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Article on Fela Kuti

Posted by norcaljahman 
Article on Fela Kuti
May 04, 2004 06:28PM
Stumbled across this article on Femi's father, Fela. Interesting, figure it might provide some conversation....

Far from home, a Nigerian journalist finds Fela's legacy alive and well in art.

Gbemi Olujobi, Special to The Chronicle Tuesday, May 4, 2004


It is in San Francisco, thousands of nautical miles from my Nigerian home, that I learn for the first time that Fela was born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun. This gaffe is not usual for someone who comes from a culture that places a high premium on names. But many things were not usual about Fela. He was simply Fela to everyone, and you didn't bother to find out more. He was just there, all over the place, sort of ubiquitous, and you felt like you knew him inside-out.

Fela's music blares from loudspeakers everywhere on the streets of Nigeria, contributing in no small way to the aural cacophony for which Nigerian streets are (in)famous. His music carries a nuisance value along with its social relevance. You don't mind the nuisance, anyway. This is your favorite brother yabbing (denigrating) your worst enemy.

Fela's yabis, as his music is fondly called, is often directed at the common enemy -- government, its light-fingered officials and its bourgeois cronies.

Afrobeat is the religion of the masses. It is Fela's opium for the downtrodden. It offers both an escape from their woes and a means of getting back at the oppressor, with yabis (abusive jokes).

Fela was everyone's brother, never uncle or father. I doubt if he invoked such feelings in anyone. Even his children called him by name, simply Fela, like everyone else. No one called him daddy or uncle, despite the fact that he lived to be 58. Another unusual thing, in a society where age is revered and deferred to. He was familiar, in a funny way. If you didn't like his person or his lifestyle, you liked his music. If you didn't like his person, his lifestyle or his music, which would be strange, you liked him because he reminded you of your errant brother. You had the feeling you had known him all your life, even if you had never met him in the flesh.

So, I walk into the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, for the opening of the exhibition titled "Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo- Kuti," feeling "this is something that has to do with me.'' Apart from being a Nigerian, I also share the same ethnic roots with Fela, being Yoruba. The Black President would probably have scoffed at this sentiment and dismissed it with an irreverent wave of his hand. Fela belonged to everyone who identified with him and with his music. Ethnic jingoism was not his style.

Still, this was as close to home as I could ever hope to get in San Francisco. So I strut into the event with my ethnic chip firmly on my shoulders, not minding Fela's pan-Africanism or pan-Nigerianism. "He was my brother, you know," I long to tell everyone. This is my show!

It is a typical Afrobeat gathering, eclectic and unpredictable. This is not your run-of-the-mill exhibition crowd. These are revelers, reveling in Afrobeat. Some are already in the orgasmic throes of Afrobeat, swaying to "Shakara Oloje" and other Fela evergreens, which serenade the background. They are dressed for the event in the unconventional and unlikely clothes "Abami" (the weird one), as Fela loved to be called, identified with. Some are in regular attire, however, the type Fela would have dismissed, with a snort and a sneer, as "colo" (colonial) and "follow follow" (following colonial tastes).

The air is thick with conviviality, but not with Igbo (marijuana). They could at least have burnt Igbo as incense, to appease the spirit of Abami.

I assume there are no Suegbes (uninitiated) here. Everyone should know what they are in for when dealing with Fela. I know what I am in for, so it doesn't bother me when I go for a snack and there is nothing left. A lonely burger stares forlornly at me from one of the trays. The other trays are empty, apparently from a siege by famished devotees of the Afrobeat creed, obeying the instructions of the ''Chief-Priest'' to the last letter.

Fela loved to be called the Chief-Priest. Remember, Afrobeat is the religion of the underdog, the have-nots. And this empty table is just the way the Chief-Priest would have wanted it, to underline the hunger, famine and general depravity that is Africa's lot.

The exhibition statement describes Fela as a political rebel, an outspoken critic of corruption, a spiritualist, unabashed sex-symbol, husband to 28 women, utopian visionary and musical pioneer. This would have elicited a wide, toothy grin from Abami.

The exhibition salutes these same attributes. A colorful array of artists with diverse styles and forms contributed. Fela was largely colorblind, as long as you could connect with the spirit behind the rhythm.

Trevor Schoonmaker, the moving force behind the Fela Project, writes in the exhibition catalog: "The artists, writers, musicians and intellectuals in The Fela Project are bound not by race but by a shared progressive ideology and creativity. Each artist and writer in this exhibition and catalog had a prior affinity with Fela and has examined in his or her work some of the cultural and sociopolitical themes that were central to Fela's life and philosophy. They represent a broad range of ages as well as artistic and geographical backgrounds, and come from countries as diverse as Burundi, Cameroon, Chile, Cote d'Ivoire, England, Germany, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and the United States." Fela relished his broad-spectrum appeal. He really would have liked this.

