By Fatiat Saliu
Creative versatility isn’t something that comes to everyone easily, but for Pamela Peter-Vigboro Leesi, known in Nigeria’s music circles as Monseeka, there is no choice but to balance all the ends.
After becoming the first Ogoni woman to win the Miss Nigeria beauty pageant in 2015, Monseeka wondered what she could do next for herself, so she officially picked up her interest in photography, learned the ropes, went to an academy, and launched a professional career behind the camera. Although she had harboured the dream of making music since childhood, she didn’t exactly take it up until the epiphany after her father’s death in 2018. The lockdown motivated a lot of young Nigerians to unleash their hitherto-hidden creative potential, and Monseeka was one of them. She didn’t officially release music until December 2020, and she says she’s better for it.
For Monseeka, music is her chance to speak her truth. All of her lines are intentional and she harnesses her vulnerability to genuinely speak to other people going through the stuff that she has either gone through or feels that others are going through. Her vocal dexterity and pen game brings her talent to the fore. The fourth track off her debut EP Finders, Seekers is a spoken word piece that briefly tells a tale of her life’s trajectory. She shares that poetry comes naturally to her, and it’s a chance to connect with other people going through the processes.
“I still harbour a dream of becoming a writer sometime in the future”, she says.
Very recently, Afrocritik caught up with Monseeka, who was more than happy to open up on her early life, creative journey, and future aspirations.
Who is Monseeka?
I’m just another human being, another expression of God, trying to figure it out, trying to express myself through art, through the things I create, through the way I present myself.
You went from being the 39th Miss Nigeria to being a photographer, and now, a music artiste. How did that all come about?
I feel like I’ve always been creative. Right from when I was a little girl, I’d always sing. I used to be in the choir with my sister. I was also drawn to books, and so, because of that, I thought for a minute that I wanted to write as well, so I wrote short stories. As a matter of fact, I still harbour the dream of becoming a (full-time) writer later in life. However, when I got to secondary school, I started hiding the fact that I could sing. For a long time, I would not sing in front of people except for my sister and just a few people I was comfortable with.
About being in the beauty queen space, I grew up and became more aware of my body, as well as the fact that I just fit the specs that people look for in this (beauty) industry. I started taking pictures for a magazine and before, I went into a pageant. My very first pageant was Miss Ogoni. It was such a breeze because the organizer came into the shop my mom had at the time, and she was like, ‘you look like you could do this. Just go for it, and you’ll win’, She believed that I would win, so I just decided to go for it and I won.
That win launched a series of pageants for me, so the next thing I went for was Miss Niger Delta. I didn’t win that one, but I bagged some title that required me to go to events, put on a gown and a crown, all of that. My third and last pageant was Miss Nigeria. I bought the form, moved to Lagos, competed, and thankfully, I won. That kept me in that space for a long time, and because Miss Nigeria is such a big platform, it launched me deep into the modelling industry, but deep down, I still had the desire to create music.
After Miss Nigeria, I was confused about what to do, because there’s always that question, “what’s next?” and everybody around you is trying to find out what you want to do next. Around that time, I had developed an interest in pictures, conceptual pictures. So, I’d stare at pictures that looked like a fairytale, and I’d try to recreate them. I started learning how to use Photoshop, and I also figured that to be able to truly create those kinds of pictures, I needed to learn how to take pictures. After Miss Nigeria, that was one of my reasons for going into photography. The other ones were that I was looking for a career that would be flexible and allow me to make money, so if I eventually found the courage to delve into music and anything else, it wouldn’t be a struggle to balance a 9-5 with my passion. So, I went to study photography for two months at The New York Film Academy, I came back in 2017 and dove right into it.
After doing music in my closet – literally, my closet – I would work with my friends because gradually, they found out that I could sing, and they’d always ask that I make music. I started trying to make music with them, but I built my confidence from practising in my closet. I bought some studio equipment in 2018, and around that time I lost my dad; that was a wake-up call for me. I realized that I didn’t want to leave this Earth without giving music a shot and putting out what has been inside of me all this time.
I started writing more songs, but what eventually gave me the push to release music was the energy of last year: everything that we went through in the pandemic, the fear, and all of that tension in the air. That experience just made me say, ‘screw it. I’m going to drop music’. Also, I felt like I was ready at that point. So, I dropped my first body of work, and here I am.
How do you currently balance photography, music, and all the other things you are doing? Does one take priority over the other?
