(This article was first published in 1998.)
Felaism is the product of the society and us. For years to come we shall talk, argue and write about it, trying to arrive at some form of explanations and answers. But I am sure, there will never be a consensus because of the complex nature of the man himself. Sure, like with every mortal there are contracitions. Fela had his own too. Few questions, however, will be posed here. What is Felaism? What drove Fela, did he open a pandora box and found he could not replace back the lid? What happens to Felaism after Fela? For this writer, Felaism is living as dictated by Fela’s life style; specific aspects of these are:
Unrepentant and uncompromising in all struggles.
Being oneself and standing one’s ground.
Courage to willingly suffer for one’s belief.
Fela was indeed his own man. Nobody pushed him around.
Fela, born on 15th October 1938 into a vortex of revolution; he was fed and nurtured on it. This invariably became his being – his very essence it was as if he Fela, the Abami Eda, the “one touched by divine hand“, was destined for the role he was later to play – the Avenger of his mother’s adversaries for what he came to consider a national rebuff and disgrace of his mother – by the Alhaji Tafawa Balewa Federal Government (1960- 66). A classical Oedipus inacted all be it with a different stroke. Fela’s confrontation with authorities in Nigeria therefore, was an Egba feud played out on the national arena. A plot deep rooted like the kind of stuff political dynasties are made of – the struggle for power and control.
Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti it was, it is recalled who mobilized Egba Women against taxation without representation – the fall out of which resulted in the temporal exile of the Alake of Egbaland, Oba Oladapo Ademola II, in 1948. She was one of the women pillars of the N.C.N.C., the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons and champion of Nigeria’s independence. But not sooner was independence secured was Mrs. Kuti removed from political limelight (while people expected she would be given a political responsibility) and reduced to a back stage spectator. There were some public out cry. People felt Mrs. Kuti was unfairly treated by those in government and that it was a revenge. It was not long before the charges of victimization of Mrs. Kuti by the government surfaced and fingers pointed towares Sir Adetokunbo Ademola, the first Chief Justice of Nigeria, son of the dethroned Alake of Egbaland and a bosom friend of the Prime Minister. Also, Dr. N’namdi Azikiwe who deligthed in serving the crown of England by becoming the Governor General and later President of the Federal Republic and with whom she had worked incessantly and untiringly over the years raised no infringement flag on her behalf at least as far as the public could see. This event catapulted the feud from Egbaland to Lagos, the national center. It was easy to make conjectures about why Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was not rewarded with some political appointment for all her efforts and contributions. A theory of conspiracy was founded but the new political class in power acted as if all was well with everyone in the political landscape. Undoubtely Mrs. Kuti herself could not have been impassionate about all this. Some time or another she would have vented her resentment and condemnation of those she held responsible. This must have rubbed on Fela, hearing it over and over each time she was in London during the early sixties, when Fela was a student. Or it could also have been a mother-son-conversation no one was privileged to. If that sounds a bit far fetched and speculative, those who were at the burial and heard Fela’s children Yeni, Femi and Seun say what their father, Fela, hated most and that they intended to honour – namely that Abiola and Obasanjo must never be President in Nigeria, will think differently. And Mrs. Kuti was no lesser a Fela, her son, who must have listened to his mother’s invectives and opprobriums on her detractors..
However, what was without doubt was that Fela was passionately attached to his mother. He derived his motivations and strength from her. In such a relationship between mother and son, it is not uncommon that he may have vicariously internalised his mother’s hurt and pains. The Kuti’s have a code of conduct that abhors hypocrisy and pretence which they value above all else. They believe in the adage that, human make things happen and to never pass the buck if you can help it.
Whatever it was or planned, the seed had been sown: For Fela, it was just a matter of time and all things falling in place for the eventual confrontation with the foes of his mother. Those who new Fela from the early sixties in London watched as he metamorphosed from an cool and clean non-smoking, none-alcohol drinking teetotaller at the inception of the Koola Lobitos (1959-69) into Igbo belching revolutionary and a man of the people. All through his transformation, Fela bidded his time and searched for the appropriate message and weapon for his campaign. It was not until his trip to the United States of America in 1969 where for the first time he was to come to grips with political action in the normal course of his daily work – music brought him in contact with the Black Panther for Defence and opened his eyes to the struggle of the masses and the oppressed. Met a mentor, the beautiful Miss Sandra Daniele, read books on Black History. One book which motivated him greatly was “Black man of the Nile”, Dusty Johnson gave him, written by Professor Ben Johanan, the Ethiopian. Fela learned fast and by the time he returned in 1970 to Nigeria, he had found the power of music and the weapon with which to send across his message Social Justice – black civilisation and history. Music in a way, has always been a source for social criticism. But never has any musician explored it like Fela. Hitherto music had remained ceremonial at the end of community or social events revolving around the life cycle of birth, coming of age, marriage and death; and group work. Never had anyone used it for socio-political struggle like Fela. His first hit Jeun Ko’ku released not too long after the end of the Nigeria/Biafra war was not ony timely it was appropriate and relevant..
