Photo: Celine Pinget
Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Antibalas Talk 'Fu Chronicles,' Kung Fu And Their Mission To Spread Afrobeat
Antibalas members Martín Perna and Duke Amayo discuss their origin story, their decades-long rise as an outlier in Brooklyn and how their first-ever GRAMMY nomination for Best Global Music Album could help introduce new listeners to Afrobeat
Even somebody who barely listens to music could presumably name three artists in each of these spheres: rock, blues and jazz. Sure, Bob Marley may remain the embodiment of reggae, but chances are you've heard of Toots and the Maytals or Lee "Scratch" Perry at least once. What about Afrobeat, a West African amalgam of soul and funk with regional styles like Yoruba and highlife?
For many, the Afrobeat conversation begins and ends with the outrageous, incendiary, brilliant multi-instrumentalist and pioneer of the form, Fela Kuti. While the Brooklyn Afrobeat ensemble Antibalas, which ranges from 11 to 19 members, undoubtedly work from the template Kuti helped create, they argue the story of Afrobeat begins—not ends—with him.
"I think that's one of the weirdest things, being in a genre of music that is so defined and predetermined by one person," Martín Perna, the multi-instrumentalist who first dreamed up Antibalas in 1998, tells GRAMMY.com. "Even reggae artists don't all get compared to Bob Marley. I don't think anybody in any other genre is in the shadow of one person like people who play this music." (For those who wish to dig deeper, Perna recommends Geraldo Pino, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou and the Funkees; his bandmate, Duke Amayo, name-drops Orlando Julius.)
"It's been a weird thing," Perna continues. "I would have thought after 22 years that it would have expanded a little bit more."
More than 20 years after Kuti's death in 1997, Afrobeat may soon expand radically in the public eye thanks to Antibalas. The group, who played their first gig half a year after Kuti's passing, has been nominated at the 2021 GRAMMYs Awards show in the newly renamed Best Global Music Album category for Fu Chronicles, which dropped last February on Daptone Records. Their first album to be solely written by lead singer and percussionist Amayo, its highlights, like "Lai Lai," "MTTT, Pt. 1 & 2" and "Fist of Flowers," partly derive their power from his other primary pursuit: kung fu.
A Nigerian-born multidisciplinarian who is a senior master at the Jow Ga Kung Fo School of martial arts, Amayo aims to find the nexus point between music, dance and martial arts. When he received the unexpected news that Antibalas had clinched their first-ever GRAMMY nomination after 20 years in the game, he launched into a dance of his own.
"I walked over to my girl and said, 'Check this out. Is this real?'" he recalls to GRAMMY.com with a laugh. "She Googled the GRAMMY nominations, and it was surreal. And then I did that usual thing where you shake your hips, violently doing the hip thrust back and forth. Then, I woke the whole house up screaming, as my daughter screamed with me for a minute or two."
GRAMMY.com spoke with Martín Perna and Duke Amayo about Antibalas' origin story, their decades-long rise as an outlier in Brooklyn and how their nomination could help introduce new listeners to Afrobeat.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
How would you explain the vocabulary of someone like Fela Kuti to a person who's unfamiliar?
Martín Perna: Afrobeat is like musical architecture. It's a set of ingredients and musical relationships between those ingredients. All the instruments are talking to each other. They're all in dialogue, and these dialogues create dynamic tension in the music. Some instruments create a rigid structure, and others—vocals included—have much more free reign to improvise or solo.
Duke Amayo: I would describe it as a tonal language of the common Nigerian—or African—singing truth to power from a marginalized place. That is the window from where Fela Kuti was operating. He drew from observations around him and expressed them truthfully throughout his music. He is like the Bob Marley and the James Brown of Nigeria rolled into one.
Perna: Whereas the guitar might be playing the same five-note pattern without stopping for 20 minutes, the singer or keyboardist gets to improvise. Or, when the horns aren't playing the melodies, they get solos. It's both very rigid and very free, but it's a dynamic tension between the two.
In a nutshell, describe how Antibalas came up in the Brooklyn scene.
Perna: I was 22 when I dreamed this up, and a lot of it was just trying to create a scene that I wanted to be part of. At the time, I played with Sharon Jones—rest in peace—Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. A bunch of the musicians were my colleagues in that band. The rest of the musicians came pretty much from the neighborhood—just people I knew who either had the chops or the interest to be in this band.
Amayo: I was living in Williamsburg, a neighborhood that embodied gentrification in record time. I was in the right place at the right time as I opened a clothing store/martial-arts dojo in my residence called the Afro-Spot. From here, I hosted many fashion shows, using Nigerian drummers to maintain an edge to my brand. This exposed me to musicians who wanted to make resistance music, if you will.
So that brought me in contact with Martín and [Daptone Records co-founder and former Antibalas guitarist] Gabe [Roth], who stopped in my store one day to hang. Eventually, they asked me to join the band. I started as a percussionist and then became the lead singer.
Perna: I wanted to make a band that was both a dance band and a protest band. Because you need so many people to make this music, it fulfilled that idea of being a band and a community. You need anywhere from 11 [musicians] on the small end; at our biggest shows, there have been 19 musicians on stage. So, already, you have a community of people.
