A singer and finalist on the reality TV show, America’s Got Talent, Kechi Okwuchi, tells BLESSING ENENAITE about her career and other issues
You recently bagged a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Saint Thomas, Texas, United States of America. What was the drive behind it?
It was something I had wanted to do. I had actually started the programme in 2016. I was only about a semester done when America’s Got Talent happened. After AGT happened, because of how busy I got following the show, I had to take time off school. I officially took a year off my MBA programme. I discussed with my school and they gave me a timeline of when I could complete the programme without having to restart or repeat any of the classes I had already taken. The timeline I was given was six years.
I knew that since I was taken off school in 2017, and I had only done about six classes that time, I had till 2023 to finish my programme. When COVID-19 happened, it was the slowest time in my life. I felt it would be the ideal time to finish my programme, and all the schools were trying to become more accommodating because of COVID-19. They were doing more online classes, and sometimes. in-person classes. I went back to school in 2021. It just made sense to me. I was able to continue without having to repeat any classes, and I finished the programme this year.
You were a finalist on America’s Got Talent in 2017. Can you tell us the process it took you to get there and what it meant to you performing on that stage?
I did not sign up for the show myself. One of my best friends signed me up without telling me. I was still doing my MBA at that time, and I was focused on school and also working part-time. Then, one of my best friends would ask me to sign up for one of these shows, including AGT, X-Factor and American Idol. This was because I usually recorded myself singing one of my favourite songs. However, I would not post it anywhere. I would just send the clips to my friends and family members.
My friend would ask me if I could send the clips to any top musician, and I would just refuse. She knew I won’t put myself online (as a singer), and she filled the AGT form on my behalf and attached some of the videos I had sent to her. She also used her email, just in case there was a rejection, I wouldn’t know it happened. But as it turned out, I was not rejected. That was how God used her to change my life. She signed me up, AGT was interested in her (my) application, and I ended up being on the show.
I felt scared being on the show at first. I was just singing in church, and I had to sing for an audience that would decide whether my performance was good or bad. I had never done anything like that before. However, it was fun, because the people on the show, including the staff and the judges, were encouraging. It made me feel like I belonged there. It was an incredible experience and up till today, I am reaping its benefits. I have no regrets going on the show and if anything, I am grateful for the exposure the show gave me.
What have you done musically since taking part in AGT?
I have been able to do a lot of things. These are things I would not have been able to do, if not for the exposure the show gave me, including being a burn survivor advocate. This is something I had always done, even before the show. The skill with which I was able to do it after appearing on the show is incredible. This is because the show exposed me to other burn survivors and burn survivors organisations in America and beyond. At that time, I only knew the one I was treated at.
After the show, many organisations saw that I wanted to use my life as an inspiration for other burn survivors. This is to encourage and show them that there is life after the trauma. Before the show, I was getting myself into regular life, like going to school and working at the same time. I wanted to show other burn survivors that it is possible because I am doing it. Because I participated in the show, I am now committed to different organisations. I have been able to travel to meet the people who represent these organisations across the USA.
In addition, I have been able to advocate for other causes that have been close to my heart, such as prevention of bullying. I have been passionate about it; not because it happened to me specifically, but because of how difficult it was for my younger sister to adapt to life in the US. She had it difficult making friends and because of that, she was bullied aggressively. Witnessing that and helping her come out of her shell, and becoming who she is today, was a difficult but necessary thing my family and I did.
After that experience with her, I did not want any other child to go through what she went through. I wanted to be among the people who would ensure that kids are safe from bullying, and that they know who to go to when it happens.
Also, being on the show helped my singing (career).Before I went on the show, I did not know I could earn money from singing. I am able to do that now. I have travelled and performed at different kinds of events I didn’t know existed before I performed on the show. Of course, I was able to write my book, which is another thing that happened to me. I was also able to connect with people who helped me to publish my book.
You survived the Sosoliso Airline plane crash of December 2005. How many surgeries did you undergo altogether and are there still more?
