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Nigerian Musician Sonny Okosuns Dies

Nigerian composer, singer and activist Sonny Okosuns died May 24 in Washington DC of Cancer.

Not well known in the States, Sonny’s great voice (the only African voice) may have been noticed on Sun City, the anti-apartheid album from 1985 or on the soundtrack of Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild. I had the privilege of doing a remix of the song from the film Highlife for Shanachie Records.  I remember the difficulty we had editing, as the drummer moved the song along as only a human could, somewhat at odds with producing a dance track.

Here’s a profile I wrote in the late 90s and a listing of the recordings we have at the ARC.

Sonny Okosuns
b: 4/3/1947.Enugu or Benin City, Nigeria

In his teens Sonny studied as an actor with the Eastern Nigerian Theater, couching a desire to become a playwright within a Hollywood obsession. He often spent a day at the cinema, and the occasional night after falling asleep in his seat.  Elvis Presley’s Loving You, Cliff Richard’s Expresso Bongo and The Tommy Steele Story made a lasting impression. Misreading the large numbers of adoring on-screen fans as friends, the young Okosun was attracted to this idealized lifestyle. The gift of a guitar in 1964 led to the formation of his first band, the Postmen, in 1966.

The Postmen specialized in straight ahead rock and pop, playing Elvis songs and earning a local reputation for Beatles covers.  With the advent of the Nigerian Civil War in 1967, Sonny moved to Lagos to do design work for a TV station. There, along with everyone else in the capital, he went crazy for American soul and sang in amateur soul groups. 1969 marks the beginning of his professional career with a move to Benin City to play second guitar with Sir Victor Uwaifo’s Melody Maestros, a prominent Highlife band. Uwaifo taught him composition and provided practical experience on the ins and outs of earning a living as a musician. Flying back from a Japanese tour in 1970, Sonny purchased instruments at a London stopover – gear necessary to form his own band being prohibitively expensive and difficult to come by in Africa. He also picked up a new set of Western influences while in the UK, launching Paperback Limited in ‘72, a mix of Eastern (Bendel) Highlife and the underground sound of Santana, Hendrix, Creem and Traffic.

While Sonny was successful, he felt that his music is still not very distinctive. He returned home to Enugu and came up with a roots music based on his Esan (Ishan) culture. He renamed the band Ozziddi after an Ijaw river God and christened his sound “Ozziddzm”.  His first song in Ozziddi style, “No More War”, was a hit, as were his next three albums, Ozzidi, Living Music and Ozzidi for Sale, all of which sold over 100,000 copies. His fourth LP, Papa’s Land (1977), did even better. The title cut, a funky Highlife number sung in English, preached a militant gospel of African rule “from Cape Town to Cairo”. The LP also contains one strong Afro-reggae song, “Rain”, attesting to a blossoming interest in reggae, and a back cover quoting the Old Testament, an affirmation of his born again Christianity.

EMI, impressed with Papa’s Land, sent the band to London in 1978 where Sonny recorded his next two LPs at Abbey Road studios, the home of his boyhood idols, the Beatles. (Sonny claimed to have used nearly half the Beatles titles for his own compositions, one of which, “Help” was a big hit). “Fire In Soweto” is a well produced Afro reggae title cut that showcased Sonny’s warm, rootsy voice. The English lyrics allowed the message of freedom to reach beyond Nigeria’s borders and made Sonny a star throughout the continent. In 1980 “Fire” flooded West African airwaves providing the soundtrack for Samuel K. Doe’s Liberian coup. That same year Sonny was the first artist to take the stage at Zimbabwe’s independence celebration.

