MI was born Jude Abaga to a pastor father and choir mistress mother in Jos, Plateau State.
His encounter with hip-hop started with sampling the works of DMX and Lauryn Hill in 1998. He wrote poetry and in 1999, left for Calvin College, Michigan, U.S.A. to pursue a degree in business and economics. His album Talk About It has become the subject of discourse on the Nigerian music scene gathering awards along the way.
In this hearty interview with Reporter, Gbenga Bada, the ‘short black dude’ talked about his life, career and love.
Is the poetry in your rap songs a result of your background as a budding poet?
I fell in love with poetry way back, and I got used to poets like Pablo Dohuda and Sanya Sanchez. I wrote poetry even before I started rap and if you go to poetry.com, you’d see some of my works as Jude Abaga. When I started rapping, I couldn’t just overlook that part of me because the best headlines are quite poetic and that is why my rhymes are poetic.
At the time you started music professionally even while you were in the U.S.A., not every Nigerian parent would have supported their wards to rap because of the violence involved. Also, considering your parents as pastor and choir mistress in the church. How did you deal with your parents?
I started in the church and obviously my parents knew about my love for music and they encouraged me because my family really loves music. In fact, my father used to have people sing in his church even though the elders think otherwise. My father loves music, he loves singing even though he’s got a horrible voice, so he encouraged me. When I decided to go into full time music my parents encouraged and supported me. In fact, they are my biggest fans now, it wasn’t really ever a problem.
You attended the Calvin College in Michigan, U.S.A., where you graduated with a degree in business and economics and the state is fondly referred to as MI Did this inform your choice of stage name?
Absolutely not. My schooling in Michigan has little or nothing to do with my stage name. It was even when we wanted a website that we started having the problem because anytime we type MI you come out with Michigan. MI is just a name I got while I was in secondary school in Nigeria. I used to rap spelling out Mister Incredible but people got used to calling me MI
In that same school, you were said to have taken part in a competition referred to as ‘Hip Hopera’ where you came out as the second runner up. What was it like for you?
Honestly, when you sell yourself, you only sell small things, which end up being big. And I’m always honest with the press and I can tell you that it wasn’t a big deal. I went to a school which was frequented by a lot of white people and as such, I didn’t really have the New York type of competition and that being said, I think I do well with what I do. I knew a pretty few rappers in the states and these people encouraged me by telling me that they felt what I was doing was pretty good.
You studied business and economics, why the choice of music as a source of livelihood?
Every musician needs to be a businessman. But really, I feel I shouldn’t just do music alone because while doing music, you are made to study music investment but I think I use most of time doing music, which is what I love and enjoy doing.
Did you develop this accent as a result of your sojourn in the U.S.A. or it was just a ploy to get into the mainstream as some acts do here in Nigeria?
Number one, I was born in a missionary environment, which is also an American organisation, and half of my friends were Americans, so I grew up speaking with the American accent in Nigeria. I went to an American school called Kent Academy in Jos and when I started Primary school, I had to learn how to speak the Nigerian accent and 10 or 12 years later, I was back in the States and pretty got back into it. So, I learnt rapping with that accent. I have the dual accent and that is why I could speak like the American and also a Nigerian but because of rap, when you have people like Nigga Raw, Lord of Ajasa, Da Grin, who are already holding it down for Nigerian music in terms of the identity, there should be people who would say we can rap as good as Jay-Z and take the other side of the hip-hop identity. We have people who are changing the identity and others, who are contributing to the identity. I like to say myself, Naeto C and Sauce Kid work at the international level as almost international artiste and not to be viewed or called a Nigerian rapper but a rapper from Nigeria.
You came into the industry and started getting recognition and awards from everywhere despite the fact that the record label, which you were signed on was relatively new. You also won an award while in Tanzania. Did you ever think you would get this big without a big record label?
First of all, I must commend your research because you have got facts on me. I don’t know I guess again between me, Sauce kid and Naeto C you’d probably get the right answers for what we do because obviously it’s not the label in terms of money but it’s the team, the people behind me. My label believed in me, in my music and pushed me to the limits of its pocket, physical, mental and networking resources. I had a city that believed in my music, Jos. I came to Lagos, I worked hard, I did whatever it took, I hosted some things for a while, I did things that normally if you were trying to be a star you should not do. I performed everywhere, I gave out my songs free and so many things but at the end of the day, you can’t tell, because the road towards success is something else. I guess God was just there for me, so ultimately, we are here, we thank God and we want to continue to work worthy of the success.
What makes you tick as an individual and a performer?
As a performer, just always wanting to be big, always wanting to do what people would always remember. I think as an individual, I think my upbringing, my believe in God, my background, my friends, my family, the structures around me, my team, my focus and people because you need people to be great and I have wonderful people around me.
Sometimes, I’m very happy about it when you look back and where you are coming from and you just give praises and adoration to God. I just moved into my house and I moved in and I just couldn’t say anything than God thank you. Sometimes, it’s a little boring because things that you used to struggle for, you get them freely and you are like wow…I enjoyed the struggle. I enjoy working, I enjoy the shows, I keep striving hard to be better than I am because I still have a lot to do and I pray God gives me the time, chance and talent to continually do all that. I would continue working hard and I know it’s just God’s work.
How long do you see yourself in the spotlight?
If I do my job very well, that is if I’m the best MI that I can be, I would still be here for a very long time, maybe 10 years. But if I do my job to the utmost height, then it means I would inspire a group of young men, who would come and be greater than I am. So, if I’m really good, that means, some group of people would look up to me and be better. I hope that very soon, young rappers would say, MI inspired us and I believe this could be done with hard work.
Your brother, Jesse Jags is also a music producer and rapper, did you at any point in time influence his decision to take up music as a way of life?
I can say so without trying to sound like putting him down, I’ve been a very great influence on my brother’s life. The talent is his although the ideas sometimes come from me, direction also comes from me. He’s a fantastic performer and producer. We both copy from each other as much as we both gain and give to each other. He’s been one of my greatest friends.
Very few performing and recording artistes have been able to successfully manage being a producer but you are a producer and also a performing cum recording artiste. How well have you been able to combine the two without hitches?
Music is a job for me and I take it seriously and I’m trying to be all I can be. I never see myself as a producer because I’m not the greatest producer, I’m MI and he’s a recording artiste and a performing artiste who produces. I take productions seriously, I want to go into film soundtracks. I do commercials and I’ve done one or two but with great opportunities come great responsibilities, so I take it very seriously.
So, which would you pick over the others if the need arises?
Now, I’m definitely MI and as time goes on, the picking thing comes like an evolution as time goes on but for now, I love being MI, being on stage and doing good as an artiste, I enjoy it a lot.
Despite the usual buzz and scandals attached to several male Nigerian acts, you seem to have cleverly kept yourself off the glare without a lady or woman linked to you. How have you been able to maintain that?
It’s funny because I know what I’m cut out to do and what my aims and aspirations are. I’m not D’banj and I’m not Tuface, who are seen as sexual gods. I remember that at a time, when I wasn’t in the country, I was said to be romancing Kenny Saint Brown and I just laughed over it because I know very well that I have only met Kenny Saint Brown just thrice in my entire life. Nobody is a saint though but I don’t come across like a sex idol kind of rapper or musician. I am what I do and what I preach, my kind of music is conversational and you grab whatever I’m talking about.