William Onyeabor / March 26, 1946 - Jan 16, 2017

One of West Africa's (and indeed the planet's) most unique and independent musicians was the Nigerian synth-funk artist William Onyeabor, who passed away earlier this year.

Born in Enugu, southeastern Nigeria, he studied cinematography in Russia and upon returning to Nigeria attempted to produce movies but found better luck when he opened a record pressing plant, recording studio, publishing company and record label.

In the late '70s and into about 1985, he self-produced several unique, avant-garde records driven by synthesizers, drum machines, sequencers and very funky, groovy psych-disco rhythms. It has been speculated that he acquired all his expensive and hard-to-find (in Africa) gear from being bankrolled by mysterious Russian money.

The music is certainly his own, an unintentionally(?) psychedelic fusion of funk, afrobeat, disco and electro (the African Kraftwerk?). His lyrical themes included anti-war sentiment, love and spirituality. His futuristic style was evident from the banks of keyboards that would surround him on his album covers and the incredible music that would unfold in extended compositions. Interestingly, he never played any concerts. 

He became a born-again Christian and that was it for his commercial music. He shifted to business, gospel music and pastoral life and showed no interest in sharing anything about his past doings. After retiring from commercial music production he became a well-known businessman, including owning a semolina mill and living in a huge mansion.

In the late '90s/early 2000s, some of his songs started to be placed on compilations during a (still-flowing) wave of African reissues, anthologies and comps. Thanks to the work of Luaka Bop, Strut Records and others, his tunes started to be heard before becoming an outright phenomenon.

In recent years his life and music have become the subject of intense speculation, fascination and several tributes, remixes and covers appeared celebrating this one-of-kind artist. A full star-studded tribute band was formed, all of his albums have been reissued and Moog produced two Onyeabor-inspired synths. Luaka Bop issued the Who Is William Onyeabor?, official authorized anthology in 2013 and Onyeabor himself announced that he had new music coming right before he passed in January of this year.

Check out this Vice-produced documentary about this mysterious funk god:

Tagged: '80s, African roots, Afrobeat, avant-garde, Celebrate Icons, disco, documentary, psych, soul!, soul/funk, Video, William Onyeabor

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