Use the rewind button a few times to, say, two decades back in Nigerian music. The trick then was to sound like American pop songs, the 90s R‘n’B – Plantashun Boiz’s You And I a la Boys II Men, Remedies’ Shakamo a la east-coast/west-coast signature. It was the first bloom of Nigerian pop culture – it is said pop culture anywhere is American pop culture. There was the bargained need that the music should resemble the coveted. The result of this covetousness was not pop appropriation but pop imperialism, and our music aspiring to the coveted revealed only an identity crisis.
And it came to pass after all. One of the crises was in the sentiment of the ‘local’ labelling. The likes of Danfo Drivers, Junglist and Africa China made it because their audience was where they were. They satisfied the ‘local’ need but it did not guarantee them longevity on the scene because their style fell short of the glory of the defining audience who believed them to be local. But is imitation an alternative to ‘local’? Maybe the defining audience suffered from an identity crisis, too. Anyway, one has to watch the way one uses the label ‘local’ these days, for ‘local’ is turnt.
Until a people fully embrace who they are their culture will suffer violence. Fela knew this. In his time he did not wait to suffer anymore cultural violence; like Mandela, he fought against imperial domination. He did not wait for a cultural evolution like the one we’re currently living in; his evolution was instantaneous. He was his own evolution, the saxophone his cinnamon. Although he had a stint with American rock and jazz, and spent time studying classical music in his days at Trinity College, London, his invented genre of music became a protest to these same tunes and paraphernalia Western. This protest was the spirit that invented and gave life to his music, the Afrobeat. The Afrobeat sound was a reverse violence on his artistic palate. Fela deftly fused juju, Yoruba traditional rhythms, jazz, salsa, funk and rock to create a distinctive never-heard-before tune with an original identity. Afrobeat checked the violence visited on our music by Western influences, but at the time our music was longspoon lengths away from assimilating Fela’s gift and so wandered in the sound wilderness. Only his kith, the Kuti, and also the eccentric Lagbaja, walked in his shoes; others at best were parodies. Because Afrobeat was more than music; it is spiritual. The spirit of the new school, however, was more pervasive. It was our music that lost, not Fela; for, while our music was looking for The Sound, Afrobeat carried within it the cosmology our music sought.
Not all the time. Fela’s Afrobeat, the sound, is like the mythological god abandoned by its people while still benevolent to the few believers who worship it. They abound. The 90s and early noughties saw the sampling of Afrobeat. Memorably, there was Alariwo’s Yawa Go Gas, Plantashun Boiz’s Cousin’s Cousin, Tribesmen’s Shake Bodi, and later on Sound Sultan in Bodmas. (There has been appropriation: Jay Z sampled it in Roc Boys (2007).) In its closest relative, galala, which Baba Fryo and Daddy Showkey were kings in, one hears and feels it.
In its history of wanderings there is now the Naija Sound, starting with shoki, which has undergone several modern mutations; the appropriated Ghanaian alkayida cloned by our producers; ogene fused into the mainstream by Phyno, highlife by Flavour; and the juju-tweaked-for-hiphop percussions by the local rappers from the west. But the cinch would be Afrobeat. We know this because we know Wizkid’s Ojuelegba and a certain spirit it awakened. It was the song that finally made us realize that Fela’s enduring invention is a blessing that had been wrongly forsaken. But it wasn’t Wizkid who initiated the assimilation of, or reintroduced, Afrobeat into Naija sound. Oritsefemi, an Afrobeat disciple, did with his 2013 hit Double Wahala; the hit owes Afrobeat for its success. On cue was Wizkid’s Jaiye Jaiye featuring Femi Kuti.
Double Wahala awoke a consciousness – that Afrobeat still claims the soul of our music (producers began sampling it); Jaiye Jaiye was the square peg thrust into the square hole of the twin spirits of the age: indulgence and materialism. Phyno featured P-Square on O Set where he is ‘activating money’. There’s D’banj’s Emergency, Olamide’s Konkobility, Falz’s Workaholic, Darey’s Asiko Laye with Olamide, Frankey’s Ringo Ringo. Add yours. (D’banj’s Loke comes to mind, too; and there’s a tinkering of it on M.I.’s Beef.) But in recent contemporary Nigerian music, three Afrobeat sampled songs pulsate with a vibe that (1) carry a part of Fela’s spirit (of protest); (2) ace the Naija sound by injecting more acutely the Afrobeat spirit, resurrecting the genre permanently; and (3) inspire artistic nationalism. They are Tekno’s Rara, Skales’ Cool Temper (Remix), and the doper and original, Seyi Shay’s Yolo Yolo. This assimilation is a conversation thrown in the process, not only into the politics of cultural (music) exchange, but in the affirmation of the originality of our music that has suffered to come to its current place. It is the comeback of Fela’s spirit with its undertones of ‘African protest’.
It is foolhardy, however, to expect every artist to sample Afrobeat purely for the sake of its dynamic or its social portent. But the assimilation of Afrobeat is a good score on Naija Sound which contributes in shaping our cultural force. To reckon with it is the subtle emancipation from the long-pervading identity crisis wrought by western sound. There’s the functional psychosomatic assimilation, as we tap our feet, shake our heads and step to the beats of these springing Afrobeat songs and the intoxication that entrenches collective consciousness.
Last I heard, some artiste whose popularity for now starts and ends in Lagos, has sung ‘aiye pon repete oo’ on an Afrobeat percussion. The disciples and the worshippers of the sound, after all, rise.
Editor’s note: This essay has been updated since the last time of publication to effect changes.