By Denrele Animasaun
“My people dey suffering and smiling, everyday na the same thing. Suffer, suffer for world, enjoy for heaven.”
This week marks 21years since the musical visionary, people’s champion, activist, and Afro beat founder and legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, passed on.
Despite over two decades of his absence from this physical coil, his music remains true to its message; carrying in its innovative notes, the painful truth and a wakeup call for those with inertia: “My people are scared of the air around them; they always have an excuse not to fight for freedom.”
His music was a weapon for change and the conscience of the struggles of many Nigerians but he also resonated with other people who were facing their own struggle anywhere in the world: A radical is he who has no sense, fight without reason….I have a reason. I am authentic, yes, that’s what I am.
His message was universal and it was not particular to Nigeria, hence his appeal to many around the world. Little wonder President Macron visited the Shrine on his visit to Nigeria! He came to pay homage. Fela was well known home and abroad for pioneering the Afro beat genre; he evolved from highlife to his blend of Pan-Africanism inspired music: that’s why l use politics in my music. That’s the only way a wider audience will get acquainted with important issues. It makes sense culturally as well.
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 favourite amongst your children. But if pushed, I would say for me, it is; Teacher no teach me nonsense. Well, to be honest with you, water no get enemy comes a very close second: “Water no get enemy”, Fela sang: “Water e no get enemy. If you fight am unless you wan die. I dey talk of black power.”
I introduced my son to Fela’s music at a very early age and to this day, Zombie remains, his favourite, I can see why, the musical arrangement was phenomenon.
Fela was unapologetic especially with his provocative music, Fela was a multi-instrumentalist, human rights activist, political maverick, and revolutionary who was never afraid to stand up for his beliefs and that of the downtrodden. He remains one of Africa’s most controversial musicians who, sang out of frustration at the level of helplessness, endurance and normalisation of daily oppression meted to the masses by the corrupt politicians, military regimes and the powerful: “Music is the weapon. Music is the weapon of the future.” And Fela mastered his weapon.
Fela was fearless; ‘Fear not for man’ was his usual mantra and he fought with gusto despite the powers that be, ensuring they curtailed his freedom of expression and movement but his rebellion remained unbowed. He was irreverent and loud: “I refuse to live my life in fear…The secret to life is to have no fear.”
He never shied from challenges or controversy, afterall he was the toast master of Yabis; he poked fun at the systems and the powerful, he does it in a way that got the guilty hot under the collar and the masses laughed and got the message: I want peace, happiness, not for myself; for everybody. How we wish our politicians took a leaf from his book; they may learn something. He called out injustices, colonial mentality and other crimes against the poor and the disposed, despite constant vilification, harassment, and even imprisonment by the Nigerian government. He pours scorn on the military regime and its law enforcement methods: “Zombie, oh, zombie, Zombie no go go unless you tell am to go, Zombie no go stop unless you tell am to stop. No brake, no jam, no sense.”
He said of the army that they dance to his music as well as march to his tunes!
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.”
Fela always danced to his own drum and plotted his own path, never one to follow the herd; he will stick his head out while others cower in fright. This is Fela.
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.
YELLOW FEVER was both funny and harsh but all said in truth, all in his irrepressible way that only Fela can. To black women who bleached their skin, he sang: “Yellow fever, you dey bleach o, you dey bleach, ugly thing. Who say you fine? Na lie.”
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.: I don’t mind criticism, I can handle it, but most people can’t.
You either love him or loathe him, but simply cannot 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: my people dey suffering and smiling, everyday na the same thing. Suffer, suffer for world, enjoy for heaven.”
Fela said: With my music, I create change. 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!”
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 an eloquent suffragette, who fought for the rights of Nigerian women to vote, her tireless work earned her the Lenin Peace prize in the early sixties. So, the apple does not fall far from the tree; the son of a 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 are looking for a 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.
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 Maiduguri prison.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti would have been 80 years. His message for unity, love for his country, and clarion call for liberation from oppression of the masses rings ever so loudly more now than ever.
To Baba, El Presidente, Kalakuta Republic, I say: Yeah, yeah!! Fela forever.