If Fela had been in a similar position as Seun, today, would he, perhaps, have walked away, and in a few months, release a punchy song about the encounter? Or rather, are we merely looking at a transgenerational decay of values and honour?
By Sybil Fekurumoh
As is typical, many incidents in Nigeria – and in Africa – are made into a spectacle, a field day for the media. In a viral video, Nigerian Afrobeat singer, Seun Kuti, is seen allegedly assaulting a police officer. In the clip, Seun, son of the legendary Afrobeat artiste and activist, Fela Kuti, pushes and slaps the unidentified policeman in what appears to be an outburst. While Seun has turned himself over to the police, what has ensued since then can be described as nothing less than farcical, and several online debates have since ensued. Several condemnations here, think pieces there, one parody comedy skit, and the debacle has been made into a sparring contest between Kuti and the Nigerian Police.
Fẹlá did a lot, but he never beat up a police officer — as far as I know.
— Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún (@kolatubosun) May 13, 2023
The thing with Seun Kuti is that we all want a sane Nigeria. A Nigeria that works. A Nigeria that even if the devil is President, the system laid down can function effectively in a sane manner.
This is what Obidients want. This is why we fight daily. Most of us have never met…
— Mo-Mo (@Morris_Monye) May 20, 2023
An interesting aspect of the conversation that has piqued my interest, however, is the parallel that is being made between Seun Kuti, and his father, Fela. Some wonder what Fela would have done in this kind of situation. Fela, unlike Seun, to public knowledge, never assaulted a police officer. Although the video clip doesn’t show what preceded Seun’s assault on the officer, Seun has shared, via his social media accounts, that he acted in self-defence. As Seun Kuti puts it, “he (the officer) tried to kill me and my family…” In spite of his constant fallouts with the Nigerian law enforcement authorities, Fela, who was arrested over 200 times on different occasions, and spent up to 20 months in prison at some point, whose family members faced brutality at the hands of authorities, as far as anyone could tell, never physically retorted. This seeming comparison between father and son seems to be a quintessential show of the decline in values, and lack of respect and control by the younger generation. Every generation that precedes another decries the failing morality of its successor, especially with regard to culture and values. The age demographic of the 40s to 60s regards the agency of Millennials of the 80s and 90s as debauchery. Millennials, on the other hand, allude to the outspokenness of Gen Zs as rudeness. The latter generation, on the other hand, laments the timidity of its antecedent and sums its passiveness as cowardice.
What has changed? Has the new age given rise to decadence? Is the uproar today any less violent than ever before? In Nigeria, and in several places around the world, activism has persisted in different forms in the face of injustice and oppression. Across generations, no one form of protest has guaranteed more success than the other, whether through breaking the law and aggressively demanding change or through non-violent means. From the days before Fela’s activism till today, Nigerians still lament systemic oppression and corruption. Of course, violent altercations are not peculiar to today’s time and age. The Aba Women’s Riot of 1929, the “Ali Must Go” riots of 1978, and the June 12 protest of 1993, is not any less different from the “End SARS” protest of 2020. Like several non-violent activists in history such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela, an argument can be made for Fela’s seeming demure reaction to police brutality as, itself, a form of protest.
Fela considered music a “weapon of the future” and predominantly used music to critique the government. Fela was also direct and impassive in the language of his music. When Fela made political commentaries through his songs, his lyrics could be described as confrontational, whether he was calling an oppressive government an “animal in craze man skini,” as in the song, “Beast of No Nation,” or making a parody of the armed forces as in his song, “Zombie.” If Fela had been in a similar position as Seun, today, would he, perhaps, have walked away, and in a few months, release a punchy song about the encounter? Or rather, are we merely looking at a transgenerational decay of values and honour?
(Read also: What is Fela’s True Legacy?)
It makes no difference whether Fela would have hit an officer or not. Even Fela’s doggedness and antagonist approach has been compared with other artistes like Bob Marley, whose musical activism was more diplomatic and effective. The bottom line here is in the “why.” Would Fela assault an officer to make a political statement, or would he do it simply because he could? Seun Kuti’s outburst was less about standing up for his right or being a part of an age demographic known to be arrogant. It was more about the power thirst that causes injustice to persist in the first place. A saying has become common when people speak of oppression. It is that people do not necessarily hate oppression, but simply do not like being the oppressed. Seun, like his father, also uses his music as a medium for activism, singing of revolutions, anti-colonialism, and pan-Africanism. Those who speak up for social justice and political awareness can participate in perpetuating injustice themselves, and one is not necessarily immune to societal vice because they denounce it.
Perhaps the Grammy-nominated Seun Kuti, with global and international success, pulled out the “do you know who I am?” card that the affluential like to wield, and struck a policeman because he reasoned he would likely get away with it. In another video that has resurfaced after the altercation, Kuti can be heard alleging to have slapped several officers in the past, confessing that the sheer fact of being Fela’s son affords him immunity. It is no different from the charges of a senator physically assaulting an attendant in an adult toy shop, or the aide of a Speaker of the House of Representatives, shooting an unarmed newspaper vendor. The list is endless.
In essence, Seun’s assault is less of a failing young population whose values have declined, but more of a society replete with power-thirsty individuals, whether they recognise their “power-mania” or not. A better argument could be, “what could Seun have done?” Especially in a country where police brutality is rife and there is hardly any justice, would choosing not to be confrontational, even within his right, have yielded a better outcome? Seun Kuti, who has been mostly cooperative with the police, is, as I write this, still under arrest while waiting for the police to “conclude investigations.” This is the same institution which has, on several occasions, looked the other way, from the brutality of its officers against the civilian population in the country.
Sybil Fekurumoh is a senior writer for Afrocritik. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram at @toqueensaber.