The turbulence of the Civil Rights marches of the 1960s was at its peak when, then Fela Ransome-Kuti, travelled to the United States of America with his band, the Koola Lobitos.
Before this time, said Fela himself, “I wasn’t politically minded at all. I made my comments as a citizen. I was just another musician, playing with Koola Lobitos and singing love songs, songs about rain, about people…what did I know?”
However, the man was to become a totally changed person because of his contact and friendship with members of the Black Panther Party, a radical but highly intellectual Black movement, co-founded in Oakland, California, in October 1966, by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale.
By chance, Fela met and fell in love with a Black Panther, named Sandra Smith, “who opened my eyes”. He was also to meet other Panthers, including the famous Angela Davis, professor of philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, once on the top ten of FBI’s most wanted list; Eldridge Cleaver and Huey P. Newton, himself.
“They were the ones that made me feel that I was just sitting down in my country as a useless person…[but] it was Malcolm X’s books that really transformed me and I thought: man, with the kind of mind I have, I shouldn’t just be sitting down in my country like a fool, I must do something, myself. That was the transformation,” said Fela.
Back in Nigeria, the transformation translated into his music, his politics, his religion, his philosophy, and the clean-cut Trinity College, England, music graduate, transmuted into a Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the radical pan-Africanist musical giant and folk hero.
In the process of developing his new concept of Blackism, Fela garnered a huge following worldwide and developed a charisma that literally turned him into a god. He was not just a musician. He was also an African mystic who researched heavily into African traditional religion and folklore and emphasised the importance of looking within, rather than outwards, if Africans and their continent sought real greatness: “The African,” he said, “now worships God directly, through Christianity and ‘Moslemity’ and this creates backwardness for Africans. We don’t know how to place ourselves rightly, any more.”
Was this a major ingredient in the making of the Fela genius and legend? When asked to define who exactly he thought Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was, he beamed, “He who emanates greatness…who has death in his pouch and never dies…”
Now, read on:
BCO: Do you think that this is the quality that attracts you to people, particularly women?
FELA: It is white man that says, “what is in a name?” Africans don’t say so. When you are born, oracles are consulted before a name is given and name is what comes from you from your ancestors. Names, in Africa, show the kind of child someone would be.
Whiteman says, “What is in a name?” Black man says, “Oruko, nro ni”, which means, your name pushes you.
BCO: Talking about your aura and vibrations and women Fela, you are known and acclaimed as a great lover of women and even you agree so. Do you still have any intentions of marrying more wives?
FELA: I don’t believe in marriage anymore.
BCO: So, marriage is in the past?
FELA: No, marriage is institutional.
BCO: What do you believe in then, what do you do?
FELA: I believe in association from the mind.
BCO: In other words, your sexual contact with a woman is not just physical, is there a spiritual side to it, or is it purely a physical exercise for you?
FELA: (Very long pause…) Contact with woman is not just physical. It is the experience of essence, the experience of Creation. So, contact with women is important, spiritually, physically.
BCO: Do you think that there could be contact with particular women that could be negative? Are there women who are negative, that carry around negative vibrations with them?
FELA: For some men who cannot control the situation, yes, it could be very, very, negative, but for a man who can handle the situation, no problem.
BCO: Now Fela, you have these two very young children, one looks exactly like you, while the other looks exactly like your mother. At this age, how do you relate with these two very beautiful people? Do you think there is any significance to their births?
FELA: As a matter of fact, the oracle was consulted when I was going to have them and it said they were going to be special children. That’s all. It said they would be special children of some sort.
BCO: Do you treat them as such?
FELA: I do.
BCO: Let us look at the subject of astronomy. Ancient Africans followed and knew the stars, before Nubia was conquered by the Arabs and Egypt became a land of mullatoes, as we see it today. As somebody who is versed in the subject of African mysticism and nature, how seriously do you take the subject of astronomy?
FELA: Astronomy is quite important in our understanding of spiritual life. But you see, some people are so gifted that even without an understanding of the subject of astronomy, they can still understand spiritual life. People are born with different gifts but astronomy is quite an important part of spiritual life. Astronomy is indeed an African thing. It was first studied and written by Egyptians – black Egyptians – before it was stolen by the Greeks, Aristotle and co. Aristotle was supposed to be a writer, but he was a thief…(laughter)…
BCO: You are a man of great depth and knowledge, Fela, but many people who don’t know you closely may not know this fact. If I may ask, what is your source of information and knowledge?
FELA: I read many books but I don’t read any more, you know. I’ve stopped reading.
FELA: Because I think I’ve known everything I need to know from books. Any information I have now is spiritual.
BCO: Before you went to America, there you were, a clean-cut gentleman from Trinity College, England…
FELA: (Cuts in…) All this change occurred in 1981, when I had a spiritual visitation from my mother…I had a spiritual visitation from my mother in June, 1981. From that time, I stopped reading books. It was after that time, I was charged for armed robbery.
BCO: But before you went to America, you were quite different and even the music of your band then, the Koola Lobitos, was quite distinct from now (though, we always saw that germ of radicalism). What happened, what did you experience in America that transformed you so radically?
