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NA THAT WAY BE THAT BY FEMI KUTI
Before his death in 1997, Fela Kuti had combined biting political commentary and stinging insults with a sound that urged listeners to dance. The Afrobeat patriarch perhaps overdid both, leaving too little left for anyone to innovate enough to find widespread acceptance—unless the sound is used in service of pop music.
So while artists like Tekno (on ‘Rara’) and Wizkid (on ‘Ojuelegba’) have found success by employing Afrobeat elements, no real Afrobeat artist has acquired a third of the culture capital of Fela. Smartly, the younger Kuti has worked some of these artists either on a song (like ‘Jaiye Jaiye’) or via invitations to the annual Felabration festival.
On his music, however, Femi Kuti has mostly dispensed with the pressure of bringing popstars to his own tracks. This all-Afrobeat-no-pop style might be one reason that sometime ago a European researcher expressed a measure of worry at the state of Afrobeat before a Femi Kuti event. It looks like Femi’s music is more popular overseas than in Lagos, he told me. The new single, ‘Na Their Way Be That’, will hardly change that.
As with most of the songs in his oeuvre, ‘Na Their Way Be That’ comes with two common Afrobeat features: it is brashly political, and it makes you dance. For some reason, it appears the Nigerian political class now come equipped with thicker skins or perhaps democracy thrives on the practised indifference of politicians. Strangely, the absence of much danger has come with a near-absence of political music in Nigeria.
In that regard, Femi Kuti has held the fort. Unfortunately, the lyrics to the newer Femi songs are far too general and as a result generic. Because they can apply to anyone, they apply to no one really. As much as the previous single ‘One People One World’ consisted of lyrics vending standard-issue joy, the new one targets an unnamed group of unjust people:
No matter how much we try to change these kind of people oh
They will always be unreasonable
They have no respect for other human beings
You assume the song is directed at the bunch of Nigerian politicians. The politicians themselves can assume the song is directed at any other group of people.
But with Fela, everyone knew who was under attack. He was invested in name-dropping and finger-pointing. By contrast, Femi is evasive. Music from both men express a quest for a better country, but Femi is the evasive democrat to Fela’s acerbic dictator.
If the words to the new single are not quite as biting as one might want, the music is danceable still. Femi’s talent abides, even as age has taken off the edge to his music. From a cool start the songs gets off to quite a crescendo finish, all the way maintaining its make-you-dance rhythm. The trajectory is reminiscent of the pattern of his live shows at the venerated New Afrikan Shrine.
Deeply political Afrobeat fans will crave lyrics that match the health of Femi Kuti’s sound on ‘Na Their Way Be That’. But even this group should be pacified with knowing that musically the man has got it still
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