Afrobeat is bigger than Fela

In the second of five articles on Afrobeat music in South America, political scientist Simon Akindes writes about the all women and nonbinary Brazilian band, Funmilayo Afrobeat Orquestra.

Image © José de Holanda.

The activist mother of Fela Kuti, the pioneer of the Afrobeat music genre, was named Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. Bearing her name is Funmilayo Afrobeat Orquestra, the 11-member São Paulo band created in March 2019. They stand out in the Brazilian Afrobeat scene for their creativity, audacity, and political commitment, priding themselves on being “the only Afrobeat band in the world formed only by women and nonbinary black people.”

In 2019, vocalist and saxophonist Stela Nesrine and trumpet player Larissa Oliveira created the band so they would have a “more comfortable place to develop.” “We already liked Afrobeat a lot, says Stela, adding, “We didn’t know much about it—we’re still studying it—but we thought it would make perfect sense.”

The band knew the journey would be long and complex. “With Funmilayo, the entire process, musical and administrative, had to be built,” Larissa explained. “We need to deal with different levels of musical experience, different levels of rapport and knowledge of Afrobeat, and different personalities in the band.”

They assembled in a deliberate manner, countering Afrobeat’s stereotypes and contradictions. In Fela’s bands, women occupied the gendered roles of background vocalists and foreground dancers, scantily dressed. In addition, songs like “Mattress,” “Na Poi,” or “Lady” have not flattered women, especially educated ones. Fela portrayed them as sexual objects, or as women vainly pursuing equality and refusing to surrender to men’s authority, a natural “African” order.

However, Funmilayo believed in different perspectives regarding hierarchy, management, and direction. Stela commented, “We don’t have leadership, we don’t have a central figure, so we’re already trying to break this hierarchy on the stage.” She goes on: “We don’t have the female body with an assigned role, occupying a specific place… so not having to focus on the female body in a specified role and also not having this leadership figure, for me is one of the main things of our band.”

When asked about Fela’s well-documented misogynistic attitudes and eccentricities, Priscila, the drummer, remarked, “About Fela’s eccentricities—I don’t really care much. I think that, in short, what matters most to me is the music… Then I understood the lyrics, which I found sensational.” She believes Fela’s times were different, that machismo was rampant in those days, but “the music and the message are very important.” So, she says, “We don’t want to worship Fela; we like Afrobeat and we will pass our message through it. We won’t necessarily have a bust of Fela in our house.” Their band was not going to be a Fela personality cult, which is Afrobeat bands’ position in South America.

Regarding management, they cultivate horizontality and collective decision-making. Vanessa, the band’s 11th member and dancer, is also its most experienced member, with practical knowledge of Afrobeat. She has studied Afrobeat for more than 12 years, has traveled to Felabration—the annual Afrobeat festival—in Nigeria, and organizes Afrobeat dance workshops around schools and in public squares in São Paulo. Still, she manages the band as an equal participant.

Funmilayo’s music emerges against a very specific backdrop. The 2003-2016 rule of the Workers’ Party under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Roussef brought remarkable social progress to the Brazilian poor—especially for the black majority—with social welfare programs such as Bolsa Familia and Fome Zero. Afro-Brazilian women experienced a political renaissance during that period. Since the 2015 Black Women’s March against Racism, Violence and in Favor of Good Living in Brasília, a new black, feminist, political consciousness has matured, sweeping across the country and leading to significant electoral victories for black women in 2020. After Marielle Franco’s assassination in 2018, social movements of black women mushroomed. Black women considered themselves the social majority, and thought it was time to assert their political clout. This new Afrofeminist militant fervor favored the creation of a permanent internet forum “to occupy spaces of power and decision-making.” The creators of the forum aimed at promoting the black vote for black women.

For Funmilayo, this Afrofeminism is central. In Priscila’s words, “White women wanted to fight to be able to work; black women always worked, to support the house or as slaves. We always worked, but not for us, it was always for others, for the comfort of others, to help others, and such… So we have a lot more demands.” She concludes, “It’s very important that other women realize this and understand.”

Stela also stated: “I think in that sense it’s very similar to being a black American woman, except that we have another layer as a colonized country. We try to decolonize. A lot of what was built by feminists… as Angela Davis said, was built on top of our backs. And above all, we have today, culturally, the crushing of our culture by North American culture. A lot of things that we absorb kill our Brazilian culture. So Afrofeminists have to be decolonial too, and value things from our land here.”

For Funmilayo, being Afrofeminist is not a straightforward proposition. The band makes this meaning when it wrestles with power as manifested in overlapping notions of gender, race, and class. This reflects the Brazilian Afrofeminist movement’s great emphasis on the collective—its primacy over the individual—and on mutuality. What benefits one benefits everyone else. This need for togetherness and solidarity also originates in African religious traditions that have cultivated the ethics of sharing and camaraderie necessary to face religious and other forms of economic marginalization. The São Paulo Ilú Obá De Min collective, a black women’s bloco (drummers, singers, performers, and dancers) that aims at “promoting Afro-Brazilian and African cultures and activities for the empowerment of women,” illustrates that philosophy. They organize workshops in schools and public spaces and hold activities around Saõ Paulo to increase political consciousness. Another example of the spirit of collective work is the case of Pretas for Salvador, a group of three black women who ran together for a single seat in the city council.

