Fela Kuti influenced the spirit of modern day Afrobeats but not the overall message and sound.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti, originally Olufela Ransome-Kuti, is a name known by all Nigerians. Political activist, rebel and the pioneer of the music genre Afrobeat.
Today however, there is a new sound coming out of Africa and the African diaspora; Afrobeats. It has influenced the likes of Drake and Ed Sheeran. Led to collaborations with artists like Chris Brown and Popcaan. And people like Wizkid, Burna Boy and DaVido are superstars in their own right.
However, how closely connected are the two genres? Is Afrobeats an evolution of the movement started by Kuti fifty years ago? Or do the similarities extend only so far as their names?
AfrobeatA music genre formed in the late 1960s that combines African American genres, like jazz and funk with the Ghanaian music genre, highlife.
Born in 1938 to a middle-class family, Kuti defied the wishes of his feminist activist mother and Protestant minister father, and studied music at Trinity College London in 1959. I guess that didn’t fit the African parent stereotype; my child must be a doctor, lawyer or accountant.
While in London, he explored Afro Cuban music and jazz but still largely played highlife with his band the Koala Lobitos. However, he didn’t like the genre as
It wasn’t until his trip to Los Angeles in 1969 that his Afrobeat journey really took shape.
Inspired by the funk of James Brown and the Black Power movement, on his return to Nigeria, he and his music became more conscious.
He changed his band’s name from to Nigeria 70, then to Africa 70 and finally Egypt 80. He switched his name from Ransome to Anikulapo (one who has captured death in his pouch), since the former was a slave name. And he called his club the Afro Spot and later The Shrine.
His lyrics were often in protest against the corruption and brutality of the military governments. Delivered in call and response fashion with the singers in his band, he would interchange between English, pidgin and Yoruba, depending on what part of society he was addressing.
AfrobeatsAn umbrella term coined by DJ Abrantee in 2011, for music that combines genres like Hip-hop, Dancehall and R&B with traditional African music.
The music coming out of Africa, classed as Afrobeats, has gradually been picking up momentum. The launch of MTV Base Africa in 2005 meant that West African music was showcased, giving rise to stars like P-Square. However, it wasn’t until 2011 and D’banj’s Oliver Twist that Afrobeats received mainstream attention in the UK, charting in the top ten.
The British-Ghanaian rappper, Sway, argued that there are similarities between Afrobeat and Afrobeats, comparing D’banj to Kuti, in terms of
Both genres try to create a modern African sound, using pidgin, English and indigenous languages.
Despite this, they are very different substance-wise.
Compare Beasts of No Nation by Fela Kuti with Ojuelegba by Wizkid.
Beasts of No Nation is over seven times longer than Ojuelegba and largely made up of an instrumental section.
When Kuti does speak, it is about the craziness of Nigerian society and his time in jail, whereas Wizkid’s lyrics are ones of gratitude. Furthermore, Kuti uses call and response and repetition to create discussion and reinforce his message while Wizkid structures the song, verse, chorus, verse, chorus.
I know which one that I would hear in a rave.
Simply put, Afrobeats is pop music made by mainly West Africans and artists within the African diaspora. This has meant that artists have begun
instead using terms like Afropop, Afro-swing and Afro-fusion.
It is not socially conscious music, like Afrobeat and popular Afrobeats artist, DaVido said that “there’s so much going on Africa, the last thing that people want to hear is sad music” in an interview in 20171. This is the complete opposite of Kuti’s approach, who said that “there’s no music for enjoyment, for love, when there’s such a struggle for people’s existence”2.
Some artists have been able to channel Kuti’s energy with varying degrees of success, like Burna Boy, who often samples Kuti’s music and performed in his underwear as a tribute to him at the Felabration music festival in 2013.
Despite this, the reduced focus on socially and politically driven lyrics, the evolution of music and song structure and the ambiguity surrounding the term Afrobeats, means that it’s not directly influenced by Kuti. Rather he is someone who opened doors for the current wave of artists.
Sebastine, E, 2017, The Afrobeat Legacy of Fela Anikulapo Kuti in Nigeria, (Accessed: 4th May 2020), https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329787947_The_Afrobeat_Legacy_of_Fela_Anikulapo_Kuti_in_Nigeria
Collins, J, 2015, Fela: Kalakuta Notes, Connecticut, KIT
Labinjoh, J, 1982, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti: Protest Music and Social Processes in Nigeria, Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1, Communication and Change in Sub- Saharan Africa, 119-134
Barrett, L, 1998, Fela Kuti: Chronicle of A Life Foretold, (Accessed: 31st May 2020), https://www.thewire.co.uk/in-writing/essays/fela-kuti_chronicle-ofa-life-foretold
Stewart, A, 2013, Make It Funky: Fela Kuti, James Brown and the Invention of Afrobeat, American Studies, Vol. 52, No.4, 99-118
Williamson, N, 2008, Tony Allen: The veteran Afrobeat drummer is shaking his sticks as hard and as brilliantly as ever, (Accessed 21st June 2020), https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/tony-allen-the-veteran-afrobeat-drummer-is-shaking-his-sticks-as-hard-and-as-brilliantly-as-ever-770993.html
Saleh-Hanna, V, 2008, Fela Kuti’s Wahala Music: Political Resistance Through Song, Colonial Systems of Control: Criminal Justice in Nigeria, 355-376
Sullivan, C, 2020, How Fela Kuti changed the game with Fela Fela Fela, (Aceesed: 8th July 2020), https://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/culture/article/fela-kuti-afrobeat-fela-fela-fela
Obkircher, F, 2020, The Story Behind West Africa’s Booming Afrobeats Musical Export, (Accessed: 22nd June 2020), https://www.redbull.com/gb-en/theredbulletin/the-story-behind-afrobeats-popularity
Hancox, D, 2012, The rise of Afrobeats, (Accessed: 5th May 2020), https://www.theguardian.com/music/2012/jan/19/the-rise-of-afrobeats
 Kariisa, J, 2018, The Evolution of Afropop, (Accessed: 5th May 2020), https://www.redbull.com/gb-en/music/the-evolution-of-afropop
 Grass, R, F, 1986, Fela Kuti: The Art of an Afrobeat Rebel, The Drama Review: TDR, Vol. 30, No. 1, 131-148