By Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi
In 1991, the film The Five Heartbeats, directed by Robert Townsend was released. I enjoyed the film so much I cannot count the number of times I have watched it over the years. It is a story set in the 1960s USA about how five poor black teenagers found (and lost, then found again) fame and fortune as a musical band. It is a classic story of talent, opportunity, success, failure, betrayal and loss, drugs, women and murder.
The film summed up the experiences of many young black boys and girls of the time, who made it out of the ghetto on the strength of their God-given talents, but there was often a hefty price to pay for the light that shone on them. One of the scenes in the film shows a party taking place at a high-rise building, hosted by the owner of the record label of the Five Heartbeats known as ‘Big Red’. We see Big Red dangling one of his other artistes from the balcony of the apartment building.
What was the poor guy’s offence? He had the audacity to corner Big Red at the party and demand payment of royalties owed him. Big Red could not exploit the Five Heartbeats the way he would have liked because they had a manager who treated them as his sons. In order to strengthen his hold on the band, Big Red had the manager killed. Big red was eventually brought to justice, but the damage had been done. The band lost a beloved father figure. One of them got hooked on drugs and almost died of an overdose. Another snatched the fiancée of his brother and they became estranged for years. The successful band disintegrated and it took them almost fifteen years to get back together and forgive one another.
This tale of the dynamics between artistes and their recording companies or managers is one that plays out on a daily basis around the world. From Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna and Ed Sheeran to Taylor Swift and Dr Dre, there have been endless battles over management of royalties, adequate promotion of music and tours, welfare of artistes, harassment, exploitation and other pertinent concerns. In a context where there are regulations, legal options and guiding principles to seek redress or arbitration, there is hope for aggrieved artistes. In our own environment, these options are sadly limited.
In poor communities, we have talented artistes who are discovered at a young age, but if they fall into the wrong hands their lives are either ruined or even taken away. Ilerioluwa Oladimeji also known as Mohbad was one of such artistes. A familiar story of grass to grace, of a poor boy from a marginalised neighbourhood who grew up in an unstable family environment, yet with a fierce talent and determination to succeed.
Like many others, he was picked up literally from the streets and signed on to a record label that was supposed to be his ticket to stardom. He paid a terrible price for this opportunity of a lifetime. Instead of finding space, community and opportunity to nurture his musical talent, he found himself in a cesspool of poor company, intimidation, bullying and drug abuse. All this took a toll on his emotional and mental health and eventually his safety was tragically compromised as he passed away under mysterious circumstances. Investigations are still taking place to unearth the relevant facts surrounding his demise, but the facts in the public domain point to a terrible odour emanating from the vibrant musical industry in our country.
Many people have expressed their anger and sadness about the passing of Mohbad because it is felt that it could have been avoided if only people cared enough to listen to him. He cried out time and again, through his lyrics and statements, that he was being bullied and threatened because he had problems with his recording label, but nothing happened. People heard him, but they were not listening. There are many like me who did not know him at all and only got to hear about him when he passed away.
It is hard to believe that there was so much foreshadowing of what was to come, yet Mohbad did not get the support he desperately needed. There are others like him right now, who are signed to the same label and whose lives might also be at risk due to the dangerous environment they are naively trying to thrive in. The silver lining here is that there is sufficient outrage at the moment to hopefully fuel the changes that are required. The exploitation of poor kids from underprivileged communities needs to cease.
The more dire the circumstances of these kids, the more pliant they are in the hands of predators masquerading as messiahs. The recording companies in Nigeria should consider self-regulation before more young people lose their lives. It is not too much to ask for a more professional way of identifying, signing, nurturing and retaining talent. Young people need role models they can look up to, people who will provide them with guidance and make them the best version of themselves possible. They do not deserve a fate which takes them to the pits of hell simply because they placed their trust in the wrong persons.
A lot has been said about the responsibility of parents in this matter. I have always said that if you are bringing up children in this day and age, you need eyes at the back of your head. If your child or ward wants to be a part of the creative community, you need to be extra vigilant. If there are going to be significant investments in the creative economy going forward, it should also consider the requisite counselling and support mechanisms that are necessary for not only the antistes but their parents/wards as well.
It is not enough for a young artiste to achieve success, they also need to be guided to manage their success, otherwise they lose everything overnight. Between competing to buy the latest car (and it always has to be a very expensive one), a house in a neighbourhood they cannot afford, the many women who will be drawn to them like bees to honey, the ever-present entourage and hangers-on, and the underworld lurking in the background pushing illicit drugs, sex, and whatever fantasies need to be indulged, life on the fast lane always leads to a devastating crash.
May God Almighty comfort Mohbad’s family. May others like him who need help find it before it is too late. To all those who knew about what Mohbad was going through but kept reading his words and replying with Emojis, all those who heard but did not listen, please do better next time. A gifted, troubled young man has left us too soon. His passing diminishes all of us. We therefore all have a role to play to redeem ourselves and prevent the next victim from falling through the cracks. Rest in peace Mohbad. May your passing shine the light on the troubles of others and may all those who tormented you be brought to justice.