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The Essential Fela Kuti…

One of the biggest music festivals in Africa,Felaberation hosted annually, in honour of music legend and pioneer breeder of the afrobeat brand, Fela Anikulapo Kuti was held last month in  Nigeria’s cultural captial of Lagos. In this excerpt taken from one of Fela’s  scholars, Carlos Moore titled, The Ultimate Social Rebel published in his book; This Bitch of A Life, Vanguard arts serves our readers the freshness and vitality that define the late legend’s art.

IN the early 1970s, when he abandoned a life of ease and took up residence in the heart of one of Africa’s most sordid slums, sharing the hardships of the poor whom he called “my brothers,” Fela made perhaps the most powerful statement any social reformer could make in rejecting the very things that the post-Independence elites stood for: material greed, individual selfishness, class snobbery, puritanical mores (Christian or Moslem) and submission to the standards laid down by the West.

Fela and other iconic musical rebels

At the height of his career, Fela was an anomaly even when compared to other iconic musical rebels such as his contemporaries Bob Marley and James Brown. Throughout his career he released 77 albums and wrote 133 songs, many of which he never lived to hear on disc; but he died broke and in isolation.


A government-imposed ban on his music being played on the airwaves; the destruction of his communal compound and property after ceaseless raids; countless violations of his civil liberties that prevented him from engaging in tours; his own refusal to kow-tow to the demands of the music industry – all of this succeeded in keeping him at bay.

Brown and Marley were the only twentieth-century musicians – other than Fela – to have electrified the world with explicitly anti-establishment and unapologetically ghetto-inspired Black music. But the Godfather of Soul and the Pope of Reggae confined their subversive onslaught to rhetorical allusion.

Marley’s attacks on Babylon were couched in cryptic metaphors; Brown’s Black Power invocations were conveyed in a suggestive non-verbal language: earthy groans, unabashedly ethnic body movements and suggestive, catchy phrases (Say it loud: I’m Black and Proud).

Marley effectively used the hypnotic sounds of reggae, laced with poetic lyrics, to protest injustices, creating an entirely novel philosophical discourse through music. Brown’s aggressive funk – which became the backbone of Fela’s Afro beat – placed the reviled, feared Black body and features on the map of the world in a positive, sensuous light.

Neither Brown nor Marley tried to organise popular resentment into a political party, as Fela did. Neither went as far as Fela in identifying in unmistakably graphic terms the elites responsible for the oppression of African peoples all over the world.

Fela explained to millions, in and out of Africa, how the multinationals were raping an entire continent with the active complicity of local tyrants whom he designated by name, attacking them frontally as “Beasts of No Nation,” while deriding their armies and police as “Zombies.”

Fela was an anti-celebrity celebrity. In today’s market-driven global economy, where a premium is placed on material excess and social status, his was an authentic non-conformity that stood in stark contrast to the image of the modern popular artist.

Indeed, he could easily have made a fortune, living and creating abroad and basking in the adulation of a growing worldwide army of fans. Nevertheless, he refused exile. “No one will force me out of this country,” he warned. “If it is not fit to live in, then our job is to make it fit.” He saw the Africa that he and his parents inherited as “not the real Africa.”

The ‘Kalakuta Republic’ he set up in the heart of a sprawling ghetto was his attempt to reinvent and re-imagine another Africa: a space of belonging for all, especially the dispossessed. But the elite-dominated African press conveniently fantasised it as an orgiastic harem – a nihilistic refuge of thugs, drug-addicts and prostitutes.

It was easier to mischaracterise Fela’s political message and those attracted to it, than to admit that his was an authentic voice of grassroots rebellion against the neo-colonial circumstances of post-independence Africa.

Both symbolically and pragmatically, Fela’s commune was a flicker of freedom in a world reduced to a minimalist concept of the survival of the fittest. No wonder that Nigeria’s elites regarded it as a Sodom arid Gomorrah to be purged with sulphur and gunfire.

This elicited from Fela a response of out-and-out defiance whose trademark was extravagance. When convenient, he provoked outrage, using it as political capital. A life pockmarked by scandal allowed him to project himself as indestructibly macho, an image he relished and cultivated.

This was as much a manifestation of patriarchal narcissism as an attempt to blunt the fear the Nigerian military’s ferocity had instilled into ordinary citizens. Therefore, Fela rode scandals as if surfing a wave.

