William Onyeabor is considered the founding father of Nigerian electro Afro-funk, yet his story is shrouded in mystery. He rarely granted interviews about his music. He only spoke about the latter part of his life when he became born again and accepted Christianity around the mid-80s.
Born to a low-income family in the mid-1940s, Onyeabor made some money and moved to Russia to acquire an education. Some say he studied record engineering, while some other narrations say he studied cinematography. By the late 70s, he returned to Nigeria to start his record label company and recording studio.
By the 80’s, he had gotten pretty popular in the music scenes. It is believed that his sound was influenced by Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat, which also dominated the scene at that time. However, he carved a unique Afro-funk niche for himself.
Onyeabor was unique because he used certain music producing instruments that were rare in Nigeria at that time, like synthesizers, drum machines, and D.I.Y. recording technology; these created special effects in his songs that had never been heard of before. He also tried to combine Nigerian folk forms of music with American R&B, Disco and Funk to produce his nine albums released between 1977 and 1985.
He later retired to pursue a career as a businessman, where he started his flour mill, which bagged him the title of West African Industrialist of the Year in 1987.
What makes his story quite mysterious is that a man known for starting this beautiful genre of music chose the life of obscurity; it’s like he just vanished in thin air, and in the process, two of his albums disappeared with him. Two enthusiasts Luaka Bop’s Eric Welles-Nyström and Nigerian-American journalist Uchenna Ikonne spent years trying to unravel the mystery that is William Onyeabor. They even travelled to his hometown in Enugu state Nigeria, but were turned away.
The irony of the situation is that anyone who has achieved this level of success would want to continue to ride on that wave till his death. Nonetheless, he disassociated himself from his life and success as a famous funk musician. Some friends say he was privately ordained as a pastor and secretly recorded gospel music which he never played live or recorded.
Since he never said much about himself, there are inconsistencies with his biography, and they have never been resolved since he passed away in 2017. Still, no one can deny his legendary contribution to Afro funk in Nigeria.
Some of his evergreen hits include:
Fantastic Man by William Onyeabor:
Used in a documentary directed by Jake Sumner, the project talks about the musical maestro through the lips of modern-day fans and some rare stories by his neighbours and friends in Nigeria. This album has 1.4M views on Instagram. Fantastic Man was also used on Netflix Original series Sex Education.
When the going is Smooth & Good
With reference to Timaya’s song “When money no dey” released in 2016, this song talks about how friends would leave you to suffer when you’re struggling, and you’d have many friends when everything is fine. It says, “When the going is smooth and good. Many people will be your friend”.
The animated video of this track had 1.4M views on YouTube. In the first thirty seconds of this song you’ll hear the sound of a tambourine, a Moog synthesizer, an electric guitar, a bass, and a keyboard. Recorded in his own studio in Enugu, Nigeria, Atomic Bomb dropped in 1978.
Celebrated globally, Onyeabor’s legend looms large despite the Nigerian music scene has evolved immensely in the streaming era.