William Onyeabor combined life as a serious businessman and prolific experimental musician in rural Nigeria. But in 1985, the music stopped. A New York record label decided to track him down.
William Onyeabor was, in the words of his record label, a ‘great Nigerian business leader and mythic music pioneer‘. The owner of a successful semolina mill in the town of Enugu, he combined a conventional business career with a side project making vibrantly weird Afrobeat music.
The word ‘mythic’ is an apt description. He never performed live, refused broadcast interviews and was regarded with wonderment and confusion everywhere outside Nigeria. That was until 2008, when a small record label in New York decided to track him down.
Onyeabor released nine albums between 1977 and 1985. In his songs, Onyeabor dispensed cheerful fatherly wisdom about life (‘Good name is better than silver and gold – no-one can fight good name!‘) and global issues like religion and war.
When The Going Is Smooth And Good is a 13-minute epic about choosing the right friends, sung over old drum machines, arpeggiators and synthesised organs.
Onyeabor tells us:
‘When the going is smooth and good, many many people will be your friend.
But when the going becomes tough, many many of them will run away.’
‘That’s bad! Very, very bad!’ reply the backing singers.
‘And that is what I mean, and that is what I’m saying!’ Onyeabor agrees.
‘When the going is good, you should keep your good friends
And when the going is bad, you should keep your good friends!’
And on, and on, and on…
When The Going Is Smooth And Good became a classic on Nigerian radio in the 80s. Many years later it would become part of DJ sets at hip clubs in Brooklyn and Dalston, where it entertained a far less Nigerian audience. They nonetheless connected with the song’s universal message and irresistible rhythm.
William Onyeabor’s synth-based bangers mirrored what was happening in the USA, where disco and dance music were taking hold. Only, Onyeabor had developed this style independently – in rural Nigeria.
The cover of his ninth album, Anything You Sow, shows him sitting in his studio – dressed impeccably in a suit and stetson which make him look like an oil baron – surrounded by a selection of synthesisers which rivalled the most advanced American studios. This would have looked like something out of a science fiction film at the time.
Onyeabor had been consistently releasing albums; nine of them in eight years. But suddenly, in 1985, the music dried up. But William Onyeabor’s popularity in Europe and America continued to flourish.
In the vacuum created by the lack of information, rumours swirled about who he actually was. Had he studied cinema in the USSR? Law at Oxford? Did the films he claimed to have made on the sleeves of his records actually exist? Where did all those synths come from? Synthesisers like those weren’t just lying about in early 80s Nigeria. Why had he stopped making music? Where was William Onyeabor?
William Onyeabor was, in fact, busy opening a semolina mill and being crowned West African Industrialist of the Year. He also became ‘Justice of the Peace’ in his home town and chairman of the local football team, Enugu Rangers.
In 2008, New York record label Luaka Bop decided to take up the challenge of putting out a compilation album of Onyeabor’s music. This would require permission and co-operation from the man himself, who hadn’t been heard from in years.
Eric Welles, a label employee, went in search of Onyeabor. His search took him to Enugu, where he noticed Onyeabor had streets named after him. He found Onyeabor living in a huge white mansion on the outskirts of town, full of ancient synthesizers and memorabilia. Wells, who had long been a fan of Onyeabor, was thrilled to be talking to him; the myth made man, the man who some had claimed didn’t even exist. But there was also a problem.
Onyeabor had become a born again Christian, unwilling to talk about anything other than Jesus Christ, especially when it came to his music career. When Welles asked, Onyeabor would only say he had suffered greatly during those years. It reminded Welles of a lyric from Onyeabor’s 1982 The Moon and the Sun: ‘If you treat me bad I’m going to run away and you’ll never find me again.’ What had happened?
Welles stayed with Onyeabor for the next two weeks, during which the two became friends. Onyeabor never did expound on why he stopped making music, but eventually gave Welles his blessing to release the compilation. Luaka Bop, mindful of how hard it had been to find information about Onyeabor, entitled it ‘Who Is William Onyeabor?‘ With its release came fresh success, documentary Fantastic Man, and live performances of his music by a specially formed supergroup called Atomic Bomb!, led by Ahmed Gallab of Sinkane and featuring David Byrne.
Three years later, in 2017, Onyeabor died aged 70. Enugu threw him a huge, loud funeral.
Onyeabor gave his first and last broadcast interview in 2014, to 6 Music’s Lauren Laverne. ‘I only create music that will help the world,’ he said.
Through much of his music, above all the silliness of his lyrics and the bouncing, shimmering synthesisers, there is an earnestness to Onyeabor. He sounds as if he is speaking to the world, hoping the world will hear. He had to wait until three years before his death for the word to get out, but it finally did.
I have never, never seen a place like this world we live in
Where money’s spun and named into man
And nothing moves according to plan
Many things are going wrong
And many people are dying
Many more are suffering
And many people are crying
Many more are hungry
This is the wonderful world
Where many things are going wrong
Where many people are suffering
I have never, never seen this kind of world
This story first appeared in my weekly newsletter — an email full of interesting stories, places and ideas to inspire you to create something, go somewhere and think beyond the limits of today. Sign up here.