SALAU ALIU OLAYIWOLA aka Testimony (Mr. JAGA) is a gospel minister and artiste with good aces up his sleeves. With hit tracks Jehovah, Igara, Gone for life, Lambano and more recently Not Enough, to his name, he has introduced a stimulating style to gospel music in a compelling blend of Fuji and Akpala, which he brands Fujipop.
In this interview with MANNY ITA, the Fujipop proponent bares his mind on his former chequered life, the prodigious role his father in the Lord Pastor Chris Oyakhilome played in becoming the person he is today, issues bordering gospel and secular music as well as sundry issues.
It is a reader’s delight.
Give us a brief insight into Salau Aliu Olayiwola
Salau Aliu Olayiwola is a gospel music minister and artiste, popularly known as Testimony or Mr. JAGA. I was born in Ogun State. I am from Remo North; my mum is from Ishara Remo, so I’m fully an Ogun State indigene. I attended schools in Lagos and grew up there. I spent part of my life in Ibadan and Okitipupa, and environs but basically I grew up in Lagos.
I am from a Muslim background. My father has 27 children and I am the 22nd. Of that, my mother has six children-all boys- and I am the second. My parents are still alive. However, I was brought up with my stepfather.
What does JAGA connote?
Jesus Associate God Ambassador (JAGA). I represent Jesus and I am God’s Ambassador. So before anyone endorses me, whether Glo, MTN or any other, God has already endorsed me, so it’s as well a double portion for anyone who subsequently does.
What inspired your foray into music?
I would say, my grandfather. I was once a secular music artiste working with the likes of Obesere, renowned producer Da Piano, Skally mental, etc. I stopped secular music in 2011and ventured into gospel music in 2012
What informed the transition?
Actually my encounter with God. I got myself in trouble in 2011 and was arrested by SARS and taken into police custody and while there in the police cell, I made a promise to God that if He got me out of that place I was going to come back to him.
You said you are from a Muslim family
You know when I was in secondary school I got attracted to music. We had a big hall in my school at Alagbado that was always rented by a church and whenever they do rehearsals I was attracted and so I started going to the church and joined the choir, basically because of the music, but I never had the consciousness of a Christian until that incident drew me to God and I gave my life to Christ.
Fuji is not a common trend in gospel music, what informed this electrifying incline?
I call it Fujipop. My grandfather was an Akpala musician. Although this sort of music is popularly known as Fuji, if you listen very well you will realize mine is a blend of Akpala with Fuji. He was a musician. He told me lots about himself and his music which he couldn’t hit big with for obvious reasons. I didn’t really understand Akpala music, you know as a young boy coming up hip hop was it. When I was small and on vacation at my grandparents, I had the privilege of hearing my granddad sing. That was all. He never had an album, you know those days, they just had a band and went from place to place singing. There was no opportunity to wax an album. On subsequent vacations, my grandma would say I sing like my grandpa whenever I sang. I asked her what kind of music my grandpa sang and she said Akpala, and I was lost since I didn’t know the kind of music Akpala was. At a point, however, I said to myself that I’ve got to take over from grandpa and make it work. I decided to find out about Akpala music and listened to Haruna Isola, Olayi Mowora and afterward made up my mind to explore the genre and take it from where grandpa stopped. That is how I began infusing it into my own music and blend it to what people would like. So yes, my grandfather inspired my kind of music.
Do you think the gospel genre is disadvantaged in some ways as compared to others?
Yes, very much so. One of that is in terms of awards. When you go to a music awards show, they classify the music and say gospel awards. If you check in other climes where music is a big business as well, there is nothing like gospel music awards. For instance, if you go to the BET, music awards are just music awards. Gospel music is a genre of music. So I think the way we do it here in Nigeria is not so proper. Having said that, those of us who are gospel ministers in Christ Embassy have a unique platform where the man of God Pastor Chris Oyakilome has availed us to get the recognition and respect we deserve. You can imagine winning the song of the year with $10,000 attached to it, you certainly wanna sing more; best artiste of the year and you go home with $50,000, best worship song of the year wins $100,000, best producer $50,000. And there are people who win twice or in two different categories. So why won’t you want to keep singing for God? That is why those of us in that ministry don’t really bother with the trend out there because we don’t feel it and cannot complain.
Were you then motivated by money to sing?
No No, No! It wasn’t just the money, it’s a promise I made to God and God fulfilled His own part so I also had to fulfill mine. The money is more or less like a bonus.
