2face Idibia, Shingai Shoniwa, Afrikan Boy and Bumi Thomas hail The Black President at The British Library


Felabration events ignited the globe last week to mark Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s birthday. While a week-long series of happenings in and around The New Afrika Shrine put fire under Lagos, over in London Late At The Library: Felabration! brought the spirit of the Black President to the hallowed surroundings of The British Library.

Former Egypt 80 keyboardist Dele Sosimi and his 16-piece Afrobeat Orchestra formed the backbone of the sold out show and were joined on stage by a heavy weight line-up of artists including 2face Idibia, Shingai Shoniwa, Afrikan Boy, Bumi Thomas, Terri Walker, The Floacist, Laura Mvula and the one and only Tony Allen – 75 and still channelling The Koola Lobitos like it was yesterday. 

The show also marked the opening of The British Library’s West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition exploring the written and oral history of the region.

Here we talk to four performers about how their music gives praise to Kuti:

Innocent Ujah Idibia flew in from Lagos especially to perform Water No Get Enemy, Opposite People, Sorrow, Tears And Blood and Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am.

How did you discover Fela?
I never went to the Shrine when Fela was alive. I only got the opportunity after he passed on. But once you go there, you just feel him. He was the voice of the voiceless and a warrior for the oppressed. His message and his love is massive.

What does Felabration mean to you?
It’s a worldwide celebration. The spirit of Fela has come down and filled The British Library. Fela represents a defining moment in our journey as Africans, as Nigerians. His music opens our eyes, verbalises our frustration, articulates our struggle and inspires us to strive for better in all aspects of our existence.

Would Fela approve of the current afrobeats scene?
He would have mixed feelings. He’d be happy with some people and others he’d say still carry a colonial mentality. Overall he’d be impressed in terms of how artists are managed now. Back in the day an artist had to be his own manager, songwriter, stylist, hype person. Now there’s a whole movement on the ground. In Fela’s time there was this huge gap in that being a musician was something your parents didn’t want you to do. Now they encourage their kids because they see that if you are talented you can make something out of music. The industry is growing fast and the guys are making money.

What are your current projects?
Right now I’m recording a couple of singles to throw out there. And I just turned the big 40. There was a tribute concert for me in Lagos. All the stars came out to support and show love.

"Felabration evokes creative expression, the
safe guarding of human rights and the power
of authentic African cultures and identities
to thrive in the modern world"

The Noisettes frontwoman brought her Zimbabwe flair to Lady and Kalakuta Show alongside Tony Allen and Ed Keazor.

How did you discover Fela?
Growing up Fela was part of our staple diet. My dad had hundreds of seven inches immaculately kept in leather bound cases – Do not touch! – and Fela was in there along with the likes of Miriam Makeba. Then my mum had this international music night at the Africa Centre for which she’d bring amazing artists over such as Bhundu Boys, Hugh Massekela and Egypt 80. Musicians would always be rocking up to our house in transit vans, hanging out in the living room and putting instruments in my hands, saying ‘Take this shaker, keep time!’ I didn’t appreciate the impact of these African artists on at the time because I was listening to bubble gum pop. But I’m so grateful now.

What does Felabration mean to you?
I’m excited to be performing with Dele Sosimi. He has become a mentor for me so I can’t wait to play bass with his orchestra. They breathe Fela in their bones so I’ll be picking up their syncopated cross rhythms and paying homage to the greats and the ancestors.

What are you wearing?
I collaborate with a designer called Meike Schady on my stage costumes. For Felabration I’m wearing an arresting black, white and gold silhouette that can be appreciated from all angles.

Would Fela approve of the current afrobeats scene?
It’s great that music with such an amazing legacy and rich heritage is being appreciated in the mainstream and artists are pushing the culture forward. The more that modern pop music reflects on where it comes from the better. It’s also fantastic for Fela’s family to hear his positive rhythms honoured.

What are your current projects?
I’ve been recording new solo music, producing songs myself and working with Kenyan producer Lovy Longomba. I’m drawing on a lot of southern African styles and the sound is energetic and danceable with that cheeky flair for storytelling that I’m partial too. My new EP Tropical Metropolis will be out at the end of the year.

London’s original Naija grime MC aka Olushola Ajose was the epitome of ‘sharp sharp’ for his rendition of Black Man’s Cry.

How did you discover Fela?
Through my dad, man. He used to smoke with Fela and always play his music through the house so I have those nostalgic memories. But I didn’t start discovering him for myself until my late teens. It was the ultimate revision music – these long tracks with deep instrumentation and lyrics to distract you. I learnt history from Fela by decoding his metaphors. His journey, how he was influenced by London then went back home, feels familiar for me. Now I sing Fela to my son.

What does Felabration mean to you?
I’ve just recorded my own version of Black Man’s Cry. It’s one of his early tracks and contains a strong political message for Nigeria. So I’m giving it my own message that addresses illegal immigration and life in London now. It’s testimony to Fela’s music that he continues to inspire today.

Have you been to the New Africa Shrine?
I was blessed to be able to go last August. Femi was playing. I wish I had got to experience it how my dad must have seen it. I no be gentleman at all o! I be Afrikan Boy Original!

What are your current projects?
My new single Border Business is about my recent visit to Calais to perform for the refugees in The Jungle and speak to some of them, hear their stories. We made a mini documentary to accompany its release. Then my EP The Middle Story will be out in January 2016 to mark 10 years since by debut song One Day I Went To Lidl.

Bumi Thomas brought her unique blend of acoustic soul, jazz and funk to her version of Olufemi with 2face Idibia.

How did you discover Fela?
I fell in love as a kid - first his music, then his larger than life personality and his acute fashion sense. My dad used to play his albums and we would dance wildly to them. I will always remember that jubilant state of purposeful yet reckless abandon. His almost mythological influence on the creative and social realm was and still is palpable on a daily basis.

What does Felabration mean to you?
Felabration evokes creative expression, the safe guarding of human rights and the power of authentic African cultures and identities to thrive in the modern world. It channels the essence of pan African energies in multiple realities. By definition a shrine is a sacred space, so by imbibing freedom, humanity, love and togetherness I pray the outcome is an experience shared through music as we burst with positive energy.

Would Fela approve of the current afrobeats scene?
He may be astonished at how far it has spread across the globe and the variations of the sound that have emerged. Fela was an astute advocate of advanced musicianship and desired to see more artists take command of and truly understand their instruments. Music is the weapon and the might of original afrobeat will continue to inspire future generations.

What are your current projects?
I am working on my album and collaborating with multi-media artists to explore new dimensions.

Photography Gavin Mills