Music and post-colonial politics: Highlife and Afrobeat

After watching Finding Fela, a depiction of Fela Kuti’s socio-progressive uplifting of Nigeria through the genre of Afrobeat, I entered the world of post-colonial music in Sub-Saharan Africa, learning how while Westernization of music undertook the region, the resulting genres of Ghanaian Highlife and Afrobeat were transformative to their pertinent societies. 

Music, existing in virtually every society around the globe, possesses the wondrous power to control and influence the emotions of its listeners. Whether it’s the oscillating trance played at a club which instills a mental serenity, or the overlapping brass melodies performed at a funeral to extract sorrow, the competency of rhythm and tonality is cosmic. While to Western society, music is almost exclusively treated as a means for entertainment, in other parts of the world, such as Sub Saharan Africa, music is deployed as an instrument of deep political and cultural significance. 

In Sub-Saharan Africa, instrumental compositions have been traditionally utilized as a means to conduct daily life within society, asserting its presence in spiritual ceremonies, marriages, and funerals. Each region, while similar in the instruments deployed, have their own unique ancestral sounds that can be heard in modern-day’s post-colonial music. While the widely disputed controversy on whether Westernization is beneficial, the Westernization of music in this case meant the integration of native sounds with Western instruments, such as the guitar and saxophone, to actualize the social and political change these regions were undergoing. Additionally, however, these post-colonial genres thrust the notion for music to be treated as a capitalizing force, an entirely foreign concept to natives who had historically possessed a sacred attitude toward music. Nonetheless, Highlife and Afrobeat artists preserved the traditional dimension behind music being utilized as a tool, using their lyrics and public status to provide social commentaries on their respective societies. This article will delve into Highlife and Afrobeat, describing how not just the music itself, but also the counterculture generated by genre’s post-colonial artists, were monumental to their corresponding regions’ political, cultural, and social atmosphere.


In the regions surrounding Ghana, the Akan people’s integration of distinct ancestral melodic stringed harmonies with their daily cultural practices has, over the generations, rooted music’s purpose in society as not merely an entity for entertainment, but rather as an apparatus that assists in binding society along the parameters of culture, politics, and religion. 

Yet into the early 1960s, amid the fall of colonialism, the West’s ideological expansion into the region gradually fostered a more modern approach to music within Ghanaians, birthing the Highlife genre. Music gradually became a sector of entertainment, with live concerts and clubs being introduced to Ghanaians, ultimately excluding those who couldn’t afford to give themselves over to entertainment, coining the genre’s name of “Highlife.” While Highlife represented a Westernization of the Ghanaian music scene, traditional Akan elements of music were preserved within the genre.

Highlife artists wove their ancestral stringed melodies and pulsating percussion with Western instruments, and incorporated storytelling and theatre in their live performances to portray comics, tragedies, and depictions of everyday society. The lyrics contained within these Highlife songs attempt to dismantle the socially conservative Ghanaian norms of patriarchy, social stratification, and increasing social inequality. Highlife essentially served as a platform not just for artists to publicly vent repressed frustration, but also for listeners to educate themselves and become aware of the underlying problematic dimensions of Ghanaian society.

Nana Ampadu, a renowned Highlife musician, was famous for inscribing political and social themes in his music. His piece  Aware bone (Bad Marriage), lyrically portrays transparent and embedded complications in a typical Ghanaian marriage.. While the song’s literal translation proves Highlife’s ability to serve as a platform to provide a commentary on elements within Ghanaian society, there has been speculation surrounding a potential second meaning – a critical view of the metaphorical ‘marriage’ between the  current military head of state, Ignatius Acheampong, and a personified Ghana. Taking this second meaning into consideration, the song criticizes Ghana’s ongoing plight of monetary and governmental corruption. While this song, like many of Amapadu’s others, was challenged by the government for its underlying meaning., the allegorical lyrics steered Ampadu away from prosecution and censorship.  

Highlife artists would endorse political parties such as Axim Trio’s public allegiance with Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party, cementing the political façade of themselves that they had presented within their songs. While Highlife was perceived as an aristocratic genre, its significance throughout the entirety of Ghanaian society remained incredibly robust. Despite live performances catering to the upper-class, records made their way through the community, fostering not just a culture of dancing and listening within households, but also newfound hope for social change within Ghanaians. Highlife’s democratic presence in society was colossal, as a disillusioned nation was ideologically united through various artists  ability to musically provide social commentaries on the post-colonial cultural and political climate. 


Similar to Highlife’s emergence and consequent stronghold over Ghanaian society, the genre of Afrobeat parallels its impact over the regions surrounding Nigeria. An integration of traditional Yoruba liturgical compositions, Ghanaian Highlife, and Western Jazz, Afrobeat surfaced in Nigeria as a countercultural musical genre with spiritual, political, and socio-progressive undertones. The pioneering force and posterchild behind the Afrobeat movement, Fela Kuti was seen as the Bob Dylan of Nigeria. Alongside a commentary on Nigerian post-colonial corruption and fascism, Fela ingeniously weaved a nostalgic reminiscence on Yoruba folklore with a seamless and distinctly fleeting polyrhythmic groove.  

