I had been looking for a chance to talk with Steary-J. As a Reggae fan I listen to his shows every Tuesday morning and Saturday night (if I am not overwhelmed by sleep). I was moved by the countless number of radio jingles that have been done for him by some of Jamaica’s biggest names and have constantly been asking myself the question of how he established the connection. To get answers to this and other questions, I visited Steary-J on Sunday, November 1st, at his neck of the woods, somewhere in Jos-South, Nigeria. Here, I present to you an abridgment of our 30-minute discussion:
I had the opportunity of speaking with your late colleague, Pupa-J, back in 2007. He told me that his ability to speak Jamaican patois had to do with the fact that he went to St. Joseph College, Vom. Could the fact that you went to the same school be the reason why you ended up speaking patois?
It has to do with interest. There are people who went to St. Joseph College and came out not being able to speak a word of patois. At the same time, there are others who never went to the school but learned to speak patois. So, it boils down to interest.
But before going to Vom did you have any feeling inside of you that you could speak patois?
No one knows anything about patois without having known Reggae. Prior to going to Vom I listened to Bob Marley’s and Peter Tosh’s songs. When I came to St. Joseph I met Morris Suwa who was the first man to anchor a Reggae show, speaking only in Jamaican patois. He had a pen friend in Jamaica who sent him a patois dictionary. Students would go to him and borrow the dictionary for a day or two. I did the same, borrowing the book and staying with it for over two weeks. That was how it started.
So, in a way, the school played a role in your understanding and speaking of patois.
Sure! There were many people who went to the school without interest in the language, but picked up interest in Reggae Music and the language. There used to be a Social Night, every Saturday evening. Movie lovers would go to a hall to watch movies, while music lovers would take the school’s sound system to a second hall and have a good time. What was played was largely Reggae. That was how the influence came for the many members of the club.
Would you say that the standard in Vom is still as high as it was during your time?
If you are comparing something it must be in relation to other similar things. Back, during our days, St. Joseph College always ranked among the top three schools in the West African Examination Council (WAEC) exams and subsequently, Senior School Certificate Examinations (SSCE) in Plateau State. Later, the school started ranking at the bottom of the top fifteen, sometimes twentieth position. So, the performance has plummeted. The old student’s association is worried about the situation and has started taking steps to help improve the standard. We are now beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel. When SSCE results are released, the school sends a copy to the old students association. Recently, the school ranked among the best ten. So the standard is picking up again.
Now, is the Reggae tradition still there?
Yeah. If you go to the school today, the Social Night is still taking place. There are students who graduated from the school, years after we passed out and have come out exuding that reggae tradition. An example is the Reggae artist, Jah Device, who went to the school, years after us. Today, he is one of the biggest Reggae artists in Nigeria.
How did you become a radio presenter?
It had nothing to do with reggae, at all. There was a program hosted by Yakubu Lamai. It was known as Unforgettable Moments. You write to the host telling him of an experience you have had that is unforgettable. If your story is appealing, the host invites you. It was how I got to radio, on that non-reggae show. After the show, the anchor commended my composure on radio, despite appearing for the first time. He said I could become a good On Air Personality. My question was “Is that so?” Since my passion bordered around Reggae, I went home and continued to perfect my patois. After about two years, I went to Morris who was the only anchor of a Reggae show on that sole radio station in Jos at the time. I told him that I had grown and would like to be featured on his show. That was how Morris gave me a slot in his show during which I played Reggae Music and threw out dossiers about the artists and the songs. Morris was impressed and occasionally invited me co-host the show. At the time, no one knew anything about computers. So each time I was going to the show, I requested neighbors to stay tuned and record the show on magnetic tapes.
Which year was that?
That was sometimes before1994. I cannot recall the exact year during which I appeared on his show.
The radio station you work for, Peace FM 90.5, has built a reputation for producing some of the best music presenters in Nigeria. Such a standard has inspired the music artists that came from Jos. Will you say that the standard exists even today?
