Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Fela for court today: Africa, tomorrow

By E. Ablorh-Odjidja

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the Nigerian Afro-beat exponent, who has successfully fused music and politics to put his views across to the public was jailed last year for a currency offence. This writer reviews Fela's work and experiences against the backdrop of Africa's explosive politics.
There are those who question the wisdom of washing one's dirty linen in public. Except in this case the linen is out on the cloth line, unwashed. In view are all the holes and stains one would ordinarily not want the world to see. Such is this documentary on Fela MUSIC IS THE WEAPON - by Stephane Tchal-Gadjieff and Jean Jacques Flori, as seen recently on Public Broadcast Service (PBS) television and billed as FELA, THE BOB MARLEY OF AFRICA for America.

If Fela is the Bob Marley of Africa, then he is a protest singer, and a very good musician. But unlike Bob Marley, he is at war with his own. society, Nigeria, using his music as his ultimate weapon. This documentary is an extension of this war, and it throws up some horrifying images about Nigeria... and Africa.

Images matter in America. Presidential campaigns are won or lost on images. America's experience of Africa are mostly about images, negative ones of course - Typical head of state in Africa? Idi Amin. Nutrition in Africa? Ethiopia. Racial superiority? "Me, Tarzan and Jane". Dominant population? Wild animals and a host of bad news items. The positive images, meanwhile, are left buried in the metaphorical jungles of Africa.

But whose fault is it? Africa has so far adamantly refused to allow internal criticism to help rid herself of these images. She refuses to recognize that free exposure of some of these problems may jolt better senses out of her people. She will rather look on any source of internal criticism as hostile. Those who do criticize she regards as unpatriotic, anti-revolutionary, or plain trouble makers.

So, occasionally, when outsiders expose critical images about her, as in the case of Ethiopia or this one on Fela, and no matter how imperfect these exposures may be, some of us, Africans, are tempted to applaud the effort. We cannot do it. So let those who can, do it for us.

Fela is a superb, original and creative musician, a very African musician with his roots firmly planted in his native Yoruba music. He is also very literate and has given concerts in many countries inside and outside Africa with his band

My only regret is that for most of the time these films are shown outside Africa, when they really need to be seen inside Africa.

MUSIC IS THE WEAPON is a documentary about a man who dares to stand up for his principles. And now of the title of this article - FELA FOR COURT TODAY - is borrowed from an actual headline of a Nigerian newspaper article of the time detailing this man's troubles with government, in or around 1981. Unlike Bob Marley, Fela Anikulapo - translates "I have death in my pouch" - Kuti has not been popular with any government of his country, military or civilian. He maintains an uncompromising attitude toward both.

This documentary is uncompromising too, very effective but not pretty to watch. However, it will not do, as sometimes is the custom, to accuse the foreign film makers of racism, since the film really represents Fela's opinion about his own country. It is Fela's voice that runs the commentary; a sad commentary about a country he obviously loves.

Unfortunately, for Fela to tell his story, the seamy side of Nigerian society has to be exposed; the squalor, the go-slow traffic which symbolizes artificially created wealth, the lynch mobs ruling the streets, police and soldier brutality, and the senseless arrogance and corruption of a few rich folks.

In case I am to be accused of running Nigeria down if only because I choose Nigeria is a great country, vast, diverse, complex, rich in history and, culture, and blessed with the strategic location and material strength which can serve the much sought-after purpose of a United States of Africa.

It is also chock full of creative artists. This is one country in Africa which is always effervescing with creative energy, and in the midst of all this is Fela. My concern for Nigeria is African and creative, therefore, my concern for Fela.

For those who do not know who Fela is, some explanation is due. He is a superb, original and creative musician; a very African musician with his roots firmly planted in his native Yoruba music. He is also very literate and has given concerts in many countries inside and outside Africa with his band of musicians and performers.

In Nigeria, Fela, his group of performers and wives live in a commune he calls the KALAKUTA REPUBLIC. Here, a difference must be made between communes in Africa and America. Those in Africa must be spared the negativism of the word in America, because extended families and people do live in commune or compounds in Africa.

However, Fela's wives are said to number more than twenty. He explains why in the film, which we will come to. An extension to the republic is a big dance or concert hall, situated some distance away from the main KALAKUTA compound, which doubles as a church or shrine. And at which entrance are these words in pidgin English, "SHRINE NA DANGER ZONE FOR GOVERNMENT PEOPLE".

The easy conception is that Fela is a rebel. But is he? Is he a renegade or a hero? It is too early to tell. It suffices to say now that a myth is in the making. And that he is a firebrand who criticizes anything he deems anti or un-African. Most of all, he is against the excesses of authority, and consequently bad government.

One day, during Gen Obsanjo's administration, the authorities move in on KALAKUTA REPUBLIC, raze some properties to the ground bash a few heads, beat up many of Fela's wives, including pregnant ones, throw his mother out of a second floor window into the street below, and arrest Fela.

A short time after, Fela's mother dies. Fela, always the dramatist, carries her coffin on to a government property and leaves the dead body there. The authorities killed his mother, he claims, so they must bury her. This is the man. He is straight and direct and uncompromising. To confirm the abusive power of the security agencies of the Obasanjo administration, Fela then bares his back to camera, all the way to his protruding cheeks. Some prudish individuals may find this upsetting. But you are dealing with an unusual character. Call him an eccentric if you like. But after, if you can, try to think of another way he could have effectively shown the thick welt of scars on his back, which were put there by brutal force.

