Nigerian electronic funk musician William Onyeabor has jumped from obscurity to fame in the past year, due to a Noisey documentary (Fantastic Man – below) and the release of his first album in nearly 30 years, Who is William Onyeabor? by David Byrne's label.
Onyeabor's story is dazzling, but hardly unique. In fact, mysterious musicians whose work has been rediscovered after years of obscurity has nearly become a trope in music documentaries. There's A Band Called Death, released in 2012, which tells the story of the African American Detroit punk band Death; Anvil! The Story of Anvil, the 2008 rockumentary about the eponymous Canadian metalheads; and The Devil and Daniel Johnston, the 2005 movie about the Austin-based troubled and brilliant singer-songwriter. Then there's Searching for Sugar Man, the 2012 Oscar-winning documentary about folk singer Rodriguez.
It's all enough to make one wonder: Why are we so fascinated with musicians who fail, and disappear?
These documentaries have spawned highly-publicized tours and album reissues, and, at the very least, a newfound following for their respective subjects.
Rodriguez's cross-country tour winds down at the Greek Theatre (tonight, May 30) and Cal State L.A. (tomorrow, May 31). Death plays the Roxy on July 3 in support of three reissues by Drag City Records. Most interestingly, earlier this month, a supergroup that included Byrne and members of LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip and Bloc Party performed Onyeabor's songs at the Greek.
Even Anvil tours regularly and widely these days – despite the fact that they comedically failed to muster up any sort of crowd during the filming of Anvil!
As for Johnston, he most recently inspired a Frogger-esque iPhone app named after his album Hi, How Are You, and a gallery in Paris is currently showing his art.
Clearly, it's thrilling to root for the underdog. It's exciting to imagine the backstory of that down-on-his-luck transient who performs on the Venice boardwalk. Maybe he's a secret genius with some amazing recordings stashed in a storage locker somewhere.
Or maybe you see yourself in that failed musician. Who hasn't started a band in high school and, say, cried when their recorded music was destroyed along with Myspace's redesign?
Or perhaps we fetishize failed musicians because they represent authenticity. In an era where nearly all the same bands appear at the same music festivals, radio stations and award shows, all sponsored by beer companies and tech brands, it's refreshing to hear from a musician who operated outside of record labels and corporate sponsorship.
There's also the element of mystique. It's easy to love Onyeabor because of what we don't know about him. Reportedly a born-again Christian, he now refuses to talk about his music. Our access is limited to a half-hour documentary (in which Onyeabor never appears), so we're forced to try to understand him through the music itself.
Though Americans are constantly encouraged to dream big – by, say, the American Idol judges – many of those doing the encouraging have already made it big. The Coen Bros. movie Inside Llewyn Davis explores a character on the brink of failure, despite obvious talent. And, indeed, members of Death worked as a custodian and a mechanic for a time, putting their sons through college. That is, until their sons rediscovered the music and decided to form their own tribute band.
As for Rodriguez, the 71-year-old folk singer was at one point rumored to have killed himself. Meanwhile, the Swedish director of Searching for Sugar Man, 36-year-old Malik Bendjelloul, died earlier this month; it looks like suicide.
It's a tragedy, but we can see his legacy in the music of Rodriguez. Without Bendjelloul, we probably wouldn't even know it.