21 May 2011

Nigeria: Sonny Okosun - the Multifaceted Icon

Sonny Okosun was one of the leading Nigerian musicians from late 70's to mid 80's. The icon was versatile in musical styles which ranged from reggae to highlife, Afro-funk and gospel among others.

He hails from Edo State and was born on January 1, 1947 in Enugu. Okosun's first band, The Postmen, was formed in Enugu in 1965. In 1969, he joined Melody Maestros, a band led by Victor Uwaifo. From 1972 to 1974 he led a group known as Paperback Limited and then formed a new band, Ozziddi, with whom he released several albums.

Okosun made waves in the 80s with the release of Liberation, a beautiful compilation of some of his best on the American Shanachie label, and a number of international tours.

In 1972, he took to a back-to-African-roots trend with a stylistic mix of Western pop and local highlife. He later broadened it to include the rapidly spreading gospel of reggae. His diversity kept him from being pigeonholed. Ozziddi's first few releases, with their catchy, rock-inflected melodies and topical lyrics, were all big hits in Nigeria, but 1977's Fire in Soweto really put Okosun on the map internationally.

His lyrics in the 1970s and 1980s about South Africa and the plight of the Third World were actually not at all radical in the African context. "In this regard, it would be interesting to compare Okosun's career with that of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti who faced genuine hardship as a result of his pointed attacks on the Nigerian elite," said Mr Beadle.

He featured in the anti-apartheid album, Sun City and his song, Highlife was in the soundtrack of 1986 film, Something Wild. His mainstream success however began to fade in the late 1980s but he continued his career as a gospel musician under the name; Evangelist Sonny Okosun.

He was featured in Black Star Liner, a 1983 anthology of African reggae, and much later appeared on the anti-apartheid Sun City EP's production.

An avant-garde musician in his own right, Okosun's early music of the 70s and 80s would be contextualised in the making of contemporary music of revolution in the Nigerian musical scene with more than 39 album releases to his credit.

Another blazing path he created was when he set the trail in the new blitz called gospel music. With his new genre of music came a collection of songs in an album entitled, Songs of Praise.

Okosun sang in Ishan, Igbo, Yoruba and the English language and was particularly known for his unrepentant defence of the June 12, 1993 mandate of the late Social Democratic Party presidential candidate, Chief M.K.O Abiola. He was also an outspoken supporter of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo's administration.

His release under the new management of Ivory Music (former EMI), Songs of Praise spread like wild fire through the country, again establishing the artiste as a force to be reckoned with in the music industry.

Revival, another successful album, followed and soon the born-again fever gripped Okosun, who by then was already deeply involved with spreading the gospel.

In 1998, he founded the House of Prayer Ministry, converting part of his expansive building to a church.

He was famous for his prowess to discover star artistes, including One Love diva, Onyeka Onwenu, and samba crooner, Stella Monye, among others.

The Ishan-born artiste died of colon cancer on May 24, 2008 at Howard University Hospital, Washington DC, USA, at 61.

With Agency Report

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