Nina Simone: I never smile, my life’s been too rough.
Ms Dynamite: One shout is louder than a thousand whispers…
Nina Simone’s death silenced an abrasion. ‘Peaches’ never could keep quiet – she was a troublesome loudmouthed noisemaker. So was Fela Anikulapo Kuti. In 1996, a year before his death, he sang this:
‘Shhhh. Listen. Listen to me with open minds
I want you to take your minds out of this musical contraption, and take your mind into any goddam church
Everyday my people suffer. Suffer, suffer, suffer for what? enjoy for heaven?
Chorus: (loud) AMEN, AMEN.
Them go follow for shop. Them go follow Imam. Them go go for London, them go go for Mecca’
This juxtaposition of religious metaphysics with global reality is called ‘Schuffering and Schmiling’. Its central concept: Africans, slaves to an oppressive economic system, live in misery for the profit of a distant world whose luxuries they never see. Here, in this context, the song’s second half places its original Nigerian audience:
‘We now have to carry our minds out of those goddam places, back into this musical contraption right here… This is what happens to we Africans everyday. A confidential matter. Don’t tell anybody outside, now between me and you, now listen. Shhhhhhh’:
Every day my people work work work. Everyday my people they inside bus, 49 seats and 99 standing. Them go faint, them go sick, them go go for cook, them go home, they no go water … them no get pocket money. Weeping weeping. Suffer for what? Enjoy for heaven?’
Fela’s call for intimacy was both a genuine show of solidarity for his audience, and a big fat middle finger up to authority. So he was arrested. 150 times. By an oppressive Nigerian military regime that exploited its people for the sake of profit.
Elsewhere across the globe, it sometimes seems the true spirit of protest against oppression has got lost in the big bad greedy money machine. Nas is selling himself as Jesus with heavy gold chains, and even the Fugees, releasing a ‘Best Of’, are cashing in on banality and ease. (And that’s not to mention Madonna dressing herself up as Che).
But there’s hope yet. Six years on from Fela Kuti’s death and Kelis, a queen of the multicultural Kaleidoscope, is singing a funeral dirge on the Red Hot + Riot compilation. Discordant trumpets in minor keys accompany her song: ‘It is for the dignitary that I carry a coffin. To bury corruption, I carry a coffin. It is for the police that I carry a coffin.’ Playing on verbal ambiguity (‘for’ expressing both dedication and blame) her smoked honey voice leaves a hope hovering over a slowly funking base: ‘One day…’
… ‘Utopia’? The word is as mystifying as war. People once used it to try and improve things, yet now we cynically dismiss our dreams with it – ‘yeah, nice idea, but it’s utopian’. Give it up and get back to your desk. Sell out. Nowadays we’re more cynical, and we try to deal in realities: ‘globalisation’, ‘multiculturalism’. As did Hanif Kureishi, who said in LIP#1 that multiculturalism enables us to see in new ways and be creative; and globalisation is the opposite, reducing everything to sameness. Globalisation, for Hanif, is money ruling the world: life, melted down to a dollar. The once-innovative voice of the suppressed and repressed has been buffed to a bling.
Or not quite. Over sixty African loudmouths precede Kelis: ‘Can’t keep quiet / This time could be more than a riot’. And elsewhere on Red Hot + Riot Dead Prez and Talib Kweli rework Fela’s steady growls to a hyperactive stream of syllables: ‘Imperialism in the form of spirituality, slave mentality, escape reality / What is it worth to have the biggest religion when the people have miserable living conditions?’. Beneath the lyrics lie shuffling percussion, kick drums and a slapping bass, a reworking of Fela’s own reworkings, who as the inventor of ‘Afrobeat’, synthesised traditional Nigerian rhythms with free jazz and funk.
Later on the album comes Meshell Ndegeocello, accompanied by sax-bending Ron Blake. They insist on continuing Fela’s fearless confrontationalism: ‘Did your mind write a check that your soul can’t cash? / Suit and tie / Demon in a suit and tie / C’mon / You just thieves in a suit and tie / You murder in a suit and tie.’ Then Sade wraps us in soothing solace: ‘Think I’d leave you way down on your knees? You know I wouldn’t do that’, and Baaba Maal lulls us through insomnia with ‘No Sleep Yanga Wake Am’; both artists sending love and spirituality as the alternative to selfish greed.
Red Hot are an organisation who have released over twelve albums to raise money and awareness in the fight against Aids worldwide. Fela Kuti died of the disease, and Red Hot + Riot is the proactive tribute by a collection of dedicated musicians who, like Joseph Stiglitz, know that globalisation is what people make of it.