Remembering FELA! (2)

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“Good evening, Fela.”

Silence.

“Fela, good evening o!”

Silence, yet again.

“Ah! Fela I de greet o.”

No response.

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti sat cross-legged like a meditating yogi in the centre of his sprawling bed, grim in silence, both hands under his chin, his elbows resting on his lap. He gazed into nothingness, apparently lost in his own thoughts.

I had never met the Afro-beat master in that kind of mood before, all by himself, almost completely crest-fallen. What could be agitating the great man, this much?

He was expecting me and usually would welcome me warmly and we would exchange banters and laugh heartily. This was a different day and I hardly made myself comfortable before the source of his agitation presented itself.

Suddenly the wild voice of an angry woman tore through the usual commotion of a typical Kalakuta evening: “Fela, ‘e nor go better for you…ba-aastard!”

A little respite. Some more commotion in the background. The voice peeled out once again, rising to an even higher pitch, “Fela, I say ‘e nor go better for you, lai-lai!” Silence, once again.

Najite, one of the few remaining of Fela’s original 27 “queens”, tetchy as a mother hen, blind, as a raging bull, was in one of her foul moods. No wonder why Fela, the ferocious tiger, looked this subdued today, I thought. “Overtake, don overtake, overtake!”

THE FIRST AFRICA SHRINE: its activities, also kicked down by military jackboot.

Even though he wore an aggressive and sometimes quite intimidating mien, Fela was a very accommodating man, one who cherished personal liberties and freedom and more often than not, allowed those around him a lot of latitude to express themselves and live according to their true nature.

He believed that self-confidence was very necessary in the development of the mind and so, gave everybody his or her due space and treated everyone equally. It was always amazing to see the quick transformation that young people underwent, shortly after coming under his wing.

Fela hated subservience with a great passion and saw any such tendencies as part of the vestiges and leftovers of colonialism and wrong education by the colonial masters. This was one reason, for instance, he would not be addressed as, “sir”. Everyone around him, including his own little children, called him Fela.

However, do not take the man for granted. It was not for nothing that Fela was dreaded in days gone by, even by law-enforcement agents. In his heydays, it would probably take about six well-fed policemen to wrestle him to the ground, fists, boots, truncheons and all, flying, while arresting and taking him away. And this would have been after a fierce battle with his boys, who equally feared neither guns, nor death, itself.

“Dem wan’ carry me go jail, na him I go do their work for them, waka go enter dem motor by myself? No, they have to carry me, mehn!”

In his lifetime, the music legend was easily Nigeria’s most recognised face anywhere in the whole wide world. However, despite his great fame and privileged background and education, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was, basically, a very simple man who interacted with all, irrespective of class or age. This was one reason his boys and many of his teeming fans loved him passionately and believed in him, fanatically.

“I believe everybody in this world has something to offer. That’s my belief and because somebody thinks you are destitute doesn’t mean you do not have a brain.”

Fela, with members of his defiant household.

To make his point that the hood does not make the monk, the man once had a suit made for his pet monkey. He also bought a Mercedes Benz car those days, when a Benz was truly a status symbol that very few could afford, had a load carriage built on its roof and put it at the disposal of market women, who used it to carry their sundry wares, from firewood, to palm oil and all.

“I have used my life as an experience for people to see…you mean if I wear a shirt and a coat, I have improved? All I am trying to show people is that the way somebody appears is irrelevant…clothes are just to enhance a personality that is not there, in the first place.”

Ever defiant, Fela so detested foreign influences on Africans that it would appear that sometimes, he was making deliberate efforts to obliterate his own past. Though his mother, a great woman leader and political figure in her time, reputed to be the first Nigerian woman to own and drive a car, the man, himself, even at the peak of his wealth and fame, drove himself and his staff and household members around, in any of his fleet of not-so-comfortable buses.

At some point, when he no longer owned a vehicle of his own, (not because he could not afford it) he either depended on friends like me, when we stopped by, to take him to his performances at the Shrine, or went about his business in the regular ramshackle taxis or ‘kabukabu’, just like anybody else. Despite having been educated at the prestigious Trinity College of Music, in the United Kingdom, he sometimes, deliberately spoke wrong English in further defiance, to make his point.

“The African now worships God directly, through Christianity and ‘Moslemity’ and this creates backwardness for Africans.”

Indeed one of the great losses to Africans in particular and humanity, as a whole, was the burning down of Fela’s home, the Kalakuta Republic, on Friday, February 18, 1977, by rampaging soldiers. That place was not just Fela’s home but also a very important museum of a sort.

The Nigerian press screamed to high heavens over the destruction of Fela’s house.

