Reflection on Fela: Tony Allen’s stance on Militancy in Music

How does Tony Allen’s militant sensibility in music solicit second-guessing and challenge one to confront the thickets of the never-obvious relationship between artistic expression and activist sociality?

Within the genre of Afrobeat, there are names of the likes of Fela Kuti and Tony Allen, setting a benchmark not just for the style but as contributors to a genre of music and further standing up for changes, voices, social, and political.

Fela himself—an emblem of trenchant activism and infectious beats—was a man who resisted oppression. So many Fela lovers will say that Tony Allen, the rhythmic heartbeat behind Fela’s music, had a hand in crafting that very sound, which is unlike any other, and ferried those messages around the globe.

Tony Allen's
Tony Allen’s

However, while both musicians approached music in the same way, with a perception of it as a tool for social commentary, Tony Allen had recently expressed a sentiment that at least diverges from one part of Fela’s legacy: militant music.

In a candid interview,

Tony Allen did not fail to appreciate that Fela had such a lasting influence, which will keep living in his life and music. He confesses that Fela’s message of speaking truth to power is something that echoes very loudly with him, and he will continue to stand on those principles of justice and equality exemplified by Fela.

However, Allen made a striking distinction when it came to the musical approach.

“I hate militant singing,” Allen confessed for the umpteenth time, setting his own fiercely individualistic style apart from Fela’s, whose music was streaked with fiery and confrontational lyrics and bore aggressive musical arrangements. Allen appreciates Fela’s commitment to activism, but he himself thinks it is best to express social concerns in subtler ways than mere invectives through music.

This sentiment cracks open the smallest of windows into Allen’s artistic philosophy:

the balance of subtlety and groove over overt militancy. In that sense, Allen’s drumming is at once intricate in polyrhythms yet sober in sophistication, reflecting that very ethos. She avoids using music as a blunt instrument of protest, whereas Allen’s approach hints at a much more nuanced, engaged relationship to the social issues at hand.

This divergence in musical ideology does not diminish the respect and admiration Allen holds for Fela. On the other hand, it reflects the complexity of artistic expression and the many solutions contained in the Afrobeat tradition.

Fela’s music epitomised the spirit of defiance and resistance, and Allen’s work does just that in another aspect of the Afrobeat legacy: that of the inclusion of manifold diversified thoughts and expressions.

This vision of Tony Allen in today’s sociopolitical landscape, where activism seems to have as many varied faces, is something very precious. It is not something the movie ever puts into words, but it does draw an undeniable dichotomy between art and individuality—between authentic art, taking on a call dependent on its expression of individuality, and a kind of parroting message calling for social change.

Tony Allen's
Tony Allen’s

If Fela’s was a symbol that stood for militant defiance, then Allen’s is all the more elegant and subliminal, a reminder of the point that there isn’t any one way towards meaningful change. In the end, it’s in their anthems and infectious grooves that the spirit of Fela lives, in the music of Tony Allen and multitudes more who took his influence to similar heights of inspiration.

However different their means might be, their commitment to not only empowering the voices of those on the periphery but also challenging what is very much the core of their identity—the spirit of their musical values.


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