The legacy of Nigerian music star Orlando Julius should not be overlooked

If there is a musician as commonly associated as Fela Anikulapo-Kuti with the West African Afrobeat and Afrobeats musical movements (not to mention Afro-Blues and Afro-Soul), it is Orlando. Julius Ekemode. Given Fela’s immense stature, it would seem impossible to talk about any other musician from whom he derived musical direction. Yet it has to, in the case of fellow multi-instrumentalist Orlando Julius.

Together, they are a big part of the force behind highlife (West African music originating in Ghana in the 1800s that fuses traditional sounds with jazz) and afrobeat (a sound that has varied things further, to from the early 1970s, with a mix of jazz, funk, psychedelic rock and traditional West African songs and rhythms). Fela and Julius pioneered Afrobeat after practicing highlife.

It is true that Fela drew inspiration from a variety of musical heavyweights around the world. But in terms of tangible impact, fellow Nigerian Julius is the name to beat. About Fela, Julius once offered, “Fela came to my club every week and when he formed his own band in 1964, I gave him four members of my band to get him started.”

The peaceful death of Julius on Friday April 15, 2022 should therefore be placed in context.

Julius evokes this adage which seeks to compel contemporary humans to be more attentive and to celebrate their fellow human beings, especially those of rare distinction, during their lifetime. Reporting aside, there has been a dearth of tributes to Julius since his passing. Yet there is a near-epidemic dearth of Julius in the academic literature of Nigerian and African popular music, afrobeat and highlife. It’s all the more surprising when you consider who Julius was, what he stood for, how he appropriated his talents – and for what reasons.

Read more: From Nigeria to the world: Afrobeats is having a global moment

He nurtured various ideologies from the start of his career, long before the era of compulsive diversity. His transnational ethos was reinforced by his co-conductor and wife, Latoya Aduke, who has African American roots. He dedicated his life to exemplifying open-mindedness and he demonstrated it in his very meaningful music.

The erasure of Julius

Much forgotten in the discourse and performance of postcolonial Nigerian popular music, Julius is often unfocused, conflicted and sometimes subsumed with his namesake and former highlife crooner Orlando Owoh. Perhaps because literature on highlife music has paid little attention to Julius’ work, his place in Nigerian music history remains somewhat fluid, if not inconsistent.

A survey of Nigerian highlife between 1960 and 2005 successfully inked artists Bobby Benson, Rex Jim Lawson, Roy Chicago, Victor Olaiya, Sonny Okosun, Osita Osadebe, Victor Uwaifo and Prince Nico Mbarga – all highlife heavyweights. Yet Julius is conspicuously omitted. Another study of political musical cultures in postcolonial Nigeria went so far as to draw inspiration from veterans of the Julius era, including Victor Essiet of The Mandators. It deeply questioned the contributions of Sonny Okosun, Ras Kimono and Majek Fashek, but oddly omitted Julius.

The ultimate tribute to the big names in Nigerian music, singer Faze’s anthem Originality also did the unthinkable by omitting Julius, but not Owoh! Perhaps it is in Julius’ nature to be excluded from the classifications of highlife and politics. From his musical originality, Julius offers:

I started out playing highlife, and was the first to modernize it with rock, jazz and R’n’B. It was Afrobeat but my record company called it Afro-soul.

ethos in music

With the various bands that Julius played, he always produced pleasant and resonant music. His ambidexterity underlined how much of a musician he was. Lyrical verbosity was not a vice of his day. Julius spoke on saxophone, keyboard and drums. He composed music for the liberation. He provided leadership to each of his groups. While he’s best known for his hit songs like Jaguar Nana and Ololufe, it can be rewarding to engage briefly with I’m Back To My Roots, Be Counted and Selma to Soweto.

I’m back to my live roots.

I’m Back To My Roots is an undulating cruise of eclectic instrumental mixes in which Julius reveals his affinity for his Nigerian origins and their importance to his essence. It is fitting that he passed away peacefully at his home in Ilesha, Osun State, Nigeria. Meanwhile, in Be Counted, Julius advises his audience to live with dignity through the pursuits of peace, love, justice and freedom.

He offers a few examples of characters in whose footsteps his audience could emulate – Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Obafemi Awolowo, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. – demonstrating a pan-Africanist vision. He urged freedom lovers to stand up and be counted in defense of equal rights for women. Here he names Mahatma Ghandhi, Malala Yousafzai, Joe Odumakin and Michelle Obama, demonstrating a diverse sense of fairness.

Read more: Orlando Julius, pioneer of Nigerian Afrobeat, lived for his art

Julius exemplified global consciousness and spoke with measure at Selma in Soweto where he urged everyone, regardless of nationality, to join hands and walk together for the world to go beyond apartheid and racism. He sings:

Let’s walk from Selma to Soweto because I have a dream.

Politically, his music and his message would seek originality as a way of doing things step by step in the future. He would advocate a truce between rivals and a government where everyone’s strengths are highlighted, regardless of gender or place of origin. Orlando Julius Ekemode was a musical pioneer with a cocktail of rich and endearing messages. If we continue to neglect his contributions, we will all be poorer.

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