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How Fela and Gabo spent their fame


Fela Anikulapo Kuti

This column today is about Fela Anikulapo Kuti of Nigeria popularly called Fela and Gabriel Garcia Marquez of Columbia popularly known as Gabo. Fame is a substance human beings seek. Endless days and nights are expended in pursuit of fame. John Milton (1608 – 1674) the English poet of “Paradise Lost” says in a less known poem entitled “Lycidas”: “Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise/That last infirmity of noble mind/To scorn delights, and live laborious days.” A footballer spends his day shooting over a thousand kicks at the goal. A musician spends thousands of hours practicing a sequence of sounds for effect. A writer tears up hundreds of written pages to rewrite again because a good book is not written, but rewritten. Then the work is released. The audience applauds and fame is finally achieved. How do you spend your fame?

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927 – 2014) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. He is best known for his novel “A Hundred Years of Solitude”. He has other books of fiction as well as non-fiction novels which tease out the delicate matter of dictators and dictatorships in the Caribbean and in Latin America. Once he had gained his fame, long before the Nobel Prize, when his books were selling like bread on the streets of every Spanish speaking country in the world, he had to decide how to spend his fame.

In their book Fidel & Gabo: A Portrait of the Legendary Friendship between Fidel Castro and Gabriel Garcia Marquez Angel Esteban and Stephanie Panichelli quote Gabo as saying: “…I began to think that what I needed to do in politics was more important than what I could do with literature.” As a result of this conviction, Gabo devoted his writing to the defence of the Cuban Revolution and the promotion of revolution in Latin America. He defended Salvador Allende (1908 – 1973) Medical doctor turned socialist politician who was democratically elected president of Chile in 1970. Gabo was ecstatic about the election of Allende thinking that socialist presidents could be elected in Latin America. He also welcomed the election of Hugo Chavez (1954 – 2013) to the presidency of Venezuela in 1999.


Gabo spent the buck of his fame defending Cuba and Castro. First he wrote a non-fiction novel about the United States blockade of Cuba by interviewing ordinary Cubans to discover the disastrous effects of the blockade on everyday life in Cuba. The book remained unpublished for years. It could have contained insinuations of faults in the Cuban leadership which made Castro prevent its publication.

Gabo also defended the Cuban involvement in the Angolan civil war on the side of the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) against UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) and FNLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola).

The Soviet Union had been helping Angola through its support of the MPLA before Cuba came to Ango. So, was Cuba simply obeying orders from the Soviet Union by going into Angola? Cuba and Castro insisted they took no orders from anyone. So, in interviews and in his own writings on “Operation Carlota,” Gabo declared that it was the decision of Cuba and Castro alone to help Angola.

At least two subjects link Gabo and Fela. The first is the absolute acceptance of the “magical marvel of our (Latin American and Africa) reality” which for Gabo and his novels translates to “magical realism” and for Fela morphs into idán.

Speaking of this in his beautiful book on Fela Afrobeat! Fela and the Imagined Continent, Sola Olorunyomi mentions ‘a Yoruba mythology “that only trees located near the roadside are suitable materials for the construction of skin drums because they overhear humans conversing as they walk past and are therefore able to reproduce their language.” (p. 5)

The other subject which these two share is the belief in continental liberation, Latin America for Gabo, Africa for Fela.

Circumstances radicalised Gabo and he went out of his way to find Fidel Castro and serve the Cuban Revolution. What radicalised Fela to spend his fame trumpeting a radical alternative for Nigeria and Africa?
There is no doubt the Fela’s mother was an influence on his radicalism both as instructor and an example. Along with this parental influence must be added Fela’s own general rebelliousness, as Sola Olorunyomi describes him. The result is the “felasophy” that informs Fela’s ideas and the spending of his fame. This makes Fela’s songs social history texts and they vexed the military government of General Olusegun Obasanjo. “The Afrobeat vision as espoused by Fela is largely scattered in his public lectures, media reviews of interviews he granted, his private correspondences, short articles in the few books that have devoted chapters to his life and art, and views expressed by the artist in his YAPNEWS a newspaper of the Young African Pioneers (YAP) founded by Fela in the late seventies for propagation of the anticipated African revolution.” Sola Olorunyomi, p. 33.

Songs such as Zombie, Alagbon Close, ITT, and Sorrow Tears and Blood showed that Fela “had finally unmasked the bogey of ideological unanimity of contending classes.” p. 45.

The call and respond style is common in Fela’s songs. One of the best known is Confusion Break Bone as follows: “the first na leg robbery/Leg robbery/Where man go go pick pocket/Leg robbery/The man go start to take leg run/Leg robbery/The second one na arm robbery/Arm robbery/Where man go go steal big thing/Arm robbery/E go take gun defend himself/Arm robbery/The third one na Head robbery/Head robbery/Where oga pata-pata go go steal/Head robbery/E go take position steal all free/Head robbery/Free stealing na him policy/Head robbery/Head robbery/Which head we get e never steal, which president we get e never steal before?”

What has been the impact and influence of these two icons on their continents? There has been no imitator of Gabo in Latin America. On the other hand, Africa has produced many Felas’ and it is still producing them. The latest is Bobi Wine of Uganda who has become the rallying point and one man opposition against president-for-life Museveni. Bobi Wine sang from the slums, acquired fame and spent it acquiring property and a seat in Parliament.
Everybody has fame. How do you spend your fame?

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