Simply Simi: The Singer, And Nigerian Idol Judge Talks Motherhood, Women In Music And Her Favourite Contestant This Season
Originally starting her career as a gospel singer, this effervescent mother of one is one of Nigeria’s best musical exports. While busy in her mum’s daycare in the Mainland area of Ketu, young Simisola was taking herself through all the nooks and crannies of music production and her resonant voice was her test subject. Recording cover after cover, the now-married 33-year-old, popularly known as ‘Simi’ was putting herself through the furnace to stand out and stand up for herself where others might have lost their voice. The singer, songwriter, sound engineer, and actress had a chat with DOWNTOWN’s Tilewa Kazeem to discuss being the only female judge on M-Net/Africa Magic’s highly coveted music reality show, Nigerian Idol, motherhood, female biases, and having a solid work ethic.
Looking at all the thousands of contestants vying for the title of Nigerian Idol winner must give you a sense of nostalgia. Did you ever put yourself out there to be judged by a panel for a reality music show in the early stages of your career?
Actually, I never did that because I’ve always felt like it takes a level of bravery to be a performer like that. And I don’t think I’m designed to go under that kind of pressure. That’s why I always admire anyone who puts themselves in that type of position because I have never, and I don’t know if it is something I could have done.
But then, you’re a fantastic performer. You’ve performed at shows and up on stage,you look pretty confident and brave.
To be honest, it took me a lot of work to get there because I used to have really bad stage fright. I remember early on; when I’m singing on stage, I’d freeze, forget my lyrics or forget the notes I’m supposed to sing. Next thing, I’m singing off-key so it was a really hard thing for me to overcome. But I think because of how much I love music I refused to let that stop me and I would do it more and more. And the more I did it, the easier it became.
You mentioned having stage fright and not being brave enough early in your career. I’m sure having stage fright isn’t something you want to have when competing for the top spot on Nigerian Idol. What other qualities do you believe these contestants should possess to achieve, and possibly exceed Simi status?
I think confidence is very necessary but most importantly, you must know how to sing. It’s not a platform where you’re coming to be famous or looking for people to be nice to you or you’re just fishing for compliments; because everyone you’re up against is chasing their dreams. There’s nobody there that doesn’t want to win. So you have to come with talent. Be confident, be skilled and also have a great work ethic. On this show, we’ve seen people that performed better than when they first came in because they’ve seen the competition is fierce and they’ve had to rise to the challenge. In addition, be open to learning as well.
I’d be putting it mildly if I say you’re Nigeria’s sweetheart. You have thousands of fans who follow you and your music religiously. Then there was the Duduke challenge where you had your fans participate in what was a special and life-changing experience for you. Are you a bit worried that your responsibility as a judge might affect that reputation?
The truth is, I try to be as honest in whatever I’m doing. I try to be as authentic as possible so my truth is not necessarily perfect. The fact that it is honest doesn’t make it perfect so I don’t expect that everything I say or do would rub everybody the right way or would make everybody like me. Even when you’re not talking, not doing anything people will still talk. So my goal is not to pretend to be something so people can like me or present to be something so people can dislike me. I’m not trying to prove anything, I’m just trying to be myself. I feel like that, over time, has worked out for me. Being authentic, people that love me, do love me, and people that don’t like this, you know, aren’t supposed to be in my corner and that’s fine. If anything actually, I feel like this is an opportunity to see more of my personality and either work with it or decide that it is not for them. But all in all, I’ll be honest and authentic in everything that I’m doing.
You’re the only female judge. Do you feel any form of intimidation, like you need to prove yourself a bit more seen as it is a more male-dominated judging panel, so to speak, do you feel like you have to do extra to get people to notice ‘hey, Simi is here’?
If there’s anything where I have to do extra it’s more physical stuff not how I present myself. I don’t say anything less. But you know if it’s, for example, to get ready I have to do more getting ready because I have to get my hair and makeup ready, you know it’s exhausting but then guys they just come in, ten minutes and they’ve put their clothes on. If I do, the same people wouldn’t have the same opinion that they have about the guys. So that’s where I would say takes the most work as being the only female judge; it takes more time to get ready, to get on set but in how I’m communicating and my relations with maybe the contestants or the judges I feel I’m the same Simi that I am everywhere else.
Seeing as you have joined the illustrious list of female judges, what do you hope to do differently from the other female judges in the past this season?
