As part of my Anthropology of Music and Art Class, I had to write a final paper for the semester on a topic related to what we’ve been studying. It’s made up of my review from the Afrobeat book as mentioned earlier on this blog. Inclusion of paper one (the book review) was required as part of our assignment. I also wrote up an annotated bibliography (a very librarian thing to do) but didn’t attach it. If you’re interested in reading it, contact me via comment/email and I’ll let you know.
I thank my husband in offering sage editing advice and critique! Thanks!
Musical Assault! Fanon’s Ideology as applied to Afrobeat and the Rise of Norwegian Black Metal Music
If violence marks the appearance and essence of colonialism, does the emergence of counter-violence signal the appearance and essence of liberation? Is violence enough to constitute revolutionary agency?
This paper makes use of the anti-colonial philosopher Frantz Fanon’s philosophy concerning agency and violence as a form of social activism to examine two disparate musical genres – Nigerian Afrobeat and Norwegian Black Metal (NBM). It demonstrates how Afrobeat and NBM share similar ideological roots in their creation, with one utilizing passive activism and the other using violent agency. Drawing upon the books, Afrobeat!: Fela and the Imagined Continent by Sola Olorunyomi and Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground by authors Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind for reference, it explores the development of these two culturally-distinct musical styles and the similarities of their missives for socio-political change and lays the groundwork for understanding and answering the questions, how can music be a weapon? How do musicians, in spite of political and social forces that seek to squash or subvert their message, manage to inspire and convey the creative voice of the subaltern? What does it mean to practice rebellion through music creation?
Perhaps most notably since the 60’s, music has been used to communicate a variety of socio-political messages. From artists like Bob Marley to Rage against the Machine, Public Enemy to Megadeth, The Clash to The Dixie Chicks and countless others, it has served as a medium from which to publicly comment on social and political agendas to the public. An analysis of the genres of Afrobeat and NBM reveals their origins as outlets for cultural identity and their evolution into musical weaponry, aimed at destroying the coercive national identities forced upon their proponents and the larger populations of Nigeria and Norway. Both genres of music conform to Fanon’s three stages of intellectual native and his theory of violence as rebellion. What they differ in is the extent to which they execute his theoretical uprising. Fanon’s belief concerning violence surrounds the notion that a decolonized society could only successfully be reorganized through violence – the same way in which it was colonized.
The book, Afrobeat! Fela and the Imagined Continent, by Sola Olorunyomi explores the life and impact of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, creator of the musical genre, Afrobeat. More famously and simply known as Fela Kuti, Olorunyomi’s work provides an in-depth look at the activist behind the musician. Olorunyomi begins his narrative with an overview of Nigeria’s restive socio-political climate during their newly-gained independence in 1960. The introduction of Nigeria’s socio-political climate offers a backdrop and catalyst to understanding Fela’s search for a native African musical form and a lyrical and philosophical message. When paired together, these two mediums became Fela’s platform for musical activism.
Beginning with a vivid and well-articulated memory of his own first encounter with Nigerian unrest, Olorunyomi sets the stage for readers to grasp how discordant the times were. His drive to seek out Fela’s Kalakuta Republic residence as a haven during those unstable times sets the tone for understanding the “Ideological Education” Fela’s ideology provided. It is here that the author found like-minded revolutionists. Though Nigeria had won it’s independence from Britain in the 1960’s, the nation suffered social and civil unrest. Governed by an imbalance of political parties which represented the dominant ethnic groupings, Nigeria was spilt between conservative and liberal parties, each vying for control of the nation. Acts of corruption, violence and military coups subsequently followed.
