Lagos, Nigeria – When Fela Anikulapo Kuti died, so too did the flavour of Nigeria’s music scene.
At the time, music in Nigeria was more than a lyrical lush, it was also about people power and activism. Fela’s Afrobeat from the 1970s to 90s helped those to flourish.
There was always entertainment though, but far more vitality went into social commentary and the promotion of human rights.
The music of those days was a reaction to reality. The military that ruled Nigeria for a better part of its 58 years’ independence had created so many problems. The urge to fight back was there, but always suppressed. Fela stood out because he stepped in aggressively with his music.
Music academics say Fela’s death in 1997 was far costlier than the country would later realise. He had kept the government restless, he was a driving voice against military dictators – all done with music that dispelled larger frustrations bottled up against corrupt politicians and military hardliners, with a rich mix of instruments, dance steps and styles to even-up boredom.
Yet, there is not much change between the era of the military and the return of civilian democracy in 1999.
There have been rampant allegations of corrupt practices by top politicians. Hunger and poverty have also worsened. But unlike the past, where musicians stepped in, this time the response has been muted. Or rather, few have had as much effect as those of the past.
That was until Nigerian Folarin Falani, stage-named Falz, entered the scene in the 2000s. He was only seven when Fela died.
Understandably, there was a content shift after Fela’s death – noticeably marking a huge departure from the expectations of local music lovers.
“There is a total deviation from the moral and social relevance of Nigeria music. We left music that tackled problems,” Professor Onyeji Christian of the Music Department, University of Nigeria, said of the era.
Still, the line between that era of socially and politically conscious music seem to intersect with Falz, a young Nigerian lawyer-turned-rapper, who reminded millions of Nigerians of the legendary figure.
Far more, however, this nostalgia comes with the optimism that beyond filling the fame of Fela, Falz can recast the Nigerian music industry – bringing back a far-fading tradition with a sprinkle of modernity.
“They are very different artists operating at separate levels with perhaps the thread of sociopolitical resistance binding them. I prefer to think of Falz as the inevitable evolution of Fela’s activism,” says Nigerian-based music journalist Wilfred Okiche.
This is Nigeria
It started when in 2018 Falz released a controversial song This Is Nigeria, a cover version of American rapper Childish Gambino’s This Is America.
It became a hit with more than 10 million views on YouTube in a matter of weeks and was praised globally. In the United States, hip-hop star and entrepreneur P Diddy shared the video on his Instagram account, celebrating “artists changing the game”.
The song – critical of corrupt politicians, places of worship and the security forces – soon drew the anger of some institutions, such as Nigeria’s Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC).
A few weeks later, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) banned the song saying it had “vulgar lyrics”. Many believed it was the government that executed vengeance through the NBC.
Starting off with troubles was not a setback. It was rather a trademark for which Fela, who was arrested more than 200 times, which sharpened the comparison from content to torment.
Music journalist Joey Akan was quick to compare Falz with Fela Kuti, saying his song “embodies the revolutionary and rebel spirit of Fela Anikulapo Kuti”, in an opinion piece online.
Falz returned with his singles Talk and Moral Instruction on his fourth album comprising nine tracks. The songs criticised politicians, corruption, police brutality, prostitution, social injustice and internet fraud.
There was remarkable semblance, experts observed, between his return and that of Fela in 1977. After nearly dying of torture for his song Zombie – a scathing attack on the Nigerian military, Fela returned stronger with two songs – Coffin for Head of State and Unknown Soldier, which was a direct attack on the military ruler, Olusegun Obasanjo.
More narrowly, in his new album, Falz mocked the then president’s constant ailing health, using the sarcastic phrase, “four years’ tenure, three years’ holiday” to describe his constant absence as a result of medical trips abroad.
His “we buy your story but you no give us change” line attacked many failed promises of the present government.
Prior to the album release, Falz held a school-themed listening party to explain the purpose and concept behind the album.
“I feel like a lot of artists stay away from making content like this,” said Falz, 28. “But I have decided that if we have to change the mentality, then we need to be bold, we need to be brave. The album is movement, a re-education and a re-orientation. Quite obviously, we have lost a plot as a people, as a country.”
But the connection between both artists or what music critic Dami Ajayi described as Fela’s influence, is not narrowed to music alone. For instance, it was Falz’s father, Femi Falana, a renowned human rights lawyer, who became Fela’s lead lawyer.
It was President Muhammadu Buhari, then a military head of state, who jailed Fela in 1983. It was Lemi Ghariokwu, most renowned for providing cover images for the recordings of the late Afrobeat Legend, Fela Kuti, who designed the cover art of Moral Instruction.
If we have to change the mentality, then we need to be bold, we need to be brave
Does this mean Falz can revolutionise the Nigerian music industry as Fela did?
Local artist, Amarachi Amachukwu says it’s a hasty verdict to make. But if anything, he has the potential to reach that height, especially if he can endure the pressure from the government and the music market. Falz’s first fight, Amachukwu says, would be to recognise he is taking an “odd path” in an industry flushed with romance, sex, money and greed.
“A lot of musicians are afraid. The government has shown in the past that they can be mean in dealing with critics. Nobody wants to be the Nigerian kind of hero again. But if Falz prevails, greater courage would return to the music industry,” says the 21-year-old Afro-hip-hop singer.
There would be pressure to remain relevant in a music market tilting towards sex, wealth and romantic patronage. He is risking moral and financial support as did others like Chinagorom Onuoha, aka African China, Eedris Abdulkareem, who came so close to Fela but faded away.
He also risks losing his fans who followed him for the genre of music he brought into the industry: the comical, romantic flavour of Afro-hip-hop.
Falz would have been the new Fela easily if only for the content of his music alone. But it takes more than making socially conscious music to be Fela. After all, being Fela is strange, controversial and radical.
“Among his peers, he has assumed a leadership position,” Okiche says. “If there is as little as a slight increase in political or socially conscious messaging by Nigerian artists, it would be because Falz has led the charge for a new generation. He is certainly one to watch.”
In his 10-year journey through professional music, Falz kept evolving. Prior to his song Marry Me, he was relatively unknown. With four albums, several awards and nominations to his name, he has established himself as one of Nigeria’s finest hip-hop talents.