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William Onyeabor is an iconic figure in the history of Nigerian pop music. He is considered the father of Nigerian electro Afro-funk. His biography has been shrouded in mystery due to his own refusal to discuss it or his music since becoming a born-again Christian in the middle of the 1980s and retiring to pursue a career as a businessman running his own flour mill.
What we do know is that he was born in Lagos, Nigeria in the 1950s. His musical education began early on the piano and organ. In the early '70s, he reportedly attended university in Russia, studying cinematography. He returned to Lagos in the middle of the decade and started his own company, Wilfilms. Although he was recording during the era when Fela Kuti's Afro-beat ruled the music scene, and was no doubt influenced by it, Onyeabor's music followed its own idiosyncratic — and infectious — path.
He was fascinated by synthesizers, drum machines, and D.I.Y. recording technology. He began composing and recording a style of music that melded Nigerian folk forms, a love of repetition, and nods to Afro-beat and American R&B, disco, and funk, weaving them together in a spacy, futuristic brew that no one was making at the time; that style has influenced, been sampled, and emulated by many. His eight albums were all self-released on his Wilfilms label.
His debut album, Crashes in Love, appeared in 1977. It featured four long tracks whose joyous rhythms and zigzagging electro funk backdrops were often underscored by militant political lyrics. In 1978, he released Atomic Bomb, whose title track proved to be a regional hit. As an album, Atomic Bomb proved to be a road map for all of his recordings to follow. Tomorrow was issued in 1979, Body & Soul (whose title track is regarded as a classic) in 1980, Great Lover in 1981, the angry Hypertension in 1982, the widely celebrated Good Name in 1983 (which consisted of just two long tracks), and finally, Anything You Sow in 1985.
After his conversion and retirement from making music, Onyeabor was crowned a High Chief in Enugu, the economic capital of Nigeria, where he has lived ever since, behind the walls of a palace in a wooded area. He is well known as a booster of the thriving Christian music scene there.
Onyeabor's music has has only appeared on compilations in the 21st century and in limited edition, unoffical LP runs. In 2013, David Byrne's Luaka Bop label released World Psychedelic Classics, Vol. 5: Who Is William Onyeabor? Years in the making, it is the first authoritative—and reluctantly authorized— compilation of his work.