ARTICLE: FELA THE GREATEST!
Like a lot of people, artists inclusive, I never got to meet or see Fela Anikulapo Kuti in person, but I knew his music and to a great extent, I understood what the man stood for. When I started listening to his music as a teenager, I thought he was a good story teller, I didn’t think an artist could expose himself to so much ‘danger’.
From the things that I read about Fela, he didn’t have bodyguards with muscles and ammunitions, like the days of Dokubo Asari, neither did he record and publish his music from the bush like Boko Haram. He was as fearless and daring as the stuffs he talked about. I remember the first time I heard “I.T.T” (International Thief Thief), and the parts where he swore by various deities and so on. I couldn’t sing along on those parts of the song; I just couldn’t.
As I grew older, I began to understand the depth of Fela’s music. He was a man of the people. His education abroad was not for fun. He went on a mission to be educated in the deep sense of it. It was beyond wanting to know how to read and write. He chose to read music instead of Medicine when he left for London in 1958. For the type of person he was, and the mandate he was going to take up later in life, music was the best way to equip himself.
After school, Fela returned with a mission to educate and open the people’s eyes with his music. He was determined. He was on a mission to help Africans – not just Nigerians to see beyond their noses. He wasn’t the first Nigerian to have schooled abroad, but he was the chosen one.
Outside the message(s) behind his music, Fela created Afrobeat out of nothing. His sound could easily have been influenced by the western environment, where he studied, but he didn’t let that happen. He was the only man/musician that made his own kind of music. Sometimes, it sounded weird and scattered, yet the composition was defined. Each percussion blended perfectly with the other. Each rhythm had a meeting point. The sequence of every sound was defined and the people that played with him, were obliged to keep an eye on him, so as to be sure that you’re truly in tune with him. Fela could hear every single instrument that played during rehearsals and performances.
Like I said earlier, I didn’t see Fela alive, so my eventual visit to Kalakuta was just to see where the legend called home, back in the day. I visited the new African shrine in Ikeja, almost immediately it was declared open to the public.
In 2008, I was privileged to be on a 2-day Lagos tour with American Rap/Hip-Hop legend, Talib Kweli. He was hosted by Femi Kuti, who took time to explain activities and spots around the shrine to the entourage of guests. I have also been privileged to chat with Yeni Kuti to hear her talk more about the great Abami Eda.
Apart from Femi and Seun Kuti, it took a while before any artist could dare to talk about corruption, bad leadership and injustice in Nigeria like Fela did. I read about some of the horrible things that Fela went through, yet he’d return to the studio and record even more songs. Fela was fearless.
I remember my days in Auchi Poly, we had an evening event in school and some dude came out to perform Fela’s songs, wearing a white underwear and students cheered as the guy tried to mimic the Afrobeat legend. I actually thought it was a great performance, until I watched a music talent show, where a young boy came out to do something similar. I was educated again after Dede Mabiaku stopped the boy’s performance. According to Dede, Fela never performed in his underwear. It was a misconception, just the same way, Fela was misunderstood.
Fela was a visionary artist. A lot of the things that are happening today were said in his music some decades ago. Nigerians are still scared to die and people are still getting arrested, even on their rights. I must also add that Soldiers are still slapping civilians for the slightest reasons. Fela didn’t preach anarchy like the government chose to put it, rather, he wanted people to be able to question unusual actions and speak up without fear of the unknown.
Fela’s enemies hid behind the shadows of power. They hated his guts, but envied him even more. His action was un-African. They tried to kill him strategically, but somehow he managed to live up to his name – Anikulapo. He was a strong man, who would not give his detractors the pleasure of taking credit for his death. HIV/AIDS is real, yet, we can still say, Fela died a natural death, as any other sickness could have killed him.
Today, a lot of Nigerian artists are beginning to embrace the fact that the outside world have defined our music as Afrobeat. It is also interesting to hear our young artists proclaim the same when they are asked outside. It shows that no matter how hard we try to make R&B, or Pop music, people outside don’t perceive as that. It’s like a born-Nigerian trying to fake a British accent. Some weeks ago, I was chatting with someone who knew Fela very well from way back and he said, Fela told him and his band that they should drop the disco music they were doing at the time. “Fela said we couldn’t copy America’s music and sell it back to them. It won’t work. Instead, tell your own story; make your own music and the Americans will be interested to learn from you.”
There is nothing to say that has not been said about the legend Fela, therefore in the spirit of Felabration, I’ll stop here, to propose a toast to the great Fela Anikulapo Kuti… May his soul continue to rest in peace.