SONSY KELUO – UDEKE
How does it feel that you and your sister are celebrities in your professional calling?
It’s an amazing feeling really.
My sister and I have always been best friends, and her joys are mine. The fact that she is doing very well makes me happy, and I know that my success also makes her very happy. I only wish that my mum would have been around to see what her girls have made of themselves.
Both of you look so alike physically. Whose side of the family do you attribute this to?
(Laughs) We really thank God for good genes! Basically, I look more like my dad and Isabella looks more like my mum. However, there’s just something about blood relationship, it all just came together and now we look very much alike.
How close are you and your sister, is there any sibling rivalry, especially with being in the limelight?
Oh I guess my sister and I are very blessed, because right from childhood, we’ve always been best of friends. Isabella has always acted as a pillar and a backbone in my life, and I’ve been likewise in hers. Sibling rivalry is very foreign to us so far in our relationship. Probably because we only really ever had each other all our lives!
How involved are you both in your lives now that you have your own families?
Very involved! I think it helps that we had a pret- ty good foundation. It always has been this way, even from when we were growing up. We ran in the same circle of friends, and even got married to our high school sweethearts. Everything just worked out perfectly. Our bond has even gotten stronger now and I’m so thankful that our fami- lies also share this same bond. Our children are best of friends, we both have four children each, two boys and two girls each and they’re mostly similar in age as well. Our husbands have also been friends since our university days and so it all just came together. It’s amazing really!
You seem to be in the forefront of making your sister’s music felt here in Nigeria. What drives this passion?
Honestly, love. It’s the fuel that drives this pas- sion. I know the gift she has, and the way she has whole heartedly put all her time, effort, talent and finances into it. The passion in which she follows her calling is admirable. I realise that she’s actually more appreciated in Europe, America and a few countries where she’s won so many awards. Even though she’s also won quite a number here in Nigeria, such as the Best female artiste in the diaspora, for 3 years at a row, which shows she’s doing something right. Still, we want to reach out to more people at home. Like the bible says, nobody lights a lamp and puts it under a basket. And really, I want our people to also be blessed and be impacted greatly by my sister’s music ministry. That actually is the same way, and with the same drive that she has also been and still is pro- moting my label abroad.
Your growing up years together, how was it?
It was a beautiful beginning. We grew up in a household filled with love. We lived with our mum who, bless her soul, was the most loving, kind, compassionate and generous woman I’ve ever known. She taught us to be selfless and loving. We were very close as it was just the three of us really. Even the name of my label, Loisonell was actually coined from the three of us’ names. Lois happens to be my mum’s name, “Son” from my name Sonsy, and the “Ell” is from Isa- bella.
Our mom was our best friend and she taught us so much. She started early to teach us how to be industrious and self suf- ficient, which has really helped us to get to where we are in life. She made sure we knew we had to get married for the right reasons – love most especially, to build a great home, and most importantly to always put God first.
How has it been since winning Nige- rian fashion show?
The journey has been good. Before then fashion and design- ing was like a passion for me, I wasn’t really interested in making it a profession. But after the fashion show, I got a lot of encourage- ment and people saw and loved my work. It’s been like a full time thing for me and we are doing well.
You do more of couture clothes?
The couture thing is more of our strong point. People come
in to make orders for couture clothes, but we also do other stuff, like our ready-to-wear clothes, fabrics, de- signer shoes, belts.
Is Loissonel a full service fashion house?
It is majorly about de- signing clothes. Every other thing is more like accessories, things to compliment the clothes.
How have you found the fashion terrain?
I think it’s becoming more interesting. Peo- ple have seen that Fashion Designing is quite lucrative, so a lot of people are getting into it. As far as I’m concerned, the competi- tion is good. A lot of young people are also coming in and I think we are really pro- gressing. Even my children have their own label for teenagers now.
At a point you were talking about having a ready to wear line, what happened? (Laughs) Actually, I found out that each label has their own strong point. Couture styling is my strong point, though I do a bit of ready- to-wear. But basically, I think my strong point is the couture part of fashion.
How do you get inspired for each client without having to duplicate?
