It’s been 23 years since Afrobeat pioneer, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti passed on, yet his music remains relevant and his influences are not forgotten.
On October 15, 1938, Afrobeat legend, Pan-Africanist, and Political activist, FelaAnikulapo-Kuti was born. Beginning in the 1960s, Kuti pioneered and popularized his own unique style of music called “Afrobeat.” In 1963, he formed a band called Koola Lobitos. He would later change the band’s name to Afrika 70, and again to Egypt 80.
In his lifetime, Fela was famous for using his music as an expressive medium to speak against injustice, corruption and violation of human rights which was perpetrated by the Nigerian government.
Speaking up against the government surely came with a price, the Afrobeat singer was arrested 200 times and endured numerous beatings, yet he continued to write political lyrics, producing about fifty albums of politically conscious music that enraged the Nigerian government. All this he chieved before his death on August 2, 1997, in Lagos, Nigeria.
Fast forward to 2020, two decades after, Fela Kuti’s influences are still clear as day with Nigerian artists like Falz and Burna Boy sampling his music on their albums. Kuti’s politically conscious music has equally proven relevant now more than ever, given the turn of events over the past few weeks, as Nigerian Youths home and abroad take to the streets to demand an end to Police Brutality and Bad Governance with the #EndSars protests.
Fela Kuti was indeed a revolutionary and his music clearly foretold the present situation in Nigeria. With countless songs such as “Sorrow, Tears & Blood”, “Shuffering and Shmilling”, ‘Vagabonds in Power” here are 10 Fela Kuti songs that are reminsicent of the way Nigeria was in the early years yet still relevant to our present situation.
1. Sorrow,Tears and Blood
Singing ”…dem leave sorrow, tears, and blood” Fela Kuti recounts the attack on his home “Kalakuta Republic” by the Nigerian Military. The attack left many injured, including his mother who was thrown out of the building through the window. This was following the release of his 1976 album Zombie, which was a direct shot at the Nigerian Military.
Fast forward to 2019, Afro-fusion artiste, Burna Boy sampled this song on his track titled “Collateral Damage” off his Grammy nominated album, African Giant.
2. Beasts of No Nation
Beasts of No Nation which was originally released in 1989, was an indictment of the corruption and repression in post-colonial Africa. It was the first song Fela wrote after he was liberated from prison—serving two years from a five year prison sentence for trumped-up foreign currency violation charges. People wanted to hear him sing about his prison experience, like he had done with: Alagbon Close, Kalakuta Show, and Expensive Shit. Eventually, he chose to sing about the world we live in—with particular reference to Nigeria.
In this song Fela touches on all forms of injustice from police brutality to army oppression, violation of human rights and corruption in the justice system. Sad to say that in 2020, the story hasn’t changed. Let’s not be in a hurry to forget October 20,2020 the day the Nigerian Army opened fire on peaceful protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate.
Zombie is said to be one of the most influential tracks by Fela Kuti. As a political activist, he believed the army should operate under the mandate of a civil government. To do otherwise is to usurp power particularly since a soldier’s duty is not to seek a political mandate. On this song, the performer compared the military to Zombies who blindly follow each command without giving thought to their actions.
The tune and beat of the track together with its mocking lyrics made the audience love it immediately yet Fela paid a big price for this bold condemnation of the military institution. One thousand members of the Nigerian army attacked and burnt down his house after the release of the song, leaving many people badly hurt including the famous singer and his mother.
4. Unknown Soldier
Unknown Soldier is another track that was inspired by the notorious attack of 1977. In this song, Fela recounts the attack on his home, Kalakuta Republic. events that took place then. He chose the title ”Unknown Soldier” because the press reported that unknown soldiers were responsible for the attack on his home.
5. Upside Down (ft Sandra Akanke Isidore)
Upside Down was written by Fela to portray a worldly travelled African, who searches the dictionary, and finds the definition of upside down—a perfect description of the African situation. The song “Upside Down” itself, however, is sung not by Kuti but by Sandra Akanke Isidore. She was a woman that he met during his stay in the United States at the end of the 1960s, and who is credited with helping to elevate his own social awareness and ethnic identity.
Sandra sings: ‘I have travelled widely all over the world like any professor…the thing I have seen I will like to talk about upside-up and downside-down, in overseas! Everything is organise. Their system organise! They have their own names!” But back home in Africa, everything is: ‘head for down yanish for up! Everything is disorganise!’.
6. V.I.P (Vagabonds In Power)
“V.I.P.” is a searing comment on the mindset of African (Nigerian) leaders. In the song Fela accuses the leaders of ignoring the hungry, jobless, and suffering people of their nation. “Them go dey ride best car/Them go dey chop best food/Them go dey live best house/Them be wrong men.”
The lyric for “Vagabonds In Power” was inspired by an encounter Fela had with Sam Nujoma, leader of the Namibian liberation movement, the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), on a flight to Lagos in 1978. During the flight, Fela was troubled by Nujoma’s slogan “the struggle continues.” Fela flashed that Nujoma, who was travelling first class, was happy for the Namibian civil war to continue indefinitely, for while it did, he enjoyed a life of comfort elsewhere.
7. Original Sufferhead
Original Sufferhead was created after yet another attempt by the government to silence Fela, which again took the form of an assault on his home. It seemed that nothing could break him, because in 1981 Kuti released the track Original Sufferhead. In this song, he accuses the Nigerian government of corruption and theft that has led to the impoverishment of the nation.
8. Shuffering and Shmiling
After the 1977 police attack on Fela’s Kalakuta Republic, where his mother and about 80 members of his entourage and band were injured and arrested, he set out to light a fire underneath the authority figures and his various other enemies that were causing him o suffer in the form of harassment, oppression, and economic devastation. Shuffering and Shmiling is one of those comments.
While continuing along in his tradition of savvy instrumental innovation, “Shuffering and Shmiling” plays out with the same intensity and voracious soloing that mark other great Africa 70 performances like Confusion, Gentleman, and No Agreement; but the point of departure here is the outward remarks he makes on a touchy topic: religion.
9. Why Black Men Dey Suffer
Why Black Man Dey Suffer, recorded in 1971, was originally deemed too controversial for release by EMI, Fela’s label at the time. The title track “Why Black Man Dey Suffer” is a history lesson on the oppression of the African man. It details the litany of abuses the black man has suffered — from being taken as slaves, to having an alien people impose a new culture upon them, take their land, fight them, and set them against one another.
10. 2000 Blacks Got To Be Free
2000 Blacks Got To Be Free is a collaboration with American jazz composer, Roy Ayers which was released around 1989. In the song, Fela and Roy express their desire for all Black people to be free by the year 2000. How ironic is it that it’s 2020 and we are yet to see that freedom?