Very little is known, nay, recorded about Nigerian music pre-2000’s. In the 1970’s King Sunny Ade was a rising star who was taken to court by the record label he was signed to. It became stuff of legend: some say KSA was jinxed to be unable to play the guitar again. His own recordings during that time (Esubiri Ebo Mi and Mo Ti Mo) told of his travails- not knowing what the future held, and at the resolution of the matter he claimed to now know what route to follow. It shows that contract disputes between talent and management is nothing new, and artistes have been signing shoddy contracts without scrutinising it for a long, long time. This piece was first published on Olanrewaju Blogspot. Some parts have been edited for context.
It was in 1974 that the news broke. Chief Bolarinwa Abioro, the Balogun of Ipokia, the Chairman of African Songs Limited, had taken his star musician, Sunny Ade to court! Everyone who knew KSA knew Abioro. Everyone who knew Abioro knew Sunday Adeniyi. Sunny was the son. Abioro was the father. What could have gone wrong between father and son?
KSA was the second artiste to be signed on to the stable of African Songs Limited. Ayinde Bakare was the first. Sikiru Ayinde Barrister was the third. Like most creative people, young Sunny Ade was more concerned about his passion and less concerned about the business aspect of music. His passion was to play music and to excel as a musician.
It was enough that Abioro – one of the biggest men in the music industry at the time – was ready to promote him. They brought documents for Sunny and his band boys to sign. They called it a contract. It could have been called any other name for all that KSA cared. Won ni ko wa je saara, o ni ojo ti wonu ju. Se ata ni won ni ko mu wa ni, abi iyo? You are invited to a free feast, you are complaining about the short notice, are they asking you to bring salt or pepper? Sunny Ade and his boys didn’t hesitate. It is doubtful if any of them read what the contract said. The most important thing was that they were going to become recording artistes. Sunny signed. His band boys signed. Everybody was happy.
The contract was for 5 years. However before its expiration, KSA had become a household name. His album, Challenge Cup, sold in excess of 500,000 copies. It was certain that King Sunny Ade was going to dominate the music scene for a very long time to come. African Songs Ltd knew a good product when it saw one. The management of the company didn’t wait for the first contract to expire before they brought a new contract.
The new agreement was carefully worded. KSA and his band boys agreed to perform and record exclusively for ASL for a period of five years. ASL had full copyrights to all compositions and recordings of Sunny Ade. ASL was entitled to the sole right of production, reproduction- and use of King Sunny Ade’s performance throughout the world.
That was not all. During the period of the agreement, KSA was prohibited from rendering any performance whatsoever to himself, any company or group of persons. The contract also stipulated that ASL had the option to renew the agreement at its expiration for a further term of two years or for any longer period. Sunny Ade had no such right.
That still was not all. On the sale of every album whose price was then fixed at N6.00; KSA and his boys were entitled to a princely sum of 20 kobo. Yes, you read that right. African Songs would go home with the remaining N5. 80 kobo.
Still basking in the euphoria of his growing fame, Sunny gratefully signed again. His band boys signed. 20 kobo was still something. Orogun iya re da sokoto fun o, o ni ko bale, melo ni iya to bi o da fun o? You are complaining that the trousers made for you by your step-mother was not long enough, where is the one your own mother made for you?
They were expecting their 20 kobo royalty on every album. Well, when the time came for actual payment, it was discovered that mathematically and arithmetically, it was not supposed to be 20 kobo. They had not factored the cost of publicity and promotion! And since it was the artiste that was being promoted, he must be the one to bear the cost. After the addition and subtraction, Sunny was given 15 kobo per album.
KSA was not Chike Obi, the mathematician. But he knew that 20 kobo and 15 kobo were not the same thing. Compared with his contemporaries in the music industry, KSA realized that he was holding the short end of the stick. His colleague, Baba Commander– Chief Ebenezer Obey was earning as high as 70 kobo per album. Others were earning between 35 kobo and 60 kobo.
That was when Sunny decided to ask Chief Abioro for a raise of the royalty payment. The chairman listened patiently to KSA and his colleagues. He was nodding as they canvassed one reason after another why a raise was in order. When they finished, Chief Abioro flipped open a file he had on his table. He brought out a bundle of documents. Even from where he was seated across the table, Sunny saw that it was a copy of the contract he signed. ‘An agreement is an agreement. It is a binding contract!’, the Chief informed them. ‘This is what you signed. This is what you are entitled to! No more, No less.’ He returned the documents to the file. Case dismissed.
