:: Article

Tributaries of Afrobeat/s

By Sanya Osha.

Towards the end of his hectic life, considerably weakened by HIV/Aids, despondent about the deteriorating political situation in Nigeria, abandoned by numerous key musicians of impossibly large organisation, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti wondered if indeed his epic aesthetic and political struggles had been worth it.

Nonetheless it is quite remarkable the way current African musicians pay homage-usually by barefaced imitation as crude flattery- to the late Afrobeat legend. Anikulapo-Kuti had claimed “music is the weapon.” This wasn’t a mere slogan but a deeply felt call to arms, an indictment of abuses of power.

And for this unequivocal stance, Anikulapo-Kuti paid dearly in terms of numerous beatings inflicted by Nigerian military authorities, the sacking of Kalakuta, his counter-culture commune, the murder of his mother by “unknown soldiers”, exile, a severely compromised physical condition and eventually, financial ruin.

In short, for his uncompromising choice, he suffered the agony of slow, excruciating death. There is nothing glamorous or exciting about this self-immolating choice. Anikulapo-Kuti cast his lot with social and economic outcasts, cultural renegades, the disenfranchised and the downtrodden and the consequences were unvaryingly bitter.

There are various attempts currently to re-evaluate Kuti’s legacy in the United States following the global success of the Broadway musical, Fela!, mounted with the support of Jay Z, Will Smith and Thom Yorke (he provided material support for the UK leg of the musical) of the British rock combo, Radiohead.

Feminists, on their own part, attempt to read new meaning into Kuti’s wedding to 27 women in a single day by extracting depth, distinction and singular achievement in each of his numerous women. Even Beyonce and her sister Solange have been involved in this venture. All of these efforts can be regarded as exercises to make Kuti’s customary rebelliousness less threatening and perhaps even indispensable for social transformation.


Before Kuti’s adoption by a growing number of hip hop stars, Stevie Wonder had called him “an incredible pioneer” to whom the music world is much indebted. Long before he passed on, Miles Davis regarded him as the future of music. Mos Def, on his part, likens him to Bob Marley, Rick James, ODB, Huey Newton and Duke Ellington. This particular characterisation of Kuti is most unlikely and awkward but probably makes sense from a marketing point of view, that is, in creating a niche for the problematic image Kuti crafted for himself. It is difficult to imagine likening Kuti to ODB given the latter’s buffoonish, blundering, crackhead persona which from a socio-transformative perspective is undoubtedly an impediment.

There is also the need to say something about the background of his music which is a deft assortment of diverse styles and traditions notably West African highlife, jazz, funk and indigenous West African drumming amongst others.

Originally, in most forms of traditional African art, music derived from drums, especially in traditional Yoruba culture – Anikulapo-Kuti’s ethnic background – was sacred and meant for the exaltation of gods. Each major deity, Obatala, Orunmila, Sango, Ogun etc. was honoured with sacred drum texts and messages.

According to Yoruba oral history, Sango, the god of lightning and thunder, then widened the audience that could enjoy sacred music. Kings as well as gods began to enjoy the music produced from drums. And then kings permitted the playing of sacred music to all and sundry which was when a new concept, alujo– music meant for dancing – evolved.

The dissemination of the concept,- by the Yoruba, found all across West Africa, notably, Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Sierra Leone amongst other nations, and in the New World in countries such as Cuba, Brazil, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti, Puerto Rico and Colombia – as to be expected, led to the invention of an astonishing variety of music genres, many of which are traceable back to it. While alujo dominates virtually all forms of contemporary music, sacred music meant for the gods has waned accordingly.

It would appear that Anikulapo-Kuti was probing the multiple cultural imperatives of this history and its significance to traditional West African music which is why he took pains to learn and understand not only the drumming traditions of the Yoruba but also those from Ghana, a country blessed with peerless music traditions. This knowledge subsequently lent depth, power and resonance to the genre he pioneered: Afrobeat.

Brian Eno, the British experimental producer made two insightful comments regarding Kuti’s brand of Afrobeat: he had said Kuti played a form of jazz that might be played on another planet in the future; and that musicians in his organisation played in constant dialogue with one another. In this sense, virtuosity without conviviality was meaningless which might lead one to conclude that Kuti’s method reflected a wider ethos of African communalism.

Afrobeat is characterised by its inimitable gbedu (groove, which may serve as a rough translation does not quite capture all the dimensions of its meaning) and critics who merely attempt to reduce it to James Brown’s funk completely miss the mark. This background obviously isn’t taken into account by several musicians who have emerged in the wake of Anikulapo-Kuti’s death in 1997.

Brown, the godfather of soul and funk, had claimed that Kuti took much from him. When Brown and his band visited Lagos in the early 1970s, he refused to go to the Shrine, Kuti’s club, even though others in his band such as Bootsy Collins and company did and were mesmerised by Kuti’s gbedu.

