Fela Kuti—Dictators’ Nightmare—in Today’s Afrobeats

Fela Kuti remains Nigeria’s most famous musician. He pioneered Afrobeat – a genre blending jazz, funk, psychedelic rock, traditional West African chant and rhythms – into conscious music in the 60s and 70s. Fela’s music continues to live today across the continents.

Famous for pairing his music with politics and with human rights activism, Fela, who passed in 1997, stood against Nigeria’s military dictators, often at great personal cost to his family and band members. His art has become fuel for a new generation of creators who are tapping into his music, and the spirit behind it, to make new records.

Principal among the new creators are Wizkid and Wyclef Jean. Wizkid is a Nigerian pop act with a string of hit records and awards, especially in Africa. Wyclef Jean is a Haitian-American rapper who transitioned from a successful career with the 1990s hip hop group Fugees to a solo career.

Both artists have made records infusing elements of Fela’s Afrobeat. As part of my research into the legacy of Fela, I examined two songs – and their videos – demonstrating the complexity inherent in his musical legacy. Fela Kuti (2017) by Wyclef Jean and Joro (2019) by Wizkid.

While Wyclef and Wizkid have infused Fela’s work in their new creations, they interpret his legacy in very different ways, which fans can judge for themselves.

Wizkid – Joro

Wizkid’s hit Joro, released in 2019, incorporated elements of Afrobeat in its production, but the essence of Fela’s message was not infused. For lyrics, he looked elsewhere.

Amid criticisms across social media that the lyrics in both of his 2019 singles are below par, Wizkid proceeded to tell interviewers that: “Joro means enjoy.”

Indeed, the track is enjoyable. It samples from a number of places. From Nigerian music-comedian Maleke’s 2007 track Minimini Wanawana, Wiz’s Joro adapts some lyrics, “na wini-wini wana-wana your love dey do me this night. It continues:

This kind love, e dey do my body ta-nana/E dey make me wan dey your life ha-nana/…Dance to my konto, make you panana…

Wizkid is one of the world’s most prolific adopters of Fela’s works. For the chorus, he also draws from Fela’s 1977 Zombie (in which Fela sings “zombie way na one way … joro jara joro”). Wizkid adapts what is just a chant, “joro ja joro”, rather brilliantly to communicate the one-way, utterly loyal nature of the love he professes in Joro.

Perhaps a more effective way to engage with Joro would be to shelve the motley texts and look to the visuals. In 1982, Michael Jackson released Thriller, the best-selling album of all time. Probably the world’s most famous music video, MJ’s Thriller drove the album doubling its sales and transformed music videos into an art form.

A common theme in the videos of Thriller and Joro is love between a young man and woman. In Joro, Wiz dances in a candle-lit room in Lagos, a deliberate and double signifier to depict Fela’s synonymy with the ‘shrine’, and to show how deeply his love for the subject of his affection – played by dancer Georgia Amodu Curtis – drives him. In Thriller, MJ is accompanied by zombies through extensive dance routines.

Considering that Joro is adapted from Fela’s Zombie, Wiz’s motivations for taking a ‘zombie’ route to express this love become apparent. While the video of Joro is not as horror-engaging as MJ’s spectacle, it is without doubt as enchanting as the love affair of Thriller. Joro or ‘Enjoy’ is a thrilling excursion through generations.

Wiz is an Afrobeats superstar with a Lagos heritage who is able to access Fela’s catalogue and tweak selected texts for the enjoyment of his audiences.

Wyclef – Fela Kuti

What is curious in Wyclef Jean’s case is how a pop act with no deep African background appropriated Fela.

From his time with the Fugees through a solo career, Wyclef made a mark on pop music winning three Grammy Awards. In 2017, he released Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee, his 8th studio album of which its first single is titled Fela Kuti.

Within a month of the audio release, he put out an official lyric video in which he shows how he samples Fela’s lyrics, “sibi ti mo le f’orile”. Wyclef’s Fela Kuti (2017) hinges on the instrumental of Fela’s Eko Ile (1973) – a track from Fela’s Afrodisiac album. In Eko Ile, Fela pays tribute to Lagos, saying that irrespective of where his travels take him, he would always return home. Hence his submission, “Ko ma sibi ti mo le f’orile, ko si o” (There’s just nowhere I can make my home, nowhere at all) – other than Lagos, that is.

This homage to Lagos isn’t Wyclef’s only source of inspiration. He also sampled from Femi Kuti, Fela’s first son. We see him appropriating from father and son to create his work.

Femi Kuti also has a record titled Eko Lagos (2001). Femi’s message here is on the distance between his dream for a prosperous world, and the reality of the hardship of Lagos once he awakes. Wyclef’s adaptation of Eko Ile may also be processed along this frame.

Fela Kuti’s work also influenced Wyclef’s state of mind when making The Fall and Rise of a Refugee. Speaking about it, he said he was personalising Fela Kuti’s struggle, and drawing parallels with his life.

Wyclef said, “Fela … tried to help his country by running for president. Wyclef … did the same thing,” before making reference to American rapper Young Thug’s track titled Wyclef Jean. Such justifications give credence to a scathing review of the album: “This uninspired melting pot of music features what is undeniably Jean’s weakest song-writing to date.”

In Wyclef’s music video for Fela Kuti, it is confounding to see him make an appearance amid a bevy of dancing ladies.

To gain more understanding, we conducted an audience selection of Fela’s and Wyclef’s music. Respondents were at least 25 – old enough to have consciously watched and listened to both artists. The exercise revealed that Eko Ile isn’t a favourite among audiences who otherwise consider themselves Fela enthusiasts. Many said they see through Wyclef’s ‘tribute’ to Fela in the twilight of his career and reckon that it is an afterthought, and a ploy to mask a creative deficiency.

This article is based on Osiebe’s paper Methods in Performing Fela in Contemporary Afrobeats, 2009–2019. You can read the full paper over here.The Conversation

Garhe Osiebe, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Rhodes University.

First appeared in The Conversation.