Great people have emerged from Africa, people who have influenced humanity in diverse ways. Many of them are from Nigeria. But one stands out who touches our raw nerves with his music. He is as constant as the Shakespearean northern star even in death. His name is Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Although some people make exceptions to his lifestyle, largely defined by women, alcohol, and marijuana, the social consciousness and radical message of his music outweigh any of his negative idiosyncrasies. Born on the 15th day of October 1938 in Abeokuta, South West of Nigeria, Fela dominated the Nigerian music scene as a social crusader and human rights activist. Although we live in a clime where the expressions of radical ideas have become a crime against the state, we cannot forget the iconic afro-beat maestro whose radical music accurately situates the predicaments of Nigerians.
In some ways, Fela can be described as one of the greatest gifts from the ancient city of Abeokuta to Nigeria, never mind other pretenders from that ancient city who inevitably gratified themselves with the status quo to lubricate the machinery of political hegemony. He developed a brand of music, afro-beat, delivered through the grand instrumentality of saxophone, native drums, and gongs. Through his music, he challenged rampant misrule, official heist, social decay, and government intransigence. Fela was committed to the black consciousness.
He saw through the dubiety of the colonial masters and the roles they played in vanquishing the African continent. As an unrepentant agent against bad governance, he challenged the military government at the risk of his life and confronted corruption in public establishments. Through a mastery of his musical instruments, he produced sounds that combined with his delivery of pidgin English and Yoruba language to reach out to the masses.
Fela’s focus was to create awareness among the populace, reminding them of their debased living conditions under an insensitive, corrupt government. According to Fela, “music is supposed to have an effect. I want to move people to dance but also to think. Music must dictate a better life against a bad life. When you are listening to something that depicts having a better life, it must have an effect on you”. The above quote by Fela underscores the philosophy of his music which contrasts with the kind of music churned out by nowadays musicians. Today, Fela will be turning in his grave, observing Nigeria’s slide to loathsome decadence. Regrettably, some contemporary musicians in Nigeria have imbibed the culture of immorality expressed through lewd lyrics that either corrode the mind or promote moral depravity. In honour of Fela, let us critically examine some of his celebrated tracks and relate them to our present reality. The track ‘Mr Follow Follow’ is a metaphor for blind followership, those who willingly subscribe to an ideology they do not understand. They are bereft of any discerning spirit with naturally stifled perceptive sensibilities. Mr. Follow Follow is a direct incarnate of idiocy established in the ideas of another person. He is blind to reason and can argue that there is sunshine even when there is a heavy downpour provided his principal also insists that there is sunshine. Fela advises Mr Follow Follow to instinctively open his eyes and activate his sensory organs to discern properly. Certainly, events in Nigeria clearly show that many people fall into the Mr. Follow Follow category with brutish ideas and fragmented impulses. We have Mr. Follow Follow in our religious circles, those who swallow misplaced doctrines without establishing it in the Holy Books. We have Mr. Follow Follow in our politics, those who are blind to reason but find joy in uttering profanities against Nigeria all in their support for a perceived political avatar. Indeed, Fela advises that blind followership is a crime against humanity.
‘Sorrow, Tears and Blood’ is a track that captures the confusion, desperation, and anarchy in typical Nigerian society. It shares something in common with the opening lines of W.B Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming’. In the poem, Yeats paints a picture of disorder in the following lines “Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer, Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. However, Fela’s ‘Sorrow, Tears and Blood’ depicts the nature of a typical Nigerian who is timid and afraid to fight for freedom, liberty, justice, and happiness. Our unwillingness to resist tyranny is rooted in our consideration and love for life, house, wife, car, and diverse degrees of materiality. Even in the face of police and army brutality, when our leaders say nothing, we remain unmoved and accept these conditions with open arms. As a result, sorrow, tears, and blood characterize our society.
‘Coffin for Head of State’ is a long track that contains several sub-themes. However, its main focus is to bring to reality the soul-wrenching manner in which unidentified military men brutally assaulted Fela’s seventy-seven-year mother and threw her down from a two-storied building. Three months after the incident, his mother died from complications arising from the injury sustained during the military assault. Fela, with some members of his musical group, carried an empty coffin to Dodan barracks, Nigeria’s then seat of power. After the initial confrontation with security forces, Fela was allowed to drop the coffin at the gate of Dodan Barracks, perhaps to remind the Head of State, General Olusegun Obasanjo, of the death of his beloved mother. The sub-theme of the track exposes the chicanery of the two leading religious groups in Africa, Christianity and Islam. In the track, Fela recounts how the Pope and the Imam both live in splendour in Rome and Mecca while their followers live in poverty and squalor in Africa. He advises the African to be wise and divest himself of every trapping of foolishness.
‘Gentleman’ is a track that lampoons colonial mentality. During the advent of colonial rule which came with foreign religions, many Africans were required to dress like gentlemen, talk with fake accents like gentlemen and repudiate the African identity. In the track, Fela insists that he is not a gentleman but a real African man who is steeped in originality which is what Africa is noted for. The track admonishes Africans to love Africa and be proud of their heritage, to renounce foreign ways of life, religion, dressing, accent, eating habit with fork and knife and all other such pretentious attitudes which negate the African mentality. Whether the message preached in the track is tenable in today’s Nigeria is a matter of debate because the African culture is constantly eroded with everybody embracing foreign values. Even some Nigerian politicians and government officials prefer foreign banks to save their looted funds, they prefer foreign hospitals and foreign schools for their children.
Space will not allow me to discuss ‘Army Arrangement’. ‘Suffering and Smiling’, ‘Beast of No Nation’ ‘Original Suffer head’, and ‘Zombie. As the world celebrates the enigma Fela Anikulapo Kuti, as Felabration beckons, Nigerians remember a son who popularized radicalism through afro-beat music. Long Live the Afro-beat maestro, Long live Nigeria.
Dr. Adiele writes from Lagos via