Profile: The courageous defiance of DJ Switch

It was the livestream that traumatised an entire country.

Streamed, shared and viewed countless of times since the fateful night of 20, October, the video which went live on the Instagram account belonging to DJ Switch- born Catherine Obianuju Udeh– sent collective shockwaves across a citizenry that seemed to consider itself impervious to disappointment.

After almost two weeks of organic and loosely organised nationwide protests against police brutality, officers of the Nigerian Army attacked the Lekki toll gate, one of the sites of the Lagos state protests. The demand of the protesters was simple enough. An end to the acts of brutality meted out by operatives of the now-disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). This squad has been disbanded at least three times in the past.

Chaos was the order of the night. While unarmed protesters- comprised mostly of young men and women- were chanting and waving the Nigerian flags, soldiers sprung upon them and fired mercilessly into the ground as people hampered helter skelter, fleeing for their lives. By several accounts of people who were on ground zero that night, after the soldiers left, picking up some of the bodies with them, policemen came in to mop up after them.

Courage under fire

DJ Switch was on ground that evening and had the good sense- and bravery- to turn on her phone to stream live the carnage and the confusion that was happening around her. This seems like a legitimate line of action in hindsight, but this fails to underscore the fact that as the world was going to hell around her, this brave young woman was composed enough to even think of bearing witness. “I didn’t want us to die in vain.” She would later tell GQ magazine.

The DJ Switch livestream, saved and recorded for posterity by her followers, just as she demanded, is still tough to watch, even a month after the traumatic events. But it depicts a slice of the hell that the protesters lived through in those minutes.

Shortly after the soldiers had left, a woman’s voice can be heard yelling commentary and marshalling other responders to help out a young man who had been shot in the leg. In obvious pain, the young man tried as best as he could to cooperate with responders as they attempted some form of crude surgery to dislodge the bullet from his body. Minutes later CPR was attempted on another victim as they tried to save him from lapsing into unconsciousness. It isn’t clear what happened to the two men.

This singular act of bravery by DJ Switch was perhaps responsible for changing the course of history as the federal and state governments, initially employed every trick in the book to deny, gaslight and then absolve themselves of responsibility for the killings. Because of this, the country has yet to put out an official account of the human cost of the night of 20, October.

The official Twitter handle of the Nigerian army initially dismissed reports of the presence of soldiers at Lekki that night as fake news. The Governor of Lagos, Babajide Sanwo-Olu admitted on CNN that indeed soldiers were present and two people had lost their lives. Eyewitnesses report that there were more than that.

DJ Switch on her own, estimates the body count to be at least 15. And in a bizarre press conference that could sit very well in Trumpworld, Information and Culture Minister, Lai Mohammed went on a direct attack on a private citizen, labelling DJ Switch a purveyor of fake news.

“Her conduct thus becomes suspicious,” Alhaji Mohammed levied. “Who is she fronting for? What is her real motive? Who are her sponsors? He asked rhetorically before issuing a final charge, “In the fullness of time, this lady will be exposed for what she is, a fraud and a front for divisive and destructive forces.”

Not that Nigeria needs any foreign divisive force

Unlikely hero

But who is DJ Switch if not another Nigerian youth failed by the very system that should be operating to protect and defend their rights. DJ Switch was at the Lekki venue because like most people she was tired not just of police brutality, extortion and extrajudicial killing, but also of the complicit role of the government in failing to put a stop to it.

There is a reason that the mass protests, at once organic and without assigned leadership steamrolled into a national movement. Young people were genuinely fed up with the dysfunction that had since turned deadly.

As the government response moved from the inept to the malevolent, DJ Switch citing threats to her life, fled for safety. She did not cower away in fear though. When faced with the kind of complicated situation in which she found herself, it would be perfectly understandable to want to hide away from public scrutiny.

As recordings of her video continued to make the rounds and be cited as valuable evidence of what went down that night especially in the face of government denial, DJ Switch considered herself a marked woman. However, she continued to speak out even while on the run.

Days after the Lekki shootings, she made an emotional appearance on Instagram presenting further details of the horrors she witnessed. She presented her evidence and urged political leaders not to insult the intelligence of Nigerians. She also urged Nigerians to continue protesting peacefully. “We must speak. Do not give up,” she charged.

DJ Switch continued to make the rounds even if from remote locations. On the 6th of November, she  narrated her experience virtually to a subgroup of the standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development of the Canadian parliament. This appearance prompted rumors that DJ Switch had sought refuge in the country.

About two weeks later, DJ Switch was on CNN with Becky Anderson sharing what she described as the “worst experience in her life.” She decried the attempts at government to save face by switching stories and urged the governor of Lagos to tell the truth. In this interview, DJ Switch gave the faintest idea of what her future could look like. She told Ms Anderson, “My hope is to go back home. I don’t want to run anywhere. People think that I have sought some sort of asylum, that is not a fact.”

