By OSA AMADI, Arts Editor
Before the Afrobeat king, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, met the American lady, Sandra Smith (now Sandra Izsadore) in 1969 in Los Angeles, the lyrics of Fela’s songs were irrelevant: how sweet his mama’s soup was and all that. This young lady, Sandra, changed Fela’s philosophical outlook. She found it ridiculous that Fela with his kind of powerful instrumentation was lyrically preoccupied with irrelevancies when his country and Africa, with its rich history, was in the grip of social, political and economic enslavement.
Sandra’s recollection of her meeting with Fela is quite inspiring: “When I heard Fela’s music, after we had been spending time together, I heard them rehearse, and I liked it, but I had no idea what he was saying. So I asked him, “Fela, what are you saying?” He said he was singing about his soup. He was singing about nothing. I laughed and I said, “That doesn’t make sense, you should use your music to educate. You should write songs that have meaning.” I was looking for African pride, and I looked to my own African King, and he told me that there was no pride in Africa, at that time. I was shocked.
When H.B. Barnum, the music director for [original Rat Pack member] Joey Bishop’s TV show, and Duke Lumumba brought him in for the 1969 sessions, Fela started writing music that had some meaning for his people. When he went back to Nigeria, he was a changed person. It wasn’t until 1976 that I learned that it was because of the books that I had given him…”
Go and sing songs that will address the political problems of your country and continent, things your people can relate with, educate your people with your music and arouse their political consciousness, Sandra told Fela, and Fela got the message. A new consciousness took hold of him, and he ceased to be the proverbial man whose house was on fire and he was busy chasing rats. He began to use his music to attack the ills of his society and the human agents of oppression. And what a dignified battle he fought; what a warrior he was and still is.
Later, Fela had this to say about his encounter with Sandra: “Sandra gave me the education I needed. She was the one who opened my eyes. She was the one who spoke to me about Africa! For the first time, I heard things I’d never heard before about Africa! She talked to me about politics, history. She taught me what she knew and what she knew was enough for me to start on.”
Likewise, many Nigerian artists, musicians, journalists, intellectuals, writers, etc., are chasing rats today while the country is on fire. Many of us are vending flesh of women in the vulgar bandwagon belief that “sex sells.”
Art – whether visual, literary, or music – is a force that has always been employed for positive social change. Throughout history, the arts have played significant roles in the fight against undesirable social, political or economic conditions. Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Fela, Sonny Okosun, Dele Jegede, and many others could not afford to vend flesh of women and preoccupy themselves with trivialities when their society and peoples’ lives were threatened by dangerous social, political and economic problems.
“Art can be used not only as indices of aesthetic cognition, but equally as important tools in stemming the marginalisation of the blacks’ contributions to world civilisation,” said Dele Jegede, the artist who used satirical cartoons to criticise social and political systems in Nigeria. Jegede used his art to denounce electoral malpractices, malfunctioning educational system, and the horrors of Rwanda and Burundi. Fearlessly, he criticized major social problems and inspired a new generation of artists like Akin Onipede who produced the daring Abacha cartoon in 1995.
Similarly, on the international scene, a stunt by the company Xiao Zhu triggered a global conversation on Chinese pollution. Their idea of projecting children’s faces onto toxic factory smoke plumes went viral on the social media intensifying pressure on companies and the government to come up with a policy on air quality.
These and many other examples show how shameful it can be for contemporary Nigerian musicians, artists, journalists, and intellectuals, who by virtues of the nature of their callings, choose to adopt escapist ideologies, themes and lifestyles in the midst of life-threatening political, economic and social conditions. What could be more debasing, for instance, than for someone who calls himself or herself a musician in contemporary Nigeria to be singing about women’s breasts and bum-bum and flaunt same on TV screens when Fulani herdsmen and Boko Haram are massacring people in the country almost on weekly basis and an un-performing Federal Government, army, and police living on taxpayers’ money are doing nothing about it?
No doubt, Chinua Achebe, Fela, Sonny Okosun, Gani Fawehinmi, Ken Saro Wiwa and other activists and nationalists who used their arts, pens, influences and positions to battle the ills of Nigerian society, will be turning and moaning in their graves, seeing what cowards and lily-livered humans this generation of Nigerians has become.