Remembering FELA! ( Part 1)

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Fate, it would seem, chose young Olufela Ransome-Kuti early enough and prepared him for a tough future.

There is nobody I have come across anywhere in my life, who has the capacity to endure pain like Fela did. Nor, do I know of anyone else, who has greater strength of character to stand up for what he believes in, like he had.

Here was a man who literally had every bone in his body broken by police or soldiers during his many run-ins with them at the Kalakuta Republic; had a cracked skull that impaired his ability to play the saxophone, but still carried on to write and perform some of the most intricate notes that anyone could take on that complicated instrument. Here also, was a man who, because of his conviction, could face the rest of the world, unmoved. Fela was simply unstoppable.

Sometimes, completely aloof and detached from the exigencies of life, of trying to massage anybody’s ego, the man, for that reason, often found himself on a collision course with the powers that be. But, could Fela be perturbed?

He was his own man, did things his own way and didn’t give a tinker’s damn, as the Americans would say. Usually, his music would lampoon society (the authorities inclusive) highlighting the many inconsistencies and hypocrisy that society seemed not to notice, but at the same time, continued to condone.

In doing this, his method was always to caricaturise. He had a special gift of graphic expression and could thus bring down some of those lofty norms, from the sublime, to the absolutely ridiculous. Indeed, if he had taken to the visual arts, Fela would no doubt have made a terrific cartoonist!

What were the ingredients that helped form the mind of this great rebel, to prepare him for his later role in society?

Fela himself was to provide an insight into his beginnings, when he recalled his early childhood to his biographer, Carlos Moore, as he talked about his life of activism, of sacrifice and of pain:

“My father was very strict, I thought he was wicked. He kicked my arse so many times. It was tough in school under our father. That’s how he understood life should be, ‘cause he read the Bible: ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child.’ My mother, she was wicked too. She kicked my arse so much man – systematic arse kicking. [But] on the whole, they were beautiful parents, they taught me heavy things. They made me see life in perspective. I think if they had not brought me up with these experiences, I do not think I would have been what I am today. So the upbringing was not negative.”

Early evening, February 20, 1988:

We had just returned from Monrovia, Liberia, after the first leg of a six-nation African tour of the Reggae Sunsplash Festival, organised by Synergy Africa. In all of the shows, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and the Egypt 80 band were billed to be the lead act in a long line of international stars that included Burning Spear, King Sunny Ade, Yellow Man, U-Roy, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare and Judy Mowatt, (one of Bob Marley’s back-up singers, the I-Threes) among others.

Signing on for Sunsplash: (clockwise, left to right) Azuka Jebose Molokwu; Femi Falana; Fela; Bimbo Aboderin; Winston Tubman; BCO; the Sunsplash lawyer.

That evening, I needed to pick up some photographs for my stories from Femi Osunla, Fela’s personal photographer of many years. Conscious of the fact that Fela’s working day at the Shrine began at about 6pm when he usually ‘awoke’ from his ‘bend-bend’ sleep to start an hour-long ritual of attending to his toilet needs, I decided to go to his house a little earlier. I didn’t particularly mean to see him, but someone had gone to tell him I was around so he asked that I be called in.

As I walked past the toilet door to my left, headed straight for his bedroom, where he would usually receive his close friends or do serious business, away from the crowds that usually milled around his home, the unmistakable voice of the Afrobeat master himself, called out to me: “I dey here o.”

I turned around and there, door ajar and sitting relaxed on his toilet bowl, even as members of his household went back and forth and grinning unabashedly at me, puffing away at a huge roll of ‘spliff’, was Fela: “Ah! Basil, I de sh-t o.” Noticing my shock, he burst out into one of those his mischievous cackles. I joined in the laughter and we both laughed heartily. But why did he have to invite me into his very intimate moment, I wondered?

Judy Mowatt

Those who did not know this man very well may never understand this rather bizarre gesture, either. As I was later to find out, Fela the world-famous African icon, who sometimes appeared very cocky in public, could be extremely warm, respectful and loving to his friends and family. Rather than keep me waiting, because he thought I shouldn’t waste my valuable-time at those my working hours (thinking, in fact, I came to see him for an urgent matter) he would rather save my time!

