Fela, the Afrobeat legend immortalised
Fela Anikulapo Kuti is both revered and despised in Africa, depending on who you talk to. But his impact on Africa’s musical scene and indeed the world is undoubtedly huge. Fela is dead and gone, but his music, beliefs and contribution to political thinking, especially among most of Africa’s ordinary people lives on.
In this article for ghanabusinessnews.com, Lolade Adewuyi, of TELL Magazine, in Lagos writes about the recently held ‘Felabration’ to mark the music legend’s birthday and the opening of the Shrine to immortalise him.
It was not an unusual Friday night at the New Afrika Shrine. About two thousand screaming fans, many waving lit, carefully wrapped joints of marijuana and chanting Afrobeat lingo danced away to the performances that came from the huge stage of the Shrine. On the adjoining streets outside, a crowd five times those inside queued waiting to have an opportunity to see the performers lucky to be chosen to celebrate Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s birthday at this year’s Felabration.
The Shrine is every die hard Afrobeat fan’s Graceland. Inside there are paintings of Black leaders like Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Marcus Garvey, all men who shaped Fela’s thoughts. To his followers, Fela is greater than the greatest of them all. He stands head and shoulders above Elvis, Bob Marley and even John Lennon, all men that enjoy a cult following in the world of music. Fela is the people’s hero. His life was lived, living and fighting for the emancipation of the downtrodden African. Hence, the pride of place he holds in their hearts.
“Fela’s Lady and Shakara pervaded Soweto even though we didn’t know what he was saying as we didn’t understand Yoruba or Pidgin English” said South African poet Lesego Rampolokeng during the Fela Debates. Lesego who grew up in a terrible, racially divided South Africa said Fela fought for the dream of a great continent.
Fela was born into a privileged life. His father was a reverend and an educationist who founded one of the most recognised schools in Nigeria, the Abeokuta Baptist Boys High. His mother Funmilayo was the first woman to drive a car in Nigeria. She was also a radical women’s leader who once sent the chief of Abeokuta into exile. His siblings were all medical officials. Fela was expected to toe the same line. But he differed and instead became greater than them all, the founder of an impressive movement.
“Fela was not always politically inclined” said Yemi Osibajo, a law teacher and pastor at the Debates who made everyone laugh when he asked, “what’s a good boy like me doing around Fela?” Fela acknowledged his political naiveté in his official biography Fela: This Bitch of a Life written by Cuban-born journalist and teacher Carlos Moore. He said it was not until his trip to the United States in 1969 where he got immersed into the Black struggle did he begin to find his political voice. It was where his journey into greatness began.
Thirteen years after his death as a result of complications from AIDS plus untold persecution at the hands of Nigeria’s military despots, the Fela legend lives on in his music. “Fela thought the best way to conquer fear [of despots and oppression] was to put his body up for massacre” said biographer Moore. “The objective of the music was to be socially relevant. It wasn’t for entertainment. It was to condemn rulers.”
Every year in October, his birthday is celebrated at the New Afrika Shrine founded by his son Femi, a Grammy Award nominated Afrobeat musician. The ‘new’ appellation behind the name is a reference to Fela’s original Afrika Shrine where throughout his life he dished out political yabis, propaganda and satire, about the Nigerian and other post-independence African states.
The Shrine and the Kalakuta Republic were Fela’s personal commune where he ruled and dispensed his own justice as a way of distancing himself from the Nigerian state. However, the Nigerian state never let him be as he was severally attacked and put in prison for his pan-African beliefs. During one of the attacks on the Republic, his mother was thrown out of the storey building which led to her death. And like an irrepressible fighter, Fela always made a song out of his travails.
Fela stood for the common man. He took up the cross of the ordinary African with the intention of leading them to emancipation. His legend continues today years after his demise. Many young converts daily besiege the Shrine to acknowledge his greatness and revel in his music whose teachings will never die. “His message is more relevant today than ever before” said radical Lagos lawyer Femi Falana.
Seun Kuti, his younger son who has inherited Fela’s Egypt 80 Band once told me about the relevance of the message of Afrobeat and its enduring political stance. “Afrobeat is for the society. It’s a voice for the 90 per cent of Africans that have no voice because when our politicians speak they speak for themselves and 10 per cent of Africans” said Seun. And will Afrobeat one day become nothing more than just feel good music? “No, not now though. It’s good music that people listen to. It’s just that it includes politics.”
By Lolade Adewuyi