In the year when Wizkid sold out the Royal Albert Hall and became synonymous with Nigerian accomplishment, it was inevitable that someone would venture a comparison between him, the flavour of our times, and Fela, who, 20 years after his death, still looms large. The comparison, when it came, was gutsy: Move over Fela, someone claimed on Twitter, Wizkid is Nigeria’s greatest ever musical export. Ergo controversy.
This trope is familiar across many cultures: Diego Maradona is routinely dismissed for Lionel Messi, Pele for Cristiano Ronaldo, Michael Jordan for Lebron James, Aristotle for Bhabha, and on and on. Something (surprise, surprise) is compelling about the here and now. Because of its encompassing currency, the present is not simply an ongoing culmination of history; it is, in the ahistorical imagination, the extent of history. In a nation whose leaders yanked history off their secondary school curriculum in order to cultivate a mass lack of reckoning with the past, Felabration, by its very existence, is a vital inoculation against the egregious tyranny of currency.
Fela is not even absent from this moment. He was on the lips and in the hearts of the many thousands who gathered in October to celebrate in his name. He will be on their lips next year too. He is there as “Eko Ile” in “Fela Kuti,” a single off Carnival III, Wyclef Jean’s latest album. He lurks behind “Uno Mas”, N.O.R.E.’s new collaboration with Pharrell Williams.
He was there with Beyonce and her merry band of friends at Sir Rumi’s shower, as the acerbic antifeminism of “Shakara.” He is there, fully realised, in Tekno’s “Rara”. He suffuses Skales’s “Temper”, Wurld’s “Show You Off”, Seyi Shay’s “Yolo, Yolo”, Show Dem Camp’s “Compose” – all of the class of 2017. Major Lazer’s forthcoming album is titled Music is the Weapon, the title of Jean-Jacques Flori and Stephane Tchalgadjieff’s 1982 Fela biopic.
Fela is the towering masquerade swerving behind Wizkid’s new internationality.
Fela lurked in a psychedelic mash-up on an episode of The Get Down, the now discontinued Netflix show in which Baz Lurhmann reimagines the evolution of hip hop from disco in 1970s New York. He is the towering masquerade swerving behind Wizkid’s new internationality. Fela, quite clearly, is the root of a new sensibility sweeping popular music; the leaves are fluttering in the wind. For all its inadequacy and contested origin, Fela is all of eight letters in what some insist is “Afrobeat”. In the cultural sense, you can see how Felabration ought to aspire to be a discriminatory museum, an incubator and a celebration of the best tendencies in Afrobeat.
An evergreen Fela
Fela is here in our politics too – his old stomping ground. So long as the inescapable vortex of doom that is Nigeria’s postcolonial condition persists, Fela will remain in the here and now. He will remain with us for the simple reason that in the public space, Fela—not his cousin, Wole Soyinka, or the late Chinua Achebe—is Nigeria’s preeminent griot of postcolonial disillusionment. The kleptomania of Nigeria’s political leaders is as frenzied as ever, and these leaders seem to have been manufactured with a ‘recycle’ tag stamped on them. Bureaucrats still style themselves as deities. A uniform in Nigeria is a pretext for brazen cruelty. Combine the uniform with a gun and you—the Victor Ehikhamenor of misfortune—may just have scratched together the profile of a mindless monster.
A largely impoverished populace, their heads routinely knocked from the back, is regularly marched up Golgotha to atone for the missteps of outrageously compensated political leaders. The populace “shuffers” and “shmiles” and shuffles to religious leaders, overseers of sprawling empires who are also plugged into the Nigerian establishment. One of the best ways to get your black ass ahead in Nigeria still remains wearing white face.
We’ve been here before, Fela reminds us. Fela is evergreen, standing testament to everything that is past in the here and now. Easy then to mistake, as the organisers of this year’s Felabration do, the uncanny echoes of our times in Fela’s music for foresight. Fela did not foretell much in his music; he merely recounted things unfolding before his eyes, from oppression to a very real neocolonialism.
That said, Fela did make three important pronouncements. One, he was certain he would be Nigeria’s president at some point. Two, he was certain that Africa would unite as one entity one day. Three, he proclaimed music a weapon of the future.
