Hakeem BabalolaWednesday, August 9, 2017

(OCTOBER 15, 1938 - AUGUST 2, 1997)


n the early 70's, or thereabouts, a young man knew something was amiss in the land where one person is allowed to steal a horse while another must not look at a halter. The man opened his "basket" mouth and "talk and talk". He sang and sang about the pervasive diseases in the land of his birth. The obsessive theme of his struggle was for so long centred on government brutality and insensitivity, injustice, human suffering, corruption and embezzlement. He observed a touch of insanity in the system, a sense of lugubrious drollery everywhere that would not dissipate sooner.

And through a weapon of talent, he warned us in his satirical style about impending doom that likely to engulf his land. He was sure that unless we adopt a simple precept - justice and accountability - his land would be heading toward a tempestuous peril. He was regarded as a prophet of doom, though his saxophone was not a threat to his land, unlike the rumblings of their guns tucked in their tummies and cheeks. Nevertheless, successive governments treated him in a brutal symbolic manner the Messiah was persecuted.

Fela had a cocksure attitude about Nigeria and its people and without fear or favour, delivered the message.

And so they thought he was mad. Fela Ransome-Kuti (a name he would soon change to more African-like: Fela Anikulapo-Kuti) was born on October 15, 1938 in a country that has potential being among the greatest on earth, but for certain opportunists who have been at the helm of affairs, and audaciously ruined our land. Fela was from Abeokuta, a Yoruba town about 50 miles north of Lagos known as haven for freed slaves.

He was born like any other child but Fela would soon show the difference. He would be Abami Eda (extraordinary creature). He would be a priest - of music; of art and of spirituality. He would be a nonconformist, an iconoclast who will transform a society by living a life meant only for the strong mind.

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was a brilliant, precocious young man of any subject but chose to speak a bastardized form of English known as Pidgin English. He chose to dress differently and liked to ridicule high culture and established norm of the society. For example, he married 27 wives in one day.

Also, at a time when the Mercedes Benz was a status symbol, Fela in his usual eccentric manner, was reported to have used it to transport vegetables and firewood. He was the son of a distinguished Anglican priest and educator, but chose traditional African religion and medicine. His mother was an activist involved in Nigeria's quest for independence in 1960.

Young Fela worked briefly for the government before he persuaded his parents to send him to England for further studies. He was expected to study medicine, but the inclination in young Fela directed him toward something more fundamental and profound. Something practical to his existence: Music. Music was his message and his message was through music. Instead of stethoscope, he used saxophone to penetrate the heart of darkness and disguise in Nigerian oligarchy. For instance, Fela talked about [government magic that dabaru (prevaricate) everything; that turns electric to candle; that turns green to white; wey steal money for FESTAC; soldiers that flog civilians for street; government that kills its students; how country go dey make money and people no go see the money] etc.

He formed his band in England, and upon returning to Nigeria in 1963, began playing Jazz with little success. The meaningful period of his career, the period he built for himself a conscious, messianic image did not begin until 1969, according to Osofisan. It was during this time his concept for the politically charged Afro-beat came together, after he had heard the Sierra Leonean singer Geraldo Pino. And after he had travelled to Ghana and America, where he encountered the ideas of Malcolm X and later developed a strong interest in politics and civil rights.

Returning to Nigeria for good in 1973, Afro-beat became a huge phenomenon, and by late 70's Fela and his band - Afrika 70 - were stars throughout Africa. Between 1975 and 1977, the Africa 70 (which later became Egypt 80) recorded 17 albums, including Beasts Of No Nation. His top albums included Zombie, Army Arrangement, Suffering and Smiling, Vagabond in Power and the classical No Agreement, which summed up his life struggle in such altruistic allure [I no go gree…make my brother hungry make I no talk…I no go gree…make my brother homeless make I no talk…]

As his popularity grew, Fela utilised his platform for anti-government agitation. He opened a nightclub called the Shrine or Kalakuta Republic in Ikeja, a Lagos suburb. And in 1977, after he had sung forcefully about civil liberties in what was becoming a military state, he got an "official" response. About one thousand soldiers burned his house to the ground and threw his mother out of the window. Fela and his entourage of wives and band members then went to the ruling junta's headquarters and placed the coffin of his deceased mother on the step. He later said he wanted to demonstrate that the power of a dictatorial state was impotent compared to the power of the human spirit. Overnight, Fela became known as much for his politics as for his music.

