Fela Kuti Remains the Beating Heart of a Resurgent Afropop Scene

The Nigerian musician and activist's influence thrives with the country's newest stars.
February 14, 2017, 7:20pm

The sounds of West Africa have found their way into American music more than ever over the past few years. International collaborations between Nigeria's biggest stars and American artists like Tinashe and Chris Brown have proliferated, and several African artists have recently inked American record deals. Perhaps most notable was the smash global success of Drake's "One Dance," which featured Nigerian superstar Wizkid. The sound, which many American fans associated with more familiar Caribbean music like dancehall and soca, was actually that of West Africa's booming afrobeats scene. More than ever, that scene is mixing internationally, a trend that can most likely be traced to the rise of London as a meeting spot for UK grime, West African afrobeats, American rap, and more to all intersect. Afrobeats production arguably incorporates elements of music being created throughout the African diaspora better than anything currently made, combining indigenous Nigerian sounds, hip-hop, dancehall, soca, and 70s afrobeat.  Some of Nigeria's most celebrated artists are Wizkid, Tiwa Savage, Burna Boy, Yemi Alade, Davido, and Tekno. But if you were to ask the bulk of these artists who the godfather to their sound is, you'd get a consensus answer: Fela Kuti.


"Fela Kuti is very much respected all over Africa," UK-based Ghanaian producer Juls tell me in an email conversation. A frequent collaborator of rising Nigerian afrobeats star Mr. Eazi, Juls sees Fela as a borderless and genreless hero to the African continent. "Ghanaians had our own musical greats i.e. Gyedu Blay Ambolley, ET Mensah, and more, but Fela did contribute to shape the African sound particularly in the 70s. The afrobeat sound is similar regardless of the origin. Those deeply rooted into the highlife culture are definitely aware of who he is and his significant contribution to African music."

Unlike the never-ending debates on which American musicians sit atop the ranks of their respective genres, Fela is rarely challenged as the king of Nigerian music and one of the most essential musical voices ever in Africa. The afrobeat (without an 's') music that he pioneered blended elements of jazz, soul, Ghanaian highlife, and improvised vocals—pushing new sonic ideas forward while also pulling together sounds from the global African diaspora, just as the new scene does in its own way. While enjoyable on its sound alone, it was used as a tool for Fela to continuously speak on Nigeria's political climate in the 60s and 70s after the country went through a civil war and gained its independence.

In songs like "International Thief Thief" Fela breaks down the corruption in the Nigerian government, citing European colonizers as the root: "Them get one style wey them dey use / Them go pick one African man / A man with low mentality / Them go give am million naira breads / To become of high position here / Him go bribe some thousand naira bread / To become one useless chief." His song "Upside Down," which features lead vocals by Sandra Izsadore, questions why people of African descent are forced to take on the names of their colonizers. Inspired by a personal encounter, another one of his most notable songs, "Expensive Shit," details Nigerian military police breaking into his Kalakuta Republic compound to steal his excrement and test it for marijuana, desperately trying to frame him. Songs like these—centralizing the global black struggle for liberation— would dominate Kuti's catalogue until his death in 1997, earning places in the hearts of oppressed people in his homeland and beyond much like Bob Marley did in Jamaica and Nina Simone did in the US. The effectiveness of that diasporic message even resulted in a long-running, Tony Award-winning Broadway musical about the artist titled Fela!, which debuted in 2008.

"Nigeria had just come out of independence, civil war, and between Europe and America foreign companies and African leaders they were all in cahoots to just steal the resources," musicians Fela's son, Femi Kuti explained to Noisey during the VICELAND show's Lagos shoot. "My father was exposing this. And he was enlightening his people who were very naïve. And so he was like a thorn in the flesh. And they did everything to stop him from talking or give all the excuses and it was just one beaten after the other the soldiers, the police, every just harassment trying to get him to shut up." Fela's decision to speak out resulted in him being arrested over 200 times, including his longest stint of 20 months in 1984 for allegedly laundering money. Femi doesn't necessarily see the messages his father delivered being carried on, but he enjoys the sound of Nigeria's new afrobeats scene.

In 2014, not yet aware of who Wizkid was, Femi was convinced by his sister to collaborate with Nigeria's most promising superstar. The song "Jaiye Jaiye" on Wizkid's celebrated 2014 album Ayo featured Femi's saxophone playing. "I mean the music is danceable," Femi told Noisey. "I like the melody. And I believe when I agree to do anything like this it's very important for me to find space, my voice, and to enhance the creativity of whoever I decided to work with." Femi doesn't necessarily see the messages his father delivered being carried on, and he is skeptical of the artistic longevity of musicians who don't play instruments like he and his father, but he enjoys the sound of Nigeria's new afrobeats scene.

While the most popular young Nigerian artists currently appear to be enjoying every second of fame and adulation without including political commentary, some are still taking the sonic template established by Fela's afrobeat. Over the past few years, artists like Patoranking, Wizkid, Mr. Eazi, and more have released multiple songs with the jazz undertones of their musical predecessors. "Speak your mind. Be confident and let your music do all the talking," is what Juls tells me that he and other young African artists have taken away from Fela Kuti's message. And as their music and culture continues to spread to other corners of the world, the legacy of Fela will continue to thrive and touch the people it was intended for—maybe more than ever.

Photo: Waring Abbott / Getty Images

Follow Lawrence Burney on Twitter