Still in the shadow of the Afro Beat Legend

Nigerian musician and composer Fela Anikulapo Kuti performs on September 13, 1986 at the "Party of Humankind" of the French Communist Party at La Courneuve in Paris, France. (AP Photo/Laurent Rebours)

The ongoing annual festival of afrobeat and the celebration of its originator, the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, and revelations from the nominations for the Nigerian Video Music Awards again bring to mind the legacies of the artiste popularly called Abami Eda.
When the afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, passed on in 1997, no one doubted the fact that it would be difficult to get the shoes he left behind filled. Here was an artist who was many things rolled into one. He was a visionary, philosopher, critic, fighter, multi-Instrumentalist, non-conformist, composer, singer, poet priest, pan Africanist and many more. People were thus contented with the fact that the heir apparent would, at best, have one or two of the major attributes of the musician popularly called Abami Eda.

Among a few others, a son of the deceased, Femi Anikulapo-Kuti, Kola Ogunkoya and Alariwo of Africa showed early tendencies to take afrobeat to new heights. While Femi and Ogunkoya had stood to be counted before Fela passed on, Alariwo of Africa showed an initial sign of hope when he released Yawa go Gash, which though has some critical words against societal ills, yet carries a very danceable flavour to which his dancers responded well in the album’s video.
Among other works, Femi’s Wonder Wonder and Bang Bang Bang did well, with the former even going ahead to win the KORA Awards. Ogunkoya’s Fatima Bebi, which leaned more towards highlife, also made a mark. Yet, none of the artistes have been consistent enough, nor have they gone close to where Fela left afrobeat.

Another of Fela’s biological sons, Seun, who had also been playing in the background even before his father’s death, later survived initial challenges occasioned by issues surrounding his ‘inheritance’ of Fela’s songs and Egypt ‘80 Band. Since then, Seun has been doing justice to the memory of afrobeat, especially as he mostly plays his father’s songs. Incidentally, his popularity in Europe and America surpasses what obtains in Nigeria.

In totality, however, Fela, like Bob Marley and now Michael Jackson, has continued to prove irreplaceable. For instance, each of the musicians mentioned above appears to have certain limitations that make the gap between them and the real master widen by the day.
Evaluating the situation, the Managing Director of Surreal Music, Mr. Kelvin Nwachukwu, notes that none of them has been able to demonstrate the kind of depth that Fela’s music has. He says, “What you have to realise is that Fela was a very knowledgeable person. He had varied experiences. He read very widely and thought on issues very deeply. When you combine all these with the great musical talent he had, the product would be those classical albums and performances he left behind. But you cannot locate a combination of the traits in any of the new afro beat singers.”

Nwachukwu adds that Fela was consistently on top of the chart, but the ‘successors’ do not have the staying power. He recalls that while even Femi has experimented with pop-like genres, someone like Alariwo had been on break for too long. “And when he came back recently, he was singing gospel song,” the Surreal MD adds.
But an afrobeat devotee, Lawson Olumense disagrees. He believes Femi Kuti has not been given the respect he deserves having consistently hoisted the afrobeat flag through his music and performances everywhere in the world and domiciling afrobeat in the new African shrine built single-handedly by him. “In terms of lyrics, beat, dance and all, Femi stands shoulders above all others”, he concluded.

Another heir apparent whose output has given stakeholders a lot of concern is Dede Mabiaku. Because of the long tutelage he had in the afro shrine, many had thought that he would be able to raise the flag. But while Femi and Seun have continued to assert themselves, Dede has been more or less a shadow of the people’s expectation. An album he has promised to release about 10 years ago is yet to see the light of the day.

Other artistes that have dabbled into, or experimented with afro music are Friday of Dem go dey Po fame , who waxes afro in his song Kilo faa ; gospel singer Telemi and a performing poet, Akeem Lasisi, who lays poems on afro beat in Post Mortem , a poetry CD he released in 1999, in honour of the late MKO Abiola.
Others who have shown beyond having been inspired by Fela have been so smart that they do not call their brands afro beat. Such include the masked man, Lagbaja, who now talks of africano; Beautiful Nubia and Seyi Solagbade.

But even as the search for the new afro king continues, the nominees’ list released about two weeks ago by the organisers of the Nigerian Music Video Awards gave another perspective of how afro beat is asserting itself. While stars such as D’Banj. MO, MI, Tuface and Dare are slugging it out in various segments, short listed in the Best Afrobeat Video category are Tunji Sotimirin’s Stori Repete; Seun Kuti’s Many Many Things and Kola Ogunkoya’s Emayo. When the final result is out on November 1, when the award will be held in Lagos, it will be interesting to know who carries the day among the three – because it will
definitely enrich data on researches on who the next Fela may be.