Coming up in Brooklyn, did you have local peers in this style? Was there a scene?
Perna: No, there wasn't a scene. There were individuals—mostly West African guys a generation older than us—that had played with Fela or were part of some other African funk band in the '70s. But no, there weren't any peers at all.
Amayo: I would state that we were the scene.
How would you describe your vision for Fu Chronicles as opposed to past Antibalas albums?
Amayo: Fu Chronicles is a concept album written by only me. While the past albums have been written by different members employing the group dynamics of the time, my vision was to create a musical universe where African folklore and kung fu wisdom can coexist seamlessly, supporting each other in a harmonious flow.
The first song I composed [20 years ago], "MTTT," came from my intention to compose a timeless, logical song, expressing a new frontier in classical African music. I wanted to move the music forward by writing songs with two distinct-but-related bass and guitar lines and shape the grooves into a two-part form: yin and yang.
How did martial arts play into the album?
Amayo: I wanted to reimagine Afrobeat songs from a real kung fu practitioner's mindset. I'm a certified Jow Ga Kung Fu sifu, or master. I started studying kung fu in Nigeria as a young boy. The song "Fist of Flowers" describes the traditional form of Jow Ga Kung Fu that I teach. My rhythmic blocks are sometimes based on the shapes of my kung fu movements.
How did you learn about your GRAMMY nomination for Best Global Music Album?
Amayo: The first person who texted me was Kyle Eustice, [who interviewed me in 2020] for High Times. I didn't react at first. I walked over to my girl and said, "Check this out. Is this real?" She Googled the GRAMMY nominations, and it was surreal.
I did that usual thing where you shake your hips, violently doing the hip thrust back and forth, and quickly calmed down. Then I woke the whole house up screaming as my daughter screamed with me for a minute or two.
Perna: On my fridge, last year, when I set my goals and intentions, one of the five things [I wrote] was to win a GRAMMY. This year has been such a disappointment in so many ways, so it's exciting that at least we got, so far, the nomination.
This nomination serves as a punctuation mark on Antibalas's 20-plus-year career. How do you see the next 20 years?
Perna: Oh, gosh. I hope it provides some wind in our sails to continue to record and tour and grow our audience. It could be either a nice end to a beautiful history of the band, or something like I said: wind in our sails.
Amayo: I see the next 20 years of Antibalas as a flower in full growth, writing music to push the genre forward while maintaining excellence in the trade. We began as a bunch of guys in Brooklyn who wanted to make a change, make some noise, and be part of the revival of activist music.
And it's still as relevant as ever, demanding for justice movements like Black Lives Matter, Indigenous peoples' plight, and a more comprehensive education system based on truth ...
Perna: … To get this recommendation and this nod from the GRAMMYs, it's like, "Hey, everybody! Pay attention to this band! They made this amazing record, and you should listen to it!" That's something that propels us out of the world of just musicians listening to us. It feels good to get a little bit of wider recognition.
Amayo: I've been praising my wife ever since [the nomination]: "This is all mostly you." Because if she hadn't put a fire in me, I wouldn't have been able to make the right moves. It takes something to light it up for you, to believe you can get there.
Thus, my song, "Fight Am Finish," with the lyrics, "Never, ever let go of your dreams." I'm going to keep running. I'm going to keep my feet moving until I cross the finish line, you know what I mean?
Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More
The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'
In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.
"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.
Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.
"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."
Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American.
"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."
ReImagined At Home: Watch Ant Clemons Croon The Cosmic Blues In Performance Of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine"
Singer/songwriter Ant Clemons puts his own spin on Bill Withers' immortal "Ain't No Sunshine" in an exclusive performance for ReImagined At Home.
Why has Bill Withers' immortal hit, "Ain't No Sunshine," endured for decades? And, furthermore, why does it seem set to reverberate throughout the ages?
Could it be because it's blues-based? Because it's relatable to anyone with a pulse? Because virtually anyone with an ounce of zeal can believably yowl the song at karaoke?
Maybe it's for all of those reasons and one more: "Ain't No Sunshine" is flexible.
In the latest episode of ReImagined At Home, check out how singer/songwriter Ant Clemons pulls at the song's edges like taffy. With a dose of vocoder and slapback, Clemons recasts the lonesome-lover blues as the lament of a shipwrecked android.
Giving this oft-covered soul classic a whirl, Clemons reminds music lovers exactly why Withers' signature song has staying power far beyond his passing in 2020. It will probably be a standard in 4040, too.
Check out Ant Clemons' cosmic, soulful performance of "Ain't No Sunshine" above and click here to enjoy more episodes of ReImagined At Home.
Ladies Antebellum And Gaga, Jeff Beck, David Frost, John Legend Win Three GRAMMYs Each
Arcade Fire wins Album Of The Year; Esperanza Spalding wins Best New Artist
(To view a list of 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards winners, click here.)
