From Fela to Burna Boy: Postcolonial Critique in Afrobeat

by Chelsea Offiaeli and Feven Yohannes

Fela Anikulapo Kuti was the pioneer of the Afrobeat musical genre. He is known not only as one of Nigeria’s most influential performers but also as a bold human rights activist. Fela has never shied away from critiquing issues of African life in his music. He critiques postcolonial state violence through his analysis of the postcolonial modes of control over Africans despite the official end of colonial rule. Here I will look at how Fela critiques the continued British rule over the African mind through his song “Shuffering and Shmiling.”

Fela’s song “Shuffering and Shmiling” critiques British control over the African mind through the implementation of foreign religions. At the beginning of the song, he requests that the listener takes themselves out of the musical experience and put themselves into any house of worship. Once we are all located in a house of worship, the critique begins. He sings, “Suffer, suffer for world/Enjoy for Heaven/Christians go dey yab/"In Spiritum Heavinus." His use of the word yab, meaning to make a fool of oneself, is the first insight into Fela’s belief that the adoption of Christian beliefs is a foolish and dangerous choice for Africans. He later asserts that Africans follow the leaders of their religions, The Pope, Archbishop, and Imam, to their respective homelands to give their money in the name of their faith. Meanwhile, religious leaders are “enjoying” their comfortable lives with much more access to resources than their African followers. His critique takes on a mocking tone when he claims “them go start to yab themselves” and proceeds to mock the way that many Christians and Muslims passionately pray.

Fela elaborates on the religious control over the African mind as he lays out the various poverty-related conditions that plight the African people. He lists that people go home to no water, no electrical power, no money despite working tirelessly, and abuse from the police and military. Through all this suffering, Fela claims the people never stop smiling. They are blinded by their faith. The very faith that was brought over to them by missionaries that claimed Africans were worshiping idols that were not true gods. By blindly following their faith, they are making ill-advised financial decisions. If according to Fela, Africans are packing themselves like sardines in a bus, “Forty-nine sitting, ninety-nine standing” and cannot afford to buy a car to alleviate this problem, how can they afford to pay money to the Christian church, or to save money for the Hajj? The repeated refrain “suffer, suffer for world/ Na your fault be that” is unclear about who it is addressing. Fela could be placing the blame of African poverty on both the colonizers and the colonized for allowing the perpetuation of economic and social injustices in Africa.

The ideas that Fela discussed in his song “Shuffering and Shmiling”, as well as his other songs such as “Beast of No Nation”, translates into Afro-beat music in the present time. In the last few years, Afro-beats have taken the continent and world by storm. Why? Because the same issues of poverty, violence, and corruption that Fela mentions in post-colonial Nigeria, are unfortunately still present today, not only in Nigeria but in many African countries. While Fela is known as the creator of Afro-beats, many argue that Burna Boy, a rising international Afro-Beat star, is continuing his legacy.

Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu, professionally known as Burna Boy, has been greatly inspired by Fela, as his grandfather was a music manager for Fela. Burna Boy grew up listening to the songs of Fela and has even sampled Fela’s music in his songs, such as his most famous song “Ye”. Besides “Ye”, Burna Boy’s song “Another Story” has had massive fame, because of the issues that it covers.

The music video of “Another Story” starts with a video recording explaining how Nigeria was sold from the Niger company to the British, thus setting up the discussion of colonialism in Nigeria. It goes on to the main portion of the video where Burna Boy is pictured on a horse, observing the people of his country. Before this scene even starts the video shows a quick image of a poster saying “Private Property” and a security camera that seems to be watching Burna. This holds a lot of symbolism, as it makes it seem like Burna is about to uncover something that people in power do not want being revealed. Thus, Burna’s journey on the horse is an uncovering of everything that is happening in Nigeria behind the scenes. This imagery parallels the lyrics as Burna sings “Ay! They wanna tell you o, tell you, tell you o. Another story, story, story o Since 1960 them dey play us, why o?”. Therefore, highlighting how these issues that have carried over from colonial times are continuing today.

This uncovering begins with bloodshed, as lifeless bodies are spread along the streets. Slowly smoke appears, shadowing the faces of unfazed children, showing how they seem to be immune to the destruction that plagues their world, as it is almost as mundane as breathing itself. The only thing that seems to remain intact is the posters on the wall that read “APC” and “United Party of Nigeria”, the political parties of Nigeria, as well as a sign that reads “Tribalism, Power, and Fear”. Furthermore, the next scene shows a group of men gathering amidst mass blazes of fire, passionately screaming and shouting, perhaps in a protest setting. Towards the end of the video, a group of school children is shown in a classroom setting with blindfolds covering their eyes. These blindfolds read “Tribalism,” “Violence,” “Greed,” “Fear,” and “Independence,” different aspects reflecting the issues of the country. The imagery of the children with the blindfold symbolizes how these children’s fate is unfortunately determined by these issues, as they can't escape it and their fate is predetermined.

From Fela to Burna Boy, Afro-beats is a genre of music that has embodied longing for freedom and struggle, specifically the black struggle. The two songs “Shuffering and Shmiling” and “Another Story”, have an emphasis on neocolonialism in the African setting. They speak on the issues that plagued the country during colonial times and how that has influenced the present-day political and economic issues.

Chelsea Offiaeli