By: Morgan Greenstreet & Elodie Mailot
Performing for the Oba of Benin has practically been a day job for “Ambassador” Osayomore Joseph, a living legend of Nigerian highlife music. The concerts are usually held in the expansive courtyard of the royal palace in Benin City, Edo State, Nigeria, former seat of the Benin Empire. While in honor of the king, Osayomore’s shows were free and open to the public; his fans would pack the place while he blasted his timeless hits through massive walls of distorted speakers. Fans would show their love by “spraying” Osayomore with money, and, in return, he praised them on the microphone. He would take the extra “financial love” — equivalent to hundreds and sometimes even thousands of dollars— and go home satisfied. But, after his performance on October 3, 2017 marking a year since the coronation of the new Oba of Benin, Osayomore didn’t make it home.
“Bullets started raining on the car. Luckily enough, I escaped, but my wife was hit by a bullet,” Osayomore tells NPR. He was dragged from his car into the forest by seven men armed with AK-47s, his wife left behind, he says. While his wife was taken to the hospital, Osayomore’s ordeal was just beginning — he had become the latest name on an ever-growing list of kidnapping victims in the economically depressed South-South region of Nigeria. In Edo State, in the month of October alone, the director of a zoo and a Catholic priest were also kidnapped. (The kidnappers of the zoo director were later arrested.)
“They took me on a motorbike into the forest. We saw a small river — little did I know it was a branch of the sea. They put me on a speedboat and drove me very far into the sea. After a time, they branched into a swamp, a very big forest in a swamp.” Although the exact location of the camp where he was held was never revealed to Osayomore, according to his best estimation, it was along the Koko River, south of the town of Sapele, in the Delta region.
“They now told me that they were kidnappers,” Osayomore remembers, “and that I needed to pay 200 million naira [approx. $556,000 USD] before I could be released. I said, ‘Where will I get such money?’ ”
Finally, his family and supporters worked out an agreement to secure his freedom. They had to sell a student hostel he owned in Benin City and borrow money to raise the ransom. “We got 11 million naira (approx. $30,500 USD) in a sack. [My people] hired a boat to meet us on the high seas. The money was handed over to [the kidnappers.]” Osayomore left on the same boat his rescuers had hired, and he spent the next two weeks recovering in a hospital in Benin City.
Just over a month later, in December 2017, he released a new album, 30 Days and 30 Nights in the Evil Forest (Supreme Disk) — a document of his experience in that swamp.
The album has three long tracks, interspersed with spoken dialogue between Osayomore and a friend, produced in the current production style of Edo highlife: prominent, driving bass and drums, harsh vocals in the foreground of the mix. The first song, “Aisiokuoba,” uses a traditional Edo proverb: “You dare not invoke the king’s wars upon yourself, he is not alone.” Osayomore explains: “I now decided to tell those that understand my language my ordeal. What [the kidnappers] are trying to do does not please the monarch; the monarch was very concerned and was very bitter. Our monarch is swearing for them, all and sundry swear for them, curses reign on them!”
The title track is a collage of musical fragments, including a brief reprise of Osayomore’s classic song, “When There is Life, There is Hope,” interrupted by dialogue in pidgin English and Bini in which Osayomore describes his kidnapping and dismisses the idea that the kidnappers are freedom fighters.
“It took a lot of guts to come out with an album like that. I just had to do it, to douse some tensions in some quarters. Some were attributing it to [politics], so in order to remove that from people’s minds I quickly had to come out with some songs so people will know it was masterminded by these criminals in the creeks.” At the end of the song, Osayomore sings, “Ijaw, Ison, leave us alone,” referring to minority tribes who live in the Niger Delta region. “[The kidnappers] are in Ijaws, from very far in the Niger Delta, they’re militants.”
In the Niger Delta, Osaymore says, those militants “are fighting with the ex-patriots and the highly placed people in the society. They said … that I must help them pay the price for taking oil. Meanwhile, I’m not a government official — I’ve never worked for any multinational corporation or government.”
The history of the oil-rich Niger Delta is a dark and complicated one. In 2005, an NPR series investigated the complicated, violent and corrupt structures around oil production in the country, revealing the many feet — oil companies, the government, militants — at which to lay blame for the circumstances that result in kidnappings like Osayomore’s.
Osayomore has a reputation as a freedom fighter, an activist musician with a long history of criticizing corruption in local and national politics. The respect he commands in his local community makes his kidnapping all the more surprising.
Abduction for ransom has long been a problem in Nigeria, where widespread poverty, despite the country’s oil wealth, has pushed the desperate into criminality. While there are no official estimates of the numbers of kidnappings and many are never reported, according to Control Risks, a specialist in global risk consultancy, 95 percent of the victims of kidnappings in Nigeria are Nigerian. In most cases, a ransom is paid, ending the ordeal. Abductees often include high-profile individuals or family members of prominent politicians. Artists are rarely targeted, as they are generally considered to be a voice for the voiceless. Osayomore, born in Benin City but raised in Lagos, is one of these voices, particularly for the Edo people. He first fell in love with music in the heart of a vibrating commercial and cultural center of Nigeria.
