Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, born Ransome-Kuti is a subject of epic proportion and one that I am certainly no authority on. I did not grow up listening to the music of one of Africa’s musical legends, fiery State critic, and prophet in his own right. To others, an outright rebel. I encountered Fela’s music as a post graduate student, congregated with other Africans reveling in his music as we did that of Hugh Masekela, Oliver Mtukudzi and others. This year however, I have encountered him in several conversations, most of them inadvertently while researching some stories I am working on.
I glimpsed into Fela the singer while interviewing one of Nigeria’s prolific civil rights activists, Tunji Lardner on the subject of Kakadu, a celebrated nightclub from the 1960s. Kakadu was the first place Fela performed on his return from England before moving to Afro-Spot and eventually to the New Afrika Shrine. Lardner, whose father part owned and run the nightclub spoke of him as one of the most honest men he has ever come across in his life. He shared about the Koola Lobitos, Fela’s first band, their energy and how the public often misunderstood him.
It was Fela who popularized Afrobeats, taking from the original Highlife music mainly associated with Ghanaian musicians and Nigerian Yoruba bands, fused it with jazz and the funk and soul of James Brown. Yet Lardner also recalled the warts in Fela, acknowledging that he was really just an ordinary man.
Fela became a subject while speaking to Theo Lawson, architect and warder at Freedom Park, who turned the relics of what was formerly Her Majesty’s prison into a place where artists celebrate poetic freedom and license. Theo Lawson, who is also the chairman of Felabration, conceived the idea to built the legends tomb upon his death. This was his way of giving back to a man who influenced his ideas while still a student in the UK, arguing that just as there were European classics, there was African folklore and used Fela’s music as a backdrop to his own understanding of this.
Lawson part conceived the idea of Kalakuta Museum which preserves everything associated with Fela. Kalakuta was the singers residence and the name he gave to the communal compound where he lived with his followers after his release from imprisonment by the Nigerian authorities.
On Monday October 9th, Felabration held the 9th Annual Lecture Series to celebrate Fela, the man, and the legend. Conceived in 1998 by his daughter Yeni Kuti, Felabration is a week long festival for artistes and musicians celebrated once a year during the week of his birthday. This year’s events kicked off with the annual lecture series where Professor PLO Lumumba gave the keynote speech.
On the panel, sat Femi Falana, Fela’s lawyer of whom he said, “Fela was my client and the most interesting one I have had to date. He would come and tell me, I want to commit this offence and it is your business to use your neo-colonial law to defend me.”
Professor Lumumba spoke about Pan Africanism, looking at the movement in light of 20 Years of Fela’s death and 40 years since FESTAC, the celebration of African Arts and Culture, which was held in Lagos in 1977. FESTAC’s ideas can be traced to Negritude and Pan Africanism, inspired by Aime Cesaire and Leopard Senghor. The Festival was first celebrated in Dakar in 1966.
The winners of the #Felabration2017 art competition unveiled at the event.
Using Fela’s music as a mirror, Lumumba drew out the realities currently happening across the continent. Quoting his famous line, “If a man wants to enslave you forever, he will never tell you the truth about your forefathers,” he made mention of the fact that Africa’s ideals in the 1950s and 60s are a long way off from where we are today. “We gained independence, Lumumba quipped, but it is now debatable if we are at all independent”. His lecture touched on corruption and cultural revival, which Fela stood for.
His song ‘Teacher don’t teach me no nonsense’ spoke against European hypocrisy in dictating African life and their inconsistency to point out wrongs elsewhere. Lumumba questioned the current tenets of democracy we use, imposed on us by the West and wondered if they are really right or wrong for us. For instance we are divided into Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone Africa, created by colonial masters with no Yorubaphone, Igbophone or Hausaphone.
Some of Fela’s music was ahead of its time like Yellow Fever, released in 1971, which poked fun at skin bleaching. “Who steal your bleaching, your precious bleaching, you buy am for shopping for forty naira, you self wan yellow…” which Lumumba said was an affront to African identity and her pride and is still common amongst our sisters.
Zombie was undoubtedly Fela’s most popular song, his way at hitting back at an authoritarian government and its foot soldiers who simply did as they were commanded. The government responded to this song by sending 1000 soldiers to Fela’s Kalakuta home. They burned the place down and threw his aged mother down the window, fracturing her leg and suffering serious trauma. She never recovered and died a few months later.
One has to remember that Fela’s mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was one of Nigeria’s heroines; a women’s rights champion, teacher and political activist. She was the first black woman in the country to drive a car. Fela’s father, the Reverend Israel Ransome-Kuti was a known academic of note who founded among other things, the Nigeria Union of Teachers. Fela turned his back to the religion he had grown up with, castigating religious leaders for their lavish lifestyles while their flock walked around in poverty, epitomized in his song “Suffering and Shmiling”.
Fela the revolutionary nurtured a close friendship with Thomas Sankara and seemingly sought to challenge the ideology of other Africans around him. He was not just a musician but gave over 60 lectures in campuses around Nigeria, according to his lawyer Femi Falana. “When Fela read the book How Europe underdeveloped Africa by Rodney Smith, he sent a lorry load of books to Ife (University) so they could read about it,” he noted.
To others, the late Fela was seriously temperamental, rambuccous in nature, a lover of women (he married 27 of them in one day) who poured obeisance to unknown spirits. Who can forget the Fela who walked around only in his underwear, items that are still on display at the Kalakuta Museum. 20 years after his death however, Fela lives on, like In the Broadway musical bearing his name or in the music of his sons Seun and Femi Kuti. His songs are as relevant today as when he first penned them.
So where do we find musicians of this generation with Fela’s spirit? As PLO quipped in his closing line, where are the young suckers growing when the old bananas die?
Kenya’s Sauti Sol will be taking the stage on Sunday October 15th at the New Afrika Shrine. Perhaps in celebrating Fela a consciousness will spring amongst the current crop of artistes and maybe, a Fela will arise from amongst them.
Additional Reports from the Internet.