Black President. The Nigerian James Brown. Fela Ransome Kuti. Fela Anikulipo Kuti. By any name, Fela was the king of Afro-Beat. Expensive Shit is one of the most direct and abrasive albums he made, and he made many of those.
A little background may be in order. Fela was one of music’s most outspoken activists. Fela constantly put his own life in jeopardy to let his voice be heard. He declared his house (named The Kalakuta Republic) seceded from Nigeria. His mother died in 1977 after she was pushed out a window by Nigerian soldiers. The government conducted repeated raids hoping to grind Fela into submission. Expensive Shit responds to one such incident. Fela explains, “The men alleged I swallowed some hemp. My shit was sent for lab test. Result–negative. Which brings us to…Expensive Shit.” As the story goes, they tried to plant drugs on Fela and he quickly swallowed the evidence. In jail, he was understandably more popular than the government and was able to avoid leaving any testable “results”. This incident was only one among many.
So “Expensive Shit” and “Water No get Enemy” comprise the album. Fela sang in Pidgin English in order to reach a wider audience, while adding some English and Yoruba at times. He actually developed his unique Afro-Beat music while in the United States. His international travels distinctly influenced his views and music. Fela’s ideal of Africanism (much related to Dr. Kwame Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanism) spoke against colonialism and against the abandonment of Yoruba traditions. “Expensive Shit” mocks those who tried to falsely persecute him. With its murky militancy, the song questions acceptance of the values of Nigerian oppressors. Fela was a man willing to put himself at grave risk for his beliefs. He had no kind words for anyone who would do otherwise. “Water No Get Enemy” has the grooviest moments on the disc. Fela sings of water as mirroring the fluid forces of nature interacting with mankind. He desires acceptance. He knows of competing natural forces, but he makes the point that goodness itself is unassailable.
What is more, Afro-Beat is known to be highly addictive. In it, melody is derivative of rhythm. Fela is aware of Western pop music’s melodic vocabulary but keeps traditional African conception in the forefront. Expensive Shit works on both fronts. He used electric keyboards, electric guitars, and saxophones, but he used them to create modern African music (which is to acknowledge that modern = traditional). Fela didn’t want Africanism to become outdated. He wanted African ideal to survive by adapting. His cultural homeland always came first. Though Fela didn’t strictly play music within ancient structures, he did stay within the spirit. Afro-Beat was about coexistence.
It is important to remember why Fela made this music. In safe American homes it can be a shock to believe the things he was up against. He didn’t find anything funny about peace, love and understanding. Fela’s message was for the whole world. Even with some isolated progress, he had setbacks. His noble efforts sadly continue to be duplicated around the world. It is illusion to think of a victory. In terms of social consciousness, Fela Kuti instead sought a modern life cycle where perhaps destruction was illusory as well.