I’ve had people that I’ve done up to 100 clothes for and if you ask me, I will tell you that I’m quite skillful in that aspect. I read Fine and Applied Arts in school, University of Nigeria, Nsukka. I majored in Painting and Textiles, and later colour combination. We did a lot of body structuring and all of that, so, it was like a plus for me. I did not just go into fashion because it’s a profession I wanted to go into, it was a passion for me. Creativity comes natural to me so, as a Cou- turist, it makes it a lot easier for me. Once you tell me how you want it and the look you want to pull off for the function, I’m normally effortlessly able to come up with a concept.
How long have you been in the fashion business?
Right from when I was in school, I had a fashion house then in UNN known as Zuski Touch. It’s something I enjoy doing, but it became a profession when I participated in the Nigerian Fashion Show in2003. And that’s been quite a while.
Considering that this is a attention de- manding business, how do you find time to unwind?
As a matter of fact, this business is like a hands-on thing because you are always there. The client always wants to see you one on one, discuss and tell you what they want. But, I’ve been able to train a few people that are also capable and over the years, my clients have learnt to trust the people that I work with, knowing that some- times I might travel or be on holiday. My business doesn’t really come to a standstill, because I have a good team that works with me.
If you were asked to define your signature style, what would you call it?
I would say that my style is more like red- carpet kind of thing. Things you wear to big events like weddings, places you would go and want to stand out. With my clothes I don’t joke with fittings, the combination, the finishing. The clothes I make actually really sit well. You know that mermaid kind of look, they are really sophisticated, classy, the red carpet kind of look. That’s my strong point.
“Isabella has always acted as a pillar and a backbone in my life, and I’ve been likewise in hers”.
ISABELLA OGO – UZODIKE
How did your career in music kick off?
I actually never consciously set out to make music a career, and I still don’t regard it as a career in a secular sense. It is a min- isterial calling in the sense that it is solely driven by my love for the Lord and my passion for people. I do love music, but music to me is a means to an end. By this I mean that it is a vehicle through which I can express my deep love and passion for the Lord, share His love and saving grace with others, and finally connect with God and people in a real spiritual way.
So music isn’t a career for you then?
I have always written songs and have always loved singing, but I never had it as an ambition to do music professionally. I became born again in 1996 and in 1997, I wrote a song which the church, choir sang in church. We lived in Port Harcourt at the time and I wasn’t a member of the church but I was allowed to do special numbers occasionally. I remember really sensing in my spirit a deep conviction that this was what I was born to do. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know much about how things worked, it was all very new to me and I mentioned it to the church keyboardist back then. He laughed and told me I still had a very long way to go, which was very true.
At what point did you realise it was time to follow your heart?
We moved to the UK in 1998 and I joined a young ministry which needed people to join the worship team. By default, I was volun- teered into the team and was made the worship leader shortly after. This meant I practically had to lead worship every Sunday and I did this for 11 years, before finally releasing my first wor- ship album in 2009. During those 11 years of serving as a wor- ship leader, I learnt a lot about the music ministry, became more spiritually mature, improved my singing skills, stage presence and carriage etc. It was quite a challenging but fulfilling process for me and I thank God for the grounding I was privileged to receive during those years.
Why the gospel genre?
There weren’t any other alternatives for me. I didn’t deliberately set out to be a recording artist from the start, everything was divinely orchestrated. I don’t sing for entertainment, neither am
I a performer, it is a ministry calling and I take it very seriously. The Gospel is good news and I sing about my love for God and I tell others about His love.
What was it like starting out in the gospel music circle, espe- cially in the UK?
As with everywhere else, stepping out was a bit daunting. You never really know how people will receive you as a new un- signed artist. Things are different for artists who step out under a label because they have the backing, both financially and other- wise of big established names. As an indie artist, you are mostly self-funded, which means one hasn’t got that kind of money to throw around on PR, branding, advertising and promotional ma- terials. Having said that, I count myself blessed because I truly believe that I had (and still have) heaven’s backing, which at- tracted (and still attracts) a lot of favour in the ministry. Starting out as an indie artist requires a lot of patience, perseverance, tenacity, sacrifice and humility. Of course you step out more or less from obscurity and people are very cautious with new art- ists. They would rather watch over time to see how serious you are before endorsing or supporting your work. As a new artist, I knew I needed a mentor who had been in the music scene for a while and who could teach me a thing or two about how things are done. I also focused a lot on networking and building rela- tionships with other artists, churches, pastors, radio stations etc.
Describe your kind of gospel rhythm, and how was it received?
