Mohbad’s passing on Tuesday at the age of 27 put an untimely ending to the story of Ilerioluwa Oladimeji Aloba, son, brother, husband and father, who leaves behind a family to which he was a breadwinner and backbone. It also tragically halted the rise of a singer whose rich baritone voice, soul-tugging lyricism and intoxicating rhythms simultaneously enlivened and sobered a generation of young people, this disparity in effect explained by how closely a person listened to his lyrics. Reactions to his passing have been diverse yet singular in sentiment. At one end, tempers have flared with aggrieved fans rallying online to burn anyone alleged to have a hand in his ordeal and eventual mysterious death, while on DSPs, some mourn quietly by reintroducing themselves to the songs that endeared them to him in the first place, as they let his death grant his music new colour and his lyrics deeper meaning. As a result, both of Mohbad’s EPs, 2020’s Light and 2023’s Blessed, have now entered Apple’s top ten albums list, while his other songs soar up the singles charts. Here are five special songs where Mohbad allows us a closer look into himself whilst delivering, as always, a glowing sonic experience.
Ko Por Ke
Ko Por Ke (or KPK) was Nigeria’s proper introduction to Mohbad, and an opportunity for producer Rexxie, to take a big step from behind the curtain and embrace some of the limelight he had brought to other Street Pop acts, most notably Naira Marley and Zlatan. At the time of its release, Mohbad was nowhere near sharing a category with these stars, but no matter, he was going to seize this chance and leave an impression that, for many, was sufficient to make him an immediate fixation on the fan-favourite list. Mohbad’s voice weaves in and out of Rexxie’s characteristically turbulent fusion of Street Pop and Amapiano, underused, yet he so casually conveyed the song’s assured superciliousness whenever he had to: “Ta lo sope ko por ke”? Or “Who said it is not plenty?”
In December 2020, Nigeria, like the world around it, was slowly emerging from the pandemic; lockdowns were easing in the places they had been enforced, friendships were reuniting and people were cautiously beginning to celebrate surviving a global scourge that had threatened to end the world. Mohbad and Rexxie’s song encapsulated this euphoria—bringing together familiar street music swagger with the then ascending South African genre in Amapiano, to create a track that would be the soundtrack to so many happy reunions with friends and family.
Mohbad’s Sorry was the opener for his debut EP, a prime cut from the genre of Street Pop. Light EP ticked enough boxes to support its street-focused mantra—pursuit of hedonism on Ponmo, a billionaire ambition on Holy—but its opener, Sorry, concerned itself with more than these ephemeral needs. He opened the door to emotion, allowing his vulnerability become a portal to the story that lies on the other side of his entry into music, that stars a poor but loving father, an uncaring stepmother, hungry siblings and a host of bad decisions he made to provide for them, decisions he is now sorry for.
On the second half of the track, Mohbad smartly samples King Sunny Ade’s famous Esubiribiri Ebomi, which tells the story of a man being propelled on a journey by forces outside his control, and calling for help from friends to help him disembark because he was unsure of the journey’s destination. Was he moving forward or backwards? In 1974 this captured Ade’s uncertainty about the music industry, but nine years later, he would remix this classic for his Grammy-nominated Synchro System, renaming it Mo ti mo to reflect that the rise his career witnessed in the intervening period had confirmed that he did, in fact, know the direction he was headed—up. Mohbad wrote Sorry in similar shoes as the Juju legend, in his case staring at an industry that offered a definitive end to his family’s poverty but in exchange for his peace of mind. He has now been robbed of the chance to make a comeback single of the likes of Mo Ti Mo, but this relic of a sample, and the song on which it appears, immortalises his craftsmanship and remains one of the closest views Mohbad gave to the man behind and before the artist.
