Why Nigerians Desperately Want Fela’s Resurrection
Nigerians love a great messiah. They long for a superman, a strongman, who would swoop in with fanfare and pomp, and rescue them from all the ills that plague them. That’s why Jesus Christ is very revered in the country, and his religion is such a potent force for good and evil in the country.
Fela Kuti was that guy. While he lived, the legendary pioneer of Afrobeats carried Nigeria on his head. Using music as a weapon, Kuti sang Nigerians to self-awareness, pushing anti-establishment thoughts couched in his art. And Nigerians flocked to him. He’s the most popular music activist, who birthed a genre (gave us a new vibe) and used that to attempt a brand of revolution. Fela Kuti is dead. He’s left behind a legacy that can be adapted in thousands of ways to generate further value through generations. The Afrobeat genre is a source of pride for Nigerians, and his bravery is a rallying tale to inspire.
Pop culture’s general understanding of the legend is flawed and simplistic. Fela’s legacy has primarily been reduced to the possession of a contrarian or controversial spirit, the wanton consumption of marijuana and selective nudity. You can see this depiction and projection of Fela in almost everything that is ascribed to his name in pop culture. They abandoned his message and picked up an idea of it. It is that idea that this generation refers to as “Fela Kuti.”
That’s why every time someone calls on a musician to be a messiah just like Fela did; you would be hard pressed to trace the correlation between that person and Fela Kuti. Wizkid has been referred to as ‘Young Fela’. You would scratch your head to eternity to find a worthy cause that Wizkid has selflessly fought for and reinforced in his music and the message from it. ‘Ojuelegba’, one of his most Fela-esque records is a thanksgiving about his escape from the hood. He isn’t imploring the government of the day to improve the lot of those people still stuck in penury. He is simply saying: “Yo guys, I suffered from this hood, and made it. Thank God. Celebrate with me.” Tell me of another example, I’ll wait.
Another person that Nigeria has been quick to slam the “Fela Kuti” tag on is Burna Boy. The singer does have some ties with the legend; his mother once danced at the Afrikan Shrine. His grandfather, Benson Idonije, once handled business management for the late singer. Beyond that, Burna Boy’s understanding and the manifestation of his art is selectively influenced by the singer. Think ‘Soke’, ‘Run my race’, ‘Gbona’ and more. Combine that with his omnipresent blunt, his electrifying shirtless performances, and his shouts of “Ofeshe ru,” and the public chorusing their response with “Ayakata!” You would have enough of an idea of Fela to marry to Burna.
When he complained about his allocation of small fonts on the promotional materials for Coachella festival, some people took his “African Giant” declaration as a sign that Fela Kuti is back. How people can compare the selfless push for liberation by the real Fela Kuti, to the ego-driven mini-tantrum by his one of his sonic beneficiaries beats me. But hey, people’s understanding of Fela is flawed.
Naira Marley, the currently-incarcerated musician, who is popular for his “Issa Goal” hit song, was welcomed into the ‘Fela Kuti’ hall of fame in the past week. The singer who evangelized for internet fraud popularly referred to as ‘Yahoo’ in Nigeria, is currently earning his ‘Fela badges’ in the custody of Nigeria’s crime watchdog, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). He was recently arrested alongside another Nigerian musician, Zlatan Ibile, in a raid that followed his sustained vocal tirades on Instagram in support of Yahoo. Prior to their arrest, Zlatan and Marley also released a song, ‘Am I a Yahoo boy,’ which has become an instant fan favourite. Marley enjoys vocal support from a growing number of Nigerians who are sympathetic to internet fraud as a means of survival and a pathway out of poverty in a country that has 6 people going into extreme poverty every minute.
According to EFCC, Zlatan Ibile has been released on “administrative bail,” while Naira Marley is currently having his court date due to “overwhelming evidence” of crime found on him. His fans have compared him to Fela Kuti and Nelson Mandela, two bastions in the pursuit of African liberation. Marley himself has previously opined that internet fraud is a means of exacting reparations for 400 years of slavery.
Who made him the chief reparations officer for all black people worldwide? A crime is a crime, no matter how you try to rationalise a justification for it. A crime is still a crime, no matter how many sympathisers it gets. Naira Marley isn’t Fela. Fela Kuti was regarded as a criminal by the military government for a noble cause. Internet fraud isn’t noble. Fela Kuti has a lot of human flaws. But none of them supported theft. The only legend in folklore history that has ever been looked upon favourably as a thief is Robin Hood of Loxley. Naira Marley is no hero.
All these bring me to the conclusion that the barrier to be Fela has dropped significantly. Being Fela has never been so easy.