In 1969, at 19 years old, he joined the military at the tail end of the Nigerian Civil War, where he began his music training as a member of the military’s band, studying flute, guitar and piano. Osayomore also learned a trick or two from Nigerian popular musicians of the time, especially Sir Victor Uwaifo, King Sunny Ade and Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
“Fela’s Shrine was directly opposite my military school, in Lagos,” Osayomore says, referencing the storied venue where Kuti regularly held ecstatic court. “I was very close to him. I would sit with him when he was blowing his sax and I was blowing my flute.”
Beyond sharing a love for music, Fela also inspired Osayomore to use music in the service of activism. “Only a few of us in Nigeria were attacking bad governments — [other musicians] wouldn’t dare it.” At that time, Fela warned Osayomore that the road would not be easy, but Osayomore was steeled. “My heart was already hardened before I went into political songs, because I saw what those in front passed through.”
After serving his time in the military, Osayomore returned to Benin City to start his own band. “When I was growing in music, I decided to come back home, where they would understand me better,” Osayomore says. He applied his musical training to merging the popular music of the times — funk, Afrobeat and highlife — with the traditional songs and rhythms of Edo. “Based on my background in the military and the kind of music I studied, I was able to infuse that into our traditional music. So that training gave me a kind of edge over the rest.”
Osayomore called his new style Ulele Power Sound, drawing on a rare form of traditional Edo music. “Ulele is a type of dance that they use to perform those days, in the village. It was almost forgotten. So I decided this is how I play my music, like Ulele music.” With this sound, Osayomore had a number of regional hits in the early ’80s, including “Efewedo,” “Ororo No Dey Fade” and “Soja Go Soja Come.” The funky, percussion-heavy grooves formed a solid bed for Osayomore’s hoarse voice and slippery flute lines, earning him fans across Nigeria and among the growing Edo communities in the U.S. and Europe.
However, Osayomore’s success came at a particularly difficult time in Nigerian history. The military dictator Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida ruled the country from 1985 until 1993, followed by the equally corrupt and oppressive Sani Abacha from 1993 until 1998. Babangida implemented harsh austerity measures while looting the national treasury for his personal enrichment, embedding corruption as a political standard and brutally silencing political opponents and journalists. In the early 1990s, Osayomore responded to the political situation with a number of critical songs, including “Truth” and “Teacher.” Osayomore mostly kept his criticism indirect, until Babangida annulled the results of the democratic election of June 12, 1992 that should have brought the popular politician M.K.O. Abiola to power. “I was so bitter! I was so bitter that I had no option but to resort to musical violence. I said I would militate against any government that is there, through my music.” Osayomore made a powerful statement, releasing an album entitled June 12th Is God’s Mandate. On the biting, aggressive song “Baba Na Wa,” Osayomore calls Babangida “evil,” “original criminal” and the “father of all disaster.”
“It did not go down well with the military.” Osayomore says. “At any given time, the army would come and take me away. Sometimes for a month or two, nobody knew where I was.” However, his outspoken criticism of corruption and wrongdoing, on songs like “Son of a Thief,” “Army of Freedom” and especially “Baba Na Wa,” gained him the lasting support and love of the Edo people and inspired an ongoing tradition of activist-musicians in Edo State. “I knew that someday, somebody could shoot me — but so be it! That’s the price we pay for activism! Yes, I was afraid for my life, but I’m lucky that so many people saw the truth in my songs, so they were always on my side.”
Given his history as an activist musician and the respect he commands in Edo State, Osayomore’s kidnapping had many people wondering if there was a political motivation to his sudden disappearance. But, despite the political rhetoric of the kidnappers, Osayomore was adamant: “These are just criminals whose means of livelihood is kidnapping, and there are pockets of them all over the country. [There is] no political relationship at all — they’re illiterates, they’re trigger hungry, they don’t know who is a freedom fighter, who is not! Very nasty people. It was a terrible experience.”
Osayomore usually releases a new album twice a year — 104 so far. Although the production values are often rough, these albums are an important link between him and his fans, nationally and internationally, and an important source of revenue. Available locally at music stores in Edo State and internationally on YouTube, each album sparks debate and commentary and leads to performances at local and international community events. Osayomore’s nickname, ‘Ambassador,’ was bestowed because he frequently travels to the United States and Europe to perform, primarily for Edo communities. “I’ve been traveling to the U.S. since early 1992, and ever since then I go back virtually every year.” On the last song on his new album, he appeals to the Edo diaspora in the United States for support, calling on individuals by name.
He hopes to return to the U.S. this summer, depending on how quickly he can recover, emotionally and financially. “My account is now minus zero; I have nothing left. But my people are trying to make sure I still keep my body and soul together, partially supporting my means of livelihood. That’s where we are now.”