Fela Aniku­lapo-Kuti took on the cor­rupt Nige­rian po­lit­i­cal sys­tem with a verve still felt to­day,writes

The Sunday Independent - - DISPATCHES -

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 a 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, mar­i­jua­nasmok­ing 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 down­trod­den 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, 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 panAfrican­ist, who be­lieved fiercely in the cul­ture and her­itage of blacks on the con­ti­nent and in the di­as­pora.

A 10-month trip to the US dur­ing the civil rights strug­gle in 19691970 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 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 all along the walls. These de­pict 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 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 freeze and the mat­tress on the floor on which he slept.

In a side room are his mul­ti­coloured 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 type­writer 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” and 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 mega­lopo­lis 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 their fa­ther treated them like other mem­bers of his com­mune, in­sist­ing they call him “Fela”, not “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 milling around – is well cap­tured in the doc­u­men­tary, with even a timetable 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 are 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 panAfrican 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 fu­elled 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 sad­ness in Fela’s eyes as he stared coldly ahead as if in a trance, his eyes glazed, mo­rose and dis­il­lu­sioned. 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, high­lyper­cus­sioned 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.

Even many who dis­missed Fela dur­ing his life­time now re­gard him as a vi­sion­ary prophet who was ahead of his time.

Ade­bajo is Di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute for Pan-African Thought and Con­ver­sa­tion at the Uni­ver­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg.

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