Sonny Okosun: Leading figure in Nigerian music
Tuesday 24 June 2008
One of Nigeria's leading recording artists for much of his career, Sonny Okosun gained a wider following between the late 1970s and mid 1980s with US and UK releases and several international tours.
His warm, genial voice effortlessly carried a moral authority that suited the social and political commentary of his lyrics. He called his ever-changing mix of reggae, highlife, Afro-soul, rock, funk and various indigenous elements "Ozziddi", meaning "there is a message". Best known for his anti-apartheid reggae anthem "Fire in Soweto", he also espoused Pan-Africanism and Black Pride, singing about the need for honest leadership in Africa, and the plight of the continent's children.
Okosun once declared: "All my mates were singing love songs. I was trying to talk about what was happening to black people." Such a strategy landed his more sharp-tongued contemporary and compatriot Fela Kuti in hot water for choosing targets too close to home. However, Okosun (who soon switched to singing in English after early efforts in his native Esan) set his sights further afield and couched his messages in more general terms, which sometimes meant West African politicians misappropriated them.
Both his parents were traditional musicians, but the teenage Okosun taught himself the guitar, inspired by Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard and The Beatles. In 1964, at the age of 17, he formed the Postmen, a covers band also known as the "Local Beatles". He visited London with a theatre group for the 1965 Commonwealth Arts Festival, but in 1967 the Biafran war prompted both the dissolution of the Postmen and a move by Okosun and his family to Lagos. There, he worked briefly in television before moving to Benin, where in 1969 he joined Victor Uwaifo's Melody Maestros, celebrated for updating traditional music.
After a tour of Japan and Europe, Okosun established his own group, Paperback Limited, informed by "underground" Western rock. But in order to formulate his own back-to-roots sound he dissolved the band in 1974, returning to his village. By 1976, his new group, Ozziddi, had their first hit with "Help" – yet another Beatles reference. The following year, the album Papa's Land was mixed by Eddy Grant, and Okosun then recorded the albums Fire in Soweto (1977) and Holy Wars (1978) at EMI studios in London. A collaborative album with the calypso star Lord Superior followed, as did Nigerian tours with Jimmy Cliff and Toots and the Maytals.
Nevertheless, EMI (UK) were indifferent, so it wasn't until the London-based independent label Oti licensed the albums Third World (1981) and Mother and Child (1982) that Okosun got a UK release. The US label Celluloid licensed Togetherness in 1983, and in 1984 the UK's Zomba issued Which Way Nigeria? while the compilation Liberation (1984) became Okosun's most widely distributed LP. In 1985, he contributed to the anti-apartheid album Sun City, and the following year "Highlife" was featured in Jonathan Demme's movie Something Wild.
By the late Eighties, Okosun's star was fading, but he reinvented himself with the 1994 comeback album Songs of Praise, which sold nearly a million copies.
Sonny Okosun, singer, songwriter, producer and preacher: born Enugu, Nigeria 1 January 1947; married; died Washington DC 24 May 2008.
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