For Black History Month 2021, WSOE writers celebrate the lives of our favorite Black musicians throughout history.
The intra-government tensions and military uprisings of late 1960’s Nigeria boiled over on July 6th, 1967 when half the country seceded and declared war, kickstarting the Nigerian Civil War. The nation of Biafra seceded from the newly-founded Republic of Nigeria, feeling that the interests of the Igbo people were not represented in its government. The war went on to take millions of lives, 2 million of which were Biafran citizens who died of starvation at the hands of the nation that once protected them.
What bookended the war was a time of nationalistic powershifts as the control of Nigeria shifted from dictator to dictator. The British colonialists that once held Nigeria under its thumb for 160 years retreated in 1960, starting a period of political and social turmoil from then into the end of the 20th century. And all the while, the citizens struggled for freedom under the passing of power from the government’s oppressive regimes.
Born from this time was Fela Ransome Kuti, a musician and activist whose innovative protest music simultaneously fought the powers that be and pioneered one of the most relevant World genres of the 20th century. Kuti’s work in his music and activism has made waves in the histories of both, not only in Nigeria but all over the globe too.
Kuti was born in 1938 to the family of an Anglican minister in Abeokuta, British Nigeria. His mother Chief Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was a famed anti-colonial feminist, whose vigor and passion for justice rubbed off on Fela.
When Fela gathered his band in Ghana and left for the United States to record a debut record, Nigeria was deep in the Biafran Civil War. Kuti returned to Nigeria in 1970 with his band the Afrika ‘70, set on using music to build a movement around the corruption infesting the government.
Kuti protested the militaristic government by founding the Kalakuta Republic, a self-declared nation in Nigeria that was a shelter for his family, protesters, his band, and his musical equipment. It was a compound that had a health clinic and other facilities in so Kuti and his acquaintances could be free from the tyrannical police force.
The seventies were also the heyday of Kuti’s music. During the 70’s an incredible volume of records, each of which were compositionally similar. Normally, a Kuti record is made up of one or two very song songs--10 to 30 minutes long--both of which are long extensive jams with his band. Even with this formula, Kuti found ways to work around the boundaries.
Kuti’s genre of music, titled Afrobeat, was a culmination of African neo-folk genres like highlife and contemporary Western genres of funk, jazz, and psychedelic rock. The songs follow simple repeated melodies that build in texture and size with molten horns, jangly guitars, and a myriad of percussive instruments. Kuti is credited as being the father of Afrobeat, expanding upon it greatly during his career and spreading its sound to the ends of the earth.
Open & Close, released in 1971, is one of his earliest records and is a rare non-political moment for the band leader. The extended title track is an explosive afrobeat jam oozing with personality and groove. The Afrika ‘70 is dynamic and calculated, hitting these repeating ostinatos with grace and precision.
Moving along is Confusion, one of Kuti’s first truly political tracks. The album, which is one 25-minute long song, paints a portrait of the chaos in militaristic Nigeria during the 70’s. Kuti’s reflective vocals chip back and forth with syncopated horn lines to make the kind of call-and-response energy common in his music.
Often considered Kuti’s shining moment, Zombie, released in 1977, is Kuti’s most celebrated and controversial record. The album is explicitly political and outwardly attacks Nigeria’s slimy government and the brutes in the police who attacked any dissenters. The album features songs like “Mr. Follow Follow”, an incredibly funky track criticizing the brainless nature of police who help maintain the cruelty of the government.
Zombie’s centerpiece is its title track. The extended jam features the Afrika ‘70 at their creative peak, delivering an infectious groove that took the country by storm. Zombie was a hit all across the country and spread the word of Kuti’s movement farther than it had ever gone before. The song even hit outside of the country, drumming up support for the cause all across the world.
As expected, the government of Nigeria greatly disliked the track and what it meant. In response, the military raided Kuti’s compound, destroying it and all of his musical equipment. The military through his elderly mother out the window of the compound, who died three days later from the injuries. The government showed they were perfectly comfortable violently attacking Kuti and his movement with no dignity at all.
