Classical has always been a major part of my life, but I have favoured other styles in the past. Pop, rap, R ‘n’ B, rock, country, and in the mid-80’s nothing stirred my spirits the way reggae did. As Brixton was next to Streatham where I grew up, boom boxes blasting out the latest island tunes were the norm. Bob Marley’s Legend was one of the biggest selling albums of the decade, and while reggae acts had by now seen their hay day on Top of the Pops, it was still popular. I was never a massive fan of this genre until my cousin George – God rest his soul – introduced me to some big names in the industry including King Yellowman. Another cousin taught me the lyrics to the song “Inflation” by reggae duo The Mandators. While they were not my favourite act, I loved the tune. The pair, which consisted of Victor Essiet and his partner Bose ‘Peggy’ Umanah, were among the most successful acts on the Polygram label, and while they often competed with Majek Fashek and Ras Kimono, their place in Nigerian music history was secure with the release of two more albums. Lead singer Essiet, who was surprisingly well-spoken, earned my respect as one of the few reggae singers who stayed true to his Nigerian roots by refusing to resort to a ‘Ja-fake-ian’ accent as was common with most of his colleagues. His subsequent residency in America has left him with a slight Yankee drawl which is disappointing, but as I speak with a British accent myself I am in no position to judge. Nevertheless, Essiet will always be noted for using reggae to speak for the masses during Nigeria’s economic turmoil, and deserves his place as a music legend.
In 1991, fans were stunned to hear that Essiet and Umanah’s relationship had ended, with the latter duly leaving The Mandators. Tabloids publications soon found themselves reporting numerous accounts on the cause of their split; the most popular was Essiest’s new relationship with a nurse/bandmember while he was still unmarried to Umanah. Contrary to popular believe, she was not legally married to Essiet, although she was known to officially use his surname on occassion. In an interview with Vintage People, Umanah stated that as her custom entailed, Essiet was not entitled to the two children she had borne him as they were not joined in matrimony. Her ex argued that he had attempted to pay her bride price, but she kept delaying the proceedings. Following the split, Essiet continued with The Mandators as a solo act with moderate success (After Nelson Mandela’s freedom in 1990, and the 1991 release of Lekki Sunsplash winner Blackky’s About Tyme which saw Nigerians embrace a new style of reggae, as well as the rise of rap/hip-hop, most old-school reggae artists were thrust out of the limelight). Umanah attempted to break out as a singer in her own right, but sales of her solo album were unimpressive. Little was heard of her afterwards until 1999 when it was announced that she had died after an illness. Fans of The Mandators pointed the finger at Essiet who had left the country five years prior, accusing him of being responsible for her death; the majority have downright stated that he killed her. Nearly twenty years have passed, and Essiet continues to defend himself. How many of these so-called fans have thoroughly analysed the events leading to the situation?
Essiet did intend to marry Umanah. As an Akwa Ibom-native, he had asked his Bendel-born girlfriend to enlighten him on her native requirements so the dowry process would run smoothly, but she never took his demands seriously, which stalled any matrimonial plans. Ras Kimono had already tied the knot with former Nigerian Navy sailor Sybil Amuta, probably encouraging Essiet to follow suit with Umanah, but the latter reportedly ignored him, which was why they never married. As a successful singer, Essiet had the resources to finance the wedding that never was. Umanah’s family also played a role in the demise of their relationship. Apparently, her mother had threatened to take her daughter out of the home she shared with him unless he revealed the size of his bank balance. This was a man who lived a comfortable lifestyle, and provided abundantly for his family – in the same issue of Vintage People, albeit a separate interview, Essiet claimed that he gave Umanah a tidy sum monthly as house-keeping allowance (The amount escapes me, but at the time it was ridiculously huge). Their children never lacked anything; in 1988, to celebrate the birth of their first son, Essiet threw a lavish party which was attended by several showbiz colleagues including Charly Boy and his wife Di. Tradition demanded the slaughter of a lamb, but Essiet took it a step further by serving a whole bull to his guest because as he claimed, “Jah has answered”. When a relative in Umanah’s family died, Essiet, in his own words, buried him like a king. He was also said to lodge in the most expensive hotels when he was on tour. Yet in Umanah’s family’s eyes, this was not enough.
It has also been suggested that Essiet abandoned his family after the break up, which is false. Shortly after the release of his 1992 album, he moved to the US, but during the period he spent in Nigeria when they were apart, Umanah’s stubbornness proved to be an obstacle. She later stated in another interview that she would not let go of her sons, and Essiet “…has a long way to go”. I know for a fact that on a few occasions he offered to take his own children out for the day, and their mother would refuse without giving an acceptable reason. I know this because he reached out to her through the media. She was probably determined to prove that as a single mother she didn’t need his support. During her illness Essiet, now in America, was not informed, which was odd considering she was the mother of his sons. Yet he was expected to pay for her funeral, which was when he was aware of her death. It is possible that Umanah had urged relatives not to notify him of her failing health; had he been aware in time, the story probably would have had a slightly happier ending.
Comments on social media paint Essiet in a bad light, accusing him of being heartless and callous – one user writes “[T]his devil abandoned Peggy [because] he fell in love with a nurse living in Jos. Peggy had two boys which newspapers fondly called Boydators. Am (sic) 100% sure it was her last pregnancy that he abandoned her, in fact he killed her with fetish, she died an agonising death without any body caring for her except her old mother, after his music [career] went down, that’s the reason why he eloped to US, God must surely pay him back”, which is rather interesting. By what stretch of the imagination is it possible for a man living abroad to impregnate a woman who loathes him? Why is witchcraft always suspected when an individual dies unexpectedly? Why are they accusing him of abandoning her when in reality she had rejected his assistance? I believe in Karma – what goes around comes around – and God is definitely paying the ‘devil’ back, because over twenty years since he left Nigeria, while he is no longer a household name, Essiet has done well for himself with his own record label, concerts, an a new album. Unlike his other fellow reggae singers who are either drugged-up, pot-bellied, or six feet under, for a man pushing sixty he appears to have aged rather well. His country often ignored him at award ceremonies, but he was named Best New Entertainer by International Reggae World music. Unfortunately, he continues to defend himself over a crime he never committed – even TV presenters who probably weren’t born when Crisis was released tend to be condescending when the subject arises.
Leave Victor Essiet alone.