Fela’s mother, Funmilayo Kuti, was a prominent political campaigner and advocate for women’s rights and suffrage in Nigeria. His father, Israel Kuti, was a religious minister who also devoted a large part of his life to reforming the Nigerian education system. Fela thus had not only a background in progressive politics, but also a strong resonance with Yoruba religion ingrained in him which would become evident in his music. Whilst living in London and studying for a degree in medicine, Fela became infatuated with the live jazz scene and consequently returned to Lagos to not just pursue music, but also invigorate the Nigerian community through his ambitions as an artist. Fascinated with and deeply influenced by African American empowerment amid the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Fela acquainted himself with members of the Black Panther party and various African American musicians. The black self-empowerment that Fela observed in the States inspired him to foster an intimate relationship with his native listeners and mobilize his music to rally Lagos against their oppressive government. Zombie, a 12-minute composition complete with penetrative instrumentals and acute vocals is an iconic example of Fela’s comical, yet critical approach to addressing politics in his music. In addition to the song’s lyrics, the dance performed in live concerts metaphorically presented Zombie as an attack on the Nigerian brutalist police. Background dancers would rock a ‘zombie-walk’, imitating the physically oppressive stature that Lagos police presented themselves in, while Fela spat commanding interjections of “Go and kill!”, and “Quick march!”, and “Salute!”. Fela’s fiery performance included him marching with a barbarous swagger back and forth on the stage, carrying his beloved saxophone under arm, symbolizing the rifles that Lagos police would intimidatingly flaunt and often use to implement the same brutalism which Fela despised. This brilliant finishing touch solidified Fela’s entire philosophy of mobilizing music as a means to attack the Nigerian government in a both visually and audibly vicious nature, while maintaining a physically peaceful presence. 

Fela also remained faithful to his religious roots by hosting weekly Yoruba folklore nights, inviting Lagos locals to embrace not just their ancestral roots but also the spiritual world he grew to find solace in, Fela’s entire career was spent in Lagos, enshrining his legacy in Nigeria for his persistent loyalty and ambitions to counter an oppressively-ruled society by fostering ideological strength within his listeners.  

Along with his family, band members, and friends, Fela inhabited a communal compound he coined Kalakuta Republic, a place that he declared independent from the Nigerian military state. While primarily used to record music, Kalakuta also housed crowds of young people whom Fela had taken off the street of Lagos to add to his entourage. They would, together, read literary works surrounding concepts of pan-Africanism, socialism, African American empowerment, and uncensored Nigerian history. To spread their learnings, Fela and others from Kalakuta would write for political columns in local Lagos newspapers, cementing Fela’s political beliefs in words, and thus reinforcing the general philosophy behind his song’s lyrics. Fela went above and beyond to empower his Nigerian listeners to rebel against ideological oppression through intellect and free speech, while maintaining an individual identity. While his music remains the most prominent dimension behind his legacy, Fela’s contribution to educating and empowering the youth cultivated an entire generation of self-aware Nigerians in the pursuit of a society free from governmental brutality and exploitation.  


While both Afrobeat and Highlife had profound effects on their places of origin, the genres have slowly undergone expansion to audiences extending out of Sub-Saharan Africa, influencing new generations of artists ideologically and musically. Highlife evolved beyond the bounds of entertainment and became a source of pride for Ghana. President Kwame Nkrumah, monumental to claiming Ghana’s sovereignty from Britain, deemed Highlife as the nation’s national music. The official stamp of nationwide approval of Highlife led to a small period of reformation in which artists switched the language of their music from English to their native tongue. Highlife’s powerful emergence and consequent reception in Ghana assisted in the rise of Afrobeat.  

Through Fela’s charismatic persona and personal claim to the genre, Afrobeat underwent a considerably large scale of spread, reaching Western societies. The polyrhythmic nature of Afrobeat influenced generations of artists to utilize cross-rhythms to elevate their own music. The emphasis of the second beat, rather than the primary beat, enables listeners to hear the primary beat as cross-beats, thus allowing artists to utilize beats as a means to convey ideas in a cutting manner. This technique has inspired numerous contemporary artists to dig through Afrobeat works and attempt to remix them, thus continuously reintroducing the genre to the world through its euphonious excellence. William Onyeabor, another noteworthy Nigerian Afrobeat artist, has had works such as ‘Atomic Bomb’ and ‘Body and Soul’ remixed by electronic collectives. A prominent example of Western adaption to the afro-technique of polyrhythms include the Talking Heads’ ‘Remain in Light’ album, in which tracks like 'Crosseyed and Painles' and ‘Fela’s Riff’ are distinctly Afrobeat-inspired. Fela’s children, notably Seun and Femi  Kuti, have carried on Afrobeat’s legacy, integrating genres of Hip-hop and Neo Jazz to create their own sound. Furthermore, Tony Allen, a colossal contributio  to Africa 70 as a percussion virtuoso, has continued his career through songwriting and composing, and remains a beloved figure of pride for Nigeria. These modern takes on Afrobeat have not just  elevated the genre through the addition of contemporary musical layer, but most significantly reintroduced the cultural significance behind the Fela’s movement. 

So, to finish this thing off, I’d like to emphasize how large of an impact reading, listening, watching, and writing for this article  as had on me. Delving into these individual worlds of Highlife and Afrobeat and learning how pivotal their imprint was on transforming culture within their respective regions has made me grasp how truly powerful the entity of music can be.. While our current generation’s treatment of music is drowned in the capitalist mindset of perceiving music as a leisured means for emotional release, artists like Fela have sacrificed themselves to incarceration and governmental brutality to pave vital ideological reform for their  societies. While I know we can’t travel back in time to experience this approach to music, I think it’s important to recognize the numerous musical movements our society has undergone and the culture it’s brought about.  From Jazz and Blues amid the Great Depression, to the rise of commercialism and popularization of revolutionary music in the 60s, the music we almost daily listen to contains countless layers of influence and culture that, as a listener, deserves our acknowledgement and thus appreciation. 


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Music never lets you down
Puts a smile on your face
Anytime, any place
Dancing helps relieve the pain
Soothes your mind, makes you happy again
Listen to those dancing feet
Close your eyes and let go
But it don't mean a thing
If it ain't got that swing
Bop-shoo-wa, bop-shoo-wa, bop-shoo-wa

Chic - Everybody Dance from the album: Chic (1977)