The Music Blog: Handling Fela’s legacy with care

Two decades have passed since Abami Eda was first laid into the soil in Ikeja, Lagos but the years that superseded his demise have ensured Fela Anikulapo Kuti has remained both a global historical figure and an icon for the radical beliefs he stood for.

In recent times particularly, Fela’s name has been recalled as part of the discourse for the recent recursion of Afropop in the global mainstream. Wizkid’s imprint deal with RCA, and Nigerian pop stars like Davido, Tekno and Runtown scoring placements in the Billboard charts is indicative of the gravitational pull of African popular music to new markets and audiences. The success of these artists have been attuned to Afrobeats, a genre popularly confused with Fela’s own Afrobeat. While the former is a controversial term coined by a British-Ghanaian disc jockey, DJ Abrantee as a convenient term to describe the D’banj, 2face era Afropop that became popular in the UK since the 2010s, the latter is Fela’s ethos of highlife percussions segued with jazz and funk music styles. Though the distinction has served as a bedrock, arguments about what it means to make modern African music, it is also reflective of a generation of music creators who have since been insistent on distancing themselves from the limited box of Afrobeat.

But while the narrative flies in many directions for what Afrobeat is, music remains the biggest reflection of Fela’s life and art thanks to a large subset of the African mainstream that continues to seek inspiration from his extensive catalogue and detailed Afro-urban aesthetic. And though a lot of artists (including Wizkid, Davido and Burna Boy) have repeated insistently that they are not Afrobeat artists. What’s impossible to ignore though is how the Fela references have sustained in composition style and visual aesthetic for long enough for a post-woke internet to have had a field day trying to figure out what to call modern African pop stars anyway. Wizkid may wear skin tight Ankara pants on an ‘Afrobeat-inspired’ song like “Jaiye Jaiye”, Mr Eazi could have women adorned with body paint and beads on stage and Tekno could get away with doing just about anything with drums and trumpets ( so working with Fela-inspired concepts is a piece of cake, see: Rara) and it won’t make any them Afrobeat artists.

The interpretation of Fela’s as a mythological figure in modern Afropop is a reflection of the natural progression for all great art. But to preserve the authenticity of his legacy, Fela’s cultural impact must be separated from his artistic impact. Afrobeat in itself is a product of the times Fela lived, and therefore some of its importance is retained for the purpose it served— as a medium for the oppressed and struggle to hold on to whatever was left behind as cultural heritage of post-colonial Africa. When you bring that in the light of pseudo-religious party-themed music centred around women, what you get is a gimmick at best. Granted Afropop is not bad music, after all,  good pop music all over the world is inherently set on finding the best harmony from blending a range of ideas. But the question is not if it works, it’s the meaning of what’s done with it.

As we enter a forthcoming digital age where nothing is ever forgotten, the importance of crafting a narrative is essential for history to be recorded accurately. Fela though a mythologised figure in African music and culture, and though may inspire Afropop, is no way related to the hip-hop and Afro-Carribean influences of the genre. If there is ever going to be a diversification of sound to allow for more creative tweaks with traditional African music, Fela’s legacy must be handled with clarity and specifics. The music of Fela’s time and the music of Wizkid’s time must be taken within their context without skewering purpose or origins.

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