But Sunny was not done. ‘Chief, this is not about contract. You are our father. Our request is for adequate compensation! Let’s leave the contract aside.’ Chief Abioro looked at the young star the way a parent looks at a child asking for another piece of candy. ‘Leave the contract aside? We should leave the contract aside?’, Chairman asked incredulously. ‘You know, it would be nice to leave the contract aside. But you know what? That would be illegal!’
Haba! Illegality ke! . It was then that someone brought up the idea of requesting some of his friends to plead their case. Sunny agreed. After all, Eni ti o mo oju Ogun, ni pa obi ni ‘re. It is the person who is conversant with Ogun, the god of iron, that is usually given the duty to administer its rites. They went to meet Prince Okunade Sijuwade who would later become the Ooni of Ife. They also met with Chief Afolabi Joseph. Even Chief Ebenezer Obey was also requested to intervene as well as Chief Nurudeen Alowonle.
The eminent persons appeared in the court of the Balogun of Ipokia as ‘amici curiae’ on behalf of the musicians. Amici curiae are lawyers invited by judges to assist in filling briefs that may be helpful to the court in deciding a case. Our eminent persons argued their case like experienced advocates. They cited relevant sections of the unwritten Yoruba constitution. They cited Yoruba proverbs. They made reference to the story of Oduduwa. The presiding chairman listened to their submissions and summarily dismissed the case. Contract is contract!
Chief did not only dismiss the request for a raise. He opened another file on his table and brought out a new set of documents. Your guess is right: a new five-year contract! By now, Sunny Ade had learnt enough law. He had become a professional mathematician. He had obtained his Masters of Business Administration from practical experience. He knew the implication of putting pen to paper. He applied for an adjournment.
The King of African Beats found himself in a quandary. His new songs were ready but Chief had threatened not to release any new album until he signed the new contract. And KSA was not ready to sign any new contract until the issue of royalty was resolved.
KSA remembered his grandmother’s proverb. Ti abiku ba gbon ogbon ati ku ni igba erun, iya abiku a gbon ogbon ati sin oku e si etido. If an abiku decided to die during the dry season when he knew that the ground would be hard to dig, his parents would also decide to bury him by the riverside where the ground would not be hard to dig.
Sunny Ade decided to release his record with another company. His plan was to use the album to bargain for a better deal with African Songs. Instead of the measly 20 kobo, he was confident that the Chairman would be ready to pay him at least N1.00 per copy. The album was recorded in Nigeria but taken to London for mixing. What Sunny Ade did not know was that Chief Abioro was a master at the game. Before Sunny could get a copy of his own album, Chief Abioro was already in possession of the new record.
Baba Ibeji (Sunny) was composing fresh materials at home when the court bailiffs arrived. They served him with an order of interim injunction! The court order was as comprehensive as it was broad. Sunny Ade was prohibited from sale, distribution, marketing, dealing, etc. etc. of the record. He read the order again. Even without being a lawyer, he knew the implication of the document he was holding.
With palpable emotion, his mind went back to how he came to Lagos from Abeokuta with only one shilling and eighteen pence! He remembered his years with Baba Sala. He recalled how he got stranded with Baba Sala’s travelling theatre in Jebba and Kano. How he did not see his mother for two years whilst he suffered to make it as a musician. He recalled how his first album sold only 13 copies. Now when he was at the threshold of success, this court order! With grim determination, he knew he couldn’t afford to quit.
He remembered his first day at Oshodi when he missed his way trying to locate Moses Olaiya’s house and how he was directed instead to Dr. Victor Olaiya at Tinubu. He recalled how he knelt down in the dust of Oshodi to pray. Immediately he knew what he must do. Sunny went down on his knees and with an emotional voice, he prayed and prayed.
It was not the Sunday Adeniyi that knelt down to pray that stood up. He had become empowered. He had become emboldened. That same evening, he established his own label.
Sunny Alade Records was born!
He didn’t bother to sit down again. He remembered the threat of Chief Abioro to bring him down at all cost. He needed a lawyer who knew his law and who would be prepared to fight his cause against the Magnate. He went off in search of Gani Fawehinmi.
