Fela’s Renegade Children? The Potential for Resistance in Afrobeats

The global rise of Afrobeats has created the need for renewed engagement with the genre’s roots, patterns and political potential.  

Afrobeats has recently made strong reverberations on the regional and global stages, with artists such as Burna Boy and Wizkid dominating music charts and transcending previously set boundaries in recent Nigerian musical history. Burna Boy’s Global Music win at the 2021 Grammys, for instance, heralded a new age for the Afrobeats movement. It also highlighted the primacy of the genre at the top of the Nigerian music pyramid. Younger Nigerian artists have also benefitted from Afrobeats’ crossover—iterations of CKay’s ‘love nwantiti (ah ah ah)’ (CKay the First, 2019) have been streamed more than a billion times on Spotify, just as Tems’ feature on the soundtrack for Marvel’s Wakanda Forever testifies to the currency of Afrobeats and Nigerian musicians more broadly in the global music market. The global rise of Afrobeats has, ultimately, meant a stronger need to re-examine the genre, its roots and its rise with greater focus and interest. 

A recurrent theme in studies that explore the origins of Afrobeats is the tendency to trace the genre’s roots to the music of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Fela, as he was more commonly known, pioneered a unique brand of music in the 1970s that took post-war Nigeria by storm. ‘Afrobeat’, as Fela called it, built on older, established genres like the very popular highlife, Juju, and drew influences from both the local organizations of sounds, as well as African American music. For Fela, Afrobeat (the distinction from its inflected progeny is essential) was unique, politically conscious music that was vibrant in its engagement and critique of postcolonial Nigeria. Afrobeat was the means through which Fela articulated trenchant criticisms of the Nigerian state and called out successive military regimes. He deployed his music as a weapon of social and political resistance. 

By contrast, the more contemporary ‘Afrobeats’ is not tied to a single musical avatar. Afrobeats has numerous practitioners and has often been criticized as lacking social and political consciousness. Hence the insistence by gatekeepers of the Fela legacy on making the distinction between the older sound and the newer phenomenon. There are, indeed, significant differences between the two musical forms. Some of which are a product of the different pressures exerted on the artists within the eras in which their genres flourish(ed)—for instance, the internet vis-à-vis social media has played an important role in Afrobeats’ entrance to the global stage, an advantage Afrobeat did not enjoy in its time. Another distinction is that Afrobeats has jettisoned the use of the more traditional instruments that formed the bedrock of Fela’s music, and (perhaps, as a result) lacks the intricate musical and compositional details that went into the earlier sound. There is also the matter of the mixed reaction to the label ‘Afrobeats’ by contemporary artists. Burna Boy, who refers to his music as ‘Afrofusion’, for instance, has asked listeners to look beyond the label ‘Afrobeats’ in their appreciation of African music. In a July 2022 interview with the Million Dollaz Worth of Game hosts, he explained: 

We have highlife, juju, fuji music, South African Kwaeto music, Amapiano, Afropop, we have all types of genres in Africa. To be really sincere, for you to just call everything Afrobeats kind of does a disservice to the artists. 

Burna Boy’s request for more specificity notwithstanding, his multiple samplings of Fela’s music have connected him solidly to the Afrobeat legacy, and Afrobeats is a useful marker of this connection. The ‘Afrobeats’ tag also proves useful (and convenient) in capturing the zeitgeist of the contemporary music scene in Nigeria, of which Burna Boy is a key figure. Regardless, foot soldiers of Afrobeat are often quick to resist any suggestion of a more than tenuous link between Fela and the mega-stars of Afrobeats today. ‘I call it Nigerian pop,’ Yeni Kuti, Fela’s first daughter, said in 2017. ‘The work that goes into Afrobeat is very different from what goes into hip hop. I love the music but I call it Nigerian Afropop.’ Even when the Afrobeat camp admits to Fela’s influence on the younger generation, the newer artists are seen as renegade children of a more original and (socially) committed artistic ethos. Writing in HuffPost, Robin Scher’s summation is scathing:  

Afrobeats is both the evolution and in many ways antithesis of its prefixed forebear. Having slowly emerged over the past several years, it exists in diametrical opposition to all Kuti and his movement stood for.  

 Contrary to the position taken by this commentator, there are significant conjunctures between Fela’s sound and the Afrobeats culture. 