When I left secular music things became very tough with me. My record label dropped me. My manager who had invested so much in me left me and traveled to South Africa because he is a Muslim and didn’t know how to accommodate my newfound status with Christ with what he was used to doing. The pastor I had then encouraged me to go into gospel music since music was already a familiar terrain to me. And I didn’t know Jack about gospel music. With the help of the Holy Spirit and the help of our man of God, Pastor Chris, who has been feeding us with the word of God, I learned. I also listened to some of our ministers like Frank Edwards and I realized that all they were actually doing was singing the messages of Pastor Chris. So with that knowledge, I started composing gospel music.
Have you at any point been tempted to go back to secular music?
Yes, I had, in 2015. When I left secular music in 2011 it was pretty tough. In 2013 I started going for boxing and it just seemed things were getting worse. In 2015, I resolved that if I didn’t have the opportunity to sing on the platform of Pastor Chris, being the platform we all look forward to in the ministry, just like a music minister in Redeemed Church looks forward to sing before Baba Adeboye, then I was going to quit and go back. I also at the time had the opportunity to travel to Cuba to further my boxing career. I just wanted to be successful in anything apart from stealing or robbing which I couldn’t do anyway. I was actually very good at boxing.
As God would have it, sometime in 2015, I got a call from Sinach, telling me they wanted me to open up the International Music Concert (IMC). That was how the opportunity came. Thereafter I called my boxing coach and told him that I would not be traveling to Cuba again. From then my music career took off for good. In 2016 Pastor Chris gave me another opportunity to travel out of the country and in 2017, with his help, I did the song Igara and shot the video in South Africa. So I know God never wanted me to go back.
Your song “Jehovah” speaks of comfort or blessings you derived from God. Can you recount some of those blessing
There is an award by the IMC called the LIMA Awards. In our ministry, it’s our own version of the Grammy Awards. In the history of the awards, no music minister has ministered twice but that changed with me. In 2015, I opened the awards concert and along the way, Pastor Chris called on me to come and sing the same song again. In the course of it as I sang, Pastor Chris jumped up from his seat. I was glad the song I sang made him do that, which I knew was inspired by the Holy Ghost.
Then in 2016, Evangelist Kathy who happens to be Pastor Chris’ younger sister called and told me the Holy Ghost asked her to train me. So I started being trained by her and while that was going on, her own son, known as Dezman Oyakhilome, who is a major youth influencer in Africa today told me one day that he wanted me to accompany him to a program. While there, I ministered a song on the second day of the program titled ‘Take It’ and he was so touched that he flung his car key to me and said ‘take it’. That was my first car – a brand new Toyota Muscle. When we got back to Lagos, I was with my family rejoicing and later on, while I was praying, the Holy Spirit told me that was not my car and told me to give it out. So I gave it out as a seed. When the news got to Dezman that I had given out the car he gave me, he called me to confirm. The next thing he did was ask me to go to his garage and pick any car of my choice and when I got there, there were big pretty and slick cars but I chose a small one I could maintain, a Toyota Sport 2005 version. He then asked why I preferred that among all the cars I saw and I replied to him that it was the one I believe I was capable of maintaining. He was impressed and promised to be giving me a car every year. And that’s how it’s been.
I also ministered in the Staff Awards ceremony. After the ministration, Pastor Chris stood up and defined my song and asked me to sing the song again. After the program, he called me and gave me N5m. That night I won Best Artiste of the Year Award and one of the top 20 songs of the year 2017. Again in the history of Pastor Chris platform, no one had ever sung in Yoruba dialect, so the whole thing turned around for me with the song ‘Igara’.
Which of your songs would you consider the biggest?
All the songs are big because they glorify God. I started with ‘David Dance’, then Lambano and then Igara. Let me say Igara opened some doors. It brought the street to the church and took the church back to the street, but the song Jehovah brought the money. Another one is still coming; so it is from glory to glory. I can’t say one particular one is the biggest.
At a time when moral decadence is at an all-time high, how can gospel music be demonstrated to capture the interest of young ones and stem the tide?
The secular guys spend a lot of money on their brands, but we gospel artistes hardly do things like shooting top class videos, putting our songs in the right direction like going on musical tours, doing shows and so on. We need to take it away from the church. That’s why I have an initiative called the SGM, meaning The Street Gospel Movement, a concept that takes me and my band to the streets where we set up shows, buy snacks and drinks for young ones to come and savor while they listen to the gospel being ministered through songs. We don’t need to be paid by that. It’s part of the commission. So we must not wait until we are called in one church or the other to come and minister but must create platforms for ourselves and deliver the gospel to the people. We must work on our brands.
One of the reasons people talk about Fela today stems from the fact that he wasn’t just singing for money. He was on a mission using the instrument of music to propagate the truth and liberate the minds of the people while exposing elements of oppression and preaching justice. So the Fela brand could only become strong and loved the world over.
