The Most Important Afrobeat Album

An analysis of the pivotal album Shoki Shoki

I write about Femi Kuti’s extraordinary ear, his famed album Shoki Shoki, and how it’s cultural and political messaging remains timely even 21 years later. This album is the coming of age in a journey to connect black consciousness through music. I put a spotlight on an often forgotten but important element in the Afrobeat and Afrofusion zeitgeist.

Cool as Chlorophyll

When a seed germinates in a dark room it eventually opposes the pull of gravity and its leaves grow towards a window in search of sunlight. In the Yoruba ethos, darkness “okúnkún”, is symbolically a place of meditation, restoration, and secret power, whereas light “íná”, gives clarity and unveils purity of intent. The album art is a photo of Femi angled towards the only source of light — the fluorescent bulb that hangs just a few meters above him. The night in the background clings to him, contouring his face and chiseling the swell of his muscles.

Femi is standing squarely, a posture that declares readiness. His face is confident; a defiant chin, determined eyes, sealed and unsmiling lips which reveal the seriousness of the task at hand. He is collected and controlled. Even and cool. The Yoruba consider this coolness, “itùtú, the epitome of exemplary behavior; an almost God-like state. Itùtú is a popular characteristic of Yoruba sculptures. This same imperturbable certainty you see Femi exude is apparent on Wunmonijie of Ife Head, a sculpture carved in the 14th Century. “Iwa l’ẹ́wa” a Yoruba adage that loosely translates to mean “character is beauty”. Statuesque in his stance, his composure is beautiful and so is he. The hue of the photo is so cooled that Femi appears green, the temperature of the photograph further evidence of his temperament. This shade of green evokes feelings of equilibrium and insightfulness; qualities evident in his demeanor.

The photo looks like a scene from Beng Beng Beng, a raunchy song built over a percussive guitar. Beng Beng Beng’s music video has a kinetic tempo and a frenetic style with fast cut-away sepia images which mirror Lagos life where the bustle is constant and unending. There are knitted brows under hawking heads, throngs of sun-beaten pedestrians and yellow buses with black stripes. He is filmed from the front, below and the back of the room so that you’re thrown into a crowd that is raucous. He sings from the pit of his belly, his chest opening from the sheer force of his voice. The rhythm that starts in his head ripples through to his back and lodges as thrusts in his hips. He gyrates and shimmies, effervescent in his movement, energy frothing and spilling off the stage. He is numinous in presence, glistening from the sweat and shining like the polished gold of his sax.

On the stage behind him are three female dancers called the “Afrobeat Queens”. They look like Obitun in their Tobi and Iro. Beads adorn the places where the body converges; neck, wrist, waist, and feet. The red-black-white waist beads, lágidigbá, have the power to elicit desire. Like ṣẹkẹrẹ, they are trapped in the circlet of beads that rattle around writhing hips. Their movements are ethereal yet dense and each step is in simultaneous conversation with the meter of every instrument. Their lewd ambling animates the music, arms and feet punctuating even the most subtle change in rhythm.

Blackman, Look Around, What Will Tomorrow Bring?

“We get the wrong people for government

Who force us to think with colonial sense

Na wrong information scatta your head

You reject you culture for western sense”

It is a testament to the character of the Nigerian government that more than twenty years later, these lyrics from Blackman Know Yourself hold true. The leadership of Nigeria rotates amongst the same elite few who have failed this country since inception and continue to be incompetent in the execution of their legislative duties. The Nigerian ruling class is notorious for the embezzlement of national funds and natural resources. They mimic their colonial masters in looting Nigeria’s wealth for themselves. They are alike in their oppressive traits, upholding western culture and standards as a measure of modernity and morality. These lyrics contain biting remarks, embarrassing truths, and a strong assertion that the trauma of colonialism succeeded in overpowering Nigeria’s black narrative.

“Dem fight us and enslave us by force

Claiming everything of our ancestors yeye

But I say Black Africa will rise back on top

Blackman know yourself, don’t forget your past”

As he weaves tenets of pan-Africanism seamlessly on an invigorating staccato beat, he leads the listener to envision a reality unmarred by colonialism and slavery, both of which left lasting legacies of turmoil. He references the economic exploitation, loss of physical and intellectual property and arrested technological development as consequences. The themes in his music are motivated by the global phenomenon of anti-blackness and the dangerous threat it poses; disproportionate and cyclical poverty resulting from the inequitable distribution of resources; state-sanctioned police brutalization and violence; and the bastardization of culture. He urges that the knowledge of our past is crucial for the construction of self-identity and the preservation of national culture. Our history serves as proof of our capability, ingenuity, and resilience.

