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Nigerian Synth-Funk Legend William Onyeabor Dies at 70

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William Onyeabor, the groundbreaking Nigerian musician whose synth-funk discography saw an unlikely second act in recent years after being licensed by David Byrne‘s Luaka Bop label, has passed away.

“It is with incredibly heavy hearts that we have to announce that the great Nigerian business leader and mythic music pioneer William Onyeabor has passed away at the age of 70. He died peacefully in his sleep following a brief illness, at his home in Enugu, Nigeria,” writes Luaka Bop in a social media post. “We would like to send our deepest condolences to his family and thank each and every one of you who has helped share the love for his music around the world.”

An influential and widely respected public figure in his home country, Onyeabor was far less well-known in other parts of the world — and after self-releasing a nine-album string of LPs between 1977-’85, he walked away from his music career, dedicating himself to religion and refusing almost all requests to discuss his work.

Onyeabor’s musical retirement opened a new chapter during which he became a prosperous businessman with a variety of interests; as Luaka Bop’s post notes, he was not only honored with an Industrialist of the Year award in the late ’80s, he was later given the honorary title of Justice of the Peace in his hometown of Enugu, where he served as president of the local musician’s union as well as chairman of the city’s football team. “For many,” says the label, “he was simply referred to as ‘The Chief’ and known for having created many opportunities for the people in his community.”

After a five-year quest to license his recordings, Luaka Bop embarked on a series of successful reissues that introduced Onyeabor’s music to a worldwide audience and sparked interest in his work decades after it was thought permanently lost to obscurity. He was also the focus of a documentary, Fantastic Man, which you can watch above, as well as a tribute tour featuring Byrne playing alongside a number of fellow fans.

Onyeabor is survived by his wife, four children, and four grandchildren.

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