Apart from the destruction of the soundtrack of his film, ‘The Black President’, in which he invested over a million naira of those days, (worth millions of dollars, of today’s money) many rare and important books and other treasures, perished in those fires. And despite the millions that Fela made, in his heydays, he hardly kept any money in the end, what with his endless court battles with the authorities and the final destruction of Kalakuta and the original Shrine: “I keep money, but they took it from me.”

But, what did money really mean to Fela, a man who kept a large army of non-relatives, of different tribes, nationalities and backgrounds, in his home, a good many of whom were destitute or stranded young people, who had nowhere else to go?

“You see, I like to invest in human beings, I like to spend my money on human beings. What’s the use of money, if you cannot spend it on people?”

IN COURT: Two defiant, pro-democracy heroes, Gani Fawehinmi and Fela.

Please, read on:

BCO: Fela, something very touching happened whilst we were in Liberia. Anywhere you went, people responded to you so warmly, they just fell over themselves, to catch a glimpse of you. Even in Abidjan, when we made a brief stopover quite late in the evening, there was a mild commotion around the aircraft when word spread that you were on board. How does this affect you as a person, especially after all you go through in this country, your own country?

FELA: Oh! It makes me feel happy, that I have not struggled for my country and my continent, for nothing.

Fela and his bosom friend, Thomas Sankara, in Burkina Faso

BCO: Your friend, Thomas Sankara, has just been murdered. What did Sankara mean to you and how do you feel about his death?

FELA: (Long pause)…His departure is a terrible blow to the political life of Africans, because he was the only one talking about African unity, what Africans need, to progress. He was the only one talking. His loss is bad…(long silence)…but my mind is cool because Sankara’s death must have a meaning for Africa. Now that Sankara has been killed, if the leader of Burkina Faso, today, is not doing well, you will see it clearly. This means that in future, bad leaders would be very careful [about] killing good leaders.

BCO: You are looking at a systematic change?

FELA: There could be a quick, systematic change. There must be a systematic change. For instance, talking about the strike in Nigeria now, this is a strike the government has been trying to stop but people still went on strike, anyway. Before now, they would have managed to stop that strike – things are changing, very soon, governments will no longer be able to do what they are doing today.

BCO: There is this enigmatic side of you that one really cannot put a finger on. Here you are, at 50-something, still able to carry on with the energy of a man in his 20s, what is the secret of your youthfulness? Is it a state of the mind or something that you take – some elixir?

FELA: Both. State of the mind, my Africanness.

BCO: Have you discovered some African mystery?

FELA: Not anything I can talk about now but, may be, in future.

BCO: In other words, there is something that keeps you going.

FELA: (Pause)…Yes, something keeps me going.

Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Fela’s equally famous and defiant mother.

BCO: Now, someone very dear to you passed on about 10 years ago. I am talking, of course, about your late mother, for whom we all had a lot of respect. Are you still in contact with her, spiritually? I ask this, knowing your great belief in the supernatural.

FELA: Yes, I am.

BCO: How does she inspire you from the Great Beyond?

FELA: She gives me signs, she speaks to me through my Shrine and that spiritual development has made me more patient than ever before, that things will change, whether the government likes it or not.

BCO: Things must change?

FELA: Yes, things must change.

BCO: Well, I’m not taken in by this, ‘things must change’ stuff, we’ve said and heard it so many times before, what sort of change are we really looking at here, are you talking of a civilian, or military…?

FELA: (Cuts in)…Change, for freedom…people will realise that freedom is necessary for their country. Freedom, is freedom of the mind, freedom of being able to be patriotic, freedom of being able to recognise what being a citizen means; freedom of being able to be un-oppressed, that is freedom. When we get that freedom, then progress starts from there. When people have freedom of the mind, then political progress comes next.

Vincent van Gogh: self-portrait.

BCO: Let us backtrack a little into history and borrow a chapter from the 19th century European art scene. One of the great personalities of that era was a Dutch Post-Impressionist painter, named, Vincent van Gogh. The man was actually looked upon as (for want of a better word) mad, because in his works, he actually tried to look too critically and too closely at the spectrum of light, to see and portray life as it really is. Now, you are one man who has tried to look at our society critically and present things exactly as they are, without any pretensions, whatsoever and for this, people generally feel that Fela is a weirdo. How do you feel being so different from other people, doing only what your mind tells you to do, without minding anybody or opinion?

FELA: I don’t feel I am different from other people, it is other people that feel they are different from me but that’s their problem, I don’t have a problem, after all, it’s my life. Ok, I have used my life as an experience for people to see and that’s enough. Up till now I have not failed, I am still useful and people respect me for my steadfastness and truthfulness. That is much more important than money.

BCO: Nevertheless, talking about money, Fela, you are somebody who has made money. I am not talking about keeping it – that is another matter now – but a lot of money has passed through your hands…

FELA: (Cuts in)… That is true…

Testifying at the Justice Kalu Anya tribunal, (a.k.a. Unknown Soldier) Fela counts his losses.

