Expensive Shit, a treatise on Fela’s brand of humor

Expensive shit

It is this smile with which Fela composed his music and developed a character that, many years after his death, will continue to be celebrated for its strength.

Studied, the crux of Fela’s music, although revolution, will be known to be laughter. The man had an uncanny knack for translating the pain of his story into laughter; but not just the jaw-cracking laughter issued to a stand-up comedian’s joke. Fela’s jokes tend to be rooted in deep political turmoil, one he is often affiliated to, either by his songs or his fiery self. 

For Fela had made quite the enemy of the Nigerian military governments he lived under as a citizen. But the attention given to Fela was because of the recognition of his place in the then Nigerian nation, even more so now. Some twenty-two years after his death, artistes still pay homage to his incredible energy, the relentless criticism of all he considered unjust and exploitative. A Burna Boy, probably because of his nuanced understanding of the man’s music and person, charts his creative growth and output in similar lines; a Wizkid however, features a Femi Kuti and, some years later, releases “Expensive Shit”, a worthy brag detailing his penchant for the flashy, girls and all. It is a song whose title is taken directly from Fela’s 1975 – and that’s where all similarities end. 

Fela Kuti 1975

This album – like most of Fela’s acclaimed works – takes precedence from a personal event. The year before its release, the Afrobeat star, characteristically, had been very critical of the military government. And, as we know, the government went after him. Having beaten a narcotics charge, he was the victim of a more purposeful persecution mission: his Kalakuta Republic compound in Lagos was swarmed by the police, and an attempt was made to plant a joint of marijuana in the premises. Albeit successful, the enigmatic musician, born Olufela Ransome Kuti, swallowed it, whole. And by the virtue of this largely humorous act, they had no evidence to hang him by. Arrested, he was remanded in prison, and his excrete be tested. It was a well-developed plan after all, to throw the government’s most vocal critic behind bars for a long time. Providence however, had other plans. Where he had been kept till his shit was tested, he managed to get exchange his for another specimen.

This back story faithfully bears the brunt of the album he would release the following year. Paul Cooper, in 2000, writing about the album, wrote that “Its complex, bongo-centric percussion is tempered with funk guitar, discordant piano, and brass eruptions. And when, six minutes into the semi improvisational, instrumental jam, Kuti awakens with a yowl and begins his political rant, he changes music forever.” 

fela-kuti Kalakuta republic

The music, mid-tempo, echoes of James Brown. Funky, its purposeful disarray lends power to the narrative style of Fela, his humor–laced storytelling, his occasional high-pitched singing. Much of “Expensive Shit” is layered over by this music, an indestructible quality of Fela. His prudence, especially when it comes to words, contrasts the generosity of his music, sound tracked by its vibrant instrumentation. 

The lyrics itself, delivers not too much detail, but just enough. First of all, Fela lets it known that no one, not even a goat, seeks to stay with his bowel excrete. Simple reason why: because the shit dey smell! And from this premise, does he call out the government and its agents, fools and stupid people, who sought to quench his soul. In the chorus, he sings: 

Them go use your shit to put you for jail
En! Alagbon o
And don tell my shit too expensive shit
En! Alagbon o
My shit na exhibit, it must not lost o
En! Alagbon o
And don tell my shit too expensive shit
En! Alagbon o
My shit na exhibit, it must not lost o
En! Alagbon o 

Such compositions make Fela a master satirist who sought to expose the great lengths the government went/will go to hide the truth, of which he a fierce agitator for. As Joe Tangari writes, “… The only thing keeping Fela from a lifetime in prison was the instability of the Nigerian government itself. Whenever he was jailed, a new regime would release him when it came to power. He remained an activist to the end of his life, never compromising his beliefs or positions to accommodate anyone.” 

Water No Get Enemy 

The second track of the album, seems to bear many contrasts to the first. Whereas shit denotes impurity and the foul, water, as universally understood, stands for purity and cleansing. Fela is also known for his preference for African traditional religions and water, with its various uses, possesses a sacred place in all things considered sacred, especially when it is Afrocentric. 

Philosophical rather than political, Water No Get Enemy features grand production: percussions, bass lines, and a searing saxophone. When Fela’s baritone drops, it does so in Yoruba, his first language. Later, he infuses the Pidgin English and alternating back-and-forth effortlessly into his native Yoruba, explores the subtle ways water moves in and out of our existence, saying that it has no enemy. 

At the end of the twenty-four about minutes in which the album runs, Fela emerges, and you can see him: a blunt held between his fingers, his sage-like eyes looking into yours, and his smile the most complex you’ve ever seen. It is this smile with which Fela composed his music and developed a character that, many years after his death, 
will continue to be celebrated for its strength. 

It seemed as if he knew all along, back then in the late 70s, when he replaced his middle name Ransome with Anikulapo, a glorious title which roughly translates to the phrase, “I carry death in my pocket.” 

Discover our series Fela’s Stories to revisits the meaning and context of some of his most remarkable songs.

Fela Kuti blunt