Fela’s success has inevitably awakened interest in its subject – Kuti’s sprawling back catalogue has been dusted down and partially reissued – and reanimated the careers of his sons Femi (48) and Seun (28), both of whom bear a striking physical resemblance to their father and whose music likewise follows the Afrobeat mould created by Fela in the late 1960s. Seun, indeed, now fronts his father’s old band, Egypt 80.
Afrobeat was essentially a synthesis of Ghana’s jazzy highlife with Yoruban polyrhythms and James Brown funk.Napoi and Mattress, two well-known early songs by Fela, were clear and deliberate confrontations in their own time. Open and Close was equally disturbing in due course. There is always something in the denied pleasure of the salacious; Fela was aware of this and made it apparent.
“Being African didn’t mean anything to me until later in my life,” he said in the mid-80s. “When I was young we weren’t even allowed to speak our own languages in school. They called it ‘vernacular’, as if only English was the real tongue.”
Fela changed his name to Anikulapo Kuti at this point, rejecting Ransome as a “slave name”; his new title meant “One who holds death in a pouch”.
Be it through his meaningful, daring and unique style of music, or at times his controversial antics, he was the mirror – and voice – for the oppressed.
His music’s diversity reflected the day’s government’s criminal behaviour, religions’ exploitative nature, evil multinational corporations, sex, pollution, and poverty – ALL which are still pertinent today.
The paradoxical character of Fela was there even at his death. His last record, “Condom Scallywag and Scatter” deplored condoms as un-African. Aids, he declared, was a white man’s disease. Yet confirmation that it had indeed laid waste to Fela – news delivered by his brother Beko, a noted doctor and public health campaigner – jolted Aids awareness in Africa.
Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti would have been 79 this year. It is well within the realm of possibility that he would still be alive if not for the maltreatment meted out by the Nigerian state and the lack of standard antiretroviral therapy.
So, considering the delights of possibility, let us assume Fela is still alive, making music. I can only imagine what the music would be like by now – not to mention the generations of musicians who would have emerged out of the freedom and inspiration of the Shrine, Fela’s music venue in Lagos. By now Fela would be the elder statesman of the African music world, with awards and accolades galore. As it is, we have his music and the memories. Maybe that is all we need.
Aside from Fela – who threatens to become a yet more international phenomenon – it is hard to gauge Fela Kuti’s long-term impact. Afro-beat has never been more popular among westerners; record estimates that there are some 100 Afrobeat bands around the globe, yet only two of them – Femi’s Positive Force and Seun’s Egypt 80 – are in Nigeria. These days the country’s charts are made up mostly of R&B crooners and hip-hop acts.
Fela, the “Afrobeat music” crooner still lives on etched on our hearts as not a man but an
Epitome of art at its peak.
-Idogbo Jephthah For #UnbrokenChords