Earlier in the year, Haitian-American music legend Wyclef Jean made it known that he would be including a tribute to the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti on his 8th solo album Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee. Wyclef said he wanted young people to know about the Nigerian music legend, according to him:
“I decided to name it Fela Kuti because for me, I feel like we be thinking of [Bob] Marley, we give a lot of people from our past props, so when the kids hear Fela Kuti, I really want them to Google it. ‘For me, the same way kids can have songs called ‘Wyclef Jean’ who are influenced by me, I want kids to know who Fela is and what he means.”
Well, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and something tells me that if Fela could watch the way Wyclef eventually honored him from up above, he wouldn’t warn the former Fugee singer of what he’d find at the end of the road.
Wyclef had a noble idea but he fumbled it badly in the end. The Grammy winner has just released the most confusing video to go with his already confusing homage to Fela. The video for “Fela Kuti” looks like a mashup of the movie ”Coming to America” and an indoor Caribbean carnival. The video has tens of women in costume swooning around ‘Clef, but oddly, that’s where any resemblance to anything remotely Fela ends – the army of beautiful women.
In fact, Fela is only mentioned once on a song that carries his name, and it’s even sandwiched between tributes to 2 other music legends.
Kiss, like a Prince song
She be winding, snake in a tree
The voodoo is working on me
Dance like Fela Kuti
Mama sa makossa energy
The only other slight nod to Fela is the sax instrumentation on the record but that’s about it. This is the textbook example of overselling and under-delivering, I now know exactly how Haitian children felt after the whole Yéle Haiti debacle – duped.
The “mama-say-mama-sa-mama-coosa” chant after the Fela line added insult to injury for me. It feels like ‘Clef just googled the lyrics for any African-sounding words and went with what he found on the first page. That iconic phrase was birthed by Cameroonian veteran musician Manu Dibango on his 1972 Afro-funk classic “Soul Makossa”.
Dibango has sued both Michael Jackson and R&B diva Rihanna over the use of the line. While “Fela Kuti” probably would never be as big as “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” or “Don’t Stop The Music” were, guess who wouldn’t be shedding a tear if Wyclef did get in trouble either with Dibango, or somehow, with the Kuti family.
But seriously though, Wyclef is too knowledgeable about African music to produce a song and a video this culturally clueless. He has been a strong, unwavering ally of Nigerian music since the late 2000’s when he was the darling of corporate sponsors putting up mega shows, and he and Sound Sultan formed a music brotherhood in those days.
But it’s 2017 now, Nigerian music is the new wave and every Tom, Dick and Harry wants to be down, or in Jean’s case, wants to be down all over again. There are a number of inappropriate things you expect from the average artist trying to partake of the culture, but when that artist is Wyclef, it’s just inexcusable.