Barkley Hendricks' "Fela: Amen, Amen, Amen" strikes me like a thunderbolt. An oil and variegated leaf on canvas, it depicts Fela holding a microphone, a halo around his head, with a burning and inverted image of Africa, bound with barbed wire, on his chest. This is an apparent homage to pan-Africanism, which was close to Fela's heart and for which he was idolized. It also has him clutching his famous groin, alluding to his scandalous sexuality, which many who idolized him sometimes found embarrassing. Fela certainly was phallocentric, without inhibitions, reservations or, indeed, apologies.

Many other exhibits also explore Fela's sexuality. I find Sokari Douglas Camp's "Open and Close Chop and Quench" quite exhilarating. A kinetic sculpture of wood, steel, cowries and electric motor, it depicts a "Fela girl" (dancer) in full glory. But on her head is inscribed AIDS, in capital letters. The message I get from this is that Fela's women, who formed an important part of his life and music, may have also been his undoing. They offered him a world of sexual pleasure and fulfillment (open) which ended his life (close). So, Fela chop (enjoyed) and quench (expired) through his women.

Moyo Okediji's "Fela and Ogun in Mythopia" follows Fela to spirit land, where he, hopefully, continues his enjoyment of heterosexual pleasures in the company of Ogun, the Yoruba deity of iron. Ogun, in Yoruba mythology, represents the basic primordial instincts, chief among which is propagation, sex. Ogun is male. He symbolizes masculinity and virility. He certainly would have been Fela's patron saint if this were Catholicism.

Satch Hoyt's "The Shrine," a sound capsule, draws a large gathering. Everyone wants to get inside it. Only one person can go in it at a time, so the queue is long. I don't make it inside, even though I try several times. I hear it houses 27 shrines, one for each Fela queen.

But where is Remi's shrine? Remi was Fela's first wife and mother of his first three children. Her good-natured reply to inquiries on how she felt about Fela taking 27 more wives is reported to be, "At least he is being honest now. He always had many girlfriends." Very typical of a Nigerian woman. She has been conditioned to accept whatever her man does with patience and fortitude. Long suffering is a virtue.

Wangechi Mutu's "Yo' Mama" celebrates Fela's mother, the irrepressible Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, heroine of feminism in Nigeria and one of those who fought for Nigeria's independence. She is reputed to be the first Nigerian woman to drive a car. Fela is said to have inherited his indomitable spirit from her.

I grew up knowing Fela as omo iya aje' (son of a witch). He was said to have been his mother's favorite son. Many myths were spun around their famous relationship. It was said that Funmilayo had magical powers, which she used to make Fela invisible whenever the police came for him, which was quite often because of his posture as a social critic and his open use of marijuana. So invariably, as the legend had it, the police could only find Fela if his mother was not around to work her magic.

And on occasions when these officers found him, the legend said, Funmilayo would use her magical powers to remove Fela's hide and replace it with the hide of another person, so that when the policemen thought they were thrashing Fela, it was in fact another person who was taking the beating. You needed an explanation, really, of how anyone could take the many beatings that Fela took from law enforcement officers. It had to be something supernatural. So this story stuck easily.

Funmilayo eventually died for the love of her son. During an army raid on Fela's Kalakuta Republic, as he dubbed his abode, Funmilayo, then 78 years old, was thrown from a second-story window. She died soon after from the injuries she sustained. To this day, the sound of Fela crooning "dem kill my mama, dem kill my mama, dem kill my mama (they killed my mother)" still makes my eyes moist.

Here, like everywhere Fela's life is examined, it is the relationship with his women -- his mother, who molded his character and imbued him with his crusading spirit, and his queens, who contributed to the making of his legend -- that most draws me in. His sexuality is the most intriguing aspect of him. This is the part of him many people do not understand.

Fela was a musical legend, a pan-Africanist, a social critic, an iconoclast, a renegade and all that. But here again was a world-class lover of women and a husband of 28 wives, who often said, without batting an eyelid, that sex was his favorite pastime. Many would understandably see this as promiscuity. But I beg, as always, to differ on that.

My moment of glory comes when a middle-aged white woman turns to me for an explanation of "Lady Na Master,'' one of the most compelling pieces on display. The work, made of fabric on armature and wood, depicts 27 headless female figures on a table.

"What does this mean?" she asks me.

