Back in 2004, I remember strolling by a now closed Williamsburg venue called Zebulon. It was afrobeat night or something to that effect. I just had dinner with my girlfriend at the time, the night was young and we were out walking. Afrobeat was right up our alley, so we decided to check it out. The first thing you need to keep in mind is that this was nine years ago. Now, that might not be the olden days, but in terms of the proliferation of afrobeat bands and the state of the afrobeat landscape today, everything was completely different. Apart from Antibalas, there weren’t many afrobeat bands making waves back then, and the few bands that existed weren’t well known, or anything to write home about either. I still think most of them aren’t anything to write home about, but that’s a story for another day. This was several years before the Fela musical as well, so afrobeat wasn’t the hot commodity that it is today. For the most part, you either had to be an African, or one of those “world music” connoisseurs to be heavily into this kind of music.
Whenever I heard the term ‘afrobeat’, I automatically envisioned Africans getting down, and this was what I expected before walking into Zebulon. It was always this way in my world. A Naija party was not a Naija party without some Fela. I remember the area boys in Port Harcourt, blasting Fela as you walked through the market. Your parents warned you not to be like them, but how could you not want to be like them? Those guys were cool. They did as they pleased, and they smoked igbo [Indian hemp]. I didn’t even know what igbo was at the time. I was so naïve; I thought they smoked the ashes of dead Igbo people. In a macabre way, this nonsensical notion made them even more interesting to me.
When it wasn’t party music, or music that people who were considered “riff raff” listened to, then it was political. You had the non-bourgeois intellectuals who enjoyed Fela as well. The music was accompanied by deep political talk. Growing up, I saw adults discussing politics. They would have their Gulder, 33, and Harp beers, along with kola nuts while discussing serious politics. How I longed to have a sip of Gulder, while chewing on kola nuts and discussing politics. I couldn’t wait to be an adult so I could do just that. This was par for the course when these people listened to Fela’s music. Shagari did this, Babaginda did that, Abacha was a yeye man – this is what I commonly heard. I soaked up a lot just by eavesdropping. You see, Fela’s music demanded a lot from the listener, and for the politically inclined this meant heavy political discourse. You had to be a dedicated person to listen to songs that were up to 30 minutes in some cases. There is nothing casual about a person who listens to a song of that length. This was the context from which I came, and I expected to see a lot of Nigerians and fellow Africans inside the venue, either dancing or discussing politics over some beer. Now, I’m not saying that my context and relationship with the music is the only valid one, and that everyone else’s is invalid. I don’t believe that at all, and expecting everyone to have the same experiences I had is foolish. I’m simply looking at things from my point of view, the point of view of a Nigerian man who knows a thing or two about this music.
Once we stepped inside Zebulon, our expectations were quickly dashed. Holy mackerel! We were the only black people in the joint, and it did not go unnoticed. People stared at us; almost as if we had invaded their space. It really is something to be Nigerians and be the outsiders at an afrobeat event. Nevertheless, we stayed for a bit. A white band got up and played some Fela covers, and it was absolutely terrible. The pidgin vocals they tried to sing were a special brand of awful, but the white crowd was digging it and sang along. Obnoxious, drunk, loud white folks butchering Nigerian pidgin, and taking the lyrics out of context wasn’t my idea of a good time. A gathering of white people around a white band playing Fela’s music was a completely new experience. Overall, that night at Zebulon was one hot mess. My girlfriend joked, “Wouldn’t it be funny if afrobeat turned white? Imagine white afrobeat bands everywhere, afrobeat without black people. What would that be like?” We looked at each other and laughed.
What we laughed at in 2004 is the reality in 2013. Just about every afrobeat band in the US is white. There might be exceptions to the rule with some bands that are mixed, but by and large the afrobeat revival is the domain of white people. You’d be hard pressed to find an all black afrobeat band that isn’t from an African country. In a sense, that isn’t surprising. Revivals are mostly for people who either missed it the first time around, or for people who became acquainted with the music after its heyday. This isn’t a bad thing. The same holds true for soul and funk revival bands. I love Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, and Charles Bradley, but their audiences are predominantly white, and I hypothesize it’s for the very same reason as the afrobeat revival; black audiences in general don’t do revivals, they look forward. Charles Bradley is awesome, but he isn’t reinventing the wheel with his music. If you listened to James Brown and Otis Redding, then most of this isn’t uncharted territory. Good music doesn’t have to chart new territory. Bradley in fact moonlighted as a James Brown impersonator known as ‘Black Velvet’. He still sometimes performs under that moniker.
So given that the afrobeat terrain in the US is largely white, it seemed odd last week when I read several headlines claiming that a Massachusetts-based afrobeat band called Shokazoba was banned from performing at a Halloween event at Hampshire College because they were too white. That’s a very sensationalistic headline, and that was how it was presented in the press. The story was all over social media, and white people were typing furiously in comment sections bemoaning ‘reverse racism’ and discrimination against whites. Those were the tame comments. A big chunk of the commentary was anti-black vitriol. People who react like this never miss an opportunity to pounce on blackness. If you want to galvanize a white mob, present a story about reverse racism. I can’t help but think about the infamous P.W. Botha quote, which he made while trying to maintain apartheid and white supremacy in South Africa. He said “this uprising will bring out the beast in us”, as if he was justified, and that he didn’t already act beastly. If you’re a Fela fan, then you will know which song uses that quote to attack Botha and his ilk. Charges of reverse racism stirs up the fear of an ‘uprising’ for many whites in America, and it will indeed bring out the beast in them. It certainly did when this story broke.
