Fela’s enduring legacy
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the death of legendary Afro-beat superstar Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Fela was an institution in Nigeria’s social and political life, creating local idioms that have become very much part of the local vernacular. He was a voice for the voiceless, the national conscience, the defender of the defenceless, an unabashed polygamist, and a perennial rebel with a cause. A musical Orpheus who made magic with his saxophone and biting lyrics, he was a political Cassandra whose prophecies often went unheeded by his cynical and sceptical compatriots. A compliant, conservative middle-class often dismissed Fela as a decadent, half-naked, marijuana-smoking madman, a promiscuous Pied Piper of Perdition leading the country’s youth astray. Fela betrayed his own class in speaking out for the weak and down-trodden rather than settling into the comfortable bourgeois lifestyle to which his family background entitled him.
He developed his unique fusion of African indigenous rhythms and jazz, using his native Yoruba language and Pidgin English to reach a mass audience. A man of the people, he sang about social issues and everyday life that ordinary people could relate to. He mocked the materialism of African women, ridiculed the blustering shakara (false bravery) of Nigerian men, and mercilessly lambasted Nigeria’s prodigal political class as “Vagabonds in Power (VIP)” for selling out their country and mortgaging their children’s future.
Fela, a thorn in the side of many corrupt regimes, spent an estimated 200 spells between detention and the recording studio. He spoke truth to power, castigating the misrule and mismanagement of Nigeria’s profligate ruling elite. During the country’s lavish Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in 1977, Fela refused to take part in the event so as not to legitimise the military government of General Olusegun Obasanjo.
His self-declared commune – the “sovereign” Kalakuta Republic – was burned down a week after FESTAC by what the government described as “unknown soldiers,” and his 78-year old mother was thrown from a window, leading to her death a year later.Fela, who was very close to his mother, never recovered from her death. He felt guilt-ridden that she had died as a result of his struggle.
The Afrobeat star drew inspiration from these events to ridicule Nigeria’s “lumpenmilitariat” and securocrats as “Zombies” and “Yellow Fever”. For many young Nigerians of my generation, his “shrine” in Lagos’s sprawling suburb of Ikeja was a sacred place of pilgrimage.
He was the lavish high priest at this paradoxical temple of sin and salvation. Fela combined great respect for the pantheon of traditional Yoruba deities and cosmology with sinful sex and drugs. He was also a committed Pan-Africanist, who believed fiercely in the culture and heritage of blacks on the continent and in the diaspora. A 10-month trip to the United States during the civil rights struggle in 1969-1970 seemed to radicalise him. He celebrated Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and Thomas Sankara. But Fela also had his critics. He was often described as an autocratic band-leader, and was accused of misogyny by feminists who regarded his stereotypical portrayal of the “real” African woman as “strong, submissive and subordinate” as antiquated.
In order to pay homage to “Abami Eda” (the Strange One), I recently visited the Kalakuta Museum on a trip to Lagos. This was the house in which Fela had lived and in which he lies buried. As one enters the building on Gbemisola Street in Ikeja, Fela’s graveside is on the left hand side of the house. It is a simple tomb with a triangular design and a sign above the grave that simply reads: “Fela 1938-1997.”
The house has three floors with intimate family photos hung up all along the walls. These pictures depicted scenes from Fela’s life and times: his father, the family patriarch and famous educationist; his indomitable mother who was one of Africa’s first female activists; his two main wives and six children; Fela’s two medical doctor brothers, one, a former health minister and the other a human rights activist; the family home in Abeokuta; Fela with his two fists clenched and raised in defiance; his “dancing queens” with horrific injuries following the 1977 attack by soldiers; Fela’s “wedding” to 27 of these “queens” shortly afterwards in a powerful demonstration of solidarity with women whom the establishment had sought to depict as prostitutes; life performances with the “Africa 70” and “Egypt 80” bands; and Fela lying in state in a glass coffin with a huge spliff of marijuana in his hand.
Fela’s second-floor bedroom has been preserved with his wardrobe of multi-coloured outfits, a saxophone, a deep freezer, and the mattress on the floor on which he slept. In a side-room next to the bedroom are his multi-coloured shoes, two mannequins in underwear, and his fur-coats, used for travelling to colder climes. In another room are newspaper cuttings from The Daily Times with headlines of important events in Fela’s life such as some of his detentions by the police, and legal battles with several governments. In the same room is a type-writer and the manifesto of Fela’s Movement of the People (MOP) party set up in 1979 to contest presidential elections. Yet another room had wood carvings and paintings of Fela by an artist, while outside was a colourful mural.
The recent event that posthumously cemented Fela’s reputation as a global musical icon was the Broadway show “Fela!” which debuted in New York in 2009 before travelling to Europe and Lagos. A 2014 documentary “Finding Fela” captured highlights of this musical, interspersed with live performances by Fela and interviews with him, his children, his managers, his former band members, and two biographers: Carlos Moore and Michael Veal. Paul Mccartney also describes a memorable visit to “The Shrine”. The musical, “Fela!”, was choreographed by Bill T. Jones, who is extensively interviewed in the documentary.
