William Onyeabor, the Nigerian funk artist who, after self-releasing a wellspring of albums from 1977 to 1985, achieved worldwide acclaim nearly 30 years after he permanently left the music industry, died Monday following a brief illness in his home in Enugu, Nigeria. He was 70.
David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, which reissued Onyeabor’s music in recent years, announced the musician’s death on Facebook.
“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,” the label wrote in a statement.
“An extraordinary artist, businessman and visionary, Mr. Onyeabor composed and self-released nine 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.”
“His surprising (no other African musician was using synthesizers then) recordings, his conscious lyrics and messages and his entrepreneurial ambitions (up until selling them late last year, he had his own vinyl mastering and pressing machines!) were all way ahead of their time,” Byrne wrote in a statement. “He continues to inspire musicians and fans around the world.”
Onyeabor’s rhythmic, synth-driven funk LPs – recorded in a studio he constructed featuring then-state-of-the-art equipment learned from “record manufacturing techniques” in Stockholm, Sweden – were successful in the artist’s native Nigeria but failed to make an impact outside the African country.
It wasn’t until his tracks like “Better Change Your Mind” and “Atomic Bomb” appeared on 2010s compilations of Seventies Nigerian music that Onyeabor’s music found an international audience. By that time, however, Onyeabor had abandoned his recording career, becoming a businessman and a born-again Christian in his native Nigeria.
William Onyeabor – “Atomic Bomb”
“In the late 1980s, he was awarded West African Industrialist of the Year and given the honorary title ‘Justice of the Peace.’ In the early 1990s, he became the President of Enugu’s Musician’s Union and Chairman of the city’s local football team, The Enugu Rangers,” Luaka Pop wrote. “For many in his hometown of Enugu, Nigeria, he was simply referred to as ‘The Chief’ and known for having created many opportunities for the people in his community.”
The renewed interest in the funk musician resulted in a few Onyeabor-inspired projects, including the Atomic Bomb! Band, a group of all-star musicians featuring members of LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip and Antibalas that performed Onyeabor’s music live. Byrne, Damon Albarn and Dev Hynes were among the artists to make special guest appearances alongside the Atomic Bomb! Band during the run, which included a Tonight Show appearance.
Who Is William Onyeabor?, a Luaka Bop-released compilation, and the 2014 mini-documentary Fantastic Man further popularized Onyeabor’s music.
“Still, William Onyeabor would never speak about himself and for a long time refused many of the interview requests that came his way,” Luaka Bop wrote. “Having become Born Again in the latter part of life, he only wanted to speak about God.”
In a rare, brief interview with BBC Music in 2014, Onyeabor stated that while he had no desire to perform live again, he was working on new music.
William Onyeabor – “Better Change Your Mind”
William Onyeabor – “Fantastic Man”
William Onyeabor – “Body and Soul”