February 8, 2020

Afrobeat musician, Fela Anikulapo Kuti and his white envelope

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Those who got really close to Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, says he was a bundle of wits and humor. Veteran journalist, Alhaji Usman Abudah, was once offered white envelope by the musician.

Abudah did a story on Fela after visiting him at his Agege Motor Road, Lagos abode. It turned out to be a hit. Trust the King of Kalakuta Republic, he invaded the reporter’s office.

Abudah tells the story. “I was reporting for Punch at the time. The News Editor, Tayo Kehinde, asked me to interview Fela. When I got to his place, the man kept me waiting for about an hour.

“Then he emerged wearing his customary pant. He recognized me as ‘Mid-West Hausa’, the name he gave me in Benin despite my protest that I was not Hausa but a Muslim. We talked on a lot of issues.”

Before the Punch man left, Fela went to his room, brought a book written in French and handed over to him.

Abudah said: “The book was on Fela and I told him I did not need it since I could neither speak nor write French. His response drew laughter. He said I should keep it for my children.”

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The Fela interview was published by Punch and one day, Abudah and his colleagues were surprised to see the Afrobeat king and his crowd marching to the newspaper’s corporate headquarters.

They were still wondering why he would invade the Punch with his crowd which included the good, the weeds and the girls. Abudah could have remembered the track, ‘Trouble dey sleep, nyanga go wake am.’

Fela told them his mission. He said: “Editor, I came to see the reporter who interviewed me. He is good. He published as we discussed, no mistakes and that’s why I am here.”

That was not all. Still showering encomiums on Abudah, the music maestro beckoned on one of his boys to bring a white envelope that had been packaged for the August visit.

“They say journalists collect brown envelope”, he continued, “I came here with a white envelope. This is not brown. It is for my friend, Mid-West Hausa.”

What followed shocked Fela. Abudah did not collect the envelope. I asked the veteran if he rejected the offer because of the colour of the envelope or was he afraid it could have been a letter bomb from an unknown soldier.

To Abudah, an envelope is envelope, brown or white. Just like Fela sang: ‘uniform na cloth, na tailor dey sew am’, maybe, he was afraid the Egypt ’80 band could come out with a track: ‘Brown envelope don turn white’.

Both men became close after Fela’s performance at the Ogbe Stadium, Benin. Everyone was hungry and the quartet of Andy Akporugo, Neville Ikoli, Sam Eguavoen, and Abudah led the musician to a popular joint.

It was called 4 am and the African woman in charge was known as Madam 4 am. Located around Ugbague, off Sakponba Road in Benin City, it was always awake when others had gone to bed.

When they arrived, Fela in his usual ‘yabis’ said to the woman: “Madam, who give you this kind sense to dey sell at this time. You must be a witch.”

Hell was let loose. Madam 4am descended on Fela. “Your mama, your papa, na them be winch. Who be this one sef? Oya comot, I no dey sell for you.”

One of the four tapped the woman’s shoulder and told her, ‘this man you are abusing is Fela’. That name changed everything.

Turning to the musician, she tenders unreserved apologies. “You mean you are Fela, the great musician. My children always talk about you. I love your music. Case closed. Take whatever you wish, do not pay.”

The atmosphere was animated. Fela and his friends ate as much as they wished. Before leaving, he asked Madam 4 am for the bill of everyone who ate in her ‘bukateria’ at that moment. Mr. Kuti promptly settled the bill.

A few days after Fela’s visit, one of Madam 4am’s girls went missing. Trust the Bini woman, she sensed the lass had eloped with her August customer. The woman decided to storm Lagos.

Madam 4 am was told that she could catch an early morning newspaper Distribution van to Lagos and she did exactly that. At last, she was going to see Fela’s Republic where ‘girls dance naked and all enjoy unfettered access to marijuana’.

The woman arrived Lagos early enough. She woke Fela, who barely recognized her, from sleep. When he realized the visitor was Madam 4 am, it became another party.

The woman explained her mission. She had come looking for her daughter who ‘disappeared’ after Fela called. The Afrobeat king was surprised. He did not even know the girl. A search was ordered.

The girl was found but it was obvious she had come on her own and had nothing to do with Fela. He asked the woman to take the lass back to Benin pleading that no harm should befall her.

The biggest surprise was that Madam 4am’s baby refused to go home. She chose to stay with Fela. This is instructive. Some of the girls who lived with Fela were actually not abducted as some people believed.

I remember a case in 1973 when some parents pitched themselves against Fela for taking possession of their teenage daughters. The fact is, Fela was generous to a fault and never loved to see others suffer.

In his Republic or shrine, he had a pot where money was kept for everyone’s use. While others were wooing girls with money, Fela had free money for all, male or female.

READ ALSO: Marijuana shouldn’t define Fela

Other men built houses from the stolen money, Fela built admirers from his wealth which came off the music. While many men deceived girls and kept concubines, Fela married as many as the society derided.

Abudah’s interview came at a time Ghana lifted the ban placed on Fela from visiting the country. In the mid-1960s, Ghana had banned Victor Uwaifo’s ‘Guitar Boy’ from their airwaves. The first coup there was code-named ‘Operation Guitar Boy.’ It was led by Lt. Samuel Arthur.