“Fela!” was set in “the Shrine” in Lagos. The musical tells the story of the life and times of its subject: his priestly, musical grandfather and father; Fela being sent to London to study medicine and turning instead to music before experiencing racism for the first time; his political education in America during its civil rights struggle; and his innovative creation of Afrobeat. “Finding Fela” is a journey of discovery, showing how the Afrobeat star grew up in a musical household playing the piano and singing in the school choir. Fela’s incredible courage and commitment to social justice are enduring characteristics that come through clearly in the documentary.
“Finding Fela” travels to the bustling megapolis of Lagos, the social life of which Fela had contributed massively to shaping. It visits the sites of Fela’s “shrines” where he would have “yabbis night” and “ladies night”, the high priest effortlessly educating and entertaining the flock. Fela’s son, Seun, talks about his father’s incredible creative genius in which he would let songs gestate, and then, as if poured forth by his ancestral muse, produce the perfect song in one single session. We also see how Fela would take different parts of his musical band as if a master chef mixing diverse ingredients into an odoriferous stew.
The insights of Fela’s children – Femi, Yeni, and Seun – are particularly interesting as they note that their father treated them like other members of his commune, insisting that they call him “Fela” rather than “daddy.” This was a difficult childhood in which Femi, in particular, feared that Fela’s constant confrontations with Nigeria’s securocrats would get them killed. His children were often the last to receive his attention and affection, and the chaos of the “Kalakuta Republic” – with an estimated 250 people mulling around – is well captured in the documentary, with even a time-table of which wives would spend the night with the Afrobeat star. Yeni cries in the documentary as she recalls the terrible events of the military attack on Fela’s home in 1977 in which both her father and grandmother suffered broken legs.
The documentary then goes through Fela’s repertoire: “Jeun ko ku” (chop till you quench) which was his first big hit, and “Alagbon Close” when he first directly confronted military misrule. “Zombie”, “Sorrow, Tears, and Blood”, and “Coffin For Head of State” represent anti-securocrat anthems of this rebellious period. During a raid on his home in 1981 – under the supposedly democratic government of Shehu Shagari – Fela was so badly beaten that he was bleeding from the head. These frequent confrontations with authority seemed to fuel his fearless creativity.
The documentary then goes on to show the extravagant, well-choreographed set of “Fela!”, involving his skimpily clad “dancing queens” with braids and braces and painted faces. The stage is exuberant, with a picture of Kuti’s mother, Funmilayo, permanently on display. She helped shape Fela’s radical pan-African political views and the show is centred on this relationship. The musical sees a melancholy Fela constantly hallucinating like a black Hamlet in a haze of smoke, while using African masquerades as intermediaries to visit his mother in the land of the ancestors in the spectacular “Dance of the Orisas.” Other figures from the Yoruba pantheon such as Ogun, Sango, and Esu – guardian of the crossroads – also feature in this performance. The documentary and musical further highlight the role of another woman who greatly influenced Fela’s political awakening: former Black Panther, Sandra Izsadore, who introduced the Afro-jazz star to the work of Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. The musical captures well Fela’s insatiable musical and sexual appetites that seemed to fuel his genius.
After Fela was sentenced to five years in jail by General Muhammadu Buhari’s regime in 1984 for currency trafficking, he came out of jail 18 months later (after the judge famously went to jail to apologise to him), a seemingly broken man. There was a certain sadness in Fela’s eyes as he stared coldly ahead as if in a trance, his eyes glazed, morose and disillusioned that two decades of defiant struggle had not changed the Nigerian situation. This led to the final creative phase of his life in which such hits as “Army Arrangement,” “Beasts of No Nation,” and “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense” were released. Fela saw himself as playing classical African music in the mode of Bach and Beethoven, and felt the need to express himself through these more spiritual, highly-percussioned songs.
When Fela died of AIDS in August 1997 at the age of 58, a million Nigerians lined the streets of Lagos to bid him farewell: a scene well captured in “Finding Fela”. In an event that symbolised the passing of a legend, rain poured down even as the sun shone, as a great son of Africa joined the ranks of the ancestors. Today, Fela’s legacy is carried forward by his sons, Femi and Seun Kuti, who play music inspired by their father’s Afrobeat. But the struggles against which Fela fought – corruption, state abuse, African disunity – still continue to blight our contemporary landscape. Even many who dismissed Fela during his lifetime now regard him as a visionary prophet who was ahead of his time. As the Afrobeat star memorably noted: “To be spiritual is not by praying and going to church. Spiritualism is the understanding of the universe so that it can be a better place to live in.”
• Prof. Adebajo is the director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.
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