Even taking the story at face value, it just didn’t sound right. If one were to start banning afrobeat bands in the US from performing because they’re white, most US-based afrobeat bands wouldn’t be able to perform at all. Furthermore, a white afrobeat band called Zongo Junction performed at the very same event at Hampshire College last year without issues.
This reverse racism chatter started when Shokazoba took to their public Facebook page, claiming that 30 students complained that they were too white, and then said that they were promptly dropped because of anti-white racism. They then asked people to spread the word and protest on their behalf, and protest on their behalf they did. This created an online white mob (who always seem silent when anti-black racism rears its head – when they’re not promulgating it that is, but I digress) that did nothing but troll, harass, and hurl insults (many of them racist) at the students and faculty of Hampshire college. To make matters worse, the band made the media rounds, including going on FOX News to make this anti-white racism claim. They also tweeted Rachel Maddow about it, but she probably had better things to do than to assuage white tears. FOX news on the other hand doesn’t. Assuaging white tears is their bread and butter.
First of all, can we unpack the absurdity of an afrobeat band going to FOX news to amplify their story? That move speaks volumes, and it is not something I can respect. Even if this happened as they described, what self-respecting, dyed-in-the-wool supporter of Fela, the truth, justice, equity, proletariats, anti-racism, anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, anti-multinational corporations and anti-bullshit goes to FOX news for anything? Even if FOX news came to them, as an afrobeat outfit the proper response should have been “piss off”.
Afrobeat denounces white supremacy and what Fela dubbed “colonial mentality”. If you claim to wave the banner of afrobeat, then this is what you should be about. You can’t claim to be about that life, yet provide the fodder for organizations that cater to everything that is contrary to afrobeat. What kind of white privilege blinders must someone possess to not understand that using their bully pulpit to amplify a reverse racism story on FOX news is disastrous? Claiming anti-white racism to an organization that caters to white racism is beyond stupid, it is dangerous and very irresponsible. That is the dog-whistle that pricks up the ears of white racists all over the land.
Let me just say that if you believe reverse racism is an actual thing, then you don’t understand structural white supremacy, and you don’t really understand what Fela stood for as a man, and as a Pan-Africanist. You simply don’t get it. As I don’t suffer fools, I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain things of this nature. I have done this in the past, and ultimately, people will believe what they want to believe. The takeaway is this: white supremacy does not yield to thoughtful, intelligent discourse. I also don’t get paid to give out lectures on racial dynamics, and how contexts and public accusations of discrimination differ based on who and what the accusation is. A black person making a claim of racial discrimination would not galvanize a white support mob, nor would white people be harassed by said mob.
Somewhere buried in the tales of anti white racism is the chain of events that led to Shokazoba being told that they couldn’t perform. The fully fleshed out narrative from the harassed staff and students at Hampshire College of course did not have the traction of the ‘People are discriminating against whites! Protest this reverse racism white people!’ narrative and why would it? People that foam at the mouth at any perceived slight towards whiteness aren’t interested in nuance or investigating the truth. Below is the other side of the story.
In the various complaints against the decision to remove Shokazoba from the Hampshire Halloween lineup, it is clear that the detractors of this decision are unaware or uninterested in what actually led to it. Many people are only listening to the organizing efforts of aggrieved white people rather than the students of color that have, from the start, been personally harassed. For the rest of you, I'd like to provide my understanding of the context and backstory to this debate. In a thread on the Facebook event page for Hampshire Halloween, students of color were mocked, attacked, and sent extremely racist images. The notion that the band was simply deemed "too white" is a politically motivated farce.
Several popular misconceptions have already spread quickly through organized misinformation efforts. Firstly, while the conversation this controversy erupted in did open by drawing concerns around the appropriative nature of—with the exception of the lead singer—a group of all white and white-passing men playing 'afrofunk,’ this is not what actually led to the band's removal from the lineup. Contrary to popular belief, it was not their racial composition that lead to their removal, but the behavior which threatened the wellbeing and safety of Hampshire students. You can read the rest of what led up to Shokazoba being told they could not perform here.
There you have it. That reads a lot differently from what was put out in the press, and it makes far more sense.
Hopefully, this will become a teachable moment for Shokazoba. The fact that white nationalist websites picked up the story and sided with them should perhaps give them pause. They should reflect on it, and maybe let that marinate for a bit. Some people might say that the band did not intend for racist vitriol and harassment to be hurled towards the students and faculty of Hampshire College. To that I say so what? Intent doesn’t change a damn thing. If I stepped on your foot and accidently broke your big toe, does telling you that I didn’t intend to break your toe change the fact that your toe is broken? Who is responsible for the broken toe? Likewise, the chain of events wouldn’t have unfolded if the band hadn’t publicly put out an incendiary charge of anti-white racism without context and nuance. And then running like a scorned lover to tattle to FOX news? What is that?
Furthermore, it brings to light the discourse of how entitlement and white privilege destroys. It doesn’t seek understanding, it doesn’t seek nuance, and it doesn’t seek different perspectives. It only seeks acclimatization to its wants. It must get its way. You can’t tell someone with white privilege they can’t do something based entirely on their own behavior. They will lash out at you. This was on display here, and it goes to show that even in the progressive, anti-establishment spaces of afrobeat, insulting whiteness carries the most weight. How many articles have you seen addressing the anti-black racist storm that this created? This story has been centered on slighting whiteness. What would Fela think about that?
As for me, I’ll stick to afrobeat spaces where the mere mention of reverse racism won’t bring out an angry white mob. Omo Naija.