Television star

She may have gotten global attention as a survivor and spokesperson, but DJ Switch was introduced to Nigerians first as a singer and performer. The year was 2009 and encouraged by the runaway success of the American Idol franchise, Nigerian corporates were very much interested in sponsoring reality styled singing and talent competitions. The now rested Star Quest was one of the main events at the time, having minted the super duo of KC Presh in its first outing. DJ Switch participated and with her six-man group, The Pulse (she was the only lady), went on to win the show.

The band had a hit single Sote and scored a remix with Busta Rhymes ahead of the rapper’s headline appearance at the Star Mega Jam. Their album, State of Emergency followed shortly after under the imprint of the then hot Kennis music. But the band was more of a corporate entity than organic union and as such, could not withstand the obvious pressures of the high stakes world they had entered. Priorities diverged and some opted to pursue other interests. Also, there was the cumbersome and very expensive challenge of booking and supporting six members of the band.

The music industry hadn’t developed enough to comfortably support this kind of money gulping enterprise to profitability as any income generated had to be split at least six ways. It was no wonder that the group soon fell apart like other unions before and after them.

Not done with the music, DJ Switch made a few more attempts to break into the industry as a solo artiste. She soon discovered that without the backing of a corporate like Nigerian Breweries, the real world was different from the reality television show bubble.

By this time Switch had started dabbling in disc jockeying. She met a DJ whom she wanted to engage to do some scratch effects on a song she wanted to release. One thing led to another and DJ Switch fell in love with the craft. Still not convinced of its viability, she pressed on with the music, taking the only route familiar to her and enrolling for another competitive show. This time it was the debut season of X-Factor West Africa sponsored by Globacom in 2013.

At the X-Factor, DJ Switch was an instant audience favorite and throughout the show’s run, was never in danger of elimination. Her audience loved her. Not only did her stage craft and confidence improve each week, she had a winning personality and spoke of hard work and prayer, two elements that are important to Nigerian audiences who vote. Her buzzy run through Jay-Z and Mr Hudson’s Young Forever at the finale was the quintessential DJ Switch performance.

Full of vim, the sheer versatility on display explained how she came upon her moniker. She sang, rapped some Jigga, then some M.I- this part done while bent over backwards. She was a star. M.I who mentored her during the season gushed, “People scream when you perform because you inspire us all.” The legendary multi-hyphenate Onyeka Onwenu, was also impressed by the range of DJ Switch’s talent. She exclaimed, “Unlike the other judges, the moment you stepped on stage, I knew you had it.”

Apart from the 24 million Naira cash prize, DJ Switch also claimed a recording contract with Sony Music. Her debut single was issued shortly after, but the record deal never saw the light of day. With the attempts at making music stalling yet again, DJ Switch was quick to embrace her other skills. Mostly self-taught, she arranged her first gear and took deep dives into YouTube videos, spending hours studying pros like Jazzy Jeff, Dj Qbert and DJ Angelo. “It dawned on me that I had never seen anyone here in Nigeria play like they did and I was determined to be the first,” she recalled.

As validation for her diversion into disc jockeying, she entered for the Redbull 3Style Championships. The North/West Africa region was held in Lagos with jockeys competing from across these regions. She won the competing handily. She was the official DJ of the Dance with Peter reality TV show fronted by former Psquare half Mr P and at some point, was affiliated with his P-Classic records.

At one of the Big Brother Naija Lockdown season’s eviction parties in August, DJ Switch played a memorable set that kept both housemates and fans entertained and earned her rave reviews. She walked through that appearance in an interview with The Nation. Hear her, “I think the week that I played had about eight or nine people (in the house), I can’t remember now. Keeping at the back of my mind that I was playing for millions of other people (at home) that I cannot see. So how to create a nice balance of old and new school Nigerian music was the thought process and putting out my energy for the housemates to feed off while in turn feeding off of their energies.” Matter of fact, this career high was her last major appearance before the #EndSARS protests started.

A native of Udi local government area of Enugu state, DJ Switch, 36, is the youngest of eight offspring. She grew up in Warri, studied Geology at the University of Port Harcourt, worked briefly at Halliburton before resolving to face her passions squarely. Her independent streak led her away from home to avoid the pressures of an early stage career in music. After leaving school, she moved to Abuja before settling in Lagos. She is a single mother to a fifteen-year-old daughter.

In a sudden twist of fate, DJ Switch was thrust in the role of witness and advocate for government transparency and accountability. Even though it isn’t a responsibility she asked for, she has worn the gloves admirably standing up as not just a witness to history, but as someone willing to speak truth to power.

She has lost a lot along the way. Her career has suffered, and her constant movement means she is estranged from her loved ones. But her spirit is upbeat and she still has a lot of fight left in her. She told CNN’S Becky Anderson, “What I do know is this, the fact that I have this chance, I will use this opportunity to tell this story.”

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