The first pronouncement we can laugh off. In 2003, Gani Fawehinmi, celebrated lawyer, philanthropist and firebrand activist, garnered a measly 0.41% of the vote in Nigeria’s presidential elections. This was the Fawehinmi, a political jailbird with a cult following, who had an excess of the public respectability that Fela lacked. Fela could acutely diagnose Nigeria’s problems, but it was impossible to negotiate the wild chaos of his personal lifestyle. Everyone loves a spectacle, but only from a safe distance.
Fela’s second pronouncement is problematic too. Daybreak is not in sight for the African unity he constantly professed. Beset by pragmatic concerns, the African Union, a supposed embodiment of the pan-African ideal, is perhaps the one multinational bloc more politically toothless than the United Nations, even if it has proven an improvement on the dismal record of its predecessor, the OAU. The AU has handed suspensions to Madagascar and Egypt for truncating democracy. In 2017, it withdrew legitimacy from Yahya Jammeh as he embarked on a desperate attempt to usurp the will of the Gambian people.
Adulthood would free Fela of the fierce discipline of this primal superego.
The cultural sphere is where African unity—or Fela’s beloved pan-Africanism—flourishes unbridled. It is apposite, for this reason, that the poignantly christened Kenyan scholar Patrick Lumumba delivered a keynote address at Felabration 2017 that assumed Festac ’77 as its point of departure.
Today’s Festac, however, is not a gigantic weeks-long romp—the Internet has seen to that. Dialogue is more spontaneous now, more varied. Wizkid’s significance may be exaggerated but an organic pan-African sensibility encompassing the West, the Caribbean and West Africa is coalescing around him. There is, also, Coke Studio, one of the more tangible facilitators of incredible pan-African conversations.
The limits of music
Has music proven to be a weapon of the future? Whatever strangeness is going on in Cuba—where American diplomats claim to be targets of a sonic attack—is not what Fela had in mind when he made his famous statement in Flori and Tchalgadjieff’s film. While Fela did not dabble in nefarious forms of sound, he did concoct a potent brew of sound and politics, deploying music as a weapon in his confrontation with the Nigerian establishment. The year 1993, however, demonstrated the limits of music as being anything other than music.
In 1993, business mogul MKO Abiola won Nigeria’s presidential election. Had Nigerians not been listening? How could the comprador capitalist who was the butt of “ITT” come to be voted president? Fela, his daughter reported, slipped into a fresh bout of depression. If the 1980s were a time for self-mockery, the 1990s demanded straightforward despair: “Wetin this government dey do, no be for talk, na for cry o.”
This tedium, not religion, is the source of the morbid dynamism Fela mocked so cruelly in his 1977 hit “Shuffering and Shmiling”. The solace Nigerians still seek in religion is a symptom, not an aetiology. Fela had arrived at this epiphany first in 1986, when in the song “Look and Laugh”, he offers an explanation for a long creative hiatus: “Shey the tings wey me and you don see for this country no reach me to dey looku and laffu?” 1993 was a corroboration of sorts. History, Karl Marx once wrote, repeats itself first as farce, second as tragedy.
We forget now that at 31 years, Fela was still as staunchly apolitical as Wizkid currently is. Sandra Smith swept through that apathy in 1969, the aftermath of which was that Fela took to politics with the zealotry of a convert. Ostensibly, he began to see the world as converts tend to do: only as a series of tribulations and triumphs. This is one way to read Fela’s constant combat with authority: every new tribulation was an affirmation of the faith. They were the trials of Job.
Music being sound, it was never going to sustain any restrictive symbolism. Fela’s idiom, political as it came to be, is itself inscribed in the more universal phenomenon of music. At an elemental level, the blare of a horn is the blare of a horn and the twang of a guitar is just that. This inherent lack of partisanship is why accusations of “cultural appropriation” sometimes ring hollow. So long as it has been made, music, any kind of music, is a universally held repository of elements—at least until a lawyer’s letter arrives in the post.
Fela deployed music as a weapon in his confrontation with the Nigerian establishment.
That recent innovations in popular Afrobeat (distinct from the more niche preoccupations of a Femi or Seun Kuti) have all but blunted the lacerating edge of Fela’s method is proof of music’s ultimate inadequacy as a weapon in the way Fela imagined it. Fela created a sound, not the conditions from which it sprung. The sound persists now, largely shorn of its symbolism.
The Lagos State Government’s recent appropriation of Fela and Afrobeat is an even more direct negation of Fela’s proclamation of music as a weapon. This is a provincial government whose ruling passion seems to be gentrification. Shortly before the staging of a barebones Fela! Musical that the state sponsored to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its creation, government storm troopers decimated the Otodo Gbame waterside settlement, an event Fela would have memorialised in song were he alive. Fela would have found the Lagos State government’s sponsorship of Felabration 2017—and the unveiling of a grotesque statue in his honour—a difficult conundrum to resolve.
