The Nigerian bandleader Fela Anikulapo Kuti was the most galvanizing African musician of the 20th century: a larger-than-life personality who picked up on James Brown’s innovations and ran with them until he turned them into a new kind of music. Afrobeat, the style he invented (with the help of his massive group, Afrika 70), was a party with a bomb as its centerpiece. Its songs, thickly layered with percussion and horns, could keep a dance floor shaking for 10 or 20 or 40 minutes at a time, but its lyrics were often explicitly political screeds or satires.
Like most of Fela’s songs, “Zombie” was written in pidgin English, for the widest possible comprehensibility. It was an attack on Nigerian military members, mocking them as brainless killers (“Zombie no go think unless you tell am to think”). It was potent enough that they counterattacked with weapons rather than instruments, invading and destroying the Kalakuta Republic, the communal compound in Lagos where Fela lived and worked.
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