On iTunes today, one of the highest selling albums is that of Bob Marley. Why? For much the same reason. So these people are celebrated today not because they wanted their faces on billboards but were singing to positively impact a lot of humanity, speaking the truth.
For this same reason, our man of God Pastor Chris Oyakhilome is investing so much in us so that the world can hear the message of the good news. Given that he is giving us money and opportunities, the onus lies on us to be creative in spreading the gospel. So we have lots to do in that regard.
How effective has the Street Gospel Movement been?
It has been amazing because taking gospel music to the streets has wowed many people who had no idea that gospel music can be fun and done in an exciting manner. Consequently, we have people who have joined us. We set up our band in the streets, go to them where they smoke and drink and share with them. I don’t have to condemn them in what they do because I do not come with a message of condemnation but that of good news. So they easily accept Christ. We, therefore, need to be creative in taking our music to the world. And Christ can trend better and indeed should. To buttress this, MTV Base in one of their programs used the Igara song to advertise the program. It was Igara that was playing in the background. I’m not sure it has ever happened before. So yes, we can do more as gospel artistes to attract young ones to Christ and away from immoral inclinations with our music, through creative ways.
With regard to lurid lyrical content in Nigerian secular music, and its potential for straying innocent young ones, do you think there should be censorship to checkmate the trend?
One thing I know Nigeria for is that we know good music. There are people who go to clubs and dance to the music, and may not have it on their phones or play them in their houses. And you might find the same people dance to Sinach the next day because at a time they want their souls to be blessed. The truth however is, you can also flex in God and that is my mission. I seek to bring entertainment into the gospel. Gospel doesn’t need to be boring. That is why I travel to South Africa to shoot top class videos because God deserves it more. If we say we own the world then there has to be proof. It’s allowed for Christians to buy private jets. Effective Christian ministry revolves around money. All the bibles produced and distributed all over the world takes money to produce so Christians deserve to have money so that Christianity can be enjoyable. It’s a wrong notion to unduly attach suffering to Christianity. Signs and wonders must follow your preaching otherwise they won’t follow your preaching. So that means we must perform miracles. So with respect to lyrics, in secular songs, there usually is a life span to those songs. The difference between the gospel and secular music is largely in lyrical content. I don’t condemn songs however because you can use the same or similar beats to sing the gospel of salvation. If you check those secular songs’ lifespan, it’s always very short, that is why they keep shooting videos as many as they can each year. But know what? People don’t want to spend their money on who is quiet, but they will pay for who they see and hear all the time, on radio, TV, cable networks and so on. So we must also be there. As gospel artistes, they need to see us all the time.
In what ways do you think the music industry in Nigeria can be further improved?
So far the Nigerian music industry has done very well and we have been dominant in Africa and even beyond because of our impact. God has given us the ability to have dominion.
Even in the church circle, some of the very big names that have massively impacted millions of lives across the globe are Nigerian pastors. However, the music industry can actually do better by improving on content. Lyrics do not necessarily have to be religious to make good music. One of the things I usually reflect upon is the kind of impression my grandchildren should have of me in maybe twenty years’ time when they go to you-tube and watch my videos. Would I be comfortable they see grandpa eulogizing bum and all the immoral things that color the talents of a lot of our music artists? What message would I be passing to them? I always carry the consciousness to educate and edify with my music, without missing the fun. We can give our music good content and that is important because one day we’re gonna leave this earth, so the legacy we leave behind should matter. Legends like King Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey, Shina Peters are celebrated today while still alive because of their quality. Their fan base can never depreciate and they don’t need to spend any money on social media. We must think of our future and the next generations. So the industry can be better with an improvement in our content.
Apart from the music business, what other business are you involved in?
I have a clothing line called JAGS Wear, I have TMJ Audio; these are branded, music speakers. There is also TMJ Gas, a retail gas outlet. These are all small businesses meant to service the common people and encourage them. I also have my band ‘The Testifiers Band’, we play at weddings, birthdays and other events.
Can you mention some of your role models from whom you draw inspiration?
The first one, of course, is Pastor Chris Oyakhilome and the next is Evangelist Kathy, my music Director who also trained me. I love Dbanj.
Why do you love him?
Well, people think he doesn’t have much talent but the guy is not on the backseat. He is thriving and living better than many. He just knows how to do business; a real businessman he is. He may not have the best voice in the world but he is happy and fulfilled. I see him as an accomplished person. He has won many awards and a number of endorsements to his name. When you put him onstage he has the capacity and charisma to deliver. Perhaps as a gospel artiste, it may sound odd saying these, but I love the person of Dbanj.
Tell us about one unforgettable situation or moment in your music career so far
The bad or the good one?
