The Abami (meaning “strange one” in Yoruba) had awoken from his slumber. Kaleta’s long, anxious wait for Fela Kuti, the creator of Afrobeat, was finally over. As he passed through the beaded curtain leading to Fela’s bedroom, a thick, almost impenetrable fog of marijuana smoke engulfed Kaleta. He had arrived at Fela’s compound late in the morning, but had had to wait many hours for his audition, which finally took place in the early hours of the next day. Several naked women lounged as Fela, also naked, interrogated Kaleta about his background.
Kaleta had grown up in the Church, listening to and playing gospel music. Fela hated organized religion. Kaleta also confessed that he had played with and recorded albums for King Sunny Ade, Fela’s main rival. “You have failed the audition,” Fela said. And to get back at Kaleta, Fela still made him audition — with a rusty, weathered guitar. Kaleta excused himself to an adjacent room, tried to fix and tune the instrument, and returned ready to audition. He played “Open and Close” and “Water No Get Enemy” and nailed both. Ultimately, Kaleta’s musical prowess impressed Fela, who invited Kaleta to join his band.
Kaleta, now a member of the band Akoya Afrobeat Ensemble, has the unique experience of having toured with Fela for many years. In September, Kaleta and I talked in his studio on Ludlow Street in New York. Not the posh, manicured facility of pop starlets and triple-platinum rappers, Kaleta’s studio is literally underground, accessed by rectangular steel doors embedded in the sidewalk. Kaleta crouched and unlocked the doors as I held his Red Sox messenger bag. We walked down a precipitously steep set of stairs into the recording studio.
The room was about the size of a large bedroom. Children’s bed sheets, covered with images of Mickey Mouse, were draped over drum sets and speakers, protecting them from dust. A guitar, a calendar, vinyl records, and posters of Fela, Johnny Cash, and Jimi Hendrix sparsely covered the brick walls. We talked into microphones as Kaleta recounted his memorable audition process for Fela.
If Fela Kuti is God, Nigeria is God’s heaven, and Afrobeat is God’s most glorified creation. Afrobeat — part funk, part jazz, part West African highlife — is as strongly tied to its creator Fela Kuti as reggae is to Bob Marley or funk is to James Brown.
Fela’s life story and political activism are as unique as his music. Born into an upper-middle-class family in Abeokuta, Nigeria and educated at an elite college in London, Fela became a revolutionary figure in his home country. He used his power, popularity, influence, and music to stand up against Nigeria’s infamously corrupt government, exploitative international corporations, and African societies’ “western” customs.
Fela’s music reflects his views on decolonization, the American civil rights and black power movements, and pan-Africanism. And though you can’t travel back to Nigeria in the 1970s, when Fela Kuti’s political, sexual, and musical forces were in full effect, New York City today presents a good alternative. Though Fela died in 1997 from an AIDS-related illness, his legacy still thrives. The vibrant Afrobeat culture in New York City has many different elements and players — museum exhibits, dance parties, live performances, record labels, and even, as of October 19th, a Broadway musical. Today, Afrobeat is in a state of transition, rising up toward mainstream culture.
After throwing off the colonial yoke in the mid-twentieth century, Nigeria faced daunting problems, many of which the country has not fully disentangled: nation-building, the effects of the Biafran war, oil corruption, tribalism, militarism, and infrastructure nightmares.
Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti was born into this turmoil in 1938. His father was an Anglican pastor and his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was an anti-colonialist, a women’s rights activist, the founder of the Nigerian Women’s Union, and a world traveler.
Fela was heavily influenced by jazz, and also by Afro-Cuban rhythms, soul music, salsa, and rhythm-and-blues. In college, he and a friend started Koola Lobitos, a West African highlife band. During a trip to America in 1969, Fela met Sandra Izsadore. Formerly of the Black Panther Party, she introduced Fela to the ideologies of pan-Africanism, black nationalism, and figures of the black power and civil rights movements. America exposed Fela to the new counterculture of the 60s — Afros, rock ’n’ roll, drugs, political protest, activism, and liberal sexuality.