And to the surprise of many, Kuti kept protesting. While the murder of his mother and ransacking of his residence set him back a peg, Kuti only seemed more motivated carry on. In the late seventies and eighties Kuti toured internationally. After being jailed in 1984 for ten months over a marijuana possession charge, he played the A Conspiracy Of Hope benefit concert in New Jersey alongside Bono and Carlos Santana, only continuing to fight for justice.
Kuti continued releasing music until his death in 1999, never stopping at the various attacks the government had against him. And even after his death, his family continues legacy. Sons Femi and Seun Kuti both still actively release Afrobeat music and the former of the two Femi released an album with his own son Made Kuti just last week.
The legacy of Fela goes far beyond his home country. Genres all across the board from post-punk to acid techno pay their respects to the elements of Kuti’s music they draw from. And his insurmountable influence in the movement for the people of Nigeria inarguably helped progress it to the democracy that it is today.
Fela Kuti set a standard for the protest musician and despite his passing some twenty years ago, the spirit of his work is alive and well fighting for Black justice today. [Benji O’Connor]
Listen To: “Zombie”
What do you say about one of the greatest musical minds that hasn't been said before? This introduction will be an understatement of Miles Davis's impact on black culture as he revolutionized jazz and music as a whole. Most would agree that Davis is one of the greatest jazz musicians to ever play as the BBC declared him the greatest jazz musician of all time. On top of that, Davis's extensive discography, which includes 61 studio albums, makes his career even more impressive as he shifted his music style every decade. From Kind Of Blue to Bitches Brew, Davis has drastically impacted music so greatly that there might not ever be a more explosive and creative mind like his again.
Davis grew up around East St. Louis, Illinois where he took up music at a young age. Davis would end up getting his first trumpet from John Eubanks, a friend of his father, and go on to take lessons from Elwood Buchanon who had a big influence on Davis's life according to It's About That Time by Richard Cook. At this point in his life, Davis knew he wanted to be a musician. He would go on to graduate high school and move to New York to attend the Juilliard School but wasn't interested in education. "The shit they was talking about was too white for me. Plus, I was more interested in what was happening in the jazz scene; that's the real reason I wanted to come to New York in the first place," Davis said according to Reader’s Digest. Davis would drop out three semesters later to become a full-time musician. As Davis grew older, he would talk more about his childhood "to rebuke critics who assumed that a background of poverty and suffering was common to all great jazz artists," according to Britannica.
Once Davis emerged as a jazz leader, his career was split up by the multiple subgenres of jazz that he played in his discography. From the beginning of Davis's career, he adopted a playing style of bebop and tried to surround himself with other bebop musicians. However, some of the first recordings into his young career were recorded in the late 40s and early 50s but weren't released until 1957 under the name Birth of the Cool. What was so unique about this record, was how it would eventually emerge as a brand new subgenre known as cool jazz hinting at the album title. Davis would end up combining the improvisation style of bebop along with the relaxed and light nature of cool jazz for multiple albums until the release of the landmark album, Kind of Blue.
In the late 50s, Davis began experimenting with modal jazz which sought to rely on music modes rather than a home chord to hover around. This would allow the soloist the freedom to explore the different scales that the rhythm section is assigned. Davis made his modal jazz debut on the 1958 record, Milestones. A year later he would go on to release Kind of Blue which went all-in on modal jazz.
The last drastic change in Davis's musical style was during the late 60s and 70s during the time where culturally, rock was growing in popularity. Davis married model Betty Mabry who introduced him to rock, soul and funk music according to a 1968 issue of Jet magazine. At this time, he began collecting influence from artists such as James Brown and Sly Stone according to NPR. Davis would incorporate the popular fast and groovy funk rhythms at the time while also dwindling the number of tracks that he allowed on his records. In 1969, Davis would release the album In a Silent Way which was the beginning of his electric period in his career. He incorporated guitars and keyboards to help add density to his already unique playing style. Some critics accused Davis of selling out, but after the release of Bitches Brew, a staple in Davis's discography, critics quickly dropped this claim.
