Competition is a key component of any business. It is the wheel that allows consumers or customers of any product or business to exercise their right to choose. But, sometimes it’s healthy, sometimes it’s not, and other times, it’s ugly. Sometimes it just comes in the form of rivalry.
Such healthy competition once led two of Nigeria’s most accomplished music stars – Chief Ebenezer ‘Obey’ Fabiyi and Chief Sunday Adeniyi Adegeye popularly known as King Sunny Ade – to be considered as fierce rivals at a time in their careers.
It was in the late 60s to early 70s that a new sound of Juju music started to flourish and gain wide acceptance from a new generation, after Tunde King, Tunde Nightingale, IK Dairo, Ambrose Campbell and Fatai Rolling Dollar had reigned supreme among a much older generation.
Like every other music genre, Juju music was experiencing an unprecedented transition during the period – and young visionaries, Ebenezer Obey and KSA, were right at the heart of it.
In their earlier years, both performers had incorporated other elements in Juju music such as the pedal steel-guitar, tenor guitar, synthesizers and western drum kits into the more traditional components like the talking drum, accordion, maracas, shekere and agogo.
To be put in today’s common parlance, Obey and KSA were simply the leaders of the new school. They both released hit music constantly and simultaneously to the delight of millions of fans across the world.
Obey went on to score hits with records such as Olomi Gbo Temi (1967), Ore Mi E Se Pelepele (1968), Board Members (1972), The Horse, The Man and His Son (1973), Eda To Mose Okunkun (1977), and Aimasiko (1987), while KSA ruled the charts with Omo Oba Sijuwade (1967), Eda N Reti Eleya (1970), E Kilo F’Omo Ode/ Esubiri Ebo Mi (1974), Mo Ti Mo/ Kileni Ase (1975), FESTAC ’77 (1978), Omode O Mela/Ori Mi Ja Fun Mi (1980) and Syncro System (1983).
And the fans who had become obsessed with their music started to pick sides and debate why one was greater than the other. By the turn of the 70s and 80s, it was either Obey’s rich stories or KSA’s enchanting voice that dominated the turntables in many Nigerian homes – not both.
When the comparisons started to get to Obey and KSA, each began to make statements and claims that portrayed one as superior to the other, even though they were not particularly enemies.
Obey, who formed his band, International Brothers and released his first record in 1964, was clear on his position. “I noticed that people like to stick to their own ways, especially old people. They don’t want to compromise. But the younger ones always want freedom from the old system. They want new things; and knowing that, I modernised the music, and created my own fashion in music, the miliki system,” he said in an interview.
“And I happen to be the one who started the modernization of Juju music. The father of Juju music only played one guitar. I introduced three guitars and arranged it in such a way that would catch the attention of the youths and cross to the older folks, so as to have both ears of listeners, and it worked. The three guitars are tenor, rhythm and lead.”
Sunny Ade himself claimed to have introduced the multiple guitars. He also took credit for introducing the genre to a wider audience, especially abroad. “Juju music is wide. There are any sub-genres under one umbrella. The music of Ambrose Campbell, Ayinde Bakare, Dele Ojo, Big Brothers and even our ancestors, Tunde King, Ojoge Daniel and a lot of them. Fortunately and unfortunately, nobody got it to the level I did – to the Whites abroad,” he said.
Obey and KSA refused to call each other out, but used the debate as motivation to release records that were capable of outdoing each other. Though the musicians themselves were friends, they fuelled and manipulated the situation to their own advantage.
Every innuendo in their songs were given obscure interpretations by fans and the media who looked for any hint of vocal jabs to clutch at. The rivalry helped to boost the sales of their records, which they released in quick succession. KSA even got signed to Island Records in 1981 and became the first Nigerian to earn a Grammy award nomination with Syncro System in 1983.
In order to quell the rumour of a rift, both musicians would later perform together in August 1973, when KSA visited the ‘Obey Miliki Spot’ at Olonode, Yaba to join Obey on the stage. KSA also released the record, ‘Oro To N Lo’, telling the fans to desist from the rumours.
77-year-old Ebenezer Obey, while reflecting on the rivalry in a December 2019 interview, said “The competition between myself and KSA was projected by fans and media. It almost turned our music into politics. I thank God it never happened.
“Every time, it was “Obey this, Sunny that”, we both always ensured that we neutralised all that fake rivalry. This was why I said that in one-word musicians should not see themselves as competitors but as contributors to the growth of the Nigerian music industry.”
He continued, “Musicians must appreciate one another because God has given every one of them a gift and talent. These talents can never be the same no matter how hard they try. Even if we play the same kind of music and or sound, it can never be the same.”
Both musicians, with over 150 records between them till date, are without a doubt icons of Nigerian music and the industry is more than lucky to still have them around.
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