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RIP William Onyeabor, Who Remained a Mystery Until the End

The electro-funk pioneer and record label boss has died at the age of 70, and leaves behind a legacy steeped in secrecy.
Luaka Bop records

You could never really know William Onyeabor. The Nigerian former record label owner and electro-funk musician lived a life shrouded in storybook-like mystery, with some of the only verified information about him traceable to the nine albums he self-released on his Wilfilms label between 1977 and 1985. Once you divert from the music that drew in fans from around the world beyond Onyeabor's hometown of Enugu, details start to fade.


Rumours about him touched on everything, from opening a flour mill in Nigeria once he retired from music to studying film in the Soviet Union. Or maybe it was England? Perhaps France. "To his great amusement (and ours too for that matter), this mythic image was at times so deeply ingrained, that we often encountered people who were convinced that he didn't actually exist," wrote Eric Welles, Paul Diddy and Yale Evelev of David Byrne's record label Luaka Bop, announcing the news of Onyeabor's death on Facebook on Wednesday morning. "Whenever we shared this with him, or would ask him a question about his past, he would just smile and say, 'I only want to speak about God.'"

Onyeabor's music picked up more global recognition in 2013 when, after years of negotiating and (unsuccessful) attempts to pull Onyeabor from his shell for interviews, Luaka Bop released a compilation of his songs titled Who Is William Onyeabor? A year later, Noisey put out documentary Fantastic Man, on Onyeabor's life, accomplishments and the enigma underpinning both. Byrne then took a band on the road on an international tour, playing Onyeabor's hits as part of the "Atomic Bomb! Who is William Onyeabor?" live show with a rotating cast of collaborators including Sinkane, Ghostpoet, Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem's Pat Mahoney.

"As one of the absolutely smartest people we ever encountered," Luaka Bop's message continued, "William Onyeabor was always in charge, whatever the situation may be (and even though he was living in a fairly isolated part of rural West Africa). As can be heard in many of his songs, he looked at the world from a bird's eye view. He would watch American, Chinese and European news simultaneously, so he could learn about the different points of view from around the world. In his later years, he was still conducting business as usual."


His music, with its warm basslines, looping refrains and song lengths often running over the seven-minute mark, felt similarly introspective and left an impression on listeners around the world. Even Onyeabor's exact birth date was never known, listed as potentially in 1945 or 1946, though Luaka Bop's message sets his age as 70 at the time of his death on Monday the 16th of January. He is survived, according to the label, by his four grandchildren, children and wife.

Watch the full Fantastic Man documentary below, to remember his journey to international acclaim.

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(Lead image via Luaka Bop)