In their book, Lords of Chaos: The Rise of the Satanic Underground, authors Soderlind and Moynihan discuss the roots of Black Metal music and then focus on Norwegian Black Metal, commonly accepted as the most visceral strain of the style. Beginning with a history of the musical styles from blues to rock to metal and finally extreme metal subgenres, they showcase prominent figures and their influences on the genre. One such person whose work bore significant weight on the thought-processes behind NBM is Anton Szandor LaVey, who founded the Church of Satan in 1966 and wrote The Satanic Bible in 1969. His work extols the virtues of self-analysis and exploration of personal instinct. It also contains formulas for mystical rituals and alternate viewpoints on ideas about divinity.
Characteristically known by its dark melodies, shrieking vocals, discordant guitar playing and fast tempos, Black Metal has risen in popularity in the past twenty years and is most associated with anti-Christian sentiment, corpse paint and the burning of churches. In many ways, it is structurally the opposite of Afrobeat, which makes use of layered harmonies, pidgin vocals, lengthy and repetitive instrumental passages and moderate tempos. For all of their structural differences, however, their evolution and messages are strikingly similar.
Just as Nigeria was taken over by British colonialists in the earliest part of the 20th century, Norway’s native people were culturally supplanted by Christians at the end of the 11th century. In both cases, the native needs for sovereignty and self-determination were suppressed, sometimes violently. Local laws and customs were replaced by invader mores and native religions, music and values were banned. Over time, Norwegians grew to identify with the new status quo. Native groups, such as the Eskimo-like Sami, were relegated to second-class citizenry. Even the proud Scandinavian Viking culture was largely erased. Nigerians lost much of their native Yorubo and Irunmole spirituality, and even their very citizenry during the dark period of the slave trade. To this day, Norway is predominantly Christian and Nigeria’s two largest religious groups are Christianity and Islam.
In Afrobeat!, Olorunyomi describes the cultural and traditional history in which Afrobeat is rooted. He gives a description of the genre of African music called Highlife, a term coined by the people who could not attend the clubs in which it was popularly played due to their inability to afford the entrance fees. The word Highlife became associated with both the style of music and the social status of the people who could afford to frequent establishments in which it was played. It’s here that we begin to glimpse the social division that would be later explored in subsequent chapters where Olorunyomi discusses the political background of the emerging Nigerian state and the class division which Fela Kuti’s music railed against.
Highlife music provided the roots of what was to become Fela’s own Afrobeat. Because of this, Olorunyomi goes into detail about structural patterns as well as inherent Yoruba Nigerian ways of singing, dancing, and performing. Importance is placed on vocal presence, emphasizing that Yoruba music itself had always been rooted in being a form of communication. For example, the author gives us a tale about the traditional Nigerian practice of using trees that grew close to man-made roads to make skin drums. These trees, being in proximity to passing people, were thought to have overheard much of human communication, and were thus the only truly suitable materials with which to craft drums, as it was believed that they could closely reproduce human language (p.5). These drums became, in a sense, repositories of a language for Africans. They are associated with the aesthetic and religious deities of native Yoruba religion, creating a relationship that is not only functional, but spiritual, adding to their “cultural addiction of talking through musical instruments.”
Just as Afrobeat has its origins in Highlife, Moynihan and Soderlind demonstrate that NBM has its roots in a form of extreme metal called Death Metal. A majority of the initial NBM bands started as Death Metal bands. The first of these was Mayhem, which was followed by Burzum, Immortal, Darkthrone and Emperor. Many hallmarks of the style made their way into NBM, including speedy, downtuned guitars and drumming. Certain stylistic differences soon led to a distinction between NBM and its progenitors. Vocals were shrieked instead of grunted, drumming became even faster than Death Metal’s already machine gun-like patterns, often to the displacement of identifiable rhythm. Guitars began to incorporate a piercing and continuous “wall of sound” effect. The goal was to make Black Metal the most extreme form of music in the world. However, in order to accomplish this, mutating the music alone was not enough. An entire culture and philosophy had to be created which pushed the ideals of the genre past the most extreme musical forms available at the time.