FELA: I saw the American black people. I was very colonised before I left for America, I didn’t know much. I only knew Nkrumah but I didn’t even study him enough. He was the leader I liked most because he was talking about Africa, how people should be great, African unity and so on. He was talking about it with three other leaders – Sekou Toure, Modibbo Keita and Ahmed Ben Bella. There was also Gamal Abdel Nasser. These great men were talking about African unity and things like that and I really liked those people.
Eldridge Cleaver (left) and Stokely Carmichael
When I got to America, their essence was felt – the way the black people of America, of that time, behaved. There was a group called the Black Panthers and I really followed them – the likes of Eldridge Cleaver, Huey P. Newton and all those boys; Angela Davies and so on. They were the ones that made me feel that I was just sitting down in my country as a useless person.
BCO: Did you really have physical contact with them?
FELA: Yes, I had physical contact with a few of them. I had physical contact with Angela Davies – she came to meet me with my band, at that time. She came to listen to my band at that time, in Los Angeles. They were calling my band, the African band. I also met Kurango – I’ve forgotten his full names now. I also met Stokely Carmichael [once married to Miriam Makeba] who is now Kwame Toure. He changed his name to Kwame Toure.
In fact, the girl I was staying with in America, was a member of the Black Panther Party and she was always telling me things about black people and so on. Then, of course, Malcolm X, I got into Malcolm X. I didn’t meet him but I got into his books. He had died earlier. It was Malcolm X’s books that really transformed me and I thought: man, with the kind of mind I have, I should not just be sitting down in my country like a fool, I must do something myself. That was the transformation.
Those people were all talking about how black people would be great by being Black; you cannot be great by being White. The music I was playing at that time was not very deep as it should be. It was not totally African. I was trying to impress the white man, trying to break into America by all means, to impress. But I thought I should rather impress my people, first. You must impress home, first. Home must accept you before the outside does.
BCO: This touches upon another point. Fela, these days you no longer play your old hits like ‘Shakara’, when you go on stage and some people begin to rumour that the truth is you no longer play them because you actually can’t reproduce those songs any longer. Could you enlighten your fans some more, what is the truth of this matter?
FELA: My band plays ‘Shakara’ and ‘Lady’ but I don’t play them. I don’t play them because, for me, it’s retrogression. There is what you call technology that records these things [performances]. Okay, I must take advantage of technology – even though it is white, it doesn’t matter. That is the white man’s contribution to the world and we must make Africa’s own contribution, which we are failing to make now.
With that technique that is there, I should move further and now prove that Africans can create a lot of music without falling back on past glory. I don’t fall back on past glory.
BCO: But come to think of it, Fela, you have not really taken advantage of technology, to inject some electronic effects into your music, you are almost like someone who’s playing raw acoustics, you have not taken your music to the technology of the 80s. Why is this so? Don’t you want to make more money?
FELA: For me that’s not music. Electronic music, for me, is not music. Natural sounds, for me, is music.
BCO: I notice you’ve added some giant African drum to your music, lately…
FELA: (Cuts in…) That’s to create rhythm effect…
BCO: That reminds me of the late Jimi Hendrix, who kept dreaming of large band music, which he hoped to use for some kind of therapy, to heal and cure diseases. Do you have such vision of making your band even larger than this?
FELA: I know that in future, music would cure diseases and I also know that my music is going to be one of those kinds of music. I had actually been dreaming of big drums like that in my band for a long time but I did not know how to go about it.
BCO: Sometimes, there is something ritualistic about your music, particularly when you perform it. I particularly remember the early morning hours in Monrovia, as you came on stage to bring the event to a close. There, were people performing very physical movements on stage, yet the effect on the audience was very sobering. Do you feel this same soberness, or is this something you project to the crowd?
FELA: Music is supposed to make people sober. When you perform and people shout, hey! hey! hey! No. People should appreciate music, it’s music of the mind. That’s why you cannot hold it. You can hold other art works. You can hold poetry, for instance. You can hold paintings and sculptures, but you cannot hold music.
For me, I prefer people to sit down and listen to music and after the performance, if they want to clap and shout, they can do so. But they should also remain, to listen to the rest of the music and not just clap and shout. I don’t want to create false ecstasy with music, that is why I create lyrics that reach the mind.
Seun and Motunrayo Kuti: Oracle said they would be special.
BCO: Talking about soberness, Fela, anybody that sees you may instantly conclude that you are a violent man, but there are two songs you recorded that really brought out the sober Fela. One is ‘Palavar’, with it’s slow rhythm and the other is the one in which you were almost weeping – “them kill my mama…them kill my mama…them carry everybody go, inside jail…” you were almost weeping there…
FELA: (Cuts in…) As a matter of fact, I was not almost crying in the studio when I was recording that song, my voice just went like that by itself and I was surprised because I did not intend for it to be that way. That shows you the ‘spiritualness’ of music. You do things you don’t intend. The spirits push you and you don’t know when you are responding to the vibrations of music.
BCO: Thank you very much, Fela…
FELA: (Cuts in…) Ah! This man you too ask question…
Photo Credits: Courtesy, Google.
Illustration: Basil Chiji Okafor.