Jeun Ko’ku in Yoruba could be interpreted in many ways.
1: It could mean “eat and die” simply like that or
2: could be directed at those sit tight politicians and soldiers in office refusing to let go while squandering the purse of the nation. A view popularly held at that time. It was an instant success..
Nigeria had just fought a successful major modern war and had emerged a united nation with a large military and potential for a rapid technological development. There were vocal expressions for change. And for Nigeria to capitalize on the gains of the war by charting a revolutionary development for Nigeria. Not long he released Mr. Who are you? Supposedly aimed at the then Lagos State Governor. But now Fela’s music was like magnet, pulling all the progressives together – stirring peoples political consciousness and awareness. A national tour was arranged to get Fela further exposed to the people under the aegis of the Chris Okoli Promotions. Following the successful outcome of that tour and Fela’s return to Lagos, a radical left wing organization known as the Nigerian Association of Patriotic Writers and Artistes – NAPWA – was founded including such members like Akin Ogunmade-Davies, now late, Wole Bucknor, Rasheed Gbadamosi, Bayo Martins, Kanmi Ishola Osobu, also late, Olu Akaraogun, Naiwu Osahon, Lindsay Barrett, Oladele Bank Olemoh, late John Chukwu, Frank Okonta, and others, it formed a Think Tank around Fela for the ideological development of Pan-Africanism with his Afro Beat Music, organize mass rallies and publicity strategy which made sure Fela was constantly in the news. It worked. In no time Fela had become a national household word in Nigeria. Afro Beat was played on the airwaves in Nigeria, Africa, Europe, and America gaining world attention. Contracts for international concerts were starting to flow in. Due to his influence foreign artistes like Ginger Baker, Paul McCartney, made recording Trips to Nigeria. .
In 1974 Fela appeared with the great African American blues singer guitarist, B. B. King, in a joint promotion between the Music Foundation of Nigeria and the United States Information Service, at the Mobolaji Johnson Sport Center, Yaba. In 1976, John Darnton, an American journalist, who was at the time living in Lagos, wrote a column on Fela for the New York Times. The Nigerian government was unhappy with the article and Mr. John Darnton was promptly and unceremoniously whisked out of Nigeria. At the same time Fela was getting more defiant and popular. He had the Nigerian audience in his hands. He was at the peak of his creativity. Prolific and genial, he released more and more records, one following the other: Confusion, Lady, Shakara, No Poi, Yellow Fever, Eko Ile, Zombie, etc. Emboldenend by success, money, power and fame. Fela took on all the trappings of the super star having declared his house on Agege Motor Road “Kalakuta Republic”. Fela now rides on the back of a donkey to performance in the Shrine across his house bringing all traffic from both ends of the main road to a standstill until Fela has finished crossing the road. Also, at this time, Fela was noticeably edgy, haughty, and reckless, allowing touts to openly display trays of Nigerian grass (Igbo) on the main side walks in contradiction of the law. Strange things begun to happen in Kalakuta, but first Remi, Fela’s wife had to leave the house. Unseeming girls and crowd now surrounded him. There was definitely a change in the man. In retrospect it was as if Fela had ultimately decided “the time had come” – to fulfil his heart mission. This sure was for Fela a personal affair that no one needs to be involved. Both the tactical and operation plan of it he held close to his heart concealed from the world. It seemed clear that apart from the purely social struggle and Pan-Africanism that bound him with his intellectual co-equals, Fela must have had a hidden agenda they did not know. To keep on the charade he had to put on a mask, shutting himself off his former associates and confidants and reneging on professional associations and colleagues who held him in high esteem and surrounded himself with sycophants, yes, Sir, men and women, who were in no way compatible with his level and upbringing..