Throughout his career, Davis achieved the highest praises that any musician trying to make it big would hope to reach one day. But, sometimes critics and fans alike forget the fact that he achieved these accomplishments as a black man during one of the most racist periods in American history. In 1958, nine days after the release of Kind of Blue, Davis finished playing a broadcast for the armed forces radio when he went outside to help a woman to her cab. While standing outside of the club where the broadcast was aired, a white police officer ordered Davis off the sidewalk threatening to arrest him. While Davis was explaining to the officer that he was playing at the club, another white officer ran up behind him and hit his head with a nightstick. "I never saw him coming. Blood was running down the khaki suit I had on," Davis said according to Open Culture. With this incident, it proved how even after releasing perhaps the greatest jazz album of all time, Davis was always looked at and treated differently because of the color of his skin.
Davis regularly throughout his career spoke out against racism and contributed to black culture in a variety of ways. One prime example is his record A Tribute to Jack Johnson, which was a soundtrack to a documentary about Jack Johnson. Johnson is a notorious figure in the world of boxing, being the first black world heavyweight boxing champion from 1908 to 1915 during the height of the Jim Crow era. By recording this soundtrack, Davis helped solidify Johnson's impact on black culture and fight the stigmas of being a black person in America.
Davis also frequently spoke out against oppression using his notoriety and fame. For example, in 1987 he attended an awards ceremony thrown by then-President Ronald Reagan where a politician's wife asked him about America's neglect of jazz. Davis responded by saying "jazz is ignored here because the white man likes to win everything," according to Rolling Stone. The woman who was now upset asked, "what have you done that's so important in your life?" Davis responded with, "well, I've changed music five or six times," according to the Rolling Stone.
Miles Davis's life and career are one of the most important and influential in American history. As he said, he changed music five or six times from his eras of bebop and cool jazz, modal jazz and the jazz fusion of funk and rock. Davis's impact on black culture would go on to influence countless musicians and fight off the stigmas of racism. With this said, Davis is one of the most important figures in both black history month and American history. [Andrew Hartle]
Have you ever looked up who holds the Guinness World Record for most awarded female artist of all time? If not, let me fill you in a bit on our dear record holder and irreplaceable singer, Whitney Elizabeth Houston.
Whitney Houston hailed from New Jersey, where found her love for music through a simple activity: singing with her church’s choir. She began singing professional back-up vocals in her high school years, and by the time she was 19 she had her first record label. In her 48 years of life, she accomplished more in the music industry than most musicians ever have, winning over 400 career awards in the span of 25 years.
Houston’s first two albums were staples of the 80s. Whitney Houston (1985) and Whitney (1987) were instant hits, both hitting number one on Billboard’s charts. It’s hard to determine which tracks in these albums were most popular because every track was a hit. The mere existence of these albums prove that Houston’s music will always be timeless. Whitney Houston gave us classics like “Saving All My Love for You” and “How Will I Know”, while Whitney is known to this day as one of the best albums to use to describe music in the 80s with hits like “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)”. Both Whitney Houston and Whitney sold thousands of physical copies back in the day, and now, roughly thirty-five years later, almost every single song by Whitney Houston has millions of streams on streaming services like Spotify.
Houston continued to release studio albums, from 1990’s I’m Your Baby Tonight to her final studio album, I Look To You (2009). She never failed to release hit after hit, shoving pop culture around using her music. Some of her most notable work post-debut-era include “I Will Always Love You”, “My Love Is Your Love”, and “I Have Nothing”.
Houston unfortunately passed in 2012, but her influence on the music industry is eternal. [Rebecca Potters]