Kuti, in turn, made concerted efforts to differentiate his sound from Brown’s with a varied employment of West African polyrhythmic drum patterns, ritualised evocations of ancient spiritualities, extended jazz-cum-classical compositions running over half an hour on record and over a full hour in live performance, musical counterpoint, interwoven conceptual tensions, dissonance and resolutions and vast explorations through call and response of the ever-shifting musicality of Nigerian pidgin. These various elements and innovations grant his music a uniqueness and tonalities quite different from Brown’s funk.

As noted, Kuti always claimed “music was a weapon” and he wholeheartedly believed this after being convinced by Sandra Isidore, his African-American lover who he had met during the radical sixties in Los Angeles. Music, in other words, shouldn’t merely be about the trivialities of affect or the delights to be found in a bowl of tasty soup. Over and above earthly political engagements, Kuti believed music entailed a communion with Yoruba deities and had a distinctly spiritual dimension without which it becomes both vain and inane as an art form.

Oritsefemi, a young Nigerian musician, released a popular song, ‘Double Wahala’ – a phrase from Kuti – a couple of years ago which samples Anikulapo-Kuti’s ‘Confusion Break Bone.’ As with most contemporary music, the beats are computerised rather than organic hence they can be described as being “genetically modified.”

By this one means, very few or none of the musicians involved in Oritsefemi’s project played musical instruments. As noted earlier, Afrobeat, essentially, is based on massed horns, elaborate invocations of African oral culture, call and response singing techniques, intricate traditional African drum patterns, orchestral compositions and song structures all of which are not prominently featured in Oritsefemi’s work and other similar artistes.

Secondly, Oritsefemi’s unreflective politics endorses the oppressive dynamics of dispossession and disenfranchisement perpetrated by the wealthy elite classes who were Anikulapo-Kuti’s sworn enemies. Instructively, Kuti had crossed paths with Moshood K. Abiola, winner of the annulled June 12, 1993 presidential polls and Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s democratically elected president between 1999 and 2007 and paid dearly for it. And so in terms of both music and politics, Oritsefemi crudely parodies the achievement of the maestro.

The same can be said about D’banj based on his recent song, ‘Emergency’ which while sheepishly nodding in the direction of Afrobeat is actually a blatant commercialisation and watering down of the form. Incidentally, D’banj and Oritsefemi collaborated in an even more diluted re-mix of the latter’s song. These are but two examples of the commercialisation of Afrobeat.

Interestingly, D’banj signed to Kanye West’s label and has recorded and shot a video with Snoop Dogg. His real strengths lie not in his singing, as his voice sounds quite mediocre, but in slick media packaging and in his earlier associations with Don Jazzy, a Nigerian music producer who worked with Beyonce and Jay Z on a 2011 album release.

As pointed out previously, ‘Double Wahala’ while doing all it can to incorporate Afrobeat rhythms is rabidly anti-Afrobeat in its politics which mindlessly celebrates material profligacy and a lavish jet-setting lifestyle that uncritically panders to neoliberalism. The entire Afrobeat belief system is against the leveraging of wealth and power to the disadvantage of the poor. Evidently, both Oritsefemi and D’banj haven’t imbibed the lessons of Afrobeat well. Afrobeat’s ethos also seeks to appropriate traditional African communalism in which the collective, the self and nature pursue mutual harmony albeit with very mixed results.

Speaking of mixed results, Drake’s song, ‘One Dance’, dubbed an Afrobeat number featuring Nigeria’s Wizkid, which was a 2016 Billboard number one hit, would to purists, probably be unrecognisable as Afrobeat or at best may be deemed a markedly enfeebled rendition.

However, Kuti has been productively sampled by Brandon Marsalis, De La Soul and most remarkably, by Pete Rock whose ‘Grown Man Sport’ samples Kuti’s ‘Water No Get Enemy’. And in rather low-key manner, the Baltimore Afrobeat Society manage to work through Kuti’s complex arrangements in a way that deserves far greater attention.

Indeed what is Afrobeat without multiple wind instruments, a varied assortment of traditional drums, Tony Allen’s inimitable drum patterns, and offensive politically incorrect lyrics? The new players on the field of Afrobeat seem to think they can do without them.

Unquestionably, there are other musicians such as Orlando Julius and the aforementioned Allen who play the form with a considerable degree of consistency but nonetheless their influence and impact haven’t been as widespread. Furthermore, their explorations of the genre haven’t been as extensive and adventurous as Kuti’s.

More than being just a performer, Kuti was also a conceptual artist and this was most evident in the creation of Kalakuta Republic in direct opposition to the Federal Republic of Nigeria in its deplorable neocolonial orientation. In this sense, the Afrobeat belief system signifies a rupture from the postcolonial state at the political and conceptual level together with a re-alignment with ancient Yoruba cosmology in an eclectic blend of spirituality, pan-Africanism and a radical politics of black empowerment.


