Cover art credit: Janet Griffith
Photo credit: Bernard Matussiere
The Best of the Black President 2
Knitting Factory Records
Release Date: February 5, 2013
1. Everything Scatter
2. Expensive Shit
3. Underground System (Part 2)
4. Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am
5. Monkey Banana
6. Sorrow Tears and Blood (Original Extended Version)
1. Black Man’s Cry
2. Mr. Follow Follow
3. He Miss Road
4. Yellow Fever
5. Na Poi
6. Colonial Mentality
Despite the fact that some of Fela Kuti’s most important (and beloved) albums were recorded and released over 40 years ago, Kuti remains a complicated, but beguiling and larger-than-life figure whose work has influenced not just countless artists across his native Nigeria but the rest of the world. And although Afrobeat, a genre that deftly mixes the griot tradition with African polyrhythms and elements of Western musical genres such as funk, soul, R&B, jazz and rock manages to be uniquely Nigerian, it’s by far some of the funkiest shit you’ll ever hear. But just as important, the messages within Kuti’s work resonate deeply – and sadly are even more necessary than ever.
Most listeners will find Kuti’s work joyfully ebullient and life affirming, and that’s very much true. But in many ways that’s missing the point. If you pay close attention, the music contains a defiant, righteous fury. Kuti’s music was – and still is – an expression of his political views, with biting, acerbic critiques of European cultural imperialism, corrupt, oppressive African governments, and any form of social injustice. Kuti was especially critical of the military regimes of the 1970s and 1980s, and it naturally it didn’t go down well. Rightfully considering Kuti and his supporters as threats to their rule, the various regimes who ruled Nigeria were known to intimidate, harass and brutalize Kuti, his family and his supporters. His musician sons Femi and Seun have publicly told stories describing how they’ve seen Nigerian authorities hog-tie and beat their father – for the crime of being an artist with a conscience. And although Fela was beaten, bruised and arrested more than 200 times, he continued to defiantly speak out for the poor, the disenfranchised, the oppressed and anyone else that had “drawn life’s short straw.”
Arguably, Kuti’s political viewpoints may have been decades ahead of his time, as they frequently dealt with things on a global scale; after all, Kuti saw the impact of colonialism and imperialism had on the lives and souls of his countrymen, as well as others. And I suspect that in light of consumerism and globalization, Fela’s work manages to speak out to a larger group of people – people who have seen how consumerism and globalization has insidiously impacted their lives.
Now, some 16 years after his death from complications from AIDS, Brooklyn-based Knitting Factory Records released a new compilation of Kuti’s work, The Best of the Black President 2 which covers the period of roughly 1975 – 1992. For the Fela fan there will be some material that’s familiar – for example, “Expensive Shit” and “He Miss Road” are off Kuti’s Expensive Shit/He Miss Road, and “Black Man’s Cry” is off his incredible live album with the legendary Ginger Baker titled, Fela Ransome Kuti and the Afrika 70 with Ginger Baker – Live! However, with a catalog that spans some 50 records, it’s difficult for most audiophiles to have everything – despite the fact that there is an extensive compilation of Kuti’s entire catalog. So with that in mind, there are some gems in this collection, while capturing a sense of Fela’s work for the novice. “Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am,” is a vivid description of a absurd, corrupt kleptocracy – a world in which even the cops and the bankers have their hands in someone else’s pockets. “Yellow Fever” is a blistering critique on the colonial and imperialist culture that influences and encourages Africans to bleach their skin, in an attempt to be white. There’s an extended version of “Sweat, Tears and Blood” inspired by the South African apartheid regime’s brutal crushing of the 1975 Soweto Uprising. Tracks such as these capture Fela’s most vital, complex and powerful work of the 1970s – and it may well be his best period. In fact, the material of this period manages to prove its point while being pretty fucking funny. “Underground System (Part 2)” captures Fela’s last period and is influenced by the assassination of Burkina Faso’s revolutionary leader, Thomas Sankara.
With compilations, there are always countless questions that come up – from the compilation’s necessity, to which songs were placed on the compilation and why, and even the order each track is in. And although this compilation offers a very full sense of Fela’s most socio-politically charged work, I can’t figure out why “Underground System (Part 2)” appears earlier than “He Miss Road” or “Black Man’s Cry.” Perhaps, the compilation may have been better served if in chronological order, to show how Fela grew as an artist – or how his work grew. But despite that what remains is a body of work that still manages to be incredibly relevant and fresh, as though it could have come out yesterday.