I really love the creative space. From my somewhat unique dress sense to my love for film, music, architecture, theatre and art, I have always loved being creative.
At an early age, I quickly realized the spaces I was not so adept at and learnt to channel my energy into other endeavours, thereby finding varying levels of success. As a five-year-old kid in 1979, my love for music and my accompanying knowledge of all the latest dance steps were unmistakable. My early childhood memories are filled with unforgettable experiences. One of these was watching shows with my two immediate elder sisters, who attended the prestigious Queen’s College at the time. Soul Train happened to be our favourite show for a long time and Don Cornelius, its host, was a household name. We developed such a passion for the show that we digested everything about it into our beings; the hairstyles, the clothes and even the dance steps.
Speaking of dance, we all wanted to be professional dancers like Jeffery Daniels, famed as the world’s best dancer back in the 1970s and 1980s. Jeffery was one of a three-member world-famous music group called Shalamar and we followed him so closely that we even incorporated some of their dance steps into our rehearsals. Since both my elder sisters and I also did karate, we had an impressive infusion of martial arts into our regular dance routines, all complete with acrobatics and full splits. We built quite a reputation; I must tell you. At all the children’s parties, you knew the Chukumas would always win the dancing competitions. Personally, it was as though dancing made up for my inability to speak French and in my heart, I had a certain conviction about my calling and why the Lord had made me.
Now, we come from a family of entertainers. Our cousins, the Murray-Bruces, had first started Silverbird Group as a music promotion business. This business was initially led by Ben but over time, his brothers, Michael, Roy and Guy as well as other siblings, joined forces and grew it into a media and entertainment powerhouse that has been standing since then. Ben is a visionary who believed in Nigeria’s entertainment industry (and, indeed, Africa’s) and its potential progress before anyone else. He had gone to university in Los Angeles, gotten to meet and become friends with a lot of celebrities and decided to make a business out of relationships with personalities like Clarence Avant, who was also known as the Black Godfather. Everyone including his father, Papa Murray-Bruce, had told him he would fail, but he persevered. Then, he started bringing the biggest American music groups: The Whispers, Shalamar, Lakeside, Clyymax, Carrie Lucas and many more to Lagos where they played before sold-out audiences at the National Arts Theatre, the city’s premiere location for events at the time.
So, how does a small, five-year-old boy fit into this story? I will tell you. As I defeated more children at dancing competitions, my elder sisters, who had now become my managers, decided to pitch an idea to Ben – they would choreograph my dance moves along with another young lady, Ivie Emokpae. Ivie and I would then dance on stage with the groups that Ben brought to add some local content to the show. Ben loved the proposition and without agreeing contracts (this is why you get professional talent managers to do the paperwork), we began rehearsals in earnest. Lagos immediately loved us from the moment we stepped onto the stage. I mean, we were just five years old, had the best moves from regular practice and won the delight of the audience. We also had our choreographers, who were always behind the curtains, yelling strict instructions, “Chukie, make sure you finish with the split! Remember the full split!”
The Lagos concert crowd was traditionally a very emotive expressive bunch of savages who were quick to show their disdain for talentless acts. Think Apollo Theatre in New York, but these were exponentially more aggressive and unpredictable. For instance, people had been beaten up just for not performing up to standard. So, it’s safe to say we rocked and passed the major tests as they applauded us from stage to stage. We even signed a few autographs after each show.
In 1982, Shalamar came to Lagos. I had been preparing for this since 1979 when Ivie and I first danced in front of a gyrating crowd who cheered us on. Unknown to Jeffery Daniels (the so-called world’s best dancer), he was coming to our territory, a place where we had the reputation of being local champions with an unflinching fan base. That night, before we went up to perform, we stayed backstage where I was biting my nails and practising my deadliest combinations for any potential face-off. As someone who had a competitive spirit, I was going to show this American dance stars that I was powered by Pounded Yam with Egusi soup, not cheese burgers.
That day remains fresh in my memory as if it just happened yesterday. It was supposed to be a whole showdown. As the crowd jammed to the hit song, Make That Move, with loud cheers and gushes of contagious enthusiasm spread through the atmosphere, we intensified preparations to go up on stage.
Then it happened…
“Jesus! Chai! Chai!”
Noise erupted from the crowd. The customary curses and verbal missiles that Nigerians would launch into when the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) struck filled the air in different languages. Our show had suddenly been halted midway by an interrupted power supply.
There were even louder chants when the generator refused to kick in straight away. Then Jeffrey did something spectacular: he asked for a battery-operated flashlight to be directed at him and he started to pop-lock just to pass the time.
In the dark, with the light on him, the crowd gradually began clapping along, one by one till all hands followed in a rhythm. There was no music, nothing; just Jeffrey dancing effortlessly without music till the generator came alive. We stood there, spellbound. He was a dance sensation! His performance was so awesomely enthralling that it was hard not to stand in amazement. He was really a legend.
Well, thanks to the two clueless managers for whom I worked for free for a few more years; none of us even remembered we were to dance with the group again.