Obituary: Ras Kimono, the Nigerian reggae icon who defined a generation

Ras Kimono

Thanks to his wild mane, boisterous manner and the mystique that has shrouded Rastafarianism and its converts, Ras Kimono always appeared larger than life. Between the years 1988 and 1990, he was one of the biggest hit makers in the country, churning out real time classics like Under Pressure, Natty Get Jail and Rum-Bar Stylee in quick succession. Even when he disappeared from the charts, forced by the realities of the time to a life of economic exile in the United States of America, his music remained on the minds and tongues of Nigerians of all walks of life, eventually becoming one of the nostalgic touchstones of the 90’s.

In his heyday, Ras Kimono penned songs of missed opportunities, of corruption and of freedom. Decades later and the state of underdevelopment in the continent has ensured his songs remained poignant.

Inspired by the shiny success of modern day Afropop artistes, Ras Kimono returned to Nigeria to find that the tide had turned. Reggae, the hard core, spiritual and ever conscious kind that he and his contemporaries- Majek Fashek, Oritz Wiliki and Evi Edna Ogholi- made popular back in the day had been displaced by a lighter, shinier, more disposable version championed by stars like 2Baba and Timaya. Across the pond, Beenie Man and Shaggy were making a killing. They called their genre dancehall.

It was a realization that must have hurt, considering Ras Kimono was no shapeshifter, willing or able to reinvent himself for the pleasure of his fans and in service of what was hot at the moment. He stuck to his guns and for the rest of his career, paid the price for pushing a sound that had since been swept off the mainstream.

Which is not to say that Ras Kimono’s legend ever faded. He always shied away from the mainstream hustle preferring to perform to intimate audiences and he continued that tradition in special musical events like a headlining appearance at the now quarterly Afropolitan Vibes in 2015, a confident duet with Aramide at the 2016 Headies and a Reggae concert at Freedom Park earlier this year, the full force of his artistry always shined through. Through his sound, he became a significant part of Nigerian music history and wherever he performed, the audience simply rolled back the years and gave him his due.

A self-professed Rastafarian, Ras Kimono was a throwback to a time when artistes of his inclination were more or less expected to hold on to socially conscious beliefs that manifested not just in their lyrics, but also in their personal and professional lives. Ras Kimono’s music was influenced by the poverty, and hardship which he grew up in. He suffered for lack of basic amenities but considers himself no different from the millions of black kids facing similar circumstances across the continent.

Ras Kimono may have looked the part of the Rastafarian- his famous dreadlocks were groomed for all of the last 37 years but he shunned the usual vices of drugs and alcohol, choosing to maintain a healthy vegan lifestyle. He also preached against greed and the temporary comfort of materialism, maintained a modest lifestyle and frowned at ostentatious displays of wealth.

His parents, indigenes of Delta state, named him Ukeleke Onwubuya Elumelu, but Ras Kimono for most of his adult life, embraced the concept of Pan-Africanism that harps on brotherhood and the dismantling of borders for black nations. He described himself as African instead of Nigerian and frequently cited the works of Kwame Nkrumah and Thomas Sankara as influences. These beliefs didn’t stop him from striking up a comradeship with Senator Dino Melaye in his later years.

For a spell, Ras Kimono was a student of Gbenoba Secondary School, Agbor before he dropped out, swearing off formal education. In the early days of his career, he was associated with the famous Jastix Reggae Ital band, alongside Majek Fashek, Amos McRoy Jegg and Black Rice Osagie but insists he was never a contractual memeber. He left for Europe where he honed his sound touring the college underground scene.

Ras Kimono released his solo debut album Under Pressure on the Premier Music label in 1989, and this propelled him to instant super stardom. He was no flash in the pan as this success was followed up quickly with well received material like We No Wan, What’s Gwan and Rub A Dub. These were the most rewarding periods of his creative life.

Under pressure

After his career stalled sometime in the early oughties, Ras Kimono moved with his family to the United States where he took on odd jobs in addition to the music gigs that came his way. The industry soon minted new superstars and when he returned, making up for lost time proved almost impossible.

He finalized his return in 2010 and two years later, released the album, Matter of Time which did negligible business, critically and commercially. Ras Kimono spent the rest of his career trying, with little success to drive Reggae music to the mainstream. He attempted this not just with himself, but also by promoting his daughter, Oge Kimono who had unsurprisingly caught the Reggae bug. Kimono was notoriously private about his personal life.

Kimono remained supportive towards younger artistes but openly encouraged them to speak out on social issues. Having preached about underdevelopment and paucity of infrastructure for more than thirty years, Ras Kimono in time, came to accept a bloody revolution as the solution to Africa’s chronic troubles.

Ras Kimono passed away in the early hours of Sunday, 10th May, aged 60. He was famously tight lipped about his private life but is survived by his wife who once doubled as his manager, and five daughters.


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