THE RISE OF AFROBEAT: FELA’S TRIUMPHANT REBIRTH
(by Carlos Moore)
+ THE PHENOMENON +
Over a decade 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.
Throughout his life, Fela contended that AfroBeat was a modern form of danceable, African classical music with an urgent message for the planet’s denizens. Created out of a cross-breeding of Funk, Jazz, Salsa and Calypso with Juju, Highlife and African percussive patterns, it was to him a political weapon.
Fela refused to bow to the music industry’s preference for 3-minute tracks, nor did he buckle under entreaties to moderate his overwhelmingly political lyrics. He went down in 1997 still railing against the consumerist gimmicks that taint pop music, with the aim, he felt, of promoting and imposing homogenous aesthetic standards worldwide, thereby inducing passivity.
The fact that AfroBeat is today globally winning hearts in its original form — lengthy, ably crafted, earthy compositions laced with explicitly political lyrics — suggests that Fela’s purgatory on earth may have served to awaken a sensibility in people to appreciate authenticity and substance.
+ THE MESSAGE +
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 unmindful of wrecking society in order to sustain insolent lifestyles. To reclaim Africa’s stolen dignity became Fela’s obsession.
As many of these new countries turned into terror-drenched, neo-colonial states, Fela summoned his people to return to their senses and principles of old: self-pride, self-reliance, and decency rooted in traditional cultural norms. To achieve these, he prescribed forsaking the corrupting ways of Western society, its capitalist greed, its Communist despotism, the straitjacket moral conventions of Judeo-Christianity and Islam. He saw imperialism, colonialism and racism as scourges to be universally eradicated, and the structures that sustain them dismantled, before humankind could advance.
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”).
Groomed and pampered in youth by a pre-independence middle class but morphed by Black Power and pan-Africanist politics into a revolutionary ghetto hero, Fela voiced relentless condemnation of the so-called New Africa, attracting to himself a deluge of repression. His personal life became a harrowing tale of police beatings, victimization by the court system, near–death encounters with the Nigerian military.
Fela’s casual, uninhibited approach to sexual relations, his affection for nudity, further alarmed the uptight elites. Because of the Judeo-Christian concept of “sin”, he believed, humans were constrained by an “Adam-and-Eve” loathing of their own bodies. Monogamous marriage, individualism and “body-phobia”, h