One would be right to say Fela Anikulapo Kuti is one of the most renowned and celebrated Nigerians ever. This popularity can be ascribed to the fact that he pioneered the “Afrobeat” genre and passed across a message the world would not forget in a hurry via his exhilarating form of music. Afrobeat has since been making a huge impact within and outside the coasts of Africa. Its footprint is vividly visible across the global music scene and has given birth to several other far-reaching subgenres. I am particularly inspired by him, as I have always imagined the possibility of using music as a tool to impact the society positively and foster change, not just for entertainment.
But how did it all start? Although he had been making and playing music before then, Fela wasn’t making music in the Afrobeat style and didn’t coin the term “Afrobeat” until after his seminal trip to the U.S.A in 1969, during which he was introduced to the writings of activists like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, which helped awaken his social and political consciousness. Aided by his broad musical exposure which encompasses Soul, Jazz, Funk, Highlife and other African genres, Fela decided to develop a new musical style and movement that would reflect his musical prowess, promote the African culture and enable him share his message of social justice, freedom and Pan-Africanism with the world.
In my opinion, Fela was driven by two unique forces to create the Afrobeat: the need to be distinguished as a musician and a burning passion to address the social-political issues most African countries were faced with at that time with his music. The development of the genre evolved gradually as Fela continued to experiment with various styles and modifications until he arrived at the unique sound he eventually named Afrobeat.
The Afrobeat genre, even though a fusion of many other styles, is so outstanding and unmistakable that it continues to make an impression on your mind long after you have listened to it. Musician and BBC disc jockey, Katrina Leskanich describes it thus: take the improvisational character of jazz, combine it with the raunchiness of funk, flavour the mixture with African tradition and add a political message to it. What do you end up with? An Afrobeat record.
Afrobeat is characterized by a large ensemble of African and western musical instruments (forming a band of upwards of 12 members) playing complex intersecting rhythms, and percussion. It incorporates elements of traditional Yoruba music and Ghanaian highlife with the Western sounds of jazz, funk, and soul. The beat of the music is heavily polyrhythmic, and the vocals can range from traditional call-and-response and chanting styles to the wailing melody lines that one would likely associate with funk and soul music, particularly that of James Brown. An Afrobeat band, in addition to the lead singer and chorus vocals, will typically use the following instruments to create their polyrhythmic music:
- Rhythm guitar(s) (plays funk strumming pattern)
- Tenor guitar (plays a finger-picked ostinato groove)
- Bass guitar
- Drum set
- Rhythm conga #1
- Rhythm conga #2
- Solo (lead) conga
- Akuba: a set of 3 small stick-hit Yoruba congas (play flourishes/solos, and ostinatos). “Sticks”/claves (plays ostinato)
Afrobeat songs tend to be long (well over 10-15 minutes, on average, with songs frequently entering the 20-30 minute range) and feature extended instrumental sections, punctuated by vocal elements.
Today, while the original Afrobeat style as created by Fela still exists, the genre has evolved and gone through several modifications. Today, there are as many styles of Afrobeat as there are bands around the world playing it – reflecting the various cultural influences and several modern musical elements. Two of the most notable modern proponents of Afrobeat are Fela’s sons – Femi and Seun Kuti. Seun’s sound however has a closer similarity to his Father’s music; I think this is partly due to the fact that he retains and engages key members of Fela’s origal band – the “Egypt 80”. In Nigeria, the style of music that has remained dominant for almost two decades now is internationally recognised as “AfroBeats” or “AfroPop” – not very similar in message to that of Fela, but draws inspiration and some rhythmic elements from the legendary musician.
Beyond Fela’s immediate dynasty and Africa, the influence of Afrobeat on Western music is subtle but noteworthy: renowned and influential artists like Jay-Z, Drake, J. Cole, Paul Simon, Nas, Missy Elliot, Brian Eno, David Byrne, and Peter Gabriel have all used demonstrable Afrobeat elements in their music, as have more modern bands, such as Vampire Weekend. Fela Kuti himself might be the most name-dropped non-rapper in hip-hop history, and his songs continue to be sampled by producers, MCs, and DJs. Notable figures like The Roots and Lupe Fiasco have written whole songs about him, and still others cite him as an influence.
In 2008, a musical called FELA!, about the life and music of Fela Kuti, debuted off-Broadway, and in 2009, it moved to Broadway for a run that lasted over a year and garnered eleven Tony Award nominations and three wins (Best Choreography, Best Costume Design of a Musical, and Best Sound Design of a Musical). Choreographed by the legendary Bill T. Jones, FELA! featured a live Afrobeat band on stage (Brooklyn’s excellent Antibalas Afrobeat Ensemble), and told Fela Kuti’s lifetime story under the guise of a nightclub concert, with the whole theater decorated to look like Kuti’s own Lagos music venue, The Shrine. It was the first Broadway show to ever be based fully on African music, and was a major hit for both critics and fans.
Afrobeat has morphed from being just a musical genre or experience to a movement and strong believe system around the world. Afrobeat is synonymous to courage, passion, freedom and the African voice. In 1998, Fela’s eldest daughter, Yeni Kuti, initiated an annual festival – “Felabration” – to celebrate Fela’s life and legacy. The one-week-long event which is held annually at the New Afrika Shrine in Lagos, attracts thousands of visitors from different countries and has thus been considered as an official tourist activation by the Lagos State Government. Felabration is held on the week of Fela’s birthday (including October 15 – posthumous birthday). The event features musical performances from top music acts from Nigeria and guest appearances from internationally acclaimed musicians and personalities. It also consists of street parades, symposia on social and topical issues, debates and art exhibitions. Recently, many music venues and groups around the world have started to organize their own Felabration events concurrently with the celebrations in Lagos, Nigeria.
I draw a huge amount of inspiration from Fela’s works and story, and I have continuously learn from him how to leverage on the power of music to bring about the change I want to see in my immediate community and in Africa at large. As the creator of afrobeat, social critic, political activist and champion of the underprivileged, as well as a philosopher of his own political ideology, Fela is still today, a hero to millions of people for his contributions to society. He influenced a generation of young people to stand up against social injustice and inspire them with a new form of musical expression. His legacy is unquestionable and he will remain a symbolic figure for those looking for either musical or social activism inspiration like me.