This transformative trip informed Fela’s band — renamed Afrika 70 (and later, Egypt 80) — and the messages of his songs. He became more Afrocentric, championing traditional African customs and deriding colonial influences like hair-straightening and skin-bleaching. He even married 27 wives, believing monogamy was un-African.
Fela’s political music, which rallied the youth, enraged the Nigerian government, whose corruption and excesses he often ridiculed in his songs. At the behest of the Nigerian military, Fela endured jailing, beatings, and torture, year after year after year. In one famous episode in 1977, 1,000 Nigerian soldiers raided his compound. They attacked Fela and his wives, burned his possessions, and even threw his mother from a window, inflicting injuries from which she later died. Fela placed his mother’s coffin in front of federal army barracks, a symbolic act of grief protesting the destruction the Nigerian government had inflicted upon him for years.
Fela was a figure larger than life — he lived big, he stood for big principles, and he left a big legacy. Now, his shadow looms over Afrobeat’s fans and musicians.
New York, especially Brooklyn, is arguably the most vibrant hub of Afrobeat today. But Afrobeat is more than just a burgeoning music scene — it’s an academic, political, and theatrical culture.
Several factors have contributed to the rise of Afrobeat in New York since Fela’s death. In 2000, Temple University Press published Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon, a biography by Yale ethnomusicology professor Michael E. Veal. Hailed by Publishers Weekly as an “exhaustive and objective profile,” the book exposed Fela to academic circles. Around the same time, MCA Records re-released some of Fela’s albums, including compilations like The Best Best of Fela Kuti.
In 2003, Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, a multimedia exhibition, opened at the New Museum, which, until the opening of a new Broadway musical this month, likely brought the most exposure to Afrobeat music. The exhibition featured works of young artists and their different interpretations of Fela, and his political and musical legacy. “When an exhibition opens, it reaches a whole new level of audience, namely those that don’t go to clubs,” said Trevor Schoonmaker, the exhibition curator.
“The [exhibition’s] publications reached people on different levels because they [could] travel beyond boundaries.”
Among many other works, the exhibit featured a Barkley Hendricks painting, Fela: Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen… The piece depicts a Christ-like Fela, with a halo around his head, gripping a microphone with one hand and simultaneously grabbing his crotch and holding a joint with the other. But the focus of the portrait is on Fela’s heart, shaped like Africa, protruding from his chest. In another piece, Heaven Can Wait, the artist Odili Donald Odita depicts a wheelbarrow filled with Naira, Nigerian currency, sliding over an oil spill.
Two years before the exhibit opened, Schoonmaker, along with Debbie Sealy and DJ Rich Medina, started Jump N Funk, a traveling Afrobeat dance party. Initially conceived to raise awareness for Schoonmaker’s museum exhibition, the party started out as an after-work event but grew exponentially. It now stops in Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Atlanta. Schoonmaker credits the growth of Jump N Funk to Medina, a rare DJ who incorporates Afrobeat into his repertoire, spinning Fela Kuti between tracks by Lauryn Hill and A Tribe Called Quest.
“Rich is the soul of the party,” said Schoonmaker. “He’s an incredible DJ, doing something no one has ever done in New York. And because of Rich’s ability to embrace the crowd and because of Fela’s music — Jump N Funk was so harmonious. Musicians, writers, dancers, fashion people, curators, and artists came together to listen to Fela.”
Medina often spins Fela records at his weekly club nights, but very few nightclubs play Afrobeat, and even fewer welcome Afrobeat ensembles into their space. A few places, such as Zebulon, SOB’s, and The Knitting Factory in New York, defy Eurocentric norms. Zebulon, especially, is widely praised among Afrobeat fans as a haven for the music.
This rise in Afrobeat’s popularity in the past ten years has culminated in the Broadway opening of Fela!, a play about the controversial figure’s life and music. While some people think that the play will bring Afrobeat to new audiences, others who knew Fela are worried that it will commercialize and sanitize Fela’s life. And Kaleta is among the skeptics. “I didn’t think the play was depicting Fela at the onset of the production two or three years ago because of the commercial part of it, and because they want to reach out to the white audience,” Kaleta said. “They’re reaching the public by using Fela, but not necessarily the way he does these things.”