I wouldn’t say I’ve watched previous shows looking at just the female judges and seeing what I can do differently from them. Like I said before, I’ll just be authentic and I’m not trying to follow in anybody’s footsteps… I’m only following in Simi’s footsteps. All the former judges have come here and done what felt true to them and acted the way they felt comfortable with and that’s perfect for them. I’m going to come and do my thing regardless of whether I’m around other guys or not. I’m not coming to upstage anybody.
After what was a long pruning process, you and the other judges got your final twelve. What would you say set this selected superstars-in-view apart from those of the previous six seasons?
I feel like this is probably one of the months that people would have a hard time deciding who to vote for because there are so many credible talents. And I know past seasons they’ve had great talents but it was really hard to whittle down to the number we have now. When we got to the top twelve a lot of people were in my comment sections; one of my closest friends sent me a voice note saying “how could you remove my girl, how could you remove my boy” you know. Everyone is someone’s boy or girl that’s to try to stick out more or stick out the truth so regardless of whoever you remove, someone’s going to get mad. So I think what I’ll say is, to me in my opinion, we have a richer variety of talents in this season.
That’s interesting to note. So would you happen to have a favourite so far?
I have several favourites but they keep changing. I remember when we started the live show, the very first one we had, this past Sunday, Obi Asika, D’banj, and I were talking, and I was like I’m keeping my mind open because they’ve seen what’s on the table and what they are up against. So people that were lackadaisical before or the people that were nonchalant about this before are going to up their game and that was exactly what happened. And at the end of the show, all of us were like ‘Now, I don’t know’ and I feel like that is so exciting. Honestly, I probably have like five favourites but it keeps changing because I like all of them for different reasons.
Let’s imagine that a girl won the show this year. What would you say she needs to do as a woman to stand out in the music industry? You’ve carved your niche, you have your ethics. What would you say she needs to do to stay afloat, to constantly be in the creative space, to avoid scandals, and just keep breaking glass ceilings?
It’s not a secret, it is something I’ve said constantly that women have to do more to get even half of what men usually get which is very unfortunate but you can either throw a pity party or you can get up and work. That’s my take. You have to do the work that it takes if you want it bad enough. So as a woman, you have to do more and put yourself out there. You’re saying this is what I’m capable of, this is what I deserve then you’re going to put the work in because nobody hands things to us just because they like us or our smile or our voice is nice. People just don’t give us things, we have to go the extra mile. Put the work in and have a great work ethic. So if a woman wins this— and there are very great female contenders so that is a really big possibility— then they are going to have to prove that they want this. Even after they’ve won, they’re going to have to prove that they want a space in the Nigerian music industry. A great work ethic is necessary. I’ve met artists that can sing all these notes but they’re not putting the work in and then there are people that may not be as talented as the next person but are winning more, thanks to a great work ethic. Always improve yourself and as a woman, I’d advise that you also learn the back-end of music, stuff beyond singing and take up perhaps production, behind-the-scenes or mixing and mastering that way, people would respect you because they know you put your money where your mouth is.
Would you say you’ve experienced any form of bias in the industry? I know you mentioned as women we can either sit on our backside or get up and work. But has there been anyone that has made you say ‘you know what, I’ll show just who I am?’
