With the Broadway musical Fela! getting raves and a major reissue campaign under way, there’s suddenly a ton of interest in the Afrobeat legend. Here’s what you need to know.
The late Nigerian bandleader and political activist is an icon in Africa thanks to his groove-heavy fusion of West African rhythms with funk and jazz. ”I was shooting Ali in Ghana,” says Will Smith, who’s co-producing the musical with Jada Pinkett Smith and Jay-Z. ”One of Fela’s cousins told me his story, and it was fantastic.” Fela was also famous for eccentric behavior — he married 27 women — and criticizing the Nigerian government. He was repeatedly jailed, and a 1977 raid on his compound by soldiers resulted in the death of his mother. Fela himself died from an AIDS-related illness in 1997.
It’s not just Smith and Jay-Z who are impressed: Paul McCartney was an early booster, while David Byrne once said, ”His music…it split my mind.”
In February, the Knitting Factory label will start reissuing all 45 of his albums. Fela virgins should check out recent comp Best of the Black President, featuring some of his greatest tracks.
— With additional reporting by Nicole Sperling