Fundamentally I am a worshipper, I write quite deep, meaningful and intimate songs in the contemporary worship albums. But
I also have the youthful, exuberant African side of me which I express in my Afro-Gos- pel songs. I currently have five albums, two Afro-Gospel albums and three contempo- rary worship albums. I totally detest being boxed into any particular style of music, I believe in expressing myself in any style
as led by the Holy Spirit. I believe in being creative and versatile. You will find differing sounds and styles in the different albums and I love that. It’s interesting because my songs appeal to a wide variety of people.
You seem to have a good following abroad, how did you achieve that?
At the risk of sounding quite cliche, I have
to say it is the grace of God. God has been really faithful in opening doors of opportuni- ties for me to minister across Europe and the US. I also have a number of music vid- eos which are played quite regularly across different TV networks. My songs have also received some heavy radio airplay abroad, which have all contributed to people know- ing about my music. I do travel around quite a bit for ministration engagements, so that has also exposed me to a wider audience. Also, the social media has been quite useful in raising awareness and building support networks across countries. I am on Twitter and Facebook, and all my official videos are on YouTube. I have a website www.isabella- melodies.com, which has all my resources. My music and book are on all the major on- line stores such as iTunes, CD Baby, Amazon etc, so everything is quite accessible and easily available to people. Having said all that, the overriding factor is the grace and favour of God.
Which of your albums pulled all the awards you have won so far?
My first nomination for an award was in 2010, after the release of my debut album, Lost Without You. I was nominated for Best Newcomer at the Gospel Music Awards UK 2010. In 2012, following the release of My Tori Don Change, which is an Afro-Gospel album and Heaven’s Anthem, which is a contemporary worship album, I received multiple nominations for several awards both in Nigeria and the UK. In 2012, I was awarded Best Female Artiste in Diaspora by the Nigeria Gospel Music Awards, also in 2013. I was also awarded Woman of Praise Award and Artiste of The Year, Europe, at the Africa Gospel Music Awards 2013. So far in 2014, I have also received multiple nominations and recently won Best Female Artiste in Diaspora at The Crystal Awards 2014.
To be totally honest with you, the awards are very encouraging and they are an indication that my music is blessing people.
How come you are not a household name here, even among Nigerian Christians?
Well, everything in life has times and sea- sons. It is quite normal for me to be better known where I reside, which is in the UK.
However, Nigeria is my first love and my motherland, so I fully intend to get firmly rooted in my beloved country. Having said that, the purpose of ministry is not really to make a name for myself but to glorify God through the ministry. Of course I, totally agree that being a household name anywhere would be more desir- able, as it would make it easier
to deliver the message. However, I believe that God makes every- thing beautiful in His own time.
I can only do my bit and believe Him to do His. I believe the time will come when the ministry will be known across Nigeria.
You seem unperturbed about the fact that
Christians in Nigeria are not so aware of your
(Laughs) I wouldn’t quite put it like that. However, the truth is that I am at peace with what the Lord is doing. It is not about people be- ing aware of my music, it is about the music being a blessing and
a life-transforming agent to the hearts of the people. By the way, I personally get a lot of testimonies from my country people about how my music has been a bless- ing to them so it’s a matter of time.
What plans do you have in
place to make your presence as an ac- complished gospel artist felt in Nigeria?
Ans: I am really excited about the progress made so far. I have a fantastic manager in Nigeria who has been working extremely hard to increase the visibility and effective- ness of the ministry in Nigeria. His name is Victor Igbinigie, the principal officer at Gos- poGroove. I have also done a couple of col- laborations with some great Nigerian artists and plan to do more in future. We are also planning to have a series of worship confer- ences in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt in the near future.
How did you end up making the UK your home base?
We desired move to away for a while after we had a series of armed robbery attacks three times in a row. The last one was in 1997, when I was almost shot dead at eight months pregnancy. My husband and I de- cided we needed to find better security for our two daughters. When the opportunity came to relocate to the UK, we embraced it and indeed, I can testify that God has been so faithful. We had two daughters at our time of relocation. Now we have four children, two boys and two girls. Our first daughter is 19 years old and our last son is 11 years old.
It seems the artistic flare runs in your family, your sister,Sonsy is a well known designer. Who would you say influenced both your artistic traits?