I explain to her that the work is a celebration of Fela's marriage to 27 women in one day. I notice that this has an effect on her, so I go on to regale her with more tales of Fela's legendary sexuality.

"Ouch," she says, twisting her lips in distaste. "He was so disrespectful of women."

"On the contrary,'' I say. Fela lived in a patriarchal society that glorifies maleness and worships manhood; where a woman is nothing without a man; where a woman must be married to be considered a real woman. Such a society actively encourages women to give up everything for the "fulfillment'' of male affection, defines a woman by her marital status and questions, in the most cruel way, her essence as a woman if she is not married.

So in his own, perhaps warped, way Fela, through his prolific sexuality, was merely alleviating what he saw as the woe of this horde of unmarried women who flocked around him. Once a woman became one of Fela's girls, as his dancers were called, it was certain that no other man would touch her. She was considered a prostitute. So what was the way out for these hapless females? How were they to get the fulfillment of male affection and the respectability of marriage?

Fela sought to give them sexual fulfillment and gratification by bedding as many of them as he could, every day. He sought to give them the respectability only marriage could confer upon them, in this society that insists that marriage is the ultimate, by marrying all 27 of them. He married all of them on the same day so that they would all be equal. In that way, there would be no senior or first wife to lord it over everyone else.

He may have spent and worn himself out to prove this point. He may have made himself controversial and even hated. He may have died from proving this point, of AIDS, but he succeeded in a way. After the marriage ceremony, the girls ceased to be called prostitutes. Instead, everyone started referring to them as Fela's Queens.

The white lady buys my reasoning, with a broad smile and several nods. She proceeds to pass the revelation on to the other bemused people who stand before the controversial work demanding an explanation. I am fulfilled. Mission accomplished.

Significantly, the artist, Yinka Shonibare, says of this work, "This piece is a celebration of the excess and the pleasures that Fela received from female attention. The title comes from Fela's song, "Lady." In the song, Fela celebrates the assertiveness of women. It has to be said that to contemporary ears, it may sound rather condescending, but in the context of a patriarchal Nigerian society, the song was a triumph, a pro-feminist anthem.

Sometimes you have to read between the lines. To the ordinary observer, Fela was certainly condescending and patronizing in his attitude toward women. But to the deeper observer, who can situate his actions within the context of a patriarchal, male-dominated society, Fela would come out as a champion of women.

By a stroke of providence, I happen upon Yemi Elebuibon, chief priest of Ifa, the ancient philosophy to which Fela turned for customary legitimacy in his weird marital adventure. Even in a polygamous society like Nigeria, taking 27 brides in one day was way overboard. The marriage was conducted by an Ifa priest. What better place to run into an Ifa priest.

Even seeing him from behind, I know this man is from home. Something is oddly familiar about him. My eyes must have pierced his soul through his back. He turns and sizes me up. I immediately notice the horizontal etchings on his cheeks, the tribal marks of Yorubas of Oyo stock. What a pleasant surprise. I bend my knees in greeting. He moves closer for introductions and pleasantries.

At first we talk about home and the many problems we have left behind. We transpose this event to Lagos and have a good laugh about what would have happened there. Something would have been gained, no doubt. But something lost, too -- either a wallet, a mobile phone or some jewelry -- to the area- boys (street urchins/hoodlums), who generally assume that anything that has to do with Fela has to do with them. On the other hand, the area-boys could declare it a work-free event, to honor "Baba" (old man/sage) as they fondly called Fela. He was their hero.

We talk about Abami. We reminisce on his life and times. We talk about his legacy. We are sorry that he died but happy that he has joined the "living dead" to hover over those left behind and guide their steps. We are happier that he lives on, in his works and in the hearts of those whose lives he touched. We pray that whoever did this exhibition for Fela will be richly rewarded. We declare Fela an authentic "living dead." We exchange more pleasantries and say goodbye, after beseeching Olodumare (the Almighty) to add to our own years, which is the customary Yoruba way of ending discussions about the dead.

Well, Fela, it's nice to know you are doing well over there! Sunre o Anikulapo (Sleep well, he that carries death in his pouch). Rest well, but don't sleep!

Gbemi Olujobi is a visiting journalist from Nigeria, an International Women's Media Foundation fellow who is with The Chronicle for three months. E-mail her at golujobi@sfchronicle.com.
Re: Article on Fela Kuti
May 04, 2004 08:02PM
As the sayin' goes, Fela was dreader than dread/heavier than lead...
Saw him & the band perform 3 times. A natural band-leader. I think
Ellington would have loved him, maybe madly...
Re: Article on Fela Kuti
May 04, 2004 08:13PM
28 wives! So how many children does he have?
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