As chairman at one such meeting, he was requested to lead the meeting with a prayer. Fela bluntly renounced the suggestion and said:”For me, o, I do not pray” then stood up as he was walking away he retorted:”Na poor people dey form union” and left. Behold, that was the last attempt to form the National Union of Nigerian Musicians..
In Kalakuta he set himself up as the imperial Pasha of the commune..
Though everyone may call him Fela, but no one contradicts Fela. When he held court in his “State”, his judgement was absolute. There was no other place to appeal above him. Once, when I attempted to mediate his ruling he said:”Santi, if you want to come back into this house, do not put yourself in my matter, I beg”.
Fela and the many women
In Kundalini mysticism and philosophy sexual ecstasy is reputed as the highest stimuli of creative imagination. There are numerous stories abound about creative artistes and geniuses concerning their escapades and exploitations of sex. Fela, the genius he was, I imagine may have directed his prolific sexual urgings for similar achievements..
As these scallywakers apologies to the Abami Eda, mushroomed around him and secured themselves in his house, trouble started. They became sullen and hedonistic and, began to set themselves above society and civic rule. Crowds sometimes would cluster behind the Kalakuta fence to observe Fela’s monkeys and the weird looking girls in the compound and there would be complaints of molestation and assault from passers by and onlookers but Fela paid no heed to these charges, although he himself cannot be described as a violent man. In all the years that I have known him, I have never seen him lift a finger in anger to hurt anyone yet he condoned the acts of these hangers on who would always start the trouble and have him dragged into it.
Fela was most astute and dedicated, intelligent and highly sensitive a person, a master of sophistry. Perhaps it was the strain of having everything bottled up in his chest that may have clouded his vision. His anti-authoritarian stance, notwithstanding, a man like that cannot, in the strict sense of it, be said to be aversed to the rule of law and order. .
I believe deep down Fela believed in fair play, justice and the upliftment of the black race. He was concerned and confronted with the abject poverty, disease, ignorance and superstition wide spread in the continent and in particular, Nigeria. Fela believed in mass education, and development as the surest means of social transformation. Hence he had focussed his message on the masses and the Ajegunle, Maroko and Mushin peoples, so that they can lift themselves up and aspire to higher heights. It was never envisaged to eradicate social class but that there should be a common standard of living for all, say if the Mushin man or woman cannot afford an air conditioner for cooling like the Ikoyi-man, he or she can afford a standing fan at least. Live in good homes with proper sanitation, water, electricity, light and walk on paved roads with covered drainage and can afford three square meals daily, and have access to health care. Fela did not plan coups or the overthrow of any government.
Oh, yes, Fela is right, Colo-Mentality and servitude are still very much a constraint in post-colonial Africa, it is enervating and must be eradicated if we must develop as a people. But Fela was vilified, victimised, misunderstood and frustrated by the powers that be. Things, however, came to a head after FESTAC 77. On February, 18, that year, when an Army detachment stormed his Kalakuta Republic and thoroughly mangled him up together with all else and set the building ablaze.
The trouble started as far back as 1974. Fela had refused to be part of the national package to the Festival (FESTAC) because of government rejection of musicians proposals for participation. So when FESTAC 77 got on the way, Fela remained in his Shrine were nightly he entertained the stream of the foreign artistes, journalists, visiting dignitaries, and members of the Diplomatic Corps who converged there to hear him ridicule and make jest of the Nigerian society laced with heavy socio-political satire pointing to the ills of the nation: corruption, confusion and leadership ineptness of the politicians. Government agents kept quiet not to tarnish Nigeria’s image during the global event and waited till the end when they pounced. I remember the first attack on his house by the police in 1974. Later that day after the fiasco, people’s lawyer Kanmi Ishola Osobu and I visited the house, we found Fela all ruffled up, he looked real bad. Kanmi and I drove him to the LUTH hospital where he had nineteen stitches to his head. As Secretary General of the National Union of Nigerian Musicians, I stood bail of Naira 5.000.– (then). Months later on a Sunday, mid-day, I was in the apartment with my wife and children, when a police jeep from the central police criminal force, Alagbon, drove into the compound. Three plain clothes police officers walked in , introduced themselves and why they had come..
Did I know that Fela had travelled? I said, yes, that Fela had informed me before. They said, well, I should produce Fela, the police needed him to help their investigation at that moment being as it was part of the conditions of the bail bond I signed. I told them that was not possible, and that it was a stringent interpretation of the law, and that Fela in any case had not travelled out of Nigeria..
