In the 1970s, Afrobeat belonged to Fela Kuti. The Nigerian bandleader, singer, songwriter, saxophonist and revolutionary didn’t just change Nigerian music—or even African music—he changed Nigeria. Kuti started his own political party, the Movement of the People party, and made protest music the government deemed so dangerous that it turned on Kuti and executed a lethal raid on his home, killing several people including his mother. Nearly 50 years removed from Afrobeat’s birth, that sense of socio-political urgency has gradually faded into a pursuit of groove for the sake of itself, with artists such as Nomo and the Souljazz Orchestra updating Afrobeat’s sound for a rare-grooves audience. And it’s not like this is a sound that ever grows stale, even if it’s only a rare group like Antibalas that does its legacy of protest justice.
If anyone is going to carry on the legacy of Fela Kuti, however, it’s his son, Seun Kuti. Truth be told, that legacy is being carried on by more than one Kuti, as Seun’s older brother Femi has 10 studio albums of politically charged funk of his own. Yet Seun Kuti has turned in a particularly fiery set of music with Black Times, a full-length that echoes Fela’s own legendary works such as Gentleman and Zombie. Yet there’s a universalism about the music of Black Times that reflects a rapidly deteriorating world.
As the title Black Times indicates, the album is a kind of document of the state of that deteriorating world, and it’s one with a far-reaching scope. The laid-back groove of “African Dreams,” as its title subtly suggests, underscores an indictment of the American dream—or lack thereof. The fiery closing track “Theory of Goat and Yam” takes inspiration from former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, its frantic rhythms and powerful blast of horns backing Kuti’s indictment of Jonathan’s high-level corruption. Yet much of Black Times isn’t specific to one region or country, instead speaking to an overarching idea of how power works against the people. On “Corporate Public Control Department,” Kuti sneers, “You promise jobs and you close the factory, but there’s always work in the penitentiary,” while on the title track, he turns it back to the people to ask, “Are you ready to rise? To be free?”
Ultimately the message of Black Times is a timeless one, for no matter how much things improve, the same problems persist time and again. Power and wealth corrupt, and the future belongs to the people, not the corporations or power brokers. It’s as much a mission statement as a message of frustration, but the catharsis is built into the music. Afrobeat like that of Black Times is about making some deep, intense funk as a vessel for those rallying cries. This is music for making people dance, groove and work up a sweat. The revolution might not call for dancing, but it’ll make it a lot more fun when the walls come down.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.