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Friday, April 9, 2010

Pastor Okudi bares his heart

Pastor Okudi of the Wipolo fame was the first Ugandan to earn the Best Male Artiste in East Africa Award and Best African Male Artiste at the Kora Awards. After that, his life was marred by scandals, which forced him out of the country. Here, he tells Dennis D. Muhumuza why he fled and his future plans.
If my mum sees this, she will pass out,” he said breathlessly. “I hope my wife, who is five months pregnant, will not give birth right away!” The house responded to the memorable words with exuberant applause while Bebe Cool and Jose Chameleon jumped on the glitzy podium and lifted him up to the animation of camera flashes.

All the attention was now on Uganda as the flamboyant pastor pulled magnetic dance strokes to the contagious sounds of Wipolo, the hit that catapulted him to fame. The Sandton Convention Centre momentarily turned into a church as the guests got to their feet, swaying and singing along to the spiritually elevating lyrics.
The year was 2003, at the Kora Awards Ceremony in Johannesburg. A night to remember for no one had possibly guessed that the then 34-year-old Pastor George Okudi, raised by a single mum in extreme poverty, would this day earn the Best Male Artiste in East Africa Award and top it with Best African Male Artiste the same night.

The significance of this accomplishment was gilded by the reality of his being the first Ugandan to scoop the prestigious music accolade, moreover on his debut participation. Obviously, the lanky Pastor was overwhelmed as words from his acceptance speech affirmed: “There are things that happen that you think are a dream; this is one of them…I am a nomad boy who learnt how to sing by listening to bird sounds. I am now the best. This is to celebrate nature, Jesus Christ and God!”

Even the Ugandan Parliament honoured his achievement by observing a minute of silence. Earlier the same year, he had become the first Ugandan pastor-cum-musician to win the Pearl of Africa Music (PAM) Award for Best Gospel Artiste and his funky Wipolo was voted Best Gospel Single. He had unwittingly set precedence for the likes of Ps. Wilson Bugembe, Martin Sseku, Judith Babirye and Exodus, who today are enjoying popularity in both gospel and secular circles.

Okudi’s historic success was a result of hard work and the unique blending of the traditional sound and urban beat. The resonating power of his music also comes from singing about his experiences growing in difficulties and the invigoration that comes from knowing God.

“I’ve gone through a lot as a person and I sing from the heart,” he told me. “The lyrics speak of what is going on inside me.”
Mysterious disappearance
No one knows what happened. Maybe it was difficult to reconcile the prominence garnered by the Kora Awards with the down-to-earth persona inherited from his humble upbringing in Wera village, Soroti, but things began going wry for the young pastor. Allegations of marital infidelity and of a strained relationship with his wife filtered in. The pastor was nowhere to respond, and next it was said he had left the country incognito. Not long after, reported that he was residing in Minnesota, working in a home of the mentally deranged.

Okudi kept a low profile until a U-Tube video showed him in September last year performing at the Ugandan North American Association Convention in Chicago. Meanwhile, his Facebook page was swamped with messages from fans expressing their disappointment over his mysterious disappearance and wondering when he would return home. And, about five years after he unceremoniously left the country, Pastor George Okudi finally granted us an online interview in which he did bare his heart.

He says he was hounded out of his beloved motherland by some envious figures in the Ugandan church. “I was the break-out artiste of the continent in 2003 and I’m still the only one with the greatest music award to ever come into the East African area,” he says. “But being a pastor, I had to reconcile too many things at the same time and that’s when my critics started trying to bring me down. Some pastors in Kampala wanted me to be typically a church artiste but my talent had already transcended the church boundaries; it was time to work with everybody and spread some wings and that’s exactly what I did. I made many friends and fans but also many enemies,” he says.

“When I won the Koras, and being from the Northeast and operating in Kampala as pastor, some pastors started fighting me and calling me a no-good; they caused confusion, so I was left in the middle with no promoters and no church support,” he adds.

In retrospect, the pastor says he has no regrets for he found a home in Washington DC, where God continues to use him “mightily” through his music and behind the pulpit.

“I preach with Tower of Hope, an organisation that raises money all over the US to support disadvantaged children in Uganda,” he says. “I’ve preached in some of the largest congregations like those of KC Price, Creflo Dollar and TD Jakes. I’ve performed with Kirk Franklin and in universities all over USA and also had the opportunity to meet dignitaries in the White House because of my music,” he says.
Okudi also owns a studio in the US and has four albums waiting to be launched. “The first is called East to West, a mix of east and west to create a neutral beat. Survival Africa is an album that follows the Wipolo trend, Children of Africa has a reggae feel and the last album is called I Found the Way,” says Okudi. “And I’ve sent a song called Celebrate Africa to South Africa for evaluation; I want it to be one of the theme songs for World Cup.”

The pastor is determined to launch his albums in Kampala and expects to be back in the country in November this year. The interview could not be complete without him commenting about the accusations of his infidelity. “Every family has ups and downs but as for the affairs - that didn’t happen. Things happen but we have to move on and continue to run. Even Benny Hinn has been going through issues –who expected a great man like that to be going through that? So, tell everyone to forgive me for not being perfect; I wish I could be,” he said.

He added: “To my fans, I’m going to send the first wave of beats next month to start the reconciliation process and for sure there’s and will always be only one Pastor Okudi and he is alive and well – ready to rock just like before; get ready!”