A Brief History of Light: 7 Writers Pay Tribute to Mohbad (1996 – 2023)

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Dami Ajayi, Bunmi Familoni, Michael Kolawole, Wale Olowokerende, Tobi Adebowale, Chimezie Chika and Saratu Abiola

One of the first tasks of my newly minted marriage was to break the news of Mohbad’s unexpected death to my wife. We were auditing our wedding ceremony as newlyweds are wont to do, particularly the after-party where DJ Sean dazzled a party of Nigerian immigrants in East London with a cache of Afrobeats songs. 

He did not play any Mohbad songs. I am not too sure as my recollection is not reliable, no thanks to the Japanese whisky that steeled me through the joyful day. But that evening, having returned to our apartment in leafy suburbia, a tweet read: Mohbad is dead at age 27.

Too young to die. Too staggering a talent to depart without impacting us with the full extent of his gift. I recently took an interest in Mohbad—this is an abiding trait: standing with the underdog. In my London Listening Sessions newsletter in May, I wrote, “When a signed musician is at loggerheads with his record label, the world is usually silent, complacent, even aloof. Call it the passerby effect, but the Afrobeats industry has handed the allegations of assault against the person of Mohbad with levity.”

The outrage that has followed Mohbad’s death on social media has been far from righteous, especially those tweets maligning Naira Marley’s person, suggesting narcotic ties (when he is a ‘brand’ ambassador of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA)).

Mohbad has died. He has been buried. The cause of death is not clear. An ear infection? An allergic reaction to an injection administered by an auxiliary nurse? Our rabid bloggers have had a field day like vultures to carrion. Pictures of a shirtless and silent Mohbad lying in a car backseat have been enthusiastically shared on social media. His corpse has been televised with wool plugging his nostrils. This is not the way I chose to remember this gifted musician who used his story to illustrate what it means to be young, and urban poor in Lagos. 

I want to remember him vibrant in a yellow tracksuit as he appeared in the sports car race-inspired video of his breakout single, Ko Po Ke (KPK). That jam (gem, too) of a song helmed by producer Rexxie froths over with rapturous joy and breaks in not one, not two, but three slangs with accompanying acronyms to boot! 

KPK stands for Ko Por Ke, OPP stands for O Por Paa; OPG stands for O Por Gan—all exclamatory responses to the abundance that is the female form, Afrobeats’ main muse.

Since Dagrin executed the coup that dethroned American-sounding rappers from our soundscape, Street Hop has not strayed from its dominant themes: cannabis, alcohol, and sex. But in Mohbad’s music, we are left with a disturbing notion that this music might be successful as an immediate salvo to dysphoria but that this dysphoria will avenge itself.

On the opening tune of his gorgeous debut EP Light, he channels the existential angst of King Sunny Ade’s 1974 hit, Esubiri biri e bo mi. Only true artists can articulate that uneasiness, and even if his interpolation was jarring, he swiftly moved his material along to the thrush we are accustomed to. Ponmo is a vulgar tune about sex, but you would still find humour as he debases women who patronise aphrodisiacs.  

There is also paranoia inherent in the Yoruba worldview extended to a sexual partner whose true motive must be evaluated. This paranoia also trickles into his visual vocabulary. Feel Good is supposed to be about euphoria but in the music video, masquerades give Mohbad the chase of his life. Indeed, escape is not child’s play—and even if this song is the prototype of indigenising the Amapiano log drum into our Fuji-inflected Street Hop (with the added bonus of James Brown’s Soul), a tortured man lingers, standing in a haze of cannabis smoke, world-weary.

Mohbad throws everything in his arsenal at this paranoia-induced dysphoria: his faith grounded in clergy (his father is a pastor), his intricate rhymes, puns rendered in Yoruba, humour too. He stands out among his label mates as the most nuanced.

For a time, I compared him with Zinoleesky, who is by no means a talented songsmith. The final blow to Zinoleesky’s campaign was watching him parachuting from Herne Hill into Central London in a ridiculous music video.

I rooted for Mohbad when he suffered violence for asking to be eased out of his contract. I wrote in my newsletter, “Thankfully, Mohbad is not doing badly.” And he wasn’t. 

The lead single of his sophomore (and sadly final) album Blessed, Ask About Me is incantatory Yoruba poetry evoking courage and vulnerability. Comprising eight songs lasting about twenty minutes, Blessed showcases elevated craft, delivery, prosody, and philosophy.

Beast & Peace is his interpretation of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde duality through the lens of beauty, Beauty and the Beast. Peace is bliss and beautiful. Mohbad appears this way on the cover art, drenched in a menacing red, one hand raised like the picture of a white Jesus hanging in the celestial church.

 Rest in peace, Imole. 