BCO: But you don’t keep money, what is your attitude to money and material things, generally?

FELA: I keep money but they took it from me. I like to keep money, actually. I like to keep it in the bank. I made money…you see, the point is, when I make enough money to keep, I keep it. But when I don’t make enough money to keep, I don’t keep.

You see, I like to invest in human beings; I like to spend my money on human beings. What is the use of money, if you cannot spend it on people? That gives me happiness.

BCO: Now, you have touched upon a subject that attracted me to you, in the first instance, one that strikes a [deep] chord in my own soul. All around you are people, many of whom were actually destitute before getting here, but here you are, a son of a princess, as it were, dining and wining with them, living under the same roof and sharing the same facilities. Let me ask you, is this what you are alive for, is this what keeps you going? Do you live your life for other people?

FELA: I believe everybody in this world has something to offer. That is my belief and because somebody thinks you are a destitute doesn’t mean you do not have a brain to be useful and probably even more useful than those who are not destitute. Therefore, I prefer to lay my bet on the so-called destitute.

BCO: If you became the president of Nigeria by any chance, what would you do with the ordinary people of this country, how would you motivate them and harness the enormous human resources that this country has?

FELA: (Very long pause)…Hmmm…(pause)…When this country makes so much money from oil and we do not benefit from it, it is criminal. We do not make money from oil alone, we make money from industries. Nigerians have not been enlightened as to how much Nigerian industries make from exports to neighbouring African countries. Apart from other raw materials that we sell, we only talk about oil, others are not talked about. Therefore, there is enough money to create life subsidy for the people of this country.

For instance, people should not pay tax in this country. In fact, paying tax in this country, to me, is a useless exercise. Government prints naira, distributes the naira and collects it back again. The essence of our progress, financially, economically, is not felt by the people. A situation should be created where all Africans have equal rights and equal opportunities. Today, it is only the soldiers and police that have opportunity.

In my own time, in the time of Africa, people should have, if not more opportunity than the soldiers and police, equal opportunities, with them.

In his trademark panties: Fela, relaxing at home, with young Seun Kuti.

BCO: Now, the ordinary man in the streets – I am not talking about the few that can see beyond the smokescreen – sees Fela as that rascally man. If you became the president, are you going to, for instance, continue doing those personal things as wearing your pants to receive guests, or would you improve upon some of those habits?

FELA: You mean if I wear a shirt and a coat, I have improved?

BCO: No, no, no…

FELA: (Cuts in)…If I wear a dress over my pants, I have improved? All I am trying to show people is that the way somebody appears is irrelevant. It is only a lesson. That is why, people who don’t dress well, I still accept them. They call them destitute because they don’t have money to buy clothes.

I don’t wear my pants because I don’t have clothes, I wear my pants because they are comfortable and that does not disturb my mind – from talking the truth and doing the right things. Doing the right things and talking the truth are what human beings are born for. Clothes are just to enhance a personality that is not there, in the first place…(prolonged, general laughter)…

So, one must learn to make a personality out of truth and goodness, instead of relying on clothes. That is my philosophy.

BCO: Talking about philosophy, Fela, do you believe in God? What is your God, what do you worship and what does He mean to you?

FELA: I believe in God, but God has finished his work. He has passed the rest to our ancestors. Therefore, Africans, in future, through governments, through religious or spiritual teachings in schools, should be taught that people should ask for things from their ancestors, not from God.

White men brought their approach to God, to us. Africans know that ancestors have been put in-charge. God is too great to be working everyday. God lays his work two thousand years ahead. So, when he lays his work out for the next two thousand years, ancestors, as spirits, are put in-charge as ministers, to do the work that people think God does, everyday. Africans knew this, until the Christians and the Muslims came to now divert our minds away from what will give us progress. The African now worships God directly, through Christianity and ‘Moslemity’ and this creates backwardness for Africans. We don’t know how to place ourselves rightly, anymore.

BCO: You are a man who means so many things to so many people, what does Fela Anikulapo-Kuti mean to you, Fela?

FELA: He who emanates greatness…(prolonged, general laughter)…who has death in his pouch and never dies…(more laughter)…

IMMORTAL, UNFORGETTABLE: Fela ANIKULAPO-Kuti, the man who never dies.

(Concluded on Friday, keep a date.)

Photo Credits: Fela & Sankara, Fela & Seun, Fela & Gani (Courtesy, Femi Osunla Photos); ‘Nigerian Press’, Fela at Tribunal (Courtesy, Punch Newspaper); Mrs.Kuti, Fela’s Household, Afrika Shrine (Courtesy, Google); ‘Immortal Fela (Courtesy, Yeni Kuti); Vincent van Gogh (Courtesy, wikiart.org). 

Illustration: Basil Chiji Okafor.

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