Altogether, I have done about 140 surgeries. As of the time I left South Africa, which was seven months after the accident happened, I had done 100 surgeries. At a point, it was everyday; then twice a week. As of the time I was leaving South Africa, it was once a week. When I got to America, I did more surgeries in another hospital in Baltimore.
I am no longer doing surgeries. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, I have not done any. The surgeries I did till I finished my undergraduate studies in 2015 were to improve the quality of my life. Medically, everything has been done for me to live an independent life. So, every surgery from 2015 down has been elective; I did not have to do them. However, I did them because they helped me to improve how my scars looked, or improved the features on my face. If there is something new that has been invented and would be helpful for burn survivors, I am going to do it. If it is expensive, I am not going to do it, because I can live my life the way I am now.
The foreword for your book, ‘More Than My Scars’, was written by Simon Cowell, one of the judges on AGT. How were you able to get him to do that, and what reception has the book enjoyed?
Since Simon met me, he has always been supportive. He made it clear that he was in my corner and was rooting for me. He wants to help me succeed if he can. It is not like I can text him anytime I want. However, my team can have access to his team if needed.
It was because of that access that I was able to get him to write the foreword of the book. When the time came for me to get the book endorsed, it was my publisher who said we should see if Simon would be willing to write the foreword. And, he was willing. That was his way of showing support for me, as he had been doing since I appeared on AGT in front of him. I was very grateful for that, and I do not take that for granted.
I have not been able to have time to promote the book as I would have loved. I have done a lot of promotions here in America though. However, coming home to Nigeria to do an official book launch would be a good one, because that is my home and that is where most of my supporters are. Also, that is where I get most of my reception from. I just want to do that for closure too. A greater part of the book is about my life in Nigeria, and the accident (plane crash) happened in Nigeria.
Right now, the book is in a bookstore in Lagos. I am supposed to do a book launch in the bookstore and many other places. It is just a matter of timing. I want to make sure I have the funds to do a proper book launch. Until I have done a book launch in Nigeria, I don’t think I would have done what I really wanted to do with the book.
Recently, I was in Florida, USA, where I promoted the book, and I talked about it in a panel. I am doing what I can to promote the book here. I am grateful that people are responding well to it.
Do you go to any extra length to be confident in your scars?
Fortunately and thankfully, no. I don’t have to go any extra length to be confident in my scars. Everything that people see is just me being myself. I have not felt the need to do more to feel okay with my scars.
Aside from your family, did you get any support from your secondary school, Loyola Jesuit College, and the Nigerian government during your recuperation at the hospital?
My school has always supported me from day one. The president and principal of the school came to see me when I was at the hospital in South Africa. Aside from that, fellow students have been supportive and I know the school put up a memorial for the 60 angels (students) that were lost that day (in the plane crash) from the school. I also know that they always celebrate me in school. In the school’s chapel, they also have something called ‘With Kechi we are strong’, which I felt was very sweet of them.
My alma mater has always been in my corner and they have always shown me support. They have always been on my side. During the 10th anniversary of the accident, I went back to my school and they hosted a graduation ceremony for me. I was not able to graduate officially from the school, because the accident happened before my graduation. When I went back to the school, they gave me my official graduation robes, and officially made me a graduate of the 2006 set. That was extremely sweet and it meant a lot to me. I saw friends from my set. They all knew the graduation was going to happen but they did not tell me.
Also, I know the Lagos State government was financially supportive, especially when my friends and family raised funds for me in 2009. The funds raised then were enough for me to continue my surgeries in America. I do not think the Federal Government supported though. However, when I wanted to do my MBA programme, the Imo State (where she hails from) government helped to fund a larger part of it. I know Sosoliso Airline also supported financially before they shut down completely. They formally apologised to my family and I as well.
Who is your favourite singer at the moment that you would like to collaborate with?
In general, I would love to collaborate with Kelly Clarkson, Adele, Mary J. Blige, Yemi Alade, Tiwa Savage and Waje.
Maleek Berry and Cobhams Asuquo are cool producers that I would like to work with too. If any of them reaches out to me today for a collaboration, I will do all I can to make it happen.
How do you unwind?
I unwind by playing video games. I also love reading and watching Netflix. It helps me to take my mind off things when they become stressful.