Exotic eccentricities

Fela’s philosophy ; Fela’s casual, uninhibited approach to sexual relations and his affection for nudity, (aggravated by his impenitent use of marijuana), really upset the uptight, post-independence African elite. In their Judeo-Christian Victorian frenzy and Arab-Islamic chastity, they focused on that part of Fela’s life that Islam, Judaism and Christianity most reviles – sexuality.

The mainstream international media, with a voyeuristic focus °n what it played up as ‘exotic’ eccentricities, re-packaged rela into its own sexualised version of a post-modern, primordial/primitive black male. Thus, hewas conveniently reduced to the vacuous caricature of an erratic hedonist, frolicking polygamist, and dope-smoking misfit.

Fela’s was a fresh and optimistic attitude toward life; a call for a return to simplicity. He regarded the fixities of the Judeo-Christian/Islamic tradition – rooted in sin and retribution – as culturally alienating, socially obstructive and politically disempowering.

His attitude toward sex, family, marriage, politics and power cannot be understood outside of his global refusal to conform to the prejudices derived from those religions. He believed that as a consequence of the theological doctrine of original sin, humans were constrained by an ‘Adam-and-Eve’ loathing of their own bodies. In contrast, to him, sex was a supreme form of psychic liberation, physical pleasure and spiritual enjoyment, all at once.

Hatred for foreign culture

Fela regarded individualism, materialism, ‘body-phobia’ and monogamous marriage, as Islamic-Arab or Judeo-Christian importations. The logical step for him was to challenge in his own life all strait-jacket conventions that conflicted with a libertarian outlook on life. In doing this, he ran foul of polite society by breaking many of its taboos.

Few aspects of his life caused more media scrutiny, and affront, than his marriage to twenty-seven beautiful fellow singers and dancers. Though no woman ever claimed to have been coerced into marrying him or remaining at his side, these young, resourceful, intelligent and highly politicised co-wives were considered an insult to ‘good society’.

But Fela saw marriage not necessarily as a monogamously regulated pact; it was not about numbers. Marriage he saw as a solidarity agreement entered into by individuals in a quest for completeness; an intimate locus where social concerns and physical pleasure fused.

It was not a divinely ordained institution handed down to us in a sealed package of ‘dos and don’ts’; it was about bonds forged around mutual feelings, a shared vision and the pooling together of resources to fulfill common objectives.

Still, Fela believed in supportive roles for the female gender, although he championed women’s quest for authenticity in their own right, and encouraged the fullest self-expression of the womenfolk who sided with his cause.

Clearly, despite his refreshingly unconventional approach to most things, he too was hemmed in by his own idiosyncratic limitations. His open-ended notion of sex and marriage, based on solidarity and shared life goals, did not encompass the possibility of other forms of bonding not necessarily between man and woman.

But most people, even today, may not have grasped that post-modern conception either. So in that respect, at least, he echoed both traditional African views and the patriarchal views still dominant all over the world; his sexism and homophobia being (distressingly) pretty much in line with the majority view.

Fela was a consummate humanist. He thought that humans played a small part in a larger scheme of things, but yet believed in their capacity to mend their ways, reform, and change the circumstances of their lives for the better.

He regarded the human spirit as being constantly betrayed and subverted by greed, war, racism and fear; but, since humans were also endowed with feelings, reason and logic, they could renounce the entrapments of power, exploitation, hypocrisy and conceit. If such was ‘naivete’, it won our hearts!

What is it about this quixotic rebel and libertine that so fascinates us?

Much of Fela’s rhetoric we may dismiss; certainly not his message or accomplishments. Intuitive, and shot-from-the-hip, disjointed and contradictory, Fela’s ideology was powerful and original enough to entice a growing mass of young, urban declasse, male and female, who yearned for an alternative society that could alter the course of their lives. He saw the aspirations that grew out of their abject conditions as the fuel for change, their formidable voice of protest and rebellion becoming his.

The magic of Fela’s political appeal derived precisely from his innovative, soul-searching and risk-taking approach to life. It was the approach of someone who lived on the edge; someone whose dream was built on the irrepressible optimism that surges from the underclasses as their only answer to utter marginalisation.

He believed in bootstrap redemption, in the self-made human, in the re-welding of self, the fashioning of a new pan-African psyche. His message that solidarity is the key to our species survival can hardly be downplayed.


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