DATE of BIRTH
January 1st, 1947
PLACE OF BIRTH
Benin, Edo State
Date of Death
May 24th, 2008
Sonny Okosun was a Nigerian singer, composer and guitarist who became popular for his brand of African pop music, Ozziddi, which was a fusion of afrobeat, reggae, highlife and funk music. He attained global recognition in the 1970s and 1980s with his socio-political emancipation lyrics and anthems which were often aimed at particular African leaders who abused human rights. His band, Ozziddi, was reportedly named after a famous Ijaw river god. He added a final “s” to his last name in adulthood and was often referred to sometimes as Sonny Okosuns. While most African artist sang about love songs in the 1970s, Okosun was more interested in promoting African unity and also addressing the plight of black people especially in Africa.
Okosun was born in Benin City, southern Nigeria, but spent most of his early childhood with his grandmother at Ibore in Edo State. He later moved to Enugu with his family and commenced with his education at St Brigid’s School, Asata, Enugu State after which he enrolled at a government trade center. However, he didn’t complete his studies and soon left the training center. His parents were traditional musicians but Okosun joined the choir of the Holy Ghost Cathedral when the family moved to Enugu. As a teenager in Enugu, Okosun taught himself the guitar, stirred by global music icons such as The Beatles, Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard. He also took interest in drama and partook in a few theater productions with the Eastern Nigerian Theater.
While in Enugu, Okosun worked under the tutelage of renowned drama studies teacher, Professor John Okwerri. As a student in Okwerri’s group, Okosun began to develop an interest in music and steadily grew as an artist. Okwerri was a member of the Mbari Club, a center for cultural activity by African writers, artists and musicians founded in 1961 by German Jewish editor, writer and scholar, Horst Ulrich Beier (also known as Uli Beier). Among the members of the club were a group of young writers and poets such as Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Demas Nwoko and Christopher Okigbo. In 1965, Okosun was a member of an award winning drama troupe that performed a theatrical version of Okwerri’s Masquerades and J.P Clark’s Song of a Goat. Later than year, his group represented Nigeria in the 1965 Commonwealth Arts Festival in London and Okosun seized the opportunity while he was abroad to attend concerts by The Rolling Stones and The Who.
In 1966, Okosun established his first band called The Postmen, a group that played pop covers. Unfortunately, the outbreak of the Biafran War impelled the disbandment of the band and the relocation of Okosun and his family to Lagos in 1967. While in Lagos, Okosun worked momentarily in television and in 1969, he left Lagos and moved to Benin to join the brilliant guitarist and the creator of Joromi style of highlife music, Victor Uwaifo.
After touring Europe and Japan, Okosun formed a new group called Paperback Limited in 1972. He later regrouped the band in 1974 and in 1976, he renamed the group and his style of music, Ozziddi, from the Igbo word for “message”. Okosun served as the front man and lead singer, backed by a trombone player, three backup dancers, keyboardist, bass and trap drums. Okosun’s new form of highlife music was influenced by his exposure to the upbeat rock and roll flair of The Beatles, the rhythmic undertones of reggae music and his Edo heritage. Okosun recorded songs in his parent’s language, Ishan, as well as English, Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa. By 1976, Okosun and the Ozziddi band had their first hit “Help” – a reference to the Beatles 5th album from 1965. The single, from the Ozidizm album, will go on to sell almost a hundred thousand copies in Nigeria, a formidable feat at that time. He would re-record most of his 1976 album Ozziddi for Sale in 1976 at EMI studios in London after observing the Ghanaian highlife band, Osibisa, rehearsing during a studio session. A year later in 1977, he collaborated with Guyanese British musician, Eddy Grant, on the album Papa’s Land. As the 1970s drew to a close, Okosun recorded the albums Fire in Soweto (1977), Holy Wars (1978), Sonny Okosun Meets Lord Superior (1978), Sonny Okosun in 1980 (1979) and toured Nigeria with Jimmy Cliff and Toots and the Maytals.
Okosun worked tirelessly for global exposure and in the process, he sought to refine his sound and music in order to deliver a quality sound and unforgettable performance whenever he stepped on stage. He once said in 1981 that “Nigerian listeners are very sophisticated and they don’t want any trash. An album has to be really world standard before they will put out their [money] to buy it. So you have to do your best work in the best studio.” In 1981, Okosun was invited to perform at Zimbabwe’s Independence anniversary celebration in Harare after Robert Mugabe’s first wife, Sally, saw him perform at a concert in London. In the first half of the 1980s, Okosun will go on to release a string of successful albums including Third World (1981), Mother and Child (1982), his first American album, Togetherness (1983), Which Way Nigeria (1984) and Liberation (1984), which became Okosun’s most widely distributed LP. In 1985, he partnered with Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Bruce Springsteen and Run-DMC on the anti-apartheid album, Sun City, and in 1986, his single, Highlife, was included in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild movie soundtrack.
Even with the release of albums such as Now or Never (1986), Happy Days (1988), Winds of Change (1990) and African Soldier (1991), mainstream success eluded Okosun in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the early 1990s, Okosun will relaunch himself as an evangelist and a gospel artist. His 1994 album, Songs of Praise, which sold nearly a million copies, was followed by another gospel album, Revival. In 1998, he established a Christian Church called the House of Prayer Ministry. Sadly on May 24th, 2008, Okosun passed away at Howard University Hospital in Washington DC. He was 61.
Okosun’s style of music, Ozziddi was famous for its socio-political ‘liberation’ lyrics and crossover style of international pop highlife which also stood for a personal Pan-African philosophy of emancipation. He also served as the president of the Performing Musicians’ Association of Nigeria (PMAN) in 1994. His home became a meeting place for many aspiring young people whom he mentored and who were allowed to bear his surname. In summarizing what his whole career was all about, Jon Parales of the New York Times said that “Mr. Okosuns popularized liberation music well ahead of any of his countrymen. But his message was not radical, like that of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, a dissident songwriter who directly challenged the government”.
- ‘Sonny Okosun’. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. W. 13 February, 2017. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonny_Okosun
- ‘Biography of Sunny Okosun’. Nigerian Biography. Web. 13 February, 2017. nigerianbiography-of-sunny-okosun.html?m=1
- ‘Sonny Okosuns’. Music. The Guardian. Web. 13 February, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2008/aug/04/popandrock.nigeria