The year is 1975 and Fela and the Nigerian Government are at it again. Fela sitting atop the pedestal of being arguably the most popular musician in Nigeria, as well as a consistent thorn in the side of the Nigerian government, remains a vocal critic of everything corrupt and misaligned. He is the voice of a new angry Africa that wants equal status in the world, and the yoke of colonialism not just declared a thing of the past, but actually dismantled.
It was a prolific year for him. He released an amazing eight albums, (Monkey Banana, Expensive Shit, He Miss Road, Noise For Vendor Mouth, Excuse O, Everything Scatter, Alagbon Close and Confusion) and having now decided to sing predominately in Pidgin, was also establishing himself outside the borders of Nigeria as more people listened to him.
Expensive Shit was as a result of something one could deem comical initially, but that would have dire consequences for Fela and his family in the future. He had been caught smoking a joint and upon being confronted by the Police, he gobbled it up the way you and I would probably munch down a plantain chip. This prompted the Police to arrest him and hold him in custody until he literally 'passed' out the evidence. Fela eventually tricked the cops by submitting a sample from another inmate and was let go.
True to form, he gloated about the incident and promptly coined 'Expensive Shit' to immortalise the event. Just read the album cover which I have blown up. Needless to say, the government and security forces were not amused, and would harbour a deep resentment that would end up in them sacking his de facto kingdom, called the Kalakuta republic two years later. In the raid, his mother Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti ( MON), the famous women's rights activist, would be fatally injured. It would open up a new round of confrontation between the two parties.
But we are now diverting from our actual story, so let's return to 'Expensive Shit'. Released on December the 15th 1975, it had only two tracks and a total play time of under 25 minutes. The cover shows a defiant Fela with his gaggle of bare-chested wives raising fists in defiance behind a barbed wire fence - obviously meant to depict internment.
Frankly speaking, I have no middle ground with Fela. His songs are either a hit or miss with me and 'Expensive Shit' then did little to make my heart go thumping or into unusual palpitations. In it, deep down I hear the same beat of Shakara, and while Fela's excursions on the keyboard are tasty, the overall end product just didn't light my fire. Not so for the flip side of the album which featured 'Water No Get Enemy' and is a thing of sheer beauty.
Compared to Side One, it is like night and day and solidifies Fela not just as a great musician and a fearless activist, but also as an imaginative and exceptional writer as well. The eleven-minute song is so brilliant that Pitchfork, then the only true voice for independent music, not just named it among the best 100 albums of the 70's, but goes on to say:"it's all too easy to get caught up in Kuti's discography. Start with Expensive Shit and don't miss the road onward."
While I feel this is a little too dismissive of other 'must haves' like Shakara, Lady and Gentleman, all produced before Expensive Shit, if I was to only be allowed to own one Fela album - this would be it. Even though the song is heavily laced with Yoruba, which I sadly can't speak, it has enough Pidgin English for you to figure out what the man's gist is all about. Especially after you hear it a zillion times like did.
Fela's main missive in the song is the collective strength of black power and the need to either accept it or be swept away. He intelligently compares this to man's relationship with water. Baba skillfully reminds us of its importance, and that nobody hates something as useful. He does this with lines like:
"If your child dey grow, na water he go use
"If water kill your child, na water you go use
"I dey talk of Black man power
"I dey talk of Black power, I say
I say water no get enemy
If you fight am, unless you wan die".
The song intellectually and revolutionary, was so far ahead of its time that it's just within that last twenty years, that it has been truly appreciated. For starters, we are told that after Miles Davis heard it he promptly anointed Afro-beat as being among the genres that would define music in the future. In 1999 the Japanese Rap group Rhymester introduced multiple aspects of the song in their album 'Respect', as did Common in 2000 on 'Pops Rap III - All My Children'. Then in 2002 on the incredible tribute to Fela on the Red Hot and Riot album, the song is featured not once but twice. First, there is the mash-up by DJ Mixmaster himself, and then an all-star cast of son Femi, D'Angelo, Macy Gray and the Soultronics ( featuring Neil Rodgers and Roy Hargrove ) covered it in its entirety. To continue the trend, in 2003, rapper INI did the same thing on a 'Grown Man Sport' as did the Hypnotic Brass Assemble on 'Water' in 2010. A year later Tall Black Guy gave us their version, while Amerigo Gazaway sampled it on 'Breakadawn'. When Jay Z and Will Smith presented 'Fela the Musical' to us, of course, it was one of the highlights of the show, and arguably became its anthem because of the masterful reproduction by both the Roots and Antibalas. Finally, in 2012 Ghana's Afro Moses and the Strides (below) gave us such a wicked version that Fela would surely only approve. He joins at least twenty other acts that cover it live in their sets.
Fela, long after his death is a celebrated hero in not just Africa, but among the downtrodden everywhere. His songs remain motivational and have been dissected at the University level from Accra to Philadelphia where they are part of mainstream education proving that no matter what, there is really "Nothing without water".