Published Jan 18, 2017Celebrated musician William Onyeabor has passed away at the age of 70. According to a statement from the Luaka Bop label, the musician died peacefully on January 16, following a brief illness.
Starting in 1977, the Nigerian-born artist released nine albums before retreating from the music world in 1985. While active, he was regarded as a pioneer in the electronic funk genre, blending rhythmic, synth-driven instrumentation with lyrics protesting war.
Following his musical career, Onyeabor worked as a successful businessman in his hometown of Enugu. In the 1990s, he served as both the president of Enugu's Musician's Union and the chairman of local football team, the Enugu Rangers. He became a born-again Christian, distancing himself from music — claiming that "he only wanted to speak about God."
All that being said, little is known about the man's personal life, though Noisey did release a half-hour documentary about the musician back in 2014. That same year, David Byrne, Dev Hynes and Money Mark joined forces as part of Atomic Bomb! Band to play Onyeabor's music at a number of concerts and festivals, while Hot Chip, Daphni and the Vaccines came together to honour Onyeabor's work on a special Record Store Day release.
Also in 2014, Onyeabor made his first radio appearance, revealing to BBC 6 Music that he had plans to release new material.
Read Luaka Bop's message in its entirety below.
UPDATE (1/18, 5:25 p.m. EST): David Byrne has also now shared an obit for Onyeabor. You can find that below.
William Onyeabor passed away at his home in Nigeria day before yesterday. His surprising (no other African musician was using synthesizers then) recordings, his conscious lyrics and messages and his entrepreneurial ambitions (up until selling them late last year, he had his own vinyl mastering and pressing machines!) were all way ahead of their time. He continues to inspire musicians and fans around the world.
I was deeply involved with the label Luaka Bop some years ago when Yale Evelev played me some funky-bordering-on-psychedelic tracks by a variety of African artists from the '70s. We put out a compilation of these called Love's a Real Thing, which contained a wonderful song by Onyeabor — "Better Change Your Mind" — a song whose message is as relevant today as it was then. More vinyl from this mysterious man was hard to find, but some trickled in.
Since then I've had less involvement with the label, but when they said they were doing these concerts of Onyeabor's music and asked if I would participate, I said yes. I joined the Atomic Bomb concerts in NY, London, Acapulco, San Francisco and LA. Multiple singers were anchored by the band Sinkane and augmented by African drummers, a horn section and often African singers as well. Those shows were some of the best times I've ever had on stage. Onyeabor's music came to life—it was fresh and transcendent. Everyone felt it. We played it, but he created it.