Fela Kuti is easily the most controversial and the most influential musician in Nigerian history. He is often seen as The Father of the AfroBeat sound. His talent was only matched by his political defiance. He used his music to criticize the Nigerian government while also giving young people something to enjoy. My dad is a huge fan of Fela and watched him live at the legendary Shrine when he was my age. He would pray to the Orishas, light his reefer, coordinate his massive band and play a new song for a captivated crowd. My dad played Fela in the house when I was young, so when I rediscovered his music in college it felt familiar and reminded me of my childhood. He has a massive catalog with tracks as long as 30-minutes. Here are 4 of my favorite songs by the legendary artist.
J. Cole sampled this amazing song for Let Nas Down but that doesn’t do this track justice. For the first half of the song, the Africa 70 band sets the mood. Fast paced funk with an amazing Sax taking center stage. When Fela finally gets on the mic he sings “I no be gentleman at all! I know be gentleman at all oh!” He’s doubling down on his Africanness and mocking those that shy away from it. Those Africans, who wear European monkey suits (hence the artwork), and speak better English than white people. He boldly claims: “I be Africa man, original!”
Confusion Break Bones
Confusion is a 30-minute epic where Fela criticizes the Nigerian government over its lack of leadership, corruption, and foreign influence. All things that the government is being criticized for now. Despite being so critical of the government he still clearly loves his Nigerian-ness and embraces his nationality, despite all its flaws.
Shuffering & Shmiling
According to my dad, Fela made this after because he was frustrated with the State-wide announcement for Muslim pray while he was sleeping. He decided to make this song and criticize all faiths that aren’t rooted in African traditions. Religion plays a very complicated role in the lives of African people. Fela realizes how much faith is tied to our existence. That’s why he starts by asking us to listen as “Africans,” and not as Christians or Muslims. He tells us to look at our suffering compared to pastors and other religious leaders. He questions why we have to suffer so much on earth to get into heaven.
Again, he sees the positive and the negative. Although Nigerians are suffering so much they do it with a smile and great positivity.
Mr. Grammarticalogylisationalism Is Boss
I haven’t listened to all of Fela’s work, but this is my favorite so far. The melody created by the Africa 70 is smooth and jazzy, creating a perfect AfroBeat blend. Again, the subject is very political but colored with a funk and groove that catches you. The chorus yells “Him talk oyinbo pass English man!” or Nigerians speaking better English than white people. Language is so important and unfortunately in Nigeria, like in many colonized countries, the language of the oppressor is seen as superior and more sophisticated. Creole and variations of Spanish are called ghetto and improper. In this song, Fela is explaining how speaking English can get you a better pay grade. Fela’s message is crucial. African people should love one another and their culture. Adapting to European customs is ok, but suggesting their customs are superior is problematic. He says all of this while creating a fantastic sound.