After a detailed history on Norway’s societal climate in regards to religion and social behavior, Moynihan and Soderlind focus mainly on the band Mayhem – considered to be the father of NBM. Included are interviews interspersed throughout the text with other bands and members of the underground metal scene. What becomes clear is that Mayhem, and in particular founding guitarist/vocalist Euronymous (Øystein Aarseth), maintained a controlling influence on the entire movement in its early days. Euronymous was responsible for the transformation of many of the first converts to the style from Death Metal. He is also credited with spreading the musical, fashion and philosophical idioms of NBM to the other bands, which would later become known as the “Inner Circle” and which would be responsible for a string of infamous church burnings which terrorized the country. Much of this work was done at a record shop which he owned and operated called Helvete, or “Hell”.
Throughout Afrobeat!, Olorunyomi points out the underlying philosophy and ideology that influenced Fela’s own “Felasophy”, most notably, the works of Frantz Fanon, a Martinique revolutionist whose post-colonial and critical theories helped shape both Fela’s societal views and musicianship. Olorunyomi believed that Fanon, a luminary figure in his own right, inspired Fela’s activism through his theories on race, violence, oppression, and the struggle for a national liberated state. Fela’s Nigeria was situated similarly to Fanon’s Algeria; both nations echoing a social history wrought with government corruption, pre-bendalism, and the shrinking of a public sphere.
While the roots of Afrobeat’s philosophical influences are readily traceable, those of NBM are more nebulous. This is most likely due in part to the core group of people who initiated the musical movement as well as the amount of time which passed between the initial supplanting of the culture and the backlash against it. About 60 years passed before Fela Kuti’s music took shape after colonialization. Close to 900 years have passed since Norway’s Christianization and the birth of NBM. The strongest personalities in the NBM scene were Euronymous and another musician named Varg (Kristian) Vikernes, of the band Burzum. Initially, their push on the fledgling musical scene was to make it more “evil” and extreme than the styles which had come before it. Much of this was accomplished through the establishment of a misanthropic, outsider image based strongly on the embrace of occult and Satanic imagery. Euronymous, in particular, advocated Satanism and was pivotal in making such themes prevalent among the rest of the bands that were to follow.
The backdrop for this is explained in Lords of Chaos as being a reaction to the overwhelming acceptance of Christianity in Norway and the Norwegian government’s related censorship of media deemed inappropriate by Christian values. One example given is that during the past 70 years, only one horror movie has been produced, out of thousands of movies produced in the country. Comedic films, such as Monty Python’s Life of Brian are banned for blasphemy and violence in the media is suppressed to the point that cartoons are pulled off of the air if they contain gun imagery. Where Nigeria’s cultural suppression was often violent and physical, Norway’s controlling forces focused on social and media-centric prohibitions. There is an old adage that says people want most that which they cannot have. Soderlind and Moynihan posit that the repression of violent, dark and occult media in Norway led to a hunger for it amongst certain segments of the populace, which in turn opened the doors for the birth of NBM as an uncontrolled musical outlet. Lack of a public forum in which to explore these themes and ideas may have led those who became part of the NBM movement to gorge upon its excesses. This heavy anti-Christian sentiment can best be described in Soderlind’s words, “…considered to be an alien religion, and forced on one’s ancestors under threat of death”. When viewed from this perspective, cultural censorship of violence may have encouraged and contributed to the rise of NBM.
As detailed in Olorunyomi’s book, it was in a despotic atmosphere that Fela created his initial phase of Afrobeat, first as a reformer and later evolving Afrobeat into a musical style that subverted the rules and restrictions set forth by the ruling government. Likewise, in Norway, Euronymous and Vikernes championed a style that was anti-Christian and rebellious. Olorunyomi believed that in essence, Fela conforms to Fanon’s theory of the “three stages of native intellectual”, in which the first phase consists of the native’s acceptance of and assimilation into the over-ruling colonial power (a blind embrace). The second phase consists of the native’s realization of his oppression which incurs a “romantic retreat into a native cocoon”; a re-embracing of the traditions of a pre-colonial era and native society. The third and last stage is the native critically reassessing his current national society and engaging and inciting his indigenous group to help undermine it (p.44).
