Tribute: Sound Sultan & the Rest of Us – Dami Ajayi

Lanre Abdulganiu Fasasi, also known as Naija Ninja, but best known as Sound Sultan died aged 44 last month after a brief illness with a kind of blood cancer.

He has since been buried in accordance with his Islamic faith and for those with a predilection for such, there are video clips on the internet detailing his funeral rites in at Muslim cemetery in New Jersey.

There was a decent  throng of sympathizers and well wishers intent on recording the private burial of such a public figure.

Sometime in May, news about Sound Sultan’s illness began to make the rounds. It was rumoured that he had been diagnosed with throat cancer. Sultan himself took to his Instagram page, not only to refute the news, but to insist that he would tell his own story when the time was right.

Sadly, that illness denied him a chance to set things right. The overwhelming response to his death by fans, well-wishers and industry colleagues assures us that we lost someone important. Sultan was that self-effacing man, known for his humility and humour, who took his work as a musician seriously and also maintained boundaries to his private life.

His death has had a good number of music journalists revising the single story of the ascent of Afrobeats circa the turn of the millennium. The dominant narrative is that the music began in the echo chambers of Ray Power/AIT studios, midwifed by the veteran duo of Kenny Ogungbe and Dayo Adeneye, who used their influence as entertainment journalists to set up a record label, Kennis Music.

Their first big act was the boy band, The Remedies, comprising the trio of Eedris Abdulkareem, Tony Tetuila and Eddy Montana. And the first acknowledged Afrobeats sound of what would be rewarded with the Grammys in 2021 was the Nelson Brown  produced ‘Sakomo.

Montana’s sickly sweet ad-libs layered over the beat of MC Lyte’s ‘Keep on Keeping on’, which, incidentally, was also a sample of Micheal Jackson’s ‘Liberian Girl’.

The problem with this kind of single narrative is that it  privileges a selected event over others.

How about a counter-narrative of Afrobeats beginning with Seyi Shodimu’s ‘Love me Jeje’, the duet with Sherifat Bello, with its grainy video and which has aged rather well.

Or should we refer to Dare Fasasi’s contribution to the soundtrack of Tunji Bamishigbin’s early Nollywood caper, Time Bomb.

Dare Fasasi aka Baba Dee, beyond courting a cult followership, in the early days of Afrobeats with his dancehall shtick would break out his younger brother, Lanre, who started out as his back-up singer.

Although Dare Fasasi studied Theatre Arts in the university, it would be Lanre Fasasi, the Geography and Urban Planning graduate of Lagos State University, who hacked the nascent industry and exhibited staying power.

Sound Sultan may be the last unicorn of theatre art practice. Those who are diversely talented as to be able to sing, dance and act. To this triad, he adds humour. His kind of humour came with ease. The man practically had no airs about him and easily gained the trust of his fans. This much I could say for those of us who watched him on AIT shows targeted at a younger audience.

At this time, Sultan had done the rounds of winning all the talent hunts in the mid-90s. His work as a compere and comedian helped raise money to record and shoot his first single.

That song, ‘Jagbajantis’ (or Mathematics), released in the 2000s, began with this buoyant guitar riff that may have suggested Evi Edna Ogholi, but even the impatient would find something unique in what follows. Jagbanjantis is a concept song that predated concept songs. Think about song as artifice and lampoon at the same time.

Sound Sultan, in the music video, walks into a class of pupils, intent on impacting knowledge about how to fix Nigeria’s problems using the algebraic acronym BODMAS. 21 years later, Nigeria remains divided across ethnic lines—so much for the brotherhood Sound Sultan sued for.

And in the example of Sound Sultan, the recurrent criticism of the spinelessness of Afrobeats has a counter-narrative. As early as the year 2000, Afrobeats already had a Fela figure, who would in 21 years release no less than a 100 songs catalogued in 8 albums.

In every of his song, there is that trademark humour concealing his biting sarcasm. SS, channelling the scorching critic that Fela was on Beast of No Nation, declared Nigeria a “craze world” in his second single.

This was before it became fashionable to sample from Fela’s discography. The counter-argument is that SS’s handling is tangential and his use of Fela was more referential than it was robust, but this takes nothing out of his social activism, which was obvious from the beginning of his career.

And when the allure of becoming commercial became compelling, SS made some songs that held meaning ahead of their time. In 2011, ‘Orobo’, arguably the biggest song in his magnum opus, Back to the Future, is an ode to body positivity. A good number of plus size people finally had their own song to which they could dance unreservedly when the DJ did good.

Sound Sultan’s versatility went beyond making music, he also understood the business side of it. He started Ninja Records with his brother, Baba Dee, through which he released his records after he exited Kennis Music.

The talent management arm of his record label also helped midwife the careers of Seyi Shay, Niyola, Sean Tizzle and others. Memorable is the tiff about song-writing credits between SS and Sean Tizzle on the monster single, ‘Shole’.

Sound Sultan, even in disagreement, always remained gracious, a trait that we all can emulate. Beyond his social activism and commercial flair, ever so often SS’s music pares down, stripped to that basic acoustic element of an undulating voice and guitar rhythms. Consider this on his memorable song, ‘Motherland’, where he reminds flotsams of the Nigerian Diaspora that home should always be the fulcrum of their rapprochement.

Consider the irony of it, ‘Motherland’ playing in the background of an unsteady phone video capturing the lowering of the remains of Sound Sultan to mother earth in faraway America.

May God comfort his loved ones.


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