Dami Ajayi

Marlian Fest was one of the highlights of 2019’s unforgettably bacchanal Detty December, a fitting culmination to the impressive commercial run Naira Marley enjoyed that year. At this event, Naira announced the signing of four new artistes – Zinoleesky, Mohbad, C Blvck and Fabian.

Little did we know that darkness was gathering and would descend on the entire world in the succeeding year. Emerging from this gloom towards the end of 2020, it was imperative that societies were provided with some kind of illumination—and from his corner of the globe, an erstwhile obscure rapper from Ikorodu who, judging from the rabid energy of his Instagram clips, was waiting for such an auspicious moment, seized it and gave us an EP simply (and aptly) titled Light.  It propelled him not just into cultural consciousness but into the ranks of artistes tipped for greatness in the year following the release of that debut EP.

And as the new year arrived, Naira’s bet on Mohbad yielded dividends as KPK (Ko Por Ke) the song Mohbad made with Marlian Music’s in-house producer, Rexxie, went on to become not just a street hit, but also a club and radio favourite, extending beyond the shores of Nigeria, such that when the remix was to be made, it was only fitting that it would feature a South African sensation, Sho Madjozi. 

The slang KPK took on a life of its own with far-reaching pop culture impact. That was the kind of influence Mohbad garnered early in his career. But all of that came to a grinding halt in 2022 when Mohbad terminated his contract with Marlian Music, in controversial circumstances, which included allegations of assault and battery.

Not to be deterred, he went on to start his own label, Imolenization, a highly risky venture, considering that there are few artistes who break away from the record label and can still maintain a decent level of relevance.

The Imolenization phase signalled an entrance into an illuminative period in his career, having escaped from the seeming ‘darkness’ that pervaded his former label and consequently from the looming shadow of Naira himself.

It seemed like a wrong business move for a young artiste, but beneath its commercial veneer, that exit was a watershed moment in Mohbad’s career. He shed his superficial, gritty street persona in his music and took on a more philosophical approach to his lyricism. It was appropriate to leave a label whose philosophy is built on the vacuous elevation of revelry.

Undaunted, and not letting anybody dim the torch he lit on that debut EP, Imole followed it up with an equally brilliant sophomore, one with yet another simple monosyllabic title, Blessed, with a cover art that could serve as a metaphor for some of his recent travails – an image of him drenched on the other side of what looks like a screen separating him from the rest of the world, almost as if he was trapped, with his left palm pressed to this screen and his eyes closed as if trying to gain access to some kind of preternatural realm.

During the gubernatorial elections in Osun State, you would think of Mohbad when you hear the appellation Imole before your mind re-routes into the political realms, and you then consider the Dancing Senator, Davido’s uncle. 

Even within the gloom of mourning, one can take solace in the fact that Mohbad finally attained the peace he sang about in the eponymous hit single in 2022. Even though, like a candle in the wind, it seems his light has been blown out just as his career was beginning to glow brighter, we believe that the name Imole will live on, through his music, and light a path for many coming behind him groping their way out of these mean streets.

—Bunmi Familoni

Mohbad has left an indelible mark on the music industry with his unique style, and vibrant, impactful lyrics. 

Beast and Peace, the song that opens his final album Blessed showcases versatility and lyrical prowess. The title itself suggests duality, an inner conflict he grappled with. The juxtaposition of Beast and Peace suggests a complex individual striving for balance amid life’s challenges. 

“Mo silent mood but beast ni mi/ mo le cause violence but still peace ni mi (I’m in a silent mode, but I could also be bestial/ I could be violent, but I could also be peaceful)” –Mohbad modulates his silky voice to suggest menace. Ask About Me throws shots at his former label boss, a bold missive to his contemporaries and critics. He provides a glimpse into his journey through his lyrics, affirming his place in Afrobeats.

The album art drenched in red symbolizes passion, intensity, and vitality. Mohbad’s eyes are closed, and his left hand is raised in a gesture that now suggests a prescient finality.  

— Michael Kolawole

Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven – Matthew 5:16 

There is no single element quite as fundamental to the preservation of our humanity as light is. In a world where wars break out for the darndest reasons, pestilence abounds, and bad things happen to the best of us, light–or often, just the promise of it–is a salve for tough times.

 Amidst the struggles we confront in our inner lives tucked away from public glare, we cling to whatever source of light we can lay our hands on, hoping its rays shine on us long enough to let whatever darkness threatens to engulf us abate. Beyond calling himself Imole, the Yoruba word for light, I do not doubt that Mohbad, born Oladimeji Ilerioluwa Aloba, is of the light and that music was his most potent form of illumination. 

Since moving back to Lagos in 2021, street hop has been a companion in my darkest hours, providing the soundtrack for my euphoria. Mohbad has been central to all these feelings in ways my vocabulary cannot fully express. 