Just before the coronavirus lockdown, in November 2019, Funmilayo released a single “NegrAção,” (“Black Action”), a beautiful song. In “NegrAção” (“Black Action”), a beautiful song written by Stela and inspired by the assassination of socialist politician, feminist, and human rights activist Marielle Franco, Funmilayo convey the urgent need for black women to carry on the fight for self-confidence, visibility, for decolonizing, owning their bodies, but also for love. The tone is defiantly political and avant-garde:

I bleed, but I sing
From mourning to fighting
With every scream of hate that lies
It will echo: Marielle, present!
I built myself on the denial of what I am
I rebuilt, black and action today I am
I looked at the newspaper (I didn’t see myself)
Look at the magazine (Where’s it?)
They say I was born (to serve)
I’ll show it was (to win)
Take your rosaries from our ovaries
Our body is free territory

Our mind has decolonized
I aimed at your chest and you didn’t even see it
Lighter than a rifle bullet, it is the seed that sprouts from love
It’s Funmilayo (8x)

In our conversation, Stela explained this song to me. “I wrote Negração, our first single,” she says, “on a crowded train coming from Jundiaí to São Paulo to rehearse with the band. This song talks about transforming mourning [luto] into fighting [luta], which we are pushed to do daily. Fighting a government that flirts daily with fascism, with attacks on democracy; fighting the mental exhaustion of seeing our country returning to the ‘hunger map’; fighting religious racism, positioning ourselves as members (or admirers) of African-based religions in our music; fighting the dismantling of culture, budget cuts, closing of concert halls, racist and sexist curatorship. Anyone who doesn’t fight in Brazil is either dead or is sitting on the rights of the people.”

This statement essentially characterizes the leftist mindset that nourishes Funmilayo. They plan on releasing their first album on the birthday of their namesake: October 25, 2022. As Rosa Couto, a singer in the band, noted, “It will focus on African-Brazilian women who have inspired us, intellectuals and artists, from Elza Soares, Sueli Carneiro, to Lelia Gonzales.” In their live concert at the Teatro Paulo Autran in São Paulo on October 16, 2021, they performed “Orere-Elejigbo,” a song by Nigeria’s Lijadu Sisters that exhorts the people to get out and fight. It represented a very special moment for themselves, their identity, trajectory, and pan-Africanist convictions, because not only did they discover and research the historical significance of the song—they also sang it entirely in contemporary Yoruba. It was a moment of pride, and the audience was enthralled. To date, they have produced two other singles: “Vazante de Verão” and “Travessia.”

For Ana Goes, a sax player, Funmilayo has provided a safe place “among people with the same history, who were discriminated against… It is a place of refuge, shelter, love, patience, affection, care, and listening.” She is also a follower of Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religion. She practices it every day and believes her orisha “lives with her and is in her.” Funmilayo Afrobeat, in that regard, has channeled the identity and representation needs of black women, including their religious experiences. Stela, whose family belonged to a Neo-Pentecostal church, explains that she went through a religious rebirth. She explains, “Along with becoming aware of my ancestry, the quest to know more about my history, the pride of my roots, my hair, the curiosity to get what my family was like back in Bahia before coming to São Paulo, I was recognizing the strength and beauty of the orishas within my heart. Being able to dance and sing to the land, to the river, to the sea, to the fog. Being able to heal with words, with herbs, with food, learning a way of life that our ancestors created in this diaspora, is what makes my heart happy today. I am currently Abyan, or uninitiated member, of Ilê Asé Opô Obá Tonilê and I will be born to the orisha at the right time, which will not take long. I feel the strength of an orisha when we play with Funmilayo, especially when the drums play and our voices sing along.” These religious influences are clear in Funmilayo’s forthcoming album, which features choral singing as an aesthetic feature.

As a collective, Funmilayo’s involvement in social projects is limited. However, individually, Vanessa politicized her work after discovering Afrobeat in 2008. She now includes concepts of African pride, self-recognition, self-love, and respect in the social dance projects she organizes in public squares, penitentiaries, home shelters, and beyond. For her, dance—especially Afrobeat dance—is a political act. Stela, meanwhile, is involved in the production of Calunguinha, the first podcast aimed at black children, with original songs that tell the story of Black Brazil in a child-friendly way. They won a Spotify award and will produce 12 episodes with big names in Brazilian cinema and music like Lázaro Ramos, Luedji Luna, Margareth Menezes, and others. Stela does the musical direction.

For Funmilayo, music is Brazil. Jasper, the band’s bass player, affirmed this: “Fela knew how to make a song for partying and unloading daily oppression, but also with a very powerful message, politically.” Afrobeat and making music have shaped Funmilayo’s Brazilian reality and strengthened their identity. “We are constantly living the process of erasing our roots. It is not ideal for this state [Brazil] that we remember that we are black, that they owe us a lot, So, being part of that memory is something very powerful that I see coming from Funmilayo.” Jasper believes the impact of Funmilayo when they go on stage together can be transformational for spectators, especially girls. He himself was transformed, he said.

Afrobeat plays innumerable roles in the lives of Funmilayo’s members—from the individual to the collective, the spiritual to the political. They have developed an acute sense of the political dimension of their art. As Priscila said, “Afrobeat is bigger than Fela.” In this spirit, Funmilayo has taken the resistance dimension of Afrobeat to a high level. It is difficult, for now at least, to have Afrobeat break into Brazilian popular classes and create a full Afrobeat circle, or “Roda de Afrobeat.” That may never happen, even as Afrobeats is making powerful inroads into popular music in Brazil. However, Afrobeat will continue to serve as an awakening and conscientization tool among Brazilians—but most specifically among women.

Further Reading