Half question and half warning, What Will Tomorrow Bring is about the absence of rule of law and the presence of rampant corruption, both of which are features of a kakistocracy. The laws and regulations that are supposed to order public life are vestiges of social systems that don’t serve, weren’t built to serve, and will never serve Nigerians.

“Your pocket don dry and every corner tight

You come dey fear how your tomorrow go come be o.

What will tomorrow bring for Nigeria?

What will tomorrow bring for Africa?”

The trumpet blares as if it were elastic as he sings about the reality of the tensions negotiated by Nigerians as they navigate a life dominated by poor socio-economic policies, dilapidated infrastructure, non-existent welfare systems, and growing unemployment, all of which are exacerbated by globalization. The saxophone is so transcendent in its wailing that you nearly forget that the song is about indignity and insurmountable odds. In the chorus, he demands with urgent exasperation that listeners reflect on who we’ll become and the trajectory of our country and continent. A question so laborious to explore, even the attempt to answer is daunting.

Look Around can be defined generously as having feminine passion. In Afrobeat, brass wind instruments compete with the decisive beats of drums and can determine the mood of a song to trigger a deep emotional response within you. Oya is the Yoruba goddess of chaos and divine transformation. She is characterized as brave, unpredictable and independent. She assumes many forms but is often depicted as lightning and gale preceding thunder and rainstorms. A furious goddess, her energy is commanding and overwhelming like the piercing note of the saxophone. Her wind roars as sections of brass horns soar, the electric guitar thrums and twangs like lightning which precede the crashing of the ṣẹkẹrẹ and clanging of cymbals forming a mellifluous cacophony of funk. Here more than any song on the album we witness the breadth of Femi’s talents; the gait of his voice and the athletic flair with which he plays the saxophone.

Like Father, Unlike Son

Femi is the grandson of feminist activist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and son of the iconoclast Fela Kuti, the Afrobeat pioneer and one of Nigeria’s pre-eminent socio-political activists. Fela’s lyrics are witty and profound with irresistibly catchy grooves. Femi grew up in Lagos and his musical career began officially at 15 when he began playing in Fela’s band, Egypt 80, in 1979.

General Sani Abacha died a few months before Shoki Shoki was released in 1998. His death sparked a nationwide celebration to mark the end of an oppressive era and a return to democratic rule. Femi’s uncle, Beko Ransome Kuti, a medical doctor, and human rights leader, had only been released after Abacha’s death. In 1993, he had been sentenced to life (commuted to 15 years) for daring to make public the trial transcript of an accused coup plotter and future President, Olusegun Obasanjo. Femi’s cousin-once-removed, Wole Soyinka, a prominent Nobel Laureate, had fled to Germany to escape persecution just a few years before. It is likely that these were reasons enough to radicalize Femi. It is not unrealistic that the injustices he bore witness to became the basis of his politics.

The listener, by now, should know Femi has no desire to be a mimicry of his father but rather a visionary in his own right. Like his father, he often confronted the elite, using his art as a vehicle for political discourse. Maybe this is why his style is mischaracterized as “carrying the flame”. Not only is this incorrect, but it also does him another disservice of denying him agency as his own musician. Father and son have similar styles but unlike Fela, Femi’s songs are not 30 minutes long and burdened by endless crooning. Perhaps the comparisons are made due to his overbearing resemblance to his father, but his music must not be minimized as mere imitation.

Femi is the prototype, the template upon which today’s Afrobeat stars impress. From the infusion of pop to the reverence of Fela and the ability to dial into the frequency of the Nigerian experience. Shoki Shoki distills a generation’s lust for life and their search for more. His lyrics are sweet as they are sour, satiating like a jug of day-old palm wine. This album redefined, for me, what perfection could sound like, as not the absence of flaw but rather completeness. A complete and honest echo of life, culture, and self. You hear this honesty in the composition and arrangement of musical elements. You hear the completeness in the melody of his band, a well-oiled orchestra of practiced-proficient synchronicity.

Shoki Shoki is a 9 song vignette that offers insight into urban living in an African city. Politically acute, Kuti tackles serious and multi-faceted dynamics of race, power and social mobility. Shoki Shoki intersects and interacts with so many genres that it resists categorization and it is, for this reason, peerless and remains the most important Afrobeat album in modern history. Today, Afrobeat is stratospheric in its prominence, so now more than ever it is incredibly essential that we honor our luminaries who leveled the path for their successors.

Yoruba art history buff and Afrobeat enthusiast.

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