By Robert Fox
Today is Fela's birthday, and he would have been 69 years old. What would he be singing about now?
No doubt he would include many of the same themes that he addressed during his lifetime: the ongoing exploitation of Africa in general and Nigeria in particular by the wealthy and powerful, from London to Lagos, Washington to Kinshasha; the sorrowful indifference of the governments in industrialized nations to the poverty, inequality and suffering their development models bring to much of the world; the madness of the war in Iraq; the unending massacres in Darfur and Congo.
I think Fela would certainly still be addressing the agonizing persistence of torture and inhumanity in prisons around the world, as a victim of military brutality himself. And I hope he would have eventually turned his immense charisma and musical power toward addressing AIDS prevention and education.
What kind of music would Fela be playing now? That's an interesting question. Given the changing trajectory of his music over the years, from jazz to highlife to funk to Afrobeat, I think it's safe to expect that he would have taken his music in new directions. The resurgence of Fela's popularity in recent years would presumably have given him a broader worldwide platform than ever.
Perhaps he would have moved to include hip-hop in his music, maybe adding a wider variety of collaborations, something along the lines of the Red Hot and Riot project? Maybe a step towards tighter grooves and melodies, e.g. Tony Allen's "Home Cooking?" Experimenting with remixes along the lines of Manu Chao or my new favorites from the neighborhood, the Fort Knox Five? Maybe Fela would have gone back to his roots in hard bop jazz and headed in the direction of current jazz-funk heros like Christian McBride or Galactic? Possibly he would have come to work more Latin influences into his music, like so many other West African musicians of his generation--think Ozomatli, Yerba Buena or Grupo Fantasma?
However, it's rare that popular music artists substantially change stylistic direction once they reach a certain age. It seems like many find a form that works for them artistically, musically and/or financially and they stick with it, although exceptions do stand out, such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, John Zorn or Lou Reed, not to mention a more recent favorite of mine, P.J. Harvey.
But maybe Fela would have gone back to the old-school Afrobeat that he invented and no one has ever topped? So for Fela's birthday, check out the Birth of Afrobeat from this priceless live footage of Fela and Africa 70, from Ginger Baker's 1971 Africa documentary--any doubt who is in charge of this band?: