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Lagos celebrates with a Fela-inspired comedy of ironies

To celebrate its 50th anniversary Lagos, Nigeria’s economic capital, showcased a Broadway musical based on the life of its most famous cultural icon, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Yet the state is in the process of illegally demolishing slum settlements to make way for luxury real estate developments, perpetuating exactly the kind of oppression that Fela stood against.

“Them leave sorrow, tears and blood –them regular trademark.” These are the word that the actor portraying Fela Anikulapo Kuti belts out towards the end of Fela! The Broadway Musical in Concert. Based on a politically charged period of the artist’s life, the musical showcases songs that celebrate his work as a human rights activist.

The song ‘Sorrow, Tears and Blood’ was Fela’s seminal composition. It was released in 1977 in the aftermath of the raid on his home, Kalakuta Republic, by 1000 armed Nigerian soldiers. Fela’s mother died from injuries sustained during this raid.

Performing as Fela was American actor Sahr Ngaujahin a Broadway show that has won three Tony Awards, toured the world and excited critics and audiences alike since 2008. The concert was held in three showings over the course of Easter weekend, from 13 to 15 May 2017, at the Eko Hotel & Suites in Victoria Island.

The show was touching down in Lagos, Fela’s home while he was alive, for a second time. This sophomore return was sponsored by Lagos State’s half-century birthday celebrations, titled Lagos at 50. This time around, the show was performed as a concert and not the musical in its entirety.

However, the show’s timing was curious. A few days before, the violence recalled in the concert was a reality for some Lagos residents.

Sorrow, Tears and Blood

On 8 April 2017, Lagos State ordered the raid of the OtodoGbame settlement, a waterside slum in the exclusive neighbourhood of Lekki. According to eyewitness reports, police officers swarmed the community, burning down houses, firing tear gas and chasing residents into boats far out on the Lagos Lagoon. Marine police would later refuse to allow the residents to dock.

In the chaos, the infamously trigger-happy Nigerian police shot several fleeing residents, killing one, Daniel Anya, and wounding another, Michael Idowu, who was shot in the chest. Miraculously, Idowu survived and is currently recuperating in a hospital on Lagos Island.

The government, which previously drew daggers at the man, celebrates him now that he is ‘harmless’ to them in death

The state raided the community in defiance of a 26 January 2017 court order. The ruling was issued by Honourable Justice Onigbanjo of the Lagos State High Court and it prohibited the state from demolishing property on short notice without providing alternative shelter for evicted persons. This is not the first time the state government has gone after the homes of its poorest. In July 1990, the Lagos State government, under then governor Raji Rasaki, demolished the slum lagoon community that was Maroko. About 300 000 people lost their homes.

The Show Must Go On

How he came up with Afro-beat. “With my music, I create change…I am using my music as a weapon.” Photo: oksounds247/instagram

If the show’s American producers and directors were aware of these events, they didn’t let on. The walkway to the show’s venue was decorated with life-sized cardboard cut-outs of newspaper headlines from the 1970s and 1980s, depicting Fela’s run-ins with the government: In the DailyTimes, “Fela Charged With Armed Robbery.” In the Evening Times, “Fela’s Son Beaten Up at the NET Office.”

Before the show opened, attendees were treated to a documentary that showed more headlines: “Fela Spent 17 Days in Hospital”; “Why Nigeria is Broke – Shagari”, “1976 Lagos State Edicts Revisited, You and Your Legal Rights”. Later, we would see video clips of impoverished children in an unidentified riverine community.

Fela sang and campaigned about events like these nearly four decades ago, as the show depicted. Yet, in 2017, it is as if no time has passed at all. The difference is that the government,which previously drew daggers at the man, celebrates him now that he is ‘harmless’ to them in death.

The show’s set list moved briskly, exclusively featuring Fela’s most popular songs and greatest hits. These included ‘Zombie’, the song that mocked the methods of the Nigerian military and inspired the attack against Kalakuta Republic. ‘Water No Get Enemy’ and ‘Trouble Sleep Yanga Go Wake Am’ also made the playlist.

This is not the first time the state government has gone after the homes of its poorest.

The songs were undoubtedly carefully chosen. They immediately inspired nostalgia, elicited screams and cheers and were some of the least threatening of Fela’s discography.

The cast’s delivery was electric. Supported by some pretty seamless instrumentalists, they sang, danced and embodied the ecstasy Fela’s voice inspired. However, the 2 hour 30 minute-long show was not without a few glitches.

The cast, though all of African descent, were American. The performance of the lead actor, Ngaujah, was not always believable. Whenever he broke in between songs to talk to the audience, his pidgin – the language in which Fela delivered not only his songs but his onstage commentary –was, for lack of a better phrase, foreign-sounding. He did not seem to be trying to get the words right or to be that invested in his delivery. Pronunciations and intonations of certain Yoruba or pidgin words were particularly difficult. “Yekpa!” a Yoruba exclamation to signify an incredible occurrence, became ‘Eba!’, for instance.

The dancers almost made up for it. Their energy filled the gaps he left, saying things with their bodies that he couldn’t with his words. They couldn’t fill them all, though.

“It was a great music concert, but was that really Fela?” one concert-goer said when asked for a snap review after the show. “It was a cover, an adaptation, a profile of the form of Fela, but it lacked something. The inability of the performers to really connect with the message of the lyrics kind of limited their performance to just that – performance.”

Missing in Action

Ultimately, the concert was a great musical performance technically but Fela’s spirit was missing in action.

For me, the standout part of the entire concert was a short fellowship between one of the female dancers and the male saxophonist. He called with his instrument and she responded in slow, steady, rhythmic contortions with her body. Hours before the concert, it had rained heavily and the night was chilly. The triad of man-instrument-woman sounded like sonic aphrodisiac, a suggestion to all present to go and keep warm in ways Fela himself actively encouraged. He married 27 wives, after all.

Ultimately, the concert was a great musical performance technically but Fela’s spirit was missing in action.

As concert goers entered the venue on the second or third day of its performance, they may have seen a few residents from the demolished OtodoGbame community protesting with cardboard signs, reminding the Lagos State government of the irony of celebrating a man who stood against all they were doing.

In the end, the protesters were dispersed.

The citizens looked the other way.

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