From Fela to Beyoncé Artists Assert Identity and Resistance through Yoruba Influence in Pop Culture
Black Americans have lost their identity over the last three hundred years, or so it seems.
Ask Beyoncé, whose 2017 Grammy performance signaled her own personal paradigm shift in returning to the depths of her African origins and spirituality. Once again, Beyoncé stunned the world with her inspired performance and embodied (quite literally) portrayal of an ancient African Yoruba goddess.
Specifically, the resonating and rich impact of the Yoruba culture of Nigeria may represent the keys to the kingdom in getting back in touch with those DNA encoded roots. In the Yoruba culture, religion and the arts have always been employed to express and define relationships of self- interacting with culture, self-interacting with larger society, and self- interacting with spirituality and cosmology. The arts in Yoruba culture are part and parcel of this process of self-discovery and engagement within the rich tapestry of lived experiences of the world. Music has traditionally played a large role in this journey.
The Yoruba people of Nigeria have developed a definitively strong culture, which has travelled through space and time to make a resonating impact on the world through expressive, visual and material means. In this essence, it is provocative to evaluate the important roles that artists have played in the continuum of not only artistic creation, but as paradigm shifters for societal context and evolution, and its ultimate influence on contemporary Pop culture.
Roots of Yoruba Traditions in Popular Music & Culture: 1950-70
DURO LADIPO –Theatre as a Platform for the Voice of the People
To signal the shift of colonialism to Independence, a burgeoning development of Urban Theatre groups was instituted throughout Nigeria. The movement toward a secularized theater tradition in the 1940s was the result of a cultural and political renaissance, which accompanied the push for political independence.
Duro Ladipo was a prominent playwright and composer that developed his talents and artistic contributions doing this era. Ladipo is of particular significance to me in my current work as curator for the “OSOGBO: Art & Heritage” exhibition. Ladipo worked with Austrian scholar Ulli Beier to spearhead the Mbari Mbayo arts movement in Ile Ife, and then in Osogbo.
While Yoruba theatre had become highly politicized, Ladipo’s collaboration with Beier signaled a new era of Yoruba cultural thought and artistic production, which drew heavily upon tradition, but delivered fresh modern expression. In addition to theater, Beier’s multi-talented wife Susanne Wenger and others mentored a group of local artists in an experimental performing and visual arts school that later inspired the Modern Art giants from the OSOGBO School of Art and the New Sacred Art Movement. Artists developed their talents organically and defined their own unique voices as Modern creators.
Post-Independence-The Voice of “Black President” Fela Kuti
Yoruba popular expressions reflected strong sense of identity and became a platform for resistance against power structures and Political unrest in the 1970’s and beyond. Particularly, as the music evolved and traditional drum voicings were imitated but replaced by electronic instruments, it seems that the very character of Yoruba music shifted on some level as well. For instance, the overt politicism of Fela Kuti's Afro Beat music often excluded traditional drumming, and included more "Americanized" instrumentation and sounds. Fela's words were the focus in his music and the drum was not employed as much in the traditional sense. Perhaps he felt that his words were strong enough, without the dual voicings or reinforcements from the dundun?
Destined to become a political emissary through Nigerian popular music worldwide, Fela was born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti in October 1938, in Abeokuta, Ogun state, Nigeria to two highly educated and politically savvy parents. His father, Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti was a protestant minister, school principal and served as the first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers. Notably, Fela’s father was first cousin to Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka (a contemporary of Duro Ladipo), who incidentally was instrumental in the first world-renowned movements of theater.
While his family sent him to school to become a doctor, Fela had other aspirations, eventually enrolling in the Trinity School of Music in London. There he studied trumpet, Jazz and Soul music, which he later wove into his own popular Afro Beat genre. A major turning point for him occurred in 1969 while his band was on a 10 month tour of the US. While on tour, Fela met Sandra Izsadore, a member of the Black Panther Party. Izsadore discovered the Black Power Movement and the teachings of Malcolm X, which further transformed him as an activist and political artist and spawned the creation of his seminal band Afrika ‘70.
In reading about his experiences coming to America, I believe that he may have been more exposed to pop music influences outside of a Yoruba cultural context than many of the other artists, which was ultimately reflected in his ensuing popularity and commercial success here and abroad. The impact and continued influence of Fela is undeniable.
Fela embraced political change with his music, and he was a larger than life personality, boasting twenty-seven wives and an attempt at running for President of Nigeria. While he wasn’t given the opportunity to actually become a candidate, many refer to Fela as “Black President,” which added to his cachet as a social/pop icon.
