Blog August 24, 2023
A Tribute to Nigeria's King Sunny Ade as He Passes the Baton for Longest-Charting African Album on Billboard

In the midst of celebrating Afropop Worldwide’s 35th anniversary, Nigerian jùjú maestro King Sunny Ade fans and those new to him will appreciate a new landmark. Nigerian Afrobeats singer, Rema, has broken a four-decade-old record held by King Sunny Ade. Rema’s sophomore album, “Rave & Roses,” just emerged as the longest-charting African album in the U.S.

To appreciate the extraordinary career of the 77-year-old King Sunny Ade (KSA, also known as “Chairman”) and to enjoy his grooving juju music, I suggest you listen to our Hip Deep portrait of the man that emerged from our research in Lagos about 15 years ago.

Personally, witnessing KSA and his impressive 15-piece African Beats band perform at the sold-out 2,000-seat Zellerbach Auditorium in Berkeley, California, in February 1983 amazed me. KSA’s African Beats, featuring four interlocking guitars, traditional percussion including talking drummers, the introduction of pedal steel to juju music, and four male singers doubling as dancers, grounded by KSA's sublime singing, guitar playing, and dancing, was the first contemporary African big band I had ever experienced. This opened the door for me not only to jùjú but also to the vast and largely unknown Afropop styles across the continent.

To this day, I respect King Sunny Ade as the father of Afropop Worldwide. I'm sure I speak in appreciation for hundreds of thousands of Afropop fans whose musical horizons expanded greatly from witnessing KSA perform in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and from playing his brilliant and critically acclaimed debut international album, "Jùjú Music" (1982), repeatedly.

The beautiful and contemplative single from the "Jùjú Music" album, “Ja Funmi,” became the theme song on my world radio show at the community radio station, Raven Radio, in Sitka, Alaska, in the early ‘80s. KSA told me in an interview that he composed “Ja Funmi” when he was very ill. “Ja Funmi” means "fight for me" in the Yoruba language. The song is KSA’s plea to the creator - to fight for him so that he might regain his health and move forward successfully in life. You can listen to “Ja Funmi” and other KSA hits here.

KSA’s music is in the venerable Yoruba tradition of singing poetic lyrics and praise singing for dignitaries. When you see him perform—whether it’s in Lagos or U.S. cities with sizable Nigerian immigrant populations—a common feature is Nigerians or others who embrace the tradition of lining up to dance on stage and pressing paper money onto KSA’s sweaty brow. It’s an exhilarating experience for his fans.

King Sunny Ade’s second international album, Syncro System (1983), was also successful, earning him his first Grammy Award nomination in the ethnic/traditional folk recording category. Critics around the world praised KSA’s live performances that regularly extended well beyond the two hours or less norm for musical performances in North America and Europe.

Talk today to any of the globally booming Nigerian Afrobeats superstars like Burna Boy, Wizkid, Tiwa Savage, Davido, and others, and mention King Sunny Ade, and they light up in appreciation. They know on whose shoulders they stand. King Sunny Ade was Nigeria’s first international superstar. And as Burna Boy accumulates Grammy Awards, he must nod to KSA as the first Nigerian artist to be nominated for a Grammy. KSA was also described in The New York Times as "one of the world's great band leaders".

Jùjú Music was the first worldwide release for KSA, emerging from his superstar status in Nigeria. The album peaked at #111 on Billboard’s “Pop Albums” chart. It also triggered the release of LPs by KSA’s main jùjú competitor, Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey. More attention was also paid to Afrobeat creator Fela Kuti. And compilations from other African music scenes followed KSA’s success.

As a brief background on King Sunny Ade and jùjú, KSA told me he was from royal lineage in Nigeria. His father played the organ in the church, and his mother was a trader. He moved to Lagos as a teenager ostensibly to study at the University of Lagos, but his musical interests soon took over his life. His career began with Moses Olaiya's Federal Rhythm Dandies, a highlife band where KSA played the lead electric guitar. He left to form a new band, The Green Spots, in 1967. King Sunny Ade was greatly influenced by jùjú pioneer Tunde Nightingale and borrowed stylistic elements from him. (Note: if you’re interested in learning more about jùjú, highly recommended is Christopher Waterman’s book "A Social History and Ethnography of An African Popular Music," University of Chicago Press, 1990. Kudos also to our friend and colleague Andy Frankel for his yeoman's work in producing King Sunny Ade's first U.S. tours in the 1980's

KSA created the King Sunny Ade Foundation, an organization that includes a performing arts center, a state-of-the-art recording studio, and housing for young musicians. KSA is not only a phenomenal artist, but he’s also an astute businessman, creating businesses in Nigeria that employ hundreds of people.

Photo: Banning Eyre
Photo: Banning Eyre

In the late ‘90s, King Sunny Ade hosted Afropop Worldwide in Lagos, and joined our board of advisors. In 2010, I had the honor of inducting him into the Afropop Hall of Fame before some 5,000 cheering fans at the outdoor Celebrate Brooklyn stage. Other Afropop Hall of Fame inductees include Youssou N’Dour, Angelique Kidjo, Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare, the Mahotella Queens, Dorothy Masuka, Thomas Mapfumo, Oliver Mtukudzi, Aurelio Martinez and the one and only Harry Belafonte.

KSA and his African Beats have not toured North America in some ten years. We’re told they still perform in Nigeria. When we last visited Lagos in 2017, he had recently been honored on the occasion of his 70th birthday. What would it take to coax KSA to return to our shores and share his unique magic once again? How about Burna Boy introducing his youthful Afrobeats fans to the jùjú legend on a double bill at one of his 50,000 strong, sold-out stadium shows. Just saying…

For more on the extraordinary career of 77-year-old King Sunny Ade and to enjoy his grooving jùjú music, check out our Hip Deep portrait of the man that came out of our research in Lagos some 15 years ago. For more on jùjú, I recommend Christopher Waterman’s book A Social History and Ethnography of An African Popular Music (University of Chicago Press, 1990).

Finally, big thanks to King Sunny Ade for your mesmerizing music and for your inspiration, the catalyst for our 35-year endeavor. All the many fans of Afropop Worldwide thank you too.

King Sunny Ade and Afropop's Sean Barlow at KSA's Central Park SummerStage concert. Photo by Banning Eyre
King Sunny Ade and Afropop's Sean Barlow at KSA's Central Park SummerStage concert. Photo by Banning Eyre

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