew her but we weren’t friends. They were serious students and we were the ‘rockers.’ But we met again in Abuja in 2004. We had a poetry club and somebody invited her. As soon as she walked in, I knew I had seen her before. She had changed a bit because she used to be very skinny. We started talking and from there, we started the relationship.
What kind of relationship do you have with Brymo who was on your label?
We have a cordial relationship. I don’t regret that he was with us. Everything works for good to them that serve the Lord. There is always progression. There is no doubt that he was one of the best vocalists we had. He is a fantastic singer. I think the issue we had with him helped to enlighten peoples’ perception about business relationships.
What prompted you to sign on Femi Kuti?
Why not? Somebody actually said that he wouldn’t have imagined that Chocolate City would work with somebody like Femi Kuti but I asked why not? That was how people asked me why I should even get into music and I asked why I shouldn’t. The truth is that we believe in music and we just love music. Music is a language itself and it has universal reach. What matters is the authenticity of the music and how you connect with it. When you look at Femi’s career, you would realise that he is big internationally but he has not done much in Nigeria or around Africa in recent years. We found out that he didn’t have a real team representing him in Nigeria.
But controversies are usually attached to him, didn’t you think about that?
We considered that but we realised that the whole entertainment business is shrouded in controversy. What convinced us the most was when we sat down and had a talk with him. I realised that the guy is very intelligent. He told us about his work ethics and we realised that he doesn’t joke with them. He has a passion for music and we know what music has done for him and how music has given him a purpose. We just had a conversation and when we left that room that day, we had all become huge fans of Femi. We realised that there were a lot of misconceptions about him.