Trevor, a relatively recent BYU graduate and Utah transplant, loves to talk music and religion (though not usually in tandem). He blogs (infrequently) at furusatoe and tweets (frequently) at @thabermeyer.
The first time I heard Talking Heads’ magnum opus, Remain In Light, I was stunned. Released in late 1980, the album sounded like none of its contemporaries in the burgeoning post-punk/new wave scene. The most striking, differentiating feature of Remain In Light is its complex polyrhythms and percussive elements, immediately noticeable even to the casual music listener on tracks like “Crosseyed and Painless” and “The Great Curve.” Yet, as is the case with most music, the heart of Remain in Light is less innovation than appropriation. Following the release of Talking Heads’ previous album, ‘79’s Fear of Music, friend and producer Brian Eno introduced lead singer David Byrne and the band to the work of Nigerian musician and bandleader Fela Kuti – and it entranced them. As related by Eno, Fela’s 1973 album, Afrodisiac, became the template and inspiration for the Heads’ new album:
When I first met Talking Heads, the first meeting I ever had with them, they had been playing in London and they came over to my flat to talk about me working on their next album. So I said, “This is the future of music”, and I played them Afrodisiac, and to their credit they were incredibly impressed by it. If you listen to the third album we did together (Remain In Light) it’s so influenced by that. It’s sort of shameful in a way.[i]
Remain In Light was both a commercial and critical success, legendary among aficionados of Western pop music. Lesser known is afrobeat: the style of music to which that album is indebted in a “sort of shameful . . . way.”
Afrobeat is easily discernable once you’ve heard a few songs in the genre, but it warrants some description. Born from the mind of Fela Kuti (and, according to Fela, drummer Tony Allen) in the late ‘60s, afrobeat is an amalgam of a few distinct musical threads: Ghanaian highlife, Yoruban percussion, funky guitars (in the spirit of James Brown), big-band jazz, and the West African chant tradition (excuse the gross simplification). Songs typically begin with a simple riff, usually an exchange between the rhythm and tenor guitars, repeated over and over in an ostinato rhythm – the base upon which the rest of the song is built. Drums, bass, brass, and keyboards follow, establishing the melody and exchanging solos in what amounts to an extended jam session. The main vocal line and accompanying chants, interacting in a call-and-response manner, enter at about the halfway point. As for length, afrobeat songs are closer to jazz than pop: anywhere from ten minutes to a half hour.
If you’re someone (like me) who has trouble paying attention to the intricacies of most jazz music, you’ll probably find afrobeat to be much more digestible; in large measure because the music is so danceable. In fact, afrobeat was the most popular music in West Africa during the 1970s (and, according to some reports, even now). Difficult listening this is not.
Here I want to highlight just one afrobeat track: Fela Kuti’s 1976[ii] classic, “Zombie”. This was a pivotal, political time for pop music, with punk rock emerging in the US and the UK through the Ramones and Sex Pistols, and the golden age of reggae/dub hitting fever pitch amidst political strife in Jamaica. So it seems only natural that one of Fela’s most scathing, politically-charged songs would debut in ’76 – the spirit was in the air. A diatribe against the corrupt Nigerian military, “Zombie” is, at its lyrical heart, an indictment against blind obedience and the authoritarianism that enables it:
Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go
Zombie no go stop, unless you tell am to stop
Zombie no go turn, unless you tell am to turn
Zombie no go think, unless you tell am to think
As the song progresses Fela shouts rousing orders at the band, ironically blurring the line between bandleader and drill sergeant (“Attention! Halt! Order! Dismiss!”). Notice also the use of Pidgin English. Though Fela was strongly anti-colonial and pro-Africa, believing Africans should support traditional African culture while eschewing colonial trappings, he mostly sung in this language to allow his music to be enjoyed by a broader spectrum of people. The intent was also political: from inception, Fela always used his music as a vehicle for his political activism, and singing in a more universal language expanded the reach of his message. We’ve come to expect this of artists; but, in Fela’s case, his politics truly infused everything – so much so that during the ‘80s he made a bid for the presidency of Nigeria under his own political party, Movement of the People, further cementing the immortal epithet he came to be intimately associated with: Black President. Though he never attained political office, the cultural power he wielded among the African people was unmistakable.
The political satire of “Zombie” didn’t make it an outlier in Fela’s discography, but the reaction it evoked did. The song’s popularity, Fela’s ever-increasing stature as countercultural icon, and rising tensions with the government culminated in a military raid on Fela’s personal commune within a year of its release. Dwellings were reduced to ashes, residents were beaten and raped, and Fela’s aged mother, Funmilayo – a prominent women’s rights activist in Nigeria – was thrown from a window, suffering fatal injuries. Understanding of this aftermath serves as a reminder that, beyond the entrancing beat, “Zombie” spoke to real issues and spurred brutal consequences.
Remarkably, Fela was shaken but not deterred by the incident. Bitter experience with injustices commonplace in a corrupt environment – from countless arrests to raids on his residence – perhaps allowed him to take the tragedy in stride (in a way, his tenacity reminds me of Joseph Smith). Within the next three years he would write two songs that directly addressed the incident: “Unknown Soldier” and “Coffin for Head of State,” the former a retelling of the harrowing night of the attack (to which the government blamed on the acts of “unknown soldiers”), the latter a rebuke of religious hypocrisy and Olusegun Obasanjo, the Christian Head of State to whom Fela held responsible for the death of his mother (true to the song’s title and as a symbolic gesture, Fela actually delivered his mother’s coffin to the main military barracks in Lagos in protest). Far from being silenced, Fela continued to be an outspoken critic and political activist for much of the remainder of his life, until his death in 1997.
Since at least 1941, when American folk legend Woody Guthrie painted the words “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS” on his guitar, the intersection between pop music and political culture has continued unabated. In recent years, as music speaking to the political realities of black experience, such as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Beyoncé’s Lemonade, has moved to the center of both critical and public attention, Fela Kuti’s afrobeat is a fitting predecessor and complement. And yet, is there any contemporary musician whose political art has brought upon them the same level of censure and abuse that Fela experienced?[iii] If nothing else, the story of “Zombie” reminds us of a place and time when political messaging in music was more costly. Though the context may be different, the message of “Zombie” continues to reverberate today as we, both as citizens and saints, grapple with the challenges inherent in pledging our, too often unthinking, support to larger institutions, movements, and ideologies. And beyond the message, it’s just great music. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
[ii] I can find no strict agreement on when the track was actually released. I gather that it was recorded and released locally in ’76, but had a wider release in ’77. Whether ’76 or ’77, the point still holds – these were transition years, both politically and musically.
[iii] The imprisonment and exile of Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and other artists part of the Brazilian Tropicalia movement of the late ‘60s is the closest comparison that comes to mind (common denominator = corrupt military regime). See this excellent article for details: http://pitchfork.com/features/from-the-pitchfork-review/9978-god-is-on-the-loose-how-the-tropicalia-movement-provided-hope-during-brazils-darkest-years/