By SIMEON MPAMUGOH
IN his opinion about function of a poet and subject matter of poetry, Williams Wordsworth has noted that poets are to depend on reason and argument. To him, a classical poet should not consent the common human feeling, even as he provides the shelter and succour to the afflicted human soul.
When we speak of succour to the afflicted human soul as a force for good and welfare, Afrobeat musician and a balladeer who used his poetic songs to tell a story Fela Anikulapo-Kuti – (a man whose name translates as He who emanates greats (Fela), who has control over death (Anikulapo) and who cannot be killed by man (Kuti) – identified himself with the bourgeoisies and provided to the Nigerian people in his hey days through his lyrical ballads that are more passionate, vivid and emphatic.
His ballad opera lyrics, which are in Nigeria’s lingo of pidgin English, has remained philosophical and permanent than the language used by city dwellers and earlier poets, and it has come as a spontaneous overflow of power of feelings without any restriction in their expression of experiences of the senses and sensibilities.
Fela’s lifestyle, to some extent, clouded the economic and political messages in his music. When one sits backs and listens to some of his songs, one would be surprised to see that a lot of the things he complained about in the 1970s and 80s are still happening, and this is apt when Wordsworth noted that a poet selects incidents and situations of common life and describes them by selection of language really used by ordinary people, which has never been the case in the very past.
Described as multi-instrumentalist, musician, composer, pioneer of the Afrobeat music genre, human rights activist, and political maverick, Fela, who is equally called Abami Eda, has used his music to complain about water scarcity in the country in the song, “Original Sufferhead,” which is still relevant today. The song was released in 1990, yet Nigerians are still grappling with water scarcity in 2016.
What about electricity? Hear the lyrical poet: “Na so so sunset sunlight for Africa/ Plenty plenty energy for Africa/Energy for sun, energy for moon, energy for oil/Na so so energy for Africa/Na the big big people dem go dey get electric/If dem no get electric, dem go get plant/ Light for ordinary man for town now nko (e no dey)/ E no dey, e dey (e no dey )/ E dey come (e no dey)/e dey come they go (e no dey)/E go bright gooh (e no dey)/ E go bright small (e no dey)/ If e no come, e go go (e no dey).”
Fela has also done songs that touched on the political situation of the country. One of them is “Unknown Soldiers” which has lines that emotionally lament how “dem kill in mama.” Another lyrical ballad is “suffering and smiling”, which is limited to those ubiquitous molue busses that cramp passengers like sardines. Thanks to the government of ex governor Fashola’s BRT buses.
However, an America author, who wrote a book on Fela, argued that the soldiers did not really kill Fela’s mother, adding that she died months after they threw her from a second story window. “In my opinion, her death could reasonably be traced from that incident,” he reasoned.
Still on the political lyrics is the “Beast of No Nation”, where the Afrobeat legend and Beat poets x-rayed so many issues in his song, his time in prison and how the outside world isn’t better, as well as others on religious leaders. The lyrics on religious leaders goes thus” “Suffer suffer for world Amen/ Enjoy for heaven Amen/ Christian go dey yarn espiritum heaven/ Muslim go dey call Allahu Akbar Amen/ Open your eyes everyone/ Archbishop na miliki, Pope na enjoyment, Imamu na gbaladun x2 pa ran ran ran ran ran/ Archbishop dey enjoy/ pa ran ran ran ran, Pope sef dey enjoy pa ran ran ran ran/ Iman sef dey enjoy pa ran ran ran ran.”
Adjudged one of his best political lyrics, “Beast of No Nation”, however, was a rare mention of apartheid South Africa. Throughout the struggle against apartheid, which ended in 1992, Fela never sang about it even when musicians of that period had “Free Mandela” songs. His reason was said to be that Nigeria had too many problems for him to worry about what was happening in other country, in what many had described as patriotic act of a poet and songwriter. In fact, he was quoted as saying that “Nigerian leaders of that era were worse than apartheid South Africa. In apartheid it was whites oppressing blacks,” the respondent said.
One reason many respect Fela was that he was fearless. He would call people by their names and bear the consequences; for instance, in “Coffin for Head of State,” he mentioned Yar’adua several times. Some social commentators thought he was referring to Late President Umaru Yar’dua, but he was actually referring to Umaru’s elder brother, Shehu, who was a top military guy in the 70s and 80s. “And that is what a good poet and lyricist ought to do, using his works to address issues of neglect, discrimination, deprivations and such like, which affect the ordinary man in the street,” someone who commended his works observed.