After military rule ended in 1979, he formed his own party MOP (Movement of the People) mainly to ridicule the politicians. There was nothing unequivocal about him and his style yet his party was not registered .However, there was no question about his undying radicalism for the improvement in the standard of living for every woman and man in his land.

Fela shared a sense of being a minority repressed but not spiritually powerless from the political centre of ruling power and policy making. He was an enlightened minority who described Nigerian rulers as opportunist and "animals" wearing agbada (surplice) and suit.

In the early 80's, he responded to the rise of conservatives like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher with the blunt Beasts of No Nation. He posed fundamental questions that United Nations has not been able to answer up till today. Fela wanted to know what exactly [is] united in United Nations when nations seem to be at loggerheads! That time Iraq and Iran were at war; Lebanon and Israel were at each other's throat; Britain and Argentina had just finished fighting over the Falkland Island, a mere piece of land; eastern and western Europe was also in conflict. Today, Fela's question is much as relevant as when he posed it. Rumour of war - everywhere

Meanwhile, he was becoming a thorn in the flesh of Nigerian government. He was arrested at the Murtala Mohammed Airport in 1984 as he was preparing to leave for a U.S tour in what appeared to be politically motivated. He was charged for exporting foreign currency illegally by the Buhari/Idiagbon's brutal regime. He had served 18 months of a five-year sentence when he was released by the cunning regime of master prevaricator, IBB.

Upon his release, Fela in his usual manner said: "I no go say thank you to any government". In March 1996, gunmen attacked Fela's home where the drug squad held him, saying it hoped to reform his character and lure him away from marijuana, but they later released him. On that Fela said indignantly. "I have been smoking for 40 years. It helps my music. People know I smoke worldwide. It is not drug, it is grass".

His sense of humour never waned. During one of his performances at the Shrine, Fela smoked marijuana heavily, which made him cough repeatedly. Seeing this, the audience quickly offered their sympathy in chorus, "sorry…sorry baba…sorry". But after regaining his composure, Abami Eda retorted: "Na your papa you go sorry for…when Fela smoke igbo finish and cough, you go say well done baba".

He was known as well for his yabis (lampoon) both in his songs and on stage. The acclaimed winner of a "free and fair" election, Late MKO Abiola, did not escape the lethal of Fela's criticism. In fact, he called Abiola a "thief" while categorising the ITT for which Abiola served its interests in Nigeria as nothing more than "International Thief Thief". That's of course is simply a tip of Fela's acerbic frankness.

Even the former Nigerian administrator, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, did not escape Fela's peppery barb. If he were to be alive, it would have been impossible for today's Nigerian government to go scot-free from its unpopular and arbitrary policies against the masses. Abami Eda would have used his instrument of existence to talk about the insensitivity of the ruling government. "The black president" would have opened his "basket" mouth and talked about the plight of Niger Delta people and other minorities. He would have alarmed the nation that governing in our land has become a relay race where one junta or civilian passes the baton to another.

Fela would have sung about the bandits in uniform disrupting the peace of his people. He would have talked about one mad dog that shot a commercial motorcyclist because the boy had brushed his car. Fela would have told us - eloquently - the reason why most Nigerians are being pessimistic about the way things are going in their land. Ah, Fela would have opened his [basket mouth and talk and talk]. He would have enlightened us more about Paris Club debt relief. Fela would have probably categorised PD as People's Democratic Party as Peoples Deceiving People and APC as Another People's Cancer. But he has passed on. Perhaps he was right when he declared in one of the interviews: They can't kill me. I can't die.

If the actions of men are the best interpreter of their thoughts, then, Fela's life and deeds surpassed ethnic and religious bellicose pronouncements, which are now the manipulative techniques being employed by the "owners of Nigeria" to deliberately warp our minds to cause chaos - and this for their own selfishness. In Fela we shall always find a point of view, which can hardly be defined, but it pervades his songs.

Before he departed on Saturday August 2, 1997 at the age of 58, Fela refused treatment - both western and Nigerian medical services on ground of principle. Not every man is a man. Fela was a man. Abacha and his like-minded coup plotters are not. I'm I getting a bit too melodramatic here?

Surely I would rather escape our rulers' meretricious captivation for the glorious melancholy in Fela's songs. Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, a leader in the avant-garde of Nigerian musicians, is dead all right but his legend lives on.