For more than 30 years, Afrobeat has been slowly grabbing ears in underground music circles like a revolutionary movement steadily arming itself for a coup d'état. Rawer than jazz, more organic than R&B, and as politically and socially relevant as hip-hop, this genre binds American styles to percussive African rhythms, chants, and 10-piece-plus horn-heavy orchestras. This is a high-energy music with the street appeal of blaxploitation grooves and the third-world desperation of reggae, a sound that is as mysterious and at times as daunting as the continent itself. The huge sound and unstoppable momentum require that Afrobeat's direct political message be taken seriously and unequivocally. As our government takes either the middle ground or simply the wrong ground, the liberal locomotive of Afrobeat is moving ahead full speed, proving that funk beats and dance music slam home a message harder than an acoustic guitar ever did and with more attitude than Neil Young could ask for.
Afrobeat has always had a direct agenda, ever since Fela Kuti, its legendary inventor, decided to fight back. Kuti's Afrobeat style bloomed in Nigeria during the late 1960s, taking the global explosion of funk and mixing it with African highlife and Yoruba music. He translated the musical message of Curtis Mayfield and Sly and the Family Stone, written on the streets of urban America, for millions of oppressed West Africans. Viewers tell of Kuti performances that resembled a heated battlefield with dozens of musicians backing their fearless leader — he often donned war paint for shows — and bouts that seemed like they would never end till one side surrendered.
Even now, Afrobeat won't kill you with kindness or change your ways through love — put a flower in Kuti's gun and you'll get blasted. This is music for the huddled masses, not a feel-good exercise to tug at the heartstrings of the powerful. It follows that Kuti — a polygamist, presidential candidate, and cultural phenomenon — became a political prisoner when Nigeria's military junta attempted to quell the musical movement that was planting the seeds of revolution.
Fast-forward to the 21st century: With war and political deception once again on the front pages and, more important, on the minds of young people, Afrobeat is providing a much-needed niche. The sound is being embraced among jam-band earthies who want an honest government that will work to reverse human-made environmental devastation and Latino listeners faced with the anti-immigration issues.
Filled with activist-minded residents ready to get behind authentic revolutions, San Francisco is proving a leader in the revival, playing host to the second annual Afrofunk Music Festival, the only gathering in the world devoted to Afrobeat, though the event encompasses music from great world music artists like Prince Diabaté. Sila Mutungi, the festival's producer and vocalist of Sila and the Afrofunk Experience, describes the festival's goal as a fun, positive one, "but ultimately, we're here to raise awareness and money to fight the tragic famine and genocide happening right now to children and families in Sudan, Niger, and my own country, Kenya." Proceeds will go to the Save the Children Emergency Relief Fund to aid Africa's most susceptible population.
For the hard-hitting in-your-face funk that got Kuti chased around the globe, catch Afrobeat artists Aphrodesia and Albino from San Francisco and Los Angeles's Afrobeat Down. As the first American band to play in Lagos's New African Shrine, a venue made famous by Kuti, Aphrodesia proudly boast an acute political consciousness, a tight brass section, and a female leader, Lara Maykovich, who demands to be heard. She condemns environmental destruction as she sings, "Somewhere beyond the bulldozed rows/The fallen giants laying low./Sometime before the earth has died/Is where we all must draw the line" on their latest album, Frontlines (Full Cut, 2005).