On August 2nd 1997 Africa lost a legend, and so with a list of some of his iconic music we celebrate Fela Kuti the Nigerian multi-instrumentalist, musician, composer, pioneer of the Afrobeat, human rights activist and prolific political maverick.
Before there was fronting and faking it, there was Shakara.
Skin Lightening is a scourge that has plagued Africa since the colonial era. Chemicals are used to lighten their skin, to make it as close as possible to white this practice is called ‘yellow fever’.
In his song Fela condemns this practice first and foremost to demonstrate a denial of the pride of being Black and second because it is like a disease such as jaundice or malaria.
Water No get Enemy
The waves created by the song Water No Get Enemy by Afro beat maestro, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti in 1975 on the Sound work label can be likened to the wave generating capacity of water, the liquid from which the song draws its title. Indeed, Water No Get Enemy’s rippling message is as relevant as ever; is still felt today and speaks to the realities of our time.
Inspired by Anikulapo-Kuti’s experience with the Nigeria Police when they allegedly planted hard drugs on the musician to implicate him and cause his arrest, the song lasts for 10 minutes.
“If you fight am, unless you wan die”; “I say water no get enemy”; and “If you fight am, unless, you wan die” “I dey talk of black man power; I dey talk of black power, I say”
He attributes his victories to being a black man, who is generally known for his perseverance and long suffering.
Teacher don’t teach me Nonsense
If you need a short musical lesson on the evils of Colonialism and Nigerian politics, this song provides that.
Beasts of no Nation
Is the first song Fela wrote in 1986, after he was liberated from prison—serving two years from a five year prison sentence for trumped-up foreign currency violation charges. He decided to sing about the world we live in—with particular reference to Nigeria. He said when he was in prison he called it ‘Inside World’, out of prison he called it ‘Outside World’.
I.T.T. (International Thief Thief)
Fela’s lyrics spoke to the negative actions of Africa’s colonizers in plundering from continent.
This tune goes against Fela’s catalog as the vocals start practically right away with the hook. Whereas in most of his other music you don’t really hear any vocals for a good seven to eight minutes. I.T.T. however starts off with the chorus which is a refreshing departure from his normal arrangement process.
My Lady Frustration
Fela met the inspiration for this track, Sandra Smith in an elongated American misadventure. She was an African-American civil rights activist who had spent three months in jail after assaulting a police officer at a Black Panthers rally. It was through meeting her that he first began to think in an Afro-conscious way. As he told the journalist Carlos Moore: “Sandra gave me the education I wanted. She was the one who opened my eyes … She talked to me about politics, history … she blew my mind really.”
At the end of his misadventure he debut My Lady Frustration in a nightclub to a rapturous response.
The groove of the song is introduced for just a few tantalizing bars before it is replaced by Fela’s sax, vamping magisterially and teasingly on its own, and then hitting the melody line over a crisp snare beat. And just as you’re starting to wonder what the hell is going on – at 2:23, the same point most other singles are looking at their watches and considering switching off – the song proper suddenly kicks in with a brutally effective bass line.
The song speaks to colonizers who were supposedly trying to civilize Africans—the story was, you know, follow Christianity and be a gentleman. Fela said, “I no be gentleman at all, I be African man.” The original man is not a gentleman, he’s a man. The gentleman is the colonizer’s notion.
No Agreement is not only Fela Kuti’s best track but one of the greatest pieces of dance music ever recorded. It is a masterclass in composition built from the most basic of building blocks.
Coffin for Head of State
Is a song written after the murder of his mother. The military state threw his mother from a second floor window and they paraded her casket in front of the municipal buildings in Lagos. The song is about revenge- He’s calling for the head of state to be placed in a coffin, very much like the head of state placed his mother in a coffin.
You can really hear the pain and hear the sorrow in the harmonic and melodic sensibilities of the tune. Tony Allen and the rhythm section are in rare form on that tune. Everyone’s mourning at the same level as if they lost their own mother.