‘The Harder They Fall’ & the link between JAY-Z and Fela Kuti

Hov has clearly been doing his Afrobeat assignment

Every epic combat sequence in film deserves an equally epic song or score. For ‘The Harder They Fall’, Netflix’s recent historic western feature, its visceral crescendo is sounded off by “Let’s Start,” a brassy tune from Fela Kuti & Africa 70’s collaborative live album with the iconic British drummer Ginger Baker in 1971.

Originally, the song itself is an ode to unbridled infatuation; Fela urges his partner to get ready for sex since they both know what is about to happen. “O l’oun t’awa se ni iy’ara, je ka bere (there’s something we have come into the room to do, let us start),” he bellows. In The Harder They Fall’, that context is retooled for its anticipation, tension and enthusiasm. You’ve probably seen it by now: As Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz) square off, “Let’s Start” rings off solemnly with Fela’s opening monologue. As the scene builds, more punches are exchanged and the long-awaited face-off between the Nat Love and Rufus Buck gangs ratchets up to a 100.

Undoubtedly, that fight sequence wouldn’t be as hair-raising as it is without the chosen Fela song. Shortly after The Harder They Fall’ premiered on Netflix, much was deservedly made of “Let’s Start” featuring in a pivotal part of the film, not only because everything Fela draws in hype, but also because it’s a lesser-known composition in the Afrobeat pioneer’s sprawling discography. However, beyond the initial stun, there’s a speculative and simple reason for the song’s inclusion in a film about Black cowboys: JAY-Z.

There’s very little hidden about JAY-Z’s admiration for Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Over the last decade-plus, the all-time Rap great and business mogul born Shawn Carter has found several ways to embolden his reverence for Fela, and The Harder They Fall’—which he produced and helped curate its soundtrack—is his latest sign of reverence. The first bold gesture was his role in “FELA!”, the Broadway musical dramatising and detailing the life and times of Fela. Alongside Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, JAY produced the musical, which premiered for the first time in November 2009.

“It’s an inspiration, about the power of music,” he told MTV News on the opening night of “FELA!” “Here’s a guy that’s on the other side of the world who was influenced by James Brown, who takes this thing and makes his own sort of genre of music. I just think it’s fascinating,” he continued. JAY’s involvement with the play happened after seeing the musical during its Off-Broadway run, at the behest of renowned drummer and producer, Ahmir Thompson—better known under the moniker ?uestlove.

After seeing an early show, Thompson became an ardent evangelist for “FELA!” and helped get JAY-Z on board as a producer for its Broadway premiere and run. As much as it may have been a business venture, putting up money for the production of the musical is a worthwhile sign of respect, and it appears that the respect and understanding of Fela’s socio-political legacy has only continued to deepen on JAY’s path, especially in recent years.

In 2016, he curated a playlist for Tidal, JAY-Z: Songs for Survival, featuring 21 protest songs and socially conscious anthems, and it included “Zombie,” Fela’s iconic satire against post-colonial juntas. Curated around one of the heights of the Black Lives Matter protests in the mid-2010s, majority of the playlist featured classic songs from America, with Bob Marley being the only non-American artist on there. Fela’s inclusion on Jay’s playlist plays directly into the pan-African ethos that drove the Afrobeat musician’s work, linking the Black American struggle with the global Black experience.

Deferring to less hectic circumstances, JAY-Z has also name-dropped Fela in his raps on two fairly recent occasions. On “Blue’s Freestyle/We Family,” a deluxe cut from his classic 2017 album 4:44′, he brags about bumping Fela in a foreign car. He makes a similar retort on “MOOD 4 EVA,” a highlight off Beyoncé’s ‘The Lion King: The Gift’, except this time he’s bumping Fela on a private Jet owned by sportswear brand Puma.

Even though Fela’s music has made its way into the work of artists close to him—like his famous wife Beyoncé, who worked “Zombie” into her iconic Coachella set and was rumoured to have created but later scrapped an entire Fela-inspired album, as well as superstar protégé J. Cole, who famously sampled “Gentleman”—JAY-Z hasn’t substantially used Afrobeat as an inspiration on wax, but it doesn’t mean you won’t find examples if you dig deep enough

One of my favourite links between JAY-Z and Fela is an unofficial mixtape titled ‘Nigerian Gangster’. Helmed and hosted by Chicago based DJ/producer Mike Love, the tape is a creative mashup of JAY’s cinematic 2007 album, ‘American Gangster’, and select samples of songs from Fela’s catalogue. Swapping out the vintage Soul-inspired production on AG, Mike Love places JAY’s suave raps over experimental production with Fela samples as their foundation.

For “Pray,” the beat is built around a crawling sample of “Upside Down,” the 1976 track that Sandra Iszadore, one of Fela’s formative influences, features as the lead vocalist. For the triumphant “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is),” JAY’s supreme boasts is merged with the radiant horns of “Water No Get Enemy.” It’s obvious Nigerian Gangster’ wasn’t sanctioned by JAY-Z, and there’s no evidence online that he supported it in any way. However, it’s an intriguing—if not as definitive as Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album’, which merged JAY’s raps and the Beatles music—look into what a Fela-inspired album would sound like from the rapper.

The possibility of JAY-Z leaning more into his adulation for Fela on-wax is a possibility that’s up in the air, but it seems clear that he’s become a proper student of the Afrobeat maestro—at least, that’s what I gleaned from The Harder They Fall’. “Let’s Start” was composed at the very beginning of Fela’s Afrobeat experimentations, when his dense approach had yet to fully unify and the music still hewed towards Big Band Jazz stylings. Five decades later, it’s responsible for an instantly memorable cinematic moment, partly because of JAY-Z, who has clearly been doing his Afrobeat assignment.

@dennisadepeter is a staff writer at the NATIVE.