Musically, Olorunyomi points out that this is exactly how Fela’s Afrobeat develops and progresses. The beginning phase of Afrobeat, as pointed out by the author, shows Fela’s music within the framework of high African-American Jazz (p.44). Applying Fanon’s second phase to Fela’s Afrobeat unveils Fela highlighting the authentic native with songs like Keep Nigeria One, etc. It isn’t until Fela is in the grips of the third stage of the native intellectual that we see him aggressively move to capsize the ideology of the ruling class through changes in his song texts. For example, his song Zombie, which was written in direct counterpoint to the Nigerian government’s military tactics and which speaks to their military’s automated and mindless sense of duty, encompasses the height of Afrobeat elements; being vibrant, jazzy, funky and yet sung in pidgin for accessibility. The Zombie album and song was a revolutionary success as well as a confrontational message to the ruling class. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, the reaction of the military was one that did not favor the song’s strong message. Reactively, the military burned down Fela’s Kalakuta Republic, pillaged his commune and raped the women living there, among other horrors.
NBM’s progression along a similar path is documented in Lords of Chaos. Initially, and over a long period of time, the country assimilated into the Christian body. Such was the scope of absorption that even now, Norwegian law states that at least half of the governmental body must always be registered members of the Norwegian Church. Next, followed a period of return to occult and “pagan” membership. This period was marked with a large focus by the NBM community on occult and Satanic lyrics and ritual performance, and even evolved to shed its Satanic skin with a return to “traditional” worship of Norse gods and goddesses in the form of a revival of Asatru, or “Aesir’s faith”. Asatru’s birth coincided with that of NBM and spread to a wider Black Metal audience, including pivotal Swedish Black Metal band Bathory and Scandanavians who were not associated with the Black Metal movement at all. This resulted in the creation of yet another Heavy Metal offshoot called Viking Metal.
It wasn’t until the third stage of Fanon’s native intellectual was crossed that the extent of the NBM adherents’ drive was realized. Euronymous’ and Vikernes’ Satanic proclamations to the media intensified and fans from abroad began to question their seriousness. Seeking to prove that their beliefs were not constructed of empty words, they began to act out on their speeches. This led to the infamous Norwegian church burnings that ravaged the countryside and received condemnation from the world-at-large. The stave church burnings revealed a frightening trend which, in one reviewer’s words, “Turned the violence of its rhetoric into reality”; perhaps a sentiment that Frantz Fanon would have agreed with.
Where Fela Kuti’s aggressions against the Nigerian government were most strongly expressed via song and his creation of the Afrika Shrine, Euronymous’ moved on from lyrical and ideological musings to arson. Calling on other members of the most dedicated members of the “Inner Circle” the group revolted against their perceived Christian tyranny by setting fire to, and in many cases completely burning to the ground, some 50 churches over a period of 4 years. It was, in many ways, a textbook example of reassessing cultural identity and undermining it.
Some questions do arise out of a comparison of the two musical and philosophical movements and their relation to Fanon’s works. Is there a difference in how far Norwegian Black Metallers were able to push against their perceived boundaries versus how far Fela’s Afrobeat message was able to push due to racial identity? The Nigerian conflict can very easily be classified as a black culture versus white culture struggle, where the Norwegian one was overwhelmingly white versus white. Did a lack of readily-identifiable differentiators such as skin tone lead to a wider embrace of corpse paint among Black Metallers as a means to create a strong visual distinction between themselves and not just ordinary Norwegian citizens, but even members of related subcultures such as Death Metal, who were perceived as “trend followers” and “complacent sheep”?
