To be ‘essential’ is to be indispensable, to play a significant role and to be crucial to happenings around you, and this was embodied by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti through his music.
Fela Anikulapo- Kuti continues to be the topic of discussion 21 years after his death with Beyonce recently paying homage to him with her performance at the Coachella festival,
The Abami Eda lived his life as an activist, a social critic and a radical, but his most powerful force remained his music.
Through Fela’s music, he brought hope to his people. Through the music, he was a thorn in the flesh of the ruling class, and he was able to create a cultural crossroad that the other part of the world could connect with.
Through his music, Fela influenced the young and the old and his message riveted in the lives of many.
Also read: Late Afrobeat legend’s manager talks about his influence and legacy
His songs have been heavily sampled across all genres round the world, his works have been referenced by notable stars, while his lyrics have served as a chant for different movements and his words stay regurgitated as things he predicted and sang about remain true till date.
So with a catalogue spanning over 50 albums and 100 songs, we attempt to select his 10 most essential songs.
1. Zombie – 1976
Singing ‘Attention! (Zombie), Quick march, Slow march! (Zombie), Left turn! Right turn! (Zombie)’, Fela aptly describes the configuration of a Zombie (a fictional dead creature brought back to life and subject to people’s control).
Zombie spans across 12 minutes and 26 seconds of Fela scathingly attacking the Government and describing the methods of the Nigerian military where they only follow orders without a will. The album was a smash hit and scored 4.5 stars by All Music’s album review, who called it Fela’s most popular and impacting record.
It is also believed that the fallout from this album led to the attack on his home which resulted in the death of his mother, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti.
Also Read: The day soldiers burnt down Kalakuta
2. Water no get enemy – 1975
Off the ‘Expensive Shit’ album, ‘Water no get enemy’ is a song that resounds loud till date.
In a subtle and proverbial manner, Fela through his thought-provoking lyrics preaches harmony across humans irrespective of nationality, race or colour with nature as his metaphor.
Fela preaches on the indispensability of water, irrespective of the situation.
3. Trouble sleep, Yanga wake am – 1972
Off his 1972 album,‘Roforofo Fight’ is the classic tune, ‘Trouble sleep, Yanga wake am’.
The song is his stand against oppression. It is his warning cry that with the wave of unjust treatment of its citizens by the authorities, a reaction was bound to happen.
It was Fela at his best, his voice comes rich around the fourth minute after an opening sequence of him playing the saxophone as he simplifies the government into relate-able and regular characters like a landlord, the police officer, the bank manager, all playing a game of cat and mouse.
Many years after its release, the song remains essential as oppression persists in the land with some regions calling for a split and many more feeling marginalized.
4. Gentleman 1973
Like most of Fela’s records, you are ushered into a feel of him playing his sax, hitting melodious tunes and setting the pace for the rhythmical journey. At the point when most modern singles are coming to a close, Fela’s voice comes alive as he reminds all that he is an original African man.
The song is key in addressing violence and harassment while providing a soul-lifting message for his listeners.
Gentleman is still constantly referenced in disputes and in the face of oppression. It was sampled by American rapper, J Cole in his ‘Let Nas Down’ single.
5. Expensive Shit – 1975
The song is off the back of a real life story that involved the police trying to plant some drugs (weed) on the Afrobeat legend. On one of those occasions, Fela was said to have grabbed the weed and ate it.
Efforts to get evidence of him ingesting the weed through his waste failed despite being held in police custody for three days. Fela was later released and he made a song out of the whole experience.
6. Lady – 1972
Off his ‘Shakara’ LP, Fela captures the complication in addressing the educated African Woman.
He lends his voice in telling the story of the African woman and what he perceives as the role of the woman in the family, which the press referred to as the ‘Battle of the Sexes’.
The song still generates wide ranging debate as many ascribe it to be anti-woman.
7. Coffin for Head of State – 1981
Following the death of his mother in a raid at his Kalakuta home by the Nigerian Military, where the 77-year old was thrown from the third floor of her building and died months later from injuries suffered in the incident.
On Obasanjo’s last day in office, Fela and his wives carried his mother’s coffin to the gates of Dodan Barracks in Lagos, which was then resident to the military leader.
This led to a tense stand off between the authorities and the artist, which inspired the song. Fela’s pain and loss can be deeply felt in his verses. ‘Them burn my house too, them kill my mama, so i carry the coffin, I waka waka waka, movement of the people, we go Obalende, we go Dodan Barracks, we reach them gate o, we put the coffin down”.
Close associates and friends claim that the Abami Eda never recovered from losing his mum till his latter years.
8. Shuffering and Smiling 1978
Not only did Fela criticise the ruling authorities, he also had a word for religious leaders who took advantage of their members.
He advices the people with his lyrics, ”My people, my people, we now have to carry our minds, out of those god-damn places, back into this musical contraption right opposite you, now we are back here”.
The song remains a classic till date.
9. Beasts of no Nation – 1989
Beast of no Nation was the first song written by the artist after returning from a two year incarceration in 1989.
He had been served a five year jail term for charges relating to currency violation and upon his return, his fans kept asking about his experience and what he was going to sing about next.
So the singer decide to capture the state of the nation and his trials in the song.
The song has since been adopted into movies and sampled by popular artistes.
Also Read: 5 foreign artists influenced by the Abami Eda
10. Sorrow, Tears and Blood – 1977
The anguish and trail left by the raid of his Kalakuta home by over 1,000 Nigerian military officers left a scar on Fela that only his music could heal.
In Sorrow, Tears and Blood, he details the state of his home and the series of event left in the wake of the invasion.