The trend being set in current South African music is equally noteworthy- especially in hip-hop – which shamelessly apes every hiccup in American rap music. So powerful is this trend that when hot-at–the-moment star, Cassper Nyovest, visited the United States this year he drooled all over radio about being extremely glad to finally come “home.” In parallel terms, Kuti’s involvement with the Black Panthers and radical African-Americans in the sixties propelled him to a deep immersion into his African past; the history of slavery and the great ancient African empires that spoke of illustrious accomplishments. On the other hand, Nyovest’s delight at being at home in America is manifestly hollow and evidently stems from being dazzled by the glitz and glamour of capitalist excess.

The US, as it were, is home to him and countless other South African hip hop copycats who are merely imitating other American hip hop copycats. It didn’t occur to him that American audiences would have been more interested in what original brew he’d be able to offer them coming from the ancestral continent the way the likes of Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Ladysmith Black Mambazo and many other original South African acts had done previously and who even without mainstream success were able to gain a small but loyal following.

The same kind of criticism could be made with regards to acts coming from West Africa. The interesting thing is that those who remain in their various ways true to the spirit of Afrobeat like Dede Mabiaku, Seun Anikulapo-Kuti and Kola Ogunkoya have hardly met with significant commercial success; they exist largely on the margins of the music industry paying homage to the form and attempting to ensure its legacy is continued.


Or perhaps a more charitable way to view the unfolding scene of new artistes is not to equate it with the exacting standards of Afrobeat but to see it as a mutation incorporating simple elements of the form in order to become something else. Who knows, maybe at least a sub-genre may yet emerge amid the frenetic heaving and grasping.

As pointed out previously, Kuti composed his music, even if wrongheadedly, as an instrument for social and spiritual transformation. He believed he was enforcing the will of deities and higher spiritual entities. The white chalk marks Kuti scrawled over his face and body weren’t there for cosmetic reasons but to conjure the spirits. Similarly, he had a shrine within the Shrine, his performance space, to invoke the deities before each night of music. And usually, the music breathed and throbbed like a living thing; the sounds waltzing into the surrounding darkness in defiant array of vibrant colours. This is the same kind of ambience that had Paul McCartney in tears due to a probable combination of awe, thick weed smoke and (dis)belief when he visited Kuti’s spot not long after the split of the Beatles.

In this manner, Kuti’s music wasn’t merely defined by alujo. What has occurred since his passing has been a de-spiritualisation as well as de-radicalisation of Afrobeat in which alujo becomes the central principle. Nonetheless, Afrobeat has started to develop other tributaries that are flowing in different directions, sometimes carelessly, sometimes casting uneasy glances backwards at the original source.

This situation echoes the tensions between bata and dundun traditional drummers in contemporary Nigeria. Bata was an art of performance favoured by Sango. Bata drummers try to remain true to the spirit and letter of drumming reserved for the gods. Dundun drummers, on the other hand, serving the commercial tendencies of alujo, have successfully managed to infiltrate sakara, apala, juju and fuji, all re-configured forms of indigenous Yoruba music re-purposed for the contemporary palette.

Afrobeat, just as bata, is an originary source, and is ineluctably strong meat not meant for the consumption of all and sundry. In other words, just as bata, it is pure essence which is both its strength and limitation. Its weakness stems from its organic non-transmutability while its strength is derived from its purity and incorruptibility as essence. When musical admirers seek to draw from its mesmeric pool, potential paths reflect other directions that fail to capture the originary power of the form but nonetheless point to interesting alchemical possibilities for other genres.

In other words, Kuti’s Afrobeat can be regarded as indissoluble fare, a deceptively rough epicentre from which numerous musical offsprings can emerge, mutating in unpredictable formations. Afrobeat, when all is said and done, does not seem set to devolve into mainstream fodder simply because it is too spunky, volcanic and irreverent like a not fully describable creature that is beyond being tamed.

Kuti also had an unusual relationship with acceptance and recognition. He was despised by the ruling elites and cultural conservatives and he was positively infamous. That considerable infamy, which at interludes he revelled in, did more to conceal the depth of his musical vision than the idiosyncratic syncopations of his priceless groove.

Sanya Osha
is an author living in Pretoria, South Africa. His most recent publications include, the novels, An Underground Colony of Summer Bees (2012), and On a Sad Weather-Beaten Couch (2015), the volume of poetry, A Troubadour’s Thread (2013), and the work of scholarship, African Postcolonial Modernity: Informal Subjectivities and the Democratic Consensus (2014). He works at the Institute for Economic Research on Innovation, Tshwane University of Technology, Pretoria, South Africa.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, November 30th, 2016.