The point made, you will note how future commentators will tell how the raid on KALAKUTA REPUBLIC gives a picture of government in Africa, where sometimes life under certain administrations can be brutal and always vicious under military regimes.

Fela, firebrand musician

Force is now government in Africa, giving the outside world a deformed, painful, and twisted image of self-rule by the black man. Certain people, acts, practices, especially dissent, are veboten and must be wiped out by force instant justice, people's tribunal and death. But as this story is being written, the artist among us, Fela, says caution: And I do agree because there are irreplaceable objects about, therefore, a bull must not be let into the shop. There are intangibles present that force will further scramble and create larger problems as a result. Our history is evidence.

it will be easy for the "wise" men among us to dismiss Fela - Oh, after all he is ONLY a musician - and then proceed to dismiss his point of view, which is the point of view of this documentary - MUSIC IS THE WEAPON.

Fela's motive for making the film is clear. But structurally, the film is a mishmash of scenes and engages my senses only because of Fela's lyrics and music. As scenes shift rapidly to the beat of this music, I remind myself not to look for visual logic, but for common sense; to listen to Fela's words in order to draw meaning from the visuals.

Slowly, I form my own picture of the man as the film evolves. This man is a griot - Griots, by the way, are those rare men of African traditional societies who say things like they are through music for the benefit of the general society, and are in essence personifications of freedom of speech. It is this tradition then that Fela implies when he says "Music is a spiritual thing. When the higher forces give you a gift of musicianship, it must be used well". It may well be that he is the only one left of this breed in modern Africa. This film about him must not be the last one.

MUSIC IS THE WEAPON is loosely structured, and I am prompted to think that this looseness is not born out of the need for, or sense of style of the film maker, but rather due to circumstances - perhaps, economics and the threat of government presence - which force film makers to use whatever footage is available, if it can tell the story. Fortunately for this film, the message is delivered, even with stock footages.

Witness the following scenes: The I HAVE A DREAM sequence with Dr Martin Luther King, Jnr speaking on civil rights is used to establish a theme for the film and to underline Fela's own dream for Nigeria and Africa. THE LAGOS HIGHLAND GAMES footage is for sarcasm. As a lone muscle-bound-he-blackman dressed in Scottish kilt - call it a case of misplaced ancestry - gets ready to toss a shot-put, Fela says in pidgin English "They go pick one African, a man with low mentality "Then a scene from the NIGERIA CIVIL WAR shows a prisoner of war with both feet tied, helpless and on his back, take a bullet shot right through the rib cage on screen a senseless and needless murder. With footages from THE POPE'S VISIT to Nigeria, Fela comments on religion.

To the Christian or Muslim, what Fela says about the two religions in Africa is sacrilegious. They are both foreign, he says. The God of Africa cannot be imported. The "world is full of higher forces. People must realize that... You cope by the knowledge of your culture". Either Fela is wrong or God must have waited for millennia after creation to hitch a ride to Africa

on the back of Arabian camel or on a European schooner. Either God was in Africa before the European or Arab, or he is not the God of Africa.

No doubt Fela is not trying to invent a new God for Africa. He is attempting a new ritual for the same old God, his God of Africa and your God of everywhere. Unfortunately, there is not much information in this film on what Fela does for this ritual, so I cannot say whether it makes sense or not.

Likewise, there is little information on life inside the KALAKUTA REPUBLIC, apart from the fact of Fela's many wives. I am wondering whether the other musicians have as many wives as Fela, or are they celibate? As for the many wives, Fela should grin and bear the contempt the situation raises in the modern mind. I understand his defence of polygamy - man shouldn't go chasing women in the street. He should bring them home. Overall, he makes a better case against fornication than some intellectuals I have read lately on the subject. His wives are all consenting adults.

Fela never hides the fact that he is African. Even his views on politics are strongly African, and very introverted. All Africa needs is "one good government", and her problems will be over, he says: implying his disappointment with government in Nigeria, and also the wished for multiplier effect of "one good government" that is not taking place. Take a look at the abuses of power in black Africa. Why blame South Africa? Blame Nigeria. Blame black Africa.

It makes sense to Fela for the South African white to want to maltreat the black African because the South African is racist. But what must one make of the African who brutally maltreats his brother African and takes away his most basic human rights? These are disturbing thoughts, yet very truthful. And must bring to shame the bold demonstrations by blacks against South Africa, when not a word is said by this group against atrocities within black African nations.

Fela is not your mainstream African. He is African, yes, and more so. But he is not going the way the rest of Africa is going. For instance, the religious proclivity in Nigeria is for Christianity or Muslim, and not for the type of religion Fela is preaching. So, though, Fela is pro-African, he is viewed as counter-culture and a minority in his own land. Herein lies the tragedy of Africa.

And, thus, my inability to assume or accept Fela's view that he will be president of Nigeria one day. To me, it is important that he remains the griot. It has been proven that anybody can be president in certain nations in Africa today - a master sergeant became one overnight without prior training. The argument - that if a soldier can be president why not a musician - is easy. But try turning a dunce into a griot overnight.

Today, Fela is again in prison and God knows what torture he is going through. But, I believe he will be out one day. What else should I think of the man who says he "has death in his pouch?"

talking drums 1985-04-01 fela prophet without honour in Nigeria