NIGERIA: Expensive Shit - Fela Kuti
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
A towering figure of music, politics and culture, Fela Kuti shows both a political and a philosophical side on this interesting and innovative album
Where to start with Fela Kuti? He is one of those names in music where the man is as fascinating as the music, and that charisma informs the music too. The Herald Sun described him as “Che Guevara and Bob Marley rolled into one”, and that’s not a bad summation of what Kuti symbolised for many people. A man nicknamed The Black President, he was someone for whom politics and music were inextricably linked. Indeed, he had his own political party in Nigeria at one point, and attempted a run for President, though his candidature was denied by the government, for whom he was a constant thorn in their side. Born into an upper-middle-class family, Fela Kuti was the son of a feminist and anti-colonial activist named Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, and his father, Israel Ransome-Kuti, was an Anglican priest and teacher. It was in this environment where Kuti decided not to become a doctor like his brothers, and instead studied music in London.
“He began to renounce only playing the Western music he had been taught, and instead began to a play a fusion genre that had a more authentically African sound to it. ”
Fela Kuti was a dissident and fervent critic of various Nigerian governments, which he characterised as corrupt, undemocratic and brutal, and he often found himself bearing the brunt of their violence and oppression, due to his explicitly provocative and political songs. There are so many of these incidents that I won’t list them all here, but I would definitely say they are worth looking up. This album, Expensive Shit, has a particular political message and cultural context, and it is worth knowing said context. The rather amusing title, which I’m slightly ashamed to admit had me chuckling for days, is a reference to an incident in 1974 when Kuti was arrested for having a joint on his person, which was planted on him by the police. He ate the joint to get rid of the evidence, so the police decided to wait for him to, err, pass it through his system. According to Kuti, he used another inmate’s faeces to get himself released. This rather bizarre story is the reason for the name and the story behind the title track. It’s a political song with a light touch, mocking the police and the government for their stupidity.
I came to this album as a complete Fela Kuti newcomer, and often when I listen to these albums, I like to go in cold, without knowing anything about it or the artist beforehand, beyond what I see as a title, album artwork and song titles. This, for me, was not an effective way to listen to Fela Kuti, and I ended up not enjoying the album all that much on first pass. If I didn’t have to write this review, I probably would never have gone back to it, but I'm so glad I did, because it is an album that pays dividends on repeat listens. I didn’t really get what he was about without knowing about him and his life, and thus I hope this review gives you some insight into appreciating this album, if you didn’t already know about him.
Despite the political nature of the first song, the second (and last) song Water No Get Enemy is more philosophical and contemplative in nature. It reflects on water as a life-force and as something mysterious and dangerous, and how that duality combines together to make something so vital to human existence. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is why it is his most listened to song on Spotify, as it is a song that doesn’t need to be located within a socio-political and cultural context like a lot of his other work, though I'm by no means an expert. It’s also the song I liked the most by far on my first listen, whereas now, having found out more about the background to making the album, the songs feel equally good to me.
Kuti is considered a pioneer of a genre named Afrobeat, which takes jazz and funk and combines it with traditional West African influences. Kuti did not invent the genre, which has its origins in Ghana in the 1920s, where musicians would combine foreign music with African rhythms, but Kuti revolutionised it and made it popular and influential outside Africa, while also imbuing it with a deep political edge. The origins of Kuti’s take on the genre began during his 10-month trip to the Unites States, where he encountered Sandra Smith, a member of the Black Panthers. They began to discuss politics, both in America and Africa, and this was his political awakening, much like Guevara’s motorcycle trip around Latin America was for him. He began to renounce only playing the Western music he had been taught, and instead began to a play a fusion genre that had a more authentically African sound to it.
The philosopher Marshall McLuhan (perhaps known to the eagle-eyed among you for his brief cameo in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, admonishing a pompous critic of his work) once stated that “the medium is the message”, essentially asking us to consider not just the content in a medium, the message of which is often easily discerned, but also how a message is conveyed through the communication medium itself, since the medium itself controls exactly how we interact with it. If we apply this maxim to Kuti, his music, lyrics aside, show a change in Kuti’s thinking to promoting a Pan-African support for traditional styles of music and living, while also elevating elements of African-American culture in the jazz influences, and a rejection of Western cultural (and literal) imperialism, and thus we hear exactly through the medium what his message is.
Musically, we have discussed how he uses Western influences laid on top of African grooves and rhythms. This is the style of the album, and the songs have an improvised feel. Kuti’s lyrics are sung in Nigerian pidgin English, and often repeat lines and have call and response choruses. There’s a repetitive guitar riff, and pianos, trumpets, saxophones all come and go as they please. It feels free and associative, taking some cues from jazz in this respect. The bongos and the drums are the backbone to this (as the name of the genre might suggest). It’s intensely listenable, especially as the album is pretty short, and both songs flow nicely, and work as a piece of music. It might not be music you’d want to listen to all the time, but it definitely has its time and place.
I want to end this piece with a quote from Kuti himself, explaining why his work was so intensely political, a dedication and commitment he had that never wavered even when it was personally detrimental to him and those around him, but also why he rarely sang about anything else.
“Yes, if you are in England, the music can be an instrument of enjoyment. You can sing about love, you can sing about whom you are going to bed with next. But in my own environment, my society is underdeveloped because of an alien system on our people. So, there is no music enjoyment. There is nothing like love. There is something like struggle for people's existence.”
From this we can extrapolate that Kuti saw music as a way to make the world better, as a way to spread a political message that he believed would make people’s lives better. That’s why, to me, he is an interesting figure of history, and why his music is interesting to listen to, even if I can’t say it’s something I will return to regularly. However, Kuti does still use music as an instrument of enjoyment, as his work is filled with humour and provocation. His music, despite dealing with tough themes and issues, many of which still plague his home country to this day, remains vital, vibrant, fun and provocative.