It’s a high enough hill to climb to be the absolute best at what you do, to harness and cultivate a skill superlative enough that hyperbole is simply truth—all of which is perhaps subjective, but far outside the possibility of being achieved by the vast majority of us. Not because most of us aren’t capable of developing that talent or having the dedication to pursue it, but in the same way that professional athletes can seem at times almost superhuman, there’s always someone who’s going to be a little faster, a little more disciplined, even uncannily so.
It’s another thing entirely to have your name be synonymous with an entire style or genre of music. That sort of achievement is such that even the best among us would never experience it in their own lifetime or beyond, but in those rare cases when it happens, the honor can never be rescinded. Bob Marley is the first name in reggae, rightfully recognized as the most significant artist in both popularizing it worldwide as well as helping to bring about an evolution and revolution in roots reggae. The same can be said of James Brown and funk, or Brian Eno and ambient. There are no doubt hundreds, even thousands of other artists within each of these spheres, but these names invariably rise to the top—when we think of a particular sound in our head, these are the names that populate our imagination.
The first, last and most enduring name in Afrobeat is Fela Kuti. Put another way, Fela Kuti is Afrobeat, having both coined the term itself and developing its style in the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s, releasing more than 40 albums in his career that carved an ever-deepening groove between jazz improvisation, deep funk and a hypnotic, polyrhythmic approach extended from West African styles such as highlife and juju. His songs comprised entire sides of vinyl, or sometimes more, backed by a powerhouse of a band behind him—damn near the size of an orchestra—the Africa 70. None other than Paul McCartney called the Africa 70 “the best band I’ve ever seen live…When Fela and his band eventually began to play, after a long, crazy build-up, I just couldn’t stop weeping with joy. It was a very moving experience.”
Fela Ransome Kuti was born in Abeokuta, Nigeria, the son of the first president of the Nigerian Union Of Teachers and a political activist and feminist, Kuti left Nigeria for London in the late ’50s and early ’60s to attend university, and in the process started a highlife band, Koola Lobitos. It wasn’t until he returned to Nigeria that Kuti planted the seeds of his legendary Afrobeat sound, imbuing his funk with greater power, giving his compositions a longer runway to take off from, and a vaster sky in which to soar. Early albums such as Fela Fela Fela and London Scene took root in more overt Western soul and jazz influences, still a few years from the dynamic breakthroughs of Roforofo Fight and Afrodisiac, but even in those early releases, Kuti was already working toward something greater. Perhaps even more importantly, this music had a purpose. Inspired in part by activists like Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party, Kuti transitioned away from the more lighthearted songwriting of his London highlife days toward a more socially conscious and often satirical perspective, reflecting a deepening philosophy that music should have an effect beyond mere bread and circuses. As a symbol of this transition, Kuti changed his name, swapping Ransome for Anikulapo, a Yoruba phrase that means “one who carries death in the pouch.”
For Kuti, that often meant antagonizing the Nigerian government, a military operated dictatorship that rose to power through a coup d’état in 1966. He weaponized truth to power, occasionally through subtle jabs like “Gentleman,” which satirized the colonial perspectives of Nigerians who adopted European fashion and traditions. Yet the low simmering heat of his earlier albums would begin to come to a boil later on in the decade, as on career highlight “Expensive Shit,” which tells a true story of being incarcerated due to his scathing critiques of the military government, who then planted a joint on him, which he subsequently swallowed and then traded excrement with another prisoner to secure his release. Thus, literally, expensive shit.
Where Expensive Shit proved Kuti’s intestinal fortitude, Zombie reaffirmed his resolve to rattle cages and start riots. Literally—when Fela and the Africa 70 performed “Zombie” in Ghana in 1978, a violent scrum broke out in the crowd, which consequently led to Kuti being banned from its capital, Accra. The absolute pinnacle of Afrobeat, “Zombie” is charged from its opening guitar scratch—ecstatic but agitated, even dangerous, as drummer Tony Allen’s martial pulse transforms to a frenetic rhythm strewn with Fela’s spirals of saxophone. Music this alive and urgent feels powerful enough to actually wake the dead and provoke their weary bones to rapturous movement.
Five minutes in, once Kuti kicks off its call-and-response vocal, “Zombie” turns sensationally slanderous, comparing the ruling Nigerian military to the walking undead: “Zombie no go think unless you tell am to think.” But as it progresses, the song’s charged atmosphere only grows more electrifying, the 12-minute composition exploding into a relentless fury of mock drill-sargeant commands, furious funk and Kuti’s occasional calls to “orderrrrrrr.” Whatever retaliation Kuti faced for prior provocations, with “Zombie,” he only doubles down on pointing the finger in the face of authoritarianism.
Its B side, “Mister Follow Follow” is slightly less pointed in its critique but no less captivating, a similarly lengthy strut that, much in the same way “Water No Get Enemy” was to “Expensive Shit,” offers a slight comedown to its flipside’s more incendiary performance. (Its stateside release via Mercury cobbled together a B side of other prior A sides: 1975’s “Monkey Banana” and “Everything Scatter,” two knockout tracks in their own right if ones that essentially made the American release of Zombie more of a hits collection in miniature.)
Yet it’s the title track, “Zombie,” that got the attention of the government, who retaliated with a 1,000-soldier raid on Kuti’s compound. His home was burned, studio and master tapes destroyed, and Kuti himself was brutally beaten—by his account his life had been spared only because of the intervention of one soldier. His mother, however, died of injuries sustained from being thrown out of a window. All this, I’ll remind you, over a song.
If Zombie was Fela Kuti’s most provocative piece of music, his angriest was still yet to come. That would be Coffin for Head of State, an album-length composition detailing the aftermath of the raid on the Kalakuta Republic, the death of his mother, and the delivery of an empty coffin to Nigerian leader General Olusegun Obasanjo as a means of making the government face the very real murder they committed against one of their own citizens.
The aftermath of Zombie wounded but didn’t stop Kuti, though the Africa 70 would disband shortly thereafter over dissatisfaction with their compensation. (Kuti reconvened with a new band, Egypt 80, shortly thereafter.) Still, Zombie proved how powerful Kuti’s word really was, the actions of the military junta only reinforcing its critiques. Which maybe wouldn’t be as big of a deal if the song wasn’t as popular as it was and remains today, its martial rumble reverberating through albums like Talking Heads’ Remain In Light and David Byrne & Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, in the soul of Sault and the polyrhythmic jazz of Sons of Kemet. Its seemingly paradoxical duality is its legacy, an act of musical protest streaked with blood yet almost joyful in its defiance. To attempt to untangle that would be to overlook what makes it so powerful—what made Fela Kuti a once-in-a-lifetime artist.
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