Words by Damilola Layode
The 2012 edition of the annual celebration to honor the live and works of Afrobeats founding legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti kicked off on his birthday, Monday the 15th of October. The week-long celebration which will round up on Sunday the 21st has amongst the events lined up for the celebration, the launching of the Afrobeats museum at his old place of abode, Kalakuta republic. All these coupled with the fact that I’ve been assigned this subject for a while now by my editor, gave me the needed motivation to get on the keyboard and churn this out. I should say that during the conception of this article, possible titles that fleeted through my mind included ‘The exploitation of Afrobeat’ and ‘The Bastardization of Afrobeats’. However I settled for this title after reading Ayeni the Great’s Soliloquy on www.thenetng.com, it was there I came across the term and I thought it perfect for this piece.
Afrobeat is a fusion of American funk music with elements of highlife, jazz and other styles of West African music. It is a genre that’s closely associated with Nigeria though fans and artistes are found throughout West Africa. Afrobeat recordings are a prominent part of the world music category found throughout the developed world. The most popular and well-known performer, indeed the most famous Nigerian musician in history, is undoubtedly Fela Kuti. Fela Kuti began performing in 1961, but did not start playing in his distinctive Afrobeat style until his exposure to Sierra Leonean Afro-soul singer Geraldo Pino in 1963. Although Kuti is often credited as the only pioneer of Afrobeat, other musicians such as Segun Bucknor,Orlando Julius Ekemode And Even The Lijadu Sisters were also prominent in the early Afrobeat scene, where they combined highlife, jazz and funk. This music genre is characterized by a fairly large band with many instruments, vocals, and a musical structure.
The genre recently began to enjoy an unusual acceptance from the mainstream listeners largely because of the death of the founder. Back in the day, because of the lifestyle Fela lived as well as because of the controversies surrounding him as a result of the subjects his music addressed, Afrobeat was deemed as music for society’s outcasts and renegades, here in Nigeria. This did not deter international labels to offer him record deals. At some point in his career, Fela was signed to Polygram, MCA, Universal, EMI, and some other labels. The western world identified his genius from the onset and it is on record that Fela had a professional relationship with some of the biggest artistes in the world including Sir Paul Mc Cartney, Stevie Wonder And Legendary Drummer Ginger Baker ( With whom he collaborated ). Another reason why Afrobeat was not largely popular with the mainstream Nigerian listeners was because apart from Fela, only a handful of other artistes that delved into the genre were able to leave an impression on the listeners. Whilst a lot of them put out Afrobeat materials, it should be said that since the 90s’ only his sons Seun, Femi and another artiste called Lagbaja were able to deliver works that enjoyed both critical and commercial acclaim. The reason for this cannot be far from the fact that Afrobeat is a genre that thrives on a conscious message and exceptional music expression for conveying this message, two factors that were lacking in the pool of artistes during this period. This is aside the issue of originality as most artistes that delved into the genre tried and failed to emulate and replicate Fela’s persona.
Since 1997 when Fela died, the government or music industry regulators did not deem it fit to honor this legend for the contribution he made to the world music landscape. The crowd of Afrobeat faithfuls however agreed that Fela is a legend. It was a classic case of the prophet being rejected by his people. As fate would have it, a New Yorker by the name of Stephen Hendel in year 2000, came across one of Fela’s CDs. This was 3 years after his death. The music must have really impressed him because he spent the next 9 years setting in motion the activities that brought about Fela’s story being told on Broadway, with the blessing of his family. The producers of the show included Jay-z, Will and Jada Smith. When Fela hit Broadway, the show was critical and commercially acclaimed, bagging 3 Tony awards. Celebrities all went to Broadway to watch the inspiring story of Fela’s life and legacy. Today, 15 years after Fela’s death, he is finally being widely celebrated by the government and his own people.
One can imagine the effect that the Fela Broadway project had on the acceptance of Afrobeat by Urban listeners. Having personalities like Jay z and Will smith directly involved with the project was a heavy cosign and for that, Afrobeats was never going to be the same again. The effect of this singular move was not lost on the government either as the opening of the Afrobeat museum is evidence of that. The opportunities and potentials that abound as a result of Afrobeat’s new found fame was not lost on the urban musical artistes of present day either. Some of these artistes have assumed the description of ‘Afrobeat artiste’ in a bid to crossover and appeal to the international listeners. Typical example is the case of D’Banj being labeled an Afrobeats artiste because of his quest to cross-over internationally with his hit single ‘Oliver Twist’. The average Nigerian fan of this artiste knows that what he does is Afro-pop but suddenly, with just one single, he becomes an Afrobeat artiste.
Since art is all about progression, I appreciate the need for artistes to keep exploring their creative bounds and reinventing themselves. However, labeling themselves without the intent to reflect this label in their musical output can be aptly termed ‘exploitation’. Credits should go to D’Banj for trying to tinker with the Afrobeat sound on his ‘Oyato’ track which was produced by J. Sleek as this is testament to the fact that Afrobeat can also be made digitally. However it was evident on said track that this is a terrain D’Banj would take a lot of time and effort to get used to as the track failed to make a lasting impression on the listener.
From this prognosis, it is evident that the quest to ‘pop’-ularize Afrobeat might do more harm than good in the long run, not to the genre but to the artistes that attempt this feat and fails. Reason for this being that Afrobeat is a genre that thrives on certain elements of its identity that are unique to it. It is a structured music form and as such, it will take a seasoned musician and composer to be able to compose lyrics that will follow the layered structure of the instrumentation. This aside, it will take an artiste with depth and consciousness to be able to find a message that is relevant to the present day listener. Another issue will be how to blend the message which usually is conscious (social or not) with the persona that present day pop artistes try to sell. This is not to say that Afrobeat is all about the message and never about the groove but one thing it will never be is; all about the groove and never about the message. This is because of the stance it has always taken since inception.
It is not above Afrobeats to go pop, what remains to be seen is how it would. One thing is for certain, none of the present day urban artistes assuming the Afrobeat label are worthy of such title. If Fela were alive, even he would reject them. This is not to say that an artiste with a healthy understanding of the intricacies of the various music elements that make up Afrobeat Music and the ability to take it pop will not come along in the near future. For now, I just don’t see any around so can we keep it just Afrobeat?
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