By Denrele Animasaun
“With my music, I create change…I am using my music as a weapon.” – Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
The week marks the 19th year of Fela’s passing. His influence to music, the black movement and the champion of marginalised people remain as strong, if not stronger now than ever. The man with” death in his pocket”, was a musical giant not only in Nigeria but around the world and with very good reasons too.
He was controversial and influential in equal measure and Fela was unapologetic and unafraid to speak his mind. His music was the very medium through which he spoke to the people. Fela said that “I just want to do my part and leave…Not for what they’re going to remember you for, but for what you believe in as a man.”
He left a body of work that speaks to millions and it is as relevant today as it was many years ago. You either love him or loathe him, but simply cannot not ignore him. Fela was a Tour De Force, a musical tornado, a messenger of change and he got under the skin of the authorities because he held a mirror to their face, as we all know the truth hurts.
He said of the army that they dance to his music as well as march to his tunes!.
Fela was born in 1938 in Abeokuta to a very well-known socially and politically active Christian family. A son of a clergyman and an educationalist, although he was not a church going man but he was spiritual in his own way, he said: “to be spiritual is not by praying and going to church. Spiritualism is the understanding of the universe so that it can be a better place to live in.”
His mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (FRK) was a political activist, fondly named the, Lioness of Lisabi. She was a commanding voice who fought for the rights of women to vote and earning her the Lenin Peace prize in the early sixties. The apple does not fall far from the tree; the son of lioness cannot be but a lion. His father penned the best National anthem that Nigeria will ever have; “Nigeria we hail thee” well, to me it is. Koye, the eldest sibling was a former Minister of Health; Beko the younger, who was once President of the Nigerian Medical Association. He too was detained by the Nigerian government for his protests against what he believed to be the anti-democratic activities of the military; and his elder sister, was a former matron in Nigeria’s health services. So if you were looking for patriotic Nigerian embodiment, this family was it.
In April 30, 974, Fela’s compound was raided by over a thousand military men armed to the teeth, in the tousled that ensued, they threw his mother from the first floor of the building: she broke her leg and sustained other injuries. The army then set his property on fire and razed it to the ground.
Fela was arrested for possession of marijuana, which was not a surprise. While on bail and on his return to his compound which he re-named “Kalakuta Republic. As to how he came by Kalakuta Republic, Fela said:”…when I was first put in jail, the name of my prison cell was ‘Kalakuta’ meaning rascality, and Republic? I wanted to identify myself with someone who didn’t agree with the Federal Republic of Nigeria…I was in non-agreement.”
He wailed in his tribute to his mother in his song: “they kill my mama”, and pointed the finger of blame at the military government. It was apparent how much he loved his mother.
Fela definitely was very patriotic and he believed that Africans should be proud of who they are. When asked about why he came up with Afro-beat. Fela said: “With my music, I create change…I am using my music as a weapon.” His music was a weapon for change and a consciousness of the struggles of many Nigerians but it is also resonant with other people who were facing their own struggle anywhere in the world. His message was universal and it was not particular to Nigeria, hence his appeal to many around the world. He was determined to use his music to prick the oppressors’ consciousness and to bring about change.
Fela always danced to his own drum and plotted his own path, never one to follow the herd; he will sticks his head out while others cower in fright. This is Fela.
With his brand of music and genre, Afro Beat, he went on to speak to millions and influences many more beyond the borders of Nigeria. He was given the key to the freedom of several cities in Europe and his brand of music is favoured by many African Americans rap and soul artistes, and they count Fela as a major influence. He was irreverent and unapologetic and often gets him into trouble with the military government and he paid dearly for it. Choosing my favourite songs of Fela, is like choosing a favorite amongst your children. But if pushed, I would say for me, it is; Teacher well, to be honest with you, I introduced my son to Fela’s music at very early age and to this day, Zombie remains, his favourite.
Fela said: “With my music, I create change…I am using my music as a weapon.” He was determined to use his music to prick the oppressors’ consciousness and to bring about change. He said:”A lutta continua…a lutta continua, no! It must not continue. The struggle must STOP!” He was proud of who he was and in YELLOW FEVER, he went to town on those who bleached their black skin and he did not spare them as he described the process and the aftermath side effects of skin bleaching. He said:” “Bleaching of the body to look lighter is immoral.” And the humour and the derision he felt for black people who bleaches their skin, was spot on, he showed his disdain of their self-loathing for their skin he called yeye thing, ugly thing and he left you, with he was not pleased, YELLOW FEVER was both funny and harsh but all said in truth, all in his irrepressible way that only Fela can. No one was spared from Fela’s brand of tongue-lashing, if he feels you deserve it; he will dish it hot, like in 1979 hit, INTERNATIONAL THIEF, THIEF. Wherever, he went so does controversy, it followed hand in hand. He married 27 women in one day and divorced them all, years later after he was released from Maduguri prison. He then changed his name , Ransome –Kuti to Anikulapo in the mid-1970s in a name burning ceremony. He wanted a name that reflected him and Anikulapo means ‘I have death in my pocket’, and that was very true in the run-ins he had with the army. He said:’I will be the master of my own destiny and will decide when it is time for death to take me’. He lived life to the full.
The reasons why Fela crosses all the borders of tribes, religion and age is his use of a lingua franca that unites us: the Pidgin English. He said of pidgin English; “Broken English has been completely broken into the African way of talking, our rhythm, our intonation.” That is Fela’s appeal the way he appeals to everyone who knows and is in the struggle, whatever the struggle was , he always strikes the right key and reaches out to the ordinary person who, on listening to his music is drawn to the message.