I would say it runs in the family really, al- though in different ways. My mum was really into fashion, my dad was into music, although I can’t really say he influenced me. My sister (Sonsy is my only sibling and we are both orphans) could draw perfectly from when she was a child. She would literally draw your face in the sand and my mum nurtured that gift in her very carefully. My mum established a fashion house for her in one of the rooms in our home and bought her the equipment needed to run her fash- ion house, then called Zooskie Touch, back when my sister was a teenager, even before University. My gifting was quite different, in the sense that I couldn’t (and still can’t) draw for my life, but I’ve always been exception- ally gifted in writing stories, songs, poems etc. I suppose I must have got the singing genes from my dad. My mum’s family is full of singers, really.
Both of you share a love for looking good. What drives your passion for fashion?
To be totally honest with you, I think Sonsy’s fantastic fashion sense robbed off on me! hahaha. I do absolutely love looking good, but I am actually a lot more conservative than my sister. She’s very much into playing with colours, she’s quite trendy and adven- turous, whereas, I really play safe! I am very particular about wearing clothes that suit my African body shape but Sonsy would try any- thing! I love looking graceful and elegant, I take pride in how I look and I am conscious that wherever I go, I represent the King of
kings, so I dress in a way I believe is befitting. I believe in look-
ing good, as long as body parts are not showing in inappropriate places. I am blessed to have a sister who is so passionate about fashion and who is really outstanding in what she does so one less headache for me. She makes the clothes and just sends them to me. All I do is wear them!
So your sister contributes to your wardrobe content?
Sonsy basically makes everything I wear. I feel so blessed and priv- ileged to have her as a senior sister. If I have any events coming up, I don’t have to bat an eyelid, I just pick up the phone and ring her, and voila! she sorts me out. I do travel around a lot for ministry engagements and she has been amazingly supportive. So yes, she contributes to 70% of my wardrobe.
How do you cope with being a wife and mother with the de- mands of your busy music schedule?
It is by the GRACE of God that I am still standing. God blessed me with an awesome husband who has been a pillar and a rock in terms of support. We met as teenagers in the University and have been together since. We dated for seven years before getting mar- ried. We have been together for 27 years and have been married for 20 years. We have four children who are all very supportive of the ministry; they are my backup singers sometimes. One of my daughters is my PA. They’re all very musical, so they enjoy being part of what I do. Of course, my very tight schedule means I have very little time to socialise. I try to prioritise, family first after God, then ministry. My husband is also a pastor, so he understands what is involved in ministry. He gets involved in everything and I make sure I have his blessing and approval in every ministry engage- ment I accept or get involved in. I fully understand that my family is my first ministry, so I try to make sure that the family well being is not jeopardised by anything else.
As a family, we also make sure we take out family time every now and then. We get to go away on vacation for some family time and we get to do this every year unfailingly. This helps refresh and reju- venate us.
So what’s your next move?
Right now, I am still promoting my fourth and fifth projects. My fourth album is titled ‘Hala’ (Shou), which is an Afro-Gospel album and my fifth album is All That I am which is a contemporary wor- ship album. Both are doing very well and we are going to continue to promote these albums for the next few months. I will be back in the studio in 2015 for my next project. For now, I have both a radio and a TV programme in the UK. I am running a radio show called the Women of Worship (WOW), broadcast across two radio stations (Kent Christian Radio and Gateway Christian Radio) and I have also started a Women of Worship TV Show. Both shows are really geared towards showcasing the ministries of women of African ori- gin in music ministry. I have recently founded a global not-for-profit organisation called the Women of African Origin in Music Ministry (WAOMM), launched to act as a bridge, a voice and really a sup- port system for women of African origin in music ministry across the world. We are currently in six countries where we have national coordinators (USA, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Nigeria, with the head- quarters in the UK).
This is all in addition to my weekly ministry engagements. So as you can gather, my plate and cup is completely full and overrun- ning at the moment.
What would your advice to upcoming gospel artists be to help them?
Sincerely, my best advice would be “Humble yourself, be teacha- ble, learn from those who started before you. Don’t come in with the mentality to compete, especially for a Gospel artist, always place God first. Don’t focus on winning awards, getting famous or getting rich quick. If you start with that mentality, you may get frustrated because these things take time. Success is a process and you need to be patient with yourself, with God and with others. Improve yourself and don’t be too proud to ask for help when you need it. Don’t work in isolation, get to network and know others in your field. Hone in on your art. The most important advice I can give to a Gos- pel artist is to remember that character matters.