William Onyeabor, a mysterious funk musician from Nigeria who became a cult figure for his self-recorded albums, has died at 70

By Alex Heigl
January 18, 2017 12:50 PM
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Credit: Lukabop

As far as cultishly adored funk musicians from Africa go, William Onyeabor has been slightly undersold.

The barest biography is this: Onyeabor was born on March 26, 1946. He died at 70, following a short illness, on Jan. 16, 2017. During his life, he self-released nine albums of genre-blending funk music from his personal pressing plant in Nigeria, earning him a devoted cult following. In the later part of his life, he became a born again Christian and would renounce music, answering all questions about his previous life with a smile and the stock answer, “I only want to talk about God.”

The probably-apocryphal aspects of Onyeabor’s life are as entertaining as his music. Some people claimed he’d studied filmmaking in the Soviet Union, while others put him in France and Britain. However he did it — and one interesting allegation is that he may have had Russian financial backing — by his 30s, he’d amassed enough capital and wherewithal to establish his own record manufacturing plant and studio in southeast Nigeria, with an astounding range of equipment.

From there, Onyeabor went onto to create nine records of synthesizer-laced funk music from 1977 to 1985. Though reminiscent of fellow Afro-funk pioneer Fela Kuti’s music, Onyeabor’s tunes are shot through with spacey synths that set them apart from his peers.

Onyeabor, referred to in his hometown of Enugu simply as “The Chief,” was deeply focused on his community. After the success of his record label and recording career, he opened a flour mill and food processing business, which resulted in him being awarded West African Industrialist of the Year in 1987. He was also made an honorary Justice of the Peace in his community, a local judicial position elected by the people. In the early 1990s, he became president of Enugu’s Musician’s Union and Chairman of the city’s football team, as well.

In 1985, Onyeabor became born again, and refused to comment on his music, even as interest in it among the rabid record collector community of the West skyrocketed. Eventually, Luaka Bop, David Byrne’s record label, released a collection of Onyeabor’s music that commented on his mystique with its title, Who Is William Onyeabor? Tribute shows — some with Byrne himself — followed, and while Onyeabor still refused to grant many interviews or participate in the shows, he did acknowledge the rediscovery in a 2014 interview with The New Yorker. “I’m happy that a new generation is discovering my music,” he said, a simple understatement from a man whose life was anything but.