“He is not supposed to leave Lagos” one of them quibbed. Then they threatened me with arrest unless I go with them to Ilorin to fetch Fela. Along the way they complained about Fela, they said his trouble was getting too much and that he behaves as if he was the only person living in Nigeria. The police superintendent, Paul, I think, his name was, suggested that I withdraw my bail and pressurized me to sign the revokation in the car before we get to Ilorin. I did, on the ground that I will serve Fela the paper myself. He said the plan was on the way to Lagos, Fela will be let down to exercise and then shot in the back. “The police will allege that he was shot whiles trying to run away”..
When we got to the night club in Ilorin, where Fela had the performance, I don’t remember why and how it happened now, but somehow, I did not see Fela that day. I however talked with J. K. Buraimoh, told him what the police had talked before me and that he should alert Fela forthwith and gave J. K. the signed paper. J. K. disappeared upstairs. Shortly after the three policemen left the car and came inside. J. K. returned, attended to the police men. He said, I think, if I remember properly now “Fela is packing his suitcase upstairs and will join soon”..
The three men clustered together in a low whisper, suddenly we hear the revving of an engine outside. By the time it would dawn on them that it might be Fela and to take preventive counter action, the car had faded away into the darkness of the night..
Sure it was Fela, alright. How did he do it ? Where did he pass and no one saw him? We, the three policemen and I promptly got into the jeep, decidedly to give Fela a chase. “There is a check point ahead”, one of them said. “We shall get him there, you see what I tell you about this Fela?”.
However, the chase was in vain. By the time we got to Moshalashi, Fela’s car was parked in the Kalakuta compound. The police were told they cannot see Fela and that he has been quarantained and in bed. We drove to Force Head Quarters Alagbon. There I was confronted by a plain clothes police officer. I think his name was Kassim, who bullied me, told me I was out of my mind for protesting about the way I was taken away from my home and family and driven to Ilorin. We were on this argument, when Beko, Fela’s brother came, and relieved me of the bond and took over..
Sometime later, when Fela brought up his Naira 100.000.000 suit (100 million Naira) against the government, I volunteered to testify to the police plot to kill him. But Fela would not have it, and the matter appeared to have died there, hence it is recalled here..
From then on it was a pattern repeating tiself. Fela yapping the government, and the government reacting. Yappis, beating, shoving, raiding, harassment, detentions, and finally the burning of Kalakuta Republic and government acquisition of the land. Fela rendered homeless for a while. The death of his mother, all brutalized and turned him into an angry man. Even the belated appointment of Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti as a minister by the Babangida regime, this writer suspects, was an appeasement to the Kutis for wrongs done them many years before..
But for Fela, at that point, it was rather too late in the day. A man who had nothing more to loose than his dear own life, and he saw that the lid of the box had opened too wide and that it could no longer be replaced.
All the rest is now history but Fela sailed through with his vibrant and scintillating music that had stood him out as one of the outstanding musicians of the twentieth century. A great avatar, call it a masochist if you will, who took upon himself the pains and sufferings of others. Even in death, the Kutis showed class and that they are made of sterner stuff, unbounded by time worn traditions and hypocrisy. Fela’s children spurned the post humous title bestowed on their father. Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti and other relatives by far older than Fela participated fully in the funeral rites. The absence of a priest at Fela’s grave side usually to pray for the repose of the soul which in Fela’s case had been proclaime welcomed in heaven with the sighting of the mid-afternoon moon, while his body laid in – state at the T. B. S. ; was most visible and telling. There were no frenzied slaughtering of cows, sheep, chickens, and cooking to feed sympathizers. All the funeral arrangements were executed on time according to the programme..
In conclusion the submission of this paper is, Felaism lives, it is real. But like in every.
mortal thing, Felaism has it’s flaws and contradictions, it also has it’s inspiring positive aspects. However, the consensus of the masses is, that Fela spoke the truth and made them aware of the socio-political inequity and the racial injustices of the world..
It is now left to us, friends of Fela and admirers, to collect, compile, document, and to put Felaism and all that it connotes into the correct perspectives for dissemination..
Felaism – no man ever had lived Fela in Nigeria. Abi a lie?.
Afe fe rere O’Abami Eda..
© Bayo Martins (✝), Lagos, 22nd August, 1997
Founder President of the Music Foundation Archives, Lagos