The evening began with a tribute to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, but by the time the last of the 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards was handed out on Feb. 13, several other singers and bands looked something like royalty. Foremost among them was Lady Antebellum, who walked away with three trophies while the group members earned two more each for songwriting categories.
Lady Antebellum at the GRAMMYs
During a show memorable for its range of fully fueled performances, the country superstars sang a pitch-perfect medley of tunes that ended with a quiet rendition of the song that launched them, "Need You Now," and shortly afterward collected the Song Of The Year GRAMMY for it (along with co-writer Josh Kear, with whom they also took Best Country Song). But there was plenty more to come for the trio. They also took home the GRAMMY for Best Country Album for Need You Now. Accepting that award, lead singer Charles Kelley said, "This song has completely flipped our world upside down." By the time Lady Antebellum stood up to collect a trophy for Record Of The Year for "Need You Now," they were in disbelief, and possibly discombobulated: "Oh my gosh, we're so stunned we started walking the wrong direction," said singer Hillary Scott breathlessly.
Also racking up awards was Lady Gaga, who claimed three: Best Pop Vocal Album for The Fame Monster, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and Best Short Form Music Video for "Bad Romance." Never one to miss the chance to make an entrance, she hatched herself onstage from a giant opaque egg. That was a riff on her new single, "Born This Way," and perhaps her bared shoulders, which sprouted a pair of pointy elbows, were too. Her dancers and outfit gave off a Cleopatra vibe, but Gaga can't be stopped from seeming ultra-modern, and her performance of "Born This Way" reflected that; it was a warp-speed whirlwind.
Lady Gaga at the GRAMMYs
In keeping with that same modernist — or maybe futurist — spirit, she accepted her award for Best Pop Vocal Album in black body armor. But Gaga also proved she can be an old-fashioned girl with a soft side. In an emotional acceptance speech for that award, she surprised the audience by thanking Whitney Houston: "I imagined she was singing…because I wasn't secure enough in myself to imagine I was a superstar. Whitney, I imagined you."
Leading the nominees with 10 nods revolving around Recovery, an album that detailed his struggles with addiction but also reestablished him as a rap force to be reckoned with, Eminem took home trophies for Best Rap Album — a triumph over rivals including Jay-Z, Drake and B.o.B — and Best Rap Solo Performance for "Not Afraid." Onstage, his swagger proved undiminished.
A flame-haired Rihanna opened Eminem's performance with a searching rendition of their duet "Love The Way You Lie," but it was Slim Shady who came out blazing, spitting the lyrics to that song before raging into "I Need A Doctor" with Dr. Dre and singer Skylar Grey; Adam Levine from Maroon 5 handled piano duty.
Closing the show and likely lifting the Sunday-night spirits of indie kids everywhere was the Canadian collective Arcade Fire, who won the Album Of The Year GRAMMY for The Suburbs and, before the night's final performance, turned in a frothy and fierce rendition of the rocking "Month Of May."
Arcade Fire at the GRAMMYs
Other multiple winners for the evening included classical music producer David Frost, legendary rock guitarist Jeff Beck and R&B artist John Legend, who each earned three awards. Among those who won two each were alternative rock band the Black Keys, jazz giant Herbie Hancock, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, urban/alternative group the Roots, Keith Urban, and gospel singer BeBe Winans.
And in a bit of surprise, jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding won Best New Artist over teen phenom Justin Bieber, as well Canadian rapper Drake, and adventurist rock outfits Florence & The Machine and Mumford & Sons.
Esperanza Spalding at the GRAMMYs
The show also featured a few firsts, including a first-time ever GRAMMY performance by Rolling Stone frontman Mick Jagger, who helped pay tribute to fallen R&B singer Solomon Burke.
But if there was also a constant, it was the annual, high-profile celebration of music that the GRAMMYs represent, and the 53rd GRAMMYs fit the bill once again, with performances, pairings and awards presentations that were full of pleasant musical surprises.
Will Smith at the 1999 GRAMMYs
GRAMMY Rewind: Watch Will Smith Dedicate His 1999 Best Rap Solo Performance GRAMMY To His Son
In his acceptance speech, he offers thanks to his family and "the jiggiest wife in the world, Jada Pinkett Smith"
Today, Sept. 25, we celebrate the birthday of the coolest dad—who else? Will Smith! For the latest episode of GRAMMY Rewind, we revisit the Fresh Prince's 1999 GRAMMY win for Best Rap Solo Performance for "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It."
In the below video, watch rappers Missy Elliott—donning white leather—and Foxy Brown present the GRAMMY to a stoked Smith, who also opted for an all-leather look. In his acceptance speech, he offers thanks to his family and "the jiggiest wife in the world, Jada Pinkett Smith." He dedicates the award to his eldest son, Trey Smith, joking that Trey's teacher said he (then just six years old) could improve his rhyming skills.
The classic '90s track is from his 1997 debut studio album, Big Willie Style, which also features "Miami" and 1998 GRAMMY winner "Men In Black," from the film of the same name. The "Está Rico" rapper has won four GRAMMYs to date, earning his first back in 1989 GRAMMYs for "Parents Just Don't Understand," when he was 20 years old.