Fela Anikulapo-Kuti: A Tribute To Africa’s Most Influential 20th Century Musician, Philosopher, and Political Activist

Ki órísá búkùn aiye wa ate te awon Olòlúfè wa.

Ki nwọn si so ífè wa pọ tìmọ̀timo ni ọjọ iwàjù.

Ki nwūn si tan ímòlé si awọn óná wa ati alafia fun gbogbo wa.

(May the orishas bless our lives and those of our loved ones!

May they bind our friendship even stronger in the days to come!

And may they clear our paths and bestow happiness upon us all!)

ACT ONE

WAR OF ADOBI

Fela enters the door following the opening and blesses the MIC: “On 15 October 1938 I was born at a hospital somewhere in Abeokuta. The people of Abeokuta had pride because as they recounted, ‘Abeokuta was never colonized.’ I once heard an elder say, ‘Let the Englishman tell about the Adobi War. He wanted to make a road from Lagos to Abeokuta. Only one man fought the whole English army. Many soldiers were sent but they all died. I swear man, it’s true. They could not take Abeokuta. The British had to sign a Protectorate Agreement, because of the War of 1914. This is not mythology, man. This is fact. Historical facts that are not taught in school.”

Fela Kuti continues his narrative of beginnings and in his narrative we learn much about the shaping of the Yoruba Musician: “Where did they take me right after my birth? Maybe to the Abeokuta Grammar School where my parents were living then. The school was owned by them. Some students who came from far away would board at the school. But all of that is very blurred in my mind. It was a big school with well-tended flower gardens. Over time, our family compound was referred to as a ‘village’ because it included the school, a chapel, my parents’ large house and a garage too big for the one family car. Yes, man my parents had a car.”

Fela is talking about Nigeria in 1938. His thick description offers us a glimpse into the life of a young African man coming to consciousness in a privileged upper middle class home, a nurturing community, and a place where he was expected to do well. His experience is in contrast to millions of other children growing up in Pre European World War Two Nigeria. Early in life Fela developed a love for learning. His mother and father were highly educated (his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, had the rare experience of going to England for training in a Finishing School, after being the first woman to graduate from Abeokuta Grammar School). Fela’s father, Rev. J.O. Ransome-Kuti, was a prominent leader and the first President of the Nigerian Union of Teachers.

Following his education at the prestigious Abeokuta Grammar School, Fela was sent to England to study medicine and become a physician like both of his brothers. Instead of pursuing medicine, he enrolled in Trinity College of Music. During this time, while immersed in his studies, he was introduced to the music of Miles Davis, Count Basie, Lee Morgan, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakely, Sarah Vaughn and John Coltrane. And he could be found catching all the hip new African American Jazz artists at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. I can recall talking with Fela about the significance of Jazz in the evolution of his musical career. What is amazing is that he had a vivid recollection of musicians from decades ago, and a detailed description of their sartorial taste and impeccable style. When you listen to Fela’s early recordings, you will immediately hear his own jazz stylizations, even before he became known as the Father of Afrobeat.

One could do a comparative analysis of Fela’s performances at The Shrine to concert halls in Europe and the United States. He established his space as a premier art salon, cultural preservation, and innovation emporium. Most of all, it was a place where artists could assemble, experiment and operate as one. Observing and experiencing both Sun Ra’s Germantown cultural space and Fela’s Shrine in Nigeria, one may conclude that both of these bandleaders and cultural theorists developed institutions that played key roles in shaping the contours of Afro-diasporic music. it’s important to note the shared dynamic between Sun Ra and Fela’s musicianship, and the mutual influence that stemmed from their respective cultures. In fact, the Black Power Movement in the 1960’s would end up having a strong impact on Fela’s worldview.

LAMENT OF THE DRUMS

Lion-hearted cedar forest

Gonads for our thunder

Even if you are very far away

We invoke you

Give to us hollow heads of long drums

 – Christopher Okigbo  “Lament for the Drums”

IN 1969, Sandra Smith, an African American computer scientist and member of the Black Panther Party at the time she met Fela, was very key in his radicalizing process. How did Sandra hip her African brother? Sandra recalls: “There were so many things I shared with Fela; novels, poetry, politics, history, music. Poems by Nikki Giovanni, The Last Poets (you know “Niggers Are Afraid of Revolutions”), Angela Davis, Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, Jesse Jackson, Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” Miles Davis…. It was something that happened over a period of time. It was constant talk every night, every day, over a period of six months. Politics, Love. Love and Politics. Just the two of us. At that time I was so strong. I believed so strongly in the Black Movement. I told Fela about things that had happened to me, like my being jailed and why. I talked about my ancestral background. I was trying to let him know that we too, are African.”