Gani collected the court papers and looked at the claims. He looked at his client. He looked again at the claims. Chief Abioro was not leaving anything to chance. He knew what he wanted from the court. His lawyer had read the agreement between African Songs Limited and Sunday Adeniyi.
Chief Abioro wanted only four things from the court: a declaration that the agreement between ASL and Sunday Adeniyi and his boys was still subsisting; an injunction restraining Sunny Ade from distributing or selling the record; an account of all sales of the record; and N1 million for breach of contract.
I hope you are not sneering at the N1 million as being ‘chicken change’. Remember this was in 1974. The price of a brand new Volkswagen Beetle car was about N500 at that time. N1 million in 1974 was a princely sum! [Enough to buy 2,000 cars. Think of the Beetle as the Kia Rio, then do the math: easily about 3 billion naira today- Editor]
On the day of the trial, the court was filled to capacity. Gani Fawehinmi was armed with every conceivable legal authority. The law books he brought to the court were more than enough to open a library. There were books on contracts. There were books on Human Rights. There were volumes on intellectual property. Gani even brought some books on slave trade.
The first application Gani brought before the court was for an order to compel African Songs to produce its statement of account over the preceding three years. The court granted the order. It was discovered that the company was making almost N900,000 every year from the sale of Sunny Ade Records. It was also discovered that the total sum that KSA received was N62,000 in the almost ten years he was with the company. How can you be asking me what is 900,000 divided by 62,000? I have told you that I’m not a mathematician. Please don’t ask me about percentages or fractions. [It means KSA received only 0.68% of what he earned in that period- Editor]
Gani did not forget to raise the issue of how 20kobo became 15 kobo. He also cross-examined Chief Abioro at length on the onerous terms contained in the contract. Gani put it to the chief that the contract was in restraint of trade and that it was therefore null and void as it amounted to colonization of King Sunny Ade, a free citizen of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and a citizen of the Commonwealth.
My Lord Justice L. J. Dosunmu listened patiently to the parties. His Lordship also asked the witnesses some probing cases. The court thereafter adjourned the matter to February 14, 1975 for judgment. It did not even occur to the King of African Beats that the day was St. Valentine’s Day. His only preoccupation was to find out the direction in which the pendulum of justice was going to swing.
On February 14, people started arriving at the court as early as 7am. The court officials had hectic time controlling the mammoth crowd that had come to court to witness the historic decision.
In His Lordship’s judgment, Justice Dosunmu held that although some of the terms of the contract were stringent, that was not a ground for holding the contract invalid. In effect, the contract between ASL and KSA was therefore valid. As the court pronounced on the validity of the contract, Sunny looked at his lawyer. Gani signaled to him to be calm, the court had only resolved one issue out of four.
With regard to the second claim, the court held that since the records in question had been distributed all over Nigeria, there was no way the court could order them to be recalled. The court therefore refused to restrain Sunny Ade and his marketer, M. Ola Kazim from distributing the album. A tiny smile crossed Sunny’s face.
You recall that Chief Abioro was asking for N1,000,000 as damages for breach of contract. The court ruled that for recording with another company during the subsistence of the contract, Sunny Ade was liable. He was asked to pay N300! Yes, Three Hundred Naira! From N1,000,000 to N300! Sunny smiled for the first time.
The court having found that the contract was still subsisting, KSA was ordered not to release another album pending the expiration of the contract with Chief Abioro’s company, which was due in six months. Six months! What am I going to be eating? Sunny thought.
As if reading Sunny Ade’s mind, Justice Dosunmu said he realized that Sunny Ade would need to eat and feed his family in the six months that the contract had to run. His Lordship therefore held that the injunction was limited to only recording of albums and that Sunny Ade was free to do live performances for fees. His Lordship said that this was in order to avoid a situation where the King of Music would starve or be compelled to go back to Chief Abioro.
The Judge had hardly risen before King Sunny Ade jumped up to hug his counsel. He was free! He gave Gani a bear hug. He had learnt his lesson. Creativity and Business must go hand in hand. Years later, the King of Music recalled: ‘The lesson I learnt from the episode is that if an artiste is churning out hit records, he needs to keep an eye on the business side of things. If not, he would be in a mess.’