He said, “I like the flow of ‘Confusion Break Bone’ (CBB), because of lines like, ‘For Ojuelegba, motor dey come from left, motor dey come from right/ policeman no dey for centre, na confusion be dat o.’
Commentators are of the view that CBB has an ominous warning for Nigeria. In it, Fela wrote: “Many people dey say Nigeria don dey/But me as I see am/I know Nigerian go go down/ How many country go dey make money/make people of the country no see money.” His music on Army conspiracy, missing monies, and Shagari election are said to be akin to late Yar’dua’s election. The funniest thing was that Shagari election was alleged to have been composed by Obasanjo; here are some of the lines on OBJ; “Nigeria get money, foreign currency overseas x2/ Announcement start to happen/Newspaper carry dem paper/ Radio dey shout for studio/ Obasanjo turn into vocalist/Yar’dua into manager/70 billion Naira X2/mission from oversea/ Foreign currency scandal/ they start to arrest everybody o o/ he no finish x6/doctor, lawyer, hustler, engineer, photographers x2/all of them kirikiri, sent to 50 years in jail/ After one year inside jail, civilian take over/ say dem be innocent oh oh/e no finish x6/2.8 billion naira oil money is missing x2/they set up enquiry/ they say money no lost o/they dabaru everybody/ supervisor Obasanjo/they say make he no talk o/money no lost them shout again/enquiry come close o o/e no finish x6/ Election story n kan, Obasanjo plan am well/He take old politicians wey run Nigeria before/the same old politicians wey ruin Nigeria before/ the same old politicians wey spoil Nigeria before/ Obasanjo carry all of them/All of them dey there o o/e no finish e no finish X6.”
Obasanjo was said to be behind the installation of Shagari in 1979, late Yar’dua in 2007, and he planned the installation of Jonathan in 2011. Although, Shagari’s case occurred many years ago, the whole thing has been described as déjà vu.
One of the respondents, who described Fela as a great poet and prophet, observed that his grouse was that Nigeria was a rich country but was pauperised by inept leadership. There were other songs with lyrical ballads that command the airwaves each time it was play, such as “Authority Stealing”, which captures the essence of endemic corruption in Nigeria, “Wahala for Dead Body”, and “I.T.T.” (International Thief Thief), “Teacher don’t Teach Me Nonsense”, “Zombie”, and “Yellow Fever Nkan?”
While “Zombie” derides the military, analysts are of the view that Nigerian military is now, more or less, a professional one, adding that the Zombie Moniker may no longer apply. But for yellow fever, here is what someone posted on the social media: “Yellow Fever is really a social commentary rather than political. It deals mainly on the dangers of bleaching creams. Many people may not remember this but a greater number of Nigerian women were using bleaching creams back in the day. The song in a way mirrors the cultural colonisation and what Fela described as ‘Kolo Mentality’, which was a subject Fela was passionate about. These days’ politicians also bleach.”
A follower of Fela’s music back in the day noted that “Authority Stealing” was as philosophical as it came; deep in meaning and dynamic in application.”
Benson Idonije, Nigeria’s most revered music scholar and critic, ace broadcaster and first manager to the music legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, observed in one of the interviews he granted a national newspaper that one of the moments that shaped his career was when he met Fela Ransome-Kuti in 1963.
For someone as levelheaded as Idonije, his association with Fela might seem a bit strange and hard to picture. He said, “Fela was young but wasn’t as radical as he was in the 70s. He was just a very handsome musician who just disbanded his group in London and headed for his home country.
The Afrobeat super star changed his name from Fela Ransome Kuti to Anikulapo-Kuti in 1970, and became a very controversial artiste when he pulled out of the momentous Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in 1977, as a member of the Planning Committee. He suggested that indigenous artists should be sourced in all the states and be selected for the performances only on merit, but the government officials disagreed.
On what accounts for Fela’s big stature in music till today, he told the reporter that Fela’s unusual talent and good knowledge of jazz elevated his musicianship in his varying styles over the years.
“Fela’s music speaks for the future. Some of the ideas Fela sold through his music include, ‘Buy Africa’, where he urged Nigerians to buy domestic products, a reality that has kicked in recently in the face of devalued Naira.
Idonije, who promoted him and his art, said that one of his personal experiences of Fela’s music include the explicit, which constitutes the themes for his music, “Although some would argue that they preferred Fela in his Koola Lobito days before he began militant music, his stance against the government remains peerless, making his music one of the best-selling, posthumously.”
Did Fela associates with poets and intellectuals? It was observed that one of the poets and intellectuals that were associated with Fela Anipulapo kuti included Professor Wole Soyinka. His mother was one of the most prominent members of the influential Ransome-Kuti family.
She was equally the daughter of Rev. Canon J. J. Ransome- Kuti, and sister to Olusegun Azariah Ransome-Kuti, Oludotun Ransome-Kuti and sister in-law to Funmilayo Ransome- Kuti. Among Soyinka’s cousins were the musician, Fela Kuti; the human rights activist, Beko Ransome-Kuti; the politician, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti; and the activist, Yemisi Ransome- Kuti.
Another intellectual on record is Albert Camus, who, in his work entitled The Rebel, has described Fela’s music as revolutionary, adding that the entire history of mankind was, in any case, nothing but a prolonged fight to the death for the conquest of universal prestige and absolute power. “It is, in its essence, imperialist,” he added.
Quoting from Fela’s “Music is the Weapon of the Future”, Cameron Piko in his Echoes and Dust, said, “Fela has a proud and fruitful, if controversial, legacy in the history of Nigeria. His music throughout the 1970s until the early 90s, was politically aggressive during the periods of many military governments, and spoke out against the myriad of injustices facing Nigerian and African people.
“The sound of his music itself – which he described as ‘afrobeat’– was a fusion of African and Western (particularly African-American) genres: highlife, traditional African rhythms, modal jazz and funk.
“Although Fela’s lyrics had their beginning in a more apolitical highlife vein, a trip to America in 1970 would change his life forever. Exposure to black power movements and leaders such as Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X would have a resounding effect on his politicisation, and Pan-Africanism would influence and act as an important force in Fela’s later material.”
Mark Hudson in his piece “When the World Looked to Nigeria” observed, in 2001 in Lagos and the University of Ibadan, that the influences of Western classical drama and modern poetry interacted with traditional art and religion pointing out that Marxism and Pan-African philosophy collided with Highlife jazz and street-corner rhetoric.
“These developments fed into the afrobeat and juju music of Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade, and produced two giants of African literature: Nobel Prize-winning dramatist, Wole Soyinka, and the novelist, Chinua Achebe, whose million-selling Things Fall Apart is still the most commercially successful African novel to date,” he said.
At a major exhibition at the British Library (from October 16, 2015 – February 16, 2016), which celebrated the cultural dynamism of West Africa from early symbolic scripts and illuminated manuscripts, to the writings of Wole Soyinka and the music of Fela Kuti and entitled “West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song”, the organisers observed that, from centuries-old drum language, protest songs, illuminated religious manuscripts and a range of objects and textiles indicating proverbs and symbolic meanings, an insight into the centuries-old written heritage, as well as the ancient oral traditions of West Africa, both of which continue to influence and inspire in the present day.
The organisers said also that through unique texts, recordings and manuscripts of the time, “West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song” explored how key figures in West African history have harnessed the power of words to build societies, drive change and fight injustice, from the Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian author, Professor Wole Soyinka, to the creator of Afrobeat and human rights activist, Fela Kuti, up to a generation of enslaved West Africans who agitated for the abolition of the slave trade in the 18th century.
Albert Oikelome in his work entitled “Fela on Broadway: Seeing Fela Anikulapo Kuti through the Eyes of Fela Musical”, observed that the “message of Afrobeat bothered on the total emancipation of the human races from the pangs of oppression, victimisation, suppression, apartheid, segregation, looting, and a host of other social vices and human right abuses and that is the reason why it often becomes a focal point for listeners.
“Fela created and devoted a whole genre to political issues. His music became oppositional, because of the state of the society in which he found himself at that time. Through his music, we deduce that the more we have oppositional music in tyrannical context, the more it shows we are responding appropriately to the context of tyranny” (Olaniyan, 2004, p. 86).
Just as poetry “is an overflow of powerful feelings”, according to Williams Wordsworth, Fela’s lyrics are highly satirical and politicised with his blending of African rhythm and jazz.
Lending his voice to the observation that Fela associated with poets and intellectuals, Seun Kuti, who spoke to this reporter during one of his rehearsals at the Kalakuta Museum in Ikeja, Lagos, said he said that Fela spent time with a lot of poetry books and great songwriters like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Lucky Duke, which helped to influence his songwriting proficiency; while Okon, who have been with the Egypt 80, Fela’s band since 1995, noted that Fela was always using his lyrics to address impunity, lawlessness and other ills of the society.
For the leader of the band Lekan Animashaun, who had been with Fela since 1965, during the time of the group as Koola Lobitos, “some of the books Fela read cannot be found in the market today”. Seun, however, recommended Fela: This Bitch of a Life, a book that x-rays what Fela represents and written by Carlos Moore, to readers.