Fela did not have to be the kind of radical he turned out to be. Yet he needed to. The mass of his countrymen did not possess the courage that he was gifted (and cursed) with
Fela was mad.
No part of his life conformed to logic. He wasn’t supposed to be a musician, let alone one whose music will cause chaos through out his life and even after. The son of a quiet Anglican priest and a activist mother was supposed to be fine doctor like his elder brother Olikoye or his younger brother Beko. Even their big sister Dolupo was nurse. Fela was the black sheep whose thoughts didn’t conform to the sterile walls of a hospital. Even at that, he studied Classical Music at London’s Trinity College. So he was supposed to make soothing, peaceful and largely inconsequential music- like jazz.
But Fela was a mad man and did not do any of the things he was supposed to. Instead he tore the script and created a path for himself, one which he walked through without fear or constraint, fighting until he died on August 2 1997.
Upon his return from Britain in 1963, he started Koola Lobitos, a jazz-highlife band. They played the nice, mellow music that the recently departed colonialists (now called expatriates) enjoyed. But his mind was not at rest. There was a vacuum that his music did not exactly fill. It took a trip to the United States where he got introduced to the Pan-African movement going on there while the rest of Africa was in a malaise. And then his new sound was birthed.
Afrobeat embraced the fullness of African music. The polyrhythmic sound mixed the strings and horns and pianos of Europe with traditional African instruments: the gongs, the shekere, the drums (my God the drums!) and the age-old call-and-response vocals of the native peoples of Africa. The result was a heavy, groovy tune that made Sir Paul McCartney of the Beatles weep.
But Fela’s music was more than the instrumentation and his vocals; Fela’s music was defined more by the message therein. In the 1970’s, Nigeria’s military government was as highhanded as it was corrupt. While some musicians cowered in fear and made songs to celebrate these leaders, Fela was the opposite. He criticized them severely and mocked them mercilessly. He called them thieves and zombies and rapists and killers. The military government fought back by arresting him several times. They would later burn down his house and ‘kill’ his mother.
Fela was a mad man. His personal life was eccentric to say the least, like nothing the world had seen before. He lived in the heart of the Lagos metropolis, taking on all comers so much that his commune, the Kalakuta Republic became home to hundreds of people. When it was overrun by unknown soldiers, the man’s spirit was unbroken. Like his long time drummer Tony Allen said, after that incident from which his mother eventually died, Fela became double or triple of what he was before.
Subsequent police raids didn’t break him. Not even a bogus five year jail term. He opened his mouth like basket and sang of the several injustices of the Nigerian state.
Fela did not have to be the kind of radical he turned out to be. Yet he needed to. The mass of his countrymen did not possess the courage that he was gifted (and cursed) with. His eccentricity which some describe as weakness- the weed, the girls, the hippie lifestyle- was actually a show of strength: here was a man who did what the fuck he wanted to do. Is that not the dream of everyone- freedom to be you and be accountable only to your creator? That was Fela.
Twenty years after his death, the cult of Fela is stronger than it was during his life time. Generations who didn’t live through he struggles connect to it many years later- because it is their struggles. Everything Fela railed against forty years ago is still the present realities of 800 million Africans.
Water, light, food, house: those basic needs are still an exclusive preserve of a privileged few. Police brutality is still the order of the day. Religious leaders still take advantage of their unfortunate congregation. And yes, Bobsrisky is still bleaching.
He predicted that he was going to live up to a hundred and thirty years old. When he passed away at , it seemed like he was deluded when he said it. But brothers and sisters, he was correct. Today Fela would have been 79 years old. Look around; it would take at least 50 years to move Nigeria from third world to the development of the Western world.
Only a god of a man could have seen that far into the future. Only a mad man could have been adamant about what he saw when other people couldn’t fathom what he was on about. Only a genius could have created music that has endured these many years.
The next election cycle in Nigeria is just two years away. The main characters in Nigerian politics who Fela denounced all those years are still the main characters today. It is clear to all and sundry they’re serving only their own interests, something Fela talked about as far back as 1971 when he sang Why Black Man Dey Suffer.
You think Fela was mad? You’re the one who’s insane.
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