Afrobeat is the hard-driving African funk sound pioneered in the 1970s by the late Nigerian bandleader Fela Anikulapo Kuti—and few genres are as identified with one artist as Afrobeat is with Fela.

The scion of an influential Yoruba family, Kuti began his musical career while studying medicine in England in the early ’60s. Seduced by London’s fertile African jazz scene, Kuti eventually abandoned his studies and returned to Nigeria to form his own band. But it wasn’t until a brief, 1969 stay in Los Angeles that Afrobeat began to take shape. While recording there with his band Kuti was inspired by the radical politics of the Black Panther movement and the emerging funk sounds of the era—esepcially those of James Brown. Upon his return to his hometown of Lagos, Kuti disbanded his group Koola Lobitos and formed Afrika 70, the band that would translate his new Afrocentric vision into reality. Collaborating with drummer and arranger Tony Allen, Kuti fused the brash horn charts, spiky guitar licks and muscular bass lines of American funk with freeform jazz improvisation and dazzlingly complex Yoruba rhythms. The result was an African answer to American funk that was the equal of anything recorded Stateside.

Kuti also infused the music with pointed social and political messages. Singing in pidgin to avoid tribalism and appeal to the widest audience possible, Fela appropriated the language of black power, socialist critique and Nigerian proverb to poke fun and level criticism at the military dictatorship running Nigeria in the ’70s. His angry broadsides against the government won Kuti the love of the common man and the wrath of the authorities, and it cemented Afrobeat as a form of protest music.

Fela disbanded Afrika 70 at the end of the decade, forming a new band, Egypt 80, in 1980. But despite growing international fame, the 80s were a difficult decade for Kuti and he was jailed more than once by the Nigerian authorities. The ’90s weren’t much easier, and by the time of his death in 1997, Fela was almost as well known for causing controversy as he was for his prodigious musical output.

Luckily, Fela’s musical legacy lives on. Tony Allen and other former bandmembers such as Bukky Leo continue to push the original sound forward, while Fela’s sons Femi and Seun carry on the family franchise. In the new millennium, Afrobeat has become a truly global sound. Its social consciousness tailor made for such outfits as Brooklyn ensemble Antibalas, whose success helped pave the way for homegrown Afrobeat bands around the world.

Tom Pryor – National Geographic

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