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Onyeka Onwenu: Graceful diva on social crusade

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ONYEKA Onwenu is a woman of many parts but somehow her paths and performing music met and both became inseparable. She carved a niche for herself in the field where not many women treaded in days of bourgeoning Nigerian contemporary music.

In era when women were more keen to pursue a lesser stressful career paths or manage the home front, Onyeka opted for music.

Dubbed the “Elegant Stallion” by the Nigerian press, Onyeka was the first established female Nigerian music act with a master’s degree. She burst into the Nigerian music scene with her western infused music in the early 1980s.

The posh and panache that she brought into the music scene endeared her to many music fans. She sings for every category of people and equally makes effort to unite the country with her music. Her passion for the country’s unity reflects in her music with such songs as, One Love Keep Us Together, and Peace Song.

Music to her was a calling and she demonstrated that while she did her mandatory one-year national youth service at National Television Authority (NTA) on her return from the United States, after her degree in Media Studies.

It was at the NTA that her music began. She never saw her involvement in music, as a distraction to media practice, neither was the essence of her tertiary education a waste. She was rather preparing the ground to go full time into music.

“My mother taught me how to sing while I was three. She would take me around the town to raise money for orphanage homes. She also taught me some songs and would do duets with me. Surprisingly, my mother wrote, “Ochie dike Nne.”

She was a fantastic singer and a fantastic actress. That was how I grew up. I inherited singing and I also inherited the work ethics and the commitments to use my talent to help the society that has made me what I am today. So, it has always been with me.”

Born in 1952 in Onitsha, Anambra State, the last child of her parents, her father, D.K Onwenu was a Nigerian educationist and politician, who died in a motor accident when Onyeka was only four years old.

Until his death in 1956, her father was the first Black Principal of Baptist High School, Port Harcourt, as well as the Principal of Enitonia High School in Port Harcourt. Her father, who represented Port Harcourt Federal Constituency at the Federal House of Assembly, died two weeks before he was to be sworn in as the Minister for Education.

Onyeka grew up under her mother’s care, had her primary and secondary education at Obosi, Idemili Local Government Area of Anambra State, where, she obtained both her First School Leaving Certificate and West African Senior School Certificate.

She later proceeded to Wellesley College of Massachusetts, USA, for a degree course in International Relations and Communication, thereafter, obtained a master’s degree in Media Studies from The New School for Social Research in New York. She worked at the United Nations in New York for some time before returning to Nigeria in 1980.

In 1982, while still at NTA, she released her debut album, ‘Endless Life’. At the NTA, the Arondizuogu, Imo State born talent, wrote and presented, “Nigeria, A Squandering of Riches”, the internationally acclaimed BBC/NTA documentary which became the definitive film about corruption in Nigeria and in later years, served on the board of the NTA.

This was followed up with the release of The Morning Light in 1984, which proved successful as her debut album. Onyeka, who began with secular music now sings mainly gospel songs.

Onyeka may not have featured prominently in the early days of the Nigerian movie industry (Nollywood), which she joined in 1999, and made her Nollywood debut with “Not Your Wealth,” but could described as a pioneer in the industry.

She has featured in many numerous Nollywood movies. In 2004, she featured in Half of a Yellow Sun with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton, and won the 2006 African Movie Academy Award for Best Actress in a supporting role.

Of all the movies, she has starred in, she said her most memorable movie was Conspiracy, where she played the role of a widow, who suffered in the hands of her in-laws. “My mother was widowed, when I was only four and a half years old,” When my father died, those he had helped deserted us, even those he had given scholarships, or sent abroad.” she said.

She entered politics in the current dispensation by joining the People’s Democratic Party, (PDP). After picking interest to vie for the chairmanship of her native Ideato North Local Government Area of Imo State, she was appointed Chairperson of Imo State Council for Arts and Culture by former Governor Ikedi Ohakim.

In September 2013, former President Goodluck Jonathan appointed her the Executive Director/Chief Executive Officer of the National Centre for Women Development.

Onyeka is a recipient of the National Award of Member of the Federal Republic (MFR), conferred on her by former President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2003.

At Nigeria’s 50th Independence Anniversary Celebration in 2010, Onyeka was bestowed with the ‘Nigerian Woman of Distinction Award’ in recognition of her immense contribution to the society. She is a 2009 recipient of National Council for Arts and Culture Award, in recognition of her contributions to the field of Music and Cultural Administration.

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