Fela’s Tipping Point
by R. Asmerom
The cream always rises to the top, so they say. In the music marketplace, where marketing and airplay dictate how artistry is exposed and consumed, the cream’s ascent is a bit more complicated. The popularity of Fela Kuti, the Nigerian artist who created the Afrobeat genre and invigorated the world music scene with his blend of jazz, funk and Yoruba music, exemplifies how a great thing can go relatively unnoticed by a wide audience.
From the late 1960s until his death in 1997, Kuti was slowly building a name for himself not only as a musical innovator but as a political activist. His critically-praised music often integrated his anti-colonial and anti-corruption ideals. There was a lot to admire about Fela. But unfortunately, unlike his peer Bob Marley, Kuti’s message and music never really caught on in the United States, until recently that is. In 2009, the musical Fela! hit Broadway and ignited major interest in the life and music of the man who was known as the “James Brown of Africa.”
“The Broadway show is such a watershed,” said Maurice Bernstein, co-founder and CEO of Giant Step, a marketing and promotion company which has worked on marketing efforts for Kuti’s music for over a decade. He describes his popularity in terms of BC and AD (before the play and after the play). According to Bernstein, before the play, those who were familiar with Fela’s music were world music fans and deep house fans who were part of the underground dance clubs. “You had select celebs like Flea who really knew who Fela Kuti was. Outside of that, you said his name, and it would just be a blank,” he said. “You’re talking about one of the greatest musicians and one of the greatest body of works and you’d literally draw a blank from people.”
Kuti’s 8-minute-plus long songs certainly did not help him get airplay. The length of the songs rendered him unfriendly to radio deejays so his popularity essentially flourished amongst niches of music enthusiasts. “His music and message have been passed on through word of mouth from friend to friend, brother to sister, teacher to student,” said Manuel Pila, a co-host of world music radio show Global Gumbo. “Fela has become part of The Essentials. As such, he has been prominent in that culturally aware crowd for at least a couple of decades. Folks in the know will always know. The world’s musicians, dancers, artists, activists, writers, and students will always seek out the Great Ones, the Ellas and Billies and, yes, the Felas.”
Alongside the debut of the Broadway play, Knitting Factory Records also announced in 2009 that it would be re-releasing Kuti’s complete catalogue of 45 albums over 12 years. Bernstein’s company Giant Step organized “Felabrations” across the country to promote the relaunch of his musical catalogue. Although these re-issues will probably constitute Kuti’s best selling albums in the United States to date, this is not the first time that there was a large reproduction of the prolific artist’s music. Over 10 years ago, MCA (now Universal) re-issued his catalogue.
“The reissue of a lot of his vinyls back in 1999 helped get some of the younger deejay generation into Fela’s music because before that, his records were very hard to come by,” said Bernstein. “That original reissue didn’t set the billboard charts on fire with sales but it got the stuff to more of the next generation of [the] underground.”