In the studio, Mohbad alternated between sensualist pleasure and cathartic expression. It was his way of balancing two sides of himself in his music, a way of ensuring he didn’t slip too deep into a sadness that could be transmitted to his audience, so his listeners could at least feel good even when he didn’t. Maybe it was also his way of willing himself to be happy so that he tried to speak it into existence. His wife’s tribute to him on Instagram—stating that he had “never been happy for a whole day”—or the his family’s official announcement of his death via his twitter account—”finally Mohbad is at peace”— suggest this, but it was apparent to the discerning listener two years ago when he released Feel Good.
His chorus depicts a man at the peak of happiness—“I feel good, pararan, pararan”, he says, scat singing a trumpet that connotes a celebratory occasion—but he begins and ends the song speaking of adversaries in his pursuit and his prayer to escape them—”Plenty enemies, wey dey follow me/ Maje ko mu mi”. He muffles this fear with Niphkeys’ Fuji-Amapiano production—a little less chaotic and more colourful than Rexxie’s for KPK, but still limb-loosening enough to hold Nigeria’s hand and spin her into a dance frenzy. Beneath the effervescent production and escapist writing, Mohbad’s distress was cleverly hidden, but not completely, so that it slipped to the surface in lines like “I know there is a day/ All my pains will go away/ Till then I smoke it away”. We hope Mohbad has now found that day.
Mohbad’s Peace was his final release as an artist under Marlian Music, by then cracks were already appearing in his relationship with his record label. These cracks widened to become one of the most bitter splits in an industry with plenty to choose from. Here, Mohbad is expectedly guarded with the details of who troubles him, but he more than compensates with a clear conveyance of the emotions that result from it, right from from the first line: “Wetin be this one like this/ Been through many things, many many gists, though I still find my peace”. He craves an escape from the shackles of present life, while reminding of the heights he can reach if allowed to fly unrestricted: “Faster than a bullet/ Flying like a rocket”
He wades through a number of dark subjects on the song, referencing betrayals in the industry and among friends, but once more he prioritises an entertaining experience for the listener, so that the melodiously percussive production on which the song is spun—by now a signature of his as much as it was of the producer, Rexxie’s—counterbalances finely with the song’s stirring core.
Ask About Me
On Ask About Me, one of Mohbad’s final releases, he appeared in the shiniest, most triumphant cloak of his entire career. Production here is of pristine quality, being the joint effort of two creatives possessing irrefutable talent and proven expertise with both Amapiano and Street Pop—Nektunez the brain behind Ameno Amapiano and its Goya Menor remix, Niphkeys an unmissable fixture on Street Pop credits—but they both take their production credentials up a notch with this creation. An ethereal choir heralds Ask About Me at its inception, a female back-up singer performs a call-and-response with Mohbad at certain points, spunky Europop drums provide a base to the entire set-up, while horns guide the track in its journey.
Still Mohbad remains the star of his own show, the conductor of this fine orchestra assembled in his name. He is more confident than ever, having shed most of the anguish that darkened some of his previous songs. Now, fear has become confidence; his plea to outrun his enemies on Feel Good—”Ma je ko mu mi”—is replaced by a finalised assurance that he won that race—”Won ti Le mi/ But won o mu mi”, while the trumpet he had merely vocalised on the earlier track appears here in its splendour. Through it all, Mohbad is as militant and in control as ever, crushing devils one moment and counting dollars the next.
Ask About Me was a superb display of talent and a ripening confidence of Mohbad in his own strengths. But even while surfing these highs, he spares a moment for existential contemplation on how death grants no exception to the young—“Iku to pa iya teacher/ Ole pa awon nigga”—a sentence that has now proven prescient with his untimely death only months later. But death, in itself, does not always have to mean the end, especially for an artist like Mohbad whose discography remains a map to discover the treasure chest that was his life. In this collective journey to overcoming grief, and in the individual journeys we make in our own lives, we can still embrace him in the music he left behind, find encouragement in sadness and camaraderie in loneliness. Mohbad is at peace now, but even in death he holds the ability to make us feel good.