I sat in on a Fela! rehearsal as the cast was adapting to a new performance space. Fela! has transformed Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre into the Afrika Shrine, Fela Kuti’s nightclub, “filled with mystery, spiritualism, funk, lights, color and magic,” said Steve Hendel ’73, the executive producer of the play.
Broadway’s Afrika Shrine contains many of the same elements as Nigeria’s Afrika Shrine — flags of African countries and a large image of Africa hang above the stage, and adorning the walls are portraits of African and African-American leaders including Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Fela’s mother. The writings of such leaders had been sold in the Nigerian Shrine, which became a place for intellectual discourse amid Afrobeat music and go-go dancers.
During the cast and crew’s dinner break, Hendel and I sat in the balcony seats overlooking the stage. He and his colleagues initially faced negative feedback from other Broadway producers, whom they invited to join the staff in the play’s early stages. Too obscure, too unconventional, too unmarketable, they heard over and over — understandable reactions given most people’s ignorance of Fela and Afrobeat. Recounting Fela’s story (not a particularly family-friendly one compared to Mary Poppins, The Lion King, or Wicked) is a formidable achievement, Hendel said.
Hendel conceived of the idea for the Fela Kuti musical around 2000 when he started to listen to The Best Best of Fela Kuti. The album’s liner notes and the history behind the music especially resonated with Hendel. “Fela wrote these long, really beautiful horn arrangements, very funky, very kinetic music. But Fela also expressed his feelings about specific things that were happening in Nigeria or in his life through these absolutely beautiful poetic phrases and lyrics. It occurred to me that it would be a great subject for a musical, to make one based on his life and music.”
The play’s in-house band, which was rehearsing on-stage, is comprised of members of Antibalas, considered by many to be the most popular Afrobeat band in New York. “They know where the vitamins are in Fela’s music,” said Hendel. Many other Afrobeat musicians and aficionados credit Antibalas with helping to popularize Afrobeat and introduce the genre to a new generation.
Stuart Bogie, a member of Antibalas and the Broadway crew, composed “Indictment,” a fan favorite. In the song, a mock trial takes place. “Karl Rove, indictment! Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld indictment! John Ashcroft, indictment! George W. Bush, indictment!” he screams to the court while banging on a table.
As “Indictment” exemplifies, Afrobeat in New York continues the tradition of activism and direct protest, fundamental elements of Fela’s Afrobeat. In 2004, Eric Herman and Jesse Brenner started Modiba Productions, a record label and production company whose vision is to bring “the best and hottest in new Afrocentric music to drive positive social and political change.” The two Wesleyan graduates came up with the idea for this company during their senior year in college, after transformative semesters abroad to Mali and Botswana, respectively. The company directly descends from Fela’s imperative to use African-inspired music to raise awareness about political realities in Africa. Modiba’s first album, Afrobeat Sudan Aid Project, compiled tracks from various Afrobeat artists, including Antibalas, Akoya, Wunmi, and Tony Allen, Fela’s drummer. Proceeds from ASAP, totaling over $130,000, have gone to victims of the Darfur genocide.
Another organization, Red Hot, also does service work through music. Red Hot & Riot: The Music and Spirit of Fela Kuti, a tribute album released in 2002, donates its money to fighting AIDS. The tribute features covers of Fela’s music and appearances by musicians, including Talib Kweli, D’Angelo, Kelis, and Femi Kuti, Fela’s son. Four years later, the Brooklyn Academy of Music hosted a fund-raising concert, Red Hot & Riot Live! “Fela died and the future is now,” said Paul Heck, the producer of Red Hot & Riot. “Now is the time to enjoy Fela’s music and pay attention to HIV/AIDS.”
While some people are continuing Fela’s legacy through political activism, others are taking Afrobeat in new directions. Marcos Garcia, a member of Antibalas, has created an electronic-Afrobeat sound in the form of Chico Mann, his band. Antibalas is often praised as “carrying Fela’s torch,” but Garcia also wanted to express his own style of Afrobeat.
