Nearly two decades after his death, vindication has come to Fela Kuti, Africa’s musical genius. Afrobeat, his gift to the world, is now an international staple on his own uncompromising terms, social content intact.
Fela’s rise in the early 1970s paralleled the downfall of the hopes Africans pinned on their newly won independence. As a whole, Africans were again living in incarcerated societies; Nigeria, he said, was a “prison of peoples”. Africa had fallen mostly into the hands of uncaring thieves and scoundrels who were ignorant of wrecking society in order to sustain insolent lifestyles. To reclaim Africa’s stolen dignity became Fela’s obsession.
Fela’s seismic music infused freshness into the reality of rotten politics. In song after song, he summoned revolt, not solely against erstwhile tyrants and exploiters (“Zombie”, “Army Arrangement”, “Coffin for Head of State”) but against self-damaging prejudices and assimilationist alienation (“Yellow Fever”, “Colonial Mentality”, “Teacher, Don’t Teach Me No Nonsense”, “Gentleman”, “Lady”). He chastised the West (“International Thief Thief”, “Underground System”) and the local elites that fronted for multinationals (“Beasts of No Nation”, “Government of Crooks”).
Ordinary Africans embraced songs such as “Shakara”, “Sorrow Tears and Blood”, “Upside Down” and “Why Black Man Dey Suffer” for accurately mirroring their frustrations. They welcomed the graphic words of “Expensive Shit” or “Who No Know Go Know” as down-to-earth explanations for their lowly condition. More importantly, Fela’s music was a clarion proclamation that it was possible to reverse their lot (“Water No Get Enemy”, “Africa Center of the World”).
As an artist, Fela’s 50+ album body of work has left an indelible legacy, an imperishable music that is indeed classical. His masterly compositions are a sort of people’s dictionary, translating into accessible art the complex ills afflicting society.
Afrobeat is about social, political and cultural literacy. It confronts the geography of world complacency, greed and fear and calls for a transformative insubordination.
Afrobeat has profoundly influenced important contemporary producers and musicians such as Brian Eno and David Byrne, who credit Fela Kuti as an essential influence. Talking Heads' highly acclaimed 1980 album “Remain In Light” brought polyrhythmic Afrobeat influences to Western music.
More recently, the horn section of Brooklyn’s Antibalas, an Afrobeat band modeled after Fela Kuti’s Africa 70, featured on TV On The Radio's highly acclaimed 2008 album “Dear Science”, as well as on British band Foals' 2008 album, “Antidotes”.
FULL FELA KUTI CATALOGUE
(KNITTING FACTORY RECORDS / COOKING VINYL AUSTRALIA)