Sonny Okosuns, 61,
Musician With Message,
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Sonny Okosuns performing around 1984.
Sonny Okosuns, a Nigerian singer and musician who achieved international stature by aiming his music — a catchy, rock-inflected cocktail of funk, reggae, Afrobeat and more — at human-rights abuses, died on May 24 in Washington. He was 61.
Nigerian government officials confirmed his death. Reports in Nigerian newspapers said the cause was colon cancer.
Mr. Okosuns added the final “s” to his surname in adulthood, Africa News reported. He was referred to by both names.
His boyhood inspirations were Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard and the Beatles, but at a time when Africans were still fighting for their freedom, he took the position that songs needed a message. His anthem protesting apartheid in South Africa, “Fire in Soweto” (1977), was probably his best-known song, and others strongly promoted African unity and black pride.
“Papa’s Land” (1977) took on South African abuses. “Holy Wars” (1978) addressed liberation movements throughout southern Africa.
“All my mates were singing love songs,” he once said, according to an obituary in The Independent, in London. “I was trying to talk about what was happening to black people.”
In a review of a live performance in The New York Times in 1988, Jon Pareles said Mr. Okosuns delivered his freedom songs “with a soul singer’s gritty urgency.”
Most of his 39 albums were made in Nigeria, but some were recorded in England, France and the United States. In the 1970s and 80s, he toured in the United States and did tours of Nigeria with the reggae star Jimmy Cliff and others.
In 1985, he joined musicians including Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis, Rubén Blades, Run-D.M.C. and Bob Dylan on “Sun City,” a benefit record to aid the fight against apartheid. He was the only African.
Sunny Okosun was born on Jan. 1, 1947, in Benin City, Nigeria. He dropped out after elementary school. His parents were traditional musicians, but he taught himself the guitar.
In addition to foreign rock ’n’ roll, he was inspired by popular films. Vanguard, a Nigerian newspaper, reported that his first recognition came as an actor. He organized and played with several local bands before starting Paperback Ltd. in 1972. That group was soon renamed Ozziddi, which means “message.”
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, Mr. Pareles wrote.
Musically, Mr. Okosuns combined Western funk and reggae with traditional melodies and rhythms. He said he believed that the elements from elsewhere were simply returning to Africa, where they had originated. The result was a zestful, funky strand in what has come to be called world music.
By the late 1980s, Mr. Okosuns found his popularity ebbing, but he reinvented himself as a gospel performer called Evangelist Sunny Okosuns. His 1994 album “Songs of Praise” sold almost a million copies, The Independent said.
After his death, Africa News reported on his complicated involvement with many women, at least two of whom he married — and these simultaneously.
The paper said that toward the end of his life, he took in many children to whom he was not related and ran his home “like a commune.” It said he gave his surname to many of the children but did not legally adopt them. His immediate survivors include four children.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company