R.I.P. William Onyeabor: 5 Reasons His Legend Will Live On
Nigerian synth-funk visionary and legend William Onyeabor has died at the age of 70.
Nigerian synth-funk pioneer William Onyeabor passed away on Monday at the age of 70.
The record label Luaka Bop, who released 2013's Who is William Onyeabor? compilation, broke the news of William Onyeabor's death in an announcement stating that Onyeabor "died peacefully in his sleep following a brief illness, at his home in Enugu, Nigeria."
William Onyeabor started his musical career in the 1970s, creating a visionary electronic-funk sound that set him apart from every other musician in Nigeria and West Africa at the time.
Over the span of his career, Onyeabor released nine albums, all of which were recorded in his own studio and printed through his own pressing plant, Wilfilms Limited, in Enugu.
Though there are countless reasons why William Onyeabor captured the attention of the world through his music, below we break down five instances that cemented his legendary status.
"Fantastic Man" of Mystery
Onyeabor released all of his music between the years of 1977 and 1985, which included his biggest song "When the Going is Smooth & Good."
Despite his success as an artist and record label head in those years, Onyeabor's story was always shrouded in mystery. His refusal to give any interviews since the 80s only helped elevate his enigmatic status.
Just how did this man get all of this technologically innovative recording equipment and synthesizers to southeastern Nigeria in the 1970s, at a time where it was nearly impossible to find this equipment in West Africa?
Onyeabor himself finally talked about his own background in a rare interview with the BBC in 2014, in which he discussed studying film in Russia, music production in Sweden and law in the U.K.
Groundbreaking Synth-Funk Sound
Onyeabor created a unique musical style, particularly for the Nigerian music scene of the 1970s.
The many shades of his hypnotizing blend of synthesizer progressions and funk-electronic sound can be heard across well-known songs like "When the Going is Smooth & Good," "Fantastic Man," "Good Name," and "Atomic Bomb."
He delivered lyrics about how having a "good name is better than silver and gold" and sang against war, often backed by female vocalists.
In that same rare BBC interview, Onyeabor summed his musical outlook best himself: "I only create music that will help the world."
Recording Plant in Enugu, Nigeria
At the beginning of his musical career, William Onyeabor set out to build "the greatest record manufacturing business in all of West Africa," Luaka Bop writes.
He built an state-of-the-art home studio and the Wilfilms Limited pressing plant in his home of Enugu, in southeastern Nigeria.
It was from there that Onyeabor wrote, recorded, pressed and printed all of his nine albums, in between the years of 1977 and 1985. That's no small feat nowadays, not to mention in 1970s Nigeria.
Religion & Business
Despite his success, in 1985, Onyeabor renounced music after becoming a devout Christian.
He lamented that his songs didn't sufficiently praise God and retreated from the public eye, which only increased his enigmatic public persona and made original prints of his records become coveted rarities.
After music, however, Onyeabor went on to have many successes as both a business man and a man of God.
"He opened a flour mill and food processing business," writes Luaka Bop. "In 1987 these new business ventures saw him awarded West African Industrialist of the Year... He was given the honorary title "Justice of the Peace"—a local judicial position elected by the community to provide independent legal ruling. In the early 1990's, he became the President of Enugu's Musician's Union and Chairman of the city's local football team, The Enugu Rangers."
In 2013, David Byrne's record label Luaka Bop released Who Is William Onyeabor?, the first Onyeabor compilation to be authorized in America.
The compilation sparked a huge, new wave of interest in William Onyeabor and his music across the world, with coverage in major international newspapers and outlets, the creation of the documentary film Fantastic Man, as well as the Atomic Bomb! Who is William Onyeabor? live shows around the globe with guests like Byrne, Damon Albarn, Dev Hynes, Lijadu Sisters, Sinkane, and more.
Despite all this attention, Oneyabor himself remained at home in Enugu, declining invitations to join the shows and refusing to speak about his music.
Chief William Ezechukwu Onyeabor is survived by his wife, children, and four grandchildren.
Rest in Peace, William Onyeabor (March 26, 1946 - January 16, 2017). It is with incredibly heavy hearts that we have to announce that the great Nigerian business leader and mythic music pioneer William Onyeabor has passed away at the age of 70. He died peacefully in his sleep following a brief illness, at his home in Enugu, Nigeria. An extraordinary artist, businessman and visionary, Mr. Onyeabor composed and self-released 9 brilliant albums of groundbreaking electronic-funk from 1977-1985, which he recorded, pressed and printed at Wilfilms Limited—his personal pressing plant in southeast Nigeria. As one of the absolutely smartest people we ever encountered—William Onyeabor was always in charge, whatever the situation may be. As can be heard in many of his songs, he looked at the world from a bird's eye view. He watched American, Chinese and European news simultaneously, so he could learn about the different points of view from around the world. In his later years, he was still conducting business as usual. Whenever we visited him in Nigeria, he welcomed us warmly into his home. Whether it be at his palace outside of Enugu or via crackly phone lines to America, he always made us laugh. As is also very evident in his songwriting—another example of his true intellect and originality—he had the greatest sense of humor. His life and accomplishments will never cease to astonish us. More than anything, and still to this very day, his music continues to live on—nearly 40 years after it was originally released. Chief William Ezechukwu Onyeabor is survived by his wife, children, and four grandchildren. We would like to send our deepest condolences to his family and thank each and every one of you who has helped share the love for his music around the world. In the short and wonderfully intense nine years that we came to know him, he changed our lives in many ways. If he hasn't yet, we hope he will affect you too, one day. Love, Eric, Paul & Yale, Luaka Bop
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