Let’s start with the bad one
The bad one is a day I was in a ‘molue’ bus and my song was being played on the radio and despite the fact that people were moving to the rhythm and recommending it, I couldn’t tell anyone that it was my music.
Because they would not believe it. Given the way things were bad, no one would have believed that because I didn’t just look it at all.
Was it secular music?
Yes but the way I did it was just like gospel music. It was everywhere.
The good one is when Pastor Chris Oyakhilome gave me a standing ovation and defined my music exactly the way I had it in my spirit. That was an awesome moment for me.
Do you think the gospel genre is competitive?
Not really, and that is why we need more people in the genre with different creative styles.
Have you thought of a collabo with any of the outstanding gospel artists?
Yes, I did one with McAbdul, did one with Kelly Lyon and by God’s grace planning another one with big brother Eben as well as Tim Geoffrey. I can work with anyone as the spirit leads but right now I am working more on myself.
What’s your next project?
To impact the lives of those around me. I have a couple of guys coming up and by next month should drop some videos and singles. I just dropped one called Bethel for my dancer. I try to give other people an opportunity also to do their thing as much as I can, but no signing or deal of any kind. If they are loyal then they are and if they are not, then they are not. Nobody signed me. I just want the gospel to be spread everywhere and anyhow.
How do you contend with the distraction or attraction from women?
I see them as blessings. You don’t want to go to any show and see only men. It depends on how you see them. For me, they are no distraction.
Are you in any relationship, and if so when are the bells ringing?
I am not married but I know one day I will when the time is right. I am not into any relationship either and I am not searching. For now, I am more focused on soul winning. It’s all about the gospel and also about my career. It’s an opportunity I have been searching and waiting for, so I am taking full advantage of it.
When the nation Nigeria comes to your mind, what thoughts does it conjure?
Nigeria will be better
Do you think our leaders have failed?
Well, they fail themselves and not the people because they all have names. When it is asked why this or that has not been done or the way it was done, there will be names mentioned along with that. That said, I am glad Nigerian youths are standing up now. It is a good omen. We now know the kind of leaders we should vote for. If you sell your vote, then you sell yourself.
Nigeria will not fall. Since they have been stealing the oil, it has not dried up; since they have been carting the money away, the country has not crashed. Now there is some sort of competition among the governors because they know if they don’t do well, there are people standing by to relieve them via the ballot, and so you can see a number of them are doing very well in their respective domains. Governor Ambode stands out in the pack. Rivers State governor is doing a great job also and so are some others, so I see a better Nigeria, despite the unwarranted and despicable acts of bloodshed in some parts.
What are your dislikes?
I don’t like when people take the things of God lightly, make jest of or talk carelessly about a man of God. I don’t like when people are denied what is due them; for example when people work for someone and they are denied their wages or rewards. That is common in Nigeria in many organizations and business dealings. Many employers deliberately owe their staff with a misguided and selfish belief that they are doing them a favor by having them in their employ. It is wrong. I don’t like disrespect. Everyone deserves respect, every worker deserves their wages and every child deserves good treatment. Every leader deserves to be respected by the followers. Students ought to respect their teachers, otherwise, they may never do well in life. Above all, we need to respect God. If you respect God, you will respect man.
Where do you see Mr. JAGA in the next 5 to 10 years?
Mr. JAGA in the next 5 to 10 years will become one of the greatest, impactful, creative and richest musicians, not just in Nigeria or Africa, but across the globe.
What are your hobbies and how do you wind down?
I love boxing. I love cooking and I am still a studio rat. I love to make people laugh all the time. I love music and wind down with music.
Any message to young aspiring gospel artistes and your teeming fans out there?
For the aspiring gospel artiste, I’ll say don’t try to run faster than your shadow. Don’t imagine you’d just wake up one day and become a superstar without working towards it. It was better you shoot a video of N500k and used N2m to promote it than to shoot a video of N2.5m which ends up on the shelf. It was better you looked for that young producer who would give you attention than a super producer who will collect your money and give you no attention. Act on the level you are. Don’t aim higher than you can shoot at each point in time. Have a mentor to whom you can always go for advice. Always be original. It’s good to have a mentor and be inspired by them but you must not copy anybody. Invest in yourself and blend it in. Most important of all, have God and give Him prominence in your song and in all you do. Never do otherwise through the wisdom of any record label, because chances are, they must have liked your style before calling you up for the signing. If they cannot make you better, don’t let them make you worse.
For my fans, you are all wonderful. Always remember, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. No man has him and stays the same. He’s everywhere around you if you don’t have him, seek him, and take God seriously. No matter the situation you may be passing through today, it is but for a while and will pass away. Speak positive things into your life and refuse to accept failure. Above all have absolute trust in God. I love you all.