Yes, the standard still exists. At the time, Peace FM was the only FM radio station in Jos. Now, there are six of them. If you listen to these new stations, they seemed to lack an elegant feel that our presenters radiate. Their programs are, nonetheless, fashioned based on what we do on our station. There are duplicates of nearly every show of ours on those radio stations. And those derivatives are aired at exactly the same time we are hosting ours, starting from the comedy shows down to the reggae shows and all the others. So, we are still setting the pace.
Sometimes you start your show with local artists. People feel that it undermines the attraction of the show. Have people told you this before?
Our radio station is community-oriented. If you should carry out a survey today, opinions regarding the content of our shows would be a spectrum. And so the radio cannot be for one section of the society. There has to be something for everyone. Yes, there are people who have come out to say that the local artists on my show should be done away with. A lot of Jamaican radio stations are online now. If you listen to them, they create room for all. The big names in Jamaica started modestly and received encouragement with the DJs giving them space on the airwaves. If a local artist is good, we have to play his music to encourage him. It is the only way he can grow.
People listen to your show and hear jingles from the biggest Jamaican names: Cocoa Tea, Romain Virgo. Taurus Reily, Morgan Heritage, Nature, and many others. People are wondering how the connection came about.
It is all possible because of the internet. You go to their Facebook or Twitter pages and introduce yourself as a reggae show presenter, tell them about their albums that you have listened to and the others you have not been able to lay your hands on. You also tell them how you have played those songs over the decades you have been on radio. You record some of your programs and send it to them. Based on the exchange, they are able to understand the depth of your involvement with Reggae Music. So the good rapport commences. I used to buy the records with my money, now they send them to me, free.
Have you heard the news that Jimmy Cliff once came to Jos and was arrested and thrown into jail and it was how he went back and made the song, Have You Heard the News?
I was a kid and did not know when the show was held, but I did heard about it from Steve Amok, who said he attended the show, which took place at Plaza Hotel, now known as the New Jos Hotel.
I used to live in Port Harcourt. There is this Star Mega Jam that brought big names to Nigeria. Through that I was able to watch Shaggy live at Sharks stadium and watched Usher Raymond at the Liberation Stadium. The Star Mega Jam has always been held in cities where the Nigerian Breweries feel they have the largest customer base, usually Lagos, Port Harcourt and some other southern cities. Are you of the opinion that we don’t consume enough beer here in Jos to qualify as a venue for Star Mega Jam?
I think that it has more to do with the economic status of those cities where the Star Mega Jam is often held. I think that the promoters want a setting where they would pay the artist and be able to get back their money. Lagos is the economic epicenter of this country and oil operations in Port Harcourt makes it one of the richest cities in Nigeria. You cannot compare the economic status of those cities with what we have here in Jos. That, I think is the reason why Star Mega Jam does not look in our direction.
Does that mean that we would never see big artists in Jos?
The status of Jos is changing, and with time, we would definitely reach a status when such a show is feasible in Jos. There are businesses springing up gradually. The businesses employ and empower people financially. People don’t make money without spending it. So, we would definitely get there.
What about sponsorship? Don’t you think we can get companies that can shoulder the sponsorship?
Showbiz is often affiliated to brands that deal with relaxation. It is why the Nigerian Breweries consider it their territory. Since the collapse of the Jos International Breweries, there has not been any related company in Jos. A company like Grand Cereal and Oil Mills do not produce related products. People would not buy their groundnut oil and drink during a music show. So, it puts them out of the question.
As a prominent DJ in Jos, do you sometimes feel it is your responsibility to persuade music artists to come to Jos?
No. on radio, what we do is to play the music. It ends there. There are, however, companies known as event managers and promoters. It is their duty to bring such artists to perform. They scour the music landscape to see who is most popular. That is how they understand which artist would attract the fans and help them recover their money. They go into discussion with the artist, pay the agreed sum and the artist comes to perform.
Thank you very much.
It was my pleasure.