Fans of Afro beat creator Fela Anikulapo-Kuti converged on the New Africa Shrine in Lagos penultimate week to celebrate the life and times of the late ‘nonconformist’. Entertainment Editor VICTOR AKANDE writes that, 19 years after the demise of the music icon, nobody can wear his shoes
That the world continues to celebrate Fela Anikulapo-Kuti with pomp, 19 years after his demise, is a great measure of immortalisation that no Nigerian past leader, dead or alive, has ever enjoyed. For the late ‘Afro beat King’, it goes beyond the placing of his statue at strategic locations in city centres or naming a street after him; his is a sort of engravement etched in the heart of the history of mankind that is passed on from generation to generations. It is the sort of history synonymous with politics, activism and entertainment.
But as Nigeria continues to make history through evolving political dynamics that might have offered more challenges to activists in the new political turf, none of the musicians who have ‘cloned’ Fela, has successfully grown a single foot, the size of the late Afro beat King; not even his children.
Penultimate Tuesday marked 19 years of the demise of Fela, a music legend and founder of the African genre of music called Afro beat. And recalling how, when he died in August 1997, the morbid crowd of sympathisers, who were made up largely of the ordinary men, rekindled his influence beyond massage propelling music to include his political views as an acclaimed ‘Black President’ and leader of a political party called Movement of the People (MOP). The party, though denied registration by the electoral umpire, was registered in the minds of admirers of the late maestro.
During the general elections last year, there was a surge in the number of entertainers who sought political offices. But none had the kind of radical political views that the late Fela stood for. Also, the participation of celebrities as entertainers on the campaign train of politicians and political parties was unprecedented, irrespective of the accusation and counter-accusations of sharp practices in the sharing of largesse that trailed the actors’ participation.
As a man of many parts, not a few Nigerian artistes have shown their love for Fela by adopting the aspect of the legend’s life – music, stagecraft or activism – that appeal to them. However, none has been able to fit into the musician’s large shoes.
Mr. Benson Idonije, a former manager to the late Fela and grandfather to Burna Boy, told The Nation in an interview that there can never be another Fela. When asked why he drew the line, Idonijie said: “Apart from his activist status, Fela used music as a vehicle to pass across messages to those in positions of authority. His message was on top of his music. It is the message that people wanted to hear.”
He went on: “Musically, you can’t fault Fela. He was reaching out to higher levels of creativity all the time. Fela and his band would have done a lot of rehearsals, memorised it and play it from their heads. He scored his music before going to the studio to record it. He scored every piece of his music.
“From Jeun Koku(Eat and die), his first hit, he knew he had gotten a lot of acceptance. He knew he had gotten his breakthrough. All he had to do was pattern his work after Jeun Koku for a long period, but afterwards he upgraded. He upgraded with Zombie and Yellow fever. He was no longer on the level of Jeun Koku and Black Man’s Cry as he went to the level of classical African music with Beasts of No Nation in 1986.
“But I am more particular about the music machine that propels the message. That machine that propelled the message was jazz, which is not easy to play. That’s why I have always advocated that to play Afro beat, one must be a jazz musician. You must have leanings towards jazz. So, that is the reason a lot of bands cannot play Afro beat today.”
Idonijie described most modern day artistes as mere singers who lack Fela’s kind of craft.
He said: “They are just singers! Forget about those computerised music; let’s talk about live bands. They find it difficult to get there. The likes of Femi and Seun, well, you know these are his children and they were close to him and they are drawing inspiration from their father.
“But beyond that, no other musician can render Afro beat songs. Unless they are able to play jazz and they know what jazz structures are, and not only that, they must have the talent. It’s not enough to be able to play Jazz; you must have the talent. The late Fela had the musical knowledge, ability and talent. That is why he was different.”
Artiste’s casual bite of Fela
Just as no fruit falls too far from the mother tree, one cannot undermine the efforts made by the late Fela’s children to keep the tradition going. His eldest son, Femi, has been nominated for the Grammys four times, using his music as voice for the common man. Femi, a grandchild of women’s rights activist and traditional aristocrat, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, has not found it easy to command the kind of attention his father got. Not even Seun, the youngest son and of recent, the most outspoken on the country’s political issues, who leads his father’s former band, Egypt 80, is anywhere near his late father’s landmarks. There is also Fela’s protégé, Dede Mabiaku, who is nowhere near Fela’s children in musical accomplishments.
