The Nigerian funk artist William Onyeabor has died. According to a statement on Facebook, Onyeabor passed away “peacefully in his sleep following a brief illness” at home in Enugu, Nigeria. No further cause of death has been revealed. Onyeabor was 70.
Onyeabor’s early life is a bit of a mystery; he may or may not have studied film in Russia. But starting in 1977, Onyeabor self-released eight albums of synth-driven, idiosyncratic funk-pop. He recorded them at his own studio and pressed up the records at his own pressing plant. His songs stretched out, often past the 10-minute mark, riding their own bloopy, sideways grooves. After releasing his final album in 1985, Onyeabor became a born-again Christian and refused to even speak about music again.
Onyeabor’s music gradually gained a cult status among Western musicians, and starting in 2013, David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label began releasing a series of reissues of it. Onyeabor never played live, but a group of musicians that included Byrne, Dev Hynes, Joshua Redman, Money Mark, Pat Mahoney, and Sinkane took his music on tour. Luaka Bop also released the compilation WHAT?! – William Onyeabor Remixed, in which artists like Hot Chip and Daphni covered or remixed his tracks.
Onyeabor maintained a successful business career at home in Enugu, where he was crowned a High Chief and where he ran, among other things, a flour mill and a gas station. In 2014, Vice released a short documentary called Fantastic Man that explored Onyeabor’s music and included its filmmakers trying, and failing, to track him down for an interview. And in 2014, Onyeabor spoke to the BBC 6 Music presenter Lauren Laverne, giving the only radio interview of his life.