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.”
Fela started a commune in Lagos and turned a former nightclub into a musical and political center known as the Afrika Shrine. As its “chief priest,” he began his long crusade against a series of corrupt regimes in Nigeria. His all-night performances were legendary. As with the band, he ruled his household of 60, settling internal disputes in ways that were often less than gentle. By the mid ‘70s, Fela’s growing fame and scathing critiques had triggered a series of violent reprisals by the military. Ringing the compound with barbed wire, he renamed it the “Kalakuta Republic” and declared it immune to Nigerian law.
In late 1976 he released a hit song called “Zombie” that parodied the brutal mindlessness of Nigeria’s army. A few months later, irate soldiers staged a macabre replay of the record when they marched on Kalakuta by the hundreds, raped and brutalized its members, then burned it down. After looting Fela’s master tapes and destroying the sound track for an autobiographical film, they beat him with truncheons and gun butts and left him for dead. Fela’s elderly mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was thrown out a window. She died the following year, having never fully recovered from her wounds.
As an outspoken feminist and a champion of independence during the 1950s, Fela’s mother was a national figure in her own right. Though others may have awakened him politically, in fact his mother had introduced to him to radical politics at an early age. Through her, a teenage Fela met figures like Kwame Nkrumah, the charismatic Pan-Africanist who led Ghana to independence in 1957 and later became that country’s first president. Nkrumah and his vision of a united Africa were among Fela’s enduring political passions.
A year after the Kalakuta attack and shortly before his mother’s death, Fela married 27 women from his troupe in one day. The reason, he said, was to transform them from what the government considered “loose women.” (He already had a wife and children dating from his time in London.) Fela’s controversial attitudes toward women and sex are paradoxical, given his mother’s work and the importance of women in his success. As Veal and others have noted, Fela justified his polygamy and hedonism as part of his effort to forge an authentic African identity shorn of the colonial influence that shaped his parents and their marriage. He likewise cut Ransome from his family name in favor of Anikulapo, a Yoruba word meaning “he who carries death in his pouch.”
In 1979 Fela sought to honor his mother (and shame those he blamed for her death) by taking a mock coffin to Dodan Barracks, Nigeria’s state house in Lagos, then the country’s capital. His defiance led to more beatings—and new “musical manifestos” in response. Fela had formed a political party and announced his plan to run for president that year, only to have his march to a possible victory thwarted when the country’s electoral commission forced him to drop out.
Reactivating his musical career, he became an international star. As Western pop musicians began noting their debt to him, left-wing journalists traveled to Lagos to see the spectacle of Fela and his retinue firsthand. According to the veteran African-affairs correspondent Lindsay Barrett, their dispatches “succeeded in building up the image of a national martyr whose ideas, although totally unconventional in terms of European mores, were even more unacceptable to his own society.”
Expanding fame abroad was no guarantee of protection at home. Renamed Egypt 80, the band grew, but so did Fela’s troubles, and he was severely beaten again in 1981. After serving time in jail on a string of trumped-up charges, he was released in 1986 and forced once again to reinvent himself. His troubles with the law would continue throughout his life.
Fela died in August 1997 from AIDS, which he’d viewed as a “white man’s disease” he’d never catch. It’s another irony that Fela’s older brother Olikoye, a physician with the World Health Organization, has been a leader in the effort to control AIDS in West Africa. Fela’s son Femi, himself a music star and social activist, often speaks out on the need for AIDS awareness.
Though critics and scholars may disagree over Fela’s morals and his role in Nigeria’s history, no one questions his courage or his place in popular music. More than a million lined the streets of Lagos to see his funeral procession. “While his lifestyle was universally condemned,” Veal writes, Fela died a national hero, having “never wavered from his self-appointed role of calling attention to the sufferings of the common people.”
Speaking for the DefeatedI was born on October 1, 1960—Nigeria’s independence day—in Aba, a town in eastern Nigeria. When I was 7, my father’s record library consisted of highlife music and a copy of Nigeria’s former national anthem inside a green-white-green cover based on the country’s flag. My mother encouraged me to memorize the anthem, which was composed by an Englishwoman. I once performed the song on a table in the church as a special treat to the largely illiterate congregation who showered me with coins and marveled at how this young child could “speak” English with such ease and flair.
I believed in the anthem and in the country called Nigeria until the Nigeria-Biafra civil war (1967-70) in which the Igbo nation to which I belonged lost more than a million lives, many of them children my age who essentially starved to death, killed by a protein deficiency disease called kwashiorkor. The war shattered my faith in Nigeria as a country. By 1970, the trauma of the war had created a strong antipatriotic feeling and a deep distrust of politicians and the political process among my generation. We grew to disdain the military brutes who raped our sisters, mothers, aunts, and nieces when the war ended.
It was at this point that, above the love-crazed lyrics of the postwar highlife and Afro-rock bands then popular in Nigeria, came Fela’s strident, rebellious voice cataloguing the brutalities, corruption, and foolishness of Nigeria’s military governments.
It was difficult not to identify with him. We admired not only Fela’s musicianship, his charisma, and his humor, but also his guts—the nerve he had to stand up to these gun-toting monsters and, as Nigerian slang puts it, “Yab them!” It was, for us, the greatest therapy a defeated people could have, and for my traumatized generation this aberrant insurgency became a tonic for living.
