The best art is imitated so it is not too surprising that Nigerian artistes are appropriating Fela for their own gain.
The best art is imitated, so the saying goes, so it's not surprising that Fela and his music are coming back to life, two decades since his death in 1997, is not surprising.
The last few years have all but made him the template. After staking their claim at home, the biggest Nigerian pop stars set their energies towards eager attempts at breaking the American music markets.
Who better to follow than the one musician who built a strong legacy within and without Nigeria, and an enigmatic presence and sound that influences genres from hip-hop to jazz?
Fela’s name today is synonymous with afrobeat, that genre of music that blended jazz, disco and traditional African rhythms to create a rousing sound that Fela’s success rode on.
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His music had a communal quality that he used to address topical issues.
As serious as the matters were, the lyrics were in the voice of the streets, pidgin and the narrative’s simple and relatable. Songs like “Zombie” and “Sorrow, Tears and Blood” spoke of what their names suggested.
Beyond that, however, Fela’s family life, socio-political views and faith were the main aspects of who he was and why he is so deified among many loyalists today.
He was married to a total of 28 wives at some point, a practice that tied with his socialist and pan-African worldview.
The years of his peak coincided with the emergence of Pentecostal Christianity in the booming and then later, not-so-booming country, yet Fela practised elaborate rituals before his performances at Afrika Shrine.
Why are Nigerian artistes appropriating the King of Afrobeat?
The influence of these facets of his life, and his music, more than anything, spread far across Nigerian music.
The influence of Fela can first be seen in the songs. Much of contemporary music is based on reimaginations of older songs and Nigerian music is not left out in that regard.
Nigerian artistes are all too happy to take lines, phrases, sonic progressions or entire paragraph of lyrics from a Fela song.
Samples of his music abound, from work by icons like 2face Idibia to the pop prince, Wizkid and new generations musicians like Yinka Bernie.
Imitation is one thing but the beloved king of afrobeat has many reimaginations of himself in some of Nigeria’s biggest artiste.
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A certain alternative pop maestro from Port Harcourt has taken Fela and exposed him to the fineties of international exposure and the history of nearly two decades.
In the event documentary of his show at the Royal Albert Hall, Nigeria’s biggest pop star, Wizkid refers to himself as “the new Fela”.
It is there to see. Starboy’s “streets-disciple” tone and songs like “Sweet Love” are relics of the man he refers to as a mentor and a father.
Imitation is the best form of worship
There is little fault one can find in how Fela’s legacy is being used by a generation to propel the Nigerian sound to the world.
One could say that these artistes only seek to use the late great for what he made. In truth, few are adherents to his message in the manner that you would have expected.
But the appropriation also has the usually-unintended consequence of, as J.Cole’s “Let Nas Down” and the "Gentlean" sample did, drawing greater attention to Fela’s music.
It begs the question: Yes, he is being appropriated but how many artists boast of this level of worship?
From a school compound in Egbaland, the bandleader’s music and story has been appreciated, referenced or highlighted, as Jay-Z did with “Fela!”, the musical, by some of the world’s finest leaders, musicians and activists.
What appears to be appropriation is a group of artistes paying respect in the only way they know how, to an artiste whose success inspires the most amateur singer and is a launch pad for their success till this day.
There are few ways of celebrating the best art and the biggest influences beyond imitating them.
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