DJ Sessions: Afrobeat After Fela Kuti

Nov 5, 2013

The genre of Afrobeat was started by Fela Kuti, the legendary Nigerian singer and political activist who died of AIDS in 1997.

There’s been a push to teach people more about him, with museum exhibits, books and the critically acclaimed Broadway musical, “Fela!”

But how has Afrobeat developed since Fela Kuti, and what does it sound like today?

DJ and producer Rich Medina has been working to get Afrobeat into the U.S. mainstream, playing it in clubs, and hosting “Jump N Funk” Afrobeat dance parties around the U.S.

Today, even without Fela Kuti, the genre — which draws attention to corruption and oppression — continues to thrive because the “themes are timeless,” Medina says.

Rich Medina’s Afrobeat Picks


  • Rich Medina, a music producer and DJ who leads “Jump N Funk,” a touring Afrobeat dance party. He tweets @richmedina.
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And it is time now for the HERE AND NOW DJ Sessions.


TOM PETTY: (Singing) And there goes the last DJ.


JAMIE FOXX: (Singing) DJ, won't you play this girl a love song.


JET: (Singing) Dance little DJ come on.


RIHANNA: (Singing) Come Mr. DJ song pon de replay. Come Mr. DJ won't you turn the music up.

HOBSON: Today, we are looking at Afrobeat, a genre started by Fela Kuti, the legendary Nigerian singer and political activist. He died in 1997, but Afrobeat remains alive and well. Joining us from WHYY in Philadelphia is Rich Medina, a music producer and DJ who also runs the Jump N Funk touring Afrobeat dance party. Rich Medina, welcome to HERE AND NOW.

RICH MEDINA: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

HOBSON: And let's start with a song from Fela Kuti to set the scene here. This is called "Zombie."


FELA KUTI: (Singing) Zombie O Zombie.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Zombie O Zombie.

FELITA KUTI: (Singing) ) Zombie O Zombie.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) ) Zombie O Zombie.

FELITA KUTI: (Singing) Zombie no go go unless you tell am to go.


FELITA KUTI: (Singing) Zombie no go stop unless you tell am to stop.


FELITA KUTI: (Singing) Zombie no go turn unless you tell am to turn.


FELITA KUTI: (Singing) Zombie no go think unless you tell am to think.


FELITA KUTI: (Singing) Zombie O Zombie.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Zombie O Zombie.

FELITA KUTI: (Singing) Zombie O Zombie.

HOBSON: Tell us what Fela Kuti did here and what this genre is all about.

MEDINA: Well, the song "Zombie" is a song written about the notion of followers and sheep and people who follow systems - whether they be positive systems, negative systems, colonial systems - that will draw people into its power. And in this particular tune Fela was speaking directly to the soldiers of the Nigerian military following some very, very, very corrupt guidelines set forth to them by the French and oil companies and their own military leaders.

HOBSON: And the government was outraged by the album.

MEDINA: Absolutely. As they were with many things that Fela had to say.

HOBSON: Well, how did that album and Fela Kuti's music become an entire genre all on its own?

MEDINA: Well, the music genre came to life through the meeting of Fela Anikulapo Kuti and a gentleman by the name of Tony Allen. Tony Allen was a drummer in Fela's original band, the Africa '70. And the drum kit rhythm with the repetitive kick and repetitive snare pattern that dominates the rhythm section of the vast majority of Afrobeat music that we know today was started by Mr. Tony Allen under the watch of Fela Kuti.


FELITA KUTI: (Singing) Attention, quick march, slow march, left turn, right turn, about turn, double up, salute, open your hat, stand at ease, fall in...

HOBSON: And Fela's children are a big part of the scene now. Here is Femi Kuti and "No Place for My Dream."


FEMI KUTI: (Singing) A dead hero. A dead hero. A dead hero. Determined, I was to make them see happiness for all coming under my dream. A dream come true for humanity. This dream can be called my reality. So I set out to achieve my dream, feeling proud and full of pep, excited so to say. Well, people are shocked to see what I feel. Oh, no, (unintelligible) there is no place for my dream. Why don't you face reality?