Fela’s songs and lyrics became a fuel for our own creativity. As the radical theorist Frantz Fanon wrote in 1961 in Wretched of the Earth, we looked inward at what was wrong in our country instead of blaming our colonizers. That antiestablishment mood enormously affected the works of many young Nigerian writers, painters, and musicians. The rage and audacious energy that went into my earliest political plays, Hangmen Also Die, Nwokedi, and Cemetery Road, owe their temerity and anarchic aesthetics to Fela.
The Mythic RebelThere are many ways to understand Fela’s art, including the psychocentric approach that shapes so much Western scholarship. But Fela’s insistence that his music, in the writer Ralph Ellison’s words, “demands action,” invites us to look for another key more attuned to the African traditions that shaped him. By throwing himself into the politics of his day, Fela became a living example of the artist’s role as defined by a figure from Yoruba myth. I call this the “Atunda theory” of performance.
The Yoruba say that certain people are gifted with a unique power called àshe—they are believed to embody the supernatural powers possessed by certain deities they worship. This trait can manifest itself in leadership qualities, spiritual insight, or creativity. In the words of the Yale African art historian Robert Farris Thompson, “A work of art that has àshe transcends ordinary questions about its makeup and confinements: It is divine force incarnate.” Thus the highest praise an artist can get in most indigenous African societies is to be told the gods speak through him or her.
In the Yoruba worldview, Nigerian artists like Fela, the folk-opera composer Duro Ladipo, and the Nobel-winning playwright Wole Soyinka (Fela’s cousin) have the gift of àshe. But as “the power-to-make-things-happen,” àshe is a “morally neutral” force that can destroy as well. Quite often kings and political leaders try to appropriate this power by keeping an artist or diviner in their courts. The effort invariably fails, for the artist is simply an instrument of àshe, not its source. When it is expressed through a rightful medium like Fela, the effect is positive. In Fela’s view, the brutality and corruption of the country’s elite illustrated the same force put to negative ends.
In Yoruba mythology, there is also a deity called Atunda, whom Cornell scholar Biodun Jeyifo describes as the slave of a powerful god name Orisanla. “In the beginning, all known (and unknown) facets of knowledge, truth, and consciousness were collected and totalized in the absolute godhead, Orisanla,” he writes. “One fateful day, Orisanla was asleep at the foot of a hill. Out of spite, rebelliousness, or god-envy, Atunda rolled a huge rock downhill on the unsuspecting deity, smashing him into innumerable fragments.”
After that, the shattered god vanishes; each broken piece becomes a new deity expressing one aspect of the former whole. Atunda is the “primal rebel” who possesses the power to reinvent not only himself, but also the world, with his disruptive acts. He represents “a contrary, dissenting spirit” whose “principled and inventive iconoclasm” is turned against “stable and coercive regimes of truth, tradition, or power.”
No special talents are needed to see Fela as a modern incarnation of Atunda. I’ve always been intrigued by the parallels between this deity and Fela’s political convictions, his capacity for anarchy and mischief, and the social purpose to which he stubbornly put his music. Fela’s work—the music of the boulder rolling down the hill followed by the sweet smash and thunder of Orisanla’s crumbling skull—made him famous as a modern avatar of rebellion and change.
Myth is often seen as a theory of origins, a story of how the world and its inhabitants were formed. But a myth can also provide us with a theory for living—an immortalized blueprint for how to live an exceptional life. Myths preserve, in story form, how extraordinary individuals intervene at crucial moments in the larger life of their societies. Such narratives are about where we’re going as well as where we’ve come from; they’re road maps for the survival of entire peoples.
Thus a mythic figure can inspire in us a desire to undertake superhuman challenges on behalf of our society at the risk of our fragile little lives. There are two ways to explain the abnormal, almost irrational impulse that leads mere mortals to pursue mythic status for themselves. Some may model their lives on the qualities they find admirable in the gods they worship. For instance, Wole Soyinka has modeled his life and work on Ogun, god of iron and its cutting edge, the artist-toolmaker-warrior deity who through sheer force of will clears the road by which knowledge reaches the human world. Others may simply be chosen by the gods to be conduits for àshe. Soyinka speaks of Muhammad Ali as a modern example of such a hero. “I don’t expect him ever to discover the African religions that are a source of his own spiritual strength, his own dignity,” Soyinka has said. “But I do wish he would discover some day gods like Shango and Ogun, and find in them sources of strength and the reality of his own being.”
Ali made a moral decision not to join the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and was stripped of his boxing title. Soyinka’s one-man attempt to stop Nigeria’s civil war led to time in jail. Fela waged a relentless war against the recurrent corruption of humanity masquerading as Nigeria’s leaders. The parallels are clear. Each is an example of the “Atunda principle”—that is, resistance through action, including the action of artistic performance. Atunda defines a crucial role of the artist that runs throughout most African history and culture.
Fela remains a unique and inspiring figure for people around the world, but for me he will always be something more—the political icon of my generation. Looking back, I see not merely the life of a great musician, but also the turbulent course of Nigeria’s journey from birth to its recent political crises.
Soyinka has forged an art of no less bravery, but his social and political criticism has found its audience among Nigerians of the Western-educated middle class. Fela’s pidgin yabis, accessible to all, gave young Nigerians the temerity to publicly criticize and denounce their leaders, inspiring us to enter into a troubled dialogue with dictatorship and bad government.
Esiaba Irobi is a playwright, director, poet, and associate professor of theater at Ohio University, Athens. His plays include Cemetery Road, Nwokedi, Hangmen Also Die, and The Color of Rusting Gold. Adapted from Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire (Summer 2003), a journal published by New York University's Africana Studies and the Institute of African American Affairs.