Yes. Usually, when people ask me this question, the one instance that comes to my mind most recently is when I gave birth to my child. The funny thing was I hadn’t even announced it yet. Someone had called my manager for an event and he was talking to them about the fee, and then the person said: “how would she charge that, is she not pregnant?” The mere fact that I’m carrying a child made him value me less. I still don’t understand the rationale. If anything, I should be paid more because that’s a major health risk. It’s not like I can sing less. That’s just one example. I also remember when I was getting signed to someone that told my boss that I didn’t have that whole sexy vibe —you know, I was singing with the whole mellow church-vibe— that I couldn’t sell the market. I don’t feel like a man would have gotten the same scrutiny. And it’s not just me, I’ve heard stories of men in the industry that say “oh no, I don’t want to sign a girl because their wahala is too much. Once dem done marry now, you no go see them again. When dem marry you dem no go hear word again. No oo. Dem too like wahala any small thing, makeup” but if you don’t want to wear makeup you’ll hear ‘you’re not girly enough’; so you can’t win. That’s what I mean when I say; your work has to speak for you. There’s no choice, if all you’re bringing to the table is your voice, then there are thousands of people that can sing better than you. That’s not enough. Your work has to speak for you. I remember before I got signed, I’d sleep at four in the morning. Our house was in Ikorodu at the time and I knew there was nothing in Ikorodu. My mum had a daycare in Ketu, on the mainland so I used to stay there. Bless her heart. She let me stay in one of the rooms, I’ll be recording covers day and night, I taught myself how to mix. I would call people and ask them, ‘do you want me to write for you for free? Just put me on your album.’ I’d download beats off of YouTube and sing over them because no one was there to give things to me, you have to demand those things. However, for people to pay attention to your demands, you have to prove that you deserve them. Those are the things you have to do constantly because you know that there will be bias. People are going to judge you first because you’re a woman and not just men, even women. One of the things I always say is as women, we need to call ourselves out. If we are allowed to pick between a man and a woman, usually our first thought sometimes is ‘are you sure a woman can handle this?’ It’s human behaviour. It’s not because we’ve worked with men who can handle things. We have been groomed in our minds that women aren’t as capable because we are fragile. Some people even say we’re the weaker sex— which I think is crazy! I’ve not met anyone who has touched my voice and mixed it better than me. If I wasn’t a singer and people hadn’t already realised that I can mix, they’d question me if I mentioned that I can mix. So yeah.
In the spirit of Mothering Sunday, we’d like to know what it is like for you to be a mother. What would you say excites you the most about being a mother?
I think being a mum is the most important thing I’ve done with my life. It’s the most spiritual. I say to my friends that I’d rather be a failed artist than a failed mum. I think that if you choose to do it— this is why I think no one should be forced or coerced into having children because it’s a big responsibility and while people ask for kids, kids don’t ask to be born. And a lot of people take it personally, but it’s true— So when you choose to have a child you have to be 100 percent there because until they’re a certain age, you are responsible for their emotional health, and making sure they aren’t traumatized. The type of environment you put them in, you have to be very careful with those kinds of things and they are watching your every move.
Having a child is helping me become more present and prioritise. I want to be a lively part of her life and not in and out. And this is one of the things that might humble us as women. I remember before I became a mum I used to say women can do all things, and I one hundred percent agree but you cannot do all of the things at the same time. The kind of time that I had for work before obviously is not the kind of time that I have now. I have to reprioritize. When my child was still an infant there were things I had to say no to because I wanted to be there for her. And that was hard for me. So I guess again it’s different for everybody. There’s this illustration that I heard someone say, it’s like when you’re working you have glass balls and rubber balls for both things. Glass balls are things that when you drop them, you’re going shatter while the rubber balls are the things that if you drop them, they bounce back. They might scratch a bit but there’s no damage. So you have both things for both things in your life. As a parent, say a glass ball is me not being there to nurture my child, I’m never in her life because I’m working all the time. If I drop that ball that’s bad. A rubber ball, on the other hand, would be, maybe a child has a school play that you can’t go to because you have a glass ball for work where you have to drop your album that day. You can drop that ball. As long as it’s not something you’re doing all the time. So that mentality just helps me prioritise. And if it comes down to my child or my work, it’s my child every time. Every single time and because this is a choice that I’ve made to have her, I wasn’t doing it under pressure or anything so it comes easy to me. It’s just a beautiful experience being able to love someone so deeply and with so much vulnerability. I’m generally a strong person with things like that but with her, I’m very vulnerable. She has made me more vulnerable than I’ve ever been in my life because this is someone I’ll do anything for.
We are just curious, considering that you and your husband are both singers, has the baby started singing or cooing rhythmically?
She loves music. There are certain songs that I have that are her favourite because I’m working on my album right now, there are songs I play and she’d shout ‘aye’ because she’s heard them before. She knows some of my and her dad’s songs. She is not at an age where she can sing and hold notes yet but I can already tell that she’s going to like music to a certain level. I don’t know if she’s going to be a singer or anything but it doesn’t really matter. My hope is for her to be happy regardless of what she chooses to be. I just don’t want her to be a pilot because it would give me anxiety. Not that I don’t want her to love it but it would give me anxiety. Anything she wants to do, any dream she has regardless of what it is, I just want her to be happy and full in life. Life is so short, we chase things and we don’t have enough time to enjoy them.