Across working-class Muslim neighborhoods in Yorubaland, for nearly 50 years, a high-energy sound has been heard on busy street corners and at parties. Fuji, a raw and percussive musical style, was born out of these communities; a cultural cornerstone adapted by a number of players to a backdrop of a continually shifting Nigeria.
Of Fuji’s main proponents, two famous faces sum up the distinct directions the music was taken in. Siriku Ayinde Barrister, often credited as Fuji’s originator, took Yoruba traditions very seriously and would rarely be seen in public without a richly embroidered agbada robe on. Wasiu Ayinde, also known as K1 De Ultimate, the Fuji King, has, over time, become increasingly Westernized: When performing he often dons jeans, a white shirt, suede, a wristwatch (which he collects avidly), and a jacket.
“If you talk about Afrobeat,” says Wale Ademowo, a Nigerian newspaperman who covered music during a 20-year stint at the Tribune in Ibadan, “you say Fela Kuti.” Siriku Ayinde Barrister is the Kuti of Fuji. A gifted vocalist and insightful storyteller, Barrister had performed a Fuji precursor known as Were—tonally complex Koranic chanting played during Ramadan—since 1966. Wale describes it as like gospel music for Yoruba Muslims. The musician excelled in yearly contests where rivals would compete to crowds of onlookers, hoping to impress esteemed judges with their musicality and grasp of current affairs.
Renowned as a social commentator, Barrister later began performing a more secular music that was emerging from Were’s embers. The name was likely a blend of the Yoruba words furuji (used back then as “What’s happening?”) and faaji (meaning “enjoyment”). Rumors of other origins for the name, however, have since circulated—mostly centered around Japan. One such speculation, which Wale disputes, is that Barrister named the genre after the country’s most famous mountain. Another says that the Japanese camera brand, popular in Nigeria at the time, was part of the inspiration for the name, perhaps unconsciously.
Whatever the case, Fuji came to be distinctive in its lyricism. Only the sharpest vocalists could sing it because lyrics were often completely improvised, like in Dancehall or Hip Hop across the Atlantic. Songs about society, politics, love, death, and corruption became commonplace. This, along with lengthy praise-giving tangents—often accompanied at live shows by the throwing of bank notes over the praised person, a sign of wealth in Yoruba tradition—came to define Fuji.
The genre also became known for its rhythmic complexity and its urgent pace. It sounded unlike anything produced in the States or Europe. In the beginning, backing bands, often consisting of over 20 members uniformly dressed in brightly colored prints, would mostly be made up of percussionists and singers. Performers played traditional drums like the calabash, the sekere, the omele, and the bembe, among others. Western instruments were added later, bringing more of a focus on melody alongside pure percussion.
A combination of the name dropping of friends and family, political themes that criticized two military dictatorships, and track lengths that could reach well beyond 15 minutes, meant that Fuji’s radio play was limited. Despite this, in 1988 Barrister recorded the genre’s best-known track, “Fuji Garbage”—one that refused to take itself too seriously. The video of a later version is a 17-minute surrealist marathon, featuring Barrister (clutching a keytar) and friends dancing in white trousers, sets of garish sunglasses, and bright orange tops. The Fuji Creator’s righteous reputation among his core fans remained, however, and on the back of the song’s national success, he went on to rework it again and again.
In the years that Barrister was coming up as a musician, his friend’s younger brother watched in awe. Hailing from the slums of Lagos Island, 7-year-old Wasiu Ayinde would stand at the back of the crowd, among large groups of traditionally robed devotees, transfixed by the leader and his 30-strong band.
Having eventually plucked up the courage to approach Barrister, the kid from Lagos confessed that he, too, wanted to be a Were singer. “He laughed it off,” Wasiu recalled some years on, though the exchange gave him “great motivation.” The budding vocalist was hell-bent on becoming a great and he began work as a roadie for Barrister’s band when he was barely a teenager, handling equipment until he was old enough to take his own music seriously.
And take it seriously he did. Winning every regional Were competition, Wasiu started his own band and began to perform Fuji at 15. But it was two records, released back to back, that established him at the top of the genre’s pyramid as a modernizer: Talazo System and Talazo 84. These albums introduced lyrical street slang and upped the tempo for the dance floor, appealing to a younger crowd who were breaking further from the Islamic traditions the style was steeped in. From then on, his ever-changing backing band, the Talazo Organisation, was based on the fringes of the enormous and chaotic Balogun market on Lagos Island—one of the largest shopping districts in West Africa.
The genesis of “talazo,” the word that came to define Wasiu’s new sound, was a curious one. Due to the Fuji singer’s lean and rakish frame, he had become known as Igi Zegege among fans, meaning “The Slim One” in Yoruba. A rumor (or joke) spread that he must have been taking a drug called Talazo, popular at the time for dealing with an upset stomach, to reduce the size of his belly. Seizing that reputation as an opening, the Fuji musician reclaimed the word as synonymous with his danceable music.
“Wasiu became [to Nigeria] what Michael Jackson was to America in the mid-eighties,” Wale wrote in a biography he published on the Fuji musician in 1996. On the back of that success, which the singer proclaimed “Wasiumania,” he would go on to be crowned the King of Fuji in 1993 by the Nigerian Association of Promoters and Artistes Managers—an accolade that was equal parts publicity stunt and actual award. It caused friction between him and Barrister. Wasiu’s old mentor was in the running among other prominent Fuji singers of that era, including Ayinla Kollington, Abass Obesere, and Adewale Ayuba, though Barrister felt aggrieved not to have been chosen. Above all, he had taught Wasiu everything he knew about music; their once watertight friendship began to fall apart.