I honestly don’t know. First of all, I feel like my priority, at least for now, is photography. That’s my main source of livelihood, so I can’t just put it aside. I give it as much time as it requires, and music comes right after. I don’t find it exactly difficult to balance it, because music is something I do anytime. I’m usually listening to beats or trying to record or write stuff on my phone. So, whenever I find time, I’d just go with it…and because this doesn’t feel like work, at least not yet, I just let it come to me when it comes.
Thankfully, it comes pretty easy. I just have to realize that for now, photography is my priority because it’s what pays me. I’m going to admit though, I feel like one suffers sometimes. It depends on the state I’m in. I write poems, and I think I write pretty good poems, but ever since I focused on photography and music, I haven’t been able to write a single thing, and this is something that always comes naturally. I’m not going to force it, though. I just channel all of that energy into the songs I’m writing. At least, I’m still flexing my pen skills there.
What inspired your first music project “Finders, Seekers”? And isn’t the expression “Finders, keepers”?
I absolutely love that you are familiar with the expression, because that’s part of the reason I called it “Finders, Seekers“. I actually started saying “Finders, seekers” because of the term “Finders, keepers”. The expression means that if you find something, you get to keep it, right? So, I’m of the opinion that if you find something, you were seeking it in the first place. People that find stuff get to keep it, but that’s because they were seeking it out in the first place. That’s really the idea behind it. And it’s just a coincidence that it rhymes with Monseeka.
It was such a challenge for me to release music, so I really wanted this record to come from a place of truth. It was really important that the songs that I put out represent my journey. The songs that are there really talk about the things I have struggled with. The first track is a prayer. It has a bit of my dialect in it, and it talks about seeking peace and looking for liberation, and just saying ‘the time is now’.
The second track is called ‘Crazy Don’t Look This Way’. I wrote that for myself because I struggled with anxiety for a large part of my life, and I think that was written during one of the times I was talking to myself in the lines of ‘this may look really intense and weird at the time, but crazy don’t look this way’. I was speaking to myself and was also hoping to reach out to anyone who was feeling some type of way.
The third song on there is called ‘Cold Harmattan’. That’s the only song that had me just catching cruise. It was literally me just playing with words, and I love the season of harmattan because it brings so many beautiful memories from my childhood, as well as a feeling of nostalgia. I was trying to put that in a song, and that’s how ‘Cold Harmattan’ came to be. Also, I was just trying to see how it would feel to talk about the weather.
The fourth song is a spoken word piece. It’s literally the most vulnerable thing I’ve ever put out, and it almost didn’t make the body of work because it was so personal. It really summarises everything for me. It talks about the stages I went through as a young girl, and the different kinds of girls I’ve experienced in myself. The whole body of work is really to showcase my growth, my struggles, and how far I have come.
You say photography is your main hustle. Going forward, do you think music might be something you’d focus all your energy on?
Definitely. The more I get into music, the more I want from it. I’m definitely going to give it more time and attention.
What would you classify your genre as?
I honestly think I’m still figuring it out, but so far, I lean towards (a fusion of) reggae and soul. There’s a bit of R&B in there as well, but mainly reggae and soul. I listened to a lot of reggae music growing up, so that shows in my songs, and I try to put a bit of soul in it too.
What major themes do you seek to explore in your music? What influence do you want to pass onto your audience by means of your music?
I like to make music just for the sake of enjoyment, but also I’d love to make music that can heal in any kind of way, and it would mean a lot to me if people listen to my music and they feel something, or are inspired by it, or hear something that makes them want to create as well. As for the kind of messages I want to put out, music is for me to document and create. My intention is really to put out music with messages of healing, freedom and hope, but also, I’m open to whatever kind of inspiration comes to me. If I’m inspired to make something people dance to, that’s fine. If I’m just trying a breakup song or whatever, that’s also fine. I’m just trying to make something that makes people feel good.
Should we be expecting any project in the nearest future?
Yes. I’m excited for my next body of work because I’ve had more practice, I’ve had more ideas, I want to try new things, but in the meantime, I’ll be focusing on dropping some singles with a few of my friends while working on my next project.
Are there any artistes that you’d want to collaborate with in the future?
Of course. There are tons of them. For starters, I’d really love to work with Tems. She’s such a huge inspiration for me musically. One of my biggest dreams is having Damian Marley on a song someday.
Do you have any words for people who have been listening to your music, and also people who should be put on to your music?
For people that have been listening, I just want to express gratitude. I’m grateful that they connect to me. For everyone else, take out the time to check it out, it would be great if you can connect to it. It’s my heart on my sleeve.