Fela, the free spirit, had conquered everything there was to conquer. He had conquered all fear – the fear of death, or of anybody, or norm. He had achieved absolute freedom and had lived out the maxim that “freedom lies in being bold”.

The man was a great paradox, sometimes gentle as a dove, usually very funny, but sometimes unpredictable and angry and ferocious, as a tiger. Fela was not an easy man to get along with, but he was also a great man and fun to be with, deeply respectful of his friends and ideological soulmates.

Although I had known him for several years before this incident, it had struck me that this man who had so completely freed his spirit, was no ordinary folk. Indeed, there was no other like him. We had all taken him for granted because we saw and interacted with him, everyday. It had also struck me that even though Fela often told us that he would live to be over a hundred years, people like that actually don’t hang around for too long. I therefore resolved to find out what made this man tick, whilst he was still there.

Fela was also a man of moods. When he wasn’t in his elements, everything could just start to go progressively wrong. It had taken me three months, since our return from Liberia, to persuade him to grant me an extended interview. But just as we settled down to it, he suddenly shifted uneasily and sighed, “Oooh! Basil I’m not in the mood to talk…you fit come back tomorrow…” Case closed.

King Sunny Ade

The next day, May 10, 1988, Fela finally opened up! For four consecutive days, he talked about his philosophy, his religion, Africa…and, of course, his women…and more.

Today, August 2, 2019, in celebration of Fela, with his teeming multi-millions of fans, worldwide, 22 years after his passing, we go into our archives to bring you highlights of those exciting moments with the Abami Eda, the mysterious one, or the man who had death in his pouch.

Please, read on:

BCO:  Fela, you have been one of those that have consistently spoken up for the black man and constantly championed his cause. Now, when you look at our situation, do you think the problem of the black man is self-inflicted or is the problem being inflicted upon him from outside?

FELA:  The problem is being inflicted upon us from outside. When the so-called slavery started, Africans were stationed in their own continent but other people came from outside to disrupt their lives. Europeans came from Europe to Africa, we did not beg them to come…

BCO:  (Cuts in)…But they acted with the collaboration of black people, too…

FELA: No, that was not the beginning of the history. The beginning was that they came as explorers, people who were trying to find out facts about Africa. That was how they came. Livingstone, Mungo Park and others, first came as explorers. Then, they started to lie and they brought in guns. All that was never in collaboration with any African.

BCO:  In other words, it was a breach of faith?

FELA:  Yes, it was a breach of faith.

Mungo Park

BCO:  Well, today, there is still that breach of faith from our own brothers, beginning even from pre-independence. Do you think that breach of faith can be stopped and if so, how?

FELA:  This breach of faith is caused by people who think like white men.

BCO:  How can they be stopped?

FELA:  By educating ourselves more and by fighting them. We have to fight the establishment that imposes white man’s principles on the black man.

BCO:  When you talk about fight, do you mean armed struggle, ideological warfare, or both?

FELA:  Ideologically! You can fight without violence. I’ve been fighting without violence.

BCO:  Well, a lot of violence has been visited upon your person, yet your spirit has not been broken, what keeps you going?

FELA:  The fact that I know that definitely, the black man is a great man, that’s what keeps me going. I cannot compromise greatness for science.

BCO:  What do you mean by not compromising greatness for science?

FELA:  Science is not greatness, greatness comes from the mind. Science is technique…isn’t that what they tell us? That’s what THEY tell us. We have great minds. I cannot compromise my great mind for science. If I don’t know science, I know other things better than the white man and those things must be emphasised.

BCO:  Okay, Fela, if you look around this country today, you would seem to have this rather psychic feeling like everybody else who is alert, that some forces of darkness are about to envelope this country and overwhelm the ordinary Nigerian in the streets, how do you assess this situation?

