At the 2019 Fela Debates in Lagos, the moderator of the interactive session and author, Sefi Atta had added her voice to the lingering debate on Afrobeats as a music genre. The term Afrobeats was coined by the western media to categorise music from contemporary African music influenced by pop and African elements. But due to the close semblance with the music genre made popular by the legendary musician, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti called Afrobeat, many Afropop musicians have leaned towards this to make their music appeal to the international audience.
In her submission, Atta examined how this trend has impacted on the music legacy of Fela since many of these young artists often claim to have been influenced by Fela whose music was essentially a weapon of activism.
“It is very easy to say that Fela influenced you. It is near impossible to walk in his shoes. This is an artist who remained productive in the face of relentless persecution. An artist who said his music was secondary and that his message was more important and that he uses music to spread his message.
“Now that Afrobeat and Afrobeats had been separated by a mere letter, some of us can tell difference between genuine and affected consciousness; between music that was rehearsed with a band for months and beats that were created on computer within an hour. Fela’s music was meant to engage the masses and stimulate their thinking, that is why he had a cult following and not by a mainstream one,” she said to a cheering audience.
Held at its traditional venue, NECA Hall, adjacent to the African Shrine, Alausa, Ikeja, Fela Debates is the opening programme that pays tribute to the philosophy of the Afrobeat virtuoso. Every year, the theme is inspired by a title of Fela’s song. This year, the debates had as theme, “Teacher, Don’t Teach Me Nonsense”.
The attendance attested to the loyalty of Fela fans over the years. But one cannot say the same about those who imitate his music but shred off the substance which is his message. Atta sounded out a strong warning for Fela “wanna-bes”.
“Now that we worship at the cult of celebrity, with every artisthaving a platform on which to go viral and where soundbite is more important than substance in your music, I will like to make a plea: please be careful how you handle Fela’s message. Fela never compromised on his view on commercialism,” she said.
Some popular artists have gone as far as using particular lines from Fela’s music to market their own. Popular music lines such as “Everybody run run run” and “49 sitting 99 standing”were actually coined from original Fela discography which are essentially protest songs. Atta frowned on transplacing the essence of Fela’s music.
“Some of them are using Fela’s music at the expense of his legacy,” she continued. “In their titles and lyrics, the musicians namecheck him at every opportunity which is fine so long as they keep his message straight. But when you, in the same song, sympathise with the masses and glamourize designer clothes and luxury cars and think Fela influenced your song, you are confusing his message. You are a teacher who is teaching a whole lot of nonsense.
“Fela’s legacy is not one to tamper with or exploit and I believe his music will always resonate with thinkers. But the champions of commercialism never know when to stop. I want to make another plea this time to those in charge of his intellectual property. Protect his message as well. It is just as important as protecting his copyright.”
Atta won the 2006 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa and the 2009 Noma Award for Publishing in Africa.