Fela as a template for Nigerian salvation
Regardless, it is to Fela we must return if the conditions for a fair and just state are to be established. Though Fela fashioned Afrobeat from the entirety of the musical heritage bequeathed to him by tradition, education and experience, his greatest innovation was to sideline Yoruba for pidgin. Overnight, the ethnic base of Fela’s listenership broadened. His message percolated deeper into the Nigerian consciousness.
Fela would weep—or perhaps cackle ominously—at Muhammadu Buhari’s reincarnation as a democratic president. Buhari’s second coming may have so far proved anticlimactic, but in him was deposited the legitimate yearnings of a people for a better country. Here was a person whose asceticism had passed into myth, whose raging fire must have been tempered by age, whose worst excesses—if it came to that—would be curtailed by the appearance of democracy and a hawk-eyed international family.
That the country’s worst tendencies persist means we have read Nigeria wrong. The culture is entrenched. A deep state, a shadowy coalition of vested interests, stands guard over the trenches. It is not simply a question of Alhajis, as Fela famously claimed in “M.A.S.S”; nowhere is “federal character”—a policy invented to reflect Nigeria’s diversity in appointments to public institutions—better observed than among the profiteers of Nigerian malaise.
As discontentment, disillusionment and wily politicians fan the flames of sectarian conflict, Fela’s “pidgin example” traces a path out of the labyrinth. Across the country, a supermajority of the disenfranchised festers, portentous of a new politics free of cynical prevarication and ethnic intonations. Whatever Fela thought of him, Abiola’s victory in 1993 proved the possibility of such a politics. As symbolic victories for Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders are proving in the West, a kinder politics— and a kinder society—is not unimaginable. Will we find the pidgin to harness this critical mass for good? Or will it be left to explode?
A Felabration of the future
We often play Photoshop with our beloved icons. We airbrush them, smooth their edges, graft flattering pixels over their blotches. Fela is wine we have aged: we winced once but now our faces are suffused with rapture. Fela is the eccentric granddad we remember with cuddly affection. We fawn, forgetting to reckon with the full extent of his legacy.
It is not enough that Felabration styles itself as yet another occasion to stage a reckoning of everything Fela addressed. It is a stage upon which a fuller reckoning of Fela must be pursued as well. Felabration may have been born and sustained by the love only the closest family is capable of, but the Kuti family is no stranger to public bravery. By refusing in 1997 to validate Fela’s denials of HIV infection with silence, by transforming the horrific implication of Fela’s death into a formidable front for advocacy, the Kuti family scored one of the greatest public relation wins in modern history.
At least Hugh Hefner—the other great public collector of women of the 19th century—can claim his would-be wife’s devastating admission of infidelity as the origin of the unfettered hedonism to follow. If the man who claimed to be saving himself for his first wife felt the need to avenge his male ego on all the women to come, what was Fela’s excuse?
Fela cited tradition, but nothing in tradition foretold the wanton, ruinous excesses of his libido. Like Hefner, Fela’s upbringing was strict and Christian. “Between my mother and my father combined,” Fela said to his biographer, Carlos Moore, “I got 3 000 strokes between the ages of nine and 17. That’s without counting the beatings I got from my teachers.”
Adulthood would free Fela of the fierce discipline of this primal superego. Facilitated first by his friend, the irrepressible Ghanaian musician JK Braimoh, and later the glitter of celebrity, Fela, the timid youth of yore, loosed every last drop of his throbbing id upon the world. As symbolisms go, that Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, the scourge of Fela’s adolescence, eventually came to live with him at Kalakuta Republic, is the ultimate victory over authority.
Today the many stories of Fela’s many “queens” are subsumed under the weight of his celebrity. We are continually reminded that these women— mostly young, impressionable girls—flocked to Fela of their own accord. This is not the whole story, but the justification will equally apply to the religious leaders Fela took great pleasure in assailing. The incandescent lure of cultural celebrity is analogous to the spiritual authority religious leaders claim over their congregation, and both positions of power are easily exploited. Fela’s lack of restraint is a failure of responsibility, the great African problem of our time. For many, Fela is a hero; others bore the brunt of his villainy. At Felabration, the two Felas can exist side by side.