Singing Truth To Power

Remembering Fela, Nigeria’s rebel troubadour of political dissent

| November-December 2004

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    Image by Flickr user: p373 / Creative Commons

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The late Nigerian musician Fela is one of the great figures of modern global pop culture, and much has been written about his life and art. Until recently, however, the writers were usually Westerners with their own way of seeing his story. The playwright Esiaba Irobi grew up in Nigeria and spent his boyhood watching Fela’s rise to fame. Here, he brings a different perspective to understanding a man who seemed mysteriously driven to turn himself into a figure worthy of legend.—The Editors 

By the time the Nigerian star Fela Anikulapo-Kuti died in 1997 at age 58, he’d become the Beethoven, Che Guevara, Allen Ginsberg, and Malcolm X of African popular music. His funeral in Lagos drew bigger crowds than the burial ceremonies for the country’s former heads of state. Known simply as Fela to a global legion of fans, he had a special importance for a generation of Nigerians who grew up as I did, in the turbulent era after independence in 1960. Rising to fame in the wake of a civil war, a time marred by corruption and military rule, Fela had the audacity to challenge those who were exploiting an entire land for their personal gain. Like other young Nigerian writers and artists, I learned from him that the creative spirit can be turned against the abuses of power. For us, he will always be one of the most colorful and controversial figures in the country’s history. 

Seen through a Western lens, Fela’s life is a fascinating study of a character shaped by family expectations and his er’'s turbulent events. But Fela can also be viewed in a different light. Compared to similar figures enshrined in West African myth, he’s the latest in a long lineage of artist-heroes with the courage to turn performance into a political act. 

Colonial Child, African ManFela’s story is full of drama. He was born in 1938 in Abeokuta, a center for the Yoruba people just north of Lagos. His father was an Anglican pastor who died when Fela was in his teens. His mother was a political activist, known as far away as Europe for her work on behalf of women’s rights. As the child of African parents who achieved prominence during the colonial era, Fela was raised (often harshly) to do the same. His siblings chose medical careers. Surrounded by Yoruba culture, one of the richest artistic traditions in the world, Fela was drawn to music. 

After formal training in London in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, he returned to Lagos and began playing a fusion of jazz and a regional pop genre known as highlife. In 1969 he and his group toured the United States, looking for the fame that had eluded them at home. In Los Angeles he met Sandra Iszadore, a former Black Panther who expanded Fela’s consciousness about black struggles and African American thinkers. (He was especially drawn to the writings of Malcolm X.) The 10-month trip played a crucial role in shaping Fela’s signature “Afrobeat” sound and his increasingly radical politics. 

During the 1970s, Fela and his group, Africa 70, became wildly popular. As the Yale ethnomusicologist Michael E. Veal notes in his brilliant study Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon, the music and its lyrics, sung in a pidgin English familiar to urban Nigerians, attracted a large following among the oppressed. “Moreover,” he writes, “the very sound of Afrobeat, while championed by Nigeria’s underclass and progressives, offended the sensibility of its elite and sent an unsettling message to the country’s military rulership. Blaring from record shops throughout Lagos, its stabbing horn lines, aggressive jazz solos, and irresistible rhythm—all united under Fela’s coarse, hemp-smoked voice—came to be heard as the sound of rebellion itself.”

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