RETRIEVING SIDELINED NARRATIVES: FELA’S BANAL SOUND 

Dominant perceptions about Fela today cast him exclusively in the image of the musician as political activist and social critic, the artist as unflinching opponent of totalitarian forces. There is also the tendency for his music to be filtered exclusively through political lenses; in short, Fela is often approached as the quintessential ‘artist-revolutionary’. While the significant political content of his songs post 1969 cannot be denied, the practice of exploring Afrobeat solely for the political criticism articulated within it has led to a side-lining of other possibilities inherent within his music. A significant part of Fela’s discography explores issues that may be considered banal considering the weightier political commentary that predominates his tracks. Songs such as ‘Let’s Start’ (Fela Ransome-Kuti and the Afrika 70 with Ginger Baker, 1971) and ‘Army Arrangement’ (Army Arrangement, 1985) manifest an infusion of ribald, vulgar humour that often pervades his treatment of romantic relationships, wooing, trysts and sex. Several of Fela’s songs unabashedly delve into the subject of sex without any regard for the cultural proprietaries that often delimit discussions of sex in traditional Nigerian society. 

An example of this tendency is evident in ‘Na Poi’ (Na Poi, 1975), an explicit song about sex:  

When a man see woman 

Hol’ in hand 

Carry am go in house 

Put am inside room 

Lock door gbam 

The thing wey dem dey do 

Inside door wey dem lock  

Na poi 

The ‘Na poi’ refrain that counterpoints the song is heavy with sexual innuendo. While artists overtly discussing sex through music is not necessarily new, what merits special notice in this particular ‘song-text’ is the highly patriarchal relation of power Fela implicates in the love dynamics between the couple. The female persona in the song is portrayed within a power-dynamic that presents women as objects of male desire, stripped of any agency. 

The objectification of women is a recurrent motif in Fela’s discography. And while today’s artists are increasingly focused on recuperating the female image from sexist power dynamics, the objectification of the female body remains a link that ties Afrobeats to Fela’s Afrobeat. In fact, Afrobeats has been oversaturated with the image of objectified women, and in a manner that, perhaps, casts doubt on the possibility of the genre featuring themes outside the trite locus of sex, love and money. In his 2013 essay, ‘Are Real Women Just Bad Porn?: Women in Nigerian Hip Hop Culture’, Albert Oikelome, for instance, argues that ‘the Nigerian Hip Hop and rap genre have common characteristics: expressive vulgarity, sexual resonance, preposterous violence and good-times symbolism.’ Speaking about Wizkid, one of Afrobeats’ biggest acts, writer, Sanya Osha, has also argued that ‘lyrically and politically, there is very little content to his music except he is often able to deliver feel-good tunes that fill the dance-floors.’ 

However, contrary to the foregoing suggestions, Afrobeats is not all glamour, sex, and love. In several ways, Afrobeats possesses the potential for a more significant commitment to social and political commentary than it currently exemplifies. 

THE WEAPON OF THE FUTURE?  

When Fela declared that ‘music is the weapon of the future,’ he may have envisioned a world in which the ubiquity that music enjoys would put artists in a better position to challenge social injustice, corruption and authoritarianism. Decades after Fela’s death, however, the Nigerian state is still embroiled in many of the problems Fela engaged in his music. Problems such as corrupt and failed leadership, state brutality against citizens, poor infrastructure, and a failing economy. In fact, matters seem to have progressively worsened. Given Nigeria’s long-running challenges, has Afrobeats culture lived up to its potential as a ‘weapon?’ Are we even in that future Fela so confidently envisioned? Or have the heirs of that revolutionary musical legacy gone completely renegade? 

Much that the current Afrobeats scene presents would seem to suggest that its practitioners have not inherited Fela’s social activism. Although Nigeria’s leading musicians celebrate Fela’s legacy by frequently sampling his work and making the occasional ‘pilgrimage’ to the New Afrika Shrine, these artists are certainly not cast in the Fela’s combative mould. However, to completely discount the potential of Afrobeats to engage with social issues would be doing great disservice to existing evidence. Afrobeats artists have made important contributions through their music to social and political discourse on issues affecting the wider society.  

Consider Tekno (real name: Augustine Miles Kelechi). Popular these days for ‘Buga (Lo Lo Lo)’, his 2022 collaboration with Kizz Daniel, Tekno has sometimes trained his sights on Nigeria’s socioeconomic malaise. ‘Rara’, Tekno’s 2016 song, is in many ways an invocation of Fela. In addition to borrowing and modifying Fela’s beat, in the song, Tekno bemoans Nigeria’s socioeconomic situation and borrows Fela’s lingo to castigate his ‘country people’ for their tendency to skirt the civic space. Tekno once again performs the social critic in ‘Sudden’, one of the singles from his 2021 album, Limitless Urban 

