Osayomore Joseph. The musician and activist was
kidnapped in late 2017 and wrote an album, 30 Days
and Nights in the Evil Forest
, about his
experience. Morgan Greenstreet hide caption

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Morgan
Greenstreet

Osayomore Joseph. The musician and activist was kidnapped
in late 2017 and wrote an album, 30 Days and Nights
in the Evil Forest
, about his experience.

Morgan
Greenstreet

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!”

YouTube

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.

A water way in the Niger Delta, photographed on June 8,
2016. The oil-rich Delta region in Nigeria was, at the
time, experiencing the rise of a new militant group
vowing to cripple the economy. Stefan Heunis/AFP/Getty
Images
hide caption

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Stefan
Heunis/AFP/Getty Images

A water way in the Niger Delta, photographed on June 8,
2016. The oil-rich Delta region in Nigeria was, at the
time, experiencing the rise of a new militant group
vowing to cripple the economy.

Stefan
Heunis/AFP/Getty Images

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.”

Ambassador Osayomore Joseph, center, and his band
performing at a wedding ceremony in Benin City, Nigeria
on December 31, 2016. Morgan Greenstreet hide caption

toggle caption

Morgan
Greenstreet

Ambassador Osayomore Joseph, center, and his band
performing at a wedding ceremony in Benin City, Nigeria
on December 31, 2016.

Morgan
Greenstreet

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.”

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