I once took a walk at 5:30 a.m. in 2022 with nothing for company, but Mohbad’s Feel Good rang in my ears as I navigated a lonely stretch of road, I had no business walking through. The lyrics of that song, more than anyone in the Ikorodu-born star’s oeuvre, crashed into my life just in time to save me from the gnarly blackhole of a quarter-life depressive swoop. 

While he did so much, the true miracle of Mohbad was his redoubtable nature. Just when folks were gearing to count him out, he’d pop up with a ray of light so bright that it was undeniable. So, here’s another anecdote to help you understand the scope of what Mohbad meant to me: One morning in March 2023, someone I once called my lover walked out of the flat that we both called home, and the version of them I knew never came back home. 

One month later, after so much tension, we’d call it quits, and Mohbad, just in time, always on time, would release Ask About Me providing a song that provided just enough succor for me and camaraderie with my friends as they nursed me back to normalcy. 

There is no direct correlation between the strains of a broken heart and a song about reinforcing credentials and explaining why you deserve to keep a spot you sacrificed so much to get as it is being pried out of your hand. Or maybe there is. 

What I know is that I stepped into Mohbad’s light for many hours after the released Ask About Me, grateful that he breathed life into a mic and walked away whispering thanks to the creative force for his golden drawl. 

—  Wale Oloworekende

I asked YouTube Music about Mohbad when news of his death filtered in. I was ushered to a song where he asked his audience to do what I had done: Ask About Me. His baritone, washed with contemplation, hinted at a talent plagued by a bigger burden. Next, I found his song titled Peace, which, paradoxically, described entropy and a quest for equilibrium, drawing succour from his faith. I would find lighter offerings in his discography and the stories of a falling out with his former label, an unpalatable aftermath.

Mohbad was the type of artiste I could relate to. He made light talk of his struggles, so it is a bit curious that his death made me aware of him. His other self-referential sobriquet, Imole, which loosely means light, is nostalgic for someone who grew up in a Celestial Church and sensing the catharsis in his songs felt like seeing a brother in arms clawing to safety.

Mohbad had a gift but not enough time to use it, even though he may have made the best of it. After all, creating art requires leaping over the hurdles on your track, some of them in your head, and he has left a clutch of good songs behind. Grieving a talent like Mohbad is never about how long we have known him because his songs will transcend time. 

— Tobi Adebowale

I came to Mohbad rather late. My introduction to him was the hit single, KPK (Ko Por Ke), in collaboration with producer Rexxie. Not only was I drawn to the song’s high-concept video, its bouncy amapiano beats and electrifying synths stayed with me at a time when I was travelling around Southern Nigeria. 

If I thought Mohbad was all dance and vibes, I was in for a shock. Beneath all the vibrancy of KPK lies an artiste acutely aware of the grim reality of being a young man in Nigeria. To wit, he was a chronicler of the psychological dilemma, the changing fortunes, and the fringe social and familial confrontations we deal with. 

Hear him in Peace: “Been through many things/La ti aiye genesis/I’ve been dealing with frenemies/Survival, (survival).”

Mohbad’s subject was the ghettos and slums and satellite towns of Lagos where he grew up—those capricious “streets” where dangers lurk. His brazen lyric is littered with scrupulous examinations of his experiences through an unstable life marked by palpable anxieties. 

Again and again, Mohbad told us about the dangers he was facing. I had begun to feel the timorous atmosphere of lyrics as he began dealing with the perils surrounding him. Feel Good, perhaps his most eloquent expression of that imperious reality, evokes dysphoria despite its paradoxical aspirations to euphoria.

Hear him again: “I know there’s a day/all my pains will go away/till then I smoke it away…”

Feel Good captured Mohbad’s fears and vulnerabilities, wishes and prayers. His story is relatable for those seeking escape from the shackles of poverty, fear and oppression. In short, only those at the crossroads of despair aspire to optimism. Yet, there is no joy in knowing that this immense talent is gone in the sunniest season of his life. 

Chimezie Chika 

Let us look to the light. Nigerians know too well how darkness clouds both judgment and hope. Today, with Mohbad’s life cut brutally short, I reflect on the moments he gave us. I remember thinking—”Who is that!”—the first time I heard KPK where he skated on that masterful Rexxie beat. I shoved it to the periphery of my mind as just another artist to be peripherally aware of. I enjoyed Feel Good and danced to it many times but didn’t think of him again until I heard Peace, which felt like despair set to a beat. I remember hearing of his troubles with Naira Marley and worrying about this situation Nigerians face when trying to progress. More people will discover his music in his death, and the streaming revenue will go to those who made his life hell. Nigeria does many things, including making a mockery of our light. In all this, Mohbad did what we do best: he shone as brightly as possible. He deserved a place to shine; he deserved peace while he was alive. May he rest in it now. 

Saratu Abiola


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