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Fela – a first-hand encounter

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Twenty years after his death, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti continues to live on in the hearts of fans, musicians and scholars, many of whom seize every opportunity to understand everything the Afrobeat maestro represented.

On 3 August 2017, the weekly reading series organised by the Department of English Language at the University of Lagos played host to the Committee of Relevant Art’s (CORA) Book Trek. The event, which is an awareness campaign that conducts readings in different parts of Lagos ahead of the annual Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF), featured readings and discussions from Dis Fela Sef! The Legend(s) Untold, a biography by Benson Idonije, veteran music columnist and broadcaster. Idonjie was also Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s first manager and the book is based on his personal knowledge of the late Afrobeat musician.

Interrogating the brand

During the event, Idonije read from two different sections of the book to show Fela’s metamorphosis from a non-smoker earlier in his career to a heavy user of marijuana later on.

Read: Remembering Fela Kuti: 10 quotes

The audience engaged the author in an exciting question-and-answer session. A lecturer wanted to know what Idonije thought of Fela’s often abusive dalliances with women.

Found Fela? Photo credit: Francis Kertekian / Rikki Stein

“Fela always liked women. When he became popular in 1971, he needed a concentration of women in his possession,” Idonije said. “They were sleeping in turns. He had a high propensity for sex. He moaned before me and used my house (whilst I was a bachelor) to have sex. He had a second key to my apartment.”

During the session, Idonije also revealed that Fela’s decent lyrics at the outset of his career gave way to more lewd ones by the time he released the singles ‘Teacher, Don’t Teach Me Nonsense’ (1980) and ‘Beasts of No Nation’ (1989).

Read: Fela Kuti statue unveiled in Lagos to honour his legacy

“In his last interview with the then editor of The Guardian newspaper, a few months before his death, Fela remarked that the spirits advised him not to record his later songs, but the truth is that they were highly obscene,” said Idonije.

When asked “How mystical was Fela?”, the author disclosed that Kwaku Addaie, a.k.a. Professor Hindu, a Ghanaian magician who claimed he had the power to kill a man and bring him back to life, came into Fela’s life in 1981. Fela accepted Hindu’s spiritual influence wholeheartedly, failing to see through the trickery.

 “Fela accepted Hindu’s spiritual influence wholeheartedly, failing to see through the trickery.”

“It was supposed to be entertainment, but, over time, it was taken too far. What happened to Fela later in life was an obsession of sorts,” Idonije said. “He also wanted to project an aura of invincibility and immortality – that he had some sort of spirituality conferred on him.”

Reviewing Dis Fela Sef!

One of the highlights of the event was the review of Idonije’s book by Kayode Odumboni, a graduate assistant in the department.

File photo dated 15 September 1988 shows Nigerian singer and musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Photo: ANP

“Everybody seems to know Fela … Even Fela, I imagine, didn’t know all of himself … Fela is an explicit image of the duality, or even multiplicity, the internal contradictions, that define humanity,” Odumboni said.

“Fela is an explicit image of the duality, or even multiplicity, the internal contradictions, that define humanity.”

Whilst remarking that Idonije did not criticize Fela in Dis Fela Sef, Odumboni extolled the author for presenting Fela to the reader warts and all. He noted that many of the events that marked Fela’s voyage into African spirituality, particularly his trust in Professor Hindu, who was publically revealed to be nothing but an illusionist, showed that the musician could sometimes be naïve.

“Idonije’s narrative shows us all of Fela, all his frailties and foibles, his eccentricities and extremes, his strengths, but most importantly, his vulnerabilities.”

Read: Speaking truth to power, Fela Kuti’s enduring legacy: A lesson in governance

Despite the enormous amount of information contained in Fela’s authorised biography, Fela, This Bitch of a Life and The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon, not to mention all the unauthorised biographies and documentaries on the musician, such as Finding Fela and Fela, Music is the Weapon, it is refreshing  that Dis Fela Sef! was written from the point of view of someone who not only worked with Fela but was friends with him.

A revised edition of the book was sold at LABAF 2017, which took place from 6 to 12 November 2017.

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