Nigeria’s leading reggae icon Majek Fashek’s final years may have been marred by lingering health issues but his passion for music remained undiminished, writes Yinka Olatunbosun
Majek Fashek, born Majekodunmi Fasheke, had everything it took to be a superstar- a wonderful voice, multi-instrumental streak, amiable character, striking looks and a supportive mother. From his childhood, his mother spotted his music talent and bought his first guitar. Though his father hailed from the Osun State town of Ilesa, Majek grew up in his mother’s hometown in Benin and was deeply influenced by the rich cultural ethos of the Bini people. He honed his musical skills while playing keyboard, drums and the saxophone for his church back then.
His musical fame gained some altitude when he joined the group, Jastix, with musicians McRoy Gregg and Black Rice. The trio became the in-house band on the NTA Benin show, Music Panorama; with another reggae group, The Mandators, they went on tours.
Majek shot into mainstream music success in 1988 with his debut album, Prisoner of Conscience, which had the incredible classic, ‘Send Down the Rain’. That song was released during the rainy season and it became a popular myth that once the song was played, it would rain thus earning him the moniker, ‘The Rainmaker’. Fans adored him and drew parallels between him and Bob Marley, which the musician validated with a reappropriation of Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’. Though he tapped heavily from reggae, his music self-branded “pangolo” was a potpourri of juju, reggae, folk, afrobeat and acoustic soul. The talking drum and guitar were characteristic features of his music.
In 1989, he won six PMAN awards in top categories such as Song of the Year, Album of the Year and Reggae Artist of the Year, amongst others. As a very influential artist of the period, Majek added his voice to the anti-apartheid campaign to liberate South Africa with the song, ‘Free Africa, Free Mandela’ which was part of his second album, ‘I&I Experience’. His critically acclaimed album ‘Spirit of Love’ was produced by ‘Little Steven’ Van Zandt for Interscope Records, which marketed hip-hop greats like Dr Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tupac. In 1992, he appeared on the talk show, Late Night with David Letterman, to promote his new album, and performed the song, ‘So Long Too Long’ for the television audience, clad in agbada, a traditional attire for Southwest Nigerian men.
Majek broke into the US market first with performances in clubs until he grabbed the attention of the co-founder of Interscope Records, Jimmy Levine. Subsequently, he secured a mouth-watering deal at age 27.
“The kind of money I got from my deal in America, I had never seen before in my life,” Majek once disclosed in a television interview. “So I thought I should come to Nigeria and celebrate with my people. I bought a 28-track mixer, speakers and I flew them into Nigeria instead of shipping them.”
The equipment he brought to Nigeria at a huge cost could be used for a full concert. He revealed that he had over $200,000 when he returned to Nigeria. At the peak of his career in 1989, artists such as Lucky Dube were opening acts for Majek Fashek.
When it was time to return to the US, it dawned on his managers that all was not well with the talented artist. Majek began to show signs of mental illness. Though he smoked weed at some point in his life, just like many rastas, that was not sufficient to explain the complexity of his mental and physical health deterioration. Many media reports alleged that he might have suffered from substance abuse owing to the pressure of the newly found international fame. But Majek told a different story.
“I never abused drugs. My wife broke my heart. I only went through depression,” he disclosed.
In other interviews, he claimed that his health challenges were spiritual in nature.
Majek told this story repeatedly throughout his life. His attempts to make a come-back after losing his recording deal with Interscope Records were frustrated by his illness. He lost some weight, part of his teeth and even his voice. But he never lost his passion for music.
He was among the local acts featured at one of the 2006 THISDAY concerts which featured American leading artistes like Mary J. Blige, Beyonce, Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Missy Elliot, Busta Rhymes and Ciara, among others.
In 2015, he reportedly checked into a drug rehabilitation centre in Abuja. At the first and second editions of ‘Africa Meets Reggae Festival’, organised by Victor Essiet of the Mandators at the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos, Majek’s showmanship was impressive. Two years ago, he marked his 30 years in mainstream music. By September 2019, his health deteriorated and was flown to the UK with the financial aid by the business mogul, Femi Otedola.
On June 1, 2020 he died in his sleep, incidentally in New York – a city he demystified in his song, ‘Majek Fashek Ina New York.’
One of the first reactions to the news of his death came from Edo State Governor, Godwin Obaseki, shortly after it was shared on Tuesday morning by his manager Omenka Uzoma on Instagram.
“I mourn the death of quintessential, maverick musician and Edo son, Majek Fashek…who took the world by storm with his enigmatic talent, remains one of the finest cultural icons of his age and would be remembered for his disarming craft and skill,” Obaseki tweeted.
Lemmy Jackson, who produced some of Majek’s greatest hits such as ‘Send Down the Rain,’ paid a glowing tribute to his memory in a social media post.
Jackson said, “I will tell you first-hand that what I miss most about him is his humility and high level of creative energy. Those of us alive who had the privilege of working with him will attest to this fact. This sad news has devastated me, although Majek’s later life was more of a troubled one, people like me never ceased to pray for his full stability, and then this? I pray for his family to have the fortitude to bear this great loss.”
Truly, Majek represented a generation of consciousness that gripped Nigeria’s music scene in the 80s and 90s in the era of military rule. His lyrics captured the themes of survival, oppression, love, African liberation and unity, poverty, societal decay and other social realities.
One of his music contemporaries, Edmund Spice, famed for his song, ‘Iyeneyeh’ as well as his cover of Tracy Chapman’s ‘Baby, Can I hold You Tonight,’ reflected on Majek’s artistry in his tribute via a chat with THISDAY.
“Majek Fashek, you were a very costly gift to your country Nigeria, to continent Africa and to the entire world. You weren’t ordinary and just like your songs, you were extraordinary. You chose your words tactically in terms of writing music and songs. Your songs are for yesterday, today and tomorrow. You have come your world and have passed your message through music which will forever remain a guide for generations to come. I love you Majek. Great freedom fighter. RIP,” he said.
Majek’s music had inspired younger generation of musicians in Nigeria including Sound Sultan, King Wadada and TuBaba who performed with him on a few occasions and recorded “So Long” as with the legend who had the dream of producing a comeback album. His death is regarded as a relief for his friends and family, who watched him battle for life in his later days.