Fela Kuti’s early Afrobeat classic Why Black Man Dey Suffer consists of only two tracks, each taking up an entire side: the slow-building title cut, and “Ikoyi Mentality Versus Mushin Mentality,” a seamless succession of solos and fills that shows off Kuti’s preternatural gifts as a bandleader. And it’s a heck of a band, too, with Kuti on electric piano, Igo Chico blowing sweetly through a tenor sax, and Tony Allen, the man who put the beat in Afrobeat, on the drum kit. It’s Kuti’s show, which is the reason why Chico would soon quit, to be replaced by Kuti himself. What it sounds like, however, is people working together, taking turns in the spotlight to make energizing music.
It’s appropriate, then, that lyrics address divisions and differences, contrasting the lives of the poor and the upper class in Nigeria, as reflected in two neighborhoods of Lagos: ritzy, Westernized Ikoyi and impoverished, over-populated Mushin. Kuti’s sympathies are firmly with the residents of Mushin. Singing in Nigerian Pidgin, he praises their authenticity (“Him understand the people language / The language of Africa”) while dismissing the British affectations of the rich.
Of course, it’s easy to accuse Kuti of a certain phoniness: He was British-educated, studied music in London, and got become politically aware while living and performing in Los Angeles. Kuti’s social consciousness was still maturing when he released Why Black Man Dey Suffer, which was only his second studio album. It may romanticize poverty, but it also points to the stark class differences produced by an unfair system, in which people could live in the same city and yet exist in completely different worlds. That, and it just grooves in a way that no rock group of the era could match.