FELA:  This is caused by what Nkrumah called neo-colonialism, that is people who are trying to enslave the black man through foreign economy and foreign education, because when we are doing foreign things, we have accepted slavery. When we have accepted white man’s principles as superior, we have accepted slavery and that is what our leaders are accepting – white people as superiors. That was why when the Second Republic came, I called it Second Independence. This third one that is coming in 1992, I call it Third Independence.

General Olusegun Obasanjo

BCO:  Could you expatiate on this, are you saying that we have always been in bondage?

 FELA:  Yes, we have always been in bondage, that’s what I’m saying. When the First Independence came, we had a Constituent Assembly, they drew up a Constitution for us, we had an election, election failed. Second one, our masters with the guns came – our masters, not our brothers. They came again, in the form of Obasanjo and co, and drew up another Constitution; another Constituent Assembly and we had a civilian government. Now, they came back again, swept the civilian government away, same thing all over again, Constituent Assembly again and Independence.

BCO:  Now, let us look at governments in Nigeria, civilian and military and the general dilapidation of the system, do you think the civilians have been more largely responsible for the mess, in whose quarters would you lay the blame?

FELA:  Civilians and military are all Nigerians. But the point is, the military must always know their place and their place is always in the barracks. The military has no right to intervene in government, unless there is an uprising. There was no uprising before the Obasanjo government, neither was there any even before they carried out their first coup – although, I agreed with the first coup, it was a genuine coup but the young boys that did it were disposed of, then, the old men that wanted to keep us under bondage took over from them and killed those boys – Nzeogwu and Ifeajuna.

When Shagari took over, they did not wait for an uprising – there could well have been an uprising. You see, that uprising would have given us a standard, so that anybody who comes would know that if he misbehaves, he would get an uprising. But they didn’t want their collaborators in Europe and America to think that the economy had failed Nigeria up to the point of uprising, so they quickly came in and took over government.

BCO:  What you are saying in effect is that there are only two classes of people in Nigeria and the first class or group could even include white people, for all you care?

FELA:  Precisely. There is the ruling class – and they are both civilian and military – on one side and the rest of the people, on the other side. So, you see, it is not a matter of civilian or military, they are both friends. Okay, what has happened about all the money that was stolen during the civilian regimes? Nothing! There is no means of getting the money back, the exploitation is still continuing. For instance, Folorunsho Kila is still in prison, but other people who have stolen much more money than he did are still walking free.

BCO:  Are you saying that there is a confraternity to which, if you don’t belong and you are found wanting, you could suffer more?

FELA:  Precisely. You see, it’s a clique.

Fela at home, in his prison uniform, after his release.

BCO:  Let’s get personal now, Fela. Here you are, a man who was arrested for having his own money, although many people would still accuse you of running foul of the law because of your recalcitrance. What did you particularly learn from your prison experience?

FELA: I learnt patience and development of the mind – those two things.

BCO:  How has that added to your personality today?

FELA:  Oh! I’m very patient…(long pause)…right now, for instance, my band is not going to Europe or America to perform because of both political and business reasons, but I’m patient. I know that my time will come. I don’t know – may be, one year, two years, three years’ time. Prison has taught me that, one day, my time will come, when evil forces can no longer withhold the struggle of the African people.

Liberian businessman and major financier of Sunsplash ’88, Keith Wilson.

What is wrong with Nigeria today, what is wrong with my music? I am the best musician in Africa today, but government doesn’t make use of me because I would not work for government, until they have been fair with me. They are not fair. They are not fair with me; they are not fair with millions of Nigerians, so I cannot be on their side. But they should make me be on their side, it’s their duty. It’s government’s duty to make its citizens be on its side. I’m a Nigerian. I want a better life for myself, that’s why I’m fighting.

Visit our Youtube Page, to listen to audio extracts from the interview:

  • Photo Credits: Femi Osunla; Judy Mowatt album; Keith Wilson album; King Sunny Ade (Courtesy Google); Mungo Park (answersafrica.com); Obasanjo (IPTC Photo/Google)
  • Illustration: Basil Chiji Okafor  
  • (NEXT: The Murder Of Thomas Sankara. Look out for the second part of the series, next Wednesday.)

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