In 2019, acceptance in certain circles on the streets of Lagos as a ‘real one’ can be gotten by smoking some kush, claiming an appreciation of Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s music and appropriating certain parts of his persona; occasionally raising your hand in his iconic stance [hands above your head, eyes fixed in a passive-aggressive manner on some inexplicable figure far off on the horizon] can win you favors.
Fela is mythical, he is gold in Nigeria, his impact is undoubted, his legacy stands secure, it resounds loudly into this age, it still will in years to come.
The memory of Fela is romanticized too; in his lifetime, he attracted and impacted a huge number of fans and well-wishers without doubts, on the other hand, a significant number of people viewed him through suspicious lenses, urging their kids to boycott his music, branding him a marijuana addicted weirdo or in some situations tagging the man a troublemaker.
You would not know it today though, almost all can vividly remember where they were when they listened to their first Fela song or when they heard that Kalakuta was raided by soldiers. Today, everyone is in love with Fela, it is a trendy thing to love Fela now, it is especially economically sound to claim a connection with him in fact [as an artist/creative].
I am not a Fela Anikulapo-Kuti nerd though, far from it, I listen to his music occasionally or on special occasions. I didn’t listen to Fela’s music before and when random discussions or arguments shifted to Fela’s musical exploits in the years before I listened to him, I used to smile politely, shut up and seek an out from those sorts of discussions. I couldn’t bring myself to dissect/claim an understanding of music I hadn’t listened to before despite many many around me doing so.
On one of those lazy days in September 2018 when the unrelenting blankets of rain refused to stop dropping over Lagos and time literally bent on its toes and started to creep – I listened to Abami Eda’s music for the first time. I knew about Fela the man before. As an obsessive reader and information junkie, I had read about his life, watched video clips, studied reports, collected as much information as I could gather about this man, this myth, this legend.
When I approached Fela’s music for the first time, I did so with trepidation. I couldn’t bear for his music not to match up with the stories of the firebrand I had heard of as a young boy or for the image I had of this revolutionary not to correspond with his art. Like many before me, I couldn’t resist the temptation of choosing International Thief Thief as my first listen, the name stood out for some inexplicable reasons to me – banishing all my worries to a side – I pressed play.
I listened with rapt attention as Fela’s band wove musical bliss of for me till Fela’s vigorous voice took charge around the 11th-minute mark, what followed was a withering attack and condemnation of the government, colonialists, their instrumentalities, Obasanjo and MKO Abiola. I listened to ITT thrice consecutively, it spoke volumes when it was released, and it spoke volumes to me on that rainy day. I burned through as much of Fela’s discography as my data would allow.
What I found was defiance; using his favoured weapon of Afrobeat [it is instructive that the man himself said “Music is a weapon”], Fela brazenly splashed defiance on every single part of his records – Gentleman, Colonial mentality, Zombie and Expensive Shit and Coffin for Head of State are products of this defiance, from the rhythmic arrangement to the incisive lyrics on them. Even on the classic ‘Lady,’ Fela was defiantly pointing out his opinion, his point of view that African women should be proud to be called women over the colonialist ‘Lady.’
Fela’s music didn’t let me down, not in the least.
January 2019 – Enter Seun Kuti
The responsibility of writing protest songs is hardwired into Seun Kuti’s DNA – Pitchfork
I attended the One Lagos Fiesta finale at the Eko Atlantic City on New Year’s Eve. When the event was beginning, the hosts gave a rundown of the artistes set to grace the stage – HumbleSmith, Teni Entertainer, Burna Boy, Sound Sultan, and many others were mentioned. Seun Kuti was going to perform but we didn’t know at that time. Some minutes before midnight, we were informed that Seun Kuti will be playing.
According to reports, Seun Kuti became the lead singer of his father’s Egypt 80 band after Fela’s death in 1997. He was 14-year-old when he took over leadership of the world famous band. Pitchfork contributor, Phillip Mlynar writes about him, “The responsibility of writing protest songs is hardwired into Seun Kuti’s DNA,” on his latest album, Black Times, Seun gives a masterpiece in defiance, tapping into the spirit of his legendary father at the same time demonstrating his precocious abilities to deliver a message of protest and remonstration while urging communities to band together in their demand for better living.
Seun’s Black Times was on so many albums of the year lists, he toured across the world and even got a Grammy nomination. I almost didn’t want to believe that he would play a set here.
But to my astonishment, Seun Kuti played… after his band had set the stage with indigenous musical melodies and a peculiar stint from a sekere player, Seun Kuti came on stage with his daughter and a smile. In homage to his father’s sweeping legacy and in keeping with his personal tradition, he opened his set with a song from his father’s collection before performing songs from the critically acclaimed Black Times.
Seun’s daughter took a place of honor beside her father’s dancers, mouthing lyrics of his songs into the microphone when he offered it and performing the synchronized routines of the dancers almost as naturally as them. Watching daughter and father bond over the music was a lesson in legacy building for me.
The Egypt 80 band is wonderfully harmonized with Seun and he is in tune with them and the music [I saw Seun Kuti correct a wrong play by a drummer live on stage, remonstrating with his body] the mistake was barely perceptible, probably for a few seconds, but Seun was on top of it, vigorously demanding attention, asking for perfection. This was protest music performance at its undiluted finest.
Halfway into his set, the first projectile was launched, a half-empty bottle water landed on stage, at that moment Seun had his back to the stage and I secretly hoped that it was just a one-off, I wanted to milk in as much of this performance as I could as I hoped they would too. But the audience kept launching more bottles of water, apparently bored with Seun’s performance. The Kuti blood seeps defiance exhibited as a hail of projectiles landed on stage, Seun Kuti entered another realm, you know the one where the music melds with the mind and body giving way to euphoria, stripping off his shirt, he performed an intense medley of songs from his catalog, pushing his band forward.
The man didn’t take his child off stage, she was there, by his side, dancing, singing, creating memories for a lifetime as some senseless idiots dared think their sarcastic cheers and boos could force a son of Fela off stage. He feinted to leave, then he hung back and said ‘one more’ Seun Kuti launched into a numbing Yoruba saxophone play. I didn’t understand the tune but deep inside of me, I knew it was a message, it seemed like a witty retort to the crowd’s disturbance [my colleague says it is often used mockingly].
Shirtless and fulfilled, Seun Kuti walks off stage with his daughter, my first live encounter with a Kuti didn’t leave me feeling short, not in the least.
22 years after Fela died, youths are still rejecting truths that are preached to them. The same youths who appropriate elements of the Fela persona tried to force his son off stage because his music wasn’t ‘pop.’
One of my favorite Twitter personalities is Nigerian satirist and author, Elnathan John, he constantly tweets that ‘Nigerians deserve everything that happens to Nigerians,’ I never understood it but now I think I do, maybe we do deserve everything that comes to us, for the way we reject our voices of truth, then and now.