BEYONCE & OSHUN
Yoruba Gods, Identity & Resistance
In contemporary society, pop culture icons are also incorporating this idea into a growing cultural exploration and dialogue. Last year, pop culture icon Beyoncé released a film and album called “Lemonade,” which quickly elicited reaction and spiritual analyses from the Yoruba cultural community (including myself), as to her continual visual references to the pantheon of Yoruba orisha deities, most prominently Osun, the river goddess, Esu, the trickster, and others.
On the heels of her video “Formation”, which visually paid tribute to the Black Power movement (Fela inspired?), Beyoncé now takes her strong stance to identify as a child of the African Diaspora to a higher level in the album and accompanying film “Lemonade,” by portraying an orisha. Images of baptism, river water gushing around her feet and the beautiful, yet often destructive spirit of Osun emanate from the screen. In some of the images of the film, Beyoncé also employs masking of the Yoruba Ori, Fela Kuti style, on her face and the faces of her back-up dancers.
In an article by Kamaria Roberts in Kenya Downs for PBS, “What Beyoncé Teaches Us about the African Diaspora in ‘Lemonade’,” the authors consult with Dr. Amy Yeboah, an associate professor of African Studies at Howard University, who characterizes the African influence of Beyoncé’s album:
Dr. Yeboah posits, “[Lemonade] invokes so much of the Yoruba tradition, which is grounded in African tradition…..But it spreads across the diaspora. So you see it in Cuba, you see it in Louisiana. It’s a cultural tradition that connects women of the diaspora together. It’s a song for anyone who isn’t sorry for being who they are….”
While I appreciated the artistic expression of identity and the essence of resistance communicated visually, I wondered if Beyoncé was indeed an initiate of the religion, or if she was simply using Yoruba IFA spirituality as another attention-getting socio-cultural device? Until her 2017 Grammy performance, I had believed that she was in error with “Lemonade”. While African cultures utilize spirituality and masquerade to return to and assert their cultural identity, I have thought up to this point that Beyoncé’s use of Yoruba spirituality/masking was just a way to just stir up controversy and create dialogue within the cultural community. I was not convinced that she was channeling her ancestors here.
Another example of Yoruba cosmology being interpreted through pop culture comes forth through the music of OSHUN. Thandiwe and Niambi Sala perform for the “purpose of spreading the essences Oshun and her sisters……characterized by soul, hip-hop, community service, love, and dedication to the greater purpose of empowering women, and all people, instilling confidence, cultural pride, and self-respect.” (web: oshunnyc.com)
In their new self-termed “afro-centric “release “Afahye,” OSHUN uses the Fante term which pays tribute to a yam festival, a celebration of harvest, youth, and rebirth. Through the veneration of Yoruba deities in their songs lyrics, OSHUN makes a clear musical statement about African cultural connectivity; communicating their mission and vision musically is to “present themselves as warriors to their community as they begin their journey of rebirth, redefinition, and revolution.”
Are these musical expressions sincere statements of identity, cultural resonance and growth, or simply commercialization of indigenous art-forms? Since her pivotal Grammy performance, my original beliefs about Beyoncé have changed. I still wonder, has she done her part to bring Yoruba influenced living art to the mainstream, thereby shedding a spotlight on a rich culture, which she may feel has been oppressed for too long? Is her newly found obsession with African Diaspora and Yoruba expressions a way to empower herself and help create a unifying identity and vehicle for resistance for the masses?
All of the above.
In her Grammy performance, Beyoncé fully manifested Osun....the Yoruba goddess of the river....symbolizing love, fertility, wealth, benevolence, birth and rebirth, in her performance. Resplendent in a gold gown and headpiece, the performance also featured several dancers behind her which represented various aspects of female Orisas in the pantheon of Yoruba spirituality. For those of us who are initiated in this spiritual practice, it is clear and obvious that she has also been initiated, as her performance completely reflected the principles, visualization and culture of the Yoruba IFA religion. The dancers in the choreography made waving motions like river tide around her. Ironically OSUN was the mother of the IBEJI....the twins that are represented in IFA. Beyoncé has also been blessed to carry twins.
Overall, I believe any popular culture rooted in tradition has the ability to be received by a mass audience, if the artists deliver the expression in a genuine and sincere way to the people, like Beyoncé, Fela and others have done. Many artists in the Yoruba arts world have been successful in this way, regardless of their choice to incorporate more traditional elements into their creations, or to become more main-stream.
Regardless of the choice of expression within traditional African culture, we are observing a significant emergence of resistance, spiritual identity and “awakening” at the core of artistic expressions world-wide. The arts of the Yoruba in specific and African creative expression in general will always be a dynamic and engaging part of the World’s music phenomenon.
Robin Ligon-Williams is an award-winning ethnomusicologist, curator, cultural producer and journalist based in Atlanta, Georgia.