Ahead of Fela Kuti’s Birthday, Author Nels Abbey and Nigerians Worldwide Capture Nigeria With Songs and Stories

Get ready to Fela-brate! Throughout October, Spotify Africa is taking part in Nigeria’s celebration month, which encompasses the birthday of acclaimed Nigerian artist and human rights activist Fela Kuti and Nigeria’s 61st Independence Day. The month-long festivities serve as a reminder of the artist’s leadership and activism in Nigeria and offer a time to reflect, rejoice, and remember. In the spirit of Felabration, Spotify teamed up with creators from across the country to explore Kuti’s influence and to unpack the many facets of being Nigerian.

First, it’s important to understand Kuti’s impact on the local and global music scene. In the late 1960s, he pioneered a new musical blend of highlife, funk, jazz, salsa, calypso, and traditional Yoruba music into what’s called Afrobeat—a vibrant genre that continues to flourish today. To honor his legacy, in 1998, his daughter Yeni Anikulapo-Kuti started an annual music festival called Felabration in memory and celebration of her father.

To further the celebration, we partnered with HarperCollins Publishers on a playlist takeover by the acclaimed authors of Of This Our Country, a landmark collection of personal essays from a mix of 24 prize-winning and emerging Nigerian writers, to be published September 30. In their essays, authors Nels Abbey, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chigozie Obioma, and more share their memories and experiences of Nigeria.

Spotify worked with the authors to take over Black to the Future, a Spotify-curated playlist exploring Afro-futurism and the role Black creators around the world play within music that lasts until the end of October. As Nigeria celebrates their Independence Day, the authors of the anthology Of This Our Country explore the past, present, and future of Nigeria through its music. Featuring artists from political giants like Fela Kuti to social stalwarts like Davido, Black to the Future is a looking glass into the future through the past.

To build the tracklist, each writer handpicked a song to include that speaks to their idea of Nigeria. Writer Oyin Akande chose the modern hit “Gbona” by singer-songwriter Burna Boy, sharing, “Burna Boy always gets me dancing, but this song speaks directly to the culture of gbedu.” Gbedu is a large traditional Yoruba drum often used in Fela’s songs, and the word has since evolved to describe Afrobeat music.

But many of the authors stuck with classics. Poet Inua Ellams explained that his choice, “Ja Funmi” by beloved jùjú singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist King Sunny Ade, evokes precious memories. “It takes me back to parties and gatherings in my youth; my sisters and I running between the adults as they grooved slowly, tipsy, and carefree,” Inua shared.

It’s not easy to pin down or define Nigeria in an essay or a song, but together the words and rhythms paint a rich picture. To get a sneak peek at the far-reaching collection and takeover playlist, For the Record spoke with British-Nigerian satirist and author of Think Like a White Man, Nels Abbey, about his essay in the upcoming collection, the role of music in his writing, and the unique force that was Fela Kuti. 

Of This Our Country’s summary reads, “To define Nigeria is to tell a half-truth. Many have tried, but most have concluded that it is impossible to capture the true scope and significance of Africa’s most populous nation through words or images.” Why did you want to take on the challenge? 

Nigeria is hard to capture because we all have unique relationships with her. I was eager to offer some insight into my relationship with Nigeria, what she means to me, and how she shaped my life—for better and for worse.

I want readers to obtain a front-row observation of the dashed hopes and dreams and realized fears and tears as well as the dramedy that was Nigeria, from my viewpoint, during the last year of the Babangida era and the entire Abacha era.

How would you describe your relationship to Nigeria? How has it evolved over the years?

I would describe my relationship with Nigeria as: 40% unconditional love, 25% “I miss home; I cannot wait to go back!”, and 20% “Why am I doing this to myself again? Home is London, not Nigeria! I cannot wait to leave!’’ The final 15% is where there is room for evolution . . . and perhaps even the occasional revolution.

Like all deep relationships, my beautifully complicated relationship with Nigeria evolves and revolves. 

Did you listen to any music when writing? Do any particular songs help you work or fuel your creative process? 

I am a metaphor- and simile-heavy writer, so I occasionally listen to music to get me in the mood to write or to inspire thought. Flavour N’abania, old-school Ice Cube, Nas, Talib Kweli, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Project Pat, JAY-Z, DaVido, Burna Boy, and, of course, Fela Kuti are some of my go-to people to help me write.

What is your relationship to Fela Kuti? Did his music influence your point of view or your relationship with Nigeria?

Fela Kuti was a thinking person’s musician. He was so deep and always ahead of his time. Much of what he said on records remains true till this very day. But beyond a source of information and absolutely fantastic music, he was a source of pride and inspiration. Fela’s music breeds bravery and determination.

Why did you choose the song “Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am” by Fela Kuti for the Black to the Future playlist? What does the song mean to you?

It is a perfectly Nigerian song. It speaks to the reality of Nigerian life. Everything can be going perfectly well and then . . . BOOM! It all comes crashing down. And when it does, things somehow manage to get worse. But through it all we still find a way to laugh and smile. Our humanity always shines through.  

How would you describe Nigerian music and artists’ influence on the global music scene?

 Nigerian music is the rejected stone that became the cornerstone of popular music. The influence is so vast that to take Nigerian music away you have an entirely different landscape. Fela Kuti, Sade Adu, Labi Siffre, Akinyele, Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey, Majek Fashek, Don Jazzy, Ayinla Kollington, King Sunny Ade, WizKid, Tiwa Savage, Iyanya, Obesere (local children at my school in Abeokuta used to pay me 50 kobo a pop for what they clearly considered to be the sheer hilarity of hearing me sing Obesere’s songs in my English accent)—the list is endless. Nigerian music is world-beating for great reason—it is essential.

Start the Felabration early and listen to the official Of This Our Country takeover of the playlist Black to the Future now through the end of October. Stay tuned for the release of the collection on September 30, and more celebratory news to come.