Mabiaku wanted to carry on the late Fela’s full personality, being the closest to the latter in terms of musical artistry. Femi’s musical career began when he started playing in the Egypt 80 Band until he launched his own band, Positive Force, in 1986. He had always wanted to be an artiste with a difference from his father’s legacy.
Femi’s first record was released in 1995 by Tabu/Motown. Four years later, he released Shoki Shoki, which gave earned more recognition. His collaboration with Common, Mos Def and Jaguar Wright on Fight to Win in 2001, marked the beginning of tour of America with Jane’s Addiction.
In 2004, he opened The Shrine, his club, where he recorded the live album Africa Shrine. After a four-year absence, he returned in 2008 and released Day by Day and Africa for Africa, for which he received two Grammy nominations. In 2013, he released No Place for My Dream. So far, Femi has been nominated four times for Grammy award (2003, 2010, 2012 and 2013).
Also inheriting his late father’s zeal for music activism, Seun has produced four albums; Think Africa (2007), Many Things (2008), From Africa with Fury: Rise (2011) and A Long Way to the Beginning (2014). One of the albums was a remix which he released under a different label.
Apart from Femi, Seun and Mabiaku, many Nigerian artistes have also helped the Fela tradition, though in their own ways. Such apostles are:
did reach Africa
If there was a musical struggle which the late Sonny Okosun partook in without Fela, it was the cry against apartheid policy in South Africa. With songs such as Fire in Soweto and Liberation, the late Okosun, who later turned evangelist, was popular for criticising bad government policies and social decadence. One of such issues which Okosun tackled was in his song titled: Which Way Nigeria, a critical and sober comment on the political direction in Nigeria in the 80s.
The late Fela was a force to reckon with in African politics so much so that people were worried that he didn’t show enough interest in South African apartheid. But his response at that time was that Nigeria had more problems to deal with than the Black South Africans. But it could not be said that Fela closed his eyes totally to the problems of apartheid, having criticised Botha when he said in one of his songs, Beast of No Nation (BONN), that “Botha is a friend to Thatcher, Reagan and many other leaders,” arguing that the latter lacked the moral justification to talk about human rights.
African China is radically soft
With albums such like Mr. President (2006), Crisis (2007), The Return of the Legend (2009), Body dey do me- Sabi Man (2013), Chinagorom Onuoha (a.k.a. African China) has used reggae/dance hall music to address social issues. Apart from criticising bad government policies, he has always maintained that the music industry has more junkies than activists. Whether or not he has maintained the Fela’s kind of philosophy, he is today among the local musicians whose popularity has waned.
Burna Boy goes
the weird way
Burna Boy is a grandchild to Fela’s former manager, Benson Idonije. Apart from the fact that his latest single Soke has a lyric; ‘I never tell you finish’ off the Abami Eda’s song, he was criticised recently for performing in his undies at the annual Felabration, a memorial show for in honour of the late Fela. Many say got it all wrong as Fela never performed in underwear. Burna Boy, who must have been influenced by Fela’s style of music, also has a tattoo of the singer on his body.
Kuti into collabo
Like Burna Boy, Ayodeji Balogun (a.k.a. Wizkid) also carries the tattoo of Fela on his arm. Although a pop singer, he too adds a touch of afro beat to his music. To show his love for the genre, he dragged Femi Kuti into a collabo with his song, Jaiye Jaiye. In another song, Ojuelegba, Wizkid showed his versatility by adding the Afro beat flavor to his song.
W4’s stint with Fela’s pants
Many will Adewale Adepoju (a.k.a W4) for dressing up like the late Fela and making waves with just one song, Kontrol. After that 2010 song which earned him some live performances, not much has been heard of Adepoju again. If Fela had resurrected in W4, it was soon to be a stillbirth, the lewd kind of songs but more importantly for the fashion style.
D’banj: a bite of Fela’s swag
Dapo Oyebanjo (a.k.a D’banj) of the former Mo’hits fame is known for his stagecraft, one of which he cherishes so well, using Fela’s postures as his signature tune. D’banj bares his chest during his show, and that is all to his semblance of the Afro beat founder. During his early days with Mo’hits, his partner, Don Jazzy would do hip hop beats with Afro beat flavour. His body-hug fashion style, panties and top, were also the early brand that D’banj was known for. He is one of the most flamboyantly-dressed entertainers in the country Nigeria.
