During the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s I saw the signs advertising the shows all over Oakland, but didn’t know who in the hell the groups were:
ALL THE WAY LIVE FROM LAGOS:
FELA RANSOM KUTI
KING SUNNY ADE
Being African American I had no idea who those people were, as a matter of fact I really didn’t know where Lagos was.
I started deejaying for a dancehall sound system in the late 90’s. My uncle and friend DJ Ibi Judah recruited me to spin with him. He spun early rockers, ska, rock steady and roots and culture. I spun R&B and hip hop. I had fun doing it too. One night at a bar called the Oasis in downtown Oakland I went into my thing. I broke out the Mary Jane Girls, Rick James and Michael Jackson, stuff we call classics. Anyway, the club was half empty (as usual) except for some brothers from Nigeria. These guys were really diggin’ those records. One brother asked me ‘Hey brudda, ya got any Fela?’
“Fe what, who?”
‘Fela” He said, as if I should know.
“No, what’s that?”
Come to find out Fela was the king of Afro beat, he was to African funk what James Brown is to American funk: the be all to end all.
I made a mental note to keep an eye and ear out for this Fela character.
One night at a club called Island Paradise in Alameda it was Nigerian Independence Day. Let me tell you something about this spot first. At a reggae club other black ethnic groups will come out and drink and soak up the vibe. So of course dancehall/reggae nights the crowd will be predominately West Indian: Jamaican, Barbadian, Trinidadian and African American. If there a lot of Trinidadians and Barbadians in the house you better play some soca.
Now of course Africans come out too Nigerians, Ghanians, Senegalese they come out and soak up the vibes, if there are a lot of Africans in the house, you’d better play some zouk.
Now the funny thing is each of these groups of people will front on the others music if it is played too much. West Indians will suck their teeth “Mi na wanna hear any bumbleclot zouk, mi youth, now gwan an kill dat ya know.”
Let’s put it like this on this particular Nigerian Independence Day, there was a lot of teeth suckin. I went to the club with my Uncle Mark from Belize and my Uncle Ibi. There is a cloud of herb smoke above my head and it is hot and crowded like a slave ship. All of a sudden the deejay puts on a record that didn’t sound African to me. Nor did it sound like any reggae I had ever heard. I turned around to my Uncle Ibi and asked him, ‘Yo what is this?’
“This is Fela”, he said, “In Nigeria he is Malcolm X, Bob Marley and James Brown all wrapped up in one.”
It sounded like James Brown but with more of a jazz influence. The funky chicken like scratch sound of the guitars gave hint of the fact that this was a man that liked American soul music in the 70’s. But the percussion was straight up African.
Ibi, who is from Nigeria, translated every word of a song called ‘Lady’. I was hooked.
I later found plenty of Fela records at Dusty Groove Records. The saddest thing for me as an African American is that I feel like I should’ve been hipped to Fela a long time ago. But I was failed. I was failed by the music and cultural institutions of my community, namely black radio. Black radio virtually ignored the first 5 years of rap music. It’s the same black radio that never gave Bob Marley a break. And is the same institution that never gave Jimi Hendrix any love at all. And is the same institution that damn sure never whispered the name Fela on the radio. They failed the Black community.