In ‘Sudden’, Tekno shows maturity as a critic and lays down a far more coherent social critique than he managed on ‘Rara’. ‘Sudden’ gives voice to the challenges facing the average Nigerian who must struggle to make ends meet on a daily basis, and against conditions that make this struggle increasingly difficult. Tekno ruptures the cliché myth that success is a product of hard work; ‘if na by hard work / poor man go get money,’ he notes. The reality, Tekno implies, is that the poor work harder than any other social class in the country. Despite their hard work, the poor remain trapped in poverty such that their labour and effort do not translate into financial freedom.  Where sticky-fingered political leaders seem to escape censure in ‘Rara’, Tekno directly indicts them this time: ‘All of a sudden,’ he sings, ‘22 billion is a nothing for them / All of a sudden / 40 billion is a nothing for them / But what the hell do I know / When I ain’t no politician?’ 

Other than Fela’s direct offspring, no living Nigerian musician co-opts Fela quite like Burna Boy. Burna Boy has repeatedly drawn inspiration from the Afrobeat legend through multiple samplings in songs like ‘Soke’ and ‘Ye’, from his 2018 album, Outside. Given Fela’s influence on these songs, it is not surprising that both songs mark some of Burna Boy’s forays into the realm of social criticism. In ‘Ye’, Burna Boy criticizes the reticence that Nigerians demonstrate in the face of oppression. ‘Soke’ is equally critical of the political timidity of the average Nigerian as well as Nigeria’s broader challenges.  

Burna Boy’s 2020 track, ‘20.10.20’, shows an even stronger commitment to social commentary. The song was a reaction to a shocking case of state brutality at the Lekki tollgate on 20 October 2020 when the army, on orders from the upper echelons of government, reportedly fired live bullets at protesting youths, leading to the loss of multiple lives and injuries. Although the participation of Afrobeats artists in the protests had been initially uneven—even Burna Boy was a relatively late addition to the chorus of voices calling for social change—the brutality of the government’s response forged a chain of solidarity across the industry. Not even Afrobeats, it would seem, can remain immune to social crises. In ‘20.10.20’, Burna Boy indicts the political class as responsible, not just for licensing the deaths of Nigerians hoping for a better country, but also for the failures of the Nigerian nation-state. He sings, 

Twentieth of October 2020 

You carry army go kill many youth for Lekki… 

Nothing you go talk wey go justify the case of their murder 

 

The Chief of Staff, the commander 

And the army wey carry order 

Mr President, Mr Governor 

Godfather, gbogbo ijoba 

All your atrocities 

All of your corner corner 

Make all the dead body disturb you for your dreams 

 

Ultimately, certain observations complicate the commitment of Afrobeats artists to a more robust engagement with Nigeria’s social issues. For one, Afrobeats artists also perpetrate some of the excesses they (would) indict the establishment for. Burna Boy, for instance, has been in the news for controversial reasons several times. Most recently, his police escort reportedly shot at and wounded two patrons of Cubana Club, in Lagos, after a female member of their party turned down the musician’s advances. Artists are also sensitive to the threat of de-marketing and loss of capital if they adopt too iconoclastic a stance like Fela’s. As Diekara Oloruntoba-Oju has explained in the 2018 ‘Singing Resistance and Compliance: Contesting Identity and Power in West African Popular Music’, ‘capital is an unassailable entity to the survival of the music agency and popular artists must dance to its tune and seek legitimacy from its brokers, re-enabling thereby, the very structures of power that they seek to resist.’ 

A MORE COMMITTED SOCIAL VISION 

Considering the diverse challenges Nigeria’s is currently facing, there is need for a more committed social vision from musicians. Afrobeats cannot just stand on the sidelines while Nigeria deteriorates into chaos; the wide reach and platform that practitioners of the genre enjoy grants them the agency to speak on behalf of the masses who cannot do so themselves. Artists like Tekno have shown that social commitment is not foreign to Afrobeats; there is, however, a need to lend more impetus to the calls for social and political change. Artists like Burna Boy will need to manifest greater consistency in their articulations of social criticism. 

Afrobeats artists must also understand that social commitment transcends the sum of their lyrics alone. Resistance, as Fela memorably showed, is an act that must also be inscribed in the lifestyle. Voicing social consciousness while simultaneously perpetrating or licensing injustice is an untenable contradiction between art and practice that can undermine credibility. Hence, artists must also demonstrate social justice in their lived realities. 

By increasing the social consciousness of their music and by demonstrating a marked commitment to social ideals and justice in their personal lives, Afrobeats artists can get closer to fulfilling the potential for resistance their sounds already have

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