By: Eriomala John
Sad days never start off the same way. Sad days never end the same way either. And sometimes, sad days aren’t ‘days’. They are five minutes that make the eighteen hours and thirty-nine minutes before then almost irrelevant and the hours after, grey and murky with sadness. Days like 12. 09. 2023, when Ilerioluwa Oladimeji ‘Mohbad’ Aloba died.
I could go on about that day but it would be a waste of valuable keystrokes. While he lived, Mohbad was ‘lmole,’ light, in many ways. Even in his passing, he has remained ‘light’. That is what we will celebrate in this piece.
The Brilliance of Imole
Even if you weren’t outside in December 2020 — like this writer — you must at least have been outside some time in 2021, bopping your head to the wonder tune that was KPK (Ko Po Ke). My God! It was everywhere! There was literally no way to escape it. Why would anyone have wanted to?
Personally, it was my introduction to the magic of Mohbad. It didn’t matter that I had no idea what he looked like for another few months.
I knew what he sounded like and at the time, that was good enough for me; exquisite, a voice that would fit right in place somewhere in the old Oyo Empire, extolling a Balogun’s prowess, or as the chorister leading a rendition of the CAC Good Women Choir’s 1979 classic, Odun Yi A Tura. Soon, I also knew what he looked like, after coming across a video of him performing KPK at an event. With blond hair and tats, he had the quintessential street-hop artiste look and instantly became one to watch out for.
Much to my discredit, I soon forgot about him in the mix of other artists and music releases, settling for passive information in the form of a few articles and music industry-related tweets. Mentions there were in fact by-products of the spotlight on fellow Marlian Records-signee, Zinoleesky, who had had an objectively bigger breakthrough, and label boss, Naira Marley. To be fair, I had resumed to UI in April 2021 thereabout so I didn’t have as much time as I used to for deep dives into new music.
Then, sometime in August, a friend of mine and I had to go to UCH to get some scholarship application documents signed. We didn’t get the scholarships, eventually, but that’s irrelevant to the story. Anyways, while walking to get a cab, she spoke excitedly about a song ‘I absolutely had to listen to,’ a song that turned out to be Feel Good by Mohbad. I can’t remember exactly how I felt after my first listen although I remember not liking the artwork. Two listens later, the verdict was clear: gbedu! Feel Good became my jam. It eased itself into public consciousness as well almost simultaneously. “Emi ti gbera o (On God), lati 4:30 (On God)/ Won le, won ba ti (On God), Won mu, won file (On God)/ I drip on, j’ekoduro (on pause), Imole (on God), O w’ale (on God)”. Lines that spoke to anyone that had a race to run. Lines that could very well have come from a pulpit (with a few changes, of course). Feel Good was light bouncing off resplendent log drums and boy, did I love my reflection in it.
It would take more than a year before I finally connected with another of his records; Peace, released September 2022. I had given his Light EP a try after seeing it on Pulse’s Top 10 Nigerian Projects of the Year list but an underwhelming first listen meant I didn’t give it another listen (again, to my discredit). Father Abraham and Holy, off the EP, are some of the finest records he ever dropped; Peace, however, resonated almost immediately. At this point, rumours of struggles with his label had also started to emerge, so the lyrics took on an even larger meaning. Mohbad had once again found a way to be a conduit for music that portrayed reality, albeit harsh reality.
He would go on to drop a slew of singles, including Tiff, a diss-track styled jam released after his exit from Marlian Records, and hit single, Ask About Me, in April of this year, before dropping an 8-song EP titled Blessed in June; the last official pieces of music we would get before his untimely passing. All I can say about this record is that you should listen. Just listen. Remove all distractions and if possible view the lyrics at the same time so they can sink in better. It’s twenty minutes of beautiful, heartfelt music. It’s music channelled from a place of so much strife and so many battles. Light. Imole.
In physics terms, Mohbad, was a transducer, a being converting energy from one form to another; in this case, sound to light. Baritone to beams, lamba to luminescence, peals of pain to piercing rays of warm, re-assuring light. Call it whatever you want. Mohbad found a way to transform emotion into the brightness he so badly wanted. In a world filled with so much strife, and so much music about strife, Imole’s music was a genuine succour for many.
In fact, it was for everybody. I’ve been at parties where non-Yoruba speakers happily screamed “Emi ajilomoto” with as much fervency as the rest of the crowd.
Someone somewhere in my hall of residence would be blasting Ask About Me at the highest of levels and another fellow would walk by singing the “Seke seke bula” part absentmindedly, and with a hop to their step. In those moments, it was less about the language or what was being said and more about how the music made them feel. Substance!
That’s without even mentioning the quality of his pen or how good of a performer he was. He could tell you the story of his career under 3 minutes on Sorry while also delivering a plea to the heavens for humanity’s sake on Father Abraham.
He could take a terrible situation and, quite frankly, one of the worst stories of record label-artiste dealings in recent times and flip into a monster of a rap track like on Beast & Peace. And even when he delved into raunchy street hop, he did it with such poetry that the vulgarity seemed almost negligible, such as on Backside and hit single, Ponmo (featuring Naira Marley and Lil Kesh). And his voice? His voice! A deep gravelly tenor that was instantly recognizable, even among other ‘Afro-Adura’ singers. It’s a voice that will haunt the Nigerian music industry for quite some time.
In the Wake of Darkness
In the wake of Mohbad’s passing, a lot has come to light that has made his loss an even harder pill to swallow. Even worse, the bulk of that unpleasantness appears to have been right in our faces all along but we didn’t recognize it for what it was.
Primary among this is the alleged abuse by the label which more and more evidence appears to be proving true. I’ve had to pause more than one video of the late star, unable to bear the images of him crying, or with visible signs of assault on his body and in one instance narrating his experience at the hands of individuals he had trusted and confided in. There have also been multiple confessions and allegations, all of these pointing in the direction of his former label boss and some of his associates. While this isn’t the first case of disputes between artistes and their record labels, I can’t think of any that has descended into such depths both in recent times and the past.
It’s like the infamous Death Row records all over again; but instead of West Coast USA, it’s Lagos Island, and in the place of characters like Suge Knight, a now-growing list of names with ties to God-knows-what. I mean, it’s never been in question that the Nigerian music industry had a lot of hanging question marks in terms of financing and dealings. However, right now, it’s more of a question of how deep these dealings go and what it means for certain players. The big boys will be fine. But what about everybody else? And how much of an unraveler will Mohbad’s painful loss prove to be? I don’t want to be pessimistic but honestly, the industry doesn’t look like it would experience a re-shuffling anytime soon.
To be clear, this is not a call to morality. It would be naive to assume that a secular space would abide by ‘nice,’ ‘considerate’ business rules. But at some point, stakeholders in all of those high rise buildings and posh offices are going to have to sit and dial down on the menace. The OG artists who have become power players themselves, owe it to the spirit of this young man to ensure the label set-up is safer for up-and-coming artistes. Toss making ‘conscious’ music with ‘substance’, let the substance show in your dealings with other acts.
Another set of individuals who have a greater role to play to honour the memory of this young man are culture journalists. Whether we realise it or not, our stories shape the narrative of the industry and so more work has to be done to not only celebrate acts like him while alive but also ensure that the harsh and sketchy aspects of the industry are spotlighted. Not like it would dramatically change everything, anyways, but it’s something. It’s something that would help a lot.
There’s so much more to say and so much more that will be said. None particularly fitting at this moment in time. Rest in Glory, Imole. The world will continue to ask about you.