Fela recalls the pivotal moment he met Sandra and how she helped him reclaim his African identity: “Sandra gave me the education I wanted to know. She was the one who opened my eyes. I swear, man. She’s the one who spoke to me about AFRICA. For the first time I heard things I’d never heard before about Africa. Sandra was my adviser. She talked to me about politics, history. She taught me what she knew, and what she knew was enough for me to start on. Yeah, Sandra taught me a lot, man. She blew my mind really. She’s beautiful too. Nothing about my life is complete without her. Sandra was the woman……. Then one day I sat down at the piano in Sandra’s home. I said to Sandra, “’You know what?’  I’ve just been looking around. I haven’t been playing AFRICAN music …for the first time I want to try…”

Fortunately, Fela had an opportunity to let her know how things were “Upside Down” in Africa. He composed a special work for Sandra, “My Lady’s Frustrations” :

“When it comes to love, you’ve always had your way
And you never had your heart broke, or so you say
No you can’t fool me, I know he’s on your mind
There’s things in love that just happen sometime”

The back and forth motion provided both of them with more realistic views of Africa and America. It was a real Pan Africanist exchange.

“People in Africa don’t know how much their American black brothers and sisters wey dey fo’ that place-o. I swear, they no know! But Black Americans were so beautiful to me, man. When I came back home I said to myself, ‘All African countries should open their doors to Africans everywhere, especially those in the Americas.’”

In the same manner from which the Hip Hop cultural movement arose, Fela’s Afrobeat lyrics were inspired by the everyday happenings of the masses. They were a voice for the voiceless, never-ending proclamations that demanded the emancipation of humanity. Albert Oikelome [Fela’s Prophetic Lyrics in Light of Twenty-First Century Realities] recounts: “Fela’s music offers a perspective on race, class and nation on both sides of the Atlantic. In the midst of political turmoil in Africa, as well as renewal of pro-African cultural nationalism throughout the Diaspora, Fela’s political music functions as a post-colonial art form that uses cross-cultural exchange to voice a unique and powerful African essentialism.”

“Charming pedestrianism” is the phrase that best describes Fela’s lyrics, in the sense that he made use of the most common words, but framed them in a way that appealed to people while getting his message across.

His songs attended to issues such as the hypocrisy of world leaders on human rights:

“Animals want to bribe us with human rights/Animals cannot bribe me with human rights… Human right is my property/You cannot bribe me with my own property.”

– Beast of No Nation

They addressed the inhumane treatment he viewed day in and day out among the people of his period:

“Every day my people are inside bus/… They will pack themselves in like sardine/They will faint, they wake like cock/It is the same thing every day.”

–  Suffering and Smiling

Fela is referred to as a prophet by some, a consciousness by others, and the greatest musician in Africa by most. But what are the distinct characteristics of Fela Kuti that made him such a celebrated and globally recognized musician and activist? It was the fortitude soaked into his backbone, and his inherent dedication to an authentic, transparent, and connected lived experience. Fela was fearless, and he represented the voice of justice, fairness, the debunking of hypocrisy, and ultimately a hope fulfilled for a people engulfed in despair.

He was an example of a being whose fire shined indefinitely, and is like a burning match through time that continues to ignite the fires of matches that need re-igniting. Fela — despite the countless beatings and torture by authorities as a method of intimidation, and in response to his community protests — left no questions about his general conviction and natural-born leading qualities. Stephane Tchal-Gad-Jieff and Jean Jacques Flori in their motion picture capture Fela very much alive, and in true expression: “One thing I want to assure them, if they think I’m going to change, or compromise my attitude, or my way of life or expression, or my goal, they are mistaken. They are making me stronger. And I’m much more stronger now. As a matter of fact I’m surprised that I’m so well so quickly. You know the kind of beating I got…They beat the shit out of me. But you see I didn’t die. Because my name is Anikulapo. [It means] I have death in my pouch. I can’t die. They can’t kill me.”

Not unlike the great Tupac Shakur just a generation later, who – like Fela – was birthed to a woman who committed herself to fighting against a range of social issues, Fela treaded towards a career in politics supported by his fans and advocates. His streams of commentary broadcasted in the featured film, Music is the Weapon, describe perfectly his most impassioned grievances: “Peoples minds have gone numb. No food, no water, no light. No government. So the people are edgy. There’s no solid situation. The roots are being lost. Our senators are going to America everyday and coming back, and nothing is happening in my country. I mean newspapers are crying armed robbers, thieves, so? The public think they have to take care of themselves, so any thief they think they see, they lynch they kill by themselves, they just run. It’s very un-African. African’s don’t behave like that. Those are the kind of criminal behavior, criminal atmosphere our government has put in the country. People not having steady minds. But I see a future…Pan-Africanism is in the minds of everybody now, subconsciously. Everybody knows they have to be Africans now.”

Though unsuccessful in his pursuit in the political arena, simply Fela’s existence as an adored figure provided a source of socio-political empowerment for the everyday Nigerian, and for Blacks all across the diaspora. His ideals, fervor, and tenacity are living on timelessly, and remain relevant even now in 2015. The youths who embody the “old soul” recite Fela’s lyrics from songs that scream revolutionary messages that apply no less than they did 40 years ago. Fela’s music is the essence of Afrobeat. This essence is carried on by his sons Femi and Seun, both of whom are still going strong and show no signs of wavering. And it is this essence over which modern Afrobeat artists, with their many Afrobeats, extend and evolve and recombine their craft to drive the ongoing 21st century African musical developments.

Copyright James G. Spady and Akinyemi Bajulaiye 2015