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How Funk Has Been Made to Feel Brand New Across the African Diaspora

From The Internet's solo albums to Nao and Togolese 'voudou funk', the sound is bumping its way across the globe like never before.

by Jesse Bernard
03 May 2017, 1:00pm

A simple yet profound question: What does funk mean in 2017? Historically, it's existed as a vessel of expression for working-class communities, particularly across the black African diaspora. In 1970s Nigeria, Fela Kuti challenged the status quo and the colonial presence in Africa, on albums like Gentleman. Ten years earlier, in the US, James Brown developed the signature groove – an emphasis on the first beat of every measure – that would give foundation to this new global sound. Though time has passed since then and groups like Parliament can sometimes feel like a twinkle in the record collector's eye, the genre is now enjoying a renaissance. People are, as the Mothership would put it, getting funked up in a brand new way. This new wave isn't exclusive to America either; it's sweeping its way across the globe, carried by artists from the UK, Brazil and beyond.

As members of Odd Future first, The Internet second and with their solo work blossoming from there, Syd and Matt Martians perfectly represent how this most recent wave of funk (and soul) has emerged. Both Fin and Drum Chord Theory feel like two sides of the same coin. Released earlier this year, they possess the core sound of The Internet, yet leave behind the distinct fingerprints of their creators.

On Syd's Fin she sounds as silky smooth as ever, allowing 90s-style melodies to glide over beats that lean more toward hip-hop with classic R&B bop inflections. Martian's album Drum Chord Theory, however, feels more like The Internet's Feel Good with its hazy, synthetic funk revisitation. Sonics aside, it's the semantics of both records that push funk into the present. Drum Chord Theory's "Found Me Some Acid Tonight" sees the protagonist doing exactly what the song title says on the tin. Meanwhile on Fin, Syd mentions that she's been "working on [her] wellness" and has been hustling for her health.. Rather than being explicitly entrenched in politics, these solo offerings from The Internet seem to live in their own care-free, wavy world; political by pure virtue of being.

I believe funk's greatest triumph has always been the way it's morphed and married itself with other sounds, never tied to one musical or cultural outpost but instead driven by the people. Alongside the likes of Syd and Matt Martians in the US, there's a similar transportation of the sound here in the UK, updated for a new generation of head-bopping teens. Take United Vibrations and Nao, for example – two British acts who've injected funk with their own sound.

United Vibrations lean more towards a jazz-infused style, a natural occurrence due to the fact that Yussef Dayes of jazz duo Yussef Kamaal are also a part of the quartet. On the other hand, Nao's electronic, synthesised funk feels reminiscent of the tone artists such as Mtume and Soul II Soul pushed in the 80s. In interviews with everyone from Vogue to the Guardian, she has described creating "wonky funk", a personal term for her sound that mirrors rhythm sections prominent in the 80s and 90s. Although it's also used as a marketing tactic to avoid her music being pigeonholed as only R&B, Nao has understood that there's been a dearth of British funk sounds to have inspired young ears.

This regeneration of funk isn't strictly a British or American thing either; it's happening all across the diaspora. Brazilian artists like pro-melanin adolescent rapper MC Soffia and the poppier Ludmilla have propelled the sound of funk carioca, which for years has been pioneered by Rio's queer and working class communities. Then, hate him or love him, there's Diplo – whose exploration into Brazilian funk via MIA gave the sound a plane ticket across the world. Back in Africa, Fela Kuti's "Water No Get Enemy," still remains one of the quintessential Nigerian funk songs, examining a country marred by civil war and a military government. It's difficult to find an artist with Kuti's presence who carries the West African torch for funk but if there were one to keep said flame alive, it's most likely Togo's Peter Solo. His contemporary "vodou funk" reflects a sound that goes hand in hand with everyday life in the region.

However, if Kendrick Lamar is at the far end of this generation's musical spectrum as a rapper, with The Internet at the other with their carefree funk-R&B, Thundercat feels like the glue that holds them together. His third album, Drunk, was a sombre, intoxicated blend of 70s funk, punk and hip-hop. Peppered throughout the record are references to Mortal Kombat, molly and Chief Keef's track "Love Sosa" (among others), giving credence to the idea the cultural explosion taking place across the diaspora is more routed in millennial life than pure nostalgia. With so much political uncertainty on the horizon, Drunk is a reminder to enjoy yourself in spite of troubling times – not just because of them.

The global funk scene, and the genres that exist alongside it, are forming part of a wider renaissance permeating black culture, social commentary and music. In this way, the scene is steadily restoring the vibrancy created decades ago with the birth of bebop and cool jazz. What's clear is that although funk isn't always responding to the political climate directly in protest, these records bring with them a sound that's both impactful and able to get us moving like our parents did. It's modern day funk at it's best – and man, does it sound good.

You can find Jesse on Twitter.

(Header image: cover art for The Drum Chord Theory)