Nigerian Funk Pioneer William Onyeabor Dead at 70
Nigerian synth-funk pioneer and independent record producer William Onyeabor has passed away at the age of 70, a representative from David Byrne’s Luaka Bop Records announced via Onyeabor’s Facebook page early this morning. The statement said that Onyeabor “died peacefully in his sleep following a brief illness, at his home in Enugu, Nigeria.”
Onyeabor achieved a more widespread, international cult status when Luaka Bop issued a critically acclaimed compilation album of his work in 2013, Who is William Onyeabor? But among devotees of African music, he had been a mythical figure since the late 1970s, when he began releasing albums independently through his own pressing plant, Wilfilms Limited. He was an espoused influence on American musician like LCD Soundsystem, Caribou, Devendra Banhart, and Damon Albarn, who spoke out in support when Byrne began to reissue Onyeabor’s music.
The nine playful, danceable, and sometimes politically-charged albums Onyeabor made between 1977 and 1985 his entire recording career include 1977’s highly-regarded Crashes in Love, 1978’s Atomic Bomb, and 1983’s Good Name. The writer and producer’s entire recorded output has been re-released by Luaka Bop during the past three years. Byrne also publicly performed Onyeabor’s music with a rotating all-star touring band, The Atomic Bomb! Band, to promote the releases.
Much of Onyeabor’s life is shrouded in secrecy: It has been rumored that his wealth arose from working on government contracts in Nigeria, that he had a background in British law, and that he was educated as a filmmaker in Russia. He moved away from writing and recording music in the late 1980s and became a born-again Christian, and generally refused to talk about his albums. He granted his only interview following a resurgence of interest in music in 2014 to BBC Music 6, following an attempt by Noisey to track him down in their short documentary Fantastic Man.
Watch that, and listen to a few of Onyeabor’s most beloved tunes, below.