Fela and the failure of Hip Hop

The play Fela, the musical is not just a performance but an experience. It’s not just a musical, but a glimpse into the life of a man who was a musician and a revolutionary figure. If you think about all the one-hit wonders and artists who spend their enormous influence and power on expressing how much money and bling they have then its not hard to understand why there hasn’t been another artist of Fela’s magnitude. I only knew Fela as a musician and artist, but through this play I learned a lot more about the background and history of this larger than life figure. I was not aware of his role as a revolutionary force in Nigeria, his musical background in London and the USA and his legacy in African music overall.

Fela was a man of many contradictions and short-comings but for all that he wasn’t, he was definitely a man of the people. He used his music to not only influence and inform the Nigerian people but as a call to action. He infused political lyrics into his music and created a musical literacy that moved a nation. Inspired by the Black Power movement of the 70’s and the Pan African politics of his mother, Fela’s music spoke to the disempowered and disenchanted in his country. As a musician, he created AfroBeat, which was a cross breeding of Funk, Jazz, Calypso with Juju, Highlife and African percussive beats. His style of music is still performed by many musicians such as New York City’s Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra.

Hip Hop was much like the music of Fela for me, when I was growing up in the Bronx. It was a new form of music that was culturally revalent and exciting, it also made me feel like I was a part of a movement. Yes, there was the traditional bragging and boasting but as rap grew as an art form, especially in the mid 80 to late 90’s, it became a form of communication and education that spoke to young African Americans. I remember teaching video at Park West High School in Manhattan, in the early 90’s and the excitement and frustration that one high school student expressed from learning more about her history as an African American from KRS One then from her school. Hip Hop artists, from the late 80’s to the mid 90’s, such as Public Enemy, KRS One, Gang Star, Eric B and Rakim, Queen Latifah, Bahamadia, Mc Lyte, Pete Rock and CL Smooth, 2 Pac, Arrested Development, Mos Def and Talib Kweli and The Roots, to name a few where more than just rappers they were educators and social commentators. They provided a window into the souls of Black folks, while providing cultural commentary on the social and political strife of urban communities

Fortunately, a few of those artists are still around with others who attempt to struggle to move above the status quo like Jay Z, Outkast, Goodie Mob, Nas and Kanye West. Among the current rooster of rappers, Mos Def is one of the best as well as most under-rated hip hop artist. Not many artists are as creative, humorous, enlighting and culturally aware as he is. In comparison to Fela, Mos Def would be the closest cultural link. Check out the lyrics to Mathemethics, from his first solo album, Black on both sides and then listen to Fela’s Beast of No Nation. There is a thread that connects the two stories of political mistrust and social empowerment. In Mos Def, we have a modern revolutionary using his musical legacy to uplift and inform.

The legacy of Fela is kept alive in artists like Mos Def and through the vision of Bill T. Jones (http://www.billtjones.org/), who recognized the need for Fela’s story to be told. Fortunately, Questlove from The Roots, Jay Z and actors Will and Jada Smith provided the financial resources and clout to push the play to Broadway. Now, with the recent TONY nominations, rave reviews and a lot media attention, hopefully more and more members of the Hip Hop generation will see their hidden revolutionary in the music of Fela and use that inspiration to bring Hip Hop as a culture back to its roots!!!

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One Response to “Fela and the failure of Hip Hop”

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