On 2 August 1997, Africa lost a pioneer of the Afrobeat music genre in the form of the Nigerian multi-instrumentalist, composer, human rights activist and political maverick Fela Anikulapo Kuti. But his voice has never been silent. The New Afrika Shrine, an open-air entertainment centre located in the mainland suburb of Ikeja, Lagos State, was built in October 2000, three years after Fela’s death. It is managed by Fela’s children, Femi Kuti and Omoyeni Anikulapo Kuti, and has become a memorial to many who hope to capture something of the quintessential Fela.
“The New Afrika Shrine was built to honour my father because he never owned his own shrine,” Femi Kuti said. “Many thought my father owned the previous one [the Afrika Shrine] even though he built it, but unfortunately he was stripped of its ownership.”
They call the place a shrine not because gods are worshipped here, or because fetish acts are performed here, but because it is a haven of freedom of expression for the average person; a place where everyone is equal; where one can be both inspired and entertained at the same time.
“I still believe in Fela; I feel his presence whenever Femi is delivering the message from stage.”
The New Afrika Shrine showcases photo galleries of Fela and music performances by Fela’s sons, Femi and Seun, every other Thursday. It is also believed to be a thriving centre for hemp smokers, drawing throngs of visitors and fun lovers over weekends.
The shrine is a big hall, painted brown and yellow, with patterns of green, red and black, suggesting African symbolism. A large sign reading “Afrika Shrine” and a painting of Fela lifting an African shield draws the gaze of visitors to the top of the main building.
In the security post at the entrance, a small rechargeable radio is playing ‘Zombie’, a song in which Fela criticised the Nigerian military government in 1976, portraying them as brainless figures who did whatever higher authorities wanted them to do, without thinking. Welcoming visitors into the compound are newspaper cuttings of heated exchanges between two former presidents of Nigeria, General Olusegun Obasanjo and General Ibrahim Babangida, printed on a big and bold banner and displayed on the wall by the entrance gate.
Near the entrance of the hall is the original shrine – moved here from its previous location – where Fela used to conduct his prayers. Massive audio speakers mounted on the stage blare Fela’s songs at ear-splitting volume. On the wall backstage are portraits of great African leaders, poets and heroes of the Black Power movement, people like Nelson Mandela, Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, Kwame Nkrumah, Martin Luther King and Olufunmilayo Ransome Kuti (Fela’s activist mother).
A Secret History
Femi noted that not many people were aware that the New Afrika Shrine had not been built by Fela himself. Fela’s original Afrika Shrine was burnt down in 1977 when his family compound, called Kalakuta Republic, was razed to the ground by the Nigerian military. The iconic saxophonist then moved to Pepple Street, Ikeja, and continued to do what he did best.
Femi says Fela had always been under the impression that he had bought the land at Pepple Street, so he built on it while he lived there. But it was a lease, and when he tried to truly buy the land, the case went to court. By the time Fela died in 1997, the land was still in contention. “We tried our best to settle with the Mene Binitie family at that time, but they refused,” said Femi.
According to Femi, the New Afrika Shrine is mainly for music and festivities in honour of his father. However, lectures, dramas and symposiums are also held here, and the space could become a public studio or a library someday.
“I play here twice a week, and it’s the biggest disco you can find in Africa on Fridays,” Femi said. “Most of the events here are free, Felabration is also free. I play on Thursdays for free, and on Sundays I play for 500 Naira [about US$2]. The disco on Fridays is free. We want people to be able to appreciate this place. [The shrine] is a symbolic place, standing firm behind the struggle for freedom and the emancipation of the African mind”
Beyond the Central Attraction
While Femi Kuti’s live performances with his band, The Positive Force, simmer with energy, others in the compound benefit as well: Behind the bar is NAS Kitchen, a restaurant where local Nigerian dishes like ofada, white and jolof rice, amala, moi-moi, snails and round pepper fish are sold. Here, a plate of food costs N500, while the same dish with snail or fish costs N1 200.
It is owned and managed by Fadekemi Adepeju, the younger sister of Fela’s personal caterer. Adepeju has been in business in the New Afrika Shrine since 2003. She says her business peaks on the days when Femi and his band perform.
“There is a big drop in sales when Femi or Seun are not performing,” Adepeju said. “When Femi is around to rehearse or perform, our customers come trooping in.”
Another thriving business at the shrine is Asun Shrine Goat Meat. Ridwan Olamilekan, the business manager, says they have been doing business here since 2010. “This is a business owned by one man who employs 11 of us to work here. We make and sell asun, nkwobi, isi ewu and shawarmas,” he said.
Life in the New Afrika Shrine
In the New Afrika Shrine, the spirit of Fela is still very much alive, with paintings and art works of him everywhere. The place is cool and breezy, even when the weather is hot. This is probably why many people come here to relax after a tough day battling the busy Lagos traffic.
“New Afrika Shrine is my second home,” said Charles Chime, a guest at the shrine. “The same thing Fela laid down before he passed away is what Femi is doing today. I still believe in Fela; I still feel his presence whenever Femi is delivering the message on stage, so Fela didn’t die.”
Chime describes Fela as a legend who used his commentary and criticism to fight corruption and political injustice, which continue to blight Nigeria’s contemporary landscape. “Look at songs like ‘Zombie’, ‘Unknown Soldier’, ‘Original Sufferhead’ and others: He talked about corruption; about young people without jobs. The country was, and is, hot,” he said.
The Shrine is mostly visited by young people, many of whom were too young to have even seen Fela in the flesh. Still, they feel the impact and relevance of his music today.
Eva Olubiyi is a graduate currently serving her National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) year. She has been hearing about Fela Kuti since she was born in 1990, has listened to most of his songs and has even seen some of his performances on television. But her first encounter with Femi Kuti at the Shrine in 2015, seeing him and his dancers perform on stage, gave her a vivid picture of what Fela must have been like.
The New Afrika Shrine is a haven of freedom of expression for the average person.
“It’s a good experience coming here to listen to good music,” she said. “Femi is really an ecstatic performer. And Fela was a courageous man. He was like a thorn in the flesh of the then military dictators, like when he said: ‘My name is Anikulapo, I have death in my pouch. I can’t die; they can’t kill me’.”
Here at the new Afrika Shrine, those words ring true.