Many fans and performers of Afrobeat are happy to see the music evolve. Michael Veal heard Chico Mann perform and loved what he heard. For Veal and many others, Afrobeat’s evolution and expansion into different genres should be applauded and encouraged.
Just as the sounds are evolving, the demographics of Afrobeat listeners and performers are also changing. Nigerian musicians created Afrobeat for a local audience, but most Afrobeat musicians in New York are young, white men. African-Americans rarely attend Afrobeat concerts and almost never perform in Afrobeat bands. Eric Herman of Modiba Productions also noticed this trend, which he attributes to vestiges of slavery. Upon their arrival in America, whites denied blacks information about their heritage and coerced slaves into being ashamed of their native continent, traces of which, he argues, might still be present in blacks’ reluctance to embrace African music and customs.
Rich Medina laments the lack of knowledge among many Americans, especially African-Americans, about the history of modern Africa. “People pay a lot of lip service to ‘I’m Black and I’m Proud!’ But they have no discourse for who Mbutu is, who Idi Amin is, who Robert Mugabe is, who Steven Biko is, who Charles Taylor is, what happened in Rwanda or what happened in Kenya.”
While the lead vocalists in both Akoya and Antibalas are Nigerian men, their colleagues onstage are overwhelmingly white. Could a traditional Afrobeat group have a white or a female lead vocalist? Some people don’t think so.
Jocelyn Soubiran, a manager at Zebulon, is an Afrobeat purist. He believes that only Fela exemplifies traditional, authentic Afrobeat. “There is less and less of Afrobeat here. As much as I love Afrobeat, it’s hard because I know what it’s supposed to sound like. I need some craziness,” he said. “Fela is crazy. Afrobeat needs someone who can scream and cry like Fela. I don’t know about Afrobeat in America. The biggest mistake in music is when you play music that doesn’t belong to you.”
Kaleta, too, is critical of the new developments in Afrobeat. He believes that Fela would not have called many of the new kinds of Afrobeat part of his genre. “Fela is very controversial. He’s probably going to yab, which means to say something opposite, to disagree with everything that comes in a positive way. It’s not a matter of liking — even if he liked the band, he’s not going to say it. He’s going to find something to dislike.”
Can Afrobeat move forward if it’s always looking back? Despite the ideological tension within the Afrobeat community, the genre has undoubtedly risen in popularity and, as it is making its way to new audiences, will likely continue to do so. “Afrobeat is an extremely catchy and interesting musical style that is able to blend well with other styles,” Eric Herman said.
“It’s powerful music, both sonically, politically and spiritually. It gets people inspired to get up and dance or inspired to think about the politics behind the music.” Larry Gold, the owner of SOB’s, believes that “now, it’s the young American cats that are totally influenced by Fela’s sound. More than anything else, it’s a rhythm that North Americans’ sensibility can appreciate.”
In mid-September, after having listened to Fela’s songs on my computer for the past two years, I finally attended my first live Afrobeat performance at the insistence of Marc Amigone, the editor of The Afrobeat Blog. He explained that live Afrobeat is much better than recordings due to the size and gravity of the ensemble. “Every element that they layer is a force to be reckoned with.” The venue, an _ber-underground club in Brooklyn, was unmarked — no posters and no signs, save for a solitary man sitting on a chair which propped open a door. And the interior was quintessentially underground: dirty floors and hipsters galore. A disco ball spun above the stage, fracturing coral, yellow, and turquoise lights, scattering color everywhere.
After two painful sets of interpretive music and free-form jazz, Akoya Afrobeat finally came on. “Akoya’s gonna blow the roof off,” said Jackson Moore, the concert manager and producer. As I listened to Akoya, I realized that the band had not reconciled its position between honoring Fela and blazing a new path. Not fully a tribute band because they write their own music, Akoya is also not fully a neo-Afrobeat band, as they have so many of the same elements as Fela’s music and band. But I also realized that Marc and Jackson were right about the power of Afrobeat. The large horn section, talking drums, and vibrant vocals roared out to the crowd. The steady percussive elements and guitars vaulted the concert’s energy to new heights, exerting a powerful influence over the audience, who desperately wanted more.