When Kenyan-born Victor Sila first came to America 15 years ago, he wanted to be a Michael Jackson or Babyface-style R&B singer. However, he was rejected by every label he approached.
“It felt inauthentic, especially with my heavy accent,” Sila said. “I was trying to be westernized, trying to do what I thought was the cool thing to do, but I was miserable and everyone else who heard me could feel it.“
Attending a concert by Senegalese singer and guitarist Baaba Maal in San Francisco changed his life.
“I was literally almost in tears,” Sila said. “There was this man singing African music, wearing African clothes. I realized I am African – what am I ashamed of? Why am I trying to be something I am not?”
This authenticity is what Liberian artist Jeremiah Kpoh, Sila‘s best friend and co-founder of the festival, sought to encourage with all the bands he chose for this year‘s diverse lineup.
“Rocky Dawuni is reggae, Afrobeat Down is Nigerian music, the B-Side Players are Afro-Cuban and Brazilian sounds mixed with funk, rock and reggae,“ said Kpoh, who is also known as DJ Jeremiah. “Everything we have is amazing and unique.“
Afrofunk music, or Afrobeat, can be described as a multilayered mix of African, Afro-Caribbean or Afro-Latino sounds with funk, rock, jazz or other forms of western music, Kpoh said.
Even those who are unfamiliar with the genre should be able to appreciate the danceable, familiar sounds of artists like Prince, James Brown and Jimi Hendrix blended with traditional African music.
Nigerian music legend and Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti has been an inspiration to a number of the bands playing at the festival, including Matthew Sargis, who is the guitarist, conductor and vocalist for Afrobeat Down, a 10 to 15 member ensemble that covers much of his music.
“I‘ve been playing and singing music basically since I was 3 years old, and as I’ve grown older I‘ve experimented with a lot of different stuff,” Sargis said. “But when I heard Fela Kuti and Afrobeat around 1997, we started playing that and it just stuck.“
An important component of Afrobeat music, Kpoh said, is the powerful political messages embedded in them, much of what Kuti popularized in the ‘70s.
“Our music, like Kuti‘s, is activist – it’s about changing the world and making it a better place, staying positive, staying in the light,” Kpoh said.
Kpoh and Sila decided that the proceeds for the festival were to benefit children in Africa. This year, the festival‘s proceeds will go to House of Hope, a Ugandan orphanage for children in the midst of famine and war.
“When I was growing I lost my parents, my father to civil war and my mother soon after, Kpoh said. “I want these children to be able to get an education, food, medications, clothes, somewhere to play – things I didn‘t have given to me that I wish I had.“
The Afrofunk Festival will be held today through Saturday at the Independent in San Francisco. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased at afrofunk.org.
SONIA PARECADAN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.