Exploring the Kindred Spirit Between Wyclef and Fela


Nseobong Okon-Ekong writes that the Haitian rapper’s makeover of a Fela Kuti song is more than connecting with a kindred spirit

Forty-four years after it was first recorded in 1973 on Afrodisiac label, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s song, ‘Eko Ile’ has been given fresh impetus for a vibrant new life by Haitian rapper, Wyclef Jean. The song is said to be the first single release from his forthcoming album, ‘Carnival 111: The Rise and Fall of a Refugee’. Wyclef has re-named the song, ‘Fela Kuti’ and it is for a good reason. His rationale is compelling and it is something that should make every Nigeria proud. He said, “I decided to name it ‘Fela Kuti’ because for me, I feel like we be thinking of [Bob] Marley, we give a lot of people from our past props, so when the kids hear ‘Fela Kuti’, I really want them to Google it.”

The new album is a sequel to a series that began in 1997 with, ‘The Carnival-Wyclef Jean Featuring Refugee Allstars’. That album would be remembered for such memorable hits as ‘Pablo Diablo’, ‘Down Lo Ho’ and ‘Gone Till November’. Having explained the reason behind the choice of the song title, it is curious that he prefers ‘Eko Ile’ as the initial teaser to generate an expectation of things to come from the album. No doubt, this must be his best foot that he is putting forward for critical acclaim.

‘Eko Ile’ was originally delivered in Yoruba. In the song, Fela reflects on his many travels outside Nigeria and reaches a nostalgic conclusion which sums up the often quoted refrain, ‘East or West, home is best’. Wyclef retains Fela’s voice, singing the first line of the song, “Koma si’bi ti mo le fo’ri le” (There is no place to lay my head). The song is actually one of the tributes to the city of Lagos (or Eko) composed by Fela. Lagos was home to Fela and in ‘Eko Ile’, he laments that he can’t find comfort in New York or in London, except in Lagos.

In typical Fela satire, he highlights the peculiarity of Lagos. He said your knowledge of driving, for instance, in London, may not serve you well in Lagos because if you think you are seeing, ‘turn left’ in Lagos; take a good look because you may very well be seeing ‘turn right’. Fela would extend this notion of the chaos that is Lagos traffic in another composition ‘Confusion Break Bone’ where he paints a picture of Ojuelegba in Surulere-Lagos as the centre of disorder.

Wyclef would have found it near impossible to deliver the song in Yoruba, but it is ingenious of him to retain, at least, one line in the language of the original composer and singer. This provides the necessary connect and longing for the good old times for those who are old enough to remember. There are lots of memories that would resurrect with Wyclef’s ‘Fela Kuti’. It would most definitely bring back recollections of Soul Brother No. 1, the inimitable James Brown whose musical influences were fused into highlife and jazz to produce Fela’s unique sound called Afrobeat.

For a versatile artiste like, Wyclef, ‘Eko Ile’ nay ‘Fela Kuti’ is not a particularly difficult song to recreate. The noticeable difference from the original includes a session of clapping and a creative rendition of the drums at intervals. The character of the song is preserved by the consistency in the horns section, which remains essentially the same in both versions.

Wyclef opens with a dramatic line, “lights, camera, action/everyone is a superstar”. His mellow voice contrasts with Fela’s coarse vocal and the fast pace of the instrumentation and attracts the listener to pay attention to the lyrics. The differences in mood are given a smooth appeal with deft production skills. The hip hop delivery of vocal play and somersaults exhibited by Wyclef will appeal to both the new friends and old lovers of the song. In 2017 as in 1973, ‘Eko Ile’ is still an exciting musical composition that takes the listener on an intense and blazing journey of African sounds and imagery.

Another reason Wyclef sampled a Fela composition is probably to draw attention to the interest of the two men in the social engineering of their countries. Like Fela, Wyclef took a shot at the highest political office in his country. Again, like Fela whose father was a minister of the gospel, Wyclef is a preacher’s son. His father, the Rev. Gesner Jean preaches in a conservative evangelical church in New Jersey. Another meeting point for the Haitian musician and Fela is how the American society revolutionized them. The turning point for Fela was the 1969 meeting in Los Angeles with Sandra Isidore who introduced him to the radical Black Panther Movement. Wyclef was an immigrant in New Jersey when he discovered himself and his strength through music. Like Fela, Wyclef is an exhibitionist who sometimes does not mind to be seen in public in his underpants.

But Fela is not the first music icon that Wyclef has paid a tribute to. He has also recorded a song, ‘Hendrix’ as his way of immortalizing the famous American guitarist, Jimi Hendrix who he acknowledges as one of his influence. Like Hendrix, Wyclef also plays the guitar.

Wyclef has made a couple of visits to Nigeria since his first in 2004 which was made possible by Guinness. Charly Boy was the head of the umbrella group of Nigerian musicians at the time and he made a huge show with a convoy of power bikes and colourful motorcade that welcome Wyclef to Nigeria. Among the Nigerian musicians who have a good working relationship with Wyclef are Sound Sultan and 2Baba. 2Baba and his former teammate in Platashun Boiz, Faze were featured on a song from Wyclef’s ‘Welcome to Haiti: Creole 101’ album titled ‘Proud to be African’. They have both gone ahead to collaborate on two other projects: ‘King of My Country’ and ‘People Bad’. Apart from music, Wyclef has also registered his presence in the Nigerian movie industry. He played Timi a kidnapper of the ‘United People’s Front for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta People of Nigeria’ in the film, ‘Black November’ directed by Jeta Amata.

The last time he came to Nigeria was three years ago in 2014. On arrival, he posted photos of himself surrounded by Nigerian security agents and said they call him the ‘Haitian Nigerian’ and that he feels at home in Nigeria.
In a freaky coincidence, multi-award winning artiste, Jay-Z also has also recently released an album ’4:44’ (‘Eko Ile’ is 44 years) in which Fela is prominently mentioned in one of the songs, ‘We Family’.