20 years after: Fela Kuti's activism put fear in the hearts of Nigeria's military leaders
20 years after his demise, we honour the man who used 12-minute songs to put fear in the hearts of men with guns.
When ‘Chief Priest Say’, a satirical column written by the enigmatic Fela Kuti was canceled in the 1980s, first by Daily Times, then the Punch, it had served its purpose, almost to the point of redundancy.
Since the 70s, Fela had steadily bought advertising spaces in newspapers and published scathing yet humorous exposes on the African situation.
The articles spoke about cultural hegemony and colonial oppression in a voice that called on humor as much as militant aggression; an extension of the infamous Yabis nights that he held at his nightclub, the Africa Shrine.
Years after, the Herald Sun, an Australian news website would liken him to a mix between a Cuban revolutionary and a Jamaican prophet; “Imagine Che Guevara and Bob Marley rolled into one person and you get a sense of Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti”, it wrote in a February 2011 article.
In many ways, Fela was more, a jazz-trained musician of privileged origins who gathered a nation of the discontented and used music to threaten men with guns.
He was something that the oppressive military regimes of his time had never seen, but they knew to be afraid of.
Born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, the enigma known to generations simply as Fela Kuti grew up in conditions that would have primed the average young man to despise authority.
He was born into the family of Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, an Anglican minister, who was also the Principal of Abeokuta Boys’ Grammar School and the town’s standard for discipline.
On the other hand, his mother was Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti, a feminist before Twitter violently molested the word and a civil rights activist who had famously threatened the Alake of Egbaland into submission.
Fela’s foundation might have sown tiny mustard seeds of dissent, but it was without, not within that he found the flames that ignited his anger towards Africa’s ‘leaders’ and consequently, his activism.
First was the beautiful and wet city of London where he had chosen to study music at Trinity College, not medicine like his parents thought.
In England, Fela saw an organized country where social amenities worked and the government fulfilled its duty. He also saw and experienced institutional and outright racism towards blacks who were treated as the lesser.
The second was a beautiful African-American woman, Sandra Iszadore who introduced him to the Black Panthers, a militant civil rights group.
Fela had come looking for success for his newly formed band, "Nigeria 70" but in Sandra and Malcolm X, he found truth, passion and an urge for his music to mean more than melodies and long saxophone solos.
By the time his music became a mainstream force in the mid-1970s, after the success of "Jeun K’oku", "Shakara" and "Expensive Shit", Fela was a giant, poison-tipped thorn in the flesh of the Nigeria’s military government, and heads of state from Gowon to Murtala to Obasanjo.
He was dedicated to making songs that spoke about social and political issues, spewing melodious venom at those in his line of fire.
In Hank Bordowitz’s 1998 book, “Noise of the World: Non-Western Musicians in their own words”, Fela is quoted as saying “Music is supposed to have an effect. If you’re playing music and people don’t feel something, you’re not doing shit. That’s what African music is about. When you hear something, you must move. I want to move people to dance, but also to think. Music wants to dictate a better life, against a bad life. When you’re listening to something that depicts having a better life, and you’re not having a better life, it must have an effect on you”
Over the years, Fela would be arrested, beaten, imprisoned, tortured and abused, but as soon as he was out, the music would continue and the chief priest would proceed with his sermon.
Fela found this resilience, not from a vague, momentary doggedness like many of Nigeria’s 2-minute revolutionaries; his strength came because his message was a function of his life and an important spiritual journey that started with his mother.
Although he was raised in an Anglican household, Fela was exposed to traditional beliefs and medicine from a young age, courtesy of his grandmother. In America, while he learned of black history from Sandra’s books, he developed a longing for his roots.
After his return, Fela turned back to indigenous ways as much as possible, discarding western clothes for traditional fabrics and his Anglican faith for the worship of his ancestor’s gods.
He called for Africa’s unity and peaceful co-existence and often referred to the work of influences like Kwame Nkrumah and friends like Thomas Sankara.
For him, Africa was the source and its people deserved far more than the war and squalor that defined the continent in the 70s and 80s.
Anyone who had played a part in his people’s oppression, old white men or overzealous soldiers, had to be put down.
It was what made ‘Yabis Night’ special. Every Thursday night, Fela would host elaborate performances of new songs at the Afrika Shrine, punctuated by long rants where he attacked the oppressive regimes, explaining how their selfish policies were destroying the nation and calling the people to speak and stand up.
Fela never performed a song once it was recorded, so on Yabis night, fans would flock into his shrine to listen to new material and hear the Black President speak. Ultimately, it was one of those songs that brought the darker side of Fela’s fearless activism.
“Zombie o Zombie. Zombie no go go unless you tell am to go. Zombie no go come unless you tell am to come”
Fela had attacked the military in songs before, but on “Zombie”, he went miles further. In 12 minutes and 24 seconds of saxophone and percussion-driven pummeling, Fela ridiculed the Nigerian military, making fun of everything from their “zombie-like” obedience to their music they marched to.
Olusegun Obasanjo, then military head of state, responded by setting soldiers on Kalakuta Republic, a large commune where Fela lived with his band of misfits, his musicians, his wives, children and his mother.
In a matter of hours, soldiers burned Kalakuta to the ground, raping the women, beating anyone in sight and throwing Fela’s mother, a national icon, from a second-story window. She would later die from her wounds.
Fela spent weeks in jail after this but he continued. In 1984, after insulting then-head-of-state Muhammad Buhari in the massive hit “Beasts of No Nation”, he was convicted of smuggling.
He would spend the next 20 months in jail; a scarred, shriveled shadow of himself upon his release. But Fela continued.
In a continent that was plagued by civil war and poverty and a nation where uniformed thugs had held power for decades, Fela’s decision to use his music as a weapon for change was necessary to show the people that they deserved more and they could ask for it.
Perhaps unwittingly, he also showed the people what could come from asking for more.
If Mandela’s activism and 28 years in jail brought the end of apartheid and brought liberation for the indigenous people of South-Africa, Fela’s activism showed the pain and incessant victimization that comes with fighting for a people’s freedom.
For all his love for the people, Fela was never totally accepted by the people he fought for. The media painted him as a philandering drug-addict who had a taste for violence and just so happened to make music.
Parents saw him as an unnecessary bad influence on their children.
Today, in a world where the appeal of imposing automobiles, flashy cars and the celebrity lifestyle is stronger than ever, Fela’s life is a mirror that every Nigerian artist must look into.
20 years after his death, the same ills he sang about are daily realities; the people he spoke about on Yabis Night are still in power; the man who locked him up on false charges is now Nigeria’s president-in-absentia.
Nigeria’s musicians must understand that their music must serve a purpose that is bigger than turntables and iTunes charts; a purpose that demands that they draw attention to what life means for the average Nigerian and what must be done to bring the change that Fela cried and died for.
It is hard; ‘conscious’ music does not bring the success and acclaim as more shallow offerings.
Musicians who follow the path will not amass wealth or popularity like their peers, they will be targeted and attacked by subliminal or outright means; but if they need any succor, motivation perhaps, they might find some in the fact that, against all odds, Fela continued, and we remember him for it.