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William Onyeabor: A 'Fantastic' Man

Who is William Onyeabor?

Ever since his analog synth-filled beats began resurfacing in the late 1990s, he has remained one of the most mysterious artists in Africa. This anonymity has fueled his fame and all that people know and love about him is his energetic electronic music.

According to the few who know Onyeabor and dared speak on-camera in Noisey’s documentary "Fantastic Man,” he was never one to seek the limelight. He never did interviews, appeared in magazines, spoke on radio, or played on television, not even when he was actively releasing albums.

His seclusion has also fed rumors that portray him as a bit of a strange man -- even a bully. Was he a filmmaker who studied film in Russia? Was his career sponsored by Communists? How could he afford expensive synthesizers and how could he ever pay for the large studios where he self-released his eight albums? Is it true he pointed a pistol at a boy who claimed ownership of one of his songs? Did he become a big religious leader and is recording only gospel music?

 

 

'Fantastic Man' (Full Length) - A Film About William Onyeabor, by Noisey

 

What can be confirmed, however, is that his music was created in a time when democracy was returning to Nigeria and the economy was boosted by the oil boom of the 1970s, after a bloody Nigerian Civil War. The war erupted in 1967 after Muslim Hausas killed thousands of Christian Igbos in the north and split off into the Republic of Biafra. The war ended when Biafra surrendered in 1970.

Music played a big part in keeping the Nigerian people’s spirits up during the war, said Uchenna Ikonne, founder of Comb & Razor Records in “Fantastic Man.” New Nigerian artists from that era were heavily influenced by James Brown and Western disco.

“My favorite time period for music was probably the 1970s,” Ikonne said in an interview with Get On Down. “It was something about that particular era that encouraged creativity. I’m not sure what it was, but there was something definitely in the air that was not there now.”

After years of isolation, Onyeabor took a big step into the public light in late 2014, when he granted his first-ever U.K. interview to BBC Radio 6 Music. A candid Onyeabor cleared rumors about his wealth and studying at Oxford (he actually came from a humble family and studied in Stockholm). He joked that he has a large build so he could not be expected to perform his music and dance like Michael Jackson. To the delight of his followers, he announced he’s working on a new record and it will be about Jesus Christ.

An album about Jesus Christ is significant and could reflect a lot about a country that is almost exactly half Christian and half Muslim.

Religious extremism has claimed the lives of many throughout Nigeria’s history. In the Yelwa massacre of 2004, hundreds of people died in a series of attacks, including one in which Christians killed about 700 Muslims. Thousands have died in fighting between the Christian Tarok and the Muslim Hausa since the imposition of sharia law in 1999.

The Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram has become internationally known for kidnapping hundreds of girls from Chibok town in Borno state to enslave them and force them into marriage. This, they said, was a statement against Western education because it interferes with Muslim values. Among the group’s many horrific attacks is the beheading civilians and bombing of churches and United Nations headquarters.

A military operation is currently underway to shut down Boko Harem. Forces from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and France have launched an air and ground offensive against the insurgent group, joined by African Union troops.

With ongoing religious tension, which is reminiscent of the Nigerian Civil War of the late 1960s, there’s a chance Onyearbor is sitting in his “God is King Palace” in Enugu, Nigeria making music while he observes another cycle of religious and political violence unfold.

“I only compose the type of music that will help the world,” Onyeabor said in the BBC radio interview.

Whether or not his album is a religious contribution to world peace, fans hope it doesn’t take another 30 years to hear from Onyeabor again.

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