Over a decade after his death, vindication has come to Fela Kuti, Africa’s musical genius. AfroBeat, his gift to the world, is now an international staple on his own uncompromising terms, social content intact.
Throughout his life, Fela contended that AfroBeat was a modern form of danceable, African classical music with an urgent message for the planet’s denizens. Created out of a cross-breeding of Funk, Jazz, Salsa and Calypso with Juju, Highlife and African percussive patterns, it was to him a political weapon.
Fela refused to bow to the music industry’s preference for 3-minute tracks, nor did he buckle under entreaties to moderate his overwhelmingly political lyrics. He went down in 1997 still railing against the consumerist gimmicks that taint pop music, with the aim, he felt, of promoting and imposing homogeneous aesthetic standards worldwide, thereby inducing passivity.
The fact that AfroBeat is today globally winning hearts in its original form – lengthy, ably crafted, earthy compositions laced with explicitly political lyrics – suggests that Fela’s purgatory on earth may have served to awaken a sensibility in people to appreciate authenticity and substance.
Fela’s rise in the early 1970s paralleled the downfall of the hopes Africans pinned on their newly won Independence. As a whole, Africans were again living in incarcerated societies; Nigeria, he said, was a “prison of peoples”. Africa had fallen mostly into the hands of uncaring thieves and scoundrels who were unmindful of wrecking society in order to sustain insolent lifestyles. To reclaim Africa’s stolen dignity became Fela’s obsession.
As many of these new countries turned into terror-drenched, neo-colonial states, Fela summoned his people to return to their senses and principles of old: self-pride, self-reliance, and decency rooted in traditional cultural norms. To achieve these, he prescribed forsaking the corrupting ways of Western society, its capitalist greed, its Communist despotism, the straitjacket moral conventions of Judeo-Christianity and Islam. He saw imperialism, colonialism and racism as scourges to be universally eradicated, and the structures that sustain them dismantled, before humankind could advance.
Fela’s seismic music infused freshness into the reality of rotten politics. In song after song, he summoned revolt, not solely against erstwhile tyrants and exploiters (“Zombie”, “Army Arrangement”, “Coffin for Head of State”) but against self-damaging prejudices and assimilationist alienation (“Yellow Fever”, “Colonial Mentality”, “Teacher, Don’t Teach Me No Nonsense”, “Gentleman”, “Lady”). He chastised the West (“International Thief
Thief”, “Underground System”) and the local elites that fronted for multinationals (“Beasts of No Nation”, “Government of Crooks”).
Ordinary Africans embraced songs such as “Shakara”, “Sorrow Tears and Blood”, “Upside Down” and “Why Black Man Dey Suffer” for accurately mirroring their frustrations. They welcomed the graphic words of “Expensive Shit” or “Who No Know Go Know” as down-to-earth explanations for their lowly condition. More importantly, Fela’s music was a clarion proclamation that it was possible to reverse their lot (“Water No Get Enemy”, “Africa Center of the World”).
Groomed and pampered in youth by a pre-independence middle class but morphed by Black Power and pan-Africanist politics into a revolutionary ghetto hero, Fela voiced relentless condemnation of the so-called New Africa, attracting to himself a deluge of repression. His personal life became a harrowing tale of police beatings, victimization by the court system, near-death encounters with the Nigerian military.
Fela’s casual, uninhibited approach to sexual relations, his affection for nudity, further alarmed the uptight elites. Because of the Judeo-Christian concept of “sin”, he believed, humans were constrained by an “Adam-and-Eve” loathing of their own bodies. Monogamous marriage, individualism and “body-phobia”, he said, were Islamic-Arab or Judeo-Christian importations.
Few aspects of his life caused more affront, and media curiosity, than his marriage to twenty-seven beautiful fellow singers and dancers, aggravated by his impenitent use of marijuana. Though no woman ever claimed to have been coerced into marrying him or remaining at his side, these young, resourceful, intelligent and highly politicized co-wives were considered an insult to “good society”.
Nigeria’s rulers regarded Fela’s “Kalakuta Republic” as a Sodom and Gomorrah to be purged with sulphur and gunfire; this elicited from Fela a response whose trademark extravagance signaled out-and-out defiance. When convenient, he provoked outrage, rode it as if surfing a wave, and used it as political capital.
A life pockmarked by scandal allowed Fela to project himself as indestructibly macho, an image he relished and cultivated. This was as much a manifestation of patriarchal narcissism as an attempt to blunt the fear the Nigerian military’s ferocity had instilled into ordinary citizens.
Fela was a Promethean spirit, in a constant face-off with Death. In the solace of intimacy, he was jovial, boisterous and loquacious, but he was mercurial – reflective and wistful at times, irascible and distant at others. His father-brother-lover relationship with his wives was overall affectionate, their love and loyalty for him undeniable. But his angry outbursts at errant household members or defaulting band personnel were intimidating.
Anyone who knew him well was aware that he was a nurturing democrat as much as a charismatic autocrat. Intensely loyal to friends and family and a profoundly generous man, he could be quite dogmatic, inconsistent and arbitrary in views and behavior, reigning unfettered as a benevolent King over his Kalakuta commune.
Much of what Fela said may be questionable, but most of what he actually did is not. Intuitive, and shot-from-the-hip, Fela’s ideology was all his own – disjointed and contradictory, but powerful and original. His sincere commitment to the world’s underdogs is indisputable, as was his passionate love for Africa.
Although his uninhibited life-style openly challenged the nuclear/monogamous marriage structure, paving the way for progressive discussions of multiple forms of partnership, Fela’s take on sexual orientation and identity echoed archaic notions. He recognized the need to renegotiate the social pact between the genders and stood up for the rights of prostitutes as “sexual workers” deserving respect and legal protection. But he exhibited much confusion about homosexuality; faced with such issues, he retreated to the safe ground of established patriarchal/heterosexual socialization. So, what is it about this quixotic rebel and libertine that fascinates us?
Partly it was his transgressive deviation from conformity; partly, his willingness to pay a heavy price for defending freedom.
Above all, as an artist, he has left us an imperishable music that is indeed classical. His masterly compositions are a sort of people’s dictionary, translating into accessible art the complex ills afflicting society.
AfroBeat is about social, political and cultural literacy. It confronts the geography of world complacency, greed and fear and calls for a trans-formative insubordination.