Onyeka Onwenu (born 31 January 1952) is a Nigerian singer/songwriter, actress, human right activist, social activist, journalist, politician, and former X Factor series judge. Dubbed the “Elegant Stallion” by the Nigerian press, she is a former chairperson of the Imo State Council for Arts and Culture. In 2013 she was appointed the Executive Director/Chief Executive Officer of the National Centre for Women Development.
Onwenu hails from Arondizuogu, a small town in Ideato North, Imo State, and was raised in Port Harcourt. She is the youngest daughter of Nigerian educationist and politician D. K. Onwenu, who died when she was four years old in an autocrash a week before his appointment as Minister for Education, leaving his widow, Hope, to raise five children alone after her husband’s family denied her access to his property (The song “African Woman” from Onwenu’s fourth album One Love is loosely inspired by her mother.)
Onwenu possess a BA in International Relations and Communication from Wellesley College, Massachusetts, and an MA in Media Studies from The New School for Social Research, New York. She worked for the United Nations as a tour guide before returning to Nigeria in 1980 to complete her mandatory one-year national service with the NTA.
Originally a secular artist, Onwenu made the transition to gospel music in the 90s, and most of her songs are self-penned. She continues to write and sing about issues such as health (HIV/AIDS), peace and mutual coexistence, respect for women rights, and the plight of children. She began her music career in 1981 while still working with the NTA, releasing the album For the Love of You, a pop album which featured an orchestral cover of Johnny Nash’s “Hold Me Tight”, and her second album Endless Life was produced by Sonny Okosuns. Both records were released on the EMI label.
Onwenu’s first album with Polygram, In The Morning Light, was released in 1984. Recorded in London, it featured the track “Masterplan” written by close friend Tyna Onwudiwe who had previously contributed to Onwenu’s BBC documentary and subsequently sang back-up vocals on the album. After her fourth release, 1986’s One Love which contained an updated version of the song “(In the) Morning Light, Onwenu collaborated with veteran jùjú artist Sunny Ade on the track “Madawolohun (Let Them Say)” which appeared in 1988’s Dancing In The Sun. This was the first of three songs the pair worked on together; the other two – “Choices” and “Wait For Me” – centred on family planning, and were endorsed by the Planned Parenthood Federation of Nigeria who used “Choices” in their PSA. Onwenu’s final release on Polygram was dedicated to Winnie Mandela, the subject of a song of the same name which Onwenu performed live when Nelson Mandela and his wife visited Nigeria in 1990 following his release from prison.
Onwenu diverted to Benson and Hedges Music in 1992 and released the self-titled Onyeka!, her only album with the label, after which she made the transition to Christian/gospel music. Her latest collection titled, “Inspiration for Change,” focused on the need for an attitudinal change in Nigeria.
She is in partnership with Paris-based La Cave Musik, headed by a Nigerian cultural entrepreneur, Onyeka Nwelue and a UK-based Jungle Entertainment Ventures, headed by musicologist David Evans-Uhegbu. La Cave Musik is set to release her collection titled “Rebirth of a Legend”. In recognition of her contribution to music and arts in Nigeria, she has been celebrated by professionals like Mahmood Ali-Balogun, Laolu Akins, Charles O’Tudor, and former PMAN president Tony Okoroji among others in the arts industry in Nigeria.
Onwenu notably keeps her personal life private, often refusing to disclouse private information regarding her husband, a Yoruba Muslim. She is the mother of two children – Tijani Charles and Abraham.