While Sila and the Afrofunk Experience were recording their second album, Black President, in the Bay Area, tribal warfare was threatening the safety of band leader Victor Sila's family in the small Kenyan village where he grew up. The pointless violence drove him crazy, and you can hear the madness in his vocals. The freaked-out falsettos, random screams, and feverish ululations amid the mostly laid-back melodies speak to a lifetime of exasperation with unequal rights and injustice. Sila can't help but bring politics front and center in his songs, and he aims to get audiences directly involved in his passions.
In this way he is connected to conscious artists of the African diaspora, a proud lineage that ranges from Nigerian Afropop legend Fela Kuti to Jamaican reggae patriarch Bob Marley to the U.S.'s own Godfather of Soul, James Brown (“Sing it loud: I'm black and I'm proud!”). Like his predecessors, Sila believes it's his responsibility not only to entertain but also to raise awareness. He wants to inspire civic action, which he argues must come from the grassroots level. Sila believes we can't rely on politicians, who he says may have “the greed gene embedded in their blood.” So he created Black President as a call to arms to both the public and Barack Obama to take seriously the task of self-empowerment.
On the chorus to the manic, danceable title track, Sila sings, “I am change/You are change/We are change.” The song broadcasts that the only way to overcome the madness of corrupt public policy, centuries of oppression, and mindless brutality is to embrace the idea that we are all in this together. “You Love You,” a chilled-out tune dripping with skunky reggae, suggests a starting point for activism with its therapeutic reminder: “Everything is nothing unless you love you.”
While such mindful messages arguably serve a noble purpose, they would be little more than obnoxious dogma if the accompanying music weren't similarly ambitious. Fortunately for clubgoers, Sila's concern with the mission of his lyrics is matched by the power of his grooves, an addictive mix of heavy funk, lively Afrobeat, and sun-soaked island rhythms. His nine-piece band is tighter than the goatskin head of a djembe, and the ensemble's well-balanced instrumentation of dual guitars, bass, drums, percussion, and a trio of horns ensures a wide dynamic range. David James, former six-string slinger for the Coup and Michael Franti's Spearhead, especially stands out with his big-echo guitar solos that recall the heyday of Parliament-Funkadelic. Saxophonist David Boyce, trumpeter Mike Pitre, and trombonist Andre Webb also evoke powerful touchstones, from classic Wailers to Ethiopian-style R&B of the early '70s. There's a deep soulfulness here and the implication of cross-cultural solidarity.
Though idealistic, Sila's ambition is far from fantasy: Get enough people on the dancefloor, sweating and writhing together, and collective uplift could occur. From there, the frontman hopes, it's a short hop, skip, and jump (and maybe a booty bump or body roll) to helping your neighbors. Obama likes to talk about this being an era of personal responsibility and accountability. Sila adds to the charge by challenging us to also get our good foot up on the downbeat.