Thursday, April 1, 2010
I got into the music and social movement of Fela Kuti late, distracted by the BeeGees and Saturday Night Fever. But while me and my high school crew were learning the staying alive dance, Fela was turning Nigeria and the African music industry upside down. Fela witnessed atrocities by his government in their attempt to squash the People's Movement, beginning with his mother, Fummilayo Ransome-Kuti who's responsible for the Nigerian feminist movement. Though Fela's mum and protestant father and first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers sent their beloved son to London to study medicine, Fela studied music instead and formed the band, Koola; a fusion between African jazz and funk. But his influence on the People's Movement didn't take hold until his travel to the United States where he emersed himself in the Black Power Movement. It was the Black Panther Party, in particular, that helped shape his political views and, thus, his musical legacy. By the time he returned to his homeland he was already considered an icon, but a threat to the Nigerian government. His response to the dictatorial regime at the time was to set up a commune he named the Kalakuta Republic where he set up his recording studio. The commune also served as a home for band members and followers disillusioned by their government. Set up in a hotel, the Shrine, as followers called it, was a platform for progressives to congregate and where Fela often performed. As he matured, his music became more political and he soon was known throughout Africa and abroad as a significant contributor to the liberation of Nigerian people and Africans, in general. But the Nigerian State saw his message of freedom from colonialism as a serious distraction to status quo and began raiding the commune. Further distractions included the spying and torturing of his followers.
So why is all this worth sharing? Because we can't talk about Marley without bringing up Fela Kuti. We can't talk about women's rights in Africa and not mention Fela's mother. And we can't take for granted the fact that Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith got together to bring Fela's story to life on Broadway. A testimony to what can be done when we work together for a common goal, as opposed to being individualistic and completely detached from the realities of regular Black folks.
Despite the setbacks, Fela formed his own political party-- Movement of the People. But when he tried to run for President during Nigeria's first post-colonial presidential elections, his candidacy was rejected by the governing body. He continued to record, sharing billings with Bono, Carlos Santana, Roy Ayers and the Neville Brothers. His most successful recording album, "Zombie" was a direct attack on Nigerian soldiers, and as a result Fela was severely beaten and his mother thrown out of a window, causing her fatal injuries. The Shrine was burned, his studio, instruments and master tapes destroyed. His life was sparred by a commanding officer who secretly sympathized with the People's Movement. Fela's response to the humiliating attack was to deliver his mother's coffin to the home of the General who ordered the attacks.
If you can afford it, go checkout this Broadway nod to one of our heroes. Or read up on Fela Kuti's life to get the details of a life short-lived yet so profoundly significant. If your history or music teacher doesn't bring him up, then you do it. Because when you see how nothing's really new; that struggle takes many forms but never changes faces, you can then better understand your role and your undeniable power as a person of African descent.