Sound Sultan also satirical
Sound Sultan is quite sensitive to his environment and this has always reflected in his songs. With tracks like Jagbajantis, Bush Meat, Craze World, Naija Ninja and others, Sound Sultan has shown how the late Fela influenced him to criticise bad governance and social decadence. This he does satirically, adding more entertainment to the videos of his songs. Sound Sultan dressed like Fela during the 2014 edition of the All Africa Music Awards (AFRIMA) in Lagos.
Oritsefemi’s one-off hit
A regular artiste at the Afrikan Shrine, Reggae/Dance Hall, Oritsefemi displays all he got from the late Fela when he released Double Wahala. Incidentally, that song defined his career like none before it. Reports have it that Oritsefemi used the lyrics of Fela’s song in Double Wahala without the consent of the latter’s family. Despite being a hit, there is nothing more to show that the singer can maintain the Fela tradition.
2Baba is apolitical
Like the Fela, pop singer Innocent Idibia has children from different women but he could still not beat the late singer’s to his game. And although 2Baba, as the singer is fondly called, has not formed a political party, he tries to be apolitical, only sensitising the electorate with his Vote No Fight campaign. Like others, 2Baba also claims to have been influenced by the late Fela, among other notable international acts.
is radically bold
Quite radical, Eedris has had altercations with American singer 50 Cent and former President Olusegun Obasanjo. With 50 Cent, it was a personality clash over a superior treatment given to the American rapper when he visited Nigeria in 2004. And with Obasanjo, it was over one of his songs where he described Nigeria with derogatory remarks in the song, Jaga Jaga.
Also belonging to Fela’s school of music, Eedris, apart from singing about the socio-political situation in the country, has also produced a tribute song: After the fallen Afrobeat creator, with Femi Kuti.
and other Ewi lyricists
Another way of throwing jibes at unpopular government and their policies is the poetic lyrics used by Yoruba critics with the Ewi rendition. Although this form is appreciated, only by those who speak and understand the Yoruba language, it is a popular entertainment form of policy criticism.
Just as Fela’s run-ins with the law under different military governments in the 70s and 80s remains one of the events that defined his personality, Ewi exponents like Adepoju and Chief Olu Amusan (a.k.a Torotoro Ayanfe), among others, are men who are known to have thrown fearless punches at bad leadership.
Ewi, described as the most ancient of all musical sounds of the Yoruba, is one legacy of the race which elders regret is not been embraced by the youth. The genre was popular during the military regime, as Adepoju became famous for his criticism of the late Gen Sani Abacha. And although the genre is taking a nosedive, the like of Amusan is among those keeping the tradition alive and preserving it for posterity.
Keeping Fela alive
Two shows – Fela Broadway and Felabration – are events dedicated to keeping the memories of the late Afro beat singer alive.
Fela Broadway represents an inspiring and triumphant tale of courage, passion and love which the late singer stood for. It is a blend of jazz, funk and African rhythm and harmonies. The powerful lyrics of the show harp on the ills of corruption and oppression. The show features several songs of Fela with a dramatic presentation by an international cast and crew.
The show reveals the late Fela’s life as an artist and human rights activist and celebrates his pioneering music in what has been hailed as one of the most exciting, exhilarating and vital stage experiences in recent memory.
The show debuted in 2000 when New Yorker, Stephen Hendel, stumbled across a CD of the Nigerian firebrand, iconoclast, rabble-rouser and composer of genius, the late Fela. He was so obsessed with the music and with the late Fela’s keen sense of social justice that he determined to create a theatre piece to showcase the timeless and universal message contained in how Fela committed his gift as a voice for the disenfranchised.
In 2004, Steve Hendel joined forces with Tony Award-winning choreographer, Bill T. Jones, who he invited to direct the play. Bill then brought in writer Jim Lewis and together the trio set about mounting a series of workshops, involving musicians, actors, dancers and technicians. It soon became clear that attempting to compress the entirety of the late Fela’s turbulent and eventful life into a stage play was impossible.
On the other hand, Felabration is an annual music festival conceived by Fela’s daughter and first child, Yeni in 1998. The yearly show which attracts local and foreign artistes to the New Afrika Shrine, Ikeja, Lagos, is staged in memory and celebration of the late Afrobeat founder.
The one-week programme, which begins on the posthumous birthday of the late Fela, has been marked as a tourism event on the Lagos State calendar.
The show also consists of street parades, symposia on social and topical issues, debates and photo exhibitions.