The coronation, as Wale remembered it, crammed countrywide crowds into a yellowish hotel called the D’Rovens near Ibadan’s busiest highway. There, Wasiu was presented with a crown and a scepter (which he still uses when he plays today), and gave an impassioned performance into the early hours. “They crowned me because they knew I could be the symbol they were talking about,” Wasiu later said.
While Fuji had come from the streets, originally played in open-air venues to crowds of working-class people, it was reported that violence had plagued performances. Rivalries between Fuji musicians, which the press played on, were said to have bred fanaticism among fans; it got to the point, Wale recalled, that band leaders like Barrister were actively paying off rival gangs to avoid confrontation at shows.
A byproduct of this was a kind of class war that became a strong undercurrent in Fuji’s politics—and still is today. The middle and upper classes, especially the Christians among them (the second most common religion in Nigeria, at around 40 percent of the population), had always disassociated themselves from the music and its grassroots, and their fear of violence—however justified that fear actually was—gave them a reason not to attend shows. Although these detractors often knew every word to Fuji’s biggest hits in private, they looked down on the genre in public.
“There are a lot of closet Fuji fans,” says Sekinat Ayeyemi, a leading Nigerian journalist. She explains that these people often come from richer neighborhoods. Wale, when asked whether there are many secret Fuji fans, responds, “A lot of them. A lot of them. They listen to it but they wouldn’t want to associate.”
In light of this phenomenon, promoters and the press saw Wasiu Ayinde as an opportunity. The Fuji King, who had risen from an unprivileged background, would be restyled as a premium musician for the country’s elites. This was a contrast to the everyman public image that Barrister had carved for himself—an image truer to the working-class origins of the music. Wasiu began playing to smaller, seated crowds of moneyed fans in security fortified venues, like the D’Rovens. For a while, backers tried to withdraw Fuji from average Nigerians: the laborers, the shop keepers, and the bus conductors.
“You can’t be going to a party where they’re breaking bottles,” Wale says. “That’s why we [the press] brought Wasiu to this level.” He thought the Fuji King’s story could inspire fans from the “downtrodden” communities where the sound originated; that wealth and success were simply around the corner. After all, he says, Fuji artists often sung about their wealth. Wasiu had done that in a recent record, Orin Dowo, meaning “music has turned to money,” and celebrated his profitable talents.
“Wasiu created a class,” Wale says, and, unlike Barrister, began to wear a jacket and jeans when performing. This new Western-influenced image gained him followers in high places but lost him many in ordinary districts. The fanbases of these two giants became divided; “Barrister,” Wale says, “has more followers in that area—in the real ghetto because [residents] believe so much in him and his music.”
Today, having toured the world, Wasiu lives in an enormous mansion two hours from Lagos, with rare birds, gazelles, and tortoises roaming the grounds of his estate. Even before he was inaugurated as king in 1993, he and his promoters pandered to richer audiences in the hope of establishing themselves—and Fuji—worldwide. He made the music more “corporate,” Wale writes in Wasiu’s biography. “Those who dance Fuji are now well read, they are professionals.” Part of that masterplan was introducing, from the early 1990s onwards, instruments like the keyboard and the saxophone, and using melodies more at home in Highlife (a music traditionally enjoyed by Nigerian elites but originating in Ghana), to soften Fuji’s indigenous character for the Western ear. Yet, something in Fuji’s DNA wasn’t globally transferable: it hasn’t had the same impact outside of Nigeria that, say, Afrobeat or Juju has. That’s to an extent because of where the music was first rooted: the religious working-class—where a Western and colonial influence on culture is less pronounced.
If the genuineness of his music is to be judged on how near he was to Fuji’s original sound and sentiments (mostly conceived by Barrister), then Wasiu certainly took the style in another direction. But money and status were always going to do that to a grassroots musical movement like Fuji. Barrister was, in contrast, less aggressive in seeking elite or global recognition, though, paradoxically, is better known outside of Nigeria to this day—even after his death in 2010.
At 61, Wasiu still performs regularly and recently returned to where his career began, a rundown but tight-knit district of Lagos Island, to do just that. There, surrounded by his band of around 25, he began to dance. The Fuji King could still move gracefully and as he swung his hands in a marching motion, the crowd became fired up. The music had taken hold of him, as it often would when he played, and for the shortest moment his head tilted downwards and he closed his eyes.
A festival atmosphere surrounded the raised stage, with gazebos pitched among a sea of partygoers all dressed in identical red, white, and blue traditional clothing (known as Aso ebi), made specifically for the occasion. Tired apartment blocks and drooping washing lines bordered the site, while residents stood on their balconies and hung out of windows trying their best to catch a glimpse of the most famous man from their neighborhood.
Gripping the microphone with one hand, raising his sparkling technicolor scepter in the other, Wasiu’s booming Yoruba vocals carried over the whole site. A moment later he was addressing the crowd and they looked up at their king with reverence—a ceremonial crown perched on his head and beads around his neck. “Lagos Island is where I began my career,” he said, as his band played on. “This is dedicated to all of you.”