Obituary: Majek Fashek was many things, a rainmaker, a cultural icon, a cautionary tale

Majek Fashek

Majek Fashek, singer, songwriter, superstar, reggae icon, hero, prophet, rainmaker and eventual cautionary tale passed away in New York on the night of 1, June. This according to his manager Omenka Uzoma who spoke with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

Fashek achieved instant iconic status with the release of his debut solo album Prisoner of Conscience in 1988 which he made while signed to the now defunct Tabansi records. The album was a stunning body of work but the single, Send down the rain transcended the time as it adopted a much deeper purpose.

According to legend Send down the rain was a salve that arrived right on time, bringing with it a much-awaited rainstorm that ended one of the most severe droughts in Nigerian history. The song became much more than an earworm, proof that prayers could be answered. With his top hat, baggy knickers, handcuffs, army boots, walking stick and dreadlocks, Fajek cut quite the striking figure.

The rainmaker tag would follow him for the rest of his life.

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At a time when the predominant sounds were Juju and highlife, Majek Fashek chose to veer off into reggae and make socially conscious music while at it. The bulk of his inspiration came from the worldwide success and cultural influence of Bob Marley. Indeed, Fashek would later in his career be described in some quarters as the spiritual heir to Marley. These comparisons with Marley, perhaps lazy, were inspired less by the lyricism or musical dexterity on display and more by Fashek’s physical appearance and his vocal ability.

Majek Fashek’s voice, thin but strong, carried a lot of power and was the perfect vessel for his songs. Even in his later years, when he remained stuck in an endless comeback loop, none of which quite materialized, his voice remained with him still even though weathered by age and stress. Fashek would steal the show in surprise appearances at the Headies and on the Afropolitan Vibes stage. During those moments, it was like time would stand still and all the years of frustration and squandered opportunity fell by the wayside.

Where Marley could tell an entire universe in a few lines, Majek Fashek got by on simple minded condemnations of poverty and corruption. Growing up on the streets in Benin City, he lived through poverty and lack and mined those experiences in relatable tunes of hard luck and divine favor. Bursting out the gate, Fashek covered Marley’s Redemption Song on his debut album, updating it to a more groovy beat. On occasion, Fashek could cling to something much deeper, as on his mega hit So long too long where he identified pan-Africanism and sought to build a bridge between Nigerians and African Americans.

Fashek didn’t just do cookie cutter reggae, he spiced things up by infusing his melodies with the busy cross-rhythms of juju and even a touch of rock, even before he got to work with the E Street Band’s “Little Steven” Van Zandt for his international breakthrough, Spirit of Love. According to Fashek the addition of the talking drum was on the recommendation of King Sunny Ade. He would later describe this music as Kpangolo music and credited it as the precursor to afrobeats.

Born Majekodunmi Fasheke in Benin City to an Edo mother an Ijesha father, Fashek inherited his love of music from his mother, a businesswoman who supplied concrete to road contractors. According to Fashek, his mother encouraged his love for music and bought him his first guitar after he showed interest in the choir of his local Aladura church. He identified strongly with his Benin roots.

Fashek wasn’t exactly sure of his date of birth on account of conflicting dates from his parents but adopted that of Bob Marley. His music career started with the moniker Rajesh Kanal, as a member of the Jastix, a local reggae group, that included Ras Kimono. They worked as session acts for reggae queen Evi Edna Ogholi before going their separate ways. Fashek moved to Lagos and changed his name, beginning a super successful run as a solo artiste.

MAJEK FASHEK: PRISONER OF CONSCIENCE

Prisoner of Conscience was a product of its time as it responded to some of the geopolitical events of the era- Apartheid, climate, antiblackness, police brutality. Fashek sold thousands of records and won the most important music awards of the day including the PMAN awards for “Song of the Year”, “Album of the Year” and “Reggae Artist of the Year”.

Fashek followed Prisoner of Conscience with I&I Experience in 1989 treading similar waters as his debut. The song Free Africa, Free Mandela which sampled Steam’s 1969 Billboard chart topper, Na na hey hey kiss him goodbye was a soundtrack to the anti-apartheid movement, joining the rising body of protest music and international activism that would eventually lead to the release of Nelson Mandela.

Fashek left Tabansi and signed briefly with Sony Nigeria putting out So long too long before the west came calling. When they did, he signed with Interscope and began to divide his time between Nigeria and the United States of America. Spirit of Love was his breakthrough international album. It has been reported that his sign on fee and income for the record was in the region of $20 million. To promote the record, Fashek made a musical appearance on the Late Night Show with David Letterman where he performed a lively version of the lead single So long too long. He would go on top share the stage with the likes of Tracy Chapman and Jimmy Cliff.

Like many young performers before him and even after, Majek Fashek became caught up and overwhelmed by the pressures of fame and his newfound wealth. He turned to alcohol and substance abuse, thus beginning a downward spiral that he never quite recovered from. His long suffering ex-wife Rita whom he was married to for thirty years, detailed a troubled history of drug dependence- even though Fashek consistently denied them- and alcohol abuse- he didn’t deny- beginning around the birth of their second son that strained and eventually destroyed their relationship. He attempted several rehabilitation programs between Lagos and New York but none had a permanent effect. Majek and Rita had three sons together before finalizing their divorce in 2015.

These troubles also spilled over into Fashek’s professional life. Unable to keep track of his business dealings, he soon blew all of his earnings and poor management kept him virtually living from paycheck to paycheck. Which would be fine if he could at least be trusted to show up and profit from his back catalogue. He soon developed a reputation as an unreliable performer and would lose out on several opportunities on this account. He would appear in interviews, shabby, unfocused and given to going off on several tangents.

Several professional relationships collapsed acrimoniously. He accused a former manager cum lover, Hajia Amina Dangaji of taking advantage of him. She in turn claimed to have spent over 35 million on rehabilitating him. He also fell out with Charles Novia whose November Records secured rights to distribute Fashek’s last major album Little Patience in Nigeria. Both camps brawled publicly over the rights to the 2013 Timi Dakolo Send down the rain remake. Even an intervention by Warri money man, Ayiri Emami to get Fashek into rehab failed almost as soon as it was announced. Last year billionaire businessman stepped into the ring, offering to foot Fashek’s medical bills. At the time he was rumoured to have been diagnosed with a terminal condition. He moved to New York to be with his family whom he had been estranged from for years.

Once one of the brightest stars of his generation, Majek Fashek benefited immensely from the fame monster and was then hollowed out by it. His spectacular rise and fall remains the stuff of legend.

So long, rainmaker.

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