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Sonny Okosun

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Biography

Sonny Okosun towers among the giants of contemporary Nigerian music — assigning his signature fusion of reggae, highlife, Afro-funk, and traditional melodies and rhythms the catchall description "ozziddi" (or "message"), he tackled head-on the most incendiary political and social issues gripping the African continent. Born in Enugu, Nigeria, on January 1, 1947, Okosun was the son of musicians, although his chief formative influences were rockers like Elvis Presley and the Beatles. As a teen he taught himself guitar, and in 1964 founded the Postmen, a British Invasion covers band; a year later Okosun visited London for the first time as part of a theater group. In the wake of the early-1966 government coup d'├ętat that led to the Biafra conflict, he and his family settled in Lagos, where he forged a career as a television actor. Okosun returned to music in 1969 as a member of Victor Uwaifo's Melody Maestros, a group noted for its contemporary pop approach to traditional Nigerian music. After touring Japan and Europe with the group, he formed his own psychedelic rock unit, Paperback Limited, which he helmed until 1974. Upon dissolving the group, Okosun again reinvented his approach, this time channeling influences like soul, funk, and reggae — the resulting group, dubbed Ozziddi, crystallized the progressive musical and lyrical path he followed throughout the remainder of his career. "All my mates were singing love songs," Okosun later said. "I was trying to talk about what was happening to black people."

With 1976's "Help," Ozziddi scored their first major African hit, and a year later reggae giant Eddy Grant mixed their LP Papa's Land. Follow-up Fire in Soweto was recorded in London and scored via the title track, which protested apartheid abuses in South Africa. Okosun nevertheless sidestepped the militant politics of contemporaries like Afro-funk icon Fela Kuti, promoting African unity and black pride over radical broadsides. After completing work on 1978's Holy Wars, Okosun toured Nigeria with reggae greats Jimmy Cliff and Toots & the Maytals. With 1981's Third World, Okosun inked a licensing deal with London indie Oti, with the U.S. imprint Celluloid agreeing to reissue Togetherness two years later. In 1985 he reached the apex of his international fame as the lone African artist to contribute to the all-star anti-apartheid album Sun City, and a year later his "Highlife" featured in the Jonathan Demme-directed feature film Something Wild. By the late '80s Okosun's popularity was waning, but in 1994 he resurfaced with the comeback vehicle Songs of Praise. In all he recorded more than three dozen LPs over the course of his career, with sessions cut in locales ranging from the U.S. to France, and maintained a high profile at world music festivals across the globe. After battling colon cancer, Okosun died in Washington, D.C., on May 24, 2008.

Top Songs

Born:

January 1, 1947 in Enugu, Nigeria

Genre
Years Active:

'80s, '90s, '00s

Contemporaries

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