This past Thursday, August 2, marked the twenty-first anniversary of the death of Africa’s most important musical icon, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. His influence on music lives on till date, and his direct impact on the lives of millions of fans and followers was immense.
News of his death began like a rumour until it was confirmed by his elder brother Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti: Fela had actually joined his ancestors.
In the documentary Finding Fela, his two oldest children Yemi and Femi Kuti retell the story of the funeral day- August 11 1997.
According to Femi, the extended family wanted it to be a quiet affair, done in his residence with as little fanfare as possible because he died of AIDS. But Fela was larger than life: the children insisted that he should have a public lying-in-state at least. ‘I think the family believed he wasn’t loved anymore. Everybody thought nobody respects [sic] anymore. So it was just my sister and I saying, “this man is still loved”. I said we should lie him in state at this big stadium (Tafawa Balewa Square in Lagos) because a million people would turn up.’
Along with the hearse, the family got there early; just after dawn. They placed Fela’s transparent casket- with him holding a huge wrap of cannabis (a final middle finger to the establishment he fought all his life).
‘6:30am we put his body down. Then we started hearing remarks: where are the million people. I said wait now’.
By 7:30 am, people started trickling in. Soon the trickle became a steady stream and by noon, the whole place was filled with thousands of people who had come to take one final glance at their hero and pay their last respects. It is estimated that one million people were in the square that day. It was nothing less than what Fela deserved.
The day went by fast and eventually, it was time to go bury the man. Yeni says in the documentary that they, as the immediate family, had satisfied the fans by presenting Fela to them. Now was their time to bury their father.
Between her, Femi and Fela’s long-term manager Rikki Stein, they made a decision to sneak the body out of the arena. On a signal, they picked the casket, placed it in the car and attempted to drive off. The crowd followed them and cut the car off as it got on the road.
Yeni continues: ‘The boys stood in front of the hearse and said “No way, you’re not going through the Third Mainland Bridge (which was the shorter route); we’re giving Fela a people’s burial.’
And thus the procession began, from the Tafawa Balewa Square on Lagos Island, through the city. The crowd trudged along, singing and chanting as they went on. The whole city was on pause for the Abami Eda. No less than 500,000 people were part of that walk from TBS to his house in Ikeja.
‘It took us seven hours- for a thirty-minute journey…we caused confusion in Lagos that day.’
Lemi Ghariokwu, artist and close Fela collaborator (he designed several of Fela’s cover art) concurs with Yeni. ‘It was magical. I came out to Ikorodu Road, I saw the people and I just cried.’
The crowd finally got to his residence for his internment. The house has now been remodelled into a museum.
In the twenty-one years that he has been dead, there hasn’t been a musician with as much clout as he had, nor an icon that has been practically worshipped like he was.
Trek 97, as our friends at One WildCard describes it, was once in a lifetime event. It was a phenomenon that is unlikely to happen again. The sheer number of people who moved en masse with their hero to his final resting place would never be matched, let alone surpassed. Just like there would never be another Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
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