HOBSON: And just to your point, the other songs on that album are "Nothing to Show for It," "No Work No Job No Money" - sort of similar themes to what Femi Kuti's father was singing about.

MEDINA: Absolutely. And those themes are timeless, because colonial oppression, the idea of financial oppression through the relationship of oil barons and certain tribal and military leaders, primarily in Nigeria, since it's what we're talking about, you know, those factors still stand strong today.

HOBSON: Although this music has moved far out of Africa. Here is the group the Soul Jazz Orchestra. They are from Canada. And here's the song "Conquering Lion."


HOBSON: Well, I definitely hear the jazz in there.

MEDINA: Absolutely. And you hear influences of Mulatu of Ethiopia, you hear East African influences, you hear impulses that are taken from all over Africa, but the primary driving point is Fela Anikulapo Kuti and the Afrobeat sound and the notion that voices that speak for the oppressed just the same. You know, obviously, you're talking about Canada, so the notion of oppression is a completely different vocabulary there, but I think that it's very easy to interpret the passion and the hostility and the emotion that sits behind the music that comes out of West Africa and Afrobeat.

HOBSON: And there is also, of course, Afrobeat here in the United States. Let's listen to the Brooklyn-based Afrobeat band Antibalas. Is that how you say that?

MEDINA: Yes, it is. And that's bulletproof in Spanish.

HOBSON: A-ha. OK. Great. And here's the song "Dirty Money."


DUKE AMAYO: (Singing) Dirty now, dirty money, oh.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) No hold up.

AMAYO: (Singing) Dirty money, no can hold up.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) No hold up.

AMAYO: (Singing) I say, oh, dirty now, dirty money, oh.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) No hold up.

AMAYO: (Singing) Dirty money, not the fruit, oh.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) No hold up.

AMAYO: (Singing) Oh.

MEDINA: Antibalas, luckily, for me, are very dear friends of mine. And the lead vocalist in that tune is a brother by the name of Duke Amayo. And Duke Amayo is a real-deal Nigerian gentleman. So the emotion behind the verses is coming from a very tangible place. And the song "Dirty Money" is about money that is passed around by leaders. A lot of it is based on oil. And the money doesn't really trickle down to the average everyday man.

HOBSON: Rich Medina, you've been playing Afrobeat music in clubs in the U.S. for years. You're credited with introducing a whole new generation to Afrobeat. And now you have these Afrobeat dance parties across the country. Tell us about those, and who are the people who come and want to hear this music?

MEDINA: Our party, Jump N Funk, was started in August of 2001. And fundamentally we were an after-work party. We went from 7:00 to 11:00. And I play the music, and we handed out propaganda to familiarize the city of New York with who Fela Kuti is. You know, four years prior, he had just passed away. And for the most part, even a great deal of quote-unquote black history scholars in the United States weren't very versed in who this gentleman is. And the reality of the matter is, you know, Fela Kuti is James Brown with a political agenda, you know, Bob Marley with a political agenda. The songs were that community-based and that written for the people who needed to hear something encouraging, they needed a voice to speak up for them. In West Africa, Fela Kuti represented that voice. So it was very important for us to raise awareness about who he was.

And within two months of that little after-work party, it just began to grow its own legs, and come 11:00, when it was time for us to leave, we would still have - if the place held 400 people, we would still have 275 people dancing as hard as they possibly can, and a line filling up outside. And I feel very blessed to have fallen into that position. But to say that I introduced a new generation of people to Fela Kuti through the dance floor is a huge honor, but I do have to say that there were plenty of people who came before me who understood what the music was about. I just don't think that they chose to put it in the type of platform that we did. And praise God, we're here to talk about it.

HOBSON: Well, and they probably don't have as nice of a voice to listen to as you do.

MEDINA: Oh, man. I hope that gets me a job somewhere.


HOBSON: Philadelphia-based hip-hop and Afrobeat DJ Rich Medina, talking with us about Afrobeat. Rich, thanks so much.

MEDINA: Oh, thank you.


HOBSON: And this is "Ya Basta" by the Soul Jazz Orchestra. You can find names of all of the music that we have just heard at


You're going to talk like that now.


HOBSON: I'm going to have to lower my voice significantly.

YOUNG: What pipes. Yeah.

HOBSON: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.