Although from a privileged background, he was very aware of the problems suffered by the everyday Nigerians…
By Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera
The Nigerian musical icon, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, is many things to many a people. For some, Fela is the musical icon who reshaped the music industry by combining Yoruba traditional music and American jazz to produce Afrobeats; for some others, he was the fearless activist who looked tyranny in the eyes and called it out for what it was, not minding the consequences, many of which he suffered for. It is for these iconic attributes that Fela has come to be known 24 years after his death. As a social figure, Fela has also come under some scrutiny, especially from the religious and feminist corners. By the former, he has been accused of leading many young people astray and not being an ideal role model, and by the latter, of misogyny for his patriarchal view of women. But it is mostly for his contribution to the artistic and political consciousness that Fela has continually been remembered. It is for these reasons that he has continually been written about and commemorated.
At the height of his presence in the artistic and political sphere, Fela brought about many reforms and protested against the unfavourable status quo, even when it was dangerous to do so. Although from a privileged background, he was very aware of the problems suffered by the everyday Nigerians—a trait conspicuously missing among majority of the elites in Nigeria today. Fela’s activism was not inspired by eye-service, neither was it informed by surface knowledge, but it was fuelled by a deep understanding and empathy of the human condition as burdened by tyranny and tolerated by a docile citizenry. His insights are mirrored in evergreen songs like “Beasts of No Nation” where he blatantly calls out tyranny, and “Shuffering and Shmiling” where he satirises the attitude of Nigerians to put up with tyranny instead of standing up to it. These songs not only stirred the wrath of the various military dictatorships which he stood against, but also awoke the consciousness of many Nigerians to their predicament.
24 years after his death at the age of 58, the message in Fela’s music has remained painfully relevant today. Listening to his songs, it is not only that, artistically, they reveal the origin of Afrobeats, a genre from which branched out most of what is currently mainstream in the Nigerian music scene, but also that their message has gained a form of continuity. His music has acquired a sage status, and their message, a prophetic tone. Almost every event in Nigeria today fits somewhere in Fela’s music. The endurance of Fela’s legacy is a lesson that true art remains relevant through the times, and that as time tends to clarifying all things, it magnifies what is true. The country which he fought so much for is apparently yet to see better times. Maybe that is a lesson: how difficult and possibly impossible it is for a single person to save a problematic system. This makes many young artists today are wary of activism: They ask, “Upon all the activism wey Fela do, the country done better?” However, there is no doubt that his efforts have their place in the history books, and over the years, his legacy has become a shining light, not just in Nigeria, or Africa, but around the world.
Happy 83rd birthday to the great Olufela Anikulapo Kuti. Rest on.
Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera is a freelance writer, journalist and editor. You can reach him at Chukwuderamichael@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @ChukwuderaEdozi