Graphic: Fela Kuti’s “Opposite People”
The Afrobeat music of superstar Fela Kuti – or just Fela – is powerful, political, and so influential that Fela’s sound is baked into the last forty-odd years of pop, rock, and hip-hop. It’s also great music to work to.
The sound is motivating
Afrobeat is an energetic genre driven by a propulsive, steady beat. The melody is usually repetitive, but it’s a sustainable jazzy repetition, not the rapid Philip Glass repetition that can drive you nuts after two minutes. And this melody generally stays unresolved – at least to ears used to American music – for long periods. It keeps you moving, keeps you leaning forward.
The music is instrumental
Well, not always. Fela, an activist and sometimes political prisoner, sings about political issues like war and colonialism – a thousand soldiers ransacked his home and studio (and almost killed him) after his criticisms of the Nigerian military in his ’77 album Zombie. But Fela sings in Nigerian Pidgin, a colonially influenced language only partially intelligible to English speakers, which makes the lyrics less immediately distracting to the average American (though you absolutely should spend some time reading them). Second, Fela can fit a song’s worth of lyrics onto a track and leave room for ten minutes of instrumental music, because:
The tracks are long
The Afrobeat genre in general is highly instrumental, but Fela’s tracks are unusually long, frequently stretching past twenty minutes each. You could practically run a Pomodoro timer by listening to one Fela song at a time. Fela shares this quality with a lot of 70s progressive rock or krautrock, but without those genres’ sillier digressions.
There’s loads of it
Fela released at least fifty albums, and you can find most of them streaming on Bandcamp, Spotify, and Apple Music. Spotify has a 13-hour “This Is: Fela Kuti” playlist, and Apple Music has collected his “essentials,” “next steps,” and “deep cuts.” Spotify also has Fela playlists curated by artists like Questlove, Brian Eno, and Erykah Badu.
Fela’s music is not just “background music.” But if you’re finding it hard to concentrate while playing other kinds of music, try him out. Much like prog rock and classical boleros, this is some of the most sophisticated music that still leaves your brain room to think.