Olorunyomi goes on to describe and explain the social and cultural context in which Afrobeat evolves as well as the more technical aspects of the music’s construction, including call and response techniques, theme and meaning behind Fela’s songs. He writes on about Fela’s re-adoption of Yoruba spirituality and its incorporation at the Afrika Shrine. Reflecting upon his native religion enabled Fela to once again undermine what the majority of Nigerians practiced during his time, Christianity, and it allowed Fela to employ native Yoruban musical techniques as well as Yoruban meanings to his songs. This movement towards the native religion mirrors that of NBM advocates first towards Satanism and then Asatru. As with Fela’s lyrical migration towards the native Yoruban religion, NBM groups adapted this as a way of undermining prevailing societal and religious practice. It was done most significantly in the form of its musical and lyrical offshoot, “Viking Metal”, which replaced Satanic imagery with themes of Norse deities, especially adoption of Mjolnir (Thor’s hammer) symbols and amulets in place of the Christian cross, and called for a return to the gods and values “of our fathers”. This movement had more widespread appeal and crossover support than the Satanic course and may have even influenced the more recent revival of Yoik, a Sami singing style that was similarly repressed by Church members as being “of the Devil” due to its non-Christian origins. There are now even Heavy Metal bands such as Waltari which perform with traditional Yoik singers like Angelin tytöt both in recordings and on stage.
Fela learned to live within the limitations set upon him by creating a commune, emphasizing humanism, and the ideologies of a republic, all of which were opposed by a government which did not want to lose its power to the people. Olorunyomi then describes the performances and fandom that were part of Fela’s influence. He goes in-depth to explain the different levels of fans and their loyalties to Fela’s music. These various groups, Olorunyomi believes, formulate bonding experiences, collectively creating resistance groups in the face of an opposing class as well as continuity of Fela’s legacy. NBM, on the other hand, thrived in an elitist atmosphere in which mainstream Norwegian culture, especially Christian culture, was openly attacked. Tenets were anything but humanistic, with advocacy of violence against the Church encouraged. It is conceivable that should each movement’s goal be achieved, Afrobeat could continue on as a unifying cultural artform, where NBM might actually require an adversary to mobilize its energies against.
Initially, Afrobeat seems more inclusive in its populace. Its message is aimed at causing Nigerians to rally against their status at the hands of an invader government and its legacy. Membership amongst its listeners is broadly open. NBM was much more exclusive. Unlike Afrobeat, the initial core had to “prove themselves” before being taken into the fold via acts such as arson instead of just musically exposing perceived truths about the status quo and carrying the torch and message to the masses. Although each style conforms to varying degrees to Fanon’s ideas, their contrasting media approaches were akin to optimistic preaching versus engaging in guerilla warfare.
Afrobeat and NBM are examples of how two separate and distinct musical genres can share similar ideological concepts of rebellion. This analysis offers groundwork for further research in the discourse of new forms of musical agency. Frantz Fanon’s philosophy concerning violence is a powerfully applicable lens through which to study such creative formations. Olorunyomi states, “as conceived by Fela, Afrobeat is primarily a cultural and political musical practice – better still, aesthetics of cultural politics” (p.173). NBM is described in Lords of Chaos as “a bastard child, conceived from the promiscuous intermingling of a number of evil seeds, with only the general formula of Heavy Metal as its fecund womb.” As with other forms of revolutionist musical styles, and in accordance with Fanon’s theories, Fela’s Afrobeat and NBM continue to speak to people on a variety of levels, enlightening them with personal truths and realizations and engaging them in a discourse of the power of music as a weapon.
1.Olorunyomi, S. (2003). Afrobeat!: Fela and the imagined continent. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
2.Søderlind, D., & Moynihan, M. (2003). Lords of Chaos: The bloody rise of the satanic metal underground. Los Angeles, Calif: Feral House.
3.Gibson, N. C. (2003). Fanon: The postcolonial imagination. Cambridge, U.K: Polity Press in association with Blackwell Pub.