Exploring the language-oriented calypso form, he next cut an LP with Explainer, calling the style Afro-Carnival. Shifting gears again, Sonny flirted with a disco sound on “No More War” on his 1980 Third World LP, with many of the songs again incorporating reggae stylings. The title cut stressed the Afro over the reggae to produce his most satisfying effort to date. Sonny delights in the airiness of reggae – the large empty spaces that allow room for the words – as attractive as it’s religious and political tendencies. Okosuns’ gift is hearing Africa’s perfect pitch on it’s return trip to the motherland; in New World rock, reggae, funk, black American dance and Caribbean music. The follow-up, The Gospel According to Ozziddi, was a shaky disco effort. Okosuns has toured the world, including a visit to Cuba and a sold out concert at New York’s Apollo theater in 1984.

Sonny Okosun’s Ozziddi. 3rd World (Makossa, USA, M 2397, 12, vinyl disc-Lp, [1980])
Sonny Okosun’s Ozziddi. 3rd World (Oti, UK, M 2397*, 12, vinyl disc-Lp, [1980])
Sonny Okosuns. African Soldiers (Profile, USA, PCD-1414, 5, compact disc, 1991)
Sonny Okosun. Fire In Soweto (EMI, Nigeria, NEMI 0330, 12, vinyl disc-Single or Ep, 1978 )
Sonny Okosun. Happy Days (, HMV 058, 12, , 1980s)
Sonny Okosun. Highlife (Shanachie, USA, SH-5011, 12, vinyl disc-Single or Ep, n.d. {1984]). This is the one B.George and Goran Andersson remixed.
Sonny Okosun. Liberation (Shanachie, USA, 43019, 12, vinyl disc-Lp, 1984)
Sonny Okosun. Liberation (Shanachie, USA, 43019*, 5, compact disc, 1991)
Sonny Okosun. Message (MFR 120714, 12, 1980s)
Sonny Okosun. Message (Melanie, USA, JRF-1009, 12, vinyl disc-LP, 1980s)
Sonny Okosun. Mother and Child (EMI, Nigeria, HMV 030, 12, vinyl disc-Single or Ep, 1982)
Sonny Okosuns. Over The Years (Celebrity, 1001, 5, compact disc, )
Sonny Okosun’s Ozziddi. Papa’s Land (EMI, Nigeria, NEMI 0232, 12, vinyl disc-Single or Ep, 1977)
Sonny Okosun. Sonny Okosun (OTI, UK, OTI (LP) 058-82447, 12, vinyl disc-Single or Ep, 1978 )
Sonny Okosun’s Ozziddi. The Gospel of Ozziddi (EMI, NEMI (LP) 0530, 12, vinyl disc-Single or Ep, n.d.)
Sonny Okosun’s Ozziddi. Third World (OTI, OTI (LP) 0500, 12, vinyl disc-Single or Ep, 1980)
Sonny Okosun. Togetherness (EMI, Nigeria, HMV 033, 12, vinyl disc-Single or Ep, 1983)
Sonny Okosun. Which Way Nigeria? (Jive Afrika, USA, HIP 18, 12, vinyl disc-Single or Ep, 1984)
Sonny Okosun. Which Way Nigeria? (EMI, Nigeria, HMV(N) 036, 12, vinyl disc-Lp, 1984)
Sonny Okosun. Wind of Change (Ivory Music, Nigeria, IVR 001, 12, 1990)

Songs of Praise from 1994 (we don’t have) was sort of a comeback that sold nearly a million copies. It heralded a Christian twist.

A nice discography is at:

You can get a great assortment of the releases on CD from our pals at Sterns, so visit them at http://www.sternsmusic.com/discography/6411


  1. Ras Malcolm

    Nigeria has lost one of the world great artist. Personally, he was a big influence in my life and inspired me musically. May his soul rest in peace. Ras Malcolm

  2. Rebecca obojememe bonje

    well im related to him as my aunty is his wife i would like to say that sonny okosun did a lot in my family and in me i saw him as my dad because he was always there for me and my anuty dedicated 31 years in marriage to him she loved him with all her heart i wish that we can twist bak the hands of time and spend more time with him for i never knew that when he came to stay at my house here in london with my aunty it would be the last. i loved him with all my heart he was a great man i evn gave him the nickname bigdaddy and my anty other mama beacuse i saw them as mum and dad number 2 RIP i will always love you until we meet again xx

    • okey

      Hi Glad to know you are related to sonny okosun.. i am in serious search for his album songs of praise 1994, currently in the uk. pls could you help me out on where or how i can get it. any effort will be highly appreciated

    • Mr Anyanwu

      Hello Rebecca,

      I am sorry to he the news about Mr Sunny Okosun i actually visited his home in ogba with my In-law called okorom Obojememe he was a soldier in enugu and the younger brother to my Nephew’s dad the late (Captain) Eddy Obojememe an airline pilot. I need you or any member of your family or Captain Obojememe’s brothers to contact me as a matter of urgency. I am in London and my phone number is 07407259557 or email: innocentengr@yahoo.co.uk

  3. Emmanuel KOUAME

    Sonny is my favourit musician. All africa most be proud or him. I’m ivorian and very affected by his death may his soul rest in peace. Deep wishes to his wife, children and friends. Emmanuel

  4. Victor 02 BENJ'MINS

    He is a Great Uncle, My mom Racheal “Baby'” MISSES him every single day. The whole family will never forget” BigDaddy” as we all call him not just in London Rebe, here also in Wash. D.C . i remember 2005 when he visits he was staying at his SON’S [Sidney] condo. He bought everyone a GIft, He gave gifts like gucci bags, prada shoes, etc but i had arived late and most of the cool stuffs were gone. He told me not to worry and He gave me his own personal hand-made bag, which i still have till this day, moreso on that Xmas i was the only one who remembered and bought him his favorite Cologne. He was wowed. RIP unc’, THE GREATEST EVANGELIST, FREEDOM FIGHTER AND MUSICIAN EVER.

  5. udoka

    I regrate the death of sunny. Well i did not know that soony is just that young. When we hear that people in the western world who when we were babies die still not very old, we don’t believe it this is because they start earlier for their future but that age in africa, i don’t believe. How old is chief sonny ade, ebeneza, chief osadebe, james brown and bongos ekwie they are contemlaris, you know? I don care if poblished or not but i an saying that the jamaikans know their date of but but that of nigeria no this why the whole worlds think that we die earlier. Their is on thing pure african must put in their heads if you go to a western world for treatment and give them your fake age, they will treat you according to that age and your health will not respond to that treatment. Cancre has no age and people look older with a cancre prople Bob died at 36, he looked 80. For me going abroad for treatment was just a mistake and very expensive. Using the word of God for business killes. Having degrees in medicine alround without futher researches is useless. Mingling with prominent men as a show man is dawngraging. Helping parasites leads to a down fall of a man. Sonny i will not forget your song for the motherless babies and i am still working on it with heart, I was an orphan If i knew that you were sick, i would have called you to me house not mr patrick. My advice to people would be to continue in good things you will rewarded but not not from who you did the good. Sonny R.I.P

  6. kasavubu mordzi

    As a small boy in the early 70s, his song “Help” became my favourite as I had lost my father when I was in Primary 3. I followed closely his songs on Africa liberations freedom.
    In 1995, I wrote a letter to him through an address on I found on his album “Fire in Soweto”. In that letter, I told him of how his songs had inspired me all along. I also asked for the meaning of “Malen hilon l saken bhudo” as found in the song Tell My People That I ve Seen The Light of Jah!”
    He replied much to my astonishement and told me that that it meant “Seven of us have gone to carve our teeth at Udo” and that Udo was a folkloric village. He sent me two CDs of the compilation “Over the years with Sonny Okusun”. He also added the then fresh Video Cassettes of the Great Change and an other one.
    In a very interesting letter attached to the parcel delivered through a friend of his at a filling station in Ordorkor, Accra, he ended by telling me he didnt want to build his furure on his past…and that he saw himself as